Is there value in other books? Let’s talk about it today on Deeper Waters.
There’s a story about the Muslims destroying the library of Alexandria in 642. Led by ‘Amr ibn al-A’s who said “They (the library’s holdings) will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”
There is debate over whether this account is accurate or not, but that is not my point of interest here. The point to discuss is that most of us would look at that and consider that a terrible loss. The sadder point is that a great number of us treat the Bible the exact same way.
For instance, right now in my nightly devotional reading, while I do read a verse of Scripture to think on, I am also currently reading the Apocrypha. Right now, I’m on Sirach and I find it immensely helpful. Why? Sirach is all about the pursuit of wisdom and the right way to live. There is a lot of good advice in there.
“Well yeah. I’m sure there is, but it’s not Scripture!”
Is that supposed to be a problem?
Seriously, if the only source of information you consider to be valid for learning about truth and righteousness is the Bible, then why on Earth are you reading this blog? What do you think you can get out of it? For that matter, why go to church on Sunday? Why even talk to other Christians and get their insights? You have for you all you need.
“But isn’t that what 1 John 2 says?”
No. 1 John 2 is a counter to gnostic teaching that you need some hidden knowledge to obtain salvation. If you want salvation, you do have all you need in the Bible. No doubt. However, if you want a fuller understanding of what that salvation is, you should seek to do all the reading that you can.
In reading the Apocrypha, one can learn wisdom from Jewish people who lived before Christ, as well as learn about the culture that Christ lived in and the ideas that shaped that culture. Of course it’s not Scripture, but that does not mean it’s irrelevant to the NT. The events in the NT did not take place in a vacuum. They happened in a linguistic, cultural, social, political, and religious context. Understanding that context will better help us to understand the NT.
Besides that, there were people with good ideas outside of Scripture and you can get some of them. For instance, my own wife had had an issue with trusting some people too much and lo and behold, I read something in Sirach about making friends and read it to her, something that I thought was quite insightful. Note that even in the Bible wisdom is found outside of Scripture and even outside of Israel. In 1 Kings 4 Solomon is said to be wiser in comparison to other great figures in the world, which means they had wisdom. Proverbs itself includes some pagan testimony.
Speaking of pagans, can we be benefited by reading them? Some of us could understand the apocryphal writings, but what about the pagans?
For instance, many of us would be benefited by reading Plato and Aristotle and learning the thinking. When I read a writer like Epictetus, I find much encouragement. Again, there is a problem with thinking that all wisdom lies in the Bible or the Christian tradition alone. There is wisdom to be found in several places.
Wait. Outside the Christian tradition?
Yes. I have read the Analects for instance and I don’t doubt there is much wisdom there. There are good teachings to be found in Buddhism. We could learn something from the Muslims about prayer and remember, those who use the Kalam argument are being influenced by the Muslims as it showed up in an age where Muslims did philosophy. (Yes. There are some who still do philosophy, but it was abandoned for a long time) I think the Taoists have some great insight with the idea of the yin and the yang in comparison to male and female.
“Well I guess, as long as we don’t read those liberals or atheists.”
Yes. Read them too.
There are a number of ways they can sharpen you as well. First off, just because someone is liberal and approaching the Scripture, it does not mean they are wrong in everything. There can be found some really good ways of looking at the Scripture. Many liberals can get ethical commands right for instance. Furthermore, the differing interpretation can give you a new perspective to see the text from and in arguing why an interpretation is wrong, you can get further knowledge of your own understanding.
In fact, this is a problem I have as an orthodox Preterist when I meet dispensationalists who say that my position is just automatically nonsense and they don’t need to read anything on it. It’s just obvious that the Scripture should not be interpreted that way. It is not a shock to me that they get my view wrong consistently. For those who want to make sure I’m not being a hypocrite, yes. I read the dispensationalists. In preparing for a talk at my former church on Preterism (And my church was dispensational), I went and read a number of works on dispensationalism. No. Not convincing at all.
What about atheists? Reading people who disagree with you can help you see criticisms of your position. In working through those criticisms, you could strengthen your own position. Of course, in all of this, you could find your position is wrong on some issues and you might have to change your mind. In fact, if you were ever rationally convinced that Christianity is false, you should abandon it. I have no fear in saying that. I do not fear it because I am certain of its truth so I can read what is opposed to my view.
What about cultic writings like the Mormon writings and the Watchtower? Can there be benefits to those? Yes indeed. I have found reading the Scriptures of other religions to be interesting seeing as I notice a sort of artificial tendency in which the writings are made to look like Scripture. Reading the BOM and the Koran (I am not including Islam as a cult) gave me a greater appreciation for the Bible.
The bottom line in all of this is Christians are to be seekers of wisdom and truth. How are we to do that if we stay isolated within our own circle of books? Feel free to expand your mind and realize that if Christ is indeed true, He can stand up to all outside.