Friday, April 15, 2011

Building a Theological Library: what and what not to do.

"To the making of books there is no end." So says Ecclesiastes 12:12. And if Amazon is any indicator, this piece of ancient wisdom is still correct.

I often have students ask me about the best resources or which commentaries they should buy. Anyone who has experience in this field knows this is not an easy question to answer. I usually begin my with "well it depends . . . "

Marcus Maher over at Seeking the Truth has listed eight points to help you when thinking about building a theological library.

1. Preview before you buy

Books, especially commentaries, are expensive. Try to preview them in some way before you buy them. This will save you money and disappointment.

2. Think about it

There are so many good books to buy. So many! Often times I've learned about a book and gotten really excited about a book and wanted to buy it only to have my initial excitement wear off a few days later. To combat this, I've instituted a waiting period before I buy anything to guard myself against impulse purchases.

3. You need more than commentaries

A good theological library should contain commentaries, bible dictionaries, introductory books covering portions of Scripture (NT, OT, Paul, the Gospels, the prophets, etc.) both of the historical critical type and the theological type, systematic theology texts, books of historical theology, lexicons and grammars, books on church history, and some basic references on the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Apostolic Fathers. You also should buy important monographs within each of these fields that provide in-depth studies on various matters.

4. Don't buy it just because...

it's cheap or it's by an author you like. I've seen the former mistake made often, especially related to commentaries. You have a lacuna in your library so when you see a book or series on sale that addresses your need you jump on it. Hold your horses, especially if you don't know much about the book/series you're buying.

5. Be diverse

No tradition gets everything right and there's great benefit to seeing Scripture from different angles. Especially when buying commentaries, try to buy books from several different positions.

6. Don't neglect older works

There are a lot of good works out there by dead guys. Read them!

7. Buy more than you think you need because you'll never know when you need it
I know that good reference books are expensive but you need to have enough books on your shelf that when you have a question about a particular passage or a significant topic you have a place or two to start looking for answers. You never know when that question will pop up, so it's best to be prepared in advance.

8. It's not just about you

When building your library, try to be other focused. Encourage people to borrow from you. Don't be afraid to give away a book that has been helpful to you.


  1. Another good idea: don't buy a book and check it out from a library instead.

  2. I recommend using a commentary survey. Personally, I like D.A. Carson's NT Commentary Survey (Baker 2006). It only cost me about $10 and has been super helpful. In his volume Carson goes book by book giving a quick assessment of each commentary's usefulness. As a result my personal library has commentaries from different series depending on the book (although I favor Hermeneia and Word). I haven't been disappointed yet. Ashland folks will notice that DeSilva wrote one of the recommendations on the back cover. Best 10 bucks I ever spent. Here is a link

  3. Phil, thanks for the heads up. I was not aware of this resource.