The Well-Read Christian

Rick Ritchie
Thursday, August 16th 2007
Jul/Aug 1994

The well-read life was the aspiration of bygone saints. No, not the life that was read by everyone (That was usually fantastical and morbid!), but the life that was spent reading everything.

For these old saints, heaven on earth was a scriptorium, where illuminated manuscripts and scrolls containing the collected knowledge, wisdom, and misinformation of the ages were available to the literate for their use, enjoyment, and befuddlement. With the rise of printing, we are no longer confined to the viewing of books in a library, we can purchase them for ourselves, in forms that would once have sent many a monk to confession for book lust. From cheap pulp novels to costly full-color encyclopedias, the possibilities are endless. And so are the accessories, from laminated bookmarks to clip-on reading lamps. The reader’s world is a true hedonistic wonderland open to the enjoyment of all.

But for the serious Christian questions will arise at some point. If we do not ask them ourselves, concerned brethren will.

The miserly sun of a winter’s afternoon sinks over the horizon. We set aside our dogmatics book, having made small progress. Youth and eyesight have limits. Jaded, we ask ourselves why we should sacrifice our days to print.

Christ proclaimed to us a simple message of good news, while today’s books confront us with complex and confusing messages of sadness and despair. Did Christ purchase our lives at such a high cost, our brethren ask, only to see them invested in vicariously living the lives of fictitious reprobates?

I make no claim to offer the one definitive reason why Christians do or should read. Any single reason offered would either be so broad as to tell us nothing about reading, or so narrow as to leave out most of the real reasons we read. Most of you who read what follows are Christian readers already. I am thankful that you read. You read for many different reasons and I want to give you more. I also want to add to your arsenal so that you can defend your libraries against the attacks of morbid conscience and narrow-minded brethren.

Why Past Saints Read

There are three stages in the history of God’s people which can be used to show three ways Christians can benefit from reading. Tradition itself is no infallible standard which can be imposed on the consciences of Christians, but if past practice can be shown to be reasonable, we may miss something worthwhile if we ignore it.

The first stage in the history of God’s people with books came with the writing of the Scriptures. Unlike an oral tradition, written Scriptures required literacy in order to be understood, so the people became literate. The second stage came with the confrontation of Christian teaching with pagan learning. When learned pagans argued that Christianity was unreasonable, Christian teachers had to know how to refute, reinterpret, or assimilate the teachings of their opponents. Critics of paganism became literary critics. The beginning of the third stage cannot be located with any precision, but this stage begins for any Christian reader when the ability of a book to set forth possibilities is exploited to a Christian end, allowing the Christian reader to explore the feasibility of other forms of Christian life. In each of these stages, a new reason was given for the Christian to take up books and read them. I wish to explore each stage and see what it has to offer as an incentive to today’s reader.

People of the Book Become People of Books

Some argue that what we know as historic Christianity is a late development. Primitive Christianity, they say, was an undogmatic, private experience-until basilica-building bishops, seeing that laymen with direct access to God couldn’t be controlled, foisted upon the church a collection of politically useful documents. The church has been chained to the Scriptures ever since.

Contrary to these revisionists, Christianity has always derived its very life from the written text. In the Bible itself, the words of Scripture are so identified with the words of God that the words “God” and “Scripture” are used interchangeably. The Apostle Paul even uses the expression “Scripture says to Pharaoh”(Rom 9:17) of an occasion where Moses speaks God’s words to Pharaoh (Ex 9:13-19). (1) A high view of Scripture is no late invention of second-century clergy, it is the view of St. Paul himself.

But what about Jesus? Our revisionist friends often accuse Paul of complicating Jesus’ simple gospel, but they are wrong on this count, too. Certainly Jesus is the center of Christianity, but we know of him only through his words. Jesus himself says that his words are spirit and life (Jn 6:63), and promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit will remind them of his words (Jn 14:26) and guide them into all truth (Jn 16:13). One of these disciples, Peter, refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Pt 3:16). There is therefore no possibility of driving a wedge between Jesus and Scripture, or Jesus and Paul.

But the connection between Jesus and Scripture is even stronger. Jesus says to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (NRSV Jn 8:31-32). Since Jesus is God, and Scripture is God’s word, anytime we say “Scripture says,” we can say “Jesus says.” The whole Bible, in this sense, ought to be in red letter text! This should lead those who wish to know Jesus into the study of all of Scripture.

Biblical religion’s focus on the written word of God has always led naturally to literacy among God’s people. It is common when arguing the authority of the Bible with an unbeliever to be asked the question “But wasn’t this believed by primitive people who didn’t even know how to read or write?” The answer is that a written revelation led to a literate society. The synagogue was an educational institution which required literacy, as in it the Scriptures were read. According to Scripture, Jesus read (Lk 4:16) and wrote (Jn 8:6). His accusing questions to the Pharisees begin with the words “Have you not read…?” (Matt 12:3,5; 19:4; 21:16,42; 22:31; Mk 2:25; 12:10,26), suggesting that his hearers were readers who should have read with more diligence. People of the book were always a literate people.

Not only does a religion of a book require literacy, it raises the level of literacy among the already literate. Most people I meet are literate adults whose public school instruction taught them to read to the point where they can understand what is written in the newspaper. For many, what Christianity provides beyond this is an interest in reading.

I have met countless people whose interest in learning began as a result of their coming to the Reformation faith. The world became more interesting to them. In the Reformation worldview, although our fallen world cannot bring us lasting happiness, it is a purposeful place in which God is active, both supernaturally and through providence. Books are a way of exploring this world more deeply. Since God has used language in communicating about the world to us, we believe that the written word is capable of embodying truth about the world. Our studies in theology naturally lead us to an interest in the world and trust that we can learn about it through print.

I had this experience myself. Early in my college years, before I had discovered the Reformation, I remember observing one of the lecturers at my university in dialog with some students. He was a pale man who probably spent a good portion of his time in a cramped faculty office poring over some old book or other-a book written by a non-evangelical, no doubt. I felt sorry for the man. Assuming that he was probably an atheist or agnostic, I thought, “How sad that this man who has no share in eternity cannot even enjoy the present.”

I later discovered that the man was a Christian, but that was not the only thing to change my opinion of him. I sat under him for a course reading some of the old classics of Western culture. When he taught on Homer, memorized passages in ancient Greek tumbled from his lips. The same was true of medieval Italian with Dante. The man was an intellectual traveler to worlds beyond my reach.

A couple of years later, I saw this professor in the university bookstore. He now appeared to me as an aristocrat. Books were to him as airplane tickets were to others, only he could traverse time as well as space. He could visit not merely Florence, but the Florence of Machiavelli and Dante. Now I was the wretch. I only hoped that if my professor could have seen the music and the books that I was purchasing, he would have approved.

What an advantage for a Christian to be able to understand how the world of the past developed into the present world! Without this perspective, we see our own environment as inevitable, gray, vanilla. We long for something more exotic. Feeling powerless to change the world, we look to stimulation to distract us from our boredom. Access to the past through books changes this. It shows us how the current structure of our lives-our architecture, government, entertainment, technology-is the result of the ideas of many people in the past. One idea suppressed, or another introduced at a different time, and the whole landscape would be different. As sinful and frustrating as our world can be, it is not an inevitability, but a surprise.

It is only when we understand the world that we can transform it. If our present world is the result of ideas, this puts the spotlight on the Biblical injunction to take every thought captive to Christ. It also poses the question “How are we to take modern thoughts captive if we don’t recognize them as thoughts?” In many cases the modern world is lost to the gospel, not on account of blatant anti-Christian propaganda, but because of the acceptance of hidden assumptions which render the gospel implausible.

We have seen how a focus on Scripture leads to an interest in books in general, and how this is advantageous to the cause of Christ. Unfortunately, there is an opposite dynamic at work in our culture. As the culture drifts away from writing as the chief medium of communication, and toward television, people become harder to reach with the gospel because their concept of truth is altered. The shift from print to television has already had devastating consequences.

Social critic Neil Postman has argued that television’s very nature as a medium changes the way people think. He complains not so much about the drivel that is aired, but what happens to discourse on serious issues. What becomes of seriousness, he asks, when one minute top experts are discussing the possibility of nuclear war in hushed tones only to be followed by the words “And now this from Burger King!” (2) Could television’s ability to place anything subsequent to anything be what has made relativism so plausible to so many?

Television seems oblivious to the law of non-contradiction. In the world of the novel, plot and character development rule. People who die stay dead. If not, there is a brilliant explanation. Not so on a soap opera, where Marissabel can be killed off as a result of a contract dispute, and later be re-inserted into the story without apology. It used to be that writers needed to come up with ingenious twists of plot to account for a supposedly dead character’s reappearance. Now they have found that no explanation is necessary. Everyone is so happy to see Marissabel back they don’t ask questions.

A return to print is crucial. People of the book should not only be people of books, they should be people of print. While we could not say that print itself has a bias towards truth-it is obvious that one can tell a lie quite splendidly in print-it does have a bias towards the conditions of truth: continuity, non-contradiction, precision. A well-written fantasy novel may portray a world where the laws are different from our world, but a commitment to the laws of reason will be manifest on every page. (3) If certain things happen, certain things must follow. This type of connection is absent on television in general. I may not be overstating it to suggest that a mind for truth would be better cultivated by reading fantasy novels than watching the evening news.

Critics of Culture Become Cultured

A commitment to reading and knowing Scripture was not enough to prepare the early church to take the world for Christ. Early on, Christianity was besieged by well-educated unbelievers and heretics. In many cases, top-notch argumentation was not needed to keep Titus and Claudia from abandoning the faith. For a while any argument might do. Besides, pastors had enough to do persuading their hearers to avoid the arena. Over time, however, arguments had to be met, and this meant that someone had to do the hard work of coming to grips with pagan thought.

One example of this, documented in George Grant’s Heresy and Criticism, is the way the early church responded to the ancient practice of literary criticism. Pagan literary critics threatened to undermine the validity of the Christian writings by attacking their internal consistency on the one hand (displaying alleged contradictions), and their origin on the other (claiming they were written by someone other than was traditionally claimed, or claiming they had been altered). Christian apologists responded by learning literary criticism and either critiquing their opponents’ methods, or using the critics’ techniques to prove Scripture’s logical consistency and apostolic authorship. Christians were drawn into the pursuit of pagan learning to combat paganism, and became more cultured in the process.

In the Middle Ages it happened again when the universities encountered Aristotle through his Islamic commentators. The result was a breathtaking synthesis of Christian and secular learning which commanded the respect of the learned and still finds adherents in our time.

This can happen today as well. In many cases it is the Christian apologists who are our best guides for broadening our mental horizons. Many will pick up a book by C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, or John Warwick Montgomery to learn how to defend their faith against unbelief only to have those authors interest them in any number of other subjects.

These were men of broad interest. C. S. Lewis was a poet, a medievalist, and a philosopher. G. K. Chesterton was a journalist. J. W. Montgomery is a lawyer and a theologian. These men are capable of illustrating the correspondence of Christianity to the known world using knowledge from many fields because they studied all subjects asking the question, “How does this relate to what Christianity teaches?”

They present not merely a unified field of knowledge, but unlike many Christians today, they present a broad field of knowledge. Many Christian teachers will present a unified field of knowledge by narrowing their field to theology. A parishioner leaves one of their churches convinced that what they have heard on Sunday is the truth about the world, and upon seeing the real world during the drive home wonders how it relates to what the teacher said earlier.

How much better for a teacher to be able to show how fields other than theology can be integrated with Christian teaching. How wonderful it is to pick up a Christian book and be able to say “Here is God’s plenty!” When a Christian author engages with a broader slice of the world, Christianity becomes more plausible to his readers, for it can be shown to be compatible with other known truth.

Engaging with truth outside of theology is not only attractive, it is necessary. If we neglect it, what is to prevent parishioners from sliding into unbelief because they fear that what their pastors teach cannot really stand up against the real world? Those who present Christianity must be able to relate it to the world their parishioners face and defend it against unbelief.

Paul tells us that it would be a strange thing if the evangelist who brought the good news to others should himself end up in hell on account of carnal weakness (1 Cor 9:27). But what about intellectual weakness? What about those times where a pastor’s grip on the gospel is sufficient to save himself, but not strong enough that he can communicate it clearly to others? A shepherd must be able to defend not only himself, but his sheep against wolves. Would it not be odd if a pastor’s failure to master the communication of Christian doctrine became the ruin of all of his parishioners but himself? We could paraphrase the Apostle and say, I pummel falsehood and subdue it, so that after accepting the gospel myself, my hearers should not be lost to the truth.

This is not only true of pastors, it is true of academics. Many are the teachings in the universities today which directly and indirectly undermine Christianity. Christian teachers and professors are in a wonderful position to oppose these teachings. In many cases it is not necessary to oppose them in the name of Christianity. When the very possibility of objective truth is attacked, it is the duty of an academic as an academic to defend it. The advantage of the Christian academic is that he or she knows that the fight for truth is God-pleasing.

I think that the eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews will some day be found to apply to academics. From the roll call of the faithful, I expect to hear the names of college professors read. “By faith Dr. So-and-so left his English faculty and their idols of deconstructionism to teach students how to understand the meaning of an old text…” For if students do not believe that an old text could possibly reveal truth, what chance do we have of getting a hearing for Scripture?

Past Lives Become Present Options

Many of my readers have seen for themselves that an interest in Scripture made them more interested in other books. Some have probably also been led to a broader interest in God’s world through the writings of Christian apologists. There is a third service which reading can provide the Christian which is often overlooked, and that is broadening our narrow view of what the Christian life can look like. For this purpose I suggest old Christian books. Even when we have weeded out those deviants who espoused damnable heresies or held to grossly deficient views of grace, the remainder is a surprising lot.

Christians of the past who would have confessed the faith as well as we do, or better, often lived very different Christian lives from our own. Their lists of Christian virtues and pagan vices, if they made such lists, would not match ours. They would wink at behavior which would shock us and condemn as sinful actions we didn’t know were sins.

How cock-sure was Jesus’ generation of its own moral code? Certainly many, even of the Pharisees, would have confessed to failing to live up to the code perfectly. That there might be something amiss with the code itself, however, was unthinkable. And the same is true with us. After Jesus’ lectures to the Pharisees, few of us would claim perfection. But everyone is confident knowing right from wrong and the relative gravity of one offense compared to another.

Aside from a re-reading of the New Testament, a reading of old Christian authors is probably the best way of challenging our own complacency with our understanding of the good Christian life. In fact, sometimes it is better.

Jesus was able to point out the specific holes in his contemporaries’ ethics. The inspired writings of the prophets were certainly sufficient to prove the points Jesus made if anyone would make the application. The problem is that we seldom do. And like those who failed to see how the prophets’ words applied to new first-century conditions, we seldom make the application of Jesus’ words to our own situation with any ease. Many applications are strained, the most tenuous becoming the favorites of retreat speakers and youth leaders. We believe we are teaching Scripture when we present stale recipes for victorious Christian living, but this has not led to a better understanding of the Christian life.

The problem is not with the clarity of Scripture, but with our own perspective on our lives. We take the environment in which we have grown up for granted. It is difficult to criticize precisely because we cannot see it for what it is. Does the fish criticize the ocean for being salty?

A comparison with past ages shows the behavioral codes in our church gatherings to be both prissy and flippant. Would Martin Luther or C. S. Lewis be able to enter our church gatherings comfortably? Luther would shock everyone with his free use of vulgarity, while C. S. Lewis would scandalize coffee hour by lighting up a cigarette (and can’t the man wait until we find him an ashtray? What is to become of the new carpet in the fellowship hall?)-and yet both of these men were committed Christians.

In fact, I imagine that when those who wished to criticize these men calmed down a little, it would be the late twentieth-century churchmen who would have explaining to do. What has happened to the historic liturgy? Why do we spend so much time singing about how we feel instead of about what God has done? Why are we so preoccupied about how others use their leisure time, while so little attention is given to their work (aside from the injunction not to steal)?

These are just a couple of examples of the way looking into the past can relativize twentieth-century standards. The point of this type of perspective is not just to topple false standards, while this is important in itself (Christian liberty is a necessity, not a frill!). It brings the forgotten wisdom of older standards back into view. Perhaps C. S. Lewis’s smoking shows a bad use of the gifts God had given him. This might be sinful, but no more so than the eating habits of other well-respected churchmen. And it is a trifle compared to the mean-spiritedness, the lack of reverence, and the ignorance which we put up with on a regular basis.

Another of the benefits of reading is its ability to combat what C. S. Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield referred to as “chronological snobbery,” which is the assumption that the present age is to be held superior to the past merely because it came later, that history is a record of uninterrupted progress.

It is truly a wonder to pick up an old document only to discover that an idea you thought modern could be found stated, and stated clearly, many centuries ago. For instance, when do you suppose the following words were written?

Perceiving long ago that religious liberty ought not to be denied, but that it ought to be granted to the judgment and desire of each individual to perform his religious duties according to his own choice, we had given orders that every man, Christians as well as others, should preserve the faith of his own sect and religion. (4)

Does this come from one of the writings of our American founding fathers, or is it perhaps an article from the old constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia? No! It is a line from the Edict of Milan, written by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the year AD 312.

My point is that some of us are fortunate enough to be well-traveled in the present world. This does something to combat our cramped prejudices. But there is a world of the past available to us which can do more for us in this area for less.

A Prescription

There is so much to be gained from reading, but my call is not merely for Christians to read, but to read more, to read more broadly, to read more broadly together.

Reading more makes reading easier. The more material you have been exposed to, the more you will be capable of reading. We need a grid on which to hang facts and perceptions. Reading gives us categories, and the more categories we have, and (what is more important) the more solidly these categories are fixed in our minds, the more we will be able to glean from what we read and experience.

Reading more broadly keeps us from getting into ruts. Narrow reading makes the world itself seem narrow. Broad reading reminds us that the world is enormous. It also allows us to see the same thing from different points of view.

Perhaps a new worship service format is adopted at church, causing controversy. My reading of psychology will induce me to examine motives. I will wonder where the people on the wrong side of the quarrel (those bothersome people who won’t worship my way!) derived their need to control others. A reading of sociology will make me ask whether people want to worship one way rather than another because of secular trends. A reading of missionary biographies might remind me that worship is a privilege which not all have, so I should be thankful that I can worship either the old or new way. A reading of theology and liturgical history will have me wondering if our worship has become more man-centered or God-centered.

My reading might sway me to react now one way, now another. Broad reading is a corrective to our tendency see one narrow aspect of a situation neglecting other ramifications. Perhaps what we do matters in ways we cannot guess.

Reading broadly together will keep me from always being on a new crusade to the bewilderment of Christian friends. The Christian purpose of all of this reading is to glorify God. Reading alone may do this, but when we become passionate about an issue, it is nice to have company. When we have seen things rightly, others can support us. When we have missed the mark, they can correct us. It is gratifying, however, when the new viewpoint which seemed so exciting to me is adopted by the others. When I make a new discovery, it will often seem implausible for the simple fact that no one around me sees what I now see. If friends travel the same road, all is different. Those of my readers who have come to Reformation convictions understand this, if they have been lucky enough to have fellow travelers.

If you decide to take my advice, I have a warning for you. While “of the making of books there is no end” (Ecc 12:12), of the printing of a particular book there is an end. Not all of the good books that have been written are currently available at your local bookstore; consequently, used book stores are a wonderful thing. Not all books will be cheap, but the point is that out-of-print books can be found. The other piece of advice is to buy in-print books while they are in print, especially in fields of narrow interest. You will be thankful for heeding this advice-or sorrowful for neglecting it-sooner than you think.

As far as books go, we live in the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, the culture at large is abandoning print. On the other, there is more available to the one who will hunt for it than there ever has been. I wish you a well-read life, and hope that as time goes on we will have more fellow-travelers to bump into. It makes the journey more enjoyable.

Thursday, August 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church