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Foundations for a Good Library: Some Recommended Books

We are commanded to love the Lord with all our mind (Matthew 22:37), and so the cultivation of our knowledge and understanding is a critical part of our discipleship. Now, it certainly can’t constitute all or even most of our walk with God; after all, we are warned in the Scriptures that “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). But while the pursuit of knowledge by itself or as an end in itself will only end in spiritual disaster, the neglect of knowledge can be just as deadly. So the Christian is encouraged to grow in their knowledge of the Bible and of the theology it teaches.

The Bible is both a simple and complex book, as the wise pastors who wrote the Westminster confession recognized: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” So while the critical parts of the Bible—those that tell us of our need for forgiveness and how to obtain it by trusting in Christ—are plain and straightforward, other parts that the Holy Spirit has given to us to equip us are not necessarily so easy. Understanding those parts of the Bible, and growing in our appreciation for the more straightforward parts, is greatly helped by looking to resources on the background, culture, history, and theology of the Bible.

Some may object that “the Holy Spirit is all the help I need interpreting the Bible!” The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon responded to that mindset by writing this to his students, a statement that, while probably a bit hard for some to follow, is definitely worth the effort to read:

“In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have labored before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others. My chat this afternoon is not for these great originals, but for you who are content to learn of holy men, taught of God, and mighty in the Scriptures. It has been the fashion of late years to speak against the use of commentaries. If there were any fear that the expositions of Matthew Henry, Gill, Scott, and others, would be exalted into Christian Targums, we would join the chorus of objectors, but the existence or approach of such a danger we do not suspect. The temptations of our times lie rather in empty pretensions to novelty of sentiment, than in a slavish following of accepted guides. A respectable acquaintance with the opinions of the giants of the past, might have saved many an erratic thinker from wild interpretations and outrageous inferences. Usually, we have found the despisers of commentaries to be men who have no sort of acquaintance with them; in their case, it is the opposite of familiarity which has bred contempt.” (emphasis added)

In other words: you are not the only one who has opened a Bible, and if you think that God gave you a monopoly on interpretation, you need to grow up!

Anyway, I trust that the value of outside resources is now clear, provided we always remember to keep them subordinate to the Bible itself. So: where should a Christian start? What books should be on every Christian bookshelf? Ask three pastors and you’ll probably get five answers! Still, I will give my take on it, and the following books are aimed not at scholars but at the everyday believer.

1. A Good Study Bible: The ESV Study Bible

A good study Bible is a great resource, because it combines a passage-by-passage commentary on the Bible with Bible handbook-style introductions to each book, a brief concordance, charts and maps, Bible timelines, and articles on related historical and theological topics. In short, it’s like a mini-library in itself. The ESV Study Bible is, in my humble opinion, the best available today. If you don’t own one, save up and get one. Even if you get nothing else on this list.

2. A Guide to Reading the Bible: “Knowing Scripture,” by R.C. Sproul

How do we read our Bibles? What principles of interpretation should we follow and what pitfalls are there to avoid? “Knowing Scripture” is a short but very valuable book, very easy to read, and is a popular-level introduction to the field of hermeneutics (Bible interpretation).

3. Following the Bible’s Unfolding Story: “According to Plan,” by Graeme Goldsworthy

The 66 books of the Bible all unpack and develop a single theme: God’s work to bring glory to himself by redeeming a people from sin in Jesus Christ. The field of theology that specializes in following and studying the themes of the Bible as they are introduced and gradually developed as history unfolds is called “biblical theology,” and Goldsworthy’s book is a really good introduction. This book will help you remember and pay attention to where you are in the biblical story.

4. The Skeleton of Christian Doctrine: “Christian Beliefs,” by Wayne Grudem

The teachings of the Bible can be divided into topics, and the study of how the whole Bible deals with particular subjects is called “systematic theology.” Systematic theology helps us keep the most important teachings of the faith straight and guards us from error, and understanding it helps us explain the faith to others. Grudem’s “Christian Beliefs” is an abridgement of an abridgement of his one-volume “Systematic Theology,” and this little book is a great introduction to theology for beginners as well as a useful summary of the fundamentals for every Christian.

5. The When and Where of Scripture: “The Holman Bible Atlas,” Thomas Brisco

When learning about the past, being able to place events in the time and place they occurred, and in relation to other places and events, is crucial. The maps in the back of your Bible will help here, but a good Bible atlas will give you a grasp of the topography, the climate, and the shifting political geography of the biblical story. Brisco’s atlas has the added benefit of providing useful historical summaries and background, as well as great full-colour pictures and illustrations.

6. A User-Friendly Encyclopedia: “The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary,” ed. Chad Owen Brand

Google is great, but there’s something about a nice one-volume encyclopedia on your shelf to define strange words and give a little background—especially if the Internet service goes down. The “Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary” is written for a popular audience, expresses a Reformed perspective on key issues like election and justification, and is of high quality—the illustrations, color pictures, and even the paper itself are excellent.

7. A Guide to Prayer: “The Valley of Vision”

Perhaps the best way to learn to pray is to follow a model. Even our Lord laid out for us a pattern to follow in the Lord’s Prayer. The Puritans were a great blessing to the church and remain a priceless resource for the modern Christian, and some of their prayers have been collected in one slim volume called “The Valley of Vision,” organized by topic and season.

So many more volumes could be added to this list! But as the foundation stones of a larger collection, these seven books will serve any family well.