On Vain Disputing

Being an excerpt from his “Spiritual Refining”
Written by, Anthony Burgess, 1652


“For it is good to have the heart established with grace, and not with meats…”
–Hebrews 13:9 

 By this practical knowledge and exercise you will be taken off from all needless and vain disputations in matters of religion, and will be more solicitous at home in your own heart. In former times when the people of God were busy about the touchstone and trial of grace in themselves, they did not launch out into such deep and unprofitable questions, but now of late since believers have busied themselves in disputes and controversies, and new opinions, this practical knowledge of grace is much neglected. You shall find men sooner disputing about faith than living by faith, talking of heavenly-mindedness than being so indeed. Thus the trees in God’s garden sprout up into suckers and barren boughs, and bear little fruit upon them, 1 Tim. 6:4.1

The apostle does excellently describe such a temper, he calls it ‘doting about questions’, or as it is in the Greek, ‘sick and languishing’; Even as much fretting and vexation consumes the flesh of the body, so do proud and vain affectations of new opinions pine away the soul. What is this but to think that a stone may become bread, and a serpent fish? As it is a minister’s duty to preach only those things that are profitable, the sower went out to sow good seed, not poison, or empty chaff; so it is also required of private Christians, that they do think, confer of, and study those things only that may edify and practically build up their souls.
I would not hereby discourage an endeavor in Christians to grow in knowledge. The apostle reproves some for being babes, and that he could not speak unto them as spiritual but as carnal, only they must know, that faith has efficacious purifying acts as well as knowing acts, and therefore our increase must be equal both quoad notitiam, and efficaciam, [being translated:] in respect of knowledge and efficacy also. A Christian may grow either quoad amplitudinem scientiae or efficaciam scientiae, [being explained] the enlargement of his knowledge both in respect of the matter, he may know more things than he did, as also in the manner, more clearly, evidently and firmly than he did, or else in the efficacy of his knowledge, though he do not more things then he did, yet he knows them more practically, they have a greater influence upon his heart and affections, they move and inflame him more then ever they did; now though the former way of increase be necessary and pleasing to God, yet this is much more.

Take heed then that we be not like Pharaoh’s lean kine, that devour many questions, but yet are as starved and ill-favored as before.

When one came with a curious question to our Savior, asking Him, ‘Whether many should be saved?’ How pertinently does our Savior answer him, ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate’. This therefore discovers the necessity of importunate pressing and urging practical knowledge upon people in these days, Ubi malunt homines disputare quàm vivere, [being paraphrased:] they would rather argue than live. As little boys in sport strive who shall strike most sparks out of their iron, not intending to kindle thereby for their use, so do Christians strive who shall strike out the most subtle and finest spun notions, not intending the profit of their souls therein.