Project Canterbury

Addresses to Candidates for Ordination
On the Questions in the Ordination Service

By Samuel Wilberforce
Lord Bishop of Oxford

Oxford and London: J.H. and Jas. Parker and F. and J. Rivington, 1860.

Address X. Diligence in Study.

I HAVE spoken already on an occasion like the present of the need and of the blessing of a deep study of the Holy Scriptures to all those who seek the ministry of our Church. But the question wisely put to you in our Ordinal reaches farther than to an acquaintance however accurate with Holy Scripture itself. You pledge yourself also to "such studies as may help to the knowledge of the same."

Now, in weighing this engagement, it is clear that it pledges you to be, during the whole course of your ministry, students of theology; and it is, depend upon it, of great moment that you should be so, for the sake both of what such studies prevent and of what they furnish. They prevent our sinking into a life of idleness; and idleness, I need scarcely remind you, is the fruitful parent of almost every other fault. For from it are bred not only the habits of frivolity which make a life purposeless as to ourselves and fruitless as to others, nor only those worldly compliances, and that indulgence in dissipating amusements, to which men have recourse to fill up vacant time; nor only, beyond these, habits of gossipping and tattling, which can hardly long be free from direct sin; but even beyond all these, those deadly lusts in which every now and then an unwatchful [193/194] ministry is drowned, and some miserable man destroyed. It was when, contrary to his wonted custom, King David remained at home at "the time when kings go forth to battle," though the army of Israel was encamped in the field, that the ready tempter betrayed him to his shameful fall.

But even if idleness reach not to these marked measures of evil, it has a very palsying influence upon a ministry. It leads to habits of softness and self-sparing, which soon infect the whole character, which are fatal to a high tone of devotion, and often end in the prevalence of cowardly and ungenerous actions.

Against all these evils a life of Christian study is a great and blessed safeguard; and a safeguard which we need. For we must not blink the fact that, for many reasons, idleness is quite sure to prove one of our besetting temptations. Irregularly, almost capriciously, as the charges of population are allotted to our parishes, there must always be a large proportion of our clergy to whom their parishes will not supply sufficient occupation to keep them really and wholesomely diligent. And though that daily saying of the prayers which the rubric prescribes to us would do not a little, if conscientiously practised, to maintain the spiritual vigour of such ministries, yet not only is this most blessed duty too generally neglected, but further, it is for the most part most neglected where there is the least time found for any regular theological study. ["All priests and deacons are to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer either privately or openly, not being let by sickness or some other urgent cause."--Rubric "Concerning the Service of the Church," Book of Common Prayer.]

[195] Idleness, too, must be a besetting temptation to us, not only when the parish which forms our charge is very small, but from the very nature of our duties. For these are necessarily uncertain and undefined. They are not exacted from us as a tale which we render to another, but are a burden which it is left to us to lay, at our own discretion, on ourselves. They may for the most part be discharged as well at one hour of the day as at another, to-morrow as to-day, and a very little experience of life will teach us that these are exactly the engagements which it is most easy to postpone without self-condemnation, and most difficult to discharge with any really exact regularity. Every eye can see when the arrow which is aimed at a single point misses its mark, but hardly any gaze can tell in the wavering flight of the butterfly whether it has visited or missed this flower or that of the many amongst which it hovers.

Whatever, then, tends to give aim, purpose, and habits of regular industry to our lives, is of itself a special blessing, as a safeguard against a certain and besetting temptation. But it is far from being only for the sake of this negative and incidental advantage that I would earnestly press upon you the duty of forming early in your ministry, and stedfastly maintaining throughout its whole course, real habits of theological study. Depend upon it, you cannot with full efficiency perform the work God has set you to do without such habits. Even if your whole ministry is to be spent amongst a few unlettered people, you cannot "make full proof" of it unless you are evermore a student. The mind which is not thus enriched will very soon become sterile. You will, unawares, be [195/196] perpetually producing from it the same crop, and evermore with a feebler growth; you will become a mere self-repeater; your ministry will grind on, in a single groove, on a track of the dullest uniformity. Your people may be too unlettered to reason upon the causes of this barrenness in their teacher, but they will feel it; and its impression will most assuredly be marked in their feeble, irretentive perception of the mighty truths which your drowsy monotone has made so dull and commonplace to them. This at the least;--for the effect of your idleness and lack of study may indeed be far more startling than this. If you are placed in charge of men with more active minds, they will in time, through sheer weariness, abandon your ministrations, sometimes absenting themselves altogether from public worship, sometimes wandering to schismatical teachers, because they cannot endure your emptiness. For emptiness must be the result of idleness. If you are an idle man, and have the perilous gift of a commonplace facility of utterance, the connexion between idleness and emptiness is almost instant. And even if you have higher gifts, imagination and something of eloquence, the result will soon be the same. For you cannot know theology without painfully acquiring the knowledge. It is a very wide and a very intricate subject. It abounds in the nice distinctions by which truth may easily shade off into error; and in ignorantly following your own imagination amongst these, you are sure either to be generally faint and unimpressive in all that you say, or, if you have more vigour of intellect, are very likely to become, unawares, a heretic or an heresiarch.

All this is perfectly compatible with the great truth [196/197] that your flock, of whomsoever it may be composed, needs to have set before it, not refinements and intricacies, but the Gospel of Christ in its simplicity. For of this, as of every other great subject, it is true, that it is not ignorance but complete knowledge which will enable you to be simple. There is, indeed, a simplicity which belongs to absolute and complete ignorance,--the simplicity of a fearless exaggerated mode of stating truths which, to be stated aright, need carefulness and a well-balanced accuracy. From this shameless audacity of ignorance most, if not all of you, would no doubt be free; but it may well happen that your sense of the danger of error may only make you feebly obscure. For nothing is more misty than half-knowledge. If you know enough to know the danger of mistaking some doctrinal truth, but do not know enough to be able and so to dare to state it in all its proportions, with its guards and its correlatives, you will be tempted to wrap it up in ambiguities which may save you by their uncertainty from the possibility of being detected in error.

Nor is this all: for though it is bad enough thus to weaken and obscure all your statements, yet in the present day it is too probable that an ignorant ministry may lead you into yet deeper ruin. For this is not an age when it is very easy for any clergyman to sink easily and comfortably into stagnation. The winds of controversy and of speculation are too high, and they blow too directly upon us, to let the dull calm of many a clerical life of the last generation be ours. Everything is being called in question. The cardinal doctrines of the faith are first admitted without a question, and [197/198] then explained away without a scruple: the atonement wrought out for us by the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the inspiration of Holy Scripture, the grace of sacraments, the whole objective truth of everything in the Church around us, is doubted, or questioned, or undermined, or reduced to the most natural proportions; whilst on the other side, encouraged by this very licence, worn-out papal superstitions are fresh furbished up, and walk about through the twilight hours perverting by their false professions of certainty unstable souls which have felt the misery of doubting everything, and enticing them into the darkened habitations of error as the only safe abodes of rest and quietness. In this state of men's minds old heresies are springing up again under new names; and unless we are really well taught in the history of those earlier times, not in the mere dry skeleton knowledge of events which may be picked up from well-arranged abridgements, but by our having as it were dwelt in the company, and breathed the atmosphere, and shared the fears and hopes and struggles of those who lived and died to maintain these old truths, we shall be quite unable to save others from the dangers of the times, and shall too often fall into them ourselves. If such should ever become the general character of our clergy, the days of our Church's usefulness, if not of its existence, are numbered. In the present activity of men's minds an idly ignorant clergy would soon be despised, and, being despised, would not long be tolerated. Nor would the ministry of our own Church alone suffer. All the religious communities around her, even those which at first sight seem to be the most opposed to her, would suffer and [198/199] languish with her; for she does indeed retain for them, as well as for herself, the knowledge of the truth. Forth from her battlements have at all times gone out to battle in days of danger many doughty champions, who have won not only for herself, but for those who dwell in the tents of the wilderness around her, deliverance from the Moabitish bands and the swords of the children of Anak. This seems to me, at this moment, a matter for most serious and anxious thought. Many circumstances combine to make this our danger. The great call for preachers and sermons, and that especially for preachers and sermons for the religiously uninstructed; the shorter time given in every subject, and certainly not least in theology, to preparation and attainment, all this tends to introduce amongst us an early, ill-ripened, and so a feeble maturity.

The dread of extreme views works most fallaciously and most mischievously in the same direction: most fallaciously, because extreme views, instead of being the product of deep learning, are in common snatched suddenly up from a superficial acquaintance with un-fathomed truths, and so are the natural produce of ignorance in a time of excitement; most mischievously, because under its influence the gradually leavening power of public opinion, and the patronage which it directs, tends to the undervaluing of learning, and the setting giddy ignorance upon heights very dangerous to its heady self-sufficiency. It is, then, eminently a time when every candidate for Holy Orders needs specially to be reminded of this question in the Ordinal, "Will you be diligent in such studies as help to the knowledge of Holy Scripture?" and of your answer, [199/200] "I will endeavour myself so to do, the Lord being my helper."

There is a wide range of most wholesome learning over which such studies should lead you. First, of course, and before all things, there is the letter of Holy Scripture itself; and, if possible, in its original tongues. Then there is a store of the best critical, exegetical, and spiritual commentary and annotation on it which you should make your own. Well nigh if not altogether first amongst these would I put the Gnomon Bengelii; for it is to the original I would refer you. Worthy of being mentioned beside this are the two volumes of the present Dean of Westminster on the miracles and parables of our Lord; whilst in Dr. Wordsworth's Greek Testament you will find not only a complete and scholarlike commentary, but also easy and abundant references to the treasures of our great divines on all the great subjects which he more briefly handles.

Beyond these how vast are the pastures of theological study! There are all the stores of casuistical, of moral, spiritual and devotional instruction, Spread through volumes large enough to stock the largest library. Then, too, there is ecclesiastical history in all its various branches, without knowing which you can never be a divine at all; can never understand even the terms you daily use, or enter into their specific value, or understand the heart-searching controversies and mighty tides of recovered truth of which they are the fruit and permanent result. How, then, can you most profitably address yourself to this study? You will find, I think, special advantages from doing so in two distinct ways.

[201] First, begin to write one sermon, at least, carefully, and upon various subjects, at the beginning of every week. The course of the Christian year, and the passages of Scripture appointed for the Gospels and Epistles will naturally lead you over the whole field of sacred truth. Never shirk a subject. As you write, look carefully over your statements. Be sure of their correctness. If you doubt any of them, do not water them down to mean anything or nothing; do not omit them; do not pass them over; but stop in your writing and follow the matter out. If it is a matter of doctrinal accuracy, take down your "Pearson on the Creed" and hunt it out there: weigh his text, search his notes, and then adhere to, or qualify, or strengthen your statement. This will take time, but the result of it will be a firmness and clearness of view and of statement which will abundantly repay the labour.

But besides this, have some regular fixed hours every day for direct reading and study; lay out your days so as to secure this, and be careful in selecting as the subjects of this study really sterling and solid matter. It is a miserable mistake to take your opinions from reviews, and newspapers, and other men's reproductions of great authors: go to the originals and master them for yourselves.

In doing this, begin with the rich stores of theology which you possess in this English Church. There is a tone of theology which is truly English, and it is no light matter to form the character of your own mind on that of the great writers of our own mother Church before you go elsewhere. I have already mentioned Bishop Pearson's great work, which is itself a perfect library of [201/202] divinity. Next to it I should rank Hooker, and his profound and most instructive examination of the whole Ecclesiastical Polity of the Church, grounding that polity, as he profoundly docs, on the great corner-stones of Christian doctrine. Next to Hooker I should place Barrow; a writer who for soundness of doctrine, for breadth of view, for the complete exhaustion of his subject, for mastery of the English tongue in its copiousness and in its vigour, stands almost unrivalled.

In another and a most important department of study, that true Christian casuistry which at once awakens and informs the conscience, you will find the study of Sanderson invaluable. With him, lest even his manly casuistry should ever prove entangling to you, read over and over the Sermons and the Analogy of Butler, the grand calmness of whose mighty speculations will open to the utmost all your reasonable faculties, and the breadth of whose principles and judgments will keep you, whilst you study casuistry, from becoming, in the evil sense of that word, a casuist. With your mind thus braced up and stored, you may turn to the inexhaustible variety of Bishop Jeremy Taylor, and feed your fancy and enrich your imagery, whilst you elevate the tone of your devotion, in his eloquent pages.

And now you may venture to approach the deep Christian learning of Bishop Andrewes; and from him may go on to marvel at the unrivalled skill and wonderful command of language with which South uses in the cause of truth the sharpest weapons of the keenest wit.

When you have thus saturated your mind with English theology, I would send you first to a new and more careful study of the Patres Apostolici, and of such of [202/203] the Fathers as you can obtain and master. First amongst whom, for your practical profit, I should place the great Augustine, in whose Confessions, Epistles, and Sermons you will find an endless store of the most stirring and exalting teaching. Where the whole of these great works are beyond your reach, you may often obtain single treatises, which let you into the company and thoughts of those mighty men, who embodied in themselves the teaching of the earlier Church. Such are the Confessions and Epistles of St. Augustine, and the Cur Deus Homo of St. Anselm; which last work I would advise you to read over every Christmas-tide.

Turning to ecclesiastical history, I will only name to you three works as being within the reach of all, and as full of wholesome instruction. The History of Robertson, with which you are, I hope, all more or less familiar; and that of Geiseler, the text of which is often to be received with caution, but the notes of which embody the fairest and most complete quotations, and so supply you with unlimited materials for weaving for yourselves the web and woof of the Church's history. To this I must add Bingham's "Christian Antiquities," an invaluable storehouse of the most important knowledge of the best generations.

I have given you but a sketch; for I do not profess to give you a list of books which would make you masters in theology, but only one with which every ordinary English clergyman can and ought to make himself familiar.

And now, brethren, the time warns me to have done. Only, before I close, let me remind you of the one great purpose, which is to exalt and sanctify this study. All [203/204] these works I have enumerated are valuable, because, duly employed, they may "help you in the knowledge of Holy Scripture;" in the knowledge, that is, of God's great written revelation of Himself to man, of that which can "make you wise unto salvation." Yea, my brethren in Christ, it is to this end that all your studies must be turned, or all will be in vain. Carried on for low, or selfish, or earthly purposes, much study is but much weariness, and great learning great vanity. Still I would remind you that this is not the danger of the day, and therefore most probably it is not your danger. Levity, idleness, indolence, a mere superficial acquaintance with many things, much talk, and little deep thought or patient research, these are the characteristics of the day, and they are not good symptoms of the present nor charged with blessings for the future. May God help each one of us to do something to amend them; to secure our having a godly, a devout, and a learned clergy; men who shall have acquired the first master lessons of holy living beneath the Cross of Christ, and then gone on to consecrate all the attainments of the loftiest and most instructed intellect by using them, with the fervour of love, to preach in their uttermost simplicity the unsearchable riches of the Gospel of Christ.

Project Canterbury