Occasionally I have met fellow believers who have told me that they will only read the Bible or commentaries on books of the Bible. They sometimes even quote John Wesley with approval when in sermon he said
“I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end, He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O, give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.” – John Wesley “Sermons,” 1746
While I respect the choice to only read the Bible its not one I could make myself and I’ll explain why
When Wesley wrote that he wanted to be a “homo unius libri” a man of one book, the Bible, he didn’t mean that he would only read the Bible. He meant that it would have a unique authority in his life. For him one book would have the final say in what he believed and how he acted, the Bible. We know Wesley didn’t just read the Bible because of what he created for his preachers. Many of Methodism’s original preachers were largely uneducated and this was especially true when it came to the Christian life. As well as instructing his preachers to be what our American friends call a “beaver for the Bible” Wesley also created a library of Christian classics for his preachers to read.
Why did he do that?
What is the benefit to us as Christians to reading biographies of Christians or their thoughts on the spiritual life?
In the 15th century as Europeans began to explore the world by sea a very valuable new kind of document came into being, it was called a RUTTER. This was basically a book in which an explorer recorded the details of their voyage. They did this so that the voyage could be repeated safely by themselves or others. In the Rutter they would record things like the location of dangerous reefs or sandbanks, their experiences of the weather, what kind of storms they had faced, the bearings of landmarks, the depths of channels, sources of nourishment and refreshment, the location of safe harbours etc. What this meant was that if you got hold of one of these Rutters you could retrace the steps of those who had taken the journey before and learn from their insights and experiences. This made Rutters highly prized and at times they were stolen and fought over.
In a book called THE JOURNEY the theologian Alister McGrath argues that books by other believers, works of theology and spirituality and biographies about other Christians can act like a Rutter for us as their fellow believers. He writes …
“So what is the relevance of this for those of us travelling the roads of faith today? Simply this: it reminds us that others have made this journey before us, and passed down to us their discoveries – helpful ways of reading the Bible, of coping with doubt and temptation, or making sense of some of the more puzzling aspects of Christian doctrine. These are the spiritual ‘rutters’ that have been passed on to us. We can learn from those who have made this journey of faith before us!
Through God’s good grace, there are others who have made this journey before us. They have travelled through the wastelands and drunk deeply at the oases. They have shed tears in times of loneliness; they have shouted with joy in moments of refreshment. They can be our companions on the journey to the heavenly city. ”
I want to encourage us to combine Wesley and McGrath. Like Wesley lets be people of one book, in the sense that we give Scripture a unique focus and authority in our lives, everything else is judged by how it relates to the Bible. We should read Scripture more than we read anything else, it alone is “God breathed.” Christians books can be inspiring but only the Bible is inspired.
But let’s also follow McGrath’s wisdom, there is so much we can learn from fellow believers who have taken the same journey of discipleship that we are taking. We can learn from their experiences in life, what they did right and when and how they failed. We can also learn from their insights on Scripture and Christian experience. Their lives and writings can be a Rutter for our Souls. (Remember you don’t have to agree with everything someone says or does to learn something from them.)
PS … If you want a good “Rutter” to start with, I highly recommend DEVOTIONAL CLASSICS by Richard Foster. In this book Foster gathers selected readings from down the centuries and across different traditions and has reflections and questions to help mine their gems. Some of the chapters have acted like a Rutter for me on innumerable occasions.