Tolle Lege

 Conversion of St Augustine

In this fresco [by Benozzo Gozzoli on the walls of Sant Agostino Church, San Gimignano, 15th Century] , St Augustine hears a voice in the seclusion of a garden commanding him to "take up the book and read". Following this command, [which he believes to be a word from God], he takes up the epistle of Paul to the Romans, and starts reading Romans 13:13 ff., which warns sinners to "put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof." On the right his intellectual friend Alypius is reaching out to him with his hand. Two old friends, on the left side, are keeping their distance from his on account of his change of faith. The phrase coined by St Augustine, "credo ut intelligam, intelligo ut credam" - "I believe that I might understand, and understand that I might believe" - appears to have been visually translated into this picture. From Web Gallery of Art

Reading is fundamental to the Christian life. Reading the Scriptures (or having them read to us, and expounded in preaching) is the way by which we come to a knowledge of the Truth. Without the word written we cannot know about God (except in the general sense of what is revealed to our eyes in Creation. Rom. 1:18-20). Neither can we know His works of Creation and Providence, or the way that He has revealed how we may be saved in Jesus Christ.

Augustine of Hippo tells us in his Confessions  that, when he began to be under conviction of sin, he was instructed by a voice he assumed to be divine to "take up and read" ("tolle, lege"), he took up the Scriptures and read words that convicted him of his sin. This act of reading led to his conversion. It is the same in Pilgrim's Progress, that great work of John Bunyan. The book opens with a vision of the main character, Christian, reading and tormented by what he reads, because he is under the conviction of sin that the book brought to his mind. The book is obviously the Word of God.

But more than anecdote or works of fiction, the Lord Jesus (the Word), witnesses to the power of the word by the Spirit to bring conviction of sin and new life. Upon his resurrection, Jesus not only appeared to the disciples to show that He had power over sin and had conquered death, He opened the word of God and read and expounded Scripture to them. By this, he brought them to a full understanding of the redemption worked out from eternity and recorded for all in the Bible (Luke 24:27). The regenerative power of the Holy Spirit works in the word read and preached to bring new life to us who believe (Acts 17:11; Rom. 15; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; 2 Tim. 3:14-17; et al.)

It follows then that we must be reading people. If we are to know of salvation we have to read, or have the word read and opened up to us by preachers. But we also need to grow in the Christian life. To grow we need to read again and again and again. We need to read and feed on that which nourishes us. Scripture first, to make us understand what God would have us do, and how we should live, but also those books that help us to understand Scripture. Read biographies - read about the lives of those changed by the Gospel, read about those who carry the Gospel forth, taking the word into all the world. Read about the heroes of the faith, the martyrs, the faithful preachers and teachers of the Word that we have read and are learning. Read theology - the study of God and His work in the world, read it in Systematic form, or from an Historical perspective, or follow the flow of theology through the word in Biblical Theology. Read works on Apologetics - books that do not apologise for the faith, but argue the Truth of the Word that we read against the worldviews of those who reject that Truth.

The problem is that we are increasingly a visual culture whose retention of concepts and ideas seems to decrease even as we are reading more and more online. We seem to absorb smaller and smaller fragments of information (take this blog for instance!) and, instead of connecting and researching and hunting down ideas, we let them float about us in a swirling miasma. We need to take up and read, but we also need to understand what we read.

As we go along, I'll recommend books here because reading is one thing we must do to grow and mature in the faith. We all need to take time to stop, find a quiet corner, or rest under the shade of a tree and read good books. Books that lead us on to contemplate Christ or help us to understand and enjoy our life in Him. You don't have to give up your novels, your magazines and your comics. We all need some light relief at times. But begin to feed on more of the Word and good Christian literature. Read it online if you want, but make sure that you use your browser's reader, or reading apps to cut out the distractions and flashing lights, ads and notifications, etc, etc, that can make reading online a disjointed and unfruitful experience. More on this soon...

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