[Here we continue our reprint of Chapter 2 from Richard Baxter's classic tome A Christian Directory.3 This chapter consists of twenty directions to (as Mr. Baxter says) "young Christians or beginners in religion, for their establishment and safe proceeding." Though these studies were written specifically for "young" Christians, I think that you will find (as I have), there is much in here worthy of meditation also for those who have been walking with God for many years.]--Ed.
Direction XI - Encouraging Modesty in First Opinions
Let not your first opinions about controverted difficulties in religion, where Scripture is not very plain, be too peremptory, confident, or fixed; but hold them modestly with a due suspicion of your unripe understandings, and with room for further information, supposing it possible (or probable) that upon better instruction, evidence, and maturity, you may, in such things, change your minds.
I know the factions that take up their religion on the credit of their party are against this direction, thinking that you must first hit on the right church, and then hold all that the church doth hold, and therefore change your mind in nothing which you this way receive. I know, also, that some libertines and half-believers would corrupt this direction, by extending it to the most plain and necessary truths, persuading you to hold Christianity itself but as an uncertain, probable opinion.
But, as God's foundation standeth sure, so we must be surely built on his foundation. He that believeth not the essentials of Christianity, as a certain, necessary revelation of God, is not a Christian, but an infidel. And he that believeth not all that which he understandeth in the word of God, believeth nothing on the credit of that word. Indeed faith hath its weakness on those that are sincere, and they are fain to lament the remnants of unbelief, and cry, "Lord, increase our faith; help thou our unbelief." But he that approveth of his doubting, and would have it so, and thinks the revelation is uncertain, and such as will warrant no firmer a belief, I should scarcely say, this man is a Christian. Christianity must be received as of divine, infallible revelation. But controversies about less necessary things cannot be determined peremptorily by the ignorant or young beginners, without hypocrisy, or a human going under the name of a divine. I am far from abating your divine belief of all that you can understand in Scripture, and implicitly of all the rest in general. And I am far from diminishing the credit of any truth of God. But the reasons of this direction are these:
1. When it is certain that you have but a dark, uncertain apprehension of any point, to think it is clear and certain is but to deceive yourselves by pride. And to cry out against all uncertainty, as scepticism, which yet you cannot lay aside, is but to revile your own infirmity, and the common infirmity of mankind, and foolishly to suppose that every man can be as wise and certain, when he list, as he should be. Now reason and experience will tell you, that a young, unfurnished understanding, is not like to see the evidence of difficult points as, by nearer approach and better advantage, it may do.
2. If your conclusions be peremptory, upon mere self-conceitedness, you may be in an error for aught you know; and so you are but confident in an error. And then how far may you go in seducing others, and censuring dissenters, and come back when you have done, and confess that you were all this while mistaken yourselves.
3. For a man to be confident that he knoweth what he knoweth not, is but the way to keep him ignorant, and abut the door against all means of further information. When the opinion is fixed by prejudice and conceit, there is no ready entrance for the light.
4. And, to be ungroundedly confident, so young, is not only to take up with your teacher's word, instead of a faith and knowledge of your own, but also to forestall all diligence to know more. And so you may lay by all your studies, save only to know what those men hold, whose judgments are your religion.
5. If you must never change your first opinions or apprehensions, how will you grow in understanding? Will you be no wiser at age, than you were in childhood, and after long study and experience, than before? Nature and grace do tend to increase.
Indeed, if you should be never so peremptory in your opinions, you cannot resolve to hold them to the end, for light is powerful, and may change you whether you will or no: you cannot tell what that light will do, which you never saw. But prejudice will make you resist the light, and make it harder for you to understand.
I speak this upon much experience and observation. Our first unripe apprehensions of things will certainly be greatly changed if we are studious and of improved understandings. Study the controversies about grace and free-will, or about other such points of difficulty, when you are young, and it is two to one that ripeness will afterward make them quite another thing to you. For my own part, my judgment is altered from many of my youthful, confident apprehensions; and where it holdeth the same conclusion, it rejecteth abundance of the arguments as vain, which once it rested in. And where I keep to the same conclusions and arguments, my apprehension of them is not the same, but I see more satisfying light in many things, which I took but upon trust before. And if I had resolved to hold to all my first opinions, I must have forborne most of my studies and lost much truth which I have discovered, and not made that my own which I did hold; and I must have resolved to live and die a child.
The sum is: Hold fast the substance of religion, and every clear and certain truth, which you see in its own evidence. And also reverence your teachers, especially the [true] church, or the generality of wise and godly men; and be not hasty to take up any private opinion, and especially to contradict the opinion of your governors and teachers in small and controverted things. But yet, in such matters, receive their opinions but with a human faith, till indeed you have more, and therefore, with a supposition that time and study is very like to alter your apprehensions, and with a reserve, impartially to study and entertain the truth, and not to sit still just where you were born.