The Necessary Evil of Christian Books?

The first person who told me he didn’t read Christian books had no shoes on. It was my first Sunday at university, at the Christian Union’s church-search, where awkward undergrads lined up for a kind of spiritual speed-dating, and inter-church politics simmered just beneath the surface. Having once been in charge of the youth group library (which consisted mainly of copies of Jesus Freaks, The Case for Christ, and pirated CDs with compilations of Switchfoot and DC Talk) I was, to be sure, taken aback. A steady supply of “good Christian books” was a key part of being “solid” or “sound”, as far as I was concerned (and who would want to be further concerned than that?) The lack of footwear didn’t help the young man’s overall trustworthiness in my mind–the same way that I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who calls Christ “Yeshua”. If he did read any Christian books, he told me, it would be someone old–a Spurgeon, or somebody. Perhaps in spite of myself, I followed my new bootless, bookless acquaintance across town, and found the church I settled in for the whole of my university career. We still talk occasionally.

And so I realised that perhap (just perhaps) Christian books were not essential to one’s godliness. Immensely helpful they may be, but they are not the Bible. Of course preaching isn’t the Bible either. But the Scriptures have a clear, demanded place for preaching. Not so much with Christian books.

Years later, I have found that my shoeless friend was, surprisingly, in good company with Martin Luther and John Calvin, who had one or two things to say about putting the Gospel into writing. In a chapter on the ministry of the Word from his book The Church in the Theology of the Reformers (a formative text in the foundation of the Davenant project), Paul Avis writes about it:

“It is not enough for the Church to possess and study the Scriptures: their message must be proclaimed orally, for the oral word is the original and authentic medium for the good news. As Luther says, ‘The gospel must not only be written; on the contrary, it must be proclaimed with the physical voice’ (WA 8.33). It is ‘not at all in conformity with the New Testament to write books about Christian doctrine’. Before committing their message to writing, the apostles had preached to the people in person and converted them ‘with the physical voice’. The writing of books is therefore a necessary evil (WA 10 I. 625ff.). The Holy Spirit speaks–as Luther knew so well from his own experience of unremitting labour on the Greek text of the New Testament–to those who read the word of God as well as tot shoe who hear it, and ‘in this way, speaking and writing become identical’; but the fact remains, in Luther’s view, that the oral word is more powerful than the written word. ‘By means of the written word, however,’ Luther admits, ‘you can communicate with people more than a hundred miles distant from you’ (LW 22.473). And Calvin takes a similar view, asserting not perhaps the priority, as with Luther, but at least the indispensability of the oral word: ‘Though the law was written, yet God would have the living voice always to resound in his Church, just as today, the Scripture is conjoined with preaching as by an invisible bond’ (CO 24.453).

There is, according to Luther, something inappropriate about putting the gospel into books: good news should be uttered spontaneously from the heart not entombed in ponderous tomes: ‘The gospel should really not be something written, but a spoken word… This is why Christ himself did not write anything but only spoke. He called his teaching not Scripture but gospel, meaning good news or a proclamation that is spread not by pen but by word of mouth’ (LW 35.123).”[1]

There’s a lot in there. Luther’s not diminishing writing as such, because that would mean diminishing the Scriptures. But, in God’s design for the means of grace, he’s made it such that the written Word must, in the regular running of things, be proclaimed in the spoken word of preaching. Of course, reading Scripture alone can and does bring new life. We should take note of Paul’s ordering in 1 Timothy 4:13: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” The sheer reading of Scripture is key, and is instructed first. But exhortation and teaching are hot on its heels in God’s design for church ministry.

Where do Christian books fit in here? Luther (typically) perhaps overstates his case by saying that books about Christian doctrine are “not at all in conformity with the New Testament”, but it is true to say that they don’t fit into any recognised category of things we must do in Scripture. They are but one way of doing things that we are instructed to do–teaching, rebuking, training in righteousness, and all that. Books are to teaching what small groups are to community: one way of doing things, which modern evangelicalism often seems to think is the only way of doing things.

The benefit, as Luther says, is that books allow us to communicate with those absent from us. In this way, they are a necessary evil. The ideal is that we could receive all our doctrinal instruction in person, but for most this just isn’t possible.

There’s a warning here for people (and I’m one of them) who are inclined to live in books, and to chase their spiritual nourishment in somewhere other than the preached word on a Sunday. Luther’s not saying that every word of every sermon you hear is full of rich, nourishing doctrinal truth. Sermons which are fundamentally faithful to the Gospel can still be facile, or trite, or downright wrong in ways that preachers are responsible for. And yet, hidden in the imperfections of a poorly spoken word, is God himself.

I’m certainly not someone who wants to come down hard on Christian books–I edit and publish them for a living at the Davenant Press (and they are, mostly, books written by old dead guys). But those of us who live in books need to keep a right perspective on where they fit into the New Testament’s outline for the life of the church.

  1. Paul D.L Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers (London: Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1979), 82-83.


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