Multum non multa – A principle for parish life

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” – Ecclesiastes 12:11-12

Pliny the Younger put it this way: multum non multa – that is, not many things, but much.

It’s a principle of classical education, a movement which is growing within confessional Lutheran parish schools. In short, it says that the long, careful study of a few most excellent texts is of greater value than a rushed study of a greater number of lesser texts. This — and not any perceived snob factor — is why great schools spend time on Shakespeare and Virgil but probably not Divergent. Spending careful time with great literature gives students a greater familiarity with the texts, but it also teaches them that long, difficult tasks are both possible and worth doing. It’s a great way to plant and grow wisdom in young people in a school, but it’s also good advice for parish life as well.

There is a tendency in the parish to stay busy. When the monthly calendar is being published, it seems important for everyone to know just how busy the pastor, secretary, and boards are. There is often pressure to hold a different study group for every possible demographic — singles, couples, young people, widows, retirees, families. Study groups spend much time discussing what they’re going to study next, even as they’re not finished with the current subject! During Bible studies, there is pressure to “get through the material.”

This is not helpful, and it does not lead to an increase in wisdom for the Christian disciple, because it usually means that there is little time or attention given to thoughtful reflection and making connections between topics. A Bible study (or parish school theology class) should allow time for students to make connections between new information and previously-learned information. This requires much time and, frankly, a slow pace. But the benefit is a Christian who can not only regurgitate facts and bullet points from the day’s lessons, but he can also begin to think theologically in an orthodox manner about questions and topics that come to him throughout the week.

Here are some practical ideas to cultivate Christian wisdom in the parish according to the principle of multum non multa:

  • Study the Bible the most. Study it frequently and thoroughly, and don’t apologize for it. If there is any wisdom in all the world, it’s to be found most surely and best in Holy Scripture.
  • Study the Confessions, too, but never at the expense of Holy Scripture. Focus on the creeds and the catechisms before branching out to the other confessional writings.
  • When selecting writing that is not Scripture or the Confessions, take into account who wrote it and what biases or false teachings he might have been inclined to put into his writing. It’s often said that such groups can “pick out the bones but keep the meat” but think about it — what kind of lame host serves venison but tells his guests to spit out the buckshot? Give them the good stuff and leave the bone-picking for the pastor’s study where it belongs.
  • If you’re using a pre-packaged study, and it contains a certain number of lessons, give yourself and your group permission to leave a lesson unfinished and return to it the next time. A ten-lesson series might do better in twelve or thirteen sessions, if the questions and discussions warrant.
  • Consider not using a pre-packaged study and simply studying a book of the Bible or great book together. My congregation has had — since long before I got here — a men’s group which meets at 6:30 am to read a solid theological book together and discuss. Not having pre-packaged questions allows everyone the freedom to ask their own questions and for us to pause as we read and reflect on what we’ve just read. To give you a sense of the kind of book we read, we finished Charles Porterfield Krauth’s The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology about a year ago. Laymen really can handle these things, and they’re usually delighted to find that out. That love of learning will serve the parish well, too, with lay leaders who can think theologically about parish administration.
  • One passage of Scripture can accomplish much theological education. If a passage lends itself to an excursus on the inspiration of Scripture or a discussion of a current event, use it! If the excursus serves to broaden theological understanding, helps Christians to confess the faith in the world, or otherwise edifies the hearers, don’t feel badly that the conversation has “gotten off topic.”
  • Don’t be afraid to use the Bible in order to teach the Catechism. When studying 1 Kings 21 and Naboth’s Vineyard, for example, don’t hesitate to work in the Ninth Commandment and its explanation.

Though it’s always been important for the church to cultivate wisdom among the faithful, it’s especially true now as Christians are unlikely to get much wisdom from the world. Hopefully this principle will prove useful to pastors and congregations as they continue to hand over the faith to the next generation.

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