If you are anything like me, you know that having multiple interests makes reading books–cover to cover–an extremely difficult task. There was a time when I was determined to read through each and every book I started. Needless to say, this inevitably proved to be a hopeless effort. I do read entire books when I am teaching a particular subject, writing a review or wanting to interact more faithfully with the authors arguments, but my typical approach to studying is to view my library as one enormous table of contents. Instead of reading every book, in its entirety, I familiarize myself with the table of contents of all the books in my library and then set out reading the chapters I consider most beneficial. On account of the element of subjectivity involved, a few recommendation might prove to be helpful in guiding the process of knowing what to read:
First, read every chapter, article or sermon recommended by professors, pastors and theologians that you hold in high esteem. These recommendations will cover a broad spectrum of the theological sciences (which in many respects is more beneficial than limiting your reading to just one category; e.g. systematic theology, church history, biblical theology, historical theology, exegesis etc.). I have found more benefit from tracking down chapters recommended by my seminary professors, or theologians I admire, than from almost anyone else, and; as a result, have been brought into a world of theological wealth. Many times, these have not been required reading for classes, but have been mentioned in passing in a lecture or conversation. Write down the authors name and the title, as soon as it is mentioned, and start to diligently search libraries or the internet to find it.
Second, make the level of your reading to vary. Be reading more difficult and less difficult books. Read books, from devotional to academic, that fall across a spectrum of intellectual difficulty. If you limit yourself to reading one type of literature (e.g. Puritan spirituality, systematic theology, newer theological works, novels, blogs or doctoral dissertations) you will not be as well rounded. I find that most men coming out of seminary only read what is new and trendy (whether it be Christian pop-culture literature, academic theology, sociologically driven works, or what they deem to be relevant).Â The problem with this approach is that it leaves the reader imbalanced. Newer commentaries, for instance, include much beneficial exegetical work, as well as interaction with current trends, but they generally lack the devotional and pastoral applications that are the fruits of the exegetical labors of older commentators. In other words, don’t read this and this without reading this. The benefit of the later volume is that you can generally find the majority of the recommended books here or here. Men in more historically Reformed circles tend to err in the other direction–choosing to read the devotional and pastoral books while neglecting the benefits of reading newer works. There must be a healthy balance.
Second, don’t neglect the footnotes or endnotes (they will always uncover useful books, articles or chapters). I marvel at how few people read the footnotes. Any worthwhile theological trails will be found in the footnotes! Footnotes are loaded with recommended articles and chapters. When an author relegates a reference to a book, or a chapter in a book, to a footnote it is usually something he or she has benefited from reading On the other hand, sometimes chapters of books that present the opposite opinion or interpretation are put in footnotes. These can also be worth the time and effort it takes to track them down and read them. This will help broaden your understanding of an issue so that you can better defend the truth, or it will help you correct wrong opinions that you have held.
Third, ask friends what they are reading and what they have found most helpful. I have a number of close friends that I speak with on a regular basis. I have purposely surrounded myself with men who are wiser, smarter and more well-read than me. I generally find that the things they read andÂ benefit from inevitably benefit me. Doing “theology in community” is the best way to broaden and sharpen your thinking. There is an exponential value to talking through portions of Scripture, theological subjects and books with friends who are themselves diligently studying. Remember, you are only one person and can only accomplish so much in a day. Doing theology in community broadens your base of knowledge.
Fourth, read those chapters that appear to be most closely related to the subject you are currently studying. As I have been preaching through the Gospel of John, I have gone back and read chapters in books that I knew were pertinent to a related theme. For instance, when I was preparing to preach on John 5:19-30 (a portion of Scripture that records Jesus’ teaching about His perfect union with the Father), I remembered that many years prior I stumbled across the chapter entitled “His Entire Harmony with the Father,” in William Blakie’s Glimpses of the Inner Life of our Lord (a volume that I highly recommend). I took the time to reread this chapter and found that my understanding of the text was deepened by it. This is the chief benefit of reading thematic chapters that are relevant to the portion of Scripture you are working through. If I study or preach through the Gospels, I would consult chapters in this, this, this, this, this and this.
Fifth, read chapters that are relevant to a particular theological issue with which you are wrestling. I recently had a good friend direct me to chapter 4 of this book due to an ongoing debate I was having with several individuals over the issue of the hermenuetical spiral. The question at hand? “Does systematic and biblical theology influence exegesis, or does exegesis influence systematic and biblical theology?” (The answer is, of course, that they mutually inform one another.) I had, somewhat indifferently, already read the book my friend recommended, but the present debate made the particular chapter far more beneficial than it might have been under different circumstances. You will sometimes find that chapters you read in the past have a far greater impact on your thinking when you read them again in light of the current situation in which you find yourself. This is also why we should reread chapters that have strongly influenced our thinking.
Sixth, find compilation volumes and familiarize yourself with the contributors and chapter titles. When I was at Tenth Presbyterian Church, I had the privilege of helping to break down James M. Boice’s library. Dr. Boice had a number of compilation volumes. I found hundreds of beneficial articles and chapters that have been largely forgotten. When a man is asked to contribute to a particular book you know that he has probably put a great deal of time and thought into what he has written for it. Because of the small number of printings, these books generally fall by the wayside. The articles included are, almost without fail, exceptionally valuable. Some examples of more readily available works of this kind can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Lesser known works will usually be in the form of a festschrift like this, this, and this.
Seventh, find and read doctoral dissertations. I frequently accessed UMI’s dissertation database when I was in Greenville, SC and Philadelphia. I used to download every theological or historical dissertation that looked appealing to me. I would then take the time to familiarize myself with the content. You will probably not have time to read all of a particular dissertation (and this can be a strenuous labor depending on who wrote it), but you will often benefit more from reading a few chapters out of each. Remember, the men and women who have written their dissertations have usually put years of study into the subject. Get every Ph.D. dissertations and Th.M. thesis you can find.
I would be remiss if I did not sound at least one note of warning. Guard your heart and mind from intellectual pride. We sometimes think that we are mentally and spiritually stronger than we really are. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” While we must read things that challenge or oppose the truth of the Gospel and the Reformed faith, we must always be on our guard. Destructive doctrine is first and foremost intellectual. I marvel at how many men I have seen, in my short Christian experience, who have fallen off the bandwagon of sound doctrine because of the academic itch, and dissatisfaction with the old truths of God’s word. There is an all too common danger here. If the apostle Paul included himself, and his fellow apostles, in the warning of Galatians 1:8, then we should never think we are free from this danger. It could happen to any of us. Because of this, you really ought to read this. It is in keeping with this warning that I make one final recommendation. Whatever you read, be fervent in reading your Bible.