Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Books and the Preacher

One of my favorite quotes is from Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of the law of gravity. He said, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (1). Newton saw farther than anyone had before, precisely because he was willing to learn from those who had gone before him. Just imagine what it would be life if all anyone ever knew was the knowledge they accumulated on their own. There would be no electricity, no light bulb, no telephone, no computers, no cars, no airplanes, no space travel, etc. But because men learned from those who had gone before, these inventions and many more were possible. Sadly, many preachers like to work in a vacuum, gleaning nothing from the God-gifted men who have gone before them. God has especially equipped the Body of Christ with teachers, evangelist, and pastors. I thank God for men like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Newton, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and a host of others, who are, without a doubt, God’s gifts to the church! By studying the writings of these gifted men, we are enabled to “stand on their shoulders.”

Ephesians 4:11-13 says,

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (12) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, (13) until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

I don’t think that what Paul said in Ephesians 4 applies only to those living in our generation with us today. Nor do I believe that it only applies to those in the same location. The church universal is much larger than our local congregation. It extends to all those saints, past and present, from east to west that have placed their hope in Christ and His sacrificial atonement alone. Therefore, the teachers, evangelists, and pastors from whom we have the privilege of learning stretch across the 2,000 years of church history (chronologically) and from pole to pole (geographically).

Some may out of false piety downplay the importance of God-honoring books in the Christian life, but when in prison Paul urged Timothy to bring “the books” (2 Tim. 4:13). As the 19th century’s Prince of PreachersCharles Haddon Spurgeon, comments,

He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He has had wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up in the third heaven, and had heard things unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He has written a major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every Christian, ‘Give thyself to reading.’ The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains proves he has no brains of his own (2).

Since we have been commanded by God to rightly handle the Word (2 Timothy 2:15), this is a privilege we can’t afford to ignore. Again I quote from C. H. Spurgeon who said in his book, Commenting and Commentaries:

In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have labored before you in the field of exposition. . . . It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others (3).

So, allow me to exhort you (not as one who has seen farther, but as one who is still trying to climb higher to view and worship the majesty of our glorious God), study the Scriptures for they are the final revelation of God. However, don’t neglect to read the works of the God-gifted men from the past and present, for by climbing on their shoulders you may be able to see farther than you ever have before.

1. Newton to Hooke, 5 Feb. 1676; Corres 1, 416.

2. Charles H. Spurgeon, from sermon #542, “Paul – His Cloak and His Books”

3. Charles H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1969), 1.

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