In this next set of episodes, I’m so pleased to have Sam Park and Matt Dohrmann join me for the podcast. Sam and Matt are both members of CrossWay Community Church where I serve. And in this episode we sit down to talk about the habit of reading good books, specifically, why is it important to be reading books?
I’m looking at establishing a ministry at our church where we’d form a group that would read and discuss various works of theology and Biblical studies together. The following comes from a document I was working on this morning in which I outline various convictions and commitments underlying this pursuit.
The importance & value of Christian understanding
We strongly believe that growth in Christian understanding plays a vital and central role in our development as maturing worshipers of Jesus. When we ignore the pursuit of Christian understanding, we do so to our detriment, and the detriment of our churches (IOW, our churches our healthier when its members are growing in Christian understanding). In an age where Biblical and theological illiteracy abounds, we are committed to standing against this tide. Amidst a prevailing Christian culture that downplays the importance of theology and doctrine, we unashamedly and counter-culturally commit ourselves to this discipline.
The privilege of all
We believe that rigorous Biblical and theological study is not something reserved for pastors and theologians, but is the right and privilege of all believers.
A proper understanding of “theological maturity”
To be clear, we are not interested in a version of “theological mastery” which simply knows concepts or engages ideas as something like a hobby or mere intellectual exercise. We are after theological maturity. Such theological maturity entails not only (1) a right understanding of Biblical teaching and its theological import, but also (2) a deep conviction and belief in these things, as well as (3) a correlating theological discernment — the ability and inclination of character (virtue) to apply such theological knowledge to new and complex situations (what the Bible at times calls “wisdom”).
A rightly oriented knowledge
The apostle Paul says, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1), and “the one who thinks he knows obviously doesn’t know as he ought” (8:2). We want to take this seriously. As John Calvin said in his Institutes (paraphrasing), A genuine knowledge of God necessarily entails transforming us into worshipers of God. Legit theology is more than just ideas entering our minds for contemplation. To truly apprehend God is necessarily to be into made a worshiper of God and walk away transformed by the encounter. Or as Augustine said in his classic work on Doctrine (paraphrasing), all proper doctrine promotes the two-fold love of God and neighbor. If we are not increasing in our love of God and neighbor in our study of scripture and theology, we’re doing it wrong.
Renewal as worshipers through transformation of the mind
We understand that the way we are transformed as followers of Christ is through the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:1-2) and reorientation of our loves. Both scripture and experience testify to the impactful role that our thinking (our beliefs about God, the world, and ourselves — our “worldview”) has on the way we live. We were created to be worshipers. As such, we are always in awe of something (our god), and our imaginations captured by some vision of the good, the true, and ultimate. The direction of our lives ultimately follows the compass of our hearts and the rudder of our beliefs. Because of sin, however, our mind and affections have been colonized by false gods (idolatry) and deceived into false visions of the good life. We need a rehabilitation of heart and mind. We believe we that the avenue to our affections, among other things, is through the engagement and transformation of the mind.
The proper place of “application”
As outlined above, we wholeheartedly believe in the practicality and life-impactful significance of theology. Without the goal of life-impact (the very telos of theology, i.e., the very reason God has made himself known to us), we have actually distorted the very nature of theology and we exhibit an audacious affront to the design of God’s self-revelation. In other words, it’s no small slight, but actually an incredibly serious transgression (Mt 15:8; cf. Titus 1:16).
At the same time, however, we reject the current popular sentiment (a very American attitude) that theology’s value is to be measured by our own preset notion of what is “practical” (i.e., our felt-needs), and setting up application as our starting point for our approach and what we deem worthwhile. Yes, we expect to be transformed as we encounter God (and with that comes “application”). But we also understand that God knows what we need far more than we do, and that none of his self-disclosure was given in vain (none of it is unimportant for our study). Simply knowing and enjoying God (the very end for which we were created) is a good enough end in and of itself, notwithstanding its life-impacting benefits which surely do also follow. Moreover, the most impactful thing we can experience is not actually more “practical instruction” (prescriptions on “what to do”) — the history of Israel under the law bears this out — as good as sound practical instruction is; but to have our hearts convinced of the worth of God as we are struck with the awe of God. Our deepest problem is a disorder of worship; and therefore that which will meet us at the deepest, most life-impacting level is to walk away from our study as increasing worshipers and enjoyers of God.
The aid & treasure of Christian literature
We enter our pursuit with the belief that God has gifted the church across the ages with men and women who are great resources to us in understanding God’s Word and his truth. Although the central tenets of the Bible are clear (perspicuity) and the Bible is sufficient for knowing these things adequately, we reject that hubris which ignores the help of others and the collective wisdom found in the communion of the saints. We uphold the Biblical place of teachers, and value learning from the writings of others, even those who may be outside our exact tradition, as they can serve to broaden our perspective. In distinction from such presentist tendencies that place nearly exclusive attention on contemporary productions, we especially value the historical authors, whose works have proven worth, having stood the test of time, who give us a sense of rootedness in the Christian tradition, and whose voice cuts through our sometimes near-sighted contemporary perspectives.
The urgency of our situation & the need for retrieval
We live at a crossroads which only increases the urgency of this pursuit. We live in an age in which the plausibility structures that once gave Christianity credence are quickly deteriorating and in which we are regularly being desensitized to sin and acclimated to false outlooks on life. The pressure to cave and compromise Biblical truth is potent. False teaching abounds. And the contemporary issues that challenge us are proliferating at a pace that’s dizzying. For those of us who are parents, we also face the task of discipling our children through this ethically and religiously volatile maze. At the same time, many in a previous generation moved away from certain traditional practices of theological education (e.g., catechisms, creeds, pedagogical hymns, etc.) at precisely the time when we now feel we may actually need them most. That crowd sought more “fresh” and pragmatic approaches. Among other things though, we see the damage caused by what was left behind and the void this abandonment has now created. We therefore desire to recover / retrieve the pursuit of theology for both ourselves, our families, and our churches.
I work in a seminary library and help with collection development (i.e., selecting and purchasing books for the library’s collection). Therefore, I spend a good amount of time looking through catalogues from Christian publishers. I also rub shoulders a lot with Christians who like to read Christian books, whether scholarly or more “pop” literature.
Every time I scan through these publishers’ catalogues, I think of Ecclesiastes 12:12 – “Of making many books there is no end.”
Furthermore, as I browse these catalogues with hundreds of new books, find myself in a Christian culture in which these new books are referred to as “the next best thing” and “must reads,” and hear people talk about how they are reading or are so excited to read this or that new book, I find myself a little annoyed.
Here’s a diagram that I think might be helpful in providing a little guidance on how to determine which books you should be reading with the limited time that you have.
Maybe my sense is off here, but it seems to me that in evangelicalism we are rather infatuated with the contemporary to the neglect of our heritage. And my perception is that our selection of books to read has not escaped this tendency.
Don’t get me wrong. Contemporary books are important. They will be more up to date culturally. They will be more up to date in terms of scholarly discussion and advancement.
However, in our general reading habits, why would we give so much priority to books that will in all likelihood be forgotten within 50 years, a decade, or even less time than that? Why not put those books on the top of our stack of books that have stood the test of centuries and have proven helpful to thousands throughout church history?
These are just some thoughts I’ve been having lately. It’s a challenge to my own reading habits (as much as I, a student, am able to determine them) as much as anyone else’s.
As some say, “education gets in the way of learning.” Although this is not entirely true, since I must attribute much of what I have learned to my formal education, there is definitely much validity to this statement. I have found that some of my greatest learning experiences occur during the summer months. No longer am I told to study or do assignments on topics that are too basic and aren’t pushing me hard enough or are on topics I’ve studied previously and am therefore not learning much in studying them at an introductory level. Come the summer months I can hone in on topics that are weaknesses or vacancies in “my arsenal.” Again, I owe a ton of what I have learned to my professors, but as I like to say, if you can read you aren’t limited to living teaches. And with that, the dead teachers tend to be the best ones. Needless to say, I look forward to my Summer studies.