Jacob from Olive Branch, Mississippi, writes in to ask, “Dear Pastor John, I’m a twenty-year-old college student. I love to read theology, but sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to do. I especially enjoy reading Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. Reading theology, however, is hard. It’s not like other genres where you can read large passages straight through. I often find myself splitting my reading into short segments. My question is how do you, Pastor John, read the works of men like Owen and Edwards? What tips do you have for people like myself who enjoy it but struggle with it?”
If by struggle, Jacob, you mean when reading Owen and Edwards you must slow down and take it in smaller sections, so that you can ponder it and digest it, then this is the kind of struggle I think everybody should have — not must have, but should have. That kind of reading is exactly the way I think Owen and Edwards should be read.
I said almost everybody — you know, almost everybody should read it like that, because there are a few geniuses in the world, alright? I know that. Some of them have asked me why I do certain things like this. I say, “Because I am a cripple. I use a crutch because I am a cripple. I am not like you.” So a genius can read maybe fifty pages at a sitting, remember it all, understand it all, reproduce it all, use it all. I am not like that — neither are most human beings.
So no one should measure himself by people like that. Nobody should build seminary curricula for people like that. Nobody should assign reading lists for people like that. Nobody should develop pedagogy for people like that. There are only one or two in the world — now, maybe ten or a hundred or a thousand. But they are not in our classes. They are not in our churches, by and large. They can make their own way. They don’t need anybody to plan anything for them. So you and I, Jacob, we are normal. And we need to talk about this. So thank you for asking the question.
Edwards and Owen in Digestible Bits
So back to the question: How do I read Owen and Edwards, and what tips do I have for you to read them if you are struggling with longer sections? And since I am one of you, my answer to the first question — how do I read — really is the answer to the second question: What are my tips for you? So I will simply give you some specific examples that I remember from reading Owen and Edwards.
Back in the late seventies, when I bought my first-edition two volumes of Edwards — they were published in 1974 by Banner of Truth. I probably got them in ’77. I can’t remember exactly what year. And I decided, having flipped through the first volume, “Okay, I want to read The Doctrine of Original Sin. There it is: tiny print, two columns, many, many pages. How shall I do this?” And I knew that I had little time for extra-curricular reading on top of all of my class preparations and everything. (I was teaching at Bethel College.)
And so I decided I would read The Doctrine of Original Sin by Jonathan Edwards fifteen minutes a day. I think it was just before supper that I set apart — a little alarm on my clock, ding, 5:15 — then I am going to go up and eat at 5:30. Start reading Edwards now; stop fifteen minutes later. I got it out and I looked, and it is just marked all up, underlined; it has got notes in the margins; it has got exclamation points; it has got comments; it has got lines drawn. You can’t do that at fifty pages a shot. You can’t read like that.
I did the same thing in 1973 (this is earlier now) with an old musty copy of Religious Affections because the two volumes hadn’t been published yet. I was in Germany during graduate school. It was my Sunday evening church service, by myself, in a rocking chair in the corner of my room in Munich, Germany, reading once a week. And it took me a long time to get through that book. It was glorious. It was life changing to meet Edwards slowly in little chunks in Religious Affections.
Here is one more example. When I came to Bethlehem to be the pastor in 1980, I wanted to get more clarity on the doctrine of particular redemption. So I put John Owen’s Death of Death from his collected works on my bedside table and resolved, “I will read what I can — a little bit, ten or fifteen minutes — before I go to bed every night.” Now, that’s a strange time to read one of the heaviest books, but I did it. I have got it marked up. It was solidifying and very helpful, and that is the way I have read many things.
Care to Go Deep
So here is a massive hope-giver, I hope, to everybody who is like me, who not only reads slowly, but has a hard time putting pieces together as they read, and has a hard time remembering what they read. I wrote for people like that on page 129 in my book When I Don’t Desire God these words:
Suppose you read slowly like I do — maybe about the same speed that you speak — 200 words a minute. If you read fifteen minutes a day for one year (say just before supper, or just before bed), you will read 5,475 minutes in the year. Multiply that by 200 words a minute, and you get 1,095,000 words that you would read in a year. Now an average serious book might have about 360 words per page. So you would have read 3,041 pages in one year. That’s ten very substantial books. All in fifteen minutes a day.
Or, to be specific, my copy of Calvin’s Institutes has 1,521 pages in two volumes, with an average of 400 words per page, which is 608,400 words. That means that even if you took a day off each week, you could read this great biblical vision of God and man in less than nine months (about thirty-three weeks) at fifteen minutes a day.
So, Jacob, take heart. You call it a struggle. You can drop that word. This is a blessing. It is a gift that you enjoy great theologians, and it is a gift that you can’t breeze through them quickly. The world has enough people in it who read to say they have read. It needs more people who care very little for pace and care very deeply about going deep. So be that kind of reader.
Where to Begin with Edwards
Quickly, for someone new to Edwards, should they start with Charity and Its Fruits?
No, I wouldn’t start with Charity. My wife and I read that in Germany on the couch a little bit every night and, frankly, found it wordy. I don’t think it is written as well as Edwards’s other books. I am not sure why that is. Everybody says Edwards is hard to read. I think Charity, at least in parts of it. The last chapter, “Heaven Is a World of Love,” is in a class by itself. I mean, that is a classic. Everybody should read that even if they don’t read the rest of the chapters.
I would generally say start with some sermons — collections of sermons. But if you are going to take a big book, I would start with Regions Affections. Religious Affections proved to me the most devotionally satisfying of all the works of Edwards. Reading it on a Sunday night in Germany for weeks on end, while my heart was being dismantled by the laying back of the onion of sin and the description of the beauties of holiness. I would just send them there.
If they are very academic types, and they really want to tackle something hard, I think Edwards’s greatest book is The Freedom of the Will. But that is no place for a beginner to start. Devotionally, I think, sermons like “The Excellency of Christ” or “Divine and Spiritual Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul” or “On the Fatherhood of God” or “Christ’s Agony” — those are just sermons that stand out in my memory as precious.