Pastors – Studying and Reading (2)

February 16, 2006

The matter of "what to study?" is of vital importance for a pastor in a day when so much of the literature peddled on the Christian market is drivel. In fact, if it is in the Christian Top 50, then it unfortunately has a 90 to 94% probability of falling into that category (which means the only time you are going to read it is an act of pastoral discernment and protection of the flock). So we need to purpose to read wisely. Life is too short to waste on unprofitable reading. Al has already given some good thoughts on this, and I agree with what he has said. Here are a few more thoughts though. In addition to substantial fiction, classics, history, humor and things your read just to keep up with culture, the following need to be a part of your diet.

Naturally, you are going to be reading Bible commentaries in preparation for preaching (make sure you’re reading the good ones – see Derek Thomas’s The Essential Commentaries for a Preacher’s Library), but you need to plan to read more than just commentaries. There ought to be a part of your reading designed to foster biblical piety, the doctrines of grace, a biblical view of church and ministry, and the challenge to consecrate your whole heart (mind, will and affections) to ministerial study. Packer, Stott, Piper, Wells, Sproul, Ferguson and others have provided us much gold in this vein.

I’m thinking of books like: J.I. Packer’s Knowing God (IVP), a devotional classic that ought to be plundered often; Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth), foundational for thinking about pastoral care; John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Christian Library), no intelligent Protestant minister should have not read and mastered this book. Another Packer volume, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway Books), is a brilliant set of essays on the Puritan vision of the Christian life. To this we add John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans), the classic popular treatment of the ordo salutis; J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans), a must for all modern evangelicals; J.C. Ryle, Holiness (Evangelical Press), one of the great modern devotional books; Horatius Bonar’s Words to Winners of Souls (P&R), Thomas Boston’s The Art of Manfishing (Christian Focus), all of David F. Wells books. You get the idea.

In other words, you want to be reading what the Puritans would have called "soul-fatting" books: works that will increase your knowledge, your love for the Lord and your confidence in Scripture. You will, of course, from time to time read things that are not soul-fatting, but you must never allow this best kind of book to be entirely absent from your normal plan of reading.

Additionally, you will want to listen to good MP3s/CDs (like the outstanding interviews by Mark Dever available at 9Marks Ministries; Ken Myers’ interviews at Mars Hill Tape Library are also stimulating and informative, reformation21 often features great audio interviews; get "The Teaching Company" catalog and listen to the best undergraduate lecturers from across the country on important subject areas). You can listen while you take your daily exercise, or as you are driving in to the church or on the way home, or heading out on a visit. And, if you can’t listen to the whole program, listen to the first ten or so minutes of the Albert Mohler Show everyday (you can listen on XM, the internet or about 75 stations nationwide). Al will catch you up on the most important things of the day, from a distinctively biblical perspective.

Go to conferences (not "how to" conferences, but conferences that feed your soul or make you think: Desiring God, Ligonier, Banner of Truth, Shepherds, PCRTs, Founders Conferences, Sovereign Grace and such). Keep up with current events (glance at the New York Times, read World magazine and Atlantic Monthly, then visit the Arts and Letters Daily website, or the Access Research Network – all of which can be found easily with a Google™ search on the internet) and think hard about the culture (Phil Ryken charts a helpful course for this in My Father’s World [P&R] and He Speaks to me Everywhere [P&R]).

But above all, determine to read and master the great books of your Reformation heritage. Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Ames’ Marrow of Theology, Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics, John Bunyan, John Owen, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, C.H. Spurgeon, and Carl Henry. Read the classics, and read primary sources. Mark has already mentioned C.S. Lewis’ famous comments on this in his "On the Reading on Old Books" (which was originally composed as an introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation). His counsel is wise and worth reading in full. Lewis says:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

So, one way you can avoid being caught up in the banalities, trivialities and fads of current "learning" is to interact with the best thinkers of the past. Against the backdrop of my call to reading though, remember the wise counsel of Thomas Brooks: "Christ, the Scripture, your own hearts, and Satan’s devices, are the four prime things that should be first and most studied and searched. If any cast off the study of these, they cannot be safe here, nor happy hereafter. It is my work as a Christian, but much more as I am a Watchman, to do my best to discover the fullness of Christ, the emptiness of the creature, and the snares of the great deceiver."