The era of the Reformation is often seen as a watershed in the practice of personal Bible reading, as the invention of the printing press and new vernacular translations made the Scriptures more available and affordable to a wider audience. While the Reformers advocated for their adherents to read the Scriptures regularly for themselves, these encouragements were often accompanied by cautions, lest readers be led astray.
An example of this type of warning is found in this excerpt from a sermon by Anglican minister John Donne (1572-1631). He warns parishioners not to be tempted by the sweet honey of a facile readings of a text, nor to read only that which aligns with one’s preconceptions and desires. Instead, he makes clear that the Scriptures must be understood in a way that they can be reconciled within themselves, and that their concern is with the council of the Lord, not the wishes and preferences of the human reader.
The Sweet Honey of the Word of God
If a man taste a little of this honey at the end of his staff, as Jonathan did, even though he thinks his eyes enlightened, as Jonathan did, he may be in Jonathan’s situation: “I tasted a little honey with the tip of my staff, and behold, I will die.”And content yourself with hearing those sermons which rectify you in all those things which you ought to believe and to practice. Do not follow those men who pretend to know those things which God has not revealed to his church. If the man read the Scriptures a little, superficially, perfunctorily, his eyes seem to be enlightened immediately. He thinks that he sees everything that he had preconceived and fore-imagined in himself as clear as the sun in the Scriptures. He can find flesh in the sacrament without bread, because he finds “This is my body.” . . . So also he can find wormwood in this honey, because he finds in this Scripture “the reward for sin is death.” . . . For the Scriptures are made to agree with one another, but not to agree with your particular taste and humor. But still the counsel is good on the other hand that “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” Content yourself with reading those parts of Scriptures which are clear and edify. Do not perplex yourself with prophecies not yet fulfilled. And content yourself with hearing those sermons which rectify you in all those things which you ought to believe and to practice. Do not follow those men who pretend to know those things which God has not revealed to his church. Too little or too much of this honey, of this reading and hearing may be unhealthy. God has chosen ways of moderation. He does not redeem us by God alone nor by man alone, but by him who was both. He instructs us not by the Holy Ghost alone without the ministry of man, nor by the minister alone without the assistance of the Holy Ghost.