Don't Judge a Man by his Books

Sean Lucas
This afternoon, I had a very rare experience in my ministry at First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi: an open two-hour block between sermon writing and appointments and our Wednesday night activities. And so, I set myself to something that I've been meaning to do for a while now--I went into my back library and reorganized my books. 

For the past several months, I've had the frustrating experience of going back there to grab something for my own study or for a congregant, only to find that I couldn't put my hands on it. Even more, someone (not me) had "thoughtfully" arranged the books and decided that D. L. Moody biographies should sit in the biblical studies section, that Aquinas was really a Puritan, and that the general theology books could be arranged with no rhyme or reason alphabetically.

So, today, I finally had time to wander back there to arrange and find things. And as I did, the thought occurred to me: it would be really, really foolish to judge my theological positions by the books on my shelves. Perish the thought!

For example, I have a nearly complete set of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (got them as my payment for doing a used book sale nearly nine years ago), the first seven volumes of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Schleiermacher and Baxter, and a nearly complete collection of every Stan Hauerwas book published. I have H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr, Joseph Fletcher and James Gustafson. I have Dan Allender books, Mike Horton books, Sinclair Ferguson books, and Tim Keller books. I have Joey Pipa, Bryan Chapell, Phil Ryken, Charles Hodge, John Williamson Nevin, and Charles Finney. I have every book that N. T. Wright, D. G. Hart, and Carl Trueman have published. And of course, I have the complete Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, lots and lots of John Calvin, John Owen, and John Piper, an Old Princeton section, a Covenant Seminary faculty section, and two church joke books given to me by congregants (I think they were trying to tell me something). 

All to say, that if someone was to try to discern my theological position from the books I have read (or have on my shelf, waiting for my attention), what could they say? Theologically confused? Potentially liberal? Beautifully eclectic? Intellectually adventurous? It would be foolish to render an opinion.

In the same way, it is a bit distressing to hear that some folks--well-meaning presbyters and fearful congregants--are judging ministers and ministerial candidates (or even whole seminaries) by the books they read. In the same way that it is dangerous to place people by the company they keep, it is dangerous to place people by the books they read. 

Some books we read because we had to (looking at you, Kenneth Scott Latourette); some books we read because we were curious; some books we read because they are challenging; some books we read because we need to stay abreast of issues; some books we read because they are devotionally satisfying. The reason why we read books are as varied as the place in life we are, the context in which we find ourselves, and the direction of our minds, hearts, and souls.

But I, for one, would not want to live in a world or a church where the thought police scanned my book shelf and told me what I could or could not read. I would not want to live in a world or a church that mirrored George Orwell's 1984. And I suspect most of my friends, regardless of theological position, feel the same way. We need the freedom to explore the world in which God has placed us; we need to trust our brothers are guided by Word and Spirit, confession and polity; and we need to believe that neither we nor our church is threatened by such exploration.

Indeed, we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Neither should we judge a man by his books.