The theolog's survival pack
A Letter to a Student of Divinity
- John Newton (1725-1807) was a former slave trader and 'wretch' who, after his conversion became an Anglican cleric and wrote the hymn 'Amazing Grace'. His advice was sought by many - among them William Wilberforce - and his letters still exude wisdom today. View all resources by John Newton
Though I am no enemy to the acquisition of useful knowledge, I have seen many instances of young men who have been much hurt by what they expected to reap advantage from. They have gone to the academy, humble, peaceable, spiritual and lively; but have come out self wise, dogmatical, censorious, and full of a prudence founded upon the false maxims of the world. I have been ready to address them with that line of Milton, "If thou art heóBut ah! how fall'n!" I do not mention this as the necessary fault of the institution, but as the frequent effect of notions too hastily picked up, when not sanctified by grace, nor balanced by a proportionable depth of spiritual experience. I am therefore glad to hear that, notwithstanding the advantages you have had in the pursuit of your studies, you feel an inward conviction that you still need something which you cannot receive from men or books in order to complete your fitness for the ministry; that you may be a 'workman that needeth not to be ashamed,' and enabled rightly to divide (to distinguish and distribute) the word of truth. . .'.
The chief means for attaining wisdom, and suitable gifts for the ministry, are the Holy Scriptures and prayer. The one is the fountain of living water, the other the bucket with which we are to draw. And I believe you will find, by observation, that the man who is most frequent and fervent in prayer, and most devoted to the Word of God, will shine and flourish above his fellows. Next to these, and derived from them, is meditation. By this, I do not mean a stated exercise upon some one particular subject, so much as a disposition of mind to observe carefully what passes within us and around us; what we see, hear and feel; and to apply all for the illustration and confirmation of the written Word to us. In the use of these means, and an humble dependence upon the Lord in all the changing dispensations we pass through, our spiritual experience will enlarge; and this experience is the proper fund of our ministerial capacity, so far as it may be considered inherent in us (see Prov. 16:23; Matt. 13:52; 1 John 1:3).
These means are of universal importance. The wisest can do nothing without them; the weakest shall not use them in vain. There are likewise subordinate means, which may be helpful, and should, in general, be attended to. Yet they ought not, I apprehend, to be considered as a sine qua non in a minister's call and fitness. The first preachers had them not, and some in the present day are enabled to do well without them. Under this head, I principally intend all that comes under the usual denomination of literature. A competent acquaintance with the learned languages, history, natural philosophy, etc. is very desirable. If these things are held in a proper subserviency, if they do not engross too much of our time, nor add fuel to the fire of that self-importance which is our great snare, they may contribute to increase and enlarge our ideas, and facilitate our expressing ourselves with propriety. But these attainments (like riches) are attended with their peculiar temptations; and unless they are under the regulation of a sound judgment, and a spiritual frame of mind, will prove (like Saul's armour to David) rather cumbersome than useful in preaching. The sermons of preachers thus qualified are often more ingenious than edifying, and rather set off the man than commend the gospel of Christ.
As you desire my advice with respect to your future studies, I shall comply without hesitation or ceremony.
The original Scriptures will deserve your pains, and will richly repay them. There is, doubtless, a beauty, fullness, and spirit in the originals, which the best translations do not always express. When a word or phrase admits of various senses, the translators can only preserve one; and it is not to be supposed, unless they were perfectly under the influence of the same infallible Spirit, that they should always prefer the best. Only be upon your guard, lest you should be tempted to think that because you are master of the grammatical construction, and can tell the several acceptations of the words in the best authors, you are therefore and thereby master of the spiritual sense likewise. This you must derive from your experimental knowledge and the influence and teaching of the Spirit of God.
Another thing which will much assist you in composing, and speaking properly and acceptably, is logic. This will teach you what properly belongs to your subject, and what may be best sup pressed; and likewise to explain, divide, enumerate, and arrange your ideas to advantage. A lax, immethodical, disproportionate manner is to be avoided. Yet beware of the contrary extreme. An affected starchness and over-accuracy will fetter you, will make your discourses lean and dry, preclude a useful variety, and savour more of the school-lamp than of that heavenly fire, which alone can make our meditations efficacious and profitable either to ourselves or our hearers. The proper medium can hardly be taught by rule; experience, observation, and prayer, are the best guides. . . .
I should he very glad if anything I have offered may afford you satisfaction. The sum of my advice is this: examine your heart and views. Can you appeal to Him, who knows all things, concerning the sincerity of your aim, that you devote yourself to the work of the ministry, not for worldly regards, but with an humble desire to promote the Redeemer's kingdom? If so, and His providence has thus far concurred with you, trust Him for your sufficiency of every kind, and He will not disappoint you, but will be near to strengthen you, according to your day. Depend not upon any cisterns you can hew out for yourself, but rejoice that you have liberty to come to the fountain that is always full, and always flowing. You must not expect a mechanical sufficiency, such as artificers acquire by habit and exercise in their business. When you have preached well nineteen times, this will be no security for the twentieth. Yea, when you have been upheld for twenty years, should the Lord withhold His hand, you would be as much at a loss as at first.
If you lean upon books or men, or upon your own faculties and attainments, you will be in fear and in danger of falling continually. But if you stay yourself upon the Lord, He will not only make good your expectations, but in time will give you a becoming confidence in His goodness, and free you from your present anxiety.
One more thing I must mention as belonging to the subject: that a comfortable freedom for public service depends much upon the spirituality of our walk before God and man. Wisdom will not dwell with a trifling, an assuming, a censorious, or a worldly spirit. But if it is our business and our pleasure to contemplate Jesus, and to walk in His steps, He will bless us; we shall be like trees planted by a constant stream, and He will prosper the work of our hands.
More resources for Theology and RS students here