Pastors – Studying and Reading (5)

February 21, 2006

Now we come to the question of motivation: why should you study and read? Let me encourage you to be self-conscious about your personal motivations for study. Many a good man has fallen prey to false motivations and thus has lost the real or full benefit of ongoing study. For one thing, your ongoing study should not be motivated by the desire to gain a certain status. Many seminaries and institutions of higher learning appeal to pastors to do "advanced" course work that is hardly advanced by any realistic standard because they offer an impressive sounding but vacuous degree title to those who complete the course. Don’t fall prey to that. The goal of learning is knowledge, not a status.

The British have had a much healthier attitude about academic degree titles than we have here in America (although I think we are finally having a baneful effect upon even them in this area). The great F.F. Bruce, for instance, had the equivalent of an American undergraduate degree (he had a Scottish MA – kind of like an American summa cum laude BA) and yet was rightly recognized as a first order scholar in his field. His lack of a "PhD" didn’t matter. He knew more than a roomful of PhDs. I, personally, don’t give a hoot about what title a man has. If he does not possess right and useful knowledge, wisdom and good judgment, he is of little value to the church as a teacher. By the way, this is just one area in which I have great admiration for CJ. He has great discernment, and he cultivates that discernment in those he mentors. This is something sadly lacking amongst some evangelical PhDs (thus the sad expression: "that was an argument that only a PhD could fall for").

But back to my main point. One motivation that ought to impel your study is simply the desire to learn. To learn the truth. To acquire true and useful knowledge. There are very few times when it is okay to be greedy in life; but in learning we ought to be "greedy" to learn, because truth is God’s and we ought to want to know it.

Furthermore, we ought to be motivated to learn in order to be a help to the church. Not infrequently have I encountered Christian ministers who, by much study, considered themselves very sophisticated and "above" the average churchgoer. Such an attitude is unbecoming in the extreme (and, interestingly, is not often found in those who have truly first-order minds). But the faithful shepherd studies precisely to be a help to the people of God, however humble they may be. We want to learn in order to be serviceable to the church.

Along the same lines, you ought to be motivated to learn in order to be helpful to other ministers and churches. Study and read and learn so that you can be a blessing to other Gospel ministers and Christians. Your knowledge is potentially a help and encouragement to fellow ministers grappling with a specialized area of knowledge that they don’t know so well as you. Maybe you’ll become very familiar with the best academic literature about Islam, not only so that you can teach your people and bear witness yourself, but also to help other ministers who don’t know as much about what is now the chief organized religious rival to global Christianity. Or maybe you’ll become an expert in the Puritans, not only so that you can be edified through that excellent material, but also so that you can disabuse others of the considerable and negative mythology which surrounds this whole field of study, and introduce ministers and other Christians to the goldmine to be found in those writings. You get my point. Be motivated to learn in order that your learning may bless the larger church.

This is one way I benefit from my friendships with Mark, Al and CJ. Al is an expert in so many things, and I love to sit and listen to him share his gleanings on everything from moral philosophy, to modern Roman Catholicism (and by the way, I don’t know anyone who knows contemporary Roman Catholicism better than Al, R.C. Sproul and David Wells), to literary theory, to cultural analysis, to architecture. He is a polymath. But he uses that knowledge to serve the glory of God and the church. That’s his motivation.

I love to hear Mark talk about the Puritans, and ecclesiology (I don’t know a Protestant more widely read in the doctrine of the church than Mark), about the doctrine of atonement, and preaching, and a hundred other things. His reading becomes a blessing to me when he shares it. I grow in knowledge, just by listening to him.

And then there’s CJ. No advanced academic degree but an unusually wise and gifted brother. CJ has theological instincts that are lacking in some of the smartest people I know. He and I can go from talking college hoops (and we can tell you in an instant the two ACC teams that played the greatest, most perfect, non-NCAA tournament game ever! Do you know it?), to reflecting on the vital importance of biblical manhood and womanhood, and then suddenly he may begin with all humility and utter un-self-consciousness to share with me rich gleanings from his personal study and reading. I never fail to be amazed by his ability to put his finger on the crucial issue in the area we are discussing. And I am always blessed to sit at his feet and learn.

Of course, I could go on. There’s Gerald Bray, who knows more about Eastern Orthodox theology than anyone on the planet. There’s Sinclair Ferguson who has absorbed the truth of the Marrow Controversy. There’s Phil Ryken who has made Thomas Boston a part of himself and ministry. There’s John Piper, who not only knows Romans 9 like Paul, and who communes with the genius of Edwards, but also fellowships with a number of the great figures of the church each year – from Athanasius to Machen. Or Derek Thomas on John Calvin’s pastoral preaching on Job. And Peter Jones who knows neo-paganism better than neo-pagans.

But it’s not just these well-known men from whom we can learn, and from whom we can be blessed. We can learn and bless others too. My Minister of Discipleship, Brad Mercer, knows Edwards and Lewis far better than do I, and I love to listen to him talk about them. Sam Hensley, one of my church members and a local pathologist, knows the literature on medical ethics like nobody’s business. My former students Guy Richard and Hunter Bailey can teach me things about Samuel Rutherford and Fraser of Brea that I didn’t know.

All of these people bless others with their learning. Now it’s time for you to do the same. Read up. Learn. Become a blessing and encouragement.

So, why should we study and learn? For God’s glory, for our growth in the knowledge of his truth, for the blessing of the church, and to be an encouragement to other ministers. There are most certainly more motivations to study than these. But take these as suggestive.