Walter L. Lingle on Knowing Where to Find Knowledge

Are you a student in seminary? Or, are you perhaps a layman seeking to build your theological library? If so, today’s post is for you.

After graduating in 1896 from Union Seminary in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, Walter Lee Lingle, future president emeritus of Davidson College in North Carolina, continued his post-graduate studies while serving as a tutor in Hebrew and Greek. He contributed an editorial to the March-April 1897 issue of The Union Seminary Magazine titled “About Books.” It is a short, valuable read that will profit the student of theological literature even — perhaps especially — in the age of Google. It is not enough to read, or to read a lot, but we must choose what we read with great care.

The Library of Union Seminary contains over fifteen thousand volumes. These books, for the most part, have been selected with the greatest care, and form one of the choicest Theological collections in the country. The best thoughts of the great religious teachers for twenty centuries are stored up here. The Divinity student can find almost anything he may wish from the works of the Ante-Nicene fathers to the latest refutation of the Kuenen-Wellhausen theory. What a rare opportunity he has of forming the acquaintance of books and authors! Yet how few seminary students avail themselves of this great opportunity.

We do not mean that the student should read through every book in the library. That were impossible even were it desirable. But we do mean that he should take advantage of this opportunity of learning who are the great authorities on great subjects. When the student leaves seminary he certainly should know who have written the great treatises on Theology from the Calvinistic standpoint, and the comparative merits of each. He should know which are the best commentaries on the various books of the Bible, the best discussion of the parables, the best monographs on such great themes as the Person of Christ, the Atonement, Justification, Baptism, etc. In short, he should learn in what books to look for the best discussion of those great themes with which he will be occupied all the remainder of his life. To know where to look for knowledge is a great accomplishment. Horace Walpole called it the sixth sense and coined the clumsy and infelicitous word “serendipity” to describe it. It is to be regretted that so many of us are lacking in that sense. The man who has it to the most remarkable degree of any one living is Dr. [Richard] Garnett [Jr. (1835 – 1906)], the present keeper of the printed books in the British Museum. It is said that at a half hour’s notice he can refer to anything that any man ever knew. We may never hope to become such walking encyclopedias. We may, however, by a little painstaking, learn much of books while we are yet in the seminary.

Every man must choose his own books, just as every man must choose his own friends. Others cannot choose for us. Never again will the student have such a rare opportunity of cultivating the acquaintance of books and of learning which he wishes to choose as his friends as he was while in the seminary. Shall we waste the opportunity?

Your time is finite but of the choice of books there is no end (Eccl. 12:12). Tolle lege (take up and read), but read with discernment, and read well!