One of my favorite quotes is from Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of the law of gravity. In a letter to Robert Hooke on February 5, 1676, Newton wrote, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton saw farther than anyone had before, precisely because he was willing to learn from those who had gone before him. Just imagine what life would be like if all anyone ever knew was the knowledge they accumulated on their own. There would be no electricity, no light bulb, no telephone, no computers, no cars, no airplanes, no space travel, and, gasp, no iPhone.
But because men learned from those who had gone before, these inventions and many more were possible. Sadly, many preachers like to work in an anti-intellectual vacuum, gleaning nothing from the God-gifted men who have gone before them. God has especially equipped the body of Christ with teachers, evangelist, and pastors. I thank God for men like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Newton, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and a host of others, who are, without a doubt, God’s gifts to the church. By studying the writings of these gifted men, we are enabled to “stand on their shoulders.”
I believe that there is actually a biblical admonition to learn from others found in Ephesians 4:11-13 where Paul explains how the resurrected and ascended Christ has gifted his church.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
I don’t think what Paul said here applies only to those living in our contemporary generation. Nor do I believe that it only applies to those in the same location. The church universal is much larger than our local congregation. It extends to all those saints, past and present, from east to west who have placed their hope in Christ and his sacrificial atonement. Therefore, the teachers, evangelists, and pastors from whom we have the privilege of learning stretch across the 2,000 years of church history (chronologically) and from pole to pole (geographically). In order to access this rich heritage, we need to read books.
Historically, Baptists have recognized the importance of learning from the works of others. In his book on pastoral ministry, The Temple Repair’d, the seventeenth-century English Baptist pastor Hercules Collins provided his readers with a list of recommend books. Furthermore, when young men in his Wapping church expressed a desire to begin preaching, they were provided with key biblical and theological works. Collins believed that ministers must labor in their study of the Word of God because of the exalted nature of their work as ministers. Commenting on 2 Timothy 2:15, he wrote,
“We should study to be good workmen because our work is of the highest nature. Men that work among jewels and precious Stones ought to be very knowing of their business. A minister’s work is a great work, a holy work, a heavenly work. Hence the Apostle says “Who is sufficient for these things?” O how great a work is this! What man, what angel is sufficient to preach the gospel as they ought to preach it! You work for the highest end, the glory of God, and the good of immortal souls. You are for the beating down of the kingdom of the devil, and enlarging and exalting Christ’s kingdom.”
Collins believed people could “easily perceive from the pulpit whether the man had worked hard at his study the week before, or not.” He believed that 2 Timothy 2:15 refuted those who thought it “unlawful to study to declare God’s mind” and who “contemptuously speak against it, as if we were to preach by inspiration, as the prophets and apostles of old did.” Instead of this lazy approach to the minister’s duty, Collins proposed an alternative that took seriously both the divine command to study and the necessity of reliance upon the Holy Spirit:
“We may say in this case, as we use to speak about salvation, that we ought to live so holily as if we were to be saved by our living, and yet when we have done all, to rely upon Christ and his righteousness. So we should labour in study, as if we should have no immediate assistance in the pulpit, and yet when we have done all, to go about our work depending upon God for further assistance.”
In this way, minsters may escape the shame that “will attend them that are lazy and idle in the things of God” and receive the implied alternative of honor that “will follow those that are true labourers in the Lord’s vineyard.”
The tendency to downplay the importance of reading and studying books in one’s preparation for preaching has been a perennial issue. Some have sought to downplay the importance of God-honoring books out of false sense of piety. But even the apostle Paul, when in prison, urged Timothy to bring “the books” (2 Tim. 4:13). The nineteenth-century’s Prince of Preachers Charles Haddon Spurgeon commented on the example of Paul in a sermon on 2 Timothy 4:13 titled “Paul—His Cloak and His Books.”
“He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He has had wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up in the third heaven, and had heard things unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He has written a major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every Christian, “Give thyself to reading.” The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains proves he has no brains of his own.”
Since we have been commanded by God in 2 Timothy 2:15 to rightly handle the Word, this is a privilege we can’t afford to ignore. Again, I quote from Spurgeon who wrote at the beginning of his book Commenting and Commentaries on the importance of commentaries for the pastor.
“In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have labored before you in the field of exposition…. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”
So, allow me to exhort you (not as one who has seen farther, but as one who is still trying to climb higher to view and worship the majesty of our glorious God), study the Scriptures for they are the final revelation of God. However, don’t neglect to read the works of God-gifted men from the past and present, for by climbing on their shoulders you may be able to see farther than you ever have before.
Steve Weaver (Ph.D., SBTS) serves as the senior pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. He also serves as an adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. A revised and expanded edition of his dissertation was recently published as Orthodox, Puritan, Baptist: Hercules Collins (1647-1702) and Particular Baptist Identity in Early Modern England (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).