Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

23 Aug 2016

New Student Reading List

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This morning we welcomed a new crop of seminary students into our halls. Their excitement is contagious, and the faculty is eager to start classes. But as I contemplate the four year path set before these new students, I recognize the importance of a good start. Towards that end, I have been thinking of the books I would encourage every new seminary student to read during their first semester.

  1. The Bible – It may seem odd to begin here, but it is possible to read about the Bible without reading the Bible. Carson, Moo, Schreiner, etc. will never substitute for the knowledge gained through inspired Scripture.
  2. The Religious Life of Theological Students by B. B. Warfield – In this short article directed to Princeton theological students, Warfield shows the necessary balance between theological studies and personal devotion. You can access it here.
  3. How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren –  At seminary, students will read tens of thousands of pages. Would it be helpful to develop the skills of reading before reading that much material? I plan to do a separate post on this book soon.
  4. The Elements of Style by Willaim Strunck and E. B. White – As with reading, writing is a skill frequently used at seminary. No book has been more influential in my writing style than this.
  5. Do More Better by Tim Challies – Time management is critical to surviving the rigors of seminary–especially if one has a family or full time job. Challie’s book is blissfully short, yet packed with helpful tips.

Any books you would add?

5 Responses

  1. Jim

    With all due respect, Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is a terrible choice. See, for example:
    Joseph Williams’s “Style” would be much better. If you really want students to learn the mechanics of writing then it would be George Gopen’s “The Sense Structure” or “Expectations.” I wish Gopen’s books had been around when I was in college and law school. Google Gopen: he has a number of articles available for downloading on his website.
    Another good recommendation would be Bryan Garner’s “Modern English Usage.”

  2. Tim Miller

    I actually agree with the author of the Chronicle article (Pullam) in many ways. I am convinced grammar is much more than simple rules, yet I am also convinced that these simple rules are able to take one from a terrible writer to a relatively good writer. I don’t follow the guidelines like a Bible (as the author suggests); rather, I take them as general guidelines that are normally helpful. My agreement with Pullam concerns the authorian way the book is written. It reads as preachy (Pullam prefers bossy), but I am convinced that young writers may need something like that initially.

    I would mention only two other things. First, did you see how long S&W is compared to the volumes you suggested? I believe S&W has been so influential (and useful!) because of its brevity, and yet I recognize that same brevity is the source of some of the problems Pullam notes. Second, I am unwilling to grant your statement “terrible choice.” I am simply not willing to ignore the chorus of literary voices praising the simplicity and effectiveness of the book for the few dissonant voices–even if they bring up some helpful objections.

    In conclusion, I would welcome a short volume like S&W that does not speak of “rules” as authoritatively. In fact, even White seemed uncomfortable with such an approach, since he calls his addition “gentle reminders”(66) instead of rules, and he recognizes that Strunck could be “Seargeant Strunk” (xiv). But until such a volume is produced, I will keep recommending this useful resource.

  3. Jim


    Yikes. Janice McKendrick denies trinitarian orthodoxy, and no one so much as says boo.
    I say Stunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is a terrible choice to recommend to new students, and within five hours I get a rebuttal in high dudgeon. (Well, maybe it was only in medium or low dudgeon.)

    You agree with Pullum’s criticism of the authoritarian tone in “Elements of Style” (ES). Pullam’s chief criticism is actually that ES is full of rules that are grammatically incompetent – rules that the writers themselves don’t consistently follow. Tone isn’t the issue.

    You ask if I know how long ES is compared with the volumes I mentioned. Yeah, I do: excluding the front matter, the copy of ES I have is 92 pages, Williams’s “Style” is 260 pages, and Gopen’s “Sense of Structure” is 240 pages. (I didn’t suggest you recommend Pullum’s 1842-page English grammar to your students.) In fact, according to, you can get a concise edition of Williams’s “Style” that’s 168 pages. I’d be willing to bet that as an instructor at a seminary you don’t recommend that your students just look at the notes in their study Bibles instead of at longer treatments like commentaries and articles. Length isn’t the issue.

    You say, “I am simply not willing to ignore the chorus of literary voices praising the simplicity and effectiveness of the book for the few dissonant voices–even if they bring up some helpful objections.” Judging by the blurbs on the back of the copy of ES I have, the chorus of literary voices includes such esteemed periodicals as “College Store Journal” and “Telephone Engineer & Management” … oh, and “The New York Times.” You don’t teach at a school named Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and bow to the pronouncements of “The New York Times,” do you? Popularity – endorsements rather – isn’t the issue.

    ES’s tone, length, and endorsements are all beside the point. What matters is that the quality of the content. (Your description of ES as a “useful resource” just begs the question.) You don’t have to agree with me that ES is a terrible choice to recommend to new students. But what you ought to do, if you’re fair minded, is just consider taking a look at one edition or the other of Williams’s “Style” and maybe Gopen’s “Sense of Structure” to see if it might actually better than “Elements of Style.” (I’ll bet you could even get a free academic review copy.) What could it hurt?

  4. Tim Miller

    Thanks for the back and forth. As for the response to you and not Janice, all I can say is that I always try to respond to comments on my posts, but I don’t always do so on other posts.

    I actually had to re-read my post to see whether I came across as defensive, since I certainly did not intend to do so! My comment on the “chorus of literary voices praising the simplicity and effectiveness of the book” referred mostly to its wide use in education (even at Harvard and MIT). In the following link, you can see that it is the 5th most commonly required book in college education:

    It is primarily because of that link that I wanted to push back on the “terrible choice” comment.

    I mentioned length because, in making this list, I tried to keep these books short for the sake of the students time (though I admit that the Bible and How To Read a Book are not short!).

    Anyway, thanks for suggesting some helpful resources for the students.