Contend Earnestly: Common Mistakes When Reading Theological Books

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Common Mistakes When Reading Theological Books

I like to read. If you have known me for any period of time that sounds like Driscoll saying Joyce Meyer is his hero. I used to hate reading. Actually, up to college I had only read one book. One would have thought that I was illiterate. It seriously was that bad. You ask which book? Where the Red Fern Grows. I read it when I was like 15 and cried. If you haven't read it yet, the dogs die in the end. Sorry, I am a jerk. The one thing that I have noticed since becoming an avid reader is some common mistakes that I make when I read and then notice them in others as well. I just wanted to point out some so that we can hopefully read and discern well as we look to extra-biblical sources for a deeper understanding of God.

The first mistake that I notice when I read is that am really harsh on myself and others around me as I read a book.

What I mean is that if I read a book on holiness, or a book dealing with character traits as a Christian, I start to get really harsh on myself. This happened when I read Mahaney's book on Humility and Owen's book on Mortification of Sin. After both of these I just hammered myself on my many shortcomings. This also has happened after reading books on ecclessiology. I start to look at my church and expecting it to be just as good or expect change to happen right away. I found this happening when I read Simple Church, Radical Reformission and The Master's Plan for the Church. Also, as I read books on parenting, like Age of Opportunity and Shepherding a Child's heart, I started to be harsh on myself, but then turned that harshness on others, expecting them to be the perfect parent. These are terrible ways to respond to books that we read. I was recently at the Shepherding a Child's Heart Conference at Mars Hill and Dr. Tedd Tripp said something very well. He said,

"Don't be too harsh on yourself when hearing these things. Know that you are a sinner and do not spend too much time on your short comings, but look to how God desires you to change at this time and what he has in store for your future. If you spend too much time on your shortcomings, which there are probably many, you will not move forward."

This is really good advice as we read books as well. As you read books, it is good to notice your shortcomings in your theological knowledge, in your theological practice, in your church, and also shortcomings in others. But, we must know that God is in control and we must ask God how He wants us to grow now. How he wants our church to grow now. How he wants others to grow now. We cannot expect a perfect self, perfect church or perfect friends, that is actually very bad theology and will drive you to live in a cave somewhere in the corner of the earth.

As you read books, look to see the ways that God desires you to grow, and also praise him for the ways that he has been growing you and do the same for others. I am reminded by a sermon I heard from C.J. Mahaney, at the Resurgence Conference, when he preached on seeing the grace of God in others. This is exactly what we need to do as we read books, see the grace that God has given us, our church and others. Don't make the mistake of reading books and becoming overly critical of all those around you and yourself. That makes reading a hindrance and not a positive influence for the gospel.

The other major mistake that is often seen, is the hero and goat mentality of the author's presenting the material.

What I mean is the fact that if our favorite pastors or authors write a book, we are all about praising them with little discernment. On the other hand, if someone we find brutal in theology or an irritant as a whole, we dismiss all they have to say. The lack of discernment is frightening. When reading a book recommended to me I always try and be extra discerning as I start to read. It is very hard. Usually the recommended book comes from someone I respect and from an author I respect. The hard thing is not to pander to these two facts and come out with a heart of wisdom and discernment. When we read books by those that we deeply respect we must be Bereans with them. We must be critical to make sure that the book aligns with Scripture and that we don't give them a free pass to theological understanding. I have found this happening many times as I write reviews for books and disagree with some of those that I respect or with those that other's respect greatly. Meaning, if I say anything in the negative people jump all over you like a fat kid on cake. It is quite interesting.

The same happens in another way with those that we disagree with as a whole. I have found this with guys like Rob Bell and Donald Miller. I honestly don't agree with a lot of what these two have to say, but I do believe that some of the things that they say is very revealing of contemporary Christianity. The way that they carry out their theology in response is not very good (huge understatement), but I can glean some truth in what they do point out. We need to be careful to be discerning with those we don't agree with too, to see if we can get any learning from their thoughts. This aligns with a thought from a pastor friend of mine. He once told me that when he gets someone pointing out many of his faults in anger, instead of throwing out the person's negativity, he first prays to ask God if any of this is true. What he has told me is that even though the person might have come to him in the wrong way, that if any of the problems that are pointed out to him are true, he would like to know so that he could change for the betterment of the Gospel and God's glory. That is real maturity. Same could be said when we read those that we do not agree with. Glean what you can. Be discerning and try and understand where they are coming from and see if you learn from them in any way. Pray that God would show you where they are right, and where they miss the mark.

I think that if we can keep these things in mind, the reading process will be much better. I think we will be able to glean from the books to better help us with biblical understanding. I think if we do not change and continue down these paths, we start to worship the authors more than Jesus and they become our rule of faith more than the Scriptures. If we are able to keep this all in right perspective we will be able to grow ourselves, learn from other churches and aid those who need to mature in their faith. If we do not see these tendencies happening within ourselves we become legalists who demand change not only from others, but so much within ourselves, we will live a joyless life that is wasted, instead of a life full of joy pointing to the glory of our God.

Now that you have this in mind, go find a good book and enjoy the reading. Here are some helps:

Contend Earnestly Book Reviews

Westminster Bookstore

Discerning Reader


Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to undertake an exercise whereby the author's name is not revealed until after you've read a book. Now for some their writing style becomes familiar so this exercise wouldn't work. (eg Piper always writes in a particular style and his themes become repetitive.) There are a few blokes who are quiet popular at the moment who I haven't yet read.... someone should 'white out' their names for me, and then let me form an opinion as to the usefulness or not of the content.

Some author's I find I just can;t get into, even though others love their writings, and seemingly become their 'adherents'.

(Some of the worst books that I have read are on ecclesiology ..... many seem to end up as a formular, and the bible doesn't give us a formula as to 'do' church).

Oh, if I read your first two sentences out of context ... I didn't know Joyce Meyer was Driscoll's hero? (Why suddenly is Driscoll everybody's hero.... I'm afraid for him and others that people are magnifying him rather than the Lord.... same goes for a bunch of other blokes... Calvin, Luther, Zwingli et al, Schaeffer, Spong and a sheilla ...Mother Terressa...)

Seth McBee said...

It would be interesting to see what would happen if you were to take the author's name off the book. I have thought about seeing if I put up my own quote on something and ascribed it to Spurgeon if it would get more acclaim...but that seems a little fishy :)

As far as the Driscoll comment it was supposed to be funny. :)

I used to never read, so when my buddies here that I read it is so outlandish it would be like Driscoll liking Joyce Meyers (she is a female preacher here in the states)

Sorry for the confusion.

Caron said...

Very, very good points, brother.

I was in a WoF church for over a decade, so when I came out if it bc of what I had read in Scripture, I did have to be careful of whose books I read. I had some authors I trusted and even though I could not always agree with every single thing, I started with these men primarily bc they affirmed what I was learning in regard to leaving the WoF church I was in.

I highly recommend J.C.Ryle's "How Readest Thou?"

As the years went along, God gave me a hunger for His Word like I had never had before. THAT will define and shape our discernment when we read these other books.

My friend Justin Peters spoke at my church and comes highly recommended by my pastor, Dr. John MacArthur and I love how he emphasizes laboring and studying God's Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Check out his video here:

It is trusting in fallible men and not studying the WOrd of God that puts so many Christians under the delusion of false teachers/authors...

Thanks for the great article.

God bless you.


Anonymous said...

Sorry Seth - I saw your point wrt JM straight away and should have give a ;-) ;-)

I have unfortunately caught JM here in Australia on early morning TV. =-(

(As far as JMcC - I must say you need to test what he says at times against scripture and watch some of his exegesis. Must admit he's not regularly on my reading list).

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