Watts’ early rules to circumscribe pride, promote humility, and encourage inquiry

I’m reading Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind. His first chapter is titled ‘General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.’ He grounds improvement of the mind first in sober self-reflection. He urges his readers to first consider how much misery could have been avoided in their lives had they properly exercised their rationality and made sound judgments. The beginning of understanding is to face the chastening reality that some things could have been better for me had I paid closer attention. This indeed is sobering, but sometimes truth stings. He does not propose to solve the philosophical problem of the reality of evil or why some people suffer unjustly. This rule is only a few lines. He simply calls upon his readers to face facts that some bad things could have been avoided with sharper analytical skills, wider awareness, keener perception, and precise reasoning. In popular parlance, life is hard, but it’s harder when you’re stupid. Like I said, sometime truth stings. He’s not wrong, you know. His next rule is to consider the “weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature.” In other words, if life is hard, and if it’s harder when you’re stupid, think about much worse it is when everyone else is also stupid. Seriously, ponder this truth and consider how we have collectively made it much worse for ourselves. Watts does not offer a balm for the stupid, as if taking solace in a community of fools is much solace at all. Rather, he grounds any effort at improvement in a theological and ontological frame. We’d best begin at the reality of the fall. Not just you, it’s me, too. And not just me, but you also. Me, and you, and us. I should say that this book follows his Logick, albeit by many years, and that book is really the beginning point for this one. But I digress. Begin with a sober analysis of the fall.

Now that the ground is tilled, we are ready for the third rule, which is to “acquaint yourself with your own ignorance.” And what is coming here in a few lines is the paragraph that struck me. Watt’s begins with what is a familiar refrain: We don’t know what we don’t know. And this is the upshot of Watts’ book: to help us think through how to improve. No small wonder then that he begins by forcefully calling readers to grapple with ignorances, deficiencies, blind spots, prejudices, and errors. If you’re not willing to do that, stop kidding yourself with any attempt to improve and go back to whatever it is you were doing fifteen minutes ago. Now, he presents these rules in brief fashion, but I do not read him as presenting them casually or expecting you to tick them off like filling up the cart at the grocery store.

So then, under this heading he has some sub-points. The first is to urge readers to rehearse the wide, wide range of human inquiry: behold the breadth of the disciplines! How vast and wide! Next, consider the wide variety of questions and problems and intellectual real estate within the one area in which you are most expert. Watts is inching us along toward greater self-awareness. From the big picture of all the disciplines of learning, he moves us to our speciality, our focus, our majors, our own little area of training and expertise. This, of all branches of learning, ought to be where we are most familiar, and out of that familiarity we are perhaps in the best position to take stock of our limitations. His third sub-point presses this a bit further, taking an example from geometry.

“Spend a thoughts sometimes on the puzzling Enquiries concerning Vacuums and Atoms, the Doctrine of Infinites, Indivisibles and Incommensurables in Geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable Diffi-[p. 9] culties: Do this on Purpose to give you a more sensible Impression of the Poverty of your Understanding, and the Imperfection of your Knowledge. This will teach you what a vain Thing it is to fancy that you know all Things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present Attainments, when every Dust of the Earth, and every Inch of empty Space, surmounts your Understanding, and tramples over your Presumption.”

I. Watts, The Improvement of the Mind… 4th London edition, 1761, pp. 8-9.

Barton Stone on the driving force behind heresy


“Heresy is an act of the will, not of reason; and is indeed a lie, not a mistake; else how could that known speech of Austin go for true: Errare possum, haereticus esse nolo, –I may err, but I will not be a heretic.  Indeed Manichaeism, Valentinianism, Marcionism, Mahometanism, are truly and properly heresies; for we know that the authors of them received them not, but minted them themselves; and so knew that which they taught to be a lie.”

This definition seems well to accord with that of Paul to Titus, iii, 10, 11.  “A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition, reject, knowing that he that is such, is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.”  A heretic, according to Paul, is a factious person, one that foments parties, and division.  Rom. xvi, 17, “Mark them that cause divisions among you contrary to the doctrine ye have learned, and avoid them.”  Now it is well known that the doctrine of Christ enjoins unity and leads to it.  But the man, who teaches for doctrine the commandments of men, or his own opinions for truth; and makes these terms of Christian fellowship, and by this means creates and foments partyism and division, what is he, but a heretic?       EDITOR.


Thanks to the magic of Google books, it appears Stone quotes from, ultimately, The Works of the Ever Memorable Mr. John Hales of Eaton, now first collected together, in three volumes. Glasgow, 1765, vol. 1, pages 125-126:

page 125: the quote begins on the last line:

page 126:

page 127:

Perhaps Stone quotes from a secondary source; I note from Google Books that a handful of later publications use this same quote from Hales. Nevertheless, his point is that personality drives heresy. Heresy is not limited to an erroneous understanding or conclusion, or even teaching, of or about doctrine. Heresy is gathering a following, or witholding or withdrawing fellowship from other beliivers over positions that originate in personal opinion. In other words, you have to agree with me or you’re out. Heresy is not, quoting Hales, a mistake, but a lie.  Furthermore, it is a lie told in service to self…to build me and my group.  Heresy’s driving force?…pride, arrogance, presumption.  Stone’s note appears in The Christian Messenger, January 25, 1827 page 66.  For Hales’ works, go here.

A Teacher is Many Things

Upon further reflection of Andrew Phillips’ blog (look back several days to find the links), and my own on-again-off-again ruminations about teaching on this blog, I take up herewith a book by Earl V. Pullias and James D. Young.  Published in 1968 by Indiana University Press, A Teacher is Many Things explores what teaching is, identifies some obstacles to growth toward excellence in teaching and then proceeds in twenty-one chapters to sketch out what a teacher is.

I have in some form or other been involved in teaching or preaching on an almost weekly basis for fifteen years.  I began teaching a 7th-8th grade Sunday School class the Sunday after I graduated from high school, and have been at it more or less every week since.  My academic training in biblical studies, church history and theology has been in tandem with my practice of the teaching ministry.  I wouldn’t have had it any other way then, and if I had it to do over again I would.  I’m not doing it over again, but I am back at it again.  I am teaching again, almost weekly, at Smyrna Church in both the teen and adult education ministries.  So this exploration in teaching isn’t now, nor has it ever really been, an exclusively academic interest.

My earliest teaching experience was as a so-called “volunteer.”  I’m loathe to use that word now.  I prefer a member-of-the-Body-exercising-a-gift-of-the-Spirit-for-the-good-of-the-Body-to-the-glory-of-God.  But MOTBEAGOTSFGOTBTTGOG doen’t roll off the tongue like volunteer does.  (I actually do say the word, just not fond of the connotations it has).  Then came a couple summers of youth ministry internships.  Bless them, they confirmed that I had no business in “youth ministry” as I then construed it.  Then came more volunteer teaching until my dozen-year ministry with Central Church in downtown Nashville with seven overlapping years at Ezell-Harding (which was really youth ministry, if you catch my drift).  DCHS was a ministry in its own right, but my teaching there was more indirect.  For the sake of these reflections I have in mind the teaching ministry of a local congregation.  At some point I will likely blog about the ministry of history…its simmering for now.  I remain committed to a local congregation and have no intentions to the contrary…and not just nominal membership, but active engagement in the mission of a local congregation for mutual ministry, worship, study and service.

At one time I may have been intrigued by methods, strategies and what I would call now, clever salesmanship.  But how to be a mature teacher, theologically informed, pastorally  responsible and self-aware…such are my concerns now.   The teaching ministry in a congregational context is vitally important, something I think is self-evidently plain.   But how to move into the deeper waters?  I think Pullias and Young can help here.  Their book isn’t meant for the Sunday School teacher, per se.  It ain’t even religious, dear friends, at least not overtly.  But then again it is, in a much more subtle way, and I am eager to look through it and reflect on it on the pages of this blog.

The Bible and the Education of Children: Lessons from Alexander Campbell, RQ article by Samjung Kang-Hamilton

…most of the prior literature has ignored his [AC] understanding of the education of children in the Bible.  This essay will begin to close that gap and suggest ways in which an understanding of Campbell would help strengthen children’s ministry in Churches of Christ today.  The following sections will examine Campbell’s views on (1) the Bible and children, (2) childhood, (3) the nature of education, (4) its purposes; (5) and its methods and  contexts.  his work helps us get past the current practice of treating the Bible as a set of morality tales.

So ends her opening section. Kang-Hamilton lays out a thesis that Campbell’s notions on the education of children offers to the contemporary church a resource for (re)thinking children’s ministry and the teaching of the Bible to and for children.  I’m already favorably impressed, as a researcher who sees many such gaps, as a teacher and a ministry leader in a congregational education ministry, and, not least of all, as a parent.  I will over the next few days post short summaries and excerpt’s from each section of her article. Come back to see what she discovers from AC and what she makes of it for our situation.

Samjung Kang-Hamilton, “The Bible and the Education of Children: Lessons from Alexander Campbell” Restoration Quarterly 52:3 third Quarter 2010, 130-143.  For more about RQ, click here.

Dictionaries and Lexicons


None understand the value of dictionaries and lexicons so well as those who use them most. Every individual who reads any should, when reading, always keep by him an English Dictionary, such as Walker’s or Webster’s. An English word, the defination [sic] or meaning of which we are ignorant of, might as well, until understood, be Latin or Greek to those who do not understand these languages.  We sometimes hear people complaining of an author for using “hard words,” when the fault is in themselves, for not seeking the meaning in a Dictionary.  They are so cheap, that any one who can afford to read, can afford to get one.


–John R. Howard, The Christian Reformer, January 1836, page 32.


John R. Howard, of Paris, Tennessee, is Editor and publisher of The Christian Reformer; he includes this short note on the last page of the first issue–January 1836–of his paper.  It is the first periodical of the Stone-Campbell reformation published in Tennessee and only lasts a year.

Flaunting your vocabulary is one thing; utilizing language precisely and clearly is another.  One is arrogance, the other is a component of good teaching.  Unfortunately some prize simplistic teaching, writing or preaching when sensitive teaching is the preferable option.  Under no circumstance should a teacher or preacher speak circles around or over an audience.  Such is a manifestation of pride.  However, what self-respecting auditor would prefer to be spoon-fed rather than genuinely and sincerely taught, even challenged?  I suspect one root of the complaint against what Howard calls “hard words” is pride of another sort.  Rather than pride manifesting itself in a haughty display of vocabulary, it is pride in the lack of any vocabulary…anti-intellectual pride.   Howard is unimpressed by it.  I marvel at the depth of learning of his generation; they sought the very best available for themselves, their churches and communities.  I also marvel when those who claim to be truth-seekers, who ought to be mature meat-eaters, so to speak, prefer instead a bland diet of skim milk (I’m thinking of Hebrews 5.12).  When we settle for less in the pulpit, the classroom and the printed page are we truly heirs of these great reformers?

How to Treat a A “Sectarian” by R. H. Boll: A Voice from 1917

How to Treat a “Sectarian.”

The sectarian is like unto myself a man–a man, too, for whom the Lord died.  He is plainly wrong in his course.  So was I also once, before God called me out of darkness into his marvelous light.  He is mistaken in many points.  So am I–not in matters as vital, perhaps, yet I find every little while that I have been mistaken in this thing and that, and that God is yet lovingly and patiently leading me out of my misapprehensions.  I may not condemn the sectarians; it is neither my right nor my place.  I may not sit in judgment on his motives and his honesty; One only knows the heart.  I must not strive with him, but be gentle, in meekness correcting him when he opposes himself, that peradventure God may give him repentance unto the knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim. 2:24, 25.)  Since he has shown a disposition to accept the name of Jesus and to serve him, however misguided his [173] effort, he deserves special regard on that ground.  I must not talk down o him from stilts or from the superior height of a pedestal; men can not be won that way.  I must not take it all out in criticizing; but let me in humble love, in secret places, plead for him before the throne of grace.  This would be something like the right attitude toward the sectarian.  My brethren, hold the truth whatever betide; but hold not the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ in bitterness and vindictiveness of spirit, but, speaking it in love, make it a blessing unto all men.  July 29, 1909.

R. H. Boll, Truth and Grace.  F. L. Rowe: Cincinnati, 1917, pages 172-173.

See Don Haymes’ comments on the previous post and his link to the full text of Truth and Grace on Hans Rollmann’s site.  I suspect this first appeared in the 29 July 1909 issue of Gospel Advocate. Not all of the items in the book are dated like this one; not all of the dated items are from 1909-1910.  It would not be difficult at all to substantiate whether the dated items appeared in the Advocate.  The undated items, however, may be original to this book, previously unpublished, or previously published elsewhere.

The Story

Not long ago I listened online to my long-time friend Chris Harrell preach about Joseph.  Chris is pinch-hitting for Jimmy Adcox at Southwest Church in Jonesboro, AR.  For a season they are preaching through the biblical narrative from beginning to end.  It appears they are at the same time intentionally tying the stories of life on the ground in Jonesboro to the narrative of Scipture and the narrative Scripture invites us to inhabit.  Here is the website they put together as they work through it.  I find the website a good idea and the materials on it (especially the reference chart) helpful.  I admire their attempt to saturate the congregation with the Biblical story.

thoughts on teaching

Andrew Phillips blogged this a few days ago:

I am preparing to talk to some teachers about Bible teaching at a conference in a few weeks, and I could use some feedback from people in different congregations on these questions. Plus, if you post responses in the comments, it might be helpful to anyone else who would read this (all 4 of us).

1.   What are the biggest challenges for teaching Bible Classes?

2.   What are the things you have seen effective teachers do? What are some teaching strategies that aren’t effective?

3.   If you could say one thing to encourage a group of teachers, what would it be?

I would love some feedback – thanks in advance! I will keep you posted on the presentation, and I will post some of the material in a few weeks.

My reply:

Good questions, Andrew. Here’s my attempt to answer all three questions with one sentence:

The best teachers I have seen in action have all been persons of integrity, who did their homework well, who respected their students’ hearts and minds, and who urged their students to go where the text leads.

My perspective, for what it is worth.

Blog about what you come up with; I’m interested in what you think.

I think my short reply addressed Andrew’s questions, albeit in a roundabout way.  I’m mulling it all over and perhaps I will have a few more comments in the days to come.