The Great Book
I have often written about the importance of reading, and not just reading in general, but reading the “great” books. But among the great books is the great book.
It is God’s revelation to us, imparting knowledge that cannot be known apart from its revelation. It’s “living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The foundation of the Christian mind is the great book – the Bible.
As one would expect, the Bible is not to be read like any other book. More than concentrated study of the Scriptures is called for; this is a book to be obeyed.
Other books are to be engaged, understood and evaluated as to the truth and wisdom, place and purpose of their contents. The Bible must also be engaged and understood, but not for the purpose of determining whether we should take it into consideration. The Bible alone calls for complete and utter submission of life and thought. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright observes, “The Christian is prepared to say, ‘I don’t like the sound of this, but golly, if this is what it really means, I’m going to have to pray for grace and strength to get that into my heart and be shaped by it.”
Sadly, very few read the Bible, as Gordon Fee titled one of his books, “for all that it’s worth.” As I have observed as both pastor and educator, there are many ways people read the Bible. There are “service readers,” those who engage the Bible when it is presented during a weekend service, and that is all. Then there are “devotional readers” who take bite-size bits of Scripture through secondary conduits (devotional magazines or books). This goes light-years beyond the “service reader” because it encourages reflection on a text, but it is far from the feast the Scriptures offer and the mind needs. What is required is studious reading; an open Bible, a dictionary and concordance nearby, and time to reflect on what the Psalmist described as “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).
This is the foundation of the Christian mind.
A biblical worldview – a view of the world informed and shaped by the Bible – has always marked the most developed and formidable of Christian minds.
In Loving God, Charles Colson recalls how Augustine – brilliant, learned and handsome – held one of the most prestigious and enviable professorships in Italy. When he spoke, he was overwhelmingly persuasive. Few considered themselves his equal. Although he had a Christian mother and was personally intrigued by the Christian faith, Augustine lived a life distant from God. He was torn about how best to live; he was engaged to be married, yet had a mistress and an illegitimate child. In fact, he had many mistresses. Sex was necessary for him, he said, for he had no power to resist his natural desires. On the other hand, he was riddled with guilt, even from the time he stole fruit from a neighbor’s pear tree with a gang of youthful rowdies.
But change was afoot in Augustine’s heart. The great philosophers, such as Plato, had convinced Augustine that there was more to the world than what could be seen, tasted, touched, heard or smelled. Things beyond his own senses could be real. Then Augustine encountered Ambrose, a Christian pastor in Milan. In Ambrose, Augustine found a speaker equal to his own rhetorical skills. But Ambrose had more than verbal ability – Augustine was intrigued with what Ambrose was saying.
Augustine had tried reading the Scriptures as a teenager but was not impressed. At the time he had been in love with beautiful language, and the language of Scripture had seemed dull and plain. But years had passed since then. Under Ambrose’s influence, the simplicity of Scripture began to sound profound.
One evening he sat in his garden, utterly silent in the stillness of the summer heat. But inside his heart, a storm raged. Confusion over his life built up until finally it seemed as if his chest would burst. He threw himself under a fig tree, unable to stop sobbing.
Then… a voice.
A childish, piping voice seemed to come from a nearby house. It chanted over and over, “Take up and read. Take up and read. Take up and read.”
Were the words for him?
“Read what?” Augustine shouted into the sky.
Then he glanced around him, and there, lying nearby, were the letters of the apostle Paul from the New Testament. Was he to take up the Scriptures and read?
He snatched up the book, and began reading where it fell open – Romans 13. The words burned into his mind: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (vv.13-14). Instantly, the shadows of his heart fled before the streams of light. A book he once dismissed as a mere fable lacking in clarity and grace of expression altered the entire trajectory of his life and gave him what he had sought for so long. He had encountered truth.
Augustine gave his life to Christ. And for the next 44 years, Augustine continued to “take up and read,” becoming one of the most influential Christian thinkers and writers of history. But it all started in the garden, where he learned that the Scriptures were not just words to be interpreted; they were words that interpreted the reader.
Little wonder that J.I. Packer once wrote, “If I were the devil… I should broadcast doubts about the truths and relevance and good sense and straightforwardness of the Bible… At all costs I should want to keep them from using their minds in a disciplined way to get the measure of its message.”
So let’s take up and read the greatest book of all.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).
Tim Stafford, “New Theologians,” Christianity Today, February 8, 1999, p. 45.
Charles Colson, Loving God.
J.I. Packer, foreword to R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.