Expanding the Christian Home Library
A previous article identified three books as foundational to the Christian home library:
- the Bible
- the hymnal
- Luther’s Catechism
This article offers advice for selecting additional books that build upon that foundation. Specifically, the next three categories of books are suggested:
- Doctrinal Summaries
- Devotional Books
- Study Bibles and Bible Study Aids
Jesus charged His disciples with the responsibility to make more disciples by “teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). St. Paul, the early church’s chief apostle to the Gentiles, fulfilled this “Great Commission” when “declar[ing] the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Paul’s Epistle to the Romans provides the most systematic treatment of Christian doctrine found in the New Testament. The three ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian—provide brief summaries of the major points of Christian doctrine, as did the Didache, a summary produced roughly a century after the time of the apostles. Today, this tradition continues in the form of doctrinal handbooks which systematically treat various themes, such as: the triune nature of God; His work of creation, redemption, and sanctification; original sin; justification by faith alone; the Sacraments; the end times (also called eschatology); etc.
For younger readers (perhaps starting in the upper elementary grades, but certainly by high school), Lutheranism 101 provides a good introduction to major doctrinal themes and the liturgical practices that aid in preserving those doctrines. This series of books also is suitable for adults newer to the faith. For a more more comprehensive, and challenging, text, try Koehler’s A Summary of Christian Doctrine, which Lutheran colleges (and occasionally high schools) have assigned for doctrine courses. Koehler’s work follows a clear outline of topics and subtopics, directing the reader back to both Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions to demonstrate points of doctrine. Koehler essentially does in one medium-sized volume what John Theodore Mueller’s Christian Dogmatics accomplished in one long volume. Mueller’s work had condensed the four-volume set by Francis Pieper under the same title. Pieper’s writing actually spanned only three volumes, with volume four being a 1,025-page index, but no matter the length, its frequent employment of Latin theological terminology, and occasional quotations in German, prevent it from being accessible to the relaxed reader. For decades seminaries required pastors-in-training to read Pieper, but most laypeople will find Koehler’s more accessible book to be sufficient for the needs of their household—leaving Pieper to the family’s pastor whenever questions arise.
Lyle Lange’s For God So Loved the World maintains the systematic arrangement employed by Koehler and earlier writers while expanding the prose into flowing paragraphs and also addressing the unique challenges of the early twenty-first century. For a focused exploration of the relationship between justification and sanctification, with an emphasis on the Reformation “solas” of “grace alone” by “faith alone” in “Christ alone,” C.F.W. Walther’s Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel remains a stalwart reference a century and half after its first publication. Thankfully Concordia Publishing House has produced a “Reader’s Edition” with a commentary for guiding laypeople into what originated as lectures for seminary students.
Of course, the definitive summaries of Lutheran doctrine are to be found not in any of the books mentioned thus far but rather in the Lutheran Confessions themselves, as published in the Book of Concord, dating back to the 1500s. The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition stands out among other reprintings for its clear translation, its useful historical introductions, and its beautiful illustrations—ranging from Albrecht Dürer woodcuts for each section of the Small Catechism to altar pieces by Lucas Cranach. Assuming that the reader already has studied both the Small and the Large Catechisms (as recommended in a previous article concerning the Christian home library), the next sections to explore within the Book of Concord should be the Augsburg Confession (distinguishing Lutheran from Roman Catholic doctrine) and the Epitome of the Formula of Concord (distinguishing Lutheran from Calvinist and Anabaptist doctrines). The progression from easier to more challenging texts would then continue with the Smalcald Articles before progressing with the Apology of the Augsburg Confession and the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord. The Reader’s Edition also suggests other reading plans for laypersons seeking to incorporate the Book of Concord into their devotional practices.
Doctrinal summaries intentionally were presented before devotionals in this article, since any devotion book must be faithful to doctrinal standards in order to be truly useful (and, for that matter, safe) for the Christian. The Lutheran Book of Prayer provides a rich variety of prayers for various occasions bound in a small book that travels easily. For a fuller devotional book that contains readings keyed to each day of the church year, the Christian home has several excellent options. Nils Jacob Laache’s Book of Family Prayer, popular in nineteenth-century Norway and coming to America in the hands of Norwegian Lutheran immigrants, includes a prayer, a Scripture reading, a two-page devotion, and a hymn for each day of the church year, plus additional prayers for major festival days. Many of the hymn verses are not available elsewhere in English, but have been beautifully translated by Mark DeGaremeaux. Carl Manthey-Zorn’s Manna, another classic from over a century ago, similarly combines Scripture passages, hymns, prayers, and devotional commentaries, including a comprehensive review of the entire catechism. Treasury of Daily Prayer has much in common with the preceding devotionals while also including excerpts from the writings of the early church fathers and chants from the Psalter. A family would be thrice-blessed by progressing through one of these devotional books each year.
For parents desiring to read a simpler devotion to their young children, Little Visits with God remains a time-tested classic, but as with most devotional books for children, parents should take care to emphasize the grace and mercy of God (Gospel) over lessons in virtue (Law). The Little Visits series also includes a number of recent editions worth exploring. To engage young listeners, and young readers, with Scripture itself, The Story Bible provides 130 lessons from Bible history, closely tracking the English Standard Version. The full-page, color illustrations draw the interest of pre-readers and hold the interest of young readers. As children mature, the Primary Bible History and Children’s Bible History will assist in building biblical literacy as parents mentor their children in developing the spiritual discipline of reading from Scripture daily.
Study Bibles and Bible Study Aids
The Christian book market is saturated with study Bibles—coming from a variety of doctrinal viewpoints and aimed at an ever-narrowing audience (the woman’s study Bible, the teen’s study Bible, the pre-teen’s study Bible, the adolescent-suburbanite-whose-father-drives-a-yellow-sedan-study Bible, well, not quite that narrow, at least not yet). Study Bibles are common gifts at confirmation and sometimes are required for religion courses in Christian high schools and colleges. So, what should one look for in study Bible?
The most helpful study aids in any study Bible generally will be the cross-references, concordances, maps and time lines, and topical indexes:
Cross-references, typically appearing in the margins beside the Bible passage, but sometimes located in footnotes, indicate other passages that have identical or similar phrasing or that touch upon the same theme or topic. By following a chain of cross-references, the reader can “let Scripture interpret Scripture” in order to better understand and appreciate the meaning of the text. The Thompson Chain Reference Bible has developed this concept more fully than any other study Bible, but all study Bibles incorporate cross-references to some degree.
Concordances list Bible verses alphabetically by key words that they contain. Where can one find “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”? Look up “wages” or “gift” in the concordance and this passage will be identified as Romans 6:23. While each study Bible contains a concordance large enough to locate well-known passages, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance identifies every passage by every word in that passage. Moreover, James Strong meticulously keyed each word from the English translation to the underlying Hebrew or Greek term. For ease of use among those who have not learned Biblical languages, the terms are identified by special code numbers plus English transliterations (that is, spelling out the Hebrew or Greek words by using the English alphabet). A person who knows no language other than English can, thereby, distinguish which instances translated as “love” represent Greek term #26, agape, translated in Strong’s as “the active love of God for his Son and his people, and the active love his people are to have for God, each other, and even enemies.” Christians may be familiar with the definition of “unconditional love” that often is attached to agape; a perusal of the instances cataloged by Strong’s suggests that “relentless, never-ending love” also would be an appropriate translation of agape as it appears in John 3:16, Ephesians 4:15, and the like. Whether starting in English, Hebrew, or Greek, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance has the tools necessary for tracing out every use of a particular term and demonstrating the distinction between that and similar terms—such as comparing agape to #5373 philia (love in the sense of friendship). To consider another example, are “pastors,” “bishops,” and “elders” the same or do they refer to distinct offices in the New Testament? Look up each one in English. Then trace out the underlying Greek terms to discover every occurrence in the New Testament. Voila! The Bible itself will reveal the answer with a little navigational help from Strong’s.
Maps and Time Lines demonstrate the where and the when that have provided the context for God’s work of salvation. Christianity is rooted in tangible fact. The Christian Gospel literally bridges heaven and earth, eternity and history. Maps generally are more reliable than time lines, however, since chronology has suffered from greater scholarly dispute than geography. Although few study Bibles continue to endorse it today, the 4,000-year Old Testament chronology developed in Bishop Ussher’s Annals of the World has strong arguments in its favor. In presenting a slightly revised version of Ussher’s chronology, Floyd Nolen Jones’s Chronology of the Old Testament has ably refuted the prevailing chronology employed by most study Bibles today, namely, Edwin Thiele’s attempted synchronization of the kings of Israel and Judah in The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. Some of the details may seem to be of minor importance, but ultimately both the inerrancy and the preservation of the Scriptures are at stake; Thiele did a fine job in many respects, but in a few crucial places he favored a mid-twentieth-century consensus in the archaeological study of ancient Assyria over the preserved words of the Hebrew Old Testament, dismissing the Hebrew text as a scribal error and even suggesting an intentional scribal manipulation of the text in one place. Unfortunately, most materials sold in Christian bookstores today follow Thiele’s chronology (with its telltale date of 930 B.C. rather than 975 B.C. for the division of Solomon’s kingdom between Rehoboam and Jeroboam; the two chronologies also differ occasionally as to which northern and southern kings ruled simultaneously). The preference for a 430-year rather than a 215-year sojourn in Egypt reveals a similar departure from letting Scripture interpret Scripture toward letting archaeologists’ current theories re-interpret Scripture. Jones’s explanations of the pertinent Bible passages (with attention to Hebrew and Greek, and a correction to modern English translations) provide a solid defense of the 215-year sojourn in Egypt, preceded by a 215-year sojourn in Canaan, for a 430-year total sojourn spanning from Abraham’s arrival in Canaan (1921 B.C.) to Moses’s departure from Egypt (1491 B.C.). In view of these discrepancies, it may be wise to consider the chronological indications in most study Bibles to be accurate to within a couple of centuries around the time of Abraham and accurate to around fifty years during the era of the divided kingdom; New Testament dates likely are accurate to within about five years.
Topical indexes guide readers into finding all the miracles of Christ, all the festivals of the Jewish year, a list of the major Messianic prophesies in the Old Testament and their fulfillments in the New Testament, and the like. Such lists can virtually serve as a Bible study or home devotion unto themselves.
Study Bibles also provide other notable features, including the commentaries that introduce each book and footnotes that explain the meaning of key verses. Typically, however, these features tend to be less reliable than cross-references, concordances, maps, and topical indexes, since they offer more opportunity for the editor or commentator to inject a biased perspective. When shopping for a study Bible, examine carefully the way that the study notes address passages such as Genesis 1–2, Jonah 1:17–2:10, Matthew 26:26–28, Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, and Revelation 20:1–6. Compare the treatment of those topics—Creation, miracles, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and End Times—in Koehler’s or Lange’s doctrinal text with how it is treated in the study Bible. The Lutheran Study Bible easily outranks most competitors in this regard.
The Proper Distinction between Norma Normans and Norma Normata
While building and expanding a Christian home library, the distinction between Scripture and all other books must keep firmly in mind. Lutheran theologians refer to the Lutheran Confessions of the sixteenth century as the norma normata, or “standardized standard,” of the Christian faith. “Standardized according to what?” you may ask. The confessions have been standardized according to Holy Scripture, which is the norma normans, or “standardizing standard” by which Lutherans—both clergy and laity—have determined that the Confessions may reliably guide the church’s teaching and practice. In a similar manner, the Scriptures must serve as the “sole rule and norm” (to quote the Formula of Concord) by which to judge the accuracy and reliability of any other books included in one’s Christian home library.
The suggestions given above are, then, merely suggestions, and the value of those books ultimately will be proven by how well their contents hold up to a constant revisiting of the Scriptures themselves. May God bless the journey.
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Mankato, Minnesota, where he teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.
TAGS: Home Devotions, Homeschooling
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