Serious study takes time and is hard work. When sports writer Red Smith was asked how he kept turning out his excellent newspaper columns, he replied, “You just sit down at your typewriter and open a vein.” Substitute “sermon” for “newspaper column” and “computer” or “desk” for “typewriter” and you have today’s preacher. Maybe the verse that best describes sermon preparation is Phil. 2:17 – “¼I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith” (NKJV). Paul rejoiced in the privilege and so should we, and while we’re pouring ourselves out, let’s do some poring over the books that will help us do our best.
Dictionaries are among the best study aids and time-savers for the busy servant of God, so start adding the right dictionaries to your library, starting with the latest dictionary of the English language. It’s remarkable what you can learn from a good dictionary if you only read what it says. My favorite unabridged dictionary is The Random House Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged and my favorite desk dictionary is the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, which was just recently released. It contains a remarkable number of the new words that have invaded the language as well as a treasury of all sorts of information you can use. However, the Webster’s College Dictionary (10th Edition) is neck-and-neck with the Random House edition.
The Merriam Webster Synonyms Dictionary will help you discover the fine distinctions that exist between related words. Some preachers like to use a thesaurus to locate words for their alliterated outlines, but a thesaurus doesn’t give definitions. For example, there is a difference between “results” and “consequences” and you should be aware of it. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” If you want to strike fire, choose the right word.
Bible Dictionaries and related books
Even if you own a Bible encyclopedia or a multi-volume Bible dictionary (which is basically an encyclopedia), you ought to have a one volume Bible dictionary at hand so you can check things immediately as you study and write. Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Moody Press) is strong on biblical theology and archaeology and appeals to preachers who belong to the dispensational school. The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Zondervan), edited by J. D. Douglas and Merrill Tenney, gives a balanced view of biblical themes and presents important facts without wasted words. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, David Noel Freeman editor-in-chief, is a new addition to the list and should prove to be a valuable tool.
The three InterVarsity Press dictionaries – Jesus and the Gospels, Paul and His Letters and The Later New Testament and Its Development – are indispensable to the serious student. They update such valuable vintage volumes as The Dictionary of Christ and the Gospel and The Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, edited by James Hastings, volumes that ought to be in your library.
The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (IVP), edited by Ryken, Wilhoit and Longman, is a must for your library. The Bible is both a storybook and a picture book, and if we miss the meaning of the variety of images, symbols and metaphors in Scripture, we may miss the message we’re supposed to preach. If I had owned this book fifty years ago, it certainly would have improved my preaching ministry.
The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Zondervan), edited by E. M. Blaiklock and R. K. Harrison, is full of so many good and helpful things that I hardly know where to begin. If you think biblical archaeology is a dull subject that has no practical application to contemporary preaching, this book will change your mind. The articles are concise and authoritative and can not only help you better understand the Bible but also, with a little imagination, better explain it. Start by reading the article “Archaeology, Historical Survey” and then browse through the book, reading articles that interest you. To risk a pun, you’ll dig it!
Church matters in general
The biggest, most comprehensive and most expensive of the one-volume general dictionaries is The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by Cross and Livingstone, but it’s worth the investment. There’s hardly a doctrine, event, religious movement or individual in church history that isn’t noted in some way in this remarkable volume. Right next to it I keep my copy of The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (revised edition), edited by J. D. Douglas (Zondervan) so I can examine church matters from a more conservative point of view. You may also want to investigate The New 20th Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Baker), also edited by Douglas. It’s incredible how much helpful material is crammed into this one volume.
Even if church history is not one of your passions, the Dictionary of Christianity in America (InterVarsity) will help you meet the people and organizations whose names are familiar to you but whose contributions to the Christian faith in America are still a mystery to you. It’s time you caught up on the past and this book will help you.
People in particular
If Emerson is correct in claiming that history is really only biography, then the preacher had better get acquainted with the important people of the past, both secular and sacred. Of course, an encyclopedia is invaluable for this kind of study, but often we only need to check a date, the spelling of a name or the authenticating of an event, and that’s where biographical dictionaries come in handy. They’re also helpful for identifying people who have the same or similar names.
Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary is a basic text, but don’t ignore earlier editions if you find them in used-book outlets. Sometimes the new editions drop the names of the very people we want to investigate!
The Cambridge Biographical Dictionary gives good international coverage, and The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography focuses on the USA. J. D. Douglas edited The Twentieth-Century Dictionary of Christian Biography, listing about seven hundred persons, and also Who’s Who In Christian History (Tyndale), with twice as many capsule biographies. If you find a copy of Elgin S. Moyer’s Who Was Who in Church History (Moody Press, 1962), buy it, because it mentions important evangelicals that new generations have tended to forget. Earle E. Cairns gave us a revised and updated edition called The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church Moody, 1982). The Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, edited by Gerald H. Anderson (Eerdmans), covers the history of missions as seen in the lives and ministries of some 2400 missionaries. The scope is international and the subjects belong to all Christian denominations, including Roman Catholic, Independents and Orthodox.
On the secular side, the Concise Dictionary of Great 20th Century Biographies (Gramercy), edited by Kathryn Knox Soman will introduce you to three hundred well-known world figures, alive and dead, belonging to many varied vocations and many different nations.
Worship and spirituality
It’s embarrassing how little the average pastor knows about Christian worship and spirituality, not only his own tradition but that of others, and this kind of deficiency can lead to an impoverished life and ministry. The Handbook of Christian Spirituality, edited by Michael Cox (Harper & Row) is an excellent introduction to the history and content of Christian worship. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, edited by Gordon S. Wakefield (Westminster) will take you several giant steps into a better understanding of Christian worship. When you add The Westminster Dictionary of Worship, edited by J. G. Davis, you have a volume that will give you insight into current worship trends as well as traditional practices.
Whether or not your church agrees with the theology of your charismatic brothers and sisters, you ought to know what they believe and where these beliefs originated. The Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Zondervan/Regency), edited by Burgess, McGee and Alexander, is an excellent compendium of theology, history, biography and statistics. This is probably the best handy source of dependable information about the charismatic movement that you will ever find.
There are two dictionaries that may not strictly belong in the category of worship and spirituality, but I dare not omit them. The first is The Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics (Nelson), edited by the well-known scholar R. K. Harrison. You will be amazed at the variety of articles in this book – kissing, legal ethics, mind control, nuclear warfare, feminism, computer ethics, and even “prisoners of conscience.”
The second is The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster/John Knox), edited by Willimon and Lischer. There’s hardly an important topic or person in homiletics that isn’t mentioned in this book. It’s ideal for browsing, but I recommend you read right through it, a few articles at a time. It will be like taking a valuable course in preaching and preaching history.
No doubt you have numerous systematic theology texts in your library and use them faithfully, but don’t ignore the dictionaries that focus on various aspects of theology. Among the best are two edited for Baker Books by Walter A. Ellwell: The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology and The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. The first focuses on systematic theology and the church creeds while the second deals with what the Bible teaches about a multitude of important topics, from “Aaron” to “Zephaniah, the Theology of.” The Reformed tradition is clearly enunciated in both volumes, but the articles are quite comprehensive in approach.
The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden (Westminster, 1983) is a revised and expanded edition of A Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Alan Richardson and originally published in Great Britain in 1969 by SCM Press. Even if you have the Elwell volumes, this book will provide information on a variety of theological and philosophical subjects.
The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics by Norman L. Geisler (Baker) is a one-of-a-kind book that provides the student with a great deal of valuable information in one large double-column volume. Dr. Geisler gives us biographical sketches of people involved in defending or opposing the Christian faith, plus solid theology and practical applications of truth. There’s no better tool for the minister who wants to understand today’s mindset and give help to people who are wrestling with or fighting against biblical doctrine. Highly recommended. The bibliography is excellent.
Do you feel a need to expand your theological horizon and discover what Christian thinkers are saying today? The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, edited by Alister E. McGrath (Blackwell) is the book you need. It isn’t always easy to get one’s hands on the many changing aspects of contemporary Christian thought, but using this book would be a wise start. The bibliographies accompanying the articles are especially helpful.
Mal Couch is the editor of the Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Kregel), a unique volume that contains the biographies of numerous writers and leaders of the dispensational school, plus articles on hermeneutics, key passages in dispensational theology and other matters relating to eschatology. I found the biographical material most interesting. (What do you know about John Nelson Darby, Arno Gaebelein, William Pettingill and Clarence Larkin?) The book has excellent bibliographies, and the articles on the eschatology of various biblical writers are especially helpful.
Using The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi (Cambridge), will not only help you recall what yesterday’s philosophers wrote but will also teach you what today’s philosophers are saying. In some four thousand cross-referenced articles, the book gives you concise but adequate information about people, schools of thought and current trends in the international world of philosophy.
If you get discouraged or start to drown while reading in the areas of philosophy and human intellectual pursuits, then you need Key Ideas in Human Thought, edited by Kenneth McLeish (Facts on File). The book explains 2500 terms and concepts that form the warp and woof of the world’s intellectual fabric today. It’s the book to turn to when in your reading you run across terms like “double aspect theory,” “pangenesis,” or “green politics.” It’s remarkable how many of these phrases are showing up in news magazines and specialized journals. A companion volume is The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought, edited by Alan Bullock and Oliver Stallybrass (Harper & Row). The book explains 4000 “key terms” in articles much briefer than the McLeish volume and yet not diluted.
The Dictionary of Global Culture, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Knopf) introduces us to the people, ideas and events that have motivated and molded the non-western world. Our world is indeed a “global village” and we in the west need to get acquainted with our neighbors. The book also tells you what westerners have done to better understand other nations and build bridges instead of walls. This is an indispensable book for anybody who wants to move towards becoming a more informed and alert world Christian.
Finally, and in the same vein, I recommend The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, edited by John Bowker (Oxford). Over eighty scholars from around the world contributed articles on people ranging from Abraham to Zwingli and topics as varied as cargo cults, Ramadan, prayer wheels and holy fools. Every major religion is represented and the topical index makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. Spend fifteen minutes paging through this book and you’ll probably discover how little you know about your neighbor’s religious faith.
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Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).