Recently, a young minister asked for recommendations on “must have” books. My reply was more explanation of my philosophy of books than a list of particular titles to get. After sending it, I thought it might be good to work into a post. Libraries have seen a seismic shift since I was in school, with many preachers now preferring digital volumes on a tablet to hard copies on a wooden shelf. I haven’t gone that route, but perhaps these ideas could apply to both digital and paper book libraries.
My library is in sections. One is comprised of religious debates. I like as many of those as I can get that involve gospel preachers. You never know when you’ll have to deal with a particular thorny issue, and debates are a good way to bone up on controversial subjects. Plus, debates are historic (some, more than others) and you ought to know some church history.
Which brings us to the church history section. Get Earl I. West’s four-volume Search for the Ancient Order. Collect biographies of preachers from the Restoration era (1800’s) in American history. Many a self-taught, or formal education-deprived preacher of days gone by, somehow managed to learn far more Bible than too many present day college and preaching school graduates. Today’s church has preachers trying to pull us into the dark pit of error that preachers in the 1800’s were crawling out of and exposing with the gospel’s light. That saying about those failing to appreciate history being doomed to repeat it is more than a platitude. The church’s immediate future—at least in America—seems precarious. What will motivate us to fight for her uniqueness now if we’re ignorant of the ground gained in hard fought battles of the past, through the debating and preaching of men who could discern truth from error? Get some good books that cover church history in its early centuries, medieval times, and the Reformation. But, remember, God’s true church has always been a minority, and history is written largely about those who made the biggest splash. That means the history of the church after New Testament days is mostly a study of apostasy in its many forms.
Stock your library with good apologetics books. Have at hand major arguments for the existence of God, the deity of Christ, and inspiration of the Bible. Get a book or two on issues raised by skeptics, and on harmonizing alleged Bible contradictions. If you’ve never taken a class on logic, buy a good textbook and familiarize yourself. Preachers who are not good thinkers easily become misleaders of others.
Depending on your level of interest and ability, have at least a few Greek reference works. At minimum, know your way around an interlinear New Testament, Thayer’s lexicon, Vine’s dictionary of Bible words. If you can do more with the original languages, great.
I’ve got a number of brotherhood lectureship books, old and newer. Lectureships themselves seem a dying phenomenon (like public debates and gospel meetings), at least in comparison to the number that used to be held. The books published from such events are of uneven quality, by nature, since not all preachers are equally adept at thinking, researching, writing—skills requisite for composing a great chapter (and a great book needs multiple great chapters). Few brotherhood lectureship books, in my estimation, are towering contributions to the subject covered. That said, they can be helpful, and a book may be worth having for a single chapter by a certain author. After you’ve preached long enough, glancing through the writers in an old lectureship volume is a trip down memory lane.
Good commentaries are vital. My approach is eclectic, rather than monolithic. That is, I’ll buy a single volume from a particular set of commentaries because of who wrote it, and another volume from a different set, and so on. Thus, my Old and New Testament shelves are a hodgepodge from here and there, with many series represented, but very few series complete. An entire set, composed of an impressive row of identically clad volumes, looks nice on a shelf, but aesthetics is not the goal. Plus, that approach does not comport with my preferred method of arranging commentaries. I put commentaries on the shelf in Bible book order. I have a couple on Leviticus, and nearly a dozen on Revelation, but I can go right to them because, for example, the Revelation commentaries are all next to each other at the end of my New Testament section, and the Leviticus commentaries are right after the ones on Exodus.
A word on commentaries: never let your guard down. If you can find a scholarly commentary by a member of the Lord’s church, consider it. Denominational scholars will always outnumber those of the Lord’s church. Precious few are our brethren, such as J. W. McGarvey in his day, who are known and respected outside the church of Christ. If you limit yourself to books by brethren, you’ll cut yourself off from a great deal of conservative scholarship. At the same time, books by brethren can be just as wrong on a given point as something from an academic at a Baptist seminary (in fact, many books from our own professors these days may as well have been penned by denominational writers, given their ecumenical outlook and disregard for the uniqueness of the Lord’s church). If I know an author rejects the verbal inspiration of Scripture, that’s a non-starter for me: why spend time and money on that? For any given book in the Bible, there are commentaries which, at least, respect the Bible’s origin and nature.
The lion’s share of my commentaries are by denominational scholars. Before letting yourself be overly influenced by the learning, reputation, or seeming erudition of such a writer, remind yourself that he likely wouldn’t have the right answer to the most basic question: “What must I do to be saved?” Read denominational writers with that in back of your mind, and it should foster a healthy perspective. I think of a late denominational academic who has very helpful things to say in his Old Testament commentaries. Yet, he compromises with theistic evolution. The works of man are often a mixed bag, so keep a weather eye. Never believe everything anyone says just because of who wrote it. Likewise, don’t discount something simply because the author is not a member of the Lord’s church. Always, if it comes to it, let Scripture be correct, and every commentator a liar.
I’m not a fan of broad, general commentaries (such as a one-volume treatment of the Bible, or a two-volume set covering the New Testament). These may help those without a background in preaching school, but more depth is called for if you’re preparing to teach an adult Bible class. Matthew may take up less than 40 pages in your Bible, but you should read hundreds of pages during class prep. Get the best commentary you can find that’s just on Matthew. Make it a habit to read at least one good commentary (if not two) when teaching through a Bible book (if you don’t know more than the rest of the class on the subject at hand, why are you teaching?).
Decades ago, in preaching school, I wanted as many books as I could get hands on. Age and experience reversed that thinking. Now, I don’t want as many books as money or space allow. I have a lot of shelving in my office, and a lot of that is empty, by choice. After decades having them in possession, not long ago I threw away dozens of books I never use (and didn’t want others to have, for example, due to error they taught). Dozens more, I donated to the church’s library. These days, basically, I want as few books as will give what I need for preaching and teaching. Whatever books you include in your own library, in the end, as my grandfather would say, there is no substitute for being familiar with the actual text of Scripture.