Judging a Christian Book
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best. Philippians 1:9-10
In one sense, we judge Christian books as we do any other book. We expect them to meet the standards of good writing. The purpose of the book should be clear and its outline concise. Furthermore, we expect the author to be honest in
the presentation of facts, cogent in argument, and convincing in conclusion, whether we agree or not. When we finish a book, we should be able to answer these questions:
What is the book about?
What issues does it address?
What questions does it raise?
What difference does it make in my life?
What should I as a Christian do with the information it contains?
A Christian book that does not meet standards of literary quality and does not answer these questions is not worthy of our time and attention. That's why skimming a book and giving it a superficial reading are valuable exercises for deciding whether a book is worth reading more slowly and in depth.
While quality writing is important when judging a book, Christian books should meet an even higher standard. As mentioned earlier, because the canon of Scripture is the final authority for the revelation of God's truth, all other Christian writing is commentary. This means that all Christian writing should be judged against the standard of the Word of God. For this reason, Christian books are a breed of their own in the literary world and are subject to a more rigorous test of truth than books that claim no connection to the Word. Of course, in the long term, all human writing will be judged true or false in relationship to God's revelation. For now, however, the standard applies most directly to distinctly Christian writing.
The Biblical Standard of Scripture
No one can dispute the standard that the Word of God sets for itself. The expectations are high and clear. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote to Timothy: "Every
Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in right doing; so that the man of God may be complete, perfectly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17 Weymouth).
This landmark sentence of biblical revelation addresses three questions:
1. What is the nature of Scripture?
"Every Scripture is inspired by God."
2. What is the function of Scripture?
"Every Scripture is ... useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in right doing."
3. What is the goal of Scripture?
"... that the man of God may be complete, perfectly equipped for every good work."
Lofty claims indeed. but claims that set the Word of God apart from all other writing. Christian believers do not approach the Word with the skeptical question, "Is it true?" Rather, with faith and trust, we accept God's claim at face value and declare it "the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Such a statement of faith is not without its complications. If the Scriptures are true, we must then ask, "What do I do about the truth?" Again, the answer is clear. When we read the Scriptures, we open ourselves to the tools of truth that the Holy Spirit uses as our teacher. First, there is the "teaching" of the truth of biblical doctrine. Second, there is the "reproof" of falsehood. Third, we encounter the "correction" of truth that brings us back to the path of righteousness when we stray. Fourth, the "instruction" of truth points us toward righteous living.
Note that teaching and reproof deal with doctrine whereas correction and instruction deal with behavior. Also, note that teaching and instruction are in a sense affirmative teaching tools while reproof and correction are disciplines. As any good
teacher knows, students need to be taught content and conduct as well as disciplined by affirmation and negation in order to achieve the goal of learning. Paul identifies the goal of all Christian education when he writes, "... that the man [or woman] of God may be complete, perfectly equipped for every good work."
God has to be either a starry-eyed idealist about our potential for spiritual development or a down-to-earth realist with full confidence in the teaching ability of the Holy Spirit to make this claim. So many of us fall far short of spiritual maturity defined in these terms. We are reluctant to claim that we are men and women of God, complete and "perfectly equipped for every good work." Yet, as educators know, students respond best to expectations that are high, clear, and consistent. Therefore, even though most of us do not reach the ideal of spiritual maturity as defined by Scripture, we are motivated to strive toward the ideal. Better yet, we realize that God has established a lifelong learning process for us. Paul had that confidence when he wrote, "... being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). Each of us can claim that promise as we read the Word and invite the Holy Spirit to be our teacher. To our surprise, we will find that we are growing more godly, becoming better equipped to live the Christian life, and doing more good works than we ever imagined.
Paul's words to Timothy also serve as a check and balance on our spiritual development. Unless we read the Word of God, we cannot be instructed by the Spirit, and unless we are instructed by the Spirit, we cannot become godly and effective servants. To put it another way, loving the Word, learning from the Word, and living out the Word are interlocked in God's plan for our spiritual growth. A lapse in one can cause a lapse in another. Conversely, a gain in one will create a gain in another. By self-examination on each of these points, we can readily assess our spiritual development.
Relating Christian Books to the Word of God
What then is the relationship between the Word of God and other Christian books? At one and the same time, the realms of reading are both independent and interdependent. As the God-breathed Word, Scripture stands alone as God's revelation. No other Christian book can make this claim. None of them can stand alone without the Scriptures. But any of them can serve to increase our understanding of the truth, enrich the teaching-learning process of the Holy Spirit, and speed our development as mature and effective servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian books, then, must be judged by the standards of Scripture rewritten to apply to commentary on the Word itself. These standards can be framed as questions that we should ask of every Christian book.
Is This Book True to the Inspired Word of God?
We can readily sort out distinctly Christian books from mere religious books when faced with this question. For a period of ten years, I served as the editor for a periodical called the Minister's Personal Library. Each month I received a box of the latest books that I had to consider recommending to ministers. Sometimes the author, the title, or the publisher became a dead giveaway that a book was religious but not Christian. At one extreme, I received a copy of a book written by a radical feminist who rewrote the creation story with vivid sex symbols in order to justify lesbian love. On the other extreme, I examined a book written by an ultra-fundamentalist who relied heavily on Scripture to stake the claim that he and he alone had a corner on God's truth.
Books at these extremes sorted themselves out. Other books were less obvious in their position. Evangelicals, for instance, went through a period when they were very
interested in books on counseling and psychology. I put these books to the same test question: "Is this book true to the inspired Word of God?" Many of the books failed the test even though their authors were evangelical Christians who would ascribe to the full inspiration and final authority of Scripture. In their writing, however, they used the Scriptures to sanctify their psychology. In some cases, therapy and theology clashed without the author knowing the difference. The Word of God will not take second place to any human theory. It cannot be used as a proof text to justify a position or distorted to fit a case we want to present. Scripture is like God himself: It will be all or it will be not at all.
From my experience as an editor, then, I realized that the first test question included two other questions. One, "Is this book true to the text of the Word?" In other words, does the author accept the accuracy of the inspired Scriptures? A second question followed naturally: "Is this book true to the spirit of the Word?" Although the Word speaks with a surgical cut on such issues as sin, its overriding spirit is the hope of redemption.
Each of us has had the experience of reading a Christian book whose story marched across the pages like a parade of wooden soldiers. In the language of students, "The book was as dry as dust." Works of systematic theology or church history are usually put in this category without a fair reading. Thomas Oden's books on Christology, however, prove that theology can be true to the text and true to the spirit of the Word at one and the same time. As we read Oden, we sense that we are reading theology cast as a love story. The author would be the last to claim that his writing was inspired, but no one can doubt that he had the mind of the Spirit in both text and tone as he wrote. In a very real sense, Oden captured the dynamic of the God-breathed Word as he wrote his commentary on Christ.
Is This Book Useful for Christian Teaching?
After identifying the nature of the Word as inspired by God, Paul makes it clear that the Scriptures are not an esoteric text without practical application. On the contrary, he says that the Scriptures are "useful" tools for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in right doing. Never let it be said that the Word of God does not apply to our daily life. If its claims are true, the Scriptures give us everything that is necessary, not just for our salvation but for living in the contemporary world as well.
Earlier, we noted that teaching and instruction are affirmative teaching tools, while reproof and correction are disciplines. We also noted that both are essential for effectiveness in the teaching-learning process. As any of us must admit, we have learned as much from reproof and correction as we have from teaching and instruction.
Now, however, we need to look at these teaching tools of Scripture in a different way. We see a distinction not just between affirmative tools and discipline but between the teaching of what to believe and how to behave. Teaching refers specifically to true doctrine, while reproof addresses issues of false doctrine. Correction, then, deals with questions of wrong behavior, and instruction in right doing points toward right behavior.
Each of us can recall moments when the study of Scripture helped us understand true doctrine of the Christian faith. We may also remember times when the Word rebuked false doctrine that might otherwise have contaminated what we believe. An example comes to mind. When I spoke at the World Methodist Council in Nairobi, Africa, in 1987, I chose a biblical text consistent with the theme "Jesus Christ, the Only Hope for Our Salvation." The Gospel of John records the story of Jesus preaching the truth about himself and his mission to the masses, religious leaders, his followers, and the Twelve. One by one, the masses and religious leaders turned
and walked away as Jesus came closer to the truth that he had to die for their salvation. Many of his followers were also offended by the truth and left him. Suddenly, Jesus found himself alone with the Twelve. Of them, he asked, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Peter answered for them: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:67-69).
Later in the conference, another speaker from a worldwide ecumenical organization addressed the same body. In his message he urged Methodists to open their arms to non-Christian religions and join with them in a show of brotherhood. Theological differences and the claims of Christ were to be put aside for the sake of ecumenicity. Immediately, the stage was set for confrontation. Did we believe that Jesus Christ is the only hope for our salvation? Or were we parroting an old theme that was no longer relevant in the realities of a diverse religious world? In a press conference that echoed through the international media, I stood my ground, not with antagonism but with the confidence that Scripture had taught me right doctrine and had rebuked wrong doctrine. If the Scriptures are God-breathed and useful, there is no other choice.
Students of Scripture will also recall moments when the Word spoke to them about their behavior. In Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle deals with a number of behavioral issues in the church, ranging from divisions over speaking in tongues to rationalizations about sexual immorality. While the issues are specific to the Corinthian Church, the principles are timeless. Sexual immorality, for instance, is as prevalent in our society today as it was in the corrupt city of Corinth. An hour before the television set watching daytime soaps or nighttime sitcoms leaves no doubt. Paul writes for us today when he says,
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolators nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
All excuses for sexual immorality along with many other sins are lost. Whether by the action of sin or the attitude of acceptance, Christians who are washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God must separate themselves from all sexual immorality. The practice of sexual immorality is condemned and the attitude of tolerance cannot be condoned. With the Corinthians, Christians of the twenty-first century must say, "I stand corrected."
True to the God-breathed Scriptures, however, the apostle Paul goes beyond correction to instruction in right doing. After addressing each of the issues that divided the Corinthians, the Spirit of God inspired him to pull it all together in the monumental passage in 1 Corinthians 13, in which he shows his readers "the most excellent way" of love as the greatest of all gifts.
Can we expect to find similar tools for teaching in the Christian books we read? The answer is yes, if they are true complements to the Word of God. In Philip Yancey's book What's So Amazing about Grace? for example, he defines the doctrine of grace in clear biblical terms with illustrations from the life of Christ. Against that definition, he rebukes the many examples of "ungrace" that clutter the church and discourage believers. He then intertwines the biblical doctrine of grace with Christian behavior. Offering the biblical corrective for "ungrace," he engages the spirit of Jesus Christ for instruction in right doing. What's so Amazing about Grace? is true to the Word of God in text and tone. As well, it gives us useful tools for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction
in right doing. Consequently, the book is highly commended for all Christian readers.
Does This Book Contribute to Christian Maturity?
Once again, we stand amazed before timeless truth when we read that the end result of being schooled in the Scriptures is "that the man of God may be complete, perfectly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:17 Weymouth).
Here is proof that the Word of God has its own internal integrity. Contrary to many learning experiences that stop short of providing accountability for end results, the Scriptures boldly claim the outcomes of character ("a man of God"), competence ("equipped"), and consequences ("good work"). But there is more. The quality of these learning outcomes is intensified by descriptive words: "a man of God complete," "perfectly equipped," and for "every good work." No other teaching-learning experience, religious or secular, can make this claim. Maturity in the spirit of Jesus Christ is the promise for students of the Word.
In the depth of these words, we realize how far we fall short of the expectations and promises of God's teaching-learning process. Our shortcoming is no mystery. If we slight the reading of the God-breathed Word, the Holy Spirit is handicapped with dull tools for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in right doing. Why then should we be surprised that we fall short of godly character, feel spiritually incompetent in Christian witness, and fail at good works? The loop of learning takes us back to the basics. If we want the qualities associated with spiritual maturity, we must be avid readers of the God-breathed Word and serious students of Scripture.
Can we hold the same high expectations for Christian books? In this case, the first answer is no, because they cannot claim the God-breathed nature of Scripture. But if they are true to their purpose as commentaries on the Word,
we can expect Christian books to contribute to the qualities of godly character, spiritual competence, and beneficial consequences.
Charles Colson's autobiography, Born Again, illustrates how a Christian book complements the Word of God. Colson is introduced to us as the most ruthless of Watergate conspirators, known for hangman tactics such as letting political enemies "twist and turn in the wind." But when confronted by the gospel of Jesus Christ, he likens his conviction by the Holy Spirit to "being torpedoed." As we read his story, we feel as if we are witnessing a contemporary rerun of Saul's conversion on the Damascus road. The more we read, the more the Spirit of God speaks through the writing. We soon realize that we cannot hold the truth at arm's length. Identifying with Colson and entering into his experience leaves us gasping for spiritual breath.
After his conversion, Charles Colson could have spent his time enjoying the plaudits given to an "evangelical celebrity." Quite legitimately, he might also have envisioned himself as "the apostle to the powerful." After all, he had intimate acquaintance with the mightiest persons on earth. He chose, however, to ground his newfound faith in the study of the Word of God. Out of that experience, the Holy Spirit called him to return to the prisons and minister to the prisoners with whom he also identified. Later, he wrote the sequel to Born Again called Life Sentence. Today, we honor him as a man of God uniquely equipped to lead the good works of the worldwide ministry of Prison Fellowship. We can also commend Colson's books as contemporary complements to the Word of God. They inspire us to be godly, show us how the Holy Spirit equips us for ministry, and point us toward good works in Jesus' name.
In sum, we can judge Christian books by the extent to which they address the questions inferred in Paul's letter to Timothy when he describes the inspired Word its nature,
its function, and its results. Every time we read a Christian book, we should ask these questions:
Is it true to the God-breathed Word?
Is it true in text?
Is it true in spirit?
Is it useful for Christian teaching?
Is it useful for teaching right doctrine?
Is it useful for rebuking false doctrine?
Is it useful for correcting wrong behavior?
Is it useful for instruction in right doing?
Does it contribute to Christian maturity?
Does it inspire us to godly character?
Does it equip us to live the Christian life?
Does it lead us to good works?
To test this approach, think of a Christian book you have read recently and ask yourself these questions about the book. If your answers are affirmative, the book was well worth reading. If your answers are negative or you are uncertain how to answer, the book may not have been worth your time. Discerning readers will quickly know when a book addresses these questions and will be able to make a decision whether to continue reading, skim the text, or put it down.
Chapter Four || Table of Contents