August 14, 2013

Christian Book Collections: Consuming Fire or Consumer Christians?

Having just read an appropriately titled post on Tim Challies website called: The Book Glutton, I felt compelled to type on the same topic. I have long held certain thoughts in reserve about a pastor's or Christian's libraries (including my own) and never put them to the keyboard. Now seems as good a time as any to do so having read Challies' site. So here is a post on books, a "man of God’s" best friend. Or so it seemed at first…

I have found that the more my understanding of God matures and I begin to have a better grasp of God (theology), the more my library has changed.  My faith becomes more relational and internalized and less dependent on external things of the world. I have more of the Spirit within and less of the world. I have done what many people of God have done when their libraries have become unwieldy and our spouses have informed us about the over-abundance of books in the household. I rearrange and pull the old “bait and switch” or the 1:1 trade. This is where I pull an old book and replace it with a new one. The old one gets donated or given to a friend that is currently walking a path I have walked when I bought that particular book. Having moved on from that point to somewhere else, some book's original appeal diminish. I also rearrange the shelves and I will often find that by rearranging I can find room for an additional two or three books. I also have figured out that if I pile books horizontal in front of books placed vertical in the proper way on a shelf I can nearly double my capacity on the same shelf.

All humor aside, I realize that real estate for books is limited and has been made limited by my wife because if I have my way the house would be piled with books that smell like old newspapers. I believe if there is an idol in my life it is my books related to God and theology. Many men (and women) of God that wish to study God will justify enormous collections of books on shelves and stored in attic bins by claiming they need them as "reference" to understand God. I suggest that this is just denial of an obvious sin that our spouses can see clearly but we cannot. It is idol worship of books masked in the justification of educating one’s self on God. The Bible is necessary. Commentaries, atlases and their ilk are helpful but not necessary  per se. What does the bible say?

Deuteronomy 6:6-7 ~ “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

Deuteronomy 11:18 ~ Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

Joshua 1:8 ~ Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Proverbs 7:1-3 ~ My son, keep my words and store up my commands within you. Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart.

Hebrews 8:10 ~ “This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Hebrews 10:16 ~ “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”

What the Bible does not say is to accumulate enormous libraries of people’s interpretation of Scripture. This would be no different than stockpiling the Aggadah, Midrash, Talmuds and Mishnahs which are what? Jewish commentaries or legal compilations Which are what? These texts are nothing more than wisdom and traditional interpretation by Jewish elders/ancestors of the Old Testament.

Am I saying all books outside of the Bible are evil and wrong? No, of course not. What I am saying is that the hearts of men are at enmity with God and we are not always to be trusted in our intents until they have been filtered through the purifier of Scripture. The Bible repeatedly shows that the rules and statutes of God will be written on the hearts of believers and put into the inner person. There is an implication here that we internalize God’s word so that it becomes us. Again…commentaries, language aids, books by C.S. Lewis or John MacArthur are always helpful but in all truth, they are still not the Bible. I have nearly never seen a person evangelize another while holding a Greek Lexicon or a Hendriksen, Pillar or New American Commentary. It is befitting of us as Christians to internalize the knowledge of the Bible and our “reference” books so that we can more readily synergize the accumulated grace from these books to apply and use to win people into the Kingdom and to Christ.

We tread a dangerous line when we depend too much on commentaries and not directly on the inspired word of God. To depend solely on commentaries for interpretation of Scripture puts us in a position dangerously close to the Scribes and Pharisees when they make a fundamental and fraudulent mistake by stating things like this:

Matthew 15:1-2 ~ Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Good intentions can get you to Hell quicker than deliberate sin. Good intentions can have you sin by omission or denial. To follow another’s interpretation of Scripture is fine but in always needs to be cross-referenced with the Word with the aid of the Spirit. The rule is by Scripture, through Scripture or with Scripture…never against Scripture. If writings about God’s Word are slanted or biased, a person is merely following a tradition of men instead of the actual word of God. We must be honest with ourselves and see that all writings about Scripture are biased, even conservative ones. The traditions of the elders are nothing more than a man’s interpretation and application of the God's word. On its surface…it is a weakened strain of what the Pharisees spoke of in the aforementioned Scripture.

There is also the danger of fraudulent adherence to the wisdom of the world that is so clearly outlined in 1 Corinthians, chapters 1-3.

1 Corinthians 1:25 ~ “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Commentaries and reference books in their attempts to bridge historical contexts between ancient history of the Bible and modern times often attempt a forced application to help people understand instead of just expositing the text. There is a real danger of mixing anecdotal modern ideas into the purity of the Scripture thereby creating a syncretistic blend that is unbiblical. The farther the commentator is from the truth if Scripture before they actually comment on it (their presupposition), the higher the probability of the foolishness of the world contaminating the end result.

We must understand that the true wisdom of God is revealed by the Spirit of God. Because all humans have varying degrees of sanctification and holiness, their commentaries would be mirror images or varying levels of the same. When we are holy we speak holy, sanctified and righteous things through the Spirit…but no man is perfect and indwelling sin makes us remain as part of this world (if only unwillingly; Romans 7).

1 Corinthians 2:6 ~ We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.

1 Corinthians 2:12-14 ~ What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 

Am I telling people to get rid of their entire libraries? Certainly not! Am I saying that everything in all books is bad? No! The last thing I want is to again be misunderstood and told I am legalistic. I am asking people to take an honest moral inventory of why their libraries are so unwieldy at times and why they hold on to so many books knowing that many will never have their binding cracked let alone used as “reference” as I have heard so many proclaimed would be their primary usage. Buried books are dead books and unread books. Our unread books are nothing more than kindling for a fire to heat our food.

I have been known to purge entire sets of commentaries after finding that they had a too much of liberal bias or their presuppositions were too slanted in one direction or another. I no longer have Philip Yancey books in my collection. I have never had Rick Warren, Joel Osteen or TBN based books in my collection. I can hear the cacophony of boos and hisses at the mention of some of these names but I stand resolute on them and others that I haven't mentioned. There is better theology out there to read. Many "Christian" titles out there from Zondervan and Thomas Nelson are really stretching the adjective of Christian in their sales descriptions. They are more Christian-esque than Christian. There are some solid publishers out there and the two aforementioned are not always consistent in their delivery of biblically sound material. You are better off with IVP, Hendriksen, Moody, etc. As for source material, outside of select conservative commentaries and language support aids my primary extra-biblical sources are Puritan such as John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Sibbes, Baxter, Bunyan or they are pre-Liberal Theology from before the turn of the 20th century (much of which can be found free on Occasionally there is a book from MacArthur, Sproul and other moderns but they do not remain in my collection, I divest myself of them so others can read them. As Tim Challies said, “An unread book does no good to anyone.”

The truth is that we are not taking the books to glory with us when we leave any more that we are taking any other tangible junk. If we are not going to use them and internalizing the righteous things in them, we are better off passing them on. In the case of bad or poor doctrine/theology…burn them or we will be guilty of false teaching by default. The thing that we can take with us from these books is Godly wisdom absorbed into our person. This of course needs to be sorted out of the waste and superfluous filler.

1 Thessalonians 5:21 ~ “but test everything; hold fast what is good.”

It is beneficial for us to absorb what is in our books to the best of our ability that puts us on firmer footing in our spiritual walk and sanctification. There is no harm in absorbing the stuff that is beneficial but the books themselves are nothing more than objects made mostly from wood or wood pulp…just like the idols in Isaiah 44.

Isaiah 44:14-17 ~ He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”

Indeed, we tread a thin line and the lines we walk are not always on the written pages of Scripture. Are we relying on the interpretations/traditions of Scripture to save us or are we relying on God and His Gospel to save us? We would be wise to be aware of the difference and make proper discernment. We must make a ruthless and searching moral inventory of ourselves and why we have monstrous book collections. It is not man’s interpretation of God’s word in books that wins people to Jesus Christ. It is the internalized truth of Christ Himself, the truth of the Gospel and the truth of Scripture that comes out through us that wins people to Christ and the Kingdom of God. This requires that we digest only the good to keep us spiritually healthy just as we eat healthy foods to keep us physically health. Digesting that which is spiritually whole makes us spiritually whole. That which is spiritual junk food produces spiritual junk. I prefer feeding on the whole word of God but sometimes I just can’t help eating some junk food once in a while that sits on the ends of my bookshelf :(.

We need only ask ourselves two things: 

Are we worshiping the creation or worshiping the Creator? 
Are we listening to mere men or are we listening to God?

Hebrews 12:28 ~ Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.


jd said...

I'm a reader. I have a vast library of books; historical, theological, and commentary in nature. Some, as in the puritan writers, I read because they are very reflective of the Body of Christ at a particular period. Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Moody, Wesley, those I read for more insight. Augustine,; yet another. Keller, MacArther, Sproul... more.
God's word tells us one of His gifts to His body is a Pastor/Teacher. These gifted pastor/teachers write and it confirms and validates long-held Christian doctrine and beliefs. You can track from the earliest writers to the latest common threads of God Breathed scriptural testimonies. I love to see the historical struggle in the body for ultimate truth to work it's way out. This has always been done by humans writing.
It's a God honoring thing to praise Him in His providential rule over all things, including communication.

Andy Pierson said...

Thanks for the comment JD. Yeah, like I said, I am in no way passing judgment on libraries, just merely asking if the intent for having them is biblical. :) I know at times I do not always have the Lord in mind when acquiring books and if I have this issue other s might also. Thanks again.

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