The Scottish Presbyterian James Durham (b. 1622) once wrote: “Experience hath often made this truth out, that many have taken on them[selves] to write, whose writings have been exceedingly hurtful to the Church.” In our day of mass publication – books, journals, magazines, papers, blogs, and social media posts – that observation should give all would-be authors serious pause. While the written word has often brought great blessing to the church it's also been the source of great harm.
As someone who has been given a couple opportunities to write publicly these thoughts often haunt me. Mark Jones recently said: "Writing for the church is a solemn privilege." It's not always a privilege I've respected. Admittedly, in writing I've had made missteps. I've written things in foolish haste, spouted off undigested thoughts, uncharitably characterized others, and written things that are wrong – and I haven't always had the humility to acknowledge it. As such I often return to that question: to write or not to write?
Recently I've been waffling on this question. One moment I feel ready to quit and the next I'm not so certain. As I've gone back and forth, I found a hidden gem of advice from James Durham. Tucked away in his Commentary Upon the Book of Revelation, is what can only be described as a little tangential essay titled “Concerning Writing.” In it Durham is burdened by the weight of writing for the church. He rightly notes: “To write the holy things of God, is to take on us, to tell what God thinks, and what is His will, which is a most concerning thing; especially to do it solemnly in writ, lest it prove, at least, a taking of God's Name in vain.”
What follows are some observations drawn from what Durham writes. I offer them because I think they're useful to any who are thinking of or do write for the benefit of the church – whether it's in books, journals, magazines, blogs, or social media.
Observation One: Writing can be used for the good of the church. While the gospel is primarily spread through preaching there's a place for writing. Durham supports this from the example of the Apostles. While all the Apostles preached not all of them wrote. But some did, and they directed their writings as the needs of the church demanded in order to inform, reprove, strengthen, and edify others.
Observation Two: Writing can be an expression of the catholicity of the church. Because the church is universal we aren't restricted to a single group of people in one corner of the church. We're all to edify one another, we're to use the gifts God has given for the profit of all, and written word is often able to edify in a broader or more universal way than spoken words.
Observation Three: In Durham's own words "None should take on them to write anything, as the Lord's mind; for the edification of the Church, without a Call to it." That call has two necessary parts. First, he says that there should be a personal persuasion on the part of the one who wants to write that he should write. But secondly, and so that he's not simply left to his personal pleasure, there must be evidence from others that they will read what is written.
Observation Four: In clarifying this call Durham distinguishes between what it is and what it isn't. It isn't an extraordinary call like the Apostles received but it's ordinary. It also isn't "an authoritative mission in the person who is the writer," and I understand him to be distinguishing the call to write from the call to preach. It isn't simply based on a pressing inclination of the one who wants to write since inclinations aren't always the safest guide. Further, it isn't some extraordinary measure of gifts. He writes: "Some may be called to write by particular providence, when others of more understanding may be spared." Finally, the call isn't merely being sound in the truth or having a good purpose. He says none of these will "give one peace in this matter."
Observation Five: In his words the call is a "concurrence of several things" – purpose, providence, and profit. By purpose, Durham says it's not to be self-seeking or getting a name for one's self, or to strengthen party opinion (or, if I can add it, to bolster social media statistics!). Rather, the end must be something like the edification of others, personal exoneration, or the glory of God. By providence Durham means we must consider the situation of the person writing, the subject being written of, and the time and occasion of writing. For example, he says we need to consider the reputation of the writer and whether the individual is particularly suited to strengthen and confirm others in the faith.
Observation Six: Very helpfully Durham clarifies what he means by profit. He notes that it isn't simply the truth that matters – but that the truth needs to be "edifying, profitable, and pertinent, at such a time." For instance he says, "We conceive the writing of many light, frothy subject, or of speculative janglings, and contentions about words, is exceedingly contrary to edification." It's not only error, but an impertinent truth "can never plead a call in writing." Here Durham is very concerned that what is written fit the season and occassion of the church.
Observation Seven: Careful consideration must be given to the subject of writing. He notes that all writing should offer a contribution. Whether it offers greater clarity on a subject, corrects errors and mistakes, emphasizes missed or overlooked truths, or confirms the truths of others. He wrote: "Even as in building, some are useful for plotting, or contriving, some for digging stones, some for hewing, others for laying by square and line [...] So it is also in an edifying way of writing, everyone have not all; yet should none refuse to contribute their part."
Observation Eight: Durham says sometimes even if someone doesn't think they're the most qualified, we should subject ourselves to the greater wisdom of others and write when they encourage us to. He says: "Such considerations are frequently mentioned by worhty men, in their prefaces to their books." Further, he adds, "As the most learned preachings, do not always edify most; so neither is it in writing: and though that which is accurate, edifieth most intensively, and best explaineth the thing; yet often, what is more popular, edifieth most extensively, and proveth profitable to many more who are but of ordinary reach."
The Preacher once warned: "Of making many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). We can be thankful that the Lord has equipped his church in this generation with many useful and edifying books that, had they not been written, may have never introduced people to the truths of God. But everyone who picks up a pen (or sits behind a keyboard) would do well to weigh carefully the seriousness of writing the holy things of God.