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.


  1. Pastor Brennan, I enjoy your blog and occasionally I will post a comment. I would like to know if you would preferred to answer my question by way of email, if you as an independent Baptist believe in Calvinism. I do not personally believe in predestination in regards to salvation. As a KJV person,I am always looking for churches in other cities that when our young people go off to college we can recommend churches for them to attend. My email is

    1. Not sure why my blog name didn’t show

    2. I do not mind answering publicly.

      No, I am not a Calvinist. Depending how you define it, I either accept/reject total depravity. I accept it as a definition/belief in an old nature, but not that it means we are incapable of exercising a free will. I reject unconditional election. I reject limited atonement. I reject irresistible grace. Depending on how you define it, I accept the perseverance/preservation of the saints, if by that you essentially mean eternal security.

  2. Some the risk of taking away from the truth and help of your article...

    ... I'm dropping this hot new author of Schizophrenic on my Kindle and going off to read some Edersheim! :)