One of the oddest moments I experienced in a seminary class was when a friend of mine raised his hand and asked a question. The prof turned to him like a switchblade opening and said
Look it up. I’m not the answer man.
We quickly deduced that he didn’t like to be interrupted when he was lecturing.
Outside of class he was the soul of kindness. Really.
In another class, another prof (the late James Loder) told us a story that was surely apocryphal.
Supposedly a professor came into the classroom, set down his briefcase and put his papers on the lectern. When the clock showed it was time to begin, he turned to the class and asked
Does anyone have any questions?
Nobody raised a hand. Nobody spoke up.
And so the professor packed his briefcase and left the room.
The value of questions
Dr. Loder’s story illustrates a significant truth about learning: You only learn if you are asking questions.
- You can listen to hours of lectures on a topic you don’t care about and learn nothing.
- You can force your eyes over a pile of scholarly books outside your field and end up as ignorant as you started.
Only when you have a question in mind will you find an answer.
Getting the big picture with good reference works
This all ties into what I’ve been regaling you with about learning to read your assigned texts strategically. You do different things with primary sources and other dense theological texts, with introductory textbooks, and with scholarly studies like monographs and articles.
It is a bit like what I was saying about reading book reviews to get the big picture before diving into a monograph.
But if you want to stand up on a mountaintop and see the big picture of the whole field a book is about (or some other major issue or person) you need good reference works.
My go-to reference works
I make regular use of several different reference works, each of which is typical of a genre — there are similar kinds of works for other disciplines and specialties.
You can get to know them without spending a dime by using the copies in your library’s reference section.
1. One volume encyclopedias and dictionaries
For my money The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church is the best single source for quick and dirty, but reliable, information about Christian history and theology. It is one thick volume, and expensive, but really worth buying.
(There are many other smaller and less expensive one-volume resources, often focused more specifically. For instance you might enjoy The Westminster Handbook Of Theologies of the Reformation — and in that one you can find a bunch of articles by yours truly!)
2. Multi-volume specialized encyclopedias
As a Reformation historian I’m glad to have access to a multivolume encyclopedia that focuses on many important issues in my era. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation is where I turn for more details on major people, texts, issues, and places than any one-volume resource can give.
(Again there are many other multi-volume encyclopedias, some more broad and some more narrow. E.g, The Encyclopedia of Protestantism. This one also has a few articles by me as an added bonus.)
3. Quirky multi-volume reference works.
I imagine every field has its unusual reference works. They must have been labors of love by very patient scholars. The rest of us get to be grateful.
Patrology, by Johannes Quasten is an amazing resource on the theology of the Early Church. In 4 volumes, Quasten has a section on every writer from the early centuries. Within each section he has an article on every work that person wrote with summary, analysis, bibliography, and all translations available when the book came out.
4. Very specialized one volume reference works
Some specialized one volume reference works are highly technical and some are introductory. But if you have interest in a particular field, they can put a lot of information only an arm’s reach away.
For instance Augustine through the Ages is an encyclopedia on just one person’s life works and ideas. He’s worth it, since he is the single most influential thinker in the history of Western Christianity. It is pretty amazing, with in-depth articles on many topics in his theology and articles about every work that he wrote.
(There are actually one-volume references works about many influential figures. Check out The Calvin Handbook — and you’ll find a chapter by me in there too!)
5. The Encyclopedia Which Cannot Be Named
Finally, and don’t tell anybody I recommended it to you, but you should make good use of Wikipedia.
It is, of course, not peer-reviewed scholarship. But it’s vast team of volunteers has done all of us a great favor in gathering useful information on an unprecedented range of topics.
If you use Wikipedia much you will find gaps. If you know a lot about something you will find problems. (You can sign up as a volunteer and fix those problems, by the way.)
But Wikipedia is there when you need it, straight from your phone. And you will find things there that you won’t find in any book on your shelf.
Just don’t cite it as an authority in your next paper.
Where to Start?
Think of reference works as preparing your mind to learn. Ask some big picture questions. Get to know the lay of the land by reading an encyclopedia article. Then you’ll be better able to ask the questions your books are trying to answer.
Every book I’ve mentioned is on my shelf. Each one been useful to me. When I’ve moved I’ve always been happy to box them up and lug them along.
They are way too expensive to buy all at once. But if you put ’em on your Christmas or birthday list, who knows what might happen?
Your turn: I’d love to know your favorite reference works, whether in or out of seminary! Let me know in the comments.
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