Reading Broadly or Deeply? Three Years inside the Mind of a Genius

Suppose you step into the entrance of an enormous library.  Like many, you feel enchanted by the possibility of learning. A bibliophile, your soul thrills at such unfettered access to human knowledge. Even the smell of books delights the senses. Each volume represents some small bit of knowledge or experience in a given field; one writer’s obsession for years or even a lifetime. But which books should you choose?

You reach out your hand, attracted by the look and feel of one volume, or provoked merely by the title of another. You are forced to make choices. You can take several books with you, perhaps even an armful. But the limitations of time and energy will force you to make some selection. You cannot read them all. 

The Mountain Climber: Reading Broadly 

In some sense, all theologians choose between reading broadly and reading deeply. We could choose, for instance, to read quite widely from the whole range of Christian history: a little Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther here, and then a little bit of Warfield, Lewis, and Packer there. In fact, I would see great value in that sort of enterprise. I personally want to be well-read, and I think most other scholars, theologians, and pastors feel the same. I recently listened to a podcast with a theologian who took earned degrees in mathematics and law before engaging in the formal study of theology. 

We call such scholars “polymaths.” 

Reading broadly is a wonderful–and even glorious–choice. The polymath sees things from a high vantage point. She makes connections across fields; drawing sight-lines from one subject to another. She takes the way of the mountain climber to see things from an advantageous vista point. Yet choosing the high road of the polymath is still limiting and restricting in certain ways. One would have to skate quickly across the surface of some writers’ best works, and ignore many other primary contributors entirely. That library we imagined in paragraph one is enormous after all, and the broadly interested reader chooses books from multiple shelves, up and down the galleys, mastering no section completely. 

The Spelunker: Reading Deeply

The other road is the route of the expert. He narrows down and drills in. He is a spelunker, lowering himself into one particular cave to study its mysteries for years. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to pursue a small handful of theological mentors. John Piper suggested it might be wise to select a few sage guides and study their thinking in far more detail.

I took his advice. 

In 2013, I chose intentionally to forsake the possibility of reading broadly and chose to read much more narrowly instead. This approach allowed me to read deeply and reflectively in the works of just a couple of authors. The shortness of this mortal life, the finitude of our humanity, and the competition for our time from other important endeavors in life (family, church, and ministry) factored in my decision. 

I chose one dead theologian Jonathan Edwards, and the living theologian John Frame. I decided upon John Frame for a guided study during my doctoral work. He walked the halls of RTS Orlando, and his influence loomed large in our class discussions. I studied his major works for months.  I think this was a wise choice, and both studies were enormously beneficial. But it was Jonathan Edwards who captured my attention for years.

I put on the headlamp and roped up, lowering myself like a spelunker into the cavernous tunnels and corridors of Edwards’ works. Edwards’ mind was a deep sea, a complete biblical universe that was at once both strikingly familiar and a strange odyssey.

Even the most determined cave explorers have a hard time working through all of Edwards’ writings in one lifetime. On one hand, there are so many. There are 26 printed volumes in the Yale Works, available both online and in The Works of Jonathan Edwards through a partnership with Logos. There are also somewhere around 50 more volumes of those works which are exclusively digital. On the other hand, they are all so terribly deep. Not one section is superficial or shallow. 

In We Go

I began like many, sampling some of Edward’s most well known sermons. His sermons are interesting, relatively easy to understand, and thankfully short. Short works make progress seem smooth, and all scholars like to make progress. Compendiums of his better known sermons are widely available, and provide the best access point to enter into his general ethos. The sermons take us into the “Big God” universe of a Puritan preacher whose primary calling in life was crafting deeply convicting, haunting, and strikingly joyful preaching units. The sermons are the door that take readers into Edwards’ whole universe of angels, demons, plagues, bloody types, and Christ-shaped shadows: all pointing to the aroma of Heaven’s wine or the noxious odor of Hell’s flames. 

After that, one must begin to tackle some of the longer works, called his treatises, to make any further progress with Edwards. If you begin with Volume One of the Yale Works, you may fall into the abyss of the Freedom of the Will and never be seen again. Some say this work is the unsurpassed treatment of the correlation between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Others find it to be a puzzling corn maze. Personally, I would suggest one wisely hasten to his revival works in Volumes Two and Four, reading first the Religious Affections, then Distinguishing Marks, and Some Thoughts on the Revival. These pieces survey his response to the Great Awakening revival (1740), the most important trans-Atlantic event that happened in his lifetime. The revival works presented in these volumes are winsome, positive, balanced, biblical, and generally quite edifying to the soul. Readers here will find their spirits sanctified and their intellects sharpened. 

The thing about studying Edwards is that he ironically was a polymath himself. He chose the broad way: Edwards served as preacher, revivalist, missionary, theologian, historian, and philosopher. He has major or minor treatises on each of the above subjects. To make much further progress with Edwards, we will have to swing recklessly like an adventurer from one cavern wall to the other in order to explore further passageways of his thought. 

I would suggest next taking a trip into Edwards’ realm of Christian philosophy. The End for Which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue (both in Volume 10) are some of Edwards’ later works that explore conceptual themes on existence and ethics. The former work, sometimes just called The End, considers God’s motive in creating a universe, though He Himself needed nothing for His own satisfaction. It is rich and saturated with Scripture. The latter work, True Virtue, considers man’s ethical mandate.This piece is utterly unique in Edwards’ entire corpus because it is one of the only places that is not explicitly and overtly Scriptural. Edwards counters the Enlightenment’s humanism here by temporarily disguising himself as a humanist in order to deconstruct their man-centered presuppositions. 

Though not the final route of possible exploration, we should lastly consider his personal materials before we close. Edwards left his readers an enormous treasure in his literary legacy: several volumes of his Miscellanies (Volumes 13, 18, 20, & 23), scores of personal letters to fill in the missing gaps of his chronology, and several deeply personal spiritual reflections. The Miscellanies alone make up several volumes, and his Personal Writings (Volume 16) comprise one of his more touching and truly human collections. Here, we see Edwards as a Christian pilgrim, a husband, a father, and a mourner; suffering through the trials of life as we ourselves do. He is no theoretical philosopher, removed from the brokenness of the human condition. Nor can he be confused with one of Hawthorne’s black-veiled ministers, terrifying caricatures of the Colonial era. Though a thinker worthy of an ivory tower, Edwards never lived in one. Overall, these last group of writings, his personal pieces, introduce us to Edwards the mere mortal; frail, and struggling, yet faithful and persevering.

Concluding Thoughts

If you choose to read broadly, I can’t fault you. Part of me will be jealous that you will have experience in broad fields of human learning of which I am largely ignorant. I know virtually nothing of the French Revolution, Eastern Philosophy, and mathematics beyond Geometry. I am embarrassed to say I’ve never read a word from Karl Barth, and hardly touch fiction. Yes, the polymath sees beautiful vistas from high up. But the spelunker goes deep into the mine of one or two writer’s inner life. I chose Jonathan Edwards, and I was delighted to discover that the mine shaft went down deep into the hidden recesses of the earth where there is much silver and gold. 

Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, in the Ascension Presbytery of Western Pennsylvania. He is a Jonathan Edwards scholar, and writes and lectures on the Northampton divine from time to time. He is also the author of A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity (Fort Worth, TX: JESociety Press, 2018).

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