Mark Dever’s Canon of Theologians (Annual Reading Plan)

Thursday morning (4/12/07)
Breakout seminar #2
Mark Dever: “Watch the Past: Living Lessons from Dead Theologians”

GAITHERSBURG, MD – Being one who loves to read the books of dead theologians and preachers, Mark Dever’s session was a personal highlight. The point was to encourage us to broaden our theological and biographical reading to at least 12 different authors, each to be read for one month annually. Dever himself uses a yearly reading plan where he reads a specific author each month of the year (like Augustine in February). Then every April he moves on to John Calvin, reading a new biography or theological work. Each year the reading plan starts over.

For readers of the Together for the Gospel blog, this will sound familiar. On February 1, 2006 Dever wrote a short post titled “An apostolic agenda” outlining this very thing. On Thursday morning at the Sovereign Grace Ministries Leader’s Conference, Dever filled out the details.

Dever began with a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation which outlines some reasons why old books are important. Lewis writes,

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. …

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

With this introduction, Dever launched into his “canon of theologians.” He encouraged us to read on theological issues that are not a particular struggle at the time. Let the theologians talk about what they want to talk about. Dever then outlined his own personal reading plan.

The ‘canon of theologians’

JanuaryEarly church writings (1st-3rd centuries). Recommended reading: Many and various works and authors were mentioned like the Epistle of Dionysius, The Didache, Clement, The Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Penguin paperback, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (0140444750). When asked if he used the early church writings in his expositional research, he said ‘no.’ He is familiar with the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but has not found them exegetically beneficial. [This helps answer an important question we asked earlier this year]. Dever’s use of the early church fathers is predominantly theological and historical.

FebruaryAugustine (354-430). The most influential extra-biblical theologian in the West. Recommended: City of God and The Confessions (Henry Chadwick edition). Dever’s disagreement: That the church is the conduit of salvation. “Augustine got it bad wrong on ecclesiology.”

MarchMartin Luther (1483-1546). Lessons learned: 1. Justification is by faith alone, all of sheer grace. Luther “cleanses the church from the barnacles of traditionalism.” 2. Luther’s boldness. Read biography Here I Stand. Recommended reading: 95 Theses and Bondage of the Will. You can read Bondage of the Will out loud to children and they will be engaged because of the vigorous prose and Luther’s name-calling towards Erasmus (Dever is very funny). Best bio being Here I Stand by Roland Bainton (0452011469).

AprilJohn Calvin (1509-1564). The greatest theologian of the Reformation period. Lessons learned: 1. God’s glory at the center of everything. The world is the “theater” of God’s glory. 2. Centrality of man’s depravity, shown especially in the heart’s perpetual idol production. 3. He was careful with Scripture. Calvin had a very rare combination of gifts that balanced the theological, linguistic, pastoral, and exegetical. 4. He filled both the offices of pastor and scholar. 5. The diligent training of his spiritual children even as he knew sending these pastors back into France would mean certain death [see the concept of “Calvin’s School of Death”]. Disagreements: That the state is responsible for the church. He confused the church and state, a distinction we take for granted today. Recommended: Sermons on the Ten Commandments, commentary on 1 Cor. 12-14, The Institutes of the Christian Religion and anything written by T.H.L. Parker. He does not recommend modern bios of Calvin and especially warned against McGrath.

MayRichard Sibbes (1577-1635). Lessons learned: 1. The tenderness of Christ. The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax a great example of Jesus’ tenderness and it makes for a great read together with your spouse. Sibbes was able to point out evidences of grace very well. 2. “Diagnostic evangelism.” Sibbes continued to hold out the biblical truth of what a genuine Christian looks like and, by consequence, sorted out those who nominally professed faith. By authenticating the Christian life he naturally separated the sheep from the wolves and goats. He was clear that one’s salvation does not come through assurance but rather assurance comes from genuine salvation. Sibbes pointed those who were never converted to run to grace in the Cross. Disagreement: Infant baptism. Recommendations: Sibbes stuttered in his preaching so he kept his sentences relatively short and this makes him easier to read than his contemporaries. Start with the sermons in volume seven of his collected works.

June John Owen (1616-1683) and John Bunyan (1628-1688). John Owen is known for his argument on limited atonement in Death of Death. It’s a good book to scare Arminians, but there exist better exegetical ways to argue for limited atonement. Lesson learned: Linger with Scripture. “Diligent meditation reaps great rewards.” Dever especially recommends the Owen volumes by Kris Lundgaard (The Enemy Within and Through the Looking Glass) and those by Kapic and Taylor (Overcoming Sin and Temptation). … John Bunyan was a “pot-repairer with extraordinary preaching gifts.” Bunyan clearly expresses himself without the use of long, Latin sentences. His life was marked by a sincere pastoral concern. Recommended: Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (autobiographical) and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress being a “great systematic theology” built around the “centrality of heaven.”

JulyJonathan Edwards (1703-1758). There are many lessons and warnings from the life of Jonathan Edwards. Lessons learned: 1. Diligent meditation. “Edwards can stare at an idea” and has “a powerful ability to think out and illustrate” that idea. An excellent example of this is Edward’s sermon The Excellency of Christ. 2. Edwards demonstrates a zeal for the purity of the church. 3. Understands the connection between his ministry and his congregation. In his Farewell Sermon, after Edwards was fired, he tells his congregation “I’ll see you before the throne.” Disagreements: 1. Infant baptism. 2. The logic of God’s centrality seemed a bit philosophical rather than always biblical. 3. He shows some pastoral carelessness especially with the “young folks’ Bible” controversy [see chapter 18 in George Marsden’s biography]. Nevertheless, Edwards demonstrates a powerful ability to think out and illustrate. Read his sermons and especially his sermon The Nakedness of Job which he wrote when he was 18 years old! As an interesting side note, Dever has preached an Edwards sermon to his congregation. On October 5, 2003 he took Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, marked up the manuscript as he would his own and preached it. You can listen to the final product here.

AugustC.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Lessons learned: 1. Evangelism. Spurgeon preached the gospel from any and every text. “More than anyone else, I think of Spurgeon when I prepare my sermons.” Preach each sermon as though someone may be converted. 2. His life is filled with stories of God’s kindness upon his ministry. Read Spurgeon’s autobiography and be amazed at the stories. Spurgeon’s autobiography “may be the most fun thing to read apart from Scripture.” It will encourage you to see that we have a glorious God. 3. He had a lively faith. Spurgeon had “a heightened God-consciousness.” Even in the midst of a prolonged depression, Spurgeon shows that depression drives a faithful Christian to God. Read his Morning and Evening devotional.

SeptemberB.B. Warfield (1851-1921). “Warfield strengthens my faith.” Like John Calvin, Warfield had a wonderful mix of scholarship and piety. Disagreements include infant baptism and Presbyterian polity.

OctoberMartyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981). Not much in disagreement. Lessons learned: 1. Gave his life to preaching and lived confident in the power of God’s Word. 2. Deadly earnest. It was no light thing for him to preach. The pulpit was the “desk of God.” Recommended: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Preaching and Preachers, Spiritual Depression and his biography by Iain Murray.

NovemberC.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003). Because time ran short, Dever simply finished off his list of writers he reads in November and December without further comment or recommendation.

December – Contemporary authors like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Iain Murray, R.C. Sproul and John Piper.

Conclusions

This breakout session encourages me to pursue the study of the early church writers, although I’ve become more convinced that they will not prove as helpful in my expositional research and sermon preparation as others. It also encourages me to narrow my focus to a handful of great writers and focus attention on their writings each year. I’m in the process of creating my own “canon of theologians” for annual study.

27 thoughts on “Mark Dever’s Canon of Theologians (Annual Reading Plan)

  1. This is good stuff, Tony. Thanks. His reading plan for the year sounds, in good part, like a lot of titles sitting behind me here in the Banner of Truth warehouse … John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, John Owen, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, C.H. Spurgeon, B.B. Warfield, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Iain Murray. If you think anyone would be interested, I can certainly get our our book list/catalog to you that you could post for others to download. Let me know.

    [UPDATE: here is the book catalog in PDF format]

  2. This is very, very interesting because Al Mohler recently posted ten great Christian biographies on his blog and included McGrath’s biography of Calvin. Hmm, perhaps there needs to be a little brainstorming between Dever and Mohler.

  3. “On October 5, 2003 he took Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, marked up the manuscript as he would his own and preached it.”

    I’ve been pondering this very thing. In fact, I think pastors might want to read a classic sermon (Luther, Spurgeon, Edwards, Calvin, etc) once or twice a year. It would expose the people to great old works and give the pastor a little bit of a break.

  4. Indeed Chris. Dever mentioned in this session that when he completed the sermon he asked some people what they thought and surprisingly the hearers did not think of it as an antiquated sermon at all. I’ve heard people who struggle to read the original Pilgrim’s Progress are greatly encouraged when they listen to the audio book. It’s an interesting phenomenon that trying to read an old and daunting work may be more intimidating than listening to a preacher preach an old sermon. And, as you said, this would certainly encourage people to then READ Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, etc. after finding their works understandable to the ear. … If I ever get the chance, I would love to preach Spurgeon’s “Without Money and Without Price” sermon. Thanks for stopping in! -Tony

  5. Nice to see a renewed interest in historic Christian theology. I particularly love the Lewis quote! Three comments:

    1) While I too love and treasure the 1st-3rd Century works and authors listed, most of them are not actually theological works – at least not as we would use the term today.

    2) It is interesting that Dever does not use the early church writings in his expositional research – or find the quotes from the fathers in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture “exegetically beneficial”. I find it odd that Dever considers these writings – written as the canon of New Testament Scripture was in the process of being formed – useful for theology, but not for exegesis or exposition… but then this is admittedly an oddity that Dever shares with most modern Biblical exegetes. Perhaps he should read that wonderful Lewis quote again… :-)

    3) What happened between 340 and 1517? Is there nothing worthy of repeated reading between Augustine and Luther?

    May God richly bless the renewed interest in the roots and the history of our faith!

  6. Hello Fr. Justin. 2) I don’t find this odd at all. Like Dever, I’m simply not drawn to a clearer understanding of the text of Scripture with the early writings of the church. It’s not that they misunderstood the text necessarily, just that their comments seem largely vague and undeveloped. Great for studying the development of theology but not as beneficial exegetically as other commentaries. 3) Certainly there are helpful writers here but not of the contemporary value as those mentioned. Traditionalism (like Mariology) ran unconfronted for many centuries sadly skewing exegesis and theology. It was dark. Thanks for your comments. Tony

  7. There is indeed much light between Augustine and Luther, as Luther himself attested to, as did Calvin. We need only think of Bernard of Clairvaux.

    Let’s also not forget that the Reformed tradition, and especially the English Puritans, found a great treasure in Medieval Scholasticism. John Preston deeply admired Thomas Aquinas, and was so eager that he took him to the barber and brushed his hair from the pages as he devoured the Doctor Angelicus. Even where the Puritans criticize the schoolmen, they can’t help but praise them as well, especially Thomas, but also Duns Scotus.

    We can’t write off the medieval period. It is unwise to do so.

    Further, it is indeed problematic for someone of the reformed persuasion to argue that the church fathers are not exegetically useful. I can only imagine what Calvin, or Luther, or Bucer, or Bullinger would say to that. They would be nonplussed, I’m sure.

    But even beyond that, how is it that a writing may be theologically beneficial but not exegetically beneficial? What does it mean to benefit theologically without benefiting in a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures? Can we grow more theologically astute without becoming better students of Scripture?

    You insert a divide between theology and an “understanding of Scripture” that is unsettling; if theology does not lead us to Scripture it is of no value whatsoever. A text that is theologically valuable and weighty will invariably deepen the judicious reader’s commitment to and understanding of Scripture. If this is not the case, of what value is theology?

    To say that a text has no power to deepen one’s understanding of Scripture is to say that it is theologically inert.

    Pax Christi.

  8. Tom, John Owen is probably most helpful here by giving honor where it’s due but also reminding us that early church biblical expositions are conflicting and have been greatly improved since the Reformation. Owen writes that the great need of the church is the further advancement of biblical exegesis. “the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard, which any holy and learned man can engage himself in, is to endeavor the contribution of farther light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof.” …

    “The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation [in Roman Catholic interpretation]. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest so to do. No man of ingenuity who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretense; for it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely; in the latter they really differ, and that frequently. Those who seem most earnestly to press this dogma upon us are those of the church of Rome; and yet it is hard to find one learned man among them who hath undertaken to expound or write commentaries on the Scripture, but on all occasions he gives us the different senses, expositions, and interpretations of the fathers, of the same places and texts, and that where any difficulty occurs in a manner perpetually. But the pretense of the authoritative determination of the fathers in points of religion hath been so disproved, and the vanity of it so fully discovered, as that it is altogether needless farther to insist upon it. … Of those who designedly wrote comments and expositions on any part of the Scripture, Origen was the first, whose fooleries and mistakes, occasioned by the prepossession of his mind with platonical philosophy, confidence of his own great abilities (which, indeed, were singular and admirable), with the curiosity of a speculative mind, discouraged not others from endeavoring with more sobriety and better success to write entire expositions on some parts of the Scripture: such among the Greeks were Chrysostom, Theodoret, Aretine, Oecumenius, Theophylact; and among the Latins, Jerome, Ambrose, Austin, and others. These have been followed, used, improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages. Especially since the Reformation hath the work been carried on with general success, and to the great advantage of the church; yet hath it not proceeded so far but that the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard, which any holy and learned man can engage himself in, is to endeavor the contribution of farther light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof.”

    – John Owen (1678), Works 4:227-228

  9. Dear Spurgeon,

    Thank you for the Owen quote

    There is no doubt that the church fathers disagree with each other, as do the Reformers.

    Even so, the question to be asked is whether in their own exegesis the Reformers made extensive use of the church fathers. The answer, of course, is yes. Calvin’s dependence upon the fathers is evident in both his Institutes and his commentaries. As with Owen, Calvin freely disagrees with patristic sources where necessary, but this in no way diminishes his sense of indebtedness to them. At one point Calvin considered translating Chrysostom into French.

    The selection of Owen you have presented must be understood within its place as a piece of polemic against Rome. In other instances he, along with many other Puritan writers (Watson is one that comes to mind), is much more optimistic towards patristic sources. The Puritans were widely read in the fathers and knew how to use them for the advantage of the Church. Like the Reformers, the Puritans express an indebtedness to the fathers when it comes to clarifying Scripture.

    You imply that the advent of the Reformation renders patristic sources obsolete, at least as a means to gaining a clearer “understanding of the text of Scriture”. Insofar as the Reformers’ own Scriptural vision was inextricably tied to and deeply rooted in their vast knowledge of and, at times, affection for the fathers, I think you are mistaken.

    Inasmuch as the writings of the 21st century do not justify our neglect of 16th and 17th century treasures, neither should the invaluable documents of the Reformation encourage us to dismiss the patristic era as a means to deepen our knowledge of and commitment to Scripture.

    Of course we must be judicious and discerning readers of the fathers. Even so, men like Nazianzen have much to teach us about the Word of God. If you haven’t read his Theological Orations, I would recommend you do so.

    There are treasures to be found in the patristic era, as the Reformers were well aware. What a tragedy to ignore them!

    Pax

  10. Thank you for your thoughts Tom. Give us a list of the best patristic books you’ve come across. You mention Gregory Nazianzen. Do you have a list of others? Blessings

  11. “You insert a divide between theology and an “understanding of Scripture” that is unsettling…” Bravo, Tom! If theology is not based on the revelation of Christ, it is at best philosophy and at worst speculation.

    And I would take your comment that “it is indeed problematic for someone of the reformed persuasion to argue that the church fathers are not exegetically useful” one step further… It is problematic for a Christian of any persuasion to argue that the church fathers are not exegetically useful when one considers that it was the Church of the church fathers that established the current canon of Scripture! If the church fathers so misunderstood the Scriptures as to render their commentaries exegetically useless, how can their consensus on what books and epistles were inspired be trusted?

    As for Owen’s anti-Roman polemic, your addition “as do the Reformers” to the summary that “the church fathers disagee with each other” is marvellously succinct! The “consensus” of the church fathers is not to be understood as complete agreement on everything – rather, where they do agree, it is unwise to strike out one one’s own against them. As C.S. Lewis said in his introduction to Mere Christianity (paraphrasing, as I don’t have the text in front of me): “If I’ve written anything new, I didn’t mean to.” Or, as the apostle Paul says (again paraphrasing), “the Gospel did not begin with us!”

    Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the John Owen quote is not so much its polemical nature as the assumption of superior understanding (“chronological snobbery”, as Lewis might put it) which undergirds it. This is exactly the “blind spot” that Lewis is encouraging us to avoid by reading old books – as Spurgeon quotes: “Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.”

  12. My friend Mark, reading this, suggested that I clarify that when I refer to Owen’s “assumption of superior understanding”, I am referring specifically to his assumption that the modern (in his day) systematic exposition of the Scriptures is necessarily superior to the patristic approach(es) to Scriptural exposition – it is in this respect that I would suggest that Owen shares a very current temporal blind spot with us.

    “I am a friend of all seekers of truth,
    And of all men of pity, from Boaz to Ruth
    And so, in this pitiless time of ‘true lies’,
    I rejoice to find friends that have opened their eyes.”

    Thank you, Tom and Tony (and Mark!), for an enjoyable and stimulating discussion!

  13. [...] purposed.  I have been thinking through what Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, does when it comes to reading good books.  I like his idea of concentrating on a different theologian or time period every month.  I have [...]

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