Monday, 5 May 2014


The Benefits of Dipping

No, this is not about baptism or its mode.  This is about reading.

I have always been a "dipper" - not only reading books in their entirety but scanning some and just dipping into others.  I suppose it developed when I was young, when I did not have too many books of my own and when the internet and archive.org was only a distant promise.

At university when others would leave their desks for a coffee break I would often have my break among the stacks.  Just spending 15 or 20 minutes scanning the shelves and dipping into the occasional volumes that caught my eye was to me as relaxing as coffee and cake.  The physical book itself presents opportunities that a mere catalogue entry can never match.  You see how big the book is, how large the print, how frequently it has been checked out.  (Frequency of borrowing was not necessarily a mark of the worth of a work - the best books were often rarely checked out, if ever.)

It taught me that there was a wealth, for example, of older commentaries that not only explained the text but applied the text.  It introduced me to the various series of 19th century Puritan reprints that my fellow theological students knew nothing about.  Academically, I often discovered gems that better explained classic theological or philosophical texts than much of my assigned modern reading.

It was dirty and dusty work - a book that had not been thumbed through for 50 years was not for asthmatics who feared the "stoor".

When I came across a work that intrigued me I would return to it often, or if it was not too fragile I would check it out for home reading. Sometimes the dipping in gave me real gems that I would note for later pondering and reflection.  Occasionally a mere sentence or paragraph would outweigh the entirety of many of the modern tomes I read.

The method was unsystematic, occasional, random, yet richly rewarding.

I still dip.  This week, having a spare 15 minutes over coffee I reached for a book.  James Thornwell, Works, Volume 3 came to hand.  Opening by chance at the essay on Antinomianism I scanned the first few pages and was duly rewarded with this gem:

" The natural vibration of the mind is from the extreme of legalism to that of licentiousness, and nothing but the grace of God can fix it in the proper medium of Divine truth. The Gospel, like its blessed Master, is always crucified between two thieves — legalists of all sorts on the one hand and Antinomians on the other ; the former robbing the Saviour of the glory of his work for us, and the other robbing him of the glory of his work within us."

Now there within short compass is the essence of the debate.  We need the work of Christ for us and in us and they cannot be divorced one from the other.

For me dipping has become an unexpected source of riches, and the digitised theological libraries now available on arhive.org are a goldmine.  Happy dipping!