It seems everyone has an opinion to publish these days, and with the advent of social media, everyone has a venue for getting it in print. In the past, only material that had made the editorial cut would be circulated more broadly in books or magazines. Blogs and Facebook, however, enable anyone to write anything and have it read throughout the world. Though e-publishing is booming in our day, most of this writing lacks peer review to ensure quality. Ecclesiastes seems to echo our own exhaustion from all the chatter: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccles. 12:12).
The abundance of bad reading material can tempt us to despair. We must not, however, forget the value of making and reading books. Though weary of the so-called wisdom of the world, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes did not abandon all studying and all reading: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” Craig Bartholomew explains that wise words “prod us into wise action and, like nails firmly embedded, provide us with a place that holds us.”1
In this article, we will consider the great value of reading the words of the wise that are found in good biblical and theological books.
The Importance of Reading
Although there have been some exceptions in history, most people recognize the value of reading. The Greek philosopher Plato felt that reading hindered true knowledge. Oral learning, memorization, and recitation were for him the key to wisdom. While there is a legitimate distinction to be made between listening (a more passive learning) and reading (a more active learning), Plato regrettably widened that into an unwarranted divide.2
The advantages of learning through reading are widely recognized. There is, however, a most important reason for Christians to develop their reading abilities, one that goes beyond pragmatics and pedagogy. The very medium of God’s Word (i.e., words written on paper) has huge ramifications for Christian learning. Brian Lee explains: “The Bible exists because our God speaks, and because he not only speaks, he also writes.” In light of this fact, “God’s revelation demands the literacy of his people.”3 Our social-media-saturated culture has had a profound effect on our ability to give sustained attention to God’s own voice. And because God’s voice comes to us in a lengthy written form—a slowly unfolding narrative—Christians do well to cultivate their reading skills.
The Importance of Reading Secondary Literature
Before we detail some particular benefits of reading, we must distinguish two different kinds of written sources: primary literature and secondary literature. Primary literature is original, unfiltered writing, whereas secondary literature is based upon primary texts. As an example, in Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart analyzes and interprets ancient stories like The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.4 Leithart’s book is secondary literature, and the original stories by Homer are the primary texts. Secondary literature analyzes and interprets the contents of a primary text. Throughout church history, Christians not only have read the Bible (primary literature) but also have written and read books about the Bible (secondary literature) in order to aid their understanding of the Bible. The magazine you are currently holding, The Outlook, is itself an example of secondary literature.
It is interesting that at the end of 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul asked for two different kinds of reading materials: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul’s request for books (Greek: biblia) seems to mean biblical scrolls (primary literature), and his reference to parchments (Greek: membranas) seems a likely reference to other Christian writings (secondary literature).5
In his famous Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon made clear that every minister has in his possession a deep well from which to draw: the Bible. He wrote, “In the Bible we have a perfect library, and he who studies it thoroughly will be a better scholar than if he had devoured the Alexandrian Library entire.”6 Yet Spurgeon also recognized that it was a great hindrance to suffer from “slender apparatus” (i.e., lack of secondary literature). He devoted several pages of suggestions to ministers for how to gain access to more books written about God’s Word because of the great value of reading secondary literature: “Up to the highest measure of their ability, [churches] should furnish their minister not only with the food that is needful to sustain the life of his body, but with mental nourishment, so that his soul may not be starved. A good library should be looked upon as an indispensible part of church furniture.”7
This in no way downplays the superiority and indispensability of the Bible, but it does illustrate the special value of secondary literature. If Spurgeon saw the great importance of books for pastors, those who have been rigorously trained in seminary, books would seem to be at least as beneficial—if not more so—to those who have not had formal training in biblical and theological studies.8
The Benefits of Reading Secondary Literature
There are many good reasons to regularly read books and articles about theology and biblical studies. Here are a few of note:
1 Reading secondary literature makes us better readers of the Bible itself. Any opportunity we take to improve our reading skills makes us better readers of Scripture. Tony Reinke ably notes the connection between the two: “Honestly, I think we read our Bibles poorly because we read all of our nonfiction books poorly. To better read our Bibles, or any nonfiction book, we must work to improve our reading skills. Sharpening our reading skills will improve how we read and how we benefit from all our nonfiction books—including the most important Book of them all.”9 There are, of course, great benefits to reading fiction books in addition to nonfiction or secondary literature. The interview with Glenda Mathes in this issue of The Outlook wonderfully describes how. But whether it is fiction or nonfiction, when we read literature other than the Bible, we improve a number of skills that make us better readers of the Bible.
2 Reading secondary literature helps us cultivate love for God. Jesus answered the Pharisee-lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment in the law by stating: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:27). This is a far cry from the overly emotive, sappy, sentimental view of love embraced widely in our culture. Jesus shows that the mind must be active in our love for God.10 Donald Whitney explains the connection between love of God and learning: “What God wants most from you is your love. And one of the ways He wants you [to] show love and obedience to Him is by Godly learning. God is glorified when we use the mind He made to learn of Him, His ways, His Word, and His World.”11 Secondary literature gives us insight into God’s Word that helps to fuel our love for God.
3 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn Scripture in community. The Christian faith is not an individualistic affair. God has called together a church, a gathering of people from every tribe and tongue to worship and glorify Him corporately (Rev. 7:9–10). What is more, this community engages in mutual, “one another” care (cf. 1 Cor. 12:25; 1 Thess. 5:11; Gal. 5:13; Col. 3:13) and instruction of one another. Paul tells the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). And the Thessalonians: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
Gene Veith notes that the corporate character of the church has a direct bearing on the corporate study of God’s Word: “[T]he act of reading God’s Word . . . takes place not merely as part of one’s private devotions but also in the church. Here God’s Word is read together by his people; it is studied, and it is preached.”12 The Old Testament sages stressed the importance of an “abundance of counselors” (Prov. 11:14; 24:6), and in subsequent history, the most common way Christians have learned the Word of God is through the teaching of others. The Westminster Shorter Catechism highlights this corporate context: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC Q.89; cf. WLC Q.155) The teaching of others includes sermons, Sunday school classes, conferences, and radio broadcasts, but as Jerry Bridges notes, “it also includes the reading of Christian books.”13 Even when two or three are unavailable to gather in Christ’s name, secondary literature still allows Christians to learn God’s Word with others. This leads us to our next point.
4 Reading secondary literature helps us learn from skilled teachers who are otherwise inaccessible. Because Christ’s church consists of people who are temporally and spatially removed from us, many of its finest teachers are inaccessible to us. Secondary literature, however, enables us to read Scripture in community even with them.
Teachers who are no longer living come to life, as it were, through their books. Joel Beeke explains that godly conversation “ought not to exclude the reading of godly treatises of former ages which promote holiness. Luther said that some of his best friends were dead ones.” Beeke concludes, “Let [the] divines of former ages become your spiritual mentors and friends.”14 I will never have the opportunity to sit under the preaching and teaching of John Calvin, Athanasius, Herman Bavinck, Chrysostom, or John Owen, to name only a few. Yet through their writings, I have indeed been taught by these men.
Some teachers live too far away from us or are people with whom we cannot develop a personal acquaintance. In former times, we would be unable to benefit from their tutelage. But through books and articles, many people, regardless of distance or familiarity, are able to spend time learning from them. As an example: my use of numerous citations and endnotes in this article is an effort to model this very thing. I have met only three of the teachers I have cited below, and of those three, the closest one lives more than eighteen hundred miles away! Nevertheless, I have been able to spend hours with them through their writings.
5 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn from specialized teachers. Though as Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit there is a sense in which we have no need for any man to teach us (1 John 2:27), this does not minimize the importance and value of reading in community, a point we have considered already. After all, Christ’s body, the church, consists of many different members with many different gifts (1 Cor. 12:1–31). When it comes to the study of God’s Word, different people possess gifts and skill sets not possessed by others. Some are experts in Greek. Others are knowledgeable in church history. Some Christians are skillful apologists and debaters while others have devoted their time to studying systematic theology or Hebrew. Reading the writings of others allows us to learn from those with unique expertise and specialization. When we have questions, we do not need to start from scratch and become masters of an entirely new area. Instead, secondary literature helps us to find answers from experts who have trod this path already.
6 Reading secondary literature helps us to learn about issues we might otherwise overlook. Because we naturally gravitate toward topics that interest us, reading secondary literature helps us to become informed about important matters that we might not otherwise consider. Thomas Murphy, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor, urged ministers to devote considerable time and energy to perusing the periodical literature (i.e., magazines, journals, and newspapers) of the day.15 Why? Murphy explains: “There are grave questions of the times which it will not do for [pastors] to be ignorant of, or to understand only in a vague manner. . . . [T]here are living issues which the pulpit must take up; there are present wants that it must meet; there are current thoughts in religious and other periodicals which should stimulate the heart and mind of every preacher.”16 And yet it is not ministers only who must understand the ideas and issues of the present day. The apostle Peter urged all in his Christian audience: “[I]n your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Suggestions for Becoming Better Readers
Reading books and articles about the Bible and theology is of great benefit to us. And yet many of us feel far too busy to read. What can we do to improve our own reading practices and encourage a culture of reading in our churches and our families? Here are a few suggestions:
1 Make time to read. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we always make time to do what we like. If we work hard to cultivate a love of reading, we will find that every day contains some time to read secondary literature. If you start with easier books and start by reading during times ordinarily spent watching television or “vegging,” you will have an easier time making reading a habit.
2 Read good books. Ask your pastor to recommend some classic Christian books or books that will dovetail with his preaching and teaching. Good reading material will more easily cultivate a love of reading and a hunger for more.
3 Read Christian periodicals. The Outlook, Christian Renewal, Modern Reformation, World Magazine—these kinds of secondary sources will give you an array of shorter readings on a wide range of topics.
4 Go public with your reading. Always keep a book on hand for your train ride, lunch break, or wait at the DMV. Talk with people about things you are reading and solicit their feedback. To encourage reading in others, consider purchasing books and periodical subscriptions for them as gifts. Make sure to follow up and ask them about what they are reading.
Though it will eventually become very enjoyable, developing new reading habits will likely take some effort. Tony Reinke explains: “When we set out to read important books, we can expect opposition from our hearts. Reading is a discipline, and all disciplines require self-discipline, and self-discipline is the one thing our sinful flesh will resist.”17 Yet remember the great gift that we have in reading. God has made us His own through the work of Jesus Christ and has given us His Word to draw us unto Himself and teach us about His plan of redemption. The more we read God’s Word, the more we know God. The better we understand God’s Word, the better we know God. And this knowledge is not just cerebral; it is a most marvelous and delightful experience. J. I. Packer sums it up well: “Well might God say through Jeremiah, ‘Let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me’—for knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a person’s heart.”18
1. Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 366.
2. For more on the Greek approach of Plato and others, see David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 95–99.
3. Brian Lee, “Is Reformation Christianity Just for Eggheads,” Modern Reformation 21, no. 5 (September/October 2012): 18.
4. Peter J. Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999).
5. See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 129. See too E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 57.
6. Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, First Series (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1890), 289.
7. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 282.
8. For an example of how some of the brightest theological minds of our own day have followed Spurgeon’s lead, see You Must Read: Books That Have Shaped Our Lives (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015).
9. Tony Reinke, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 118.
10. For problems with the modern use of the word feelings, see David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 211–23, a chapter entitled “What Do You Feel?”
11. Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991), 226.
12. Gene Edward Veith, Why God Gave Us a Book (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 40.
13. Jerry Bridges, Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), 65–66.
14. Joel R. Beeke, Overcoming the World: Grace to Win the Daily Battle (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 92–93.
15. Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office (1877; repr., Willow Street: Old Paths Publications, 1996), 147.
16. Murphy, Pastoral Theology, 147–48.
17. Reinke, Lit!, 131.
18. J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 36.
Rev. R. Andrew Compton
is the associate pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA), Anaheim, CA, where he has served since 2008. He holds an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California and an MA in Old Testament from the University of California, Los Angeles.