How to Read Theological Literature

How to Read Theological Literature: For Those Continuing

Tim J R Trumper

It’s some time now since you first entered the church’s treasure trove. You’re acclimatized to its wonderland of truths. You are glad of the way your discoveries have deepened your worship and helped you to converse at a deeper level with others you’ve encountered in the trove. You have also begun to discern ways in which God has used you to influence others to grow in the use of their minds. It excites you to know that they see what you see. You wish others would too, for the treasure trove is not just for the elite among Christ’s forces. It’s for all.

But, if the truth be known, your hold on the sense of wonder that hit you when you first began to read is not the bubble of excitement it once was. Many insights are now familiar to you, and you find they crop up in one form or another in multiple books you’ve read. You understand that this happens, but the well-worn anecdotes have left you somewhat jaded. If the author doesn’t sound excited by what s/he’s writing, then how can we as readers be expected to stay fresh? What is more, as life progresses so the tyranny of the urgent seems to steal away more of your time. There’s the pressure of work, the kids to transport around to daily after-school activities. When you get a moment to your self, the phone inevitably rings, and then there’s the enslavement to checking for the latest e-mail. Fears are setting in that you’re becoming one of the many who once promised so much, but settled for the best of this life: the spouse, career, home, 2.4 kids, with church tacked on. Suddenly, you find that the enthusiasm of others has begun to outstrip your own. You wonder whether their usefulness to God will as well. Evidently, it’s time for a rethink; a time to recapture, in William Cowper’s words, “the blessedness you knew when first I saw the Lord.” The reading of Christian literature does not supplant the importance of prayer, Bible study, or fellowship in personal renewal, but it does play its part, if read wisely.

This piece is, then, for those at a crossroads with their reading. If that’s where you’re at the question you’re likely facing is this: Do I go on, or do I dismiss the reading of Christian literature as the fad of my earlier zeal? Here are some suggested Don’ts and Dos for those who can resonate with this.

Don’ts

Don’t forsake the treasure trove. You may have to readjust the pace with which you peruse its wonders as life unfolds, but to forsake it altogether may well be to settle for the middle aged life of spiritual mediocrity. Try to recall what it was that first thrilled you: the stretching of the mind, the expansion of the capacities of the heart for worship, and the sense that God was using your learning in the service of His Kingdom. The problem, you will discover, is not that “the gold is become dim” (Lamentations 4:1 [KJV]) ~ far less that there’s better gold outside the trove (a new soap opera, another round of sports news etc.) ~ but that you have rested content glancing at the King’s jewels, when all along these he was preparing you to take undoubted ownership of them. In other words, you perhaps have not recognized your readiness to go further, wider, and deeper with your reading.

What you need is a reading plan that will help you move on in your understanding and appropriation of biblical truth. To date your reading may have been like the square bald piece of lawn in our backyard where the above-ground pool was situated last summer. The bald patch now has tufts of grass here and there, but the square needs to be filled in with grass. That’s only going to happen if I sow more grass seed, water the seed, and wait for it to grow. That’s what patient prayer-saturated reading can accomplish when it continues as a developing habit of life. Think of the “bald patches” in your knowledge and concentrate on filling those in. We all have them to one degree or another.

Perhaps there is need to focus more on God’s redemptive acts; notably the incarnation, the atonement, resurrection, ascension, outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the return of our Lord. Alternatively, our “bald patches” may be more doctrinal. Think of the doctrines which require further study: the doctrine of revelation perhaps, or of God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, or the last things. The bald patches may be found in the discipline of church history: the spread of Christianity, the history of doctrine, the Reformation, the history of revivals, the development of the modern missionary movement, and so on. You get the point!

Regardless, a more methodical approach to reading will stretch the mind afresh, reinvigorate the heart, and stimulate anew the use of the hands. When that happens we leave behind the earlier plateau for fresh climes and new vistas.

Don’t fall prey to the axiom “Just preach the gospel!” This is worth remembering if we are allowing ourselves to lose sight of the gospel. Yet, in the mouths of some the slogan bespeaks an anti-intellectualism intended to discourage you from continuing the work of educating yourself. Be loving and patient with such. Maintain a silence, but recall internally that there is far more to the gospel and to Christian service than a superficial repetition of certain proof-texts. We’re in a day when men and women are looking for serious answers to serious questions. Pat answers are hindering the effectiveness of the church’s mission. Masses find the church irrelevant because too many Christians find themselves unable to answer the inquirers supplementary questions (e.g., why should I believe the Bible; why is Jesus unique? etc.).

Don’t give Christian reading a bad name. The pernickety spirit ~ one that is constantly hairsplitting ~ is among the chief reasons some are put off entering more deeply into the study of the faith. The hairsplitter is the person who argues about terms and labels but fails to discern that the core of the matter lies in the underlying ideas. He or she also prioritizes inappropriately the Scripture’s hierarchy of truths, and likely hangs out around the borders of revelation, preferring to dance with speculation than with clear biblical principle. Oftentimes he or she will raise pet issues at the most inappropriate, even insensitive, of moments.

Such infelicities may be used to justify indifference to reading. The person annoyed by the reader will likely think or imply, whether for reasons of insecurity or lethargy, that reading is for eggheads, or worse, for the argumentative (the church splitters, if you like). Such an insinuation is countered by returning in our conversation to the centrality of the gospel and the simplicity of Christian service. In this way we emulate informally the great Calvin who became a theologian in order to become a pastor. The truth is, we don’t have to mention all that we have read or all we have learned. Select what you share, when you share it, and with whom. In doing so, we navigate successfully the waters between the superficial who would have us stick to the barest delineations of the gospel, and the contentious who would have us divide over the slightest of differences. Always recall the words of Paul, that “knowledge [alone] puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).  

Dos

Do balance your reading with thought. This idea is an extension of the idea of praying through what we read (see “How to Read Theological Literature: For Beginners”). Know that those most insightful in the church are not the ones who have read the most. The most insightful are the ones who have weighed thoughtfully the profoundest ideas from the best books read. In other words, we need to train ourselves not only to read but to think.

Do be prepared to break ranks with the accepted party line whenever and wherever it is wise and necessary to do so. As a maturing reader, you know that it would likely be problematic, for instance, to launch a new line of thought on seismic doctrines that have undergone much debate in the history of the church: the doctrines, for instance, of Scripture, of the Trinity, of Christ, of the atonement and of justification. Fresh insight, it is responsible to recall, is not an end in itself. Yet, since the theological task of the church  remains unfinished there is room for some independence of thought. By it we may question respectfully previous methods and conclusions and suggest carefully fresh lines of thought. All these are, of course, subject to the verdict of Scripture.

Please note, I am not encouraging an isolationism of belief or action (Prov. 18:1). We live as Christians in community. But we do need the strength of character to resist the party spirit and the subtle forms of political correctness of a Christian variety to which any given group within the church can become prone. The uniformity that is expected in a sector of the church can be stifling and grieving to the Spirit. It can result in a traditionalism which rivals the authority of Scripture. The prioritization of Scripture creates by contrast a healthy sympathetic-criticism of a tradition’s beliefs and history. From this sympathetic-criticism (in that order) arises a creative orthodoxy from which we all may grow and advance.

Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty you have in Christ to think and to speak His thoughts after Him. This liberty demands not that you ignore the received opinion, but that you subject it continually to God’s holy Word. We need not be enslaved to the iconic names in the church’s own cult of celebrity, nor give credence to the game of name recognition over quality of substance. When the situation calls for us to express our freedom in Christ under the authority of God’s Word, let’s do so humbly and in order to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Do keep close to the gospel. However far we may travel from lazy or unthinking repetitions of Scripture, always recall that Christian theology was intended to be Christ-centered and mission-oriented. Whatever may be thought of the specifics of the thought of Scotsman James Denney or Swiss theologian Karl Barth, they have much to teach us here. Denney bluntly stated that he didn’t care anything for a theology that didn’t help a man to evangelize or to preach. Barth is reported to have published as many as five hundred pieces of writing and yet, when asked the most important thing he had learned, he responded:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

This is the Spirit in which we further our reading. Ours is a love affair, not ultimately with books, but with our Lord. Ours is an obsession not with self-education, but with getting out the good news of Jesus.

Do work hard at breaking down what you know. If you are going to give out from what you have taken in, you’ll need not only to read but to begin communicating. It’s in this transition that we really begin to discern how well we have understood what we have read.

This transition happens in phases. The first phase entails the reading. Serious readers typically read with pencil in hand. We underline the important and relevant points, jot comments in the margins, and make our own indices in the rear of the book. The second phase entails digestion. This likely entails re-reading the book, focusing on the parts underlining, pausing to think through issues which weren’t clear or required more contemplation the first time around, and thinking through how the relevant material can be used. The third phase is one of consolidation. We begin to speak what we are satisfied is true to God’s Word. The initial attempts may be rough and ready, but with time and experience the practice of articulating biblical truths gets crisper and more competent. It’s at this point you’ll start gaining authority in the Word, becoming as much a giver as a receiver. In your giving you’ll gain the opportunity to share the sources which have been such a blessing to you. It’s in those first opportunities to share that the blessing of your reading completes its first full circle. Once just a reader, you’ve now become a teacher.

One final word of caution: Always recall in your reading and teaching, as my dad used to tell me, that people have souls, but books don’t. We read not ultimately for our own sakes, but for Christ’s. We read not to serve ourselves, but to serve the people to whom he sends us.

The Lord bless you as you develop further your godly habit of reading!   

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