In Russia too, you are what you read
Books are nearly as important for the spiritual development of a believer as listening to preaching. Being raised in an atheistic home, I was converted to the Christian faith in 1992 in a Baptist church in Minsk, Belarus.
In the first year of my Christian life I was influenced exclusively by what I heard in church from the pulpit, and also in less formal church settings. The existence of God, the truthfulness of Scripture, free will, repentance, forgiveness in Christ and the centrality of prayer were matters deeply impressed on my mind.
Later, in order to improve my English, I began to read Christian books and listen to sermons in English. But my theology was changed dramatically.
It so happened that one of the first things I read was a sermon by C. H. Spurgeon entitled ‘Free will a slave’. I still remember what a shock it was to me, a convinced Arminian!
I read more Spurgeon – Lectures to my students, his sermons and autobiography. At the same time, I listened to the preaching of Peter Masters and read Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans.
About this time too, Loraine Boettner’s The Reformed doctrine of predestination and William Hendriksen’s The Bible on the life hereafter fell into my hands. My initial theological education was crowned by Wayne Grudem’s Systematic theology.
Now you can easily create my theological portrait! I aspire to be a five-point Calvinist, amillennial, convinced of the centrality of preaching in my church’s ministry, and eager to proclaim the gospel of free grace to the perishing sinners.
I read it all in English and thereby escaped the influence of much ‘Christian’ literature available at that time in Russian.
Now imagine a young Russian believer who does not know English. If he only reads in Russian, what kind of books will inform his mind? If he becomes a minister, from what kinds of sources will he gather content for his sermons?
One quite likely scenario is that his theological development will be determined by such authors as Max Lucado, Philip Yancey, Rick Warren and the endless self-help books now in Russian. He will become an excellent story-teller preacher, who professionally entertains his audience. But will he become a true preacher, according to the Bible?
However, if this person happens to have a dislike for theologically shallow literature, he may fall into another trap. He can readily find academic theological literature in Russian, but most of it tending to undermine the truthfulness of the Scriptures.
A Russian man likes ‘big’ books, but the biggest introductions to the Old and New Testament available in Russian flatly deny doctrinally sound views of the authorship and dating of the biblical books.
On the theological side, he may well be attracted to the writings of N. T. Wright, which are now widely available in Russian. So he may adopt the erroneous ‘new perspective’ on justification by faith. We can go on, and imagine how our hypothetical minister-to-be is influenced by dispensational, charismatic or Arminian titles.
But I still find it difficult to imagine another scenario: that without too much searching, this aspiring preacher comes across a significant body of distinctly Reformed literature!
This is not to deny that some Reformed titles have been published in Russian by Evangelical Press and other publishers, and that, thankfully, some key texts are now available – books like Calvin’s Institutes, Grudem’s Systematic theology and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, the number of Reformed titles is still comparatively small and insufficient to make a definitive impact.
Many classic Reformed texts are still waiting their turn to appear. B. B. Warfield and John Murray have not seen the Russian world at all. Jonathan Edwards is barely introduced. Modern Bible commentators such as D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo are firmly locked in English texts.
But if I were to single out one book that currently should have priority over other books waiting to be translated into Russian, I would choose Berkhof’s Systematic theology.
This has passed through numerous editions in English. And in spite of claims that it has been superseded by newer systematic theologies, I tend to see such claims as marketing hype rather than statements of fact.
Berkhof in Russian would be a wonderful tool to shape the minds of Russian-speaking ministers in a distinctly Reformed way. I am grateful that Evangelical Press is now preparing to publish Systematic theology by Louis Berkhof in Russian!
The author is manager of Evangelical Press’ publishing work in the Russian world