Over the years, I have heard many professing Christians say that they don’t read very much. This has to be one of the most discouraging things that a pastor can hear a Christian admit. It may only be more disheartening to hear young men complain about how much they have to study in seminary. It is a privilege of the highest degree to get to give yourself to a diligent study of the deep things of God. Why wouldn’t we want to know as much as possible about the living and true God–both from His word and from those he has appointed to teach us the riches of His word? Why wouldn’t we want to be a careful as we can in handling truth.
A number of years ago, I asked a friend of mine, who is a respected Reformed theologian, why we didn’t have more solid theologians in our day. His response was unexpected–yet, it stuck me as being true: He said, “the church has never had many great theologians.” There is only one conclusion that we can reach as to why that is the case. We don’t consider our need to be diligent in persevering as lifelong learners.
At the end of his life and ministry, when he was “being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of his departure had come,” the Apostle Paul charged his protégé, Timothy, to “bring the books and above all the parchments.” When the greatest of Christ’s apostles was coming to the end of his life, what did he want to do? He wanted to learn more. Whether the books to which he referred were the Old Testament Scriptures, or not, matters little. The principle is clear. The Apostle Paul, with his massive intellectual ability, felt as though there was so much more to learn. To be sure, the Scriptures are the principle books we should diligently study. However, we should want to read everything that will help us learn the Scriptures better, the work of God in history, the examination of the actions of men in the diverse cultures and to the creation around us. Charles Spurgeon once remarked on the profound example in this request when he wrote:
“Even an apostle must read…He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a men to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, ‘Give yourself to reading.’ The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read.”1
Having been in ministry for nearly a decade, I often feel as though I am just beginning to scratch the surface of God’s word. After finishing seminary, I had the privilege of being a regular panelist on a theological podcast. Over the six years of my involvement, I left feeling as though I had received a seminary eduction on top of that which I had already received through the books that I read, as well as on account of the interaction that I had with the other panelists and with the guests.
We have more resources available to us today than every before in human history. The number of publications–both print and electronic (e.g. Google Books, Internet Archive and Logos)—at our disposal is astonishing. When we find ourselves criticizing theologians or historians of a bygone generation, it would do us well to remember that many of them did not have access to many of the resources that we have. Additionally, we should remember that there is always more to learn from those who have gone before us. We are, in the words of Bernard of Chartres, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” It should then be, as Cornelius Van Til put it, “not surprising if we see further than they saw.” Most recently I have been reading through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics for the second time. As I do, I am finding how much I have missed when I first read sections of it. I am astonished at how precise he was in articulating and defending the most important doctrines of the Christians faith. I am also seeing how much more carefully I need to know the Scriptures. There is always so much more to learn and glean. In our foolishness, we sometimes act as though we have arrived, so to speak, at a plateau of learning. The greatest minds have readily admitted in their latter years that they knew much less than they thought that they knew when they were young. Augustine’s Retractions is a prime example of our need to become lifelong learners. After all, every believer and minister is a theologian in process.
When I was in seminary, students loved to debate various theological subjects. I remember on one occasion having a quite heated debate with a fellow student. When I told my dad about the encounter, he said, “Nick, whenever people want to contentiously debate, just tell them, ‘You know, I have so much more to learn. I need to go home and read more.” Though there is a time and place for theological debate, my father’s advice is full of wisdom. The wisest man who ever lived–our Lord Jesus excepted–gave the following wisdom principle: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl. 9:11). If we would be wise, we would acknowledge how little wisdom we actually possess and we would commit ourselves to becoming lifelong learners.
1. An excerpt from Charles Spurgeon’s 1863 sermon, “Paul–His Cloak and His Books.”