There is something impertinent about writing for fellow ministers on “the importance of keeping spiritually renewed and refreshed in mind as well as in spirit.” The need is undeniable. But who feels qualified to exhort busy men to still more effort?

Let us then take refuge immediately behind a row of books—four well-known and rewarding volumes that most men of fifty will have within reach.

E. F. Scott’s The Fourth Gospel was a seed-book, and still after sixty years it is stimulating, provoking, delightful to read, sending one back to John if only to refute Scott!

James Moffatt’s Introduction to the New Testament was monumental, summarizing a hundred books, and citing (surely) a thousand, setting all New Testament study on higher ground. It is a weird collection of the radical, the fantastic, the illuminating, all possible and impossible theories, and brilliant suggestions, and it provided the groundwork for the New Testament’s first great breakthrough into modern speech. It is superseded now, except as a history of New Testament studies, but no one will ever measure what modern Bible-lovers owe to James Moffatt.

R. W. Dale’s Atonement was a teething ring for many evangelicals, a fairly stiff introduction to theological ways, enlightening as a scriptural survey and philosophical enough to persuade more than one earnest young man that the “old, old Gospel” was intellectually respectable. Though dated now, in its day it was a magnificent protest against subjective theories of the Cross.

J. S. Stewart’s A Man in Christ was a brook by the traveler’s way: rich, refreshing, modern, scholarly, heart-warming. Taken up for study, it served for devotion, most of all perhaps by keeping Paul close to the life he really lived, in all its depth, struggle, and achievement, instead of making him a theological academic.

These four great books, to which (whether we have read them or not) we are all indebted, through our teachers or through other books, have one thing in common: each was written in the pastorate.

They were all manse-produced—thought out on the parish streets, jotted down on doorsteps, researched in the manse study or the living room with the children calling outside the window and the doorbell ringing. E. F. Scott down at quiet Prestwick beside the western sea; R. W. Dale in the midst of an English metropolis teeming with problems and politics; Moffatt along the silvery Tay outside developing Dundee; James Stewart in haughty, demanding Edinburgh.

These four books made three important points: (1) It is possible to study in the pastorate. (2) One strong stimulus to study is writing. It is a craft to wrestle with, but a ministry too, and one without parish boundaries. A word with a local editor about topical matters seen by alert Christian eyes; a magazine article tailored to the intended readership; a paper thoroughly prepared for the local fraternal organization—these may provide the spur to read and think in ways the sermon never demands. (3) One remarkable feature of these four books is the way they relate theology to the living Church, to living, breathing Christians. Stewart declared it an advantage to be writing of Paul amid the pressures of a busy city pastorate. Scott mediated to Britain the radical conclusions of Continental theology, but transmuted into positive, illuminating thought, because he knew the pressing needs of a worshiping church. Dale saw that the doctrine of the Cross must be tested on the consciences of ordinary Christians, and insisted that to be apostolic it must be preachable. Moffatt determined to give his people the Word of God in their own tongue—Scottish accent and all! We would be spared a lot of theological nonsense if every textbook were tested in a living congregation. It is in the pulpit, and the minister’s study, not in the college lecture room, that Christian doctrine comes alive.

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Four manse-produced books of such scholarship and power may perhaps pitch the key a little too high for ordinary mortal ministers like ourselves. Let us instead ask what inhibits diligent study in the ministry, and answer: pride, fear, or contempt.

Some might add, lack of time. But what we call lack of time for study is merely a different scale of priorities; if we think study important enough, we leave out something else.

Pride inhibits study whenever, by some astonishing inversion of real education, men come out of seminary thinking they know everything. On the one hand, they have reached assured conclusions on all important questions; they know the right reference books, where to find authoritative, “sound” answers—and that is enough. On the other hand, a few years in an average church convince them they are already so far ahead of their people intellectually that they need stretch no further. Such an attitude of mind is the best possible proof, not of too much education, but of the incompleteness of education. Years spent in school may teach a man the questions to ask, the techniques for finding answers, a few examples of how it is done, and a mental discipline; then it takes the rest of life to fill the gaps, and to digest the results into an order one can communicate. All the while thought and faith move forward. Only the half-educated imagine themselves too well taught to need more.

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Fear inhibits study: fear of being disturbed, fear of new ideas, new questions, and especially new denials. We call it fear of wasting time on this shallow modern stuff, but it is not really that at all. We read enough modern stuff if we already agree with it—looking for new and “with-it” ways of saying what we have long been accustomed to think. But to wrestle with something we do not like, to grapple with questions and approaches and theories and the intolerable new jargon we temperamentally react against—this needs intellectual courage. To think out once again what you thought you had got clear once and for all demands an honesty of mind that gets increasingly rare within the Church. Yet not to be sure enough of your convictions to give a fair hearing to the opposite point of view is weakness indeed; and to evade that point of view because it disturbs, upsets, or frightens is just cowardice. And it reveals a lack of faith in truth’s wonderful capacity to defend itself.

Contempt inhibits study when we think meanly of our hearers. Sometines one wonders what sort of people the television networks think viewers are. Often one wonders what sort of people some politicians think we are. And sometimes, sitting in the pew, one wonders what sort of people the preacher thinks we are. Does he seriously imagine that we did not know, and could not see for ourselves, what he has labored for twenty minutes to make plainer to himself? Does he think the school teacher behind me, the engineer in the back pew, the minister’s widow across the aisle, even the bright sixth-grader up in the balcony, cannot see the weakness of that argument, the enormousness of those assumptions, the unfairness of that special pleading, the other, very different point of view that ought to have been mentioned?

Often one has to admit that earnestness is not enough!

Carlyle speaks of theologies, rubrics, surplices, and “this enormous and repeated thrashing of the straw.” Does not sermon preparation sometimes descend to mere imposition of a new pattern on the same limited assortment of ideas? The arrangement, the headings, the text are new, but the content is a reshuffling of familiar themes, so that after ten minutes the congregation has caught up and passed, and can see just where the preacher will end! It is no answer to say that this is what our people want—the simple and familiar. That may be true. Sometimes it is also why they stop coming.

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Surely we have now gone far enough in meeting the supposed demand for simplicity and brevity, and are reaping the result in stunted minds and shallow spiritual experience. If the pulpit fare is thin gruel, however attractively served, it is just not worth the trouble (and the expense, these days) to attend service. The old principles still hold: Every sermon must have a clearly defined purpose; plus information, or illumination, or both; and some part, at least six inches over the hearers’ heads, to make them grow. That means digging new veins all the time, reading ahead of our best people.

Three practical steps will aid perseverance:

1. Form a small, intensive seminar group within the church, prepared for discussion, instruction, argument, investigation, on any serious subject—and then keep up with them!

2. Choose one Scripture book; assemble a dozen or so major tools; and spend a whole winter’s private study wrestling with its problems, translating, comparing, absorbing its meaning. (One of my most rewarding experiences was a winter so spent on First John. An almost unknown book slowly came alive as an “Open letter to evangelicals” if ever there was one—relevant, searching, forceful, exceptionally modern. The same thing has happened with Acts, with Romans and Galatians, and with Ephesians.) Later, perhaps a man might preach through the chosen book, or work through it with his study-circle: but not at the time, because that diverts attention and imposes a time schedule. At first, absorb, wrestle, surrender, and let overflow what will.

3. A man should have his own special line—a particular doctrine, biblical theme, period of history, area of Christian concern—on which he reads everything he can lay his hands on. He will become in his immediate circle the expert on that subject. He may become a bore, but for himself, and for what he contributes, it will be worth it.

Behind all we have urged lies theological truth. We of the reformed tradition believe in justification by faith. We believe, that is, in the communication of Christian life—not just socially, in the living fellowship of the church; nor just sacramentally, in the performance of holy rituals; nor just miraculously and mystically within the soul; but in all these ways, conditioned first by faith in a message, a truth, a testimony—a Gospel preached and understood, accepted and believed. Whether we like it or not, this gives a certain intellectual cast to evangelicalism. It demands that we be as clear and comprehensible, as lucid and logical, as eloquent and effective, as well informed and well prepared, as we can possibly be to mediate the saving truth to the minds of men in words and ideas they can respect and understand. For by belief in the things preached they are to be saved.

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Several gospel passages have to do with barrenness—that fatal blight upon ministers and churches alike. Some of them suggest that the cure for barrenness may be to abide more closely in Christ the Vine, to pray more earnestly, to obey more carefully, to confess the sin that robs our work of power. But one parable insists that the cure for the barren tree is—simply and bluntly—to “dung it about.” The cause of barrenness may sometimes be not carelessness, or prayerlessness, or some unspecified and undiscoverable sin, or even laziness, but just plain emptiness, spiritual starvation in the preacher. Sermons can for a long time be constructed like mass-produced chairs, out of pieces shaped by other men—and how grateful we all are for such help. But great preaching is the controlled and directed overflow of a full, rich mind, kindled by truth and impelled to share what it has found. When the mind is empty, the tap drips pathetically.

We are, after all, scribes of the kingdom, who bring forth from our treasure things new and old. We owe it to our call to continue training to the end; we owe it to our people to offer the best that they can take; we owe it to ourselves not to stand still intellectually while the years pass; we owe it to our Lord, who is the living Truth, made unto us wisdom, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

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