Dr. Joel Beeke once said, “Before I read anything, I pray that the Lord would give me the grace to discern whether or not I should spend time reading this particular book. My life is too short to read things that will not maximally help me grow as a Christian and as a pastor.” By way of contrast, others have suggested that we should read everything we can get our hands on. John Calvin made that memorable statement, “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…” On the one hand, we only have so much time in our lives so we should only want to read those things that will help us grow spiritually the most; but, on the other hand, we should want to read everything that we can because we can learn something from anyone. So–given the fact that our lives are short and that there are things we know that we would be a waste of time for us to read–are there guiding principles to help us know what we ought to read as we seek to grow spiritually and intellectually to the glory of God? Here are a few personal commitments that I have found helpful in seeking to redeem the time in the realm of reading:
1. Read the Scriptures More Than Other Books. We need spiritual discernment to know what to read. This discernment is found exclusively in the Scriptures. The more carefully we come to know the Scriptures, the more prepared we will be to know what we should read, and how to process what we read to the glory of God. One of the chief ways the evil one keeps us out of the Scriptures is by making the reading of non-inspired books seem more advantageous in our thinking than reading God’s Word. I have noticed that some of my more literary friends are not as conversant with the Scriptures as they are with other Christian and non-Christian literature. I know this, because I will sometimes cite a lesser known Proverb to which they respond, “Where’s that in the Bible?”
There is a danger in reading theological works more frequently than reading the Scriptures. Satan loves to save the best and most potent errors for theological works. In many conversations with seminarians or congregants in which I have raise the warning about not reading certain theologians until we have spent much time in Scripture and in the older Protestant theologians, I have been repeatedly met with the rebuttal, “But, didn’t Calvin say, ‘All truth is God’s truth?’ If we can learn true things from this or that theologian–despite the fact that he might have some problematic areas–shouldn’t we read him to learn the truth we can from him?'” Interestingly, immediately after making the statement, “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…” Calvin added the following caveat:
…and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition, and let him grieve over and avoid men who, ‘when they knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.’ (On Christian Doctrine, 2.14)
The only way we will be able to “reject the figments of superstition” and “grieve over and avoid men” who live in intellectual and moral idolatry, is to know the Scriptures. It is by the word of God that we are to test all things. This must be the first rule of knowing what to read. We don’t learn to spot counterfeit money by studying the money; we learn the counterfeit by studying the true. There are dangers in reading theologically questionable material. We must spend the majority of our time in the Bible. This is the place of safety by which our hearts and minds will be protected from error.
That being said, there is enormous benefit to reading theological works in which the Scriptures are carefully expounded. After all, B.B. Warfield was right when he said, “the sense of Scripture is Scripture.” When pastors and theologians give us right insights into the Scriptures from the Scripture, this is the sense of Scripture and is tantamount to Scripture. Nevertheless, we are still called to be Bereans–those noble-minded people who received the word of the Apostle Paul and searched the Scriptures daily to see if what he taught was true (Acts 17:10).
2. Find Trustworthy Content Filters. Finding trustworthy content filters if one of the most important–yet most difficult–principles in learning what to read. The whole idea of book reviews is the idea of content filtration. However, anyone can write book reviews. Bestseller lists are also meant to be content filters. Albeit, myriads jump on the bandwagon of literary fads–making bestseller lists often untrustworthy filers. In fact, I would suggest that bestselling books are often only cultural fads–lacking substance or creativity. This is no less true in the Christian world (e.g. remember when this was all the rage?) than it is in the secular world of literature. Finding journals in which you will find trustworthy reviews is supremely important. Among those journals that I have found to be most helpful is the Westminster Theological Journal, Puritan Reformed Journal and Themelios.
Blogs can also be valuable sources of book recommendations. Spend much time reading Tim Challies, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, Erik Reymond, David Murray, Joe Thorn and Andy Naselli. These men will often point you in the right direction regarding what books are worth spending your time reading.
There are a number of ministries that have faithfully championed sound doctrine and promoted solid literature over the decades. Among those that I deem most substantive and trustworthy are Ligonier and Desiring God.
Add to this the fact that we must already possess a measure of biblically informed discernment in order to identify trustworthy individuals who will make recommendations about books. The newly released You Must Read is one attempt to address this principle head on. Appealing to the experience and wisdom of such men as Joel R. Beeke, Alistair Begg, Jerry Bridges, Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., John MacArthur, Stuart Olyott, R. C. Sproul , Derek W. H. Thomas, Geoffrey Thomas et al, Banner has sought to help guide others to know who are some of the trustworthy filters of our day. Anytime I come across a book recommendation by these men–or others in the circles in which they minister–I put that on my reading list.
Identifying trustworthy publishers can also be a great help in this regard. Crossway, Banner of Truth, P&R, Christian Focus, EP, Cruciform Press are a few of the publishers who consistently publish solid theological and devotional works. While not immune to error, they have a time-tested reputation for staying within theologically orthodox lines. That being said, this does not mean that other publishers–who publish theologically questionable authors–do not also publish sound and beneficial books. I have numerous friends who have published theologically sound works with more broadly academic or popular publishers.
3. Read broadly and deeply. We should give ourselves to reading solid books of a more devotional nature and those of a more academic stripe. Read systematic theology, biblical theology, exegetical theology, historical theology, apologetics, pastoral theology, practical theology, missiology, counseling and biographies.Don’t limit yourself to one, single branch of theology.
Read broadly across the ages. Read the early church father, the medieval scholastics, the Reformers, the Post-Reformation scholastics, the English Puritans, Dutch theologians from the second-Reformation era, the Scottish Presbyterians, the faculty members of old Princeton and Westminster Theological Seminary. Read current authors who are writing books which are impacting the church for good. In stretching yourself to read broadly, you will find that your spiritual discernment will deepen and your spiritual taste will be refined. You will be able to enter into more complex and nuanced conversations.
We must also learn to stretch our minds to read more academically challenging theology. It is good to have one go-to theologian who forces you to exert more mental energy than you would if you were reading other writers. Geerhardus Vos is one of the theologians to which I constantly return in this regard. Grace and Glory, Pauline Eschatology, The Eschatology of the Old Testament and Redemptive-History and Biblical Interpretation are works to which I give myself to a concentrated reading every year. Additionally, I return repeatedly to Jonathan Edwards’ Notes on Scripture and his Miscellanies. In my opinion, these are among the most profound and comprehensive works of biblical interpretation in church history. Commit to reading the writers who will make you a better thinker and a more careful student of Scripture. Read the men who take you down to the depths of exegesis and biblical insight.
In short, learning what to spend your time reading will prove to be one of the most valuable things you can do in this life. Your life is short and there is so much that you could read that will not benefit your mind or heart. By reading the Scripture more than anything else, you will gain a hunger for those works that will help you grow spiritually. By staying close to those who give themselves to filtering authors and works for us, we begin to put our own filters in place. This will helps us learn more quickly what will be a good use or a waste of our time. Additionally, you will gain the discernment needed to know whether or not something is in accord with Scripture. By reading broadly and deeply, both pastors and congregants will be more useful to others in the church. Whatever else may be added to these three principles, of this much we can be sure–of the writing of many books there is no end. Our days are like the grass of the field. May God give us grace to redeem the time by redeeming our sense of what we should invest our time in reading.