Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Importance of a Personal Library for the Christian Student

Ever since I placed the "partial catalog of my library" (powered by Library Thing) on this blog, I had my fair share of ridicule and discouragements. The truth is, I had received numerous criticisms concerning my character, integrity, and motives based upon the simple fact that I own over a thousand Christian books in my personal library. Some of the readers might find it perplexing, "Why would someone have something to say against Vincent just because he owns a personal Christian library?"

This post is an interruption to the series of posts I am working on concerning the local church. It may also come as a surprise, but before anyone dies of a heart attack, let me elucidate further. I was absolutely taken aback that Christians could make such sweeping allegations.

Some of the accusations were:

1. Vincent is self-centered, selfish, worldly, and extravagant. How can he own so many good books at home? Maybe he should put them in the church library for the benefit of others.

2. Vincent is probably a rich man’s son who spends all his time buying, collecting, and reading books at home. This is his idea of a Christian ministry.

3. Vincent, why do you need so many commentaries on the Bible? I study the Bible too, and I don’t own any commentaries. Commentaries can be dangerous; it may warp and mould your thoughts against the direction of biblical teachings!

I never knew that reading Christian books could serve as a source of discouragement for others, much less providing fodder for criticisms such as these. For the record, I am not a rich man’s son. Although my father had little trouble raising my sister and me up, toys for my childhood were always a luxury. My medical education was made possible thanks to a scholarship from an Irish university. My parents are now financially dependent upon me, as I have to pay for their housing loan, their daily expenses, utility bills, and various miscellaneous expenses. They do not have any savings of their own. Do you call that "a rich man’s son?"

I had started buying Christian books since I was in junior college (17 years old). While my classmates indulged themselves in CDs, VCDs, and fashionable clothes, I saved up all my money to buy Christian books. I was hungry to know God, and I had many questions to answer. Reading good Christian books answered my many questions, and quenched my thirst for bible knowledge. I still remember that I bought Francis Schaeffer’s complete works, after saving up for more than a year, from the Bethesda Book Center in Marine Parade. In fact, I know Mr. Robert from that bookstore since I was a junior college student. He will always send me an email or call me up to tell me when the next great book sales will be held.

When I was a medical student, the Lord placed in my heart an even greater thirst to know Him more. I carried the Bible in my white coat wherever I go. And in my internship year alone (1999), I had read the Bible cover-to-cover for more than 10 times and had memorized more than 100 verses from the Bible. At the end of my internship, I fasted and prayed for many months seeking the Lord’s will for my life. I had a great desire to serve Him, but I do not know how and where. I knew I wanted to preach the Word, and I am willing to do it even if I live in hunger.

By the grace of God, I am currently a medical doctor, and had been a part-time seminary student studying at my own expense. I have plans to study formally in a seminary next year. When I was still a member of a local Bible Presbyterian church, I was ministering to a group of youths (12 to 29 years old) through preaching and teaching appointments. I was also giving lectures and seminars on "Creation and Evolution," as well as other topics in the realm of Apologetics. As such, I needed much resource on preparing sermons and lectures on many topics. During those years of service, I bought books on a regular basis. The books I purchased were mainly commentaries, theological tomes, and Christian textbooks. Even now, I’d rather spend my savings on books, rather than on beautiful furniture, entertainment, sports, or other less important priorities.
For the serious Christian who wants to know God’s Word, and especially the seminary student, Christian minister, or theologian, I believe that a good collection of Christian resource in a personal library is of utmost importance. It is a well-known fact that many godly pastors and preachers such as Charles Spurgeon, Albert Mohler, and John MacArthur have huge personal libraries. Albert Mohler’s personal library alone contains more than 30,000 books (see this video). But why do these preachers need such a large number of books? The Bible is a very rich and complex collection of 66 books. A complete understanding of these books of the Bible requires a thorough knowledge of systematic theology, biblical theology, experiential theology, the biblical languages, Ancient Near Eastern history, and so on. Furthermore, the minister would be required to furnish himself with a sufficient knowledge of homiletics, apologetics, and Church History. Proper exegesis of the original texts requires reference books such as lexicons, grammar texts, and the critical apparatus.

When a minister is preparing for a sermon, a bible study, or a counseling session, he needs direct access to good Christian resources. Unless the pastor stays within a large Christian public library (there is none in Singapore), he needs to purchase such books for himself. Furthermore, a good student of the Bible should never be satisfied with his current biblical knowledge. He will be constantly studying and learning from the Bible and from other godly men through books, articles, and journals. Albert Mohler once lamented, "Is this person a Christian intellectual, feeding the mind and soul by reading? For too many pastors, the personal library announces, "I stopped reading when I graduated from seminary.’" This should never be the case. A minister of God can never complete his study of the Scriptures. Our knowledge will never be perfected in our pilgrimage upon this earth.

Perhaps some might feel that, surely it is better to sell all those volumes of books, and give the money to the poor. Or perhaps we can give all our Christian books to the church, and allow public access to those books. In like manner, we can sell our cars, our beautiful houses, or even our insurance policies, and share the money from the sales of our possessions with the church (Note: I do not own a single personal insurance policy at this point in time). Firstly, Christians should never be avid supporters of Communism. It is unquestionably not a sin to own a car, a house, or a personal library. In fact, all my previous pastors own personal libraries much larger than what I have. Some of the pastors I know even have their own cars, private houses, and insurance policies. Should they then sell what they have, and give the money from the sales of their possessions to the church? Some would say that the New Testament Christians did exactly that: "for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need (Acts 4:34b-35)."

We must understand this passage against the background of the infant New Testament church. Firstly, there was a "need (Acts 4:35)." We recall that under the preaching of the apostles, many pilgrims to Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost were converted. They had obviously chosen to remain in Jerusalem as members of the local church rather than return home. Some converts lost their livelihood due to persecution. There were, therefore, needy brethren within the local church of Jerusalem.

Secondly, we must understand this passage of Scripture in the light of the rest of Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible does God mandate the communistic manipulation of the possessions of church members. James stressed that, "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit (James 2:15-16)?" Likewise, John says, "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him (1 John 3:17)?" The emphasis is on a believer’s compassion for a fellow believer in need. If a brother refuses to work and is lazy, or he simply refuses to buy his own food when he can afford it, there is no biblical mandate for a fellow Christian to sell his possessions and give to this brother. In like manner, if a Christian man refuses to invest in good books, but rather spends his money on entertainment, movies, sports, and dating, there is no obligation for a fellow brother to buy Christian books for this man.

John MacArthur elucidates further, "Some have seen in this passage [Acts 4:32-35] a primitive form of communism or communal living. As noted in the discussion of Acts 2:44-46 in chapter 7, however, that is not true. As in 2:45, the imperfect tense of the verbs indicates continuous action. They did not at any point pool all their possessions. Also, it is clear from Acts 12:12 that individual believers still owned houses. Further, Peter’s words to Ananias in 5:4 show that such selling of property was strictly voluntary. The singling out of Barnabas also implies that the selling was voluntary. If it were compulsory there would have been nothing commendatory about his actions. Finally, Acts does not record that any other church followed this pattern of selling property."

Finally, I am absolutely amazed at how someone can come to my blog, see the library catalog that I displayed on this blog, and arrive at the conclusion that I am a selfish, self-conceited, worldly, extravagant, and spoilt rich man’s son! Can you fault me for being so discouraged by such criticisms?

For your edification, Albert Mohler discussed the significance of personal libraries in this post of his. He wrote:

"When truly read, a book becomes a part of us. That is why we are afraid to part with even the physicality of it. The book becomes an aid to memory and a deposit of thought and reflection. Its very materiality testifies that we once held it in our hands as we passed the pages before our eyes.

Parini observes that libraries are mirrors into our minds and souls. The books we collect, display, and read tell the story about us.

This may be especially true of Christian ministers. Books are a staple of our lives and ministries. When the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to bring the books and the parchments, he was writing with the kind of urgency any preacher understands.

To a great extent, our personal libraries betray our true identities and interests. A minister's library, taken as a whole, will likely reveal a portrait of theological conviction and vision. Whose works have front place on the shelves, Martyn Lloyd-Jones or John Shelby Spong? Charles Spurgeon or Harry Emerson Fosdick? Karl Barth or Carl Henry? John MacArthur or Joel Osteen?

How serious a Bible scholar is this preacher? The books will likely tell. Are the books all old or all new? If so, the reader is probably too contemporary or too antiquarian in focus. Are the books read? If so, the marginalia of an eager and intelligent mind adds value to the book. It becomes more a part of us.

Is this person a Christian intellectual, feeding the mind and soul by reading? For too many pastors, the personal library announces, "I stopped reading when I graduated from seminary."

When I think of my closest friends, I realize that I am most at home with them in their libraries, and they are most at home with me in mine. Why? Because the books invite and represent the kind of conversation and sharing of heart, soul, and mind that drew us together in the first place.

By their books we shall know them. And by our books we shall be known."


ddd said...

Amazing! I didn't know people can criticize you for owning books. How ridiculous! I think perhaps they should just go and fly kites...

vincit omnia veritas said...

dear Daniel,

There are loads of criticisms that we have to take as Christians, but sometimes, we have to respond because our reputation is at stake.

Sigh ... don't we miss those times of sweet fellowship at CCC?

Jenson said...

"The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments." 2 Tim 4:13

CH Spurgeon had >12000 volumes in his personal library. His contemporary, William Kelly (Plymouth Brethren), had >15000 volumes in his library made of 3 bedrooms. Not sure if Mrs. Kelly liked that...

Malcolm Watts, current minister at Salisbury and Chairman of the Trinitarian Bible Society has about 30000(?) books.

My father-in-law, a retired pastor, still has about 500 books (those that he found useful and are his favourites).

I spent a good 10 years of my young life collecting CDs and I have now >1000 CDs. I totally regret that decision. I have spent the last 8 years buying and reading good Christian literature, and have about 1000 books. A far better choice...

What a strange post Vincent, to think that it is odd/wrong for a Christian to read widely things concerning the Christian Faith.

John Bryant at Logos said...

Here is a solution that should appeal to all - buy digital Christian books and a research librarian all in one for about a tenth the cost of print books! is the place, with over 7,000 titles. Sorry for the commercial, but it just makes sense, unlike your detractors! Blessings!