Perhaps it is well in our correspondence for the next few months to discuss together various subjects, of a more practical nature, which are .of interest and concern to a young minister of the gospel. There is advantage to this because of the fact that the years you have spent in the Seminary are mostly concerned with the acquisition of theoretical knowledge. There is a certain amount of factual data which you are required to learn in order to graduate from the Seminary and be declared eligible for a call. Practically all the emphasis in Seminary falls upon the learning of knowledge which is, in the nature of the case, theoretical. It is true that you have opportunity to gain practical experience in some phases of your work: you have had opportunity to preach in the Churches in your years in Seminary; and you have had opportunity to teach some Catechism classes. But, as you know, we do not have in the Seminary an “intern program” which gives you opportunity to gain experience in the actual sheperdizing of a congregation. There are definite advantages to such a program, no doubt; it might be worth our while to consider putting such a program into effect some time in the future. But the fact is that you went to your congregation with little practical experience, and you had to learn in “the school of hard knocks”—not always such an easy school.
So I thought it would be worth our while to examine some of the more practical matters of work in the parsonage. I do not want to repeat in these letters what you have already discussed in school in such subjects as Poimenics and Catechetics; that would be rather wasteful of your time and of mine. But there are many aspects of these very practical subjects which are important to you, which you did not have time to discuss thoroughly in school, and which probably take on new meaning anyway, now that you are actually in the work of the ministry of the Word.
We can take Paul’s letters to Timothy as our point of departure, for not only was he a “veteran” in the service of the Lord writing to a fledgling minister, but the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes of just such practical matters as you and I want to discuss. While both epistles of Paul to Timothy are filled with such practical advice, I want to concentrate first April 1, 1977 of all upon a few ideas which Paul sets forth in the fourth chapter of his first epistle.
And more particularly yet, I want to pay attention, in this letter at least, to the first part of vs. 13: “Till I come, give attendance to reading.”
In my experience in the Seminary, I have found a lamentable lack of reading among our students—something which you probably remember that I talked about with you more than once in your years in school. I tried then to get across to you something of the importance of reading, but I am fearful that now in the pressure of work, you have perhaps once again neglected this important aspect of your work. And so it is well that we spend a little time talking about it.
There are two questions especially which we ought to face: one is the question of what to read; the other is the question of why read. Both are important, and we shall discuss both together since there are different reasons why you ought to be reading different kinds of books.
Before we answer these specific questions, however, there are a couple of general remarks that should be made. The first of these is that you should have some plan and organization in your reading. Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to read in a helter-skelter fashion. I know that no rigid plan can be devised, and it is not wise to attempt to hold yourself to such a rigid plan; but if your reading is characterized by a shotgun approach, you will not benefit by it as much as if your reading has some system to it. What I mean to say is that, if you want to do some reading in the field of Church History, e.g., you should concentrate on that field, and, in fact, concentrate on a particular area in that field. If you want to read in the area of Theology, you should concentrate either on a specific topic in that general field, or you should concentrate on a particular period before moving on. If you want to study Puritan theology, you should pay particular attention to the writings of the Puritans. It does not do any harm to draw up a tentative program for your reading.
In the second place, you have to make time to read. It is my experience that unless you do this, you will do very little reading—especially if you do not particularly enjoy reading. If you say to yourself, “I will read in my spare time,” you will soon find that you do not have any spare time and that you do not read. You must set aside time in your schedule to devote to reading, even if it means getting up an hour earlier in the morning to find this time.
In the third place, you must read widely. I will not expound on this for the moment because we can discuss this presently. But there is always a lurking danger that you are too narrow in your reading, and that the result is that you become narrow in your outlook.
What ought you to read?
First and foremost, you ought to read the Scriptures. It may sound a little silly to say this to one who is spending his life in preaching the Scriptures. But it is nevertheless, important. It is easy to fall into the trap of reading nothing in the Scriptures but the particular text you are going to preach on the following Sunday along with that part of Scripture which you read with your family in your family devotions. This is not good. You must read the Scriptures regularly and consistently. After all, the most fundamental rule of all Biblical interpretation is: Scripture interprets Scripture. And this rule will come to mean all the more to you as you are thoroughly acquainted with the Word of God. It is, in the final analysis, the fountain from which you draw all your strength.
But this reading is unique, for it is always eminently a spiritual exercise. Your reading of Scripture is not only to steep yourself in the Word, but is also to make the Scriptures the lamp unto your feet and the light upon your path which God gave them to be. You must read in such a way that you always ask, as you read, What does this Word of God say to me? If you read the Scriptures, then you will also have the Word of God as the guide for all your reading which you must do.
But Paul has more in mind when he urges Timothy to give attendance to reading. Certainly it is true that Paul assumes that Timothy will read and study the Scriptures. And that means that our reading must be broader.
Secondly, it is well that you spend some of your time reading various religious periodicals. There are so many in today’s world, that you cannot possibly do justice to them all. But part of your reading must include these. And these periodicals you must get from a wide and as diverse an area as you can. Do not limit yourself to Reformed writings. Read a sampling of papers which are representative of the whole ecclesiastical spectrum. This will have two advantages. In the first place, it will give you writings, of others from outside our own Reformed circles, which are instructive and helpful to our understanding of the truth. Though it be from different viewpoints, and though it be with an emphasis with which you do not always agree, there are many who write well concerning the truth of God’s Word. You need these different viewpoints. And secondly, it will keep you informed of what is going on in the ecclesiastical world. You have to know this to keep abreast of the times, and to keep your congregation informed of all that is happening that they may “redeem the times.” This includes periodicals which are not written from the perspective of the truth of the Reformed faith. Do not throw them away in disgust because they militate against what you believe. You must know the wolves which threaten God’s flock.
In connection with this, it is almost a necessity that you read something which keeps you informed about what is going on in the world. I do not mean watching the late news on TV. I do not mean reading the headlines in the daily newspaper. This latter too perhaps. But I mean that, while admitting that the news is badly slanted and that we cannot always tell what actually is going on and what, those who manipulate the news media want us to know, we must be able to see the broad sweep of history as it is taking place before our eyes, for the Lord speaks in these things of His return upon the clouds of heaven.
Thirdly, you will have to read widely in your chosen field of theology in all its branches and aspects. I shall not comment upon this in detail. It is here especially that a program of reading is essential. But what needs to be read is what is being published today and what has been published in the past. The latter is far more important than the former. There is not a whole lot of good which comes on the market today which is necessary to read. But there are, nevertheless, many books published which are worth your time. Yet, by all means, steep yourself in the past. And read, in an organized way, in all branches of theology. While you may have areas of particular interest (and quite naturally you will concentrate on these), nevertheless, you should read in areas which are not of chief concern to you. If you do this, you will grow yourself, and your work in the congregation will never go flat. Your preaching will constantly be enriched; your labors with the people of God will constantly be fresh; and you will never see yourself “getting into a rut” in your work.
Finally, your reading must include a wider range of interests than theology. You ought to be reading constantly in the “classics” which have been produced over the centuries. I refer to the great writings of the past in the field of philosophy, in literature, and in the writings which have come forth from the life of the people of God. This too is an important part of your reading. Furthermore, you must read, in so far as that is possible, in other fields of study such as history, astronomy, science, economics, etc. I know that this aspect of your reading will have to be limited. But, nevertheless, it is important that you have at least a passing acquaintance with these subjects.
There are all kinds of reasons why this is true. I cannot enumerate them all. But these reasons particularly come to mind. You will have to devote a share of your work to your young people who are going to college, and you have got to know what they are talking about when they come to you with their problems and questions. The reading of good literature stimulates the imagination—something which is so important for the minister of the Word. Although the word “imagination” sometimes stirs up in our minds frightening specters of the lie, nevertheless imagination in the good sense of the Word is essential for sermon making, for understanding the needs of the people of God, for writing when your turn comes to prepare an article for the Standard Bearer, for the making of the many speeches which are required of you. Nothing is quite so helpful to develop the imagination as wide and varied reading.
Well, I have only touched upon some aspects of this matter. And I suppose when you see this rather lengthy list you begin to think that there is just too much reading to do along with all your other work. But you would be surprised what a tremendous amount of reading can be accomplished if you would only set aside one hour a day to do it. And if you have two or three books lying about, all of which you are reading at the same time, then you will find that certain types of reading adapt themselves to certain times when you have a few minutes to spare. And you will not have any difficulty reading two or three books a week.
Give attention to reading. It is vital for your work.
Fraternally in Christ,