This was a fascinating look into early seventeenth century Puritan thinking. Richard Sibbes’ classic treatise first published in 1630 has had its language modernised a little and headings inserted to make it easier for the modern reader to follow but otherwise is the author’s voice as was.
The book is a commentary on Isaiah 42:1-3 and centres on the prophesy of Jesus that “a bruised reed shall not he break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.”
For all the modernising, Sibbes language is still ‘interesting’! My favourite line is this:
“The devil gets more by such discouragements and reproaches that are cast upon religion than by fire and faggot.”
The boy in me wanted to post on my Facebook page “it’s time to start burning faggots again!” but my wife (perhaps wisely) persuaded me it wouldn’t be a good idea.
More seriously, Sibbes takes issues with things we might struggle with today. He’s a puritan and so, almost by definition, anti-Catholic, with countless unfavourable references to the ‘papists’. The second half of the book strays far from the text which is almost unforgivable by today’s stringent academic standards. While the first few chapters exposit the ‘bruised reed’ and ‘smoking flax’ most eloquently, the rest of the book becomes a vehicle for Sibbes’ philosophies and theology. As I was reminded once when training to give theological sermons and talks: “you might be right but you can’t get THAT from THIS text!” This is Sibbes’ flaw, without a doubt.
Nevertheless, he wrote for a 1600s Puritan reader not for a modern Evangelical and so this text needs to be seen through an historical and culture lens to see what Sibbes is saying. And much of it is worth hearing. I was quite moved by his care for the feelings of others in our Christian conduct and with his sympathetic understanding of sin and failure (albeit with a strong sense that he is almost saying God can forgive any sin EXCEPT being a Catholic). If you’re a protestant, this is all good stuff, and the first few chapters are enlightening and helpful.
But the book loses a star, for me, by the tone the second half takes after it forgets the Isaiah text, paying lip service only to those verses from there on. It is a rant which is quite unquantifiable with Biblical scripture.
I have always believed that Islamic culture and writing is about 400-600 years behind Christianity. I don’t mean that offensively or in a derisory fashion (with no wish to impute Qur’anic faith) but in the way ups and downs of Islamic culture and thinking which have mirrored that of Christianity – set apart as they are by 600 years. There’s a certain amount of ‘catch up’ during the last century (many Muslim countries having missed out modernism and skipped directly to post-modernism for example) but basically there is a kind of cultural ‘time-lag’.
Why do I bring up Islam? Because Sibbes’ book reads like an Islamist tract. I don’t mean the bland, anger-fuelled political statements the media like to show but the much more worrying, deeply thought-out theological treatises such as Islamic State put out on a monthly or even weekly basis. Sibbes’ words come from a deeply-ingrained belief that his theology is right and he will cherry-pick verses to prove it. The tone is unquestioning of the victory of Christ and his church through all of life’s obstacles using circular arguments to prove his point despite what life might actually be like for the faithful. It is much the same as Islamists quoting the Qur’an to prove the Qur’an is right and then hanging many ethical ideas on the back of it regardless of what the book might actually say.
Both the Muslim and non-Muslim world are aware of the dangers of such well thought-out tracts from extremists, so we should handle Sibbes’ book with equal care. He may not be championing revolution and bloodshed but it is a kind of thinking which led directly to colonial rule and the unquestioning belief that one way of looking at things is the only way of looking at them.
Sibbes sees the ‘smoking flax’ as a good thing – with the potential to burn brightly again one day if Christ allows – but neglects to give regard to the fact that from a smoking flax a great destructive force can destroy much that is good. I wonder if Sibbes would have written differently had the great fire of London of 1666 come before his death and before this book? It should give pause for thought.