Editor’s Note: My friend, Steven Hunter, is a voracious reader and is pursuing a very unique PhD in which he reads the great classics of literary history. Steven is also the associate minister for the Lehman Ave church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. At my request, Steven wrote an excellent guest blog post on why it’s important for Christians to read, both the Bible and other books. Thanks, Steven, for these thoughts. — mcw
All studies, philosophy, rhetoric are followed for this one object, that we may know Christ and honor Him. This is the end of all learning and eloquence. — Erasmus (c. 1528)
When studying early American history one will find that the Bible was the textbook of choice in education. However, education was not limited solely to the Bible. Many within American Christianity were well read beyond God’s word and often used their knowledge in service to God. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone were well read men who were liberally educated in the classical sense of the term.
Christians today, however, may only limit their reading to the Bible, and, sadly, this reading may only take place for some in a weekly assembling of the saints. Beyond God’s Word is a world waiting to be known that doesn’t necessarily take God from one’s heart, but actually enhances one’s wonder of God’s creation and all that has happened in it. One of my favorite philosophers is a Jesuit priest who was a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown, James V. Schall. In Schall’s book The Life of the Mind, he wrote this about books:
We ourselves are receptive to different books at different times in our lives. It is quite possible for one to get nothing out of reading a book, whereas someone else, reading the same book, goes out and changes the world. Likewise we can be excited by reading a book that our friends find dull. There is a mystery here of how the mind speaks to mind through reading.
Contrary to what many may assume, many of the earliest Christians, and Jews, were well read individuals. The apostle Paul readily quoted pagan, Greek writers in his letters (Acts 17.28; 1 Cor. 15.33; Titus 1.12). Daniel and his companions were educated for three years in the literature and language of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1.4-5), and the Old Testament refers to several writings that aren’t included in the canon (Num. 21.14; Josh. 10.13; 1 Kings 11.41; 1 Chron. 29.29; et. al.). The heritage of faith that the early Christians received from Judaism, and that we have received from early Christians down through Western Civilization, has been an intellectual heritage born through reading and considering various sources. The 4th-5th century Latin theologian Jerome even noted in his Letter to Magnus that Moses and the prophets cited passages from Gentile books in their writings. However, in Jerome’s Letter to Eustochium he was accused by Christ, in a vision, of being a follower of Cicero more than Christ because he gave more attention to reading the works of Cicero. So, Jerome would certainly advocate a balance of secular reading and the reading of Holy Scripture.
There are a few reasons why Christians should read in addition to the Bible. First, reading books causes us to increase in wisdom. In Proverbs, wisdom asked, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” (Prov. 1.22). One of the reasons people cannot handle the meat of the Word is because they haven’t trained their minds to grasp complexities. Of course, when our human capacity for reason meets an intellectual dead end, and even before it gets to that point, we can “not lean on [our] own understanding” (Prov. 3.5), but always trust in the Lord. To increase in wisdom is one primary reason to continue to read.
Second, reading challenges our presuppositions. As much as we may not want to admit it, even those whom we often trust for truth are capable of being wrong. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18.17). When we read books that challenge our presuppositions, we’re capable of arriving at the fullness of truth if we’re honest enough to admit that we’ve been wrong or have been missing something. Arrogant is the man who believes that he is the sole repository of truth (cf. Prov. 12.15)!
Finally, when we read, we encounter truths and walk with teachers whom we have never had the opportunity to meet. I would have loved to have sat at Jesus’ feet and to have learned from Him. I would have enjoyed seeing Paul debate the philosophers in his day. To have had a discussion with Plato, Aristotle, Justin Martyr, Jerome, or Thomas Aquinas would have thrilled me! I can engage them through their written works, however, and I can walk away richer because of it. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise” (Prov. 13.20), and I have that opportunity through reading.
Perhaps one short novel that’s considered a great book and classic is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. If you’ve never read this short work I’d urge you to do so, because it shows you what a society without books is like. Perish the thought! We’d be a lot like those controlled by propaganda in North Korea and the former Soviet Union. We’d be automatons. We’d not have a thought in our little heads.
For us Christians, the Bible holds the greatest evaluation in our hearts, but there are many other great works that complement the foundation of our faith, and it’s up to us to search them out. Who hasn’t been stirred by C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton once they’ve read them? Commenting on Titus 1.12, John Calvin wrote, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.” Just as Daniel knew the Chaldean literature, and as Paul quoted the Greek writers, we too find divine truth in the unlikeliest of sources – books.
— Steven Hunter