When I was in college, one of my professors, Dr. Newt Wilson, was in the habit of telling us who were Bible majors: “If you are going to be a pastor, you need to love people and to love books.” I know of ministers who love neither—they are anti-social. They also are not students and do not like to read or prepare sermons. It is hard for me to understand how or why they would want to be in the ministry, but they are ministers, nonetheless. What is more common is for ministers to be one or the other—either they love people more than books or they love books more than people. The statement of my former professor is a good reminder that we must be balanced. Balance is not easy, but it must be cultivated.
Balance is also necessary in the matter of reading. Thus, I want to put forth a reading plan in this article today for all ministers, young or old. These are just my words of advice, but they are not undigested thoughts. I know a minister who once told me, “I don’t like reading biographies.” He later scoffed at an elder in his church who was reading some books written by J. C. Ryle (one of my favorite authors by the way). So, that was two areas of reading—biographies and spiritual classics—that this minister did not like. I was a young man when he told me those things and he had preached my ordination sermon so he was way more than a mere acquaintance. He restricted his reading to doctrinal works and commentaries with a little bit of church history thrown in along the way. It is not surprising to me, therefore, that he fell in with the Federal Vision heresy in his later years. One of the problems with the FV is that they emphasize the objective and the outward to the neglect of the subjective and inward. His refusal to read biographies and spiritual classics and his emphasis on doctrinal works fed his mind, but not his heart.
The first rule of ministerial reading is to be well-rounded. Ministers must first of all be generalists. A minister should strive to read in all the important areas of Christian thought. It is like reading the Bible—there should be a plan for reading the Bible all the way through every year (one of the best plans was devised by Robert Murray McCheyne) and there should be a plan for reading in every area of Christian theology and life. What I have generally observed is that most ministers gravitate towards the areas which they like the best and neglect the areas which are not as personally appealing to them. Sometimes you can take one glance at a minister’s library and have a pretty good idea about his reading habits. Some ministers need to be encouraged to read in certain areas the way their mothers used to tell them to eat their vegetables. Balanced reading is so important if we are going to become well-rounded students of the Word and theology.
The second rule of ministerial reading is to read a chapter out of the greatest books every day. There will be days that you miss, but make it a rule—an aim—to do so every day. It will be amazing how much can be accomplished by following a simple plan that requires 30 minutes to an hour of hard study each day. I am going to give you a list below of some of the most important books that every minister should read. Of course, this is my list and my recommendations, but they have been given careful consideration over a lifetime of ministry. In one year, you can read 365 chapters. In five years, you can read over 1800 chapters. 1800 chapters will cover a lot of books. What you are doing is building up a storehouse of knowledge which will help you to be continually bringing forth things both new and old from your storehouse. It will also help you to be lifelong learners so that you are not smarter at the beginning of your ministry and dumber at the end of it.
The third rule is one which I have never followed as well as I should have. It was mentioned to me one time by Iain Murray when I was staying at his house for a few days back in 1977. He told me to make use of notebooks for recording the passages from books that struck me the most. He never actually showed me how he did that, but I think there are probably a number of ways of doing so. For simplicity, I am going to recommend that you get a notebook that you keep with you whenever you are doing the reading of the primary source material. Some highly organized people will be able to keep all their notes from many books organized alphabetically. Sadly, I am not one of those highly organized people and it has always hindered my productivity. I love to read. I do not like to write things down. It takes a lot of self-control for me to do so. Thus, my method separates my notes by books rather than by subject material. However you decide to keep your record, write down the book, the page number in the book, and some information on what struck you in your reading. Keep things together in whatever way you choose to do so. That way you will be able to look over your notes and find those striking passages much easier. Also, writing things down aids your memory as well.
The fourth rule of ministerial reading is to always remember that the most a seminary can do is to teach you how to think—not what to think. I attended Reformed Theological Seminary In Jackson, MS during their halcyon days of the early 1970’s, but it was by no means perfect. We read Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity instead of Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (8 volumes) and I still do not understand why. We used to sing, “Read Latourette tonight, and sleep, sleep, sleep” to the tune of the old Sominex commercial. It was boring. Schaff is readable and reformed. In our preaching classes we did not read D. M. Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers or Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry or W. G. T. Shedd’s Homiletics and Pastoral Theology. Why? Harold J. Grimm’s The Reformation Era was our textbook instead of J. H. Merle Daubigne’s History of the Reformation. Why? One of my professors had us read a book on Liberation theology and openly endorsed it in class. Why???
The fifth rule of ministerial reading is never read a book that is not worth reading twice. Do not waste your precious time on books that are here today and gone tomorrow. Read the best books first and read them again and again throughout your life. Read the classics before you read anything else. Fill your hearts and minds. Expand your thoughts by the challenges of the greatest authors. Use the best examples as models for your life.
The sixth rule of ministerial reading is to alternate your reading. Do not read in one area only or get stuck in one area. Read a book on church history, then read a book on theology. Read a biography, then read a spiritual classic. Mix things up. Read in all areas. Be well-rounded.
So, here are my recommendations for your reading:
1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s Institutes is not the best theological work ever written, but it is a classic that you must read. (Note: It was a Compend of the Institutes that convinced me to become a Presbyterian minister).
2. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (3 Volumes). Hodge is one of the most brilliant American theologians ever. This is well-worth reading.
3. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. This is a one-volume work which is also comprehensive.
4. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (4 volumes). Bavinck is unique. His works are a kind of cross between systematic theology and historical theology. He places each doctrine in the context of its historical development.
5. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (4 volumes). Elenctic theology means that it asks and answers questions concerning theology. Turretin was a reformed scholastic. There is no other book quite like his.
6. Augustine, Writings Against the Pelagians. Most people today define Pelagianism in a way with which Augustine would disagree. He understood the controversy best and we need to return to him.
7. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections. Edwards distinguishes between things that either prove or do not prove a gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Anyone who has read this book will never be wrongly mesmerized by Charismata. Edwards was America’s greatest ever theologian.
8. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. This is the classic defense of Evangelical Christianity against Liberalism (or Progressivism, etc.).
9. John Brown, The Fourfold State of Man. A classic work.
10. James Henley Thornwell, The Works of James Henley Thornwell, 4 volumes. Thornwell was the greatest Southern Presbyterian theologian. His writings are clear and faithful. No one has ever written more clearly on the doctrine of the church than Thornwell.
11. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 2 volumes. He deals with all the related doctrines concerning the church, Excellent book.
12. George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. There are a number of good books on the Holy Spirit, but this is my choice as the overall best one.
13. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification. Probably the best written on this doctrine.
14. B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible.
15. B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ. Warfield defended both these doctrines during a period of theological decline during the Presbyterian churches in the north.
16. William Cunningham, Historical Theology, 2 volumes. This is my favorite set in historical theology and my Ph. D. is in this area.
17. William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.
18. Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture.
19. Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual. Gives the principles of interpreting the Bible.
20. J. C. Ryle, Holiness. Every Christian should read this book. It is a classic.
21. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress. Next to the Bible this is one of the best books you will ever read. But it is an allegory so you will have to learn to read it with the eyes of your understanding.
22. Ralph Venning, Learning in Christ’s School. An encouragement to Christian growth by showing the various types of Christians.
23. Henry Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk. Gives a lot of practical advice from the Scripture on how to walk through this world as a believer.
24. T. V. Moore, The Last Days of Jesus. Deals with Christ’s resurrection appearances over 40 days before His ascension.
25. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount. A series of sermons that cover this sermon by Jesus.
26. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers. There is no other book on preaching like this one. The best by far.
27. Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry. McCheyne carried this book with him when he went to Palestine on the mission of the Church of Scotland. It covers areas that no other book does.
28. Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students. These are Spurgeon’s lectures on preaching. Great.
29. Charles Spurgeon, The Soul Winner. A great book on how to evangelize and motivation to do so.
30. Charles Spurgeon, Autobiography: The Early Years and The Full Harvest, 2 volumes. A must read.
31. Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne. The life of one of the holiest ministers who ever lived. I am deeply touched whenever I read any part of it.
32. Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, 2 volumes. It came out about the time I was converted. This book made me a lover of the Great Awakening.
33. Iain Murray, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, 2 volumes. A must buy and read. The life of one of the greatest ministers in the history of the church.
34. Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards. Everything Murray writes is worthy of reading. This book is about the greatest American theologian ever and one of the leaders in the Great Awakening.
35. Dewey Roberts, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia. E. T. Kirkland reviewed this book for a British weekly Christian paper and wrote: “This isn’t a mere biography, nor just a good biography, this is a must have biography that will thrill, inform and enrich your life kind of biography.” Shameless pump for my own book, I know, but it is very thoroughly researched. There are only 40 hardback copies left.
36. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 volumes. You will never find a more readable set of history books.
37. J. H. Merle Daubigne, History of the Reformation. The type is small, but the book is worth it.
38. J. H. Merle Daubigne, The Reformation in England, 2 volumes.
39. Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening. Covers both sides of the Atlantic.
40. Archibald Alexander, The Log College. The story of how William Tennent trained the best group of ministers to ever grace American pulpits during the time of the Great Awakening.
41. J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth. True Christianity cannot exist without the miracle of the virgin birth of Jesus. Otherwise, Jesus of Nazareth was just another man—a good man—but just another teacher pointing to God in the darkness.
42. George Smeaton. Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement and The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement. Twin books on the great subject of the Christ’s atonement. There is a lot of great teaching in both volumes that a pastor should be familiar with.
43.J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament. This is an introduction to the New Testament books. It is the best with which I am familiar.
44. Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual. Fairbairn was one of the greatest theologians of the Scottish Church. Interpreting the Scripture is essential to a pastor and Fairbairn’s book is the best.
45. J. L. Girardeau. Calvinism and Evangelical Arminianism. Girardeau deals fairly and fully with the debate concerning election and free will. It is the best book on the subject I have ever read.
46. Alfred Edersheim, Old Testament Bible History. This is a classic work on the Old Testament history.
47. Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will. Edwards shows what the true freedom of the will is and what it is not.
48. Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin.
49. Joel Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance. Beeke has written over 100 books and is one of the greatest authors of our day.
50. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology. Vos deals with the development of theology from the Old Testament going forward which is a different approach that systematic theology.
I could go on and on. Certainly, others would include a different list. There are thousands of books that I have read in addition to those on this list, but if a minister reads all these books he will develop his mind and heart in a well-rounded manner. I have not included many books such as commentaries and books on certain special subjects. What I am recommending in this article is a reading program that will help you to become knowledgeable in every area of the Christian doctrine and life. One reason so many ministers fall away from sound doctrine is because they have gaps in their knowledge. Another reason is because ministers do not take heed to themselves and to their doctrine.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL, a member church in the newly formed Vanguard Presbyterian Church.
www.vanguardpresbytery.org You may send donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, P O Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.