How to Read Theological Literature: For Those Beginning
Tim J R Trumper
Reading has certainly been one of the most blessed serendipities of my life. It was not something that interested me as a boy or even as a teenager. In short, it took twenty years to learn that books could be great friends and wonderful educators. I look back to those days, remembering with fondness those books which first whetted my appetite for more. More than that, I pay tribute to my late friend Peter Frost (1965-2003) who taught me by example one summer that Christian literature is for the young as well as for the old, and that it can serve a precious role in the deepening of personal faith.
All these years later of continuous reading, yearning to learn while also seeking to catch up those years frittered away as a child on what the rest of the world calls “the beautiful game” (soccer!), I pass on a few personal tips to those hoping to gain the sort of pleasure that many Christians have had in developing their understanding of the Christian faith.
Don’t presume that because you were not a reader as a child or as a teenager that the reading of good Christian books is beyond you. A love for God and His Word will inspire you to read more than any incentive you were given to read school literature.
Don’t be put off learning more of the faith if, at first, you pick a book that is either not well written or not where you are at. Go on to another book, but keep the first one. It is likely that God will use it in your life at some later date. For example, I read to great profit recently a book first given me in 1985. At the time, its subject matter seemed somewhat alien to me and dry, and yet, over time, I grew into the subject matter as my understanding of Scripture matured.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help knowing where to begin. The Christian faith is a huge subject with multiple subjects: Old Testament, New Testament, theology (including ethics), church history, contemporary issues (apologetics, evangelism etc.). Each of these disciplines has subject areas of their own, and most areas have multiple books from which to choose.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to read as quickly as you can to get through as many books as possible. Take note of the words of the great preacher C. H. Spurgeon (1834- 92): “Read much not many.” It is more important that you read well rather than that you read many. If the book is your own, I recommend you read with a pencil in hand, adding at the back of the book your own index of matters and quotations that are of personal relevance and to which you can return.
Don’t fall likewise for the trap of thinking that because a book, hot off the press, is all the rage, you must read it immediately. Resist peer pressure. In many cases, such books are not the publishing event the publishers hope them to be. Keep to your own agenda, reading, remember, not to impress in conversation, but to grow as a Christian.
Don’t let the reading of good Christian literature overtake your desire to read Holy Scripture or to serve your God. The reading of good Christian literature is not an end in itself. We read to get to know better God and His Word, and to be more effective in His service.
Do begin. We live in a world of noise. How about breaking the addiction to TV or the internet by replacing these preoccupations with a wholesome substitute? Seek a comfortable place within your home where you can get into the rhythm of reading. How about using the Lord’s Day (Sunday) more profitably in this regard? If you are married, how about settling on a book that you and your spouse can read together? Going on a business trip? How about packing an edifying volume or two along with your Bible?
Do find a book that looks interesting and personally relevant. Determine to engage your mind and your heart, and just begin. It may seem alien at first to think about spiritual issues outside of worship, but with the blessing of God you’ll warm to the exercise and not look back. Remember that Christians who remain ignorant in the face of opportunities to develop their understanding, not only stunt their growth, they limit their potential as servants of Christ. If you cannot afford books or don’t know what to buy, try soliciting the opinion of a Christian or two whom you respect. Make good use of the church library if there is one, and browse any books available for purchase.
Do prioritize your reading. Focus overall on literature that nurtures a high view of God, exalts the name of Jesus, leads you more deeply into the Holy Scriptures, and encourages your involvement in the church and in the world. Be cautious about self-help books that ape those of the world. Remember, “It’s not about me,” to draw on a recent title.
Do seek to read relevantly. When considering what to read, ask yourself what is the biggest hole in your learning about God, the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the gospel, God’s Word, Christian living, the mission of the church, biblical application to everyday issues, etc. Read to grow!
Do share what you are reading; the ideas if not the books (we Christians are not always swift to return books). Inspire those around you to read and grow. Use your reading to share the gospel. Give books as gifts. Join a reading group at your church or an education small-group study.
Do read discerningly. Authors, like preachers, are fallible. Not everything they write reflects biblical teaching. Emulate the Christians of Berea who checked Paul’s preaching by Scripture (Acts 17:11). If you are unsure, ask a Christian who is noted for sound knowledge of the Scriptures.
I wish you well as you begin your voyage of wonderful discovery. May it last the rest of your life, as God leads you from one vista to another.