“Tolle lege. Tolle lege.” Augustine heard a voice, perhaps of a child nearby, saying, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” He took this as a command from God, and therefore opened his Bible to Romans 13. From that day forward, Augustine would profoundly shape how believers read and understand the Bible. While the turn-to-a-random-passage and read approach is not encouraged, in this case it had incredible ramifications down to the present day.
The phrase “Take up and read” has a long history in Christian literature. It’s often used to encourage Christians to be a reading people, conversant with ideas from the past and present. But it’s sometimes lost that for Augustine, “Take up and read” led him directly to the Bible. Not to the day’s best sellers. Not to the new releases in the window. Not even to blog posts like this one (Augustine would probably be surprised he’s even mentioned here). He took up and read Scripture.
Throughout church history, there have been countless individuals who have encouraged their fellow believers to do the same. They were astonished that the very God who spoke every atom and every supernova into existence also spoke directly to them through the words of the Bible. In a day when our attention is arrested by almost anything other than the written word and we struggle to pull back from our digital devices, we can learn something from the past about the importance of reading Scripture in the present.
Below are three of my favorite paragraphs from church history about taking up and reading the Bible.
Here’s Thomas Cranmer in his preface to the second edition of the Great Bible (1540). Busyness is dangerous, especially when it keeps us from consistently engaging with God’s word:
Do not let anyone say to me any of those vain words, worthy of a heavy condemnation, “I cannot leave the courthouse, I administer the business of the city, I practice a craft, I have a wife, I am raising children, I am in charge of a household, I am a man of the world; reading the Scriptures is not for me, but for those who have been set apart, who have settled on the mountain tops, who keep this way of life continuously.” What are you saying, man? That attending to the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by multitudes of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them . . . You need more remedies. Your wife provokes you, for example, your son grieves you, your servant angers you, your enemy plots against you, your friend envies you, your neighbor curses you, your fellow soldier trips you up, often a lawsuit threatens you, poverty troubles you, loss of your property gives you grief, prosperity puffs you up, misfortune depresses you, and many causes and compulsions to discouragement and grief, to conceit and desperation surround us on all sides, and a multitude of missiles fall from everywhere. Therefore we have a continuous need for the full armor of the Scriptures.
Carl F. H. Henry built his entire theological program around two key premises: The Living God exists, and he speaks to us clearly through the Bible. But these were never minimized into a formula; rather, he was constantly amazed that God would disclose himself to mere men. God’s word rattles with magnitude and awe, and it confronts us anytime we read it:
Divine revelation palpitates with human surprise. Like a fiery bolt of lightning that unexpectedly zooms toward us and scores a direct hit, like an earthquake that suddenly shakes and engulfs us, it somersaults our private thoughts to abrupt awareness of ultimate destiny. By the unannounced intrusion of its omnipotent actuality, divine revelation lifts the present into the eternal and unmasks our pretensions of human omnicompetence. As if an invisible Concorde had burst the sound barrier overhead, it drives us to ponder whether the Other World has finally pinned us to the ground for a life-and-death response. Confronting us with a sense of cosmic arrest, it makes us ask whether the end of our world is at hand and propels us unasked before the Judge and Lord of the universe. Like some piercing air-raid siren it sends us scurrying from life’s preoccupations and warns us that no escape remains if we neglect the only sure sanctuary. Even once-for-all revelation that has occurred in another time and place fills us with awe and wonder through its ongoing significance, and bears the character almost of a fresh miracle.
John Calvin recognized that Scripture is a gift. Therefore, it should be treasured, studied, and enjoyed as a blessing from God’s “hallowed” lips:
Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers but also opens his own most hallowed lips.
Of course, there are countless other paragraphs like these throughout church history. But these give us two key insights about reading the Bible: the necessity of reading Scripture, and the opportunity of reading Scripture. We need to read the Bible, and we get to read the Bible.
“Take up and read.” Taking something up often requires laying something down. Maybe that’s the phone, the computer, or the late-night bedtime. But in taking up the Bible, you are taking up something that is infinitely more valuable than whatever you’re laying down. It’s worth it. So, tolle lege!
Here Cranmer is summarizing a John Chrysostom sermon to emphasize to readers of this Bible that they cannot afford to ignore it. See Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 135.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Vol. II (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 17.
See Matthew Barrett, ed., Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 177.