Over the years people would often come into my office and look at my books.
“Have you read all of these?”
My stock answer was, “I’ve read some of them, but a lot of them are reference books that I use for sermon and lesson preparation.”
That may have sounded odd to my visitors. Most people don’t buy books for “reference.” But the bulk of a pastor’s library consists of Bible reference tools, commentaries, and theological works – most of which are not going to be general reading. However, I also had books I bought on impulse, books I had no intention of reading again, and books that were probably outdated. So there were times when I looked at a book and said to myself, “You probably shouldn’t have bought that book.” I had good intentions, but – well, you know.
Books are expensive, even when you can buy them at discount. Some commentaries and larger theologies list for well over $40. You’re going to face both the need and the opportunity to buy books on a regular basis. How can you build a library that is top-notch: giving you the resources you need while at the same time not filled with books you wish you hadn’t bought?
If I could to start over, this is how I would build my library:
First, I’d begin with some basics. You probably have some or all of these already from your time in Bible College or Seminary.
- An Old Testament and New Testament Introduction
- Two Systematic Theology texts. I like Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. After Grudem, I would probably go with either Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith or John MacArthur’s Biblical Doctrine. There are many solid systematic theology texts available. You might prefer others to the ones I’ve listed.
- A general purpose commentary (one or two volumes). The New Bible Commentary fits the bill.
- A Bible Dictionary
- A Bible Atlas
- Two Study Bibles. My choices would be the ESV Study Bible and The Biblical Theology Study Bible (NIV)
Those books form the foundation of a good library. Some might want a concordance, but they are available in the public domain online.
Next I would begin building the commentary section of my library. My aim would be to pick up the best commentary on each book of the Bible. This is something you do over time, of course. A very helpful resource is Best Commentaries. If you haven’t checked that out, take a look.
The resurgence of interest in Biblical Theology has produced some significant works over the last decade. Westminster Seminary’s bookstore and Amazon can be helpful too, of course. I’d pick up a Biblical Theology of the OT and a Biblical Theology of the NT.
But, that leaves a lot of books on theology, church life, pastoral ministry, preaching, current issues, family life, and the spiritual life. What do you do here? There are exceptions, but I have found that these kinds of books are “read once and put on the shelf.” I’ve given away boxes of books like this. So how can you maximize your resources?
Get Kindle books.
Kindle books tend to be a bit less expensive than their paper counterparts. And if you don’t have a Kindle, that’s no biggie. Amazon provides Kindle apps for Android, IOS, PC, and Mac. Unless you’ve sworn off technology, you’re covered.
Some prefer a physical book to an electronic book. Physical books can be marked up and loaned out. Electronic books can be more limiting. But they can save you a ton of money.
Tim Challies, probably the most prolific (and helpful) Christian blogger, puts together a list of discounted Kindle books nearly every day. I have accumulated scores of books this way for as little as $1.99 each. His A La Carte article is worth checking daily.
Of course there are going to be exceptions. There are books that fit into the general categories I listed above that you may want on your bookshelf. But following this approach will give you what you need AND keep you from having boxes of books to give away because you have no use for them or you haven’t read them (and don’t plan to). And note that I haven’t even touched on the books that are available through software programs like Logos Bible Software, Accordance, or Olive Tree.
The size of your library is far less significant than the quality of the books that are in it. Buy well and you’ll build a resource that will last you through your ministry. Do you have ideas or tips? Leave a comment or contact me.
P.S. If you are a Kindle user, John MacArthur’s Biblical Doctrine can be had for $2.99, at least today (July 30, 2019).