Monday, October 30, 2017

From My Mailbag: How to Choose Whom

Bring the Books 7

This series has produced more email in my inbox, texts to my phone, and comments to my facebook page than any series I have done so far. It has struck a nerve, not just with those who agree or disagree, but with those who feel a need to grow in this area. Here is a paragraph from one such email, an example of what I am talking about:

"So, here’s the question:  How do I know the “who” behind a book that I am considering reading?  I understand we live in the age of Google, and I feel that is a blessing and a curse.  Google has provided much, quick access to information on any topic.  However, even in Google searches there is a dire need for folks to consider the WHO that they are reading about WHO they are considering reading about.  (Not sure if my grammar teacher would approve of that last sentence, but I trust you’ll understand it.)  :-)  I can find a thread from a Google search to justify and agree with just about anything I want.  We all know and are eternally thankful that Wikipedia is infallible as well.  Even an author can portray himself in a bio that would make him appear one way (possibly to appeal to a particular audience) though his core beliefs are different."

I think this is an excellent question, and one that has been obviously given some thought. By no means do I think I have the only good answers, and I genuinely welcome your perspective here, and hope you will consider offering it, but in today's post I am going to give you the substance of my answer to him.

The first part of my answer to him involved the concepts I have already explained in Dead Guys. In short, there is wisdom in reading men who have already passed the test of history's judgment. You can see the arc of their ministry. That begs the question, though, how do you judge the arc of a dead man's ministry if you are unfamiliar with that ministry?

W. Graham Scroggie
Part of the answer to this question is experience. For example, when you learn the strengths and weaknesses of a particular group i.e. the Puritans, as Joe Cassada has discussed, you have a green screen against which to set any particular Puritan author you are considering. You already have a grasp on the background of who he ran with, and what they emphasize as a group. Yes, this is broad-brushing, but at this point you are painting those broad strokes on purpose to get a sense of the larger context. When I first heard of Graham Scroggie's excellent The Unfolding Drama of Redemption mentioned by Clarence Sexton I had no idea who he was. Upon learning he had taught for years in Spurgeon's Bible college it gave me an excellent starting point. Through experience, if I pick up a book and see Sword of the Lord Publishers on the spine, or Banner of Truth, or Moody Colportage Association or Kregel Reprints I can place an unknown author into a generalized category in my mind.

Sometimes, however, I have no immediate background context on a dead guy. In that case, I must try to build it from scratch. Yes, Google is the place to start. I will search his name with the words "biography" or "author" attached. Often I will search with the phrase "what's wrong with (name)" just to see who has an axe to grind with him and why. J. Gresham Machen said, "I like Billy Sunday for the enemies he has." Machen and Sunday were contemporaries who were utterly unlike one another, yet Machen had the sense to know that a man's enemies can sometimes reveal much about him, both intentionally and unintentionally. So I find those detractors, if I can. Usually, at some point in this process I come to Wikipedia but when I do I take it with a grain of salt. In fact, I will almost always skim the article, and then focus on the links at the bottom of the page. Those lead to source material, and that source material is usually more reliable or at least more detailed than Wiki generally.

Watchman Nee
Another great source of reliable information on dead guys is older, more experienced preachers. My father pastored for 38 years. As a young teenager, newly surrendered to the ministry, I was perusing his library when I came across an intriguing title and an even more intriguing author, The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. My dad wisely piped up and said, "You have to be careful with Watchman Nee." I set the book back down and did not return to it for another 25 years. When I did return to it I spent a good amount of time researching Nee first. What I found armed me well in reading him. It helped me to spot weaknesses of his in that book that would only become apparent much later in his ministry. More importantly, after reading it, I concluded I could never recommend Watchman Nee nor could I quote him positively to the general public. Why? Because an older, more experienced minister had offered me some initial guidance. Find men who know you, who have walked with God and loved their families and ministered faithfully for decades, who are solidly fundamental, and who are widely read. Do not ask them to make your decision and do not let them think for you. Do bounce an author or two off of them and see what kind of a reaction you get. If they put a fence up do not tear that fence down until you figure out why they put it up in the first place.

A third avenue of approach to research dead guys is Google Books. In 2004, Google decided to digitize every book in the world. It has had its legal challenges in the process, but even the imperfect result we currently have contains more than thirty million books. Google Books will not let you read the entirety of the book for free, in most cases, but they will often allow you to read sections of it containing whole pages strung together. This allows you to get a feel for the author, to take a taste of him, so to speak, before deciding whether to pursue him further or not.

Now, a word or two briefly about living authors. The publishing business pushes men to have a personal author website. Many do, especially those who publish in both hardcopy and digital formats. Even I do and I am only self-published at this point. Look past the advertising fluff they use to try to sell books and go to their "about" or "biography" page. Read that with a jaundiced eye (remember, they are trying to sell something) but focus in on proper nouns, the names of mentors, peers, churches they work at now or did work at in the past, colleges where they teach, etc. Track down the websites for those churches and colleges. Examine their doctrinal statements, mission statements, etc. Pull up the facebook pages of all the men and institutions mentioned that you can find. Again, do not read the gloss they put up for public relations, instead look at the pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the quickest and easiest way to read what a preacher, a church, a college, or a ministry actually believes and practices is to look at those pictures. They will reveal which Bible version (s) they use. They will reveal what their church or chapel stages look like. (Yes, I completely understand what I just said there. No, it does not bother me that you think I am an ignorant philistine, a borderline uncultured swine, and a full-blown Pharisee because I said that.) They will tell me what their standards of dress and appearance are. (Yes, I really just said that too.) They will tell me what their emphasis is. He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: But a companion of fools shall be destroyed. (Proverbs 13.20) I may not know an author well, but if I can dig up this information I have a pretty good handle on whether he is a wise man or a fool, and whether I would be a wise man or a fool to read after him.

Finally, I must mention Amazon. In the process of reinventing how we shop and buy everything, Jeff Bezos has nearly destroyed the for-profit book industry. Okay, maybe that is going too far, but he has certainly blown it up. In the process of putting it back together, Amazon has become the de facto place almost all of us go to examine and buy books now. This is not entirely bad, and one of its benefits is the reviews Amazon provides, often verified as coming from people who have actually purchased the book. Those reviews are pure gold. You will find some positive and some negative. Read them both. Look for objections or recommendations that are detailed, not just an emotional rant. Additionally, if the book is available on Kindle, you can download a free sample of the first 20 pages or so, and that will give you a good flavor of the author as well.

"Tom, that sounds like a whole lot of work. I have a growing ministry to wrangle. I don't have that kind of time." If you want your growing ministry to stay on track for the long term you had better take that kind of time. Who you read influences you. As a minister, you, in turn, influence those under the scope of your ministry. You owe it to them to choose who influences you carefully, with forethought and discernment.

Now those are my thoughts, but about the only thing I am sure of is that I have missed something. If you have something helpful to contribute in answer to this question, I invite you to do so.

Next week, we will move beyond the question of whom to read and begin to offer some practical wisdom about how to do so, categories of books that are helpful for ministers, specific book recommendations, etc. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Five Puritan Suggestions

Bring the Books 6

Note: Today's post was written by Pastor Joe Cassada of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri, a church he started over twenty years ago. It is a follow up to last week’s post regarding the wisdom of reading the Puritans. It also marks a bit of a shift in this series from establishing philosophical principles regarding reading toward more practical type suggestions regarding what to read and how to read it.

The Puritans have left us a treasure trove of Christian literature whose precious contents we could spend a lifetime studying and discussing. When the feast table is lavished with such sumptuous meats, the dinner guest is easily overwhelmed with the superabundance of delicious choices. And when it comes to reading the Puritans we are apt to ask “Where should I start?” There is no one right answer of course, but allow me to share with you a few of my own favorites.

I would begin, first and foremost, with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Most Christians have heard of this title, and probably those who attended a Christian high school are at least vaguely familiar with it, yet this Christian classic goes largely ignored by the vast majority of Bible believers today. And even those who are not complete noobz to Bunyan’s allegory usually stifle yawns when the mere thought of reading it invades their consciousness and threatens to overwhelm the endangered neurons threatened with extinction by social media consumption. As with most literature of the Puritan era, whatever exposure one may have had to the work probably left an indelible imprint on the brain in the shape of complete boredom. And understandably so. Many folks these days struggle enough with modern English, so any attempt at devouring a book written 400 years ago is immediately impaired by reading comprehension challenges. I get it. I really do. It takes hard work and practice to read and comprehend early modern English. But it’s good for us – our brains – to focus on such reading material.

If your experience of Bunyan’s Pilgrim is powering through it with sheer determination as a reading assignment for English Lit, then your apprehensiveness of re-reading the tales of Christian and his pilgrim companions are certainly legitimate ones. But I beg of you to give it another try. No book report will be assigned this time. I promise.

Honestly, I wish all Christians would not only read The Pilgrim’s Progress but read it regularly. And don't settle for those abridged versions or those versions that leave out the second part. Bunyan wrote two parts to the book: one about Christian and the other about Christiana (Christian's wife). The second part is very helpful in adding some detail and explanation to the first. So be sure to get a version with parts 1 and 2. It’s also helpful to understand part 1 to be an allegory of the individual Christian, whereas part 2 is more like a tale of the local church endeavoring to help each other on the way to the Celestial City. Unfortunately, many publishers today choose to leave out part 2.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a book that will not entertain mentally so much as it will edify spiritually. It is ill-suited for the passive reading style with which we engage most works of fiction; rather it should be approached meditatively: read, ruminate, repeat. Preachers especially ought to be as familiar with this story as they are the pop-culture garbage that daily pollutes our attention. Bunyan's delightful allegory is as rich as a diamond mine in its abundance of illustrations of vital Christian doctrine. It's also helpfully pastoral, as it explains through the medium of storytelling the struggles and battles we Christians face in this life. We see in the allegory the importance of vanquishing guilt by looking to the cross, of diligence in guarding our assurance of salvation, and of entering the Valley of Humiliation properly – and much more.

Really, you should try to read everything John Bunyan has written. Many men are honored posthumously, but the Tinker of Bedford was such a gifted writer and such a biblical thinker that even his contemporaries lauded his God-given gift of pen and pulpit. The scholarly John Owen famously said of Bunyan’s preaching, “If I could possess the tinker's abilities to grip men’s hearts, I would gladly give in exchange all my learning." 

And so for my second book recommendation, I must include Bunyan's book on prayer (the Banner of Truth edition is simply titled Prayer). Everything that I have read from Bunyan has edified me, but few books have changed me. This book changed how I prayed.

In it, Bunyan defines prayer as “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.” I know it sounds wordy, but the rest of his exposition (the first half of the book) is an explanation of each phrase, and it is excellent. What helped me the most was the truth that we should pray for what God has surely promised instead of what we simply want.

The third book I would encourage you to add to your reading list is one aimed primarily at preachers: Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. To their own detriment, many independent Baptist preachers have eschewed Baxter’s book because it has in the title the taboo word “reformed” - the assumption being made is that the book is about Reformed theology. This is a false assumption. Baxter’s book is not a primer for Reformed theology, but a prescription for a ministry reformed by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It is a thorough exposition of Acts 20:28 – a book born from what would’ve been a sermon for a preachers’ meeting. Other than the Bible, this is the most soul-convicting, sin-exposing book I have read – which is exactly what we preachers need (and often). Most ministers today lap up church growth literature like a cat at a milk bowl, but Baxter’s book is the thick cream of Bible meditation - not the blue john of today’s market-driven mindset. He is not giving us some listicle for attracting visitors or some discourse on church branding and logos; he gets to the root of the matter: ministers must be first and foremost holy servants of God. This is where we fail or succeed; this is where our ministries live or die.

The fourth Puritan work I would encourage you to read is William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour. This is a massive volume, but it is worth breaking through the Philistine host of distractions and inattention in order to draw water out of the well of Gurnall’s scriptural exegesis. His well is deep, but the water is near the top – every page has something to refresh your soul. Don’t let the size of this tome give you the false impression that this is some lofty academic work that is meant to impress by its sheer volume. It isn’t. Gurnall writes as a pastor to his people. After all, this book was a compilation of the sermons he preached to his church from Ephesians 6:10-20.

My final in this list of favorites is a book of collected sayings of Thomas Brooks, compiled by Charles Spurgeon and titled Smooth Stones Taken From Ancient Brooks. Thomas Brooks is one of Spurgeon’s favorite preachers, and he’s one of mine too. I’ll let Mr. Spurgeon himself tell you why this is a worthy read: “As a writer, Thomas Brooks scatters stars with both hands. He has dust of gold. In his storehouse are all manner of precious stones. Genius is always marvelous, but when sanctified it is matchless. You have presented to you here the choice sayings of one of the King’s mighty men. The great divine who wrote these precious sentences was of the race of giants. He was head and shoulders above all the people., not in his stature, but in mind, soul, and grace. Treasure these gems and adorn yourself with them by putting them into the golden setting of holy practice, which is the end the writer aimed at.”

I must conclude by exhorting you to read not only these five favorites of mine but as many of the Puritan works as you can possibly get your hands on. It is no coincidence that Charles Spurgeon, a preacher eminently blessed of God and universally admired by believers of all stripes, cut his teeth at an early age on the books of the Puritans. 

Permit me to share with you just one more word from Spurgeon, “The Last of the Puritans,” as he describes his reading habits when he was a small child perusing the books in his grandfather’s library:

“Some of these were enormous folios, such as a boy could hardly lift. Here I first struck up acquaintance with the martyrs, and specially with ‘Old Bonner,' who burned them; next with Bunyan and his ‘Pilgrim'; and further on, with the great masters of Scriptural theology, with whom no moderns are worthy to be named in the same day...Out of that darkened room I fetched those old authors when I was yet a youth, and never was I happier than when in their company. Out of the present contempt into which Puritanism has fallen, many brave hearts and true will fetch it, by the help of God, ere many years have passed."

So go on, brave heart, and fetch Puritanism and bring its champions into the ranks of your own library.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Plea for Puritans

Bring the Books 5

Note: Today's post was written by Pastor Joe Cassada of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri, a church he started over twenty years ago. We have known each other a long time. He has a depth to his ministry rare to find in this day and age. I am pleased to offer you his thoughts on the wisdom of reading the Puritans.

In 1558, Elizabeth I became queen, and with her reign came the Golden Age of England which saw such history-altering events as the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the unsurpassed literary contributions of William Shakespeare. Elizabeth also continued the Protestant-leaning political reforms that her father Henry VIII had begun.

But for many Englishmen, the reforms didn’t go far enough – more work had to be done, more of the pope’s cobwebs needed pulling down from the corners of English churches. A new group, known as the Puritans, sought to purge all remnants of Roman worship from the English Church.

These Puritans were men whose spiritual convictions were descended from flint-faced martyrs like Wycliffe, Ridley, Latimer, Cranmer, Tyndale, and others. The Puritans, like their spiritual mentors before them, had faced such challenges as death, plague, war, imprisonment and banishment. The persecution they endured was not a Twitter maelstrom in cyberspace, but real death, real imprisonment, and real torture at the hands of real enemies.

But like any religious movement, the Puritans came in different flavors. Some favored a Presbyterian form of government while others championed congregationalism (the Independents). Many wanted to remain in the Church of England, but another similar group known as the Separatists sought for complete separation of church and state. The Puritans didn’t always agree with one another, they weren’t infallible in their opinions, and some of them retained the spirit of persecution - the state church goblin of the Old World that haunted English life even in the American colonies. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that the Puritans’ writings are a cut-above anything the English language has to offer in the area of theology and spirituality.

For the sake of simplicity, I won’t distinguish between Separatists, Puritans, Independents, etc. in the remainder of this essay. Although it isn’t as technically precise as some would require, I will use the term “Puritan” to refer to any author who was sympathetic to the core principles of Puritanism and wrote from the early 17th to mid 18th centuries - whether he be the Baptist John Bunyan or the New England Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards.

The purpose of this article is to answer the question “why should I read the Puritans?”
But answering that question begins by addressing the reverse: why aren’t more people (especially pastors and preachers) reading the Puritans today? It seems to me, from my conversations with others about this matter, that there are two reasons the Puritans go unread.

The first reason that the Puritans are largely ignored today is that many people simply are unaware of them. Most folks have never heard of John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, John Flavel, et al. When folks look for Christian books to read, often their first stop is the Christian bookstore. Other than a modernized version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Puritan pickings are slim at best – at times completely nonexistent. Self-help drivel, B-list celebrity Christian bios, and Amish fiction fill the shelves, but nary a copy of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ or The Privy Key of Heaven is to be found. Christian book stores are retail businesses, so they are servants to the master of supply-and-demand. The average American Christian would rather read Tim Tebow than Thomas Brooks. Christian retailers know this, and the typical inventory of a Christian bookstore is proof. So the Puritans will remain hidden from the view of the average Joe Schmoe Christian whose reading list is mostly dictated by popular culture.

The second reason the fruit of the Puritan field goes ungleaned is that, frankly, they are hard to understand. The modern-day reader struggles with 17th century English. The Puritans used more words than we do – and sometimes the same words differently. Even the updated versions of Puritan works can leave modern readers flummoxed. We are a hyper-distracted, over-stimulated, entertainment-saturated society – and one sentence by a Puritan writer feels like The Tale of Two Cities for many who can’t even sit still for a 2 minute cat video. For some, sitting down and reading Jonathan Edwards evokes the legal torture they endured in the Shakespeare unit of their 8th grade English class.
So, understandably, the Puritans go largely ignored. And I believe this is a tragic course that needs reversing. Why?

Because if we forget where we came from, we will make the same mistakes of the past. George Santayana, in his book Reason in Common Sense, famously put it this way: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And whatever your view of Baptist history may be, we can agree on this truth: modern Baptists, fundamentalists, and evangelicals are downstream of the Puritans. The same theological controversies we find ourselves embroiled in today have probably been addressed by the Puritans in some fashion, whether specifically and in detail or in generalities and raw principle. But we are forgetting our past, and so we are tragically condemned to repeat it. The great pendulum swing of this generation is to jump from the frying pan of their parents’ legalism and into the fire of liberal antinomianism. I can’t help but wonder if this gaping wound of the American Christian conscience, which seems to drain holiness from our pulpits and pews, could not be stymied if more preachers, pastors, and Bible college
students were familiar with Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity; or if maybe (just maybe!) this idolatry of church growth and this prevalent seeker-sensitive hogwash that has saturated nearly every denomination, Bible college, and seminary might be checked if Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor was more popular than Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church.

The second reason we must read the Puritans is because the Puritans experienced life in a way we have not. They suffered, they fought, they bled, and they died. They pioneered, they risked, they stood their ground, and they faced man’s worst fears. They knew what convictions were because they were tested in a way we have never been, and probably never will be tested. If you must read the biography of the latest B-list celebrity who made a profession of faith while living in the lap of relative luxury, at least supplement it with John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. If you absolutely must read the latest Amish princess romance novel then please, oh please, read The Pilgrim’s Progress.
John Bunyan spent 12 years in Bedford jail for his beliefs, during which time he wrote the aforementioned The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the time of his arrest, his wife Elizabeth was pregnant. The child would later be still-born. Elizabeth was tasked with raising their 4 children (one of whom was blind) without the family bread winner. Meanwhile Bunyan languished in a cell, his freedom offered at the price of his convictions. Can you imagine the torment of mind and body as a man worries for his wife and family knowing that the only barrier to his liberation and his family’s welfare is his willingness to compromise? Such rock-ribbed passion for truth is as rare today as a flip phone.

Before John Flavel wrote his book about grieving, A Token for Mourners, he had lost his parents to the plague in 1665, had experienced the death of a child, and had buried two wives. I believe the man knew what he was talking about when he spoke of grief. Jonathan Edwards, the famed leader of the Great Awakening and preacher of America’s most famous sermon, Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God, was fired from the church he pastored for over 20 years because of his convictions concerning the Lord’s Supper.

The list could go on, but understand that because of the church-state turmoil that ravaged England (and the American colonies) in the 16th and 17th century, and because of the plain hardship of life back then, the Puritans knew well the taste of the dregs in the cup of suffering. They did not write from ivory palaces and beds of ease. They wrote from prisons, sick beds, and horseback. They wrote on scraps of paper by dim candle light. They wrote for the Truth’s sake, not for book deals, personal marketing, and publishing revenue.

The third reason we should read the Puritans is because the Puritans were deeply spiritual and intellectual. I do not mean that they were spooky academic elitists, I mean they lived deeply spiritual lives and were themselves well read and studied in Scripture and literature. Their archaic grammar, though considered a deterrent to their popularity, should be considered an advantage. Reading the Puritans will stretch the modern American English mind beyond the brain-atrophying tweets, texts, and YouTube videos that dominate our communications. Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 30,000 words. Today, an educated English-speaking person probably has an inventory of about 15,000 words. (1) Simply put, reading the Puritans will not only edify the spirit, it will educate the mind.

The pap and piffle called “books” that many modern preachers write today is appallingly shallow at best and moon-bat crazy at worst. I have in my library a certain book written by a fundamental Baptist, whom I will leave unnamed, that states that the prophecies of Nostradamus, an asteroid hurling towards earth, and the Mayan calendar are three of eight prophetic “clocks a tickin’” that all point to some prophetic “event” in 2012. This is some of the nonsense called “theology” that is becoming more and more common in our own fundamental Baptist churches. Not long ago, another famous IFB celeb preacher wrote (and preached) that the Lord’s Supper was akin to having sex with Jesus. What outrageous blasphemy! Perhaps if more fundamental Baptists had swum in the depths of the refreshing waters of Puritan literature they would have recognized the tepid, festering scum puddles offered up on book tables and in pulpits.

Although nothing will ever surpass the sanctifying power of God’s Word, I am convinced that if we would sharpen our discernment with the wetting stone of Puritan writing then there would be less of a market for these dull, vapid, and blasphemous volumes foisted on God’s people in stores, websites, and periodicals, both in wider evangelicalism and in our own independent fundamental Baptist circles.


1. Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English, in Donald L. Brake, A Visual History of the English Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008) 37

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Wisdom of Reading Dead Guys

Bring the Books 4

History has long fascinated me. I suppose I have read more history books than any other genre, running well into the thousands now. My Audible book list is heavily weighted to history, and to biography, which is another form of history really.

Along the way I have learned a few things. Yes, I have learned a veritable plethora of facts, and an educated perspective on economics, technology, science, medicine, war, and the rise and fall of civilizations, but I have also learned some things about how we view the world. Specifically, to the purposes of this post, I have learned that history's verdict is often correct.

What I mean by this is that is it fairly common for people to either overestimate or underestimate a man, a movement, or a technological advance in its own time but that things generally settle out accurately as the river of time rolls on. In 1911, Ferdinand Foch, who would go on to command all Allied forces in World War One, said about the new-fangled flying machines, "Airplanes are interesting scientific toys, but they are of no military value." Needless to say, history's verdict is soundly on the other side of the argument, and rightly so. Time tells.

In the area of literature, time reveals its verdicts in what are commonly called the classics. My parents have not owned a television for pushing fifty years now so I grew up in a home without one. But they took me to the Girard Free Library so often I grew to feel at home in those tall stacks. It was in those stacks I discovered Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Hardy, J. R. R. Tolkien, Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott, and Alexandre Dumas. Why were these authors available to me as a young man, decades even centuries after they had died? Because their books had stood the test of time. They had proven themselves to have an enduring appeal across oceans and cultures and worldviews.

Alfred Edersheim
I do not read much classic literature anymore. I have read all of it that I care to, my reading time is more precious now, and my appetite for fiction has waned. But in the primary genre I read now – theology, or church books, for lack of a better term – more and more I find myself turning to its classics. Alfred Edersheim was a relatively obscure, retired minister when he published The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah in 1883. There is a reason it is considered perhaps the best book on the life of Christ ever written – because it is. The combination of warm-hearted devotion, fanatical attention to detail, patient historical research, orthodox doctrine, an ability to paint word pictures, and a background steeped in the Talmud produced a 1,500 page masterpiece. I have read it three times, and I will probably read it again a time or two before I die. It is matchless, and its enduring, widely acknowledged respect has proven it for almost 150 years.

There is, however, another incentive to prioritize reading the dead guys, as I call them, over reading the fad-of-the-moment-guy-with-the-big-ministry book. Yes, history reveals what has an enduring appeal and for good reason, but even more importantly history reveals the arc of a man's ministry. Time shows us, not just the appeal of a book, but the sum and substance of the ministry of the author of that book. This is critical for it reaches to the heart of what I said last in the last post – that we must be careful who we read for they influence us. Why? Because the living author we read carries within him the seeds of his own future, and he often transplants those seeds into the books he writes. As a reader, I may and do all unknowingly swallow them long before they are revealed by history to be the dangerous things they will later grow into.

As with the last post, this one is an attempt to lay a philosophical foundation that will guide your reading. As such, I do not want to press it to closely with specific examples, but in the interest of being clear let me illustrate it with two contrasting men. Both of these men are dead. Both of them had large ministries. Both of them authored books, as well illustrated by my own bookshelves. I have read thousands of pages of one man’s work, yet the other one’s books collect dust in my library. Why? Because when I grasped this concept – that history reveals the arc of a man's ministry as good or bad, and that I want to read the good ones – I realized that I was comfortable with the total ministry of one man and uncomfortable with the other. In short, with the perfected vision of hindsight, I wanted one man's influence to grow in my life, and I did not trust the other.

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones was born in Wales in 1899. He grew up in a theologically repressive Calvinist Methodist church, though he would later largely return to its tenets. Intellectually brilliant, he went into the medical field, and became one of London's up-and-coming doctors, assisting Royal Physician Sir Thomas Horder. While still in his twenties, with the world as his oyster, God captured his heart. He surrendered to the call to preach, and without formal theological training he went home to Wales to resurrect a dying chapel in a rough, blue-collar coal town. Over the course of ten years both his work and his preaching gradually came to the attention of others, and in 1939 an aging G. Campbell Morgan tapped him as his successor in London's famed Westminster Chapel. For nigh on thirty years nearly 2000 people filled its great hall morning and evening on Sundays to hear his evangelistic and expository messages. The expository messages, particularly, became the foundation for book series he would continue to publish long after he retired.

Lloyd-Jones was not a perfect man, but he was a man of proven integrity, committed to his wife, a good father to his children, and careful in his pastoring. Doctrinally, he had his weaknesses in my view. He was not Baptist, so his ecclesiology is faulty. He was what I call a soft Calvinist, so his soteriology is faulty. His main text is always the King James but he will occasionally refer to another translation. Yet he was a fervent preacher with a heart hot for God. He was a firm fundamentalist, and a proponent of both ecclesiastical separation and personal separation. Above all, he exercised an unswerving loyalty to the Word of God, and a constant care in revealing its truth. Consequently, his books are deep and rich without being academic or dry. He was a bold, unhesitating preacher, standing against the spirit of his age, and it shows in his writing.

Charles Grandison Finney
Charles Grandison Finney was a native New Englander, born in 1792. His era of evangelism – the early to mid 1800s – is generally seen in American church history as the forerunner of Moody, Sunday, and Graham. Rejecting the hard Calvinism of his youth, when he came to Christ as a lawyer he did so with a vengeance. He became a veritable whirlwind in the pulpit. His revivals routinely brought great numbers of salvations and additions to the church, as well as great flummox to the ministerial community around that church. In later years, facing health and family challenges, he shifted into pastoral work in New York City. His life’s work, however, was the building up and administration of Oberlin College in Ohio.

Finney was a fiery preacher, a fervent soul winner, a man whose ministry was marked by intensity, the power of the Holy Spirit, and a passionate desire to produce results for the Lord. As he aged, he kept much of that, and at Oberlin sought to build a theological framework to match his rejection of Calvinism and embrace of soul winning. The framework he chose to construct became not just unwieldy, but downright heretical. In time, he embraced sinless perfectionism, rejected the sacrificial model of the atonement, and rejected eternal security.

What do I see when I look at the arc of each man's ministry? I see one that shines brighter as the years pass, one that calls to me, "Be firm, be bold, be careful, be right, be holy, be committed, and be faithful." The other? It is a cautionary tale of a good beginning, massive statistical accomplishment, and a doctrinally disastrous finish. So which one do I read now? Yeah, you guessed it.

(Parenthetically – can I do that for a whole paragraph? – I find it telling that the independent Baptist circles in which I have run my entire life often mention Finney in a glowing, positive manner, and never mention Lloyd-Jones at all. It is like they see Finney’s soul winning zeal and talk of the fulness of the Spirit and think that makes him quotable and recommendable whereas Lloyd-Jones’ soft Calvinism makes him neither. It is an egregious mis-classification, in my view. Now, back to the blog post…)

Brethren, do not let the point get lost in the personalities. When you pull up the most recent hot shot author of the day on your Kindle you have no realistic idea where his ministry is going to take him, but you do know this: if you read after him, he will take you where he is going. That is just how influence works. But dead guys? You know exactly where their ministry took them, and that knowledge can be a sure and certain guide in your approach to whether and how you allow them to influence your life.

As has already been mentioned and will be again, there are substantially more riches in the dead guys on your shelf than the current flavor of the moment. But in addition to that, there is safety in those dead guys. You do not read a book. You read an author. Go find a dead guy, examine his doctrine, manner of life, and ministry carefully. All of it, beginning to end. When those speak to you, open his books and let him pour the unsearchable riches of Christ into your soul.

Here lies wisdom.