Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    The Chief end of Higher Education: III (Returning to Classes)

    With a nod to Scriptorum Daily, here is the following, from Robert Leighton, (1611-1684), one of our excellent fathers in the faith, which he delivered to the students upon return to the University of Edinburgh. It is an excellent summary of purpose and aims of those involved in higher education. You can read a little bit about Leighton here. His commentary on 1 Peter (for purchase here) is absolutely first rate exposition.



    WE are at last returned, and some for the first time, brought hither by that Supreme Hand which holds the reins of this universe, which rules the stormy winds and swelling sea, and distributes peace and war to nations, according to its pleasure. The great Lord of the universe, and Father of mankind, while he rules the world with absolute sway, does not despise this little flock, provided we look up unto him, and humbly pray, that we may feel the favourable effects of his presence and bounty; nay, he will not disdain to dwell within us, and in our hearts, unless we, through folly, and ignorance of our true happiness, shut the door against him when he offers to come in. He is the Most High, yet has chosen the humble heart for the most agreeable place of his residence on this earth : but the proud and haughty, who look with disdain on their inferiors, he, on his part, despises, and beholds, as it were, afar off. He is most holy, and dwells in no hearts but such as are purged from the dross of earthly affections ; and that these may be holy, and really capable of receiving his sacred Majesty, they must of necessity be purified. ” Know ye not,” says the divine apostle, “that you, even your bodies, are the temples of the Holy Ghost,” (I Cor 6:19) and therefore are to be preserved pure and holy? But the m ind that dwells within them, must be still more holy, as being the priest that, with constant and unwearied piety, offers up the sacrifices and sweet incense of pious affections, cheerful obedience, ardent prayers, and divine praises, to the Deity of that temple.

    Of your studies and exotic learning, I intend not to say much. The knowledge, I own, that men of letters, who are the most indefatigable in study, and have the advantage of the greatest abilities, can possiby attain to, is at best but very small. But since the knowledge of languages and seiences, however inconsiderable it may be, is the business of this society of ours, and of that period of years you are to pass here, let us do, I pray, as the Hebrews express it, “the work of the day while the day lasts;” (Opus diei in die suo) “for time slips silently away, and every succeeding hour is attended with greater disadvantages than that which went before it.” (Tempus nam tacitum subruit, horaque / Semper praeterita deterior subit)

    Study to acquire such a philosophy as is not barren and babbling, but solid and true; not such an one as floats upon the surface of endless verbal controversies, but one that enters into the nature of things; for he spoke good sense, that said, “The philosophy of the Greeks was a mere jargon and noise of words.” (philosophia hellenon logon psophos)

    You, who are engaged in philosophical inquiries, ought to remember in the mean time, that you are not so strictly confined to that study, but you may, at the same time, become proficients in elocution; and, indeed, it is proper you should. I would, therefore, have you to apply to both these studies with equal attention, that you mry not only attain some knowledge of nature, but also be in a condition to communicate your sentiments with ease upon those subjects you understand, and clothe your thoughts with words and expressions; without which, all your knowledge will differ but very little from buried ignorance. In joining these two studies together, you have not only reason for your guide, but also Aristotle himself for your example; for we are told, that it was his custom to walk up and down in the school in the morning, teaching philosophy, particularly those speculative and more obscure points which in that age were called rationes acroamaticae, and thus he was employed, till the hour appointed for anointing and going to exercise; (mechri tou aleimatos) but after dinner, he applied to the more entertaining arts of persuasion, and made his scholars declaim upon such subjects as he appointed them.

    But to return to my own province; for, to say the truth, I reckon all other things foreign to my purpose; whatever you do, with regard to other studies, give always the preference to sacred Christian philosophy, which is, indeed, the chief philosophy, and has the pre-eminence over every other science, because it holds Christ to be the head, (hos kephalen kratei) “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid.” This the apostle tells us, was not the case of those false Christians in his time, whose philosophy regarded only some idle superstitions and vain observations. Cultivate, therefore, I say, this Sacred Wisdom sent down from heaven. Let this be your main study; for its mysteries are the most profound, its precepts the most pure, and at the same time, the most pleasant. In this study, a weak understanding will be no disadvantage, if you have but a willing mind, and ardent desires. Here, if any where, the observation holds, “That if you love learning, you cannot fail to make great progress therein.” (Ean es philomathes, ese polumathes. Isoc. ad Dem.) For some, that have applied with great industry to human philosophy, have found it to be like a disdainful mistress, and lost their labour; but divine philosophy invites and encourages even those of the meanest parts.

    And, indeed, it may be no small comfort and relief to young men of slow capacities, who make but little progress in human sciences, even when they apply to them with the most excessive labour and diligence, that this heavenly doctrine, though it be the most exalted in its own nature, is not only accessible to those of the lowest and meanest parts, but they are cheerfully admitted to it, graciously received, preferred to those that are proud of their learning, and very often advanced to higher degrees of knowledge therein; according to that of the Psalmist, “The law of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes ; the entrance of his word giveth light, it giveth also understanding unto the simple.” (Psalm 119:130) You therefore, whom some very forward youths leave far behind in other studies, take courage; and to wipe off this stain, if it be one, and compensate this discouragement, make this your refuge; you cannot possibly arrive at an equal pitch of eloquence or philosophy with some others; but what hinders you, pray, from being as pious, as modest, as meek and humble, as holy and pure in heart, as any other person whatever? And by this means, in a very short time, you will be completely happy in the enjoyment of God, and live for ever in the blessed society of angels, and spirits of just men made perfect.

    But if you want to make a happy progress in this wisdom, you must, to be sure, declare war against all the lusts of the world and the flesh, which enervate your minds, weaken your strength, and deprive you of all disposition and fitness for imbibing this pure and immaculate doctrine. How stupid is it to catch so greedily at advantages so vanishing and fleeting in their nature, if, indeed, they can be called advantages at all: “Advantages that are carried hither and thither, hurried from place to place by the uncertainty of their nature, and often fly away before they can be possessed!” (Ta ano kai kato pheromena, kai peritrepomena, kai prin lephthenai, apionta.) An author remarkable for his attainments in religion, justly cries out, “Oh! what peace and tranquility might he possess, who could be prevailed upon to cut off all vain anxiety, and only think of htose things that are of a Divine and saving nature!” (O qui omnem vanam solicitudinem amputuret, et salutaria duntaxat ac divina cogitaret, quantam quietem et pacem possideret!) Peace and tranquility is, without doubt, what we all seek after, yet there are very few that know the way to it, though it be quite plain and open. It is, indeed, no wonder that the blind who wander about without a guide, should mistake the plainest and most open path; but we have an infallible Guide, and a most valiant Leader. Let us follow him alone; for he that treadeth in his steps, can never walk in darkness.

    Let us pray.

    O! Invisible God, who seest all things!; Eternal light, before whom all darkness is light, and in comparison with whom every other light is but darkness. The weak eyes of our understanding cannot bear the open and full rays of thy inaccessible light: and yet, without some glimpses of that light from heaven, we can never direct our steps, nor proceed towards that country which is the habitation of light. May it therefore please thee, O Father of lights, to send forth thy light and thy truth, that they may lead us directly to thy holy mountain. Thou art good, and the Fountain of goodness; give us understanding, that we may keep thy precepts. That part of our past lives, which we have lost in pursuing shadows, is enough, and indeed too much; bring back our souls into the paths of life, and let the wonderful sweetness thereof, which far exceeds all the pleasures of this earth, powerfully, yet pleasantly, preserve us from being drawn aside therefrom by any temptation from sin or the world. Purify, we pray thee, our souls from all impure imaginations, that thy most beautiful and holy image may be again renewed within us, and by contemplating thy glorious perfections, we may feel daily improved with that divine similitude, the perfection whereof, we hope, will at last make us for ever happy in that full and beatific vision we aspire after. Till this most blessed day break, and the shadows fly away, let thy Spirit be continually with us, and may we feel the powerful effects of his Divine grace constantly directing and supporting our steps; that all our endeavours, not only in this society, but throughout the whole remaining part of our lives, may serve to promote the honour of thy blessed name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    from The Whole Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, Robert Leighton, DD, Archbishop of Glasgow Available at Google books here.


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