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Take up and read!

Reading is a key part of our lives. Usually when a printed text catches our eye, we read it. Reading is such a pervasive part of our experience that responding to the written word is almost automatic. When we see it; we read it.

Reading is a gift, since it allows us to communicate with others. We read what they write; we write, and they read. Even when we do not know who the author is, the written word still can have power. When we write, we do not always know who will be reading our words. So reading is a venture into the unseen — a venture of faith. We read what others write and receive their thoughts, even when writers are unknown to us, even when what we read was written centuries before our time.

My life has revolved around reading. Like many others, I read for pleasure, though I confess my breadth of reading is not as wide as for some. I read for the work I do, as a theologian and author. Reading is a special gift since it helps us transcend ourselves, opens new visions and ideas. Theologically, reading can be a means God uses through the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. What we read is important.

The lives of all Christians can be enhanced by reading works that strengthen and deepen our understanding of Christian beliefs and Christian living. The famous story that St. Augustine of Hippo related in his “Confessions” involved his hearing children repeatedly chanting “Take up and read!” (In Latin: “Tolle lege; tolle, lege!”). Augustine turned to a copy of the book of Romans from the Bible lying on a bench and read: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). Reading this verse changed Augustine’s life. He felt “the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” Augustine went on to become one of the church’s most significant theologians. He carried out the chant: “Pick it up, read it!”

Augustine’s experience provides a model for us. In our Christian faith, we too, should “take up and read!” What should we read?

Reading the Bible

When it comes to our faith, reading is fundamental. Christians and those of other faiths are “people of the Book.” Our central Christian text is the Bible. Here we turn to hear God’s word to us. God’s word comes through human words, through the words of Scripture. God did not implant a computer file into our brains to convey all we need to know when we press “enter.” God used human writers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to write what God wanted to convey. God used human words to communicate that, supremely, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

So Christians turn to the Bible to know what God would say to us. The great Presbyterian Puritan preacher, Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686), wrote in “A Body of Divinity” that we should “read the Scripture not only as a history, but as a love-letter sent you from God, which may affect your hearts.” We read the Bible to know God’s word to us and to understand from that what to believe and how to live.

Presbyterians and those in the Reformed theological tradition have emphasized the need, as Watson wrote, that the Holy Spirit “may assist you in reading” the Bible. In worship, our prayer for illumination seeks the aid of the Spirit in the hearing and understanding of the Word of God being proclaimed on the basis of the written Word of Scripture. Individually, we pray for the Spirit’s guidance to help us interpret and understand Scripture.

Presbyterians also believe one way the Spirit helps us in reading and understanding the Word is by resources we are given — resources such as biblical commentaries, expositions of Scripture, and essays and other sources of ideas. These written materials, based on biblical and theological scholarship, help us understand biblical texts and what God is saying to us through them. So, pastors and church members alike should use these important means God gives to help us understand what the Spirit wants us to know from reading the Bible.

When I graduated from high school, some relatives gave me a check for $20. At that time, this was enough to buy, from Scotland, the paperback edition of New Testament scholar William Barclay’s 17 volumes of the “Daily Study Bible,” his commentary on the New Testament. I read through these, a section and day at a time. These books opened up to me a world of biblical scholarship, and paved the way for my use of more technical biblical commentaries later throughout my ministries.

Reading biblical resources is a way of using the means God gives us for helping us understand the Bible, although reading these resources is no substitute for reading the biblical texts themselves. Watson wrote of the “slighters of Scripture” who “can go whole weeks and months and never read the Word.” He wrote: “How many can be looking their faces in a glass all the morning, but their eyes begin to be sore when they look upon a Bible?” We would never want to be in that category!

We read the Bible and the resources God gives to help us interpret Scripture and help us read that “love-letter sent to you from God, which may affect your heart.”

Reading and Christian faith

When I began high school, I thought I might become a math teacher. My mother was an elementary school teacher and I liked math. Then I hit Algebra II — and quickly found it was not as easy as I anticipated.

More importantly, the new pastor at our church took an interest in the young people in the congregation, and used to take us to Sunday evening worship services in Pittsburgh, 50 miles away, where I had the opportunity to hear some fine preachers. My pastor had studied for a year in seminary in Edinburgh, Scotland, and he introduced me to James Thin Booksellers, which sold theological paperbacks – books like Barclay’s – at affordable prices. So I started buying theological books early and have never stopped. Theology became compelling to me; I left math behind. I felt an unmistakable call to ministry, where the Bible and theology would be central.

Reading theological books through college, seminary and my doctoral work provided a depth of understanding for my work as a pastor, as a theology professor and as editor for Westminster John Knox Press. Books have opened the Christian faith to me, in its many dimensions and expressions. Augustine’s admonition to “take up and read” was about reading the Bible. But it also means to read sources and resources that can deepen, enhance and give substance to your understanding of what Christian faith can mean for the world, for the church and for ourselves.

Through the years, my immersion in reading theological books has led me to write and edit a number of books. I have never considered myself to be a “constructive theologian” or “academic theologian.” I have aspired especially to be a “church theologian” — to help people in churches understand Christian faith, and ultimately to live Christian faith. The writing life has been a means for God to work through me to help express what Christian theology throughout history can mean for life today. Reading and writing books has always centered for me around the question presented to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3). Can the church’s beliefs and the writings of those who have gone before come alive and have significance today? I read and write to try to help folks answer that question.

For Christians, and especially Presbyterians, the appropriate bumper sticker for our lives also could be drawn from Augustine’s teachings. Daniel L. Migliore writes that theology in the writings of Augustine takes “the form, ‘I believe in order that I may understand.’” According to Augustine, knowledge of God not only presupposes faith, but faith also restlessly seeks deeper understanding. Christians want to understand what they believe, what they can hope for and what they ought to love. For Anselm of Canterbury, “faith seeks understanding,” Migliore writes, and that is the big umbrella of why we explore theology, critically reflecting on Christian faith and why we delve deeper as we restlessly seek greater understandings of faith. So, we read to understand. “Take up and read!”

Reading and Christian life

We read to learn and deepen our Christian faith. We also read to grow in our Christian lives by God’s grace — what theologians often call sanctification.

We personally approach Scripture as being written to us. Watson wrote: “Read the Bible with reverence. Think in every line you read God that is speaking to you.” One of the books I read as part of the curriculum in Sunday School growing up was Presbyterian theologian Robert McAfee Brown’s “The Bible Speaks to You.” That book helped open my eyes to hearing God speak through Scripture — directly to me!

Discerning what the Bible says to me involves not only intellectual understanding, but also a personal understanding of Scripture, in realizing how God desires me to live my life. Watson wrote in “The Ten Commandments” that “if we would have the written word effectual, let us labour not only to have the light of it in our heads, but its power in our hearts.” In this, Watson was echoing John Calvin (1509-1564), who wrote that “we are called to a knowledge of God: not that knowledge which, content with empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart.”

 Think of it this way: Heart knowledge is personal knowledge. In addition to our readings of Scripture, do we read to understand more fully the ways we can grow in God’s grace and have our faith strengthened and deepened?

I did my doctoral dissertation on William Perkins (1558-1602), a leading theologian among the 17th-century Puritans in England. Perkins helped set theological directions for Puritan theology, rooted in the Reformed tradition. A characteristic of Perkins (and Puritans in general) was to see theology as having two parts: doctrine and life. That is, what we believe should be expressed in how we live; and how we live should be based on what we believe. This ties together theology and ethics, or faith and works. In preaching, when someone expounds on a doctrine, they should next bring the use home to those listening. So Perkins wrote that for preachers, “a great point of wisdome in heavenly Divinity” was “to apply their Doctrine to their audience, in such manner, as the circumstances of place, times, or persons do require.”

This approach, following emphases in Calvin, has been of great guidance to me in reading theology and being a church theologian. It has spurred me to write devotional books of late, to understand great theologians and say what their statements mean for Christian living today. As the Puritan William Ames (1576-1633) wrote: “Theology is not a speculative discipline but a practical one.” Its purpose, in the church context, is to inform us about belief (doctrine) but also to show us what a doctrine means today for Christians who are disciples of Jesus Christ. Our growth in faith emerges as we understand what these beliefs mean for how God wants us to live as God’s people and followers of Christ.

No wonder we read (and write) books on the Christian life! Solid books that interpret our faith to show us its vital meanings and that help us “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) are books we need to read.

This is a good time to recommit ourselves to reading! We read in every dimension of our lives. Read for your faith, to explore its deeper meanings for your life. Read the Bible. Read theological books. Read books on the Christian life. By God’s grace, there is much to learn and receive. “Take up and read!”

Donald K. McKim is a retired PC(USA) minister, seminary professor and editor for Westminster John Knox Press. His recent books include “Everyday Prayer with the Puritans” and “Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions.” He and his wife, LindaJo, live in Germantown, Tennessee.

For reflection and discussion

  1. In what ways has reading been a significant help to you, especially reading that relates to your faith?
  2. Reflect on your reading habits. What types of reading do you practice? How much of your overall reading is devoted to reading the Bible and theological and spiritual literature?
  3. What are your practices in reading the Bible? What supplemental resources can you use to help in your study of the Scripture?
  4. What theological books have you read that have been helpful for understanding your faith? What areas of faith do you think could benefit from further reading?
  5. What books on Christian living have been formative or shaping for you? What areas of growth for your Christian life do you sense you need to read more about in the future?

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