My son attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC for a few semesters and the school’s president, Danny Aiken, always told his students that when he visits a pastor, he always asks to see the pastor’s library. If he doesn’t have at least four sets of commentaries he considers the pastor’s library inadequate. I went to the same school and graduated 16 years earlier and at the time then President Paige Patterson said a student should graduate with at least 2,000 theological volumes. Anything less means the person’s not serious about their studies.

Here’s the rub. Judging a person’s physical book library is unfair in this age. My physical book library is grossly inadequate by either standard mentioned above. However, I’d put my digital library up against most total libraries since I own multiple copies of five or six modern commentary sets and a slew of public domain commentaries in various Bible software programs. In one program I’ve got almost a dozen sets.

I’m not bragging, but proving a point. Today, a digital library is more important than a physical library, cheaper in some cases and easier to manage and use in all cases.

Most of our readers can’t build a library as large as I’ve got since a third of it was given to me as part of a reviewer’s package. However, over my twenty-five years of ministry I’ve invested thousands of dollars in both physical and digital books. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned about how to build a good digital theological library without spending more money than you should.

 

Focus on One Software Program That’s Cross-platform

While some of us own many software programs, for those getting started, pick a cross-platform package that includes the ability to grow a large library. That leaves us with a small list of programs.

Cross-platform means it runs on more than one operating system. Ideally, a good modern software package will run on at least four operating systems. This includes…

  1. Microsoft Windows
  2. Apple Mac OS X
  3. Google’s Android mobile operating system
  4. Apple’s iOS mobile operating system found on iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch

These four Operating Systems will let Digital Bible Student use their library on the vast majority of computers, tablets and smartphones available today. Windows and OS X run on computers. Gone are the days of one platform working better than the other. Apple fans used to brag that their platform ran with more stability while Windows users bragged that people can find more software available for Windows than Mac. Today, people can buy awesome and feature-complete Bible software for both Mac or Windows PC and each operating system runs with few problems. I’ve used both extensively and they’re equal in quality and stability. There are more Windows Bible programs, but the programs that let users build a large library all run on both operating systems, either natively or through stable virtualization software that makes the Windows programs seem like Mac programs.

More Digital Bible Students opt for a tablet as their primary computer and pull out a smartphone running iOS or Android to do some quick reading while waiting for a meeting, sitting in the car as they wait to pick up a family member, or at lunch.

Search the word “Bible” in the Google Play Store for Android and the Apple App Store for iOS and users will discover dozens of great Bible apps that run on phones and tablets. The vast majority of these only let users read the Bible, share them on social networks and occasionally add the ability to look up words in an English or sometimes Greek/Hebrew dictionary. However, a handful will help Digital Bible Students do some serious exegesis while on the go.

The most popular devices that let users do mobile Bible study include the iPhone, iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display. These cost anywhere from $99 (with a two-year contract from AT&T, Verizon or Sprint to name a few carriers) for the iPhone 5C up to almost a $1,000 for the largest capacity iPad Air with wireless LTE capability. On the Android side most people carry a phone from Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola or Google. The most popular phones cost as little as free (with a two-year contract from AT&T, Verizon or Sprint to name a few carriers) or as much as $800. Samsung makes the Samung Galaxy S5 and earlier versions and the Samsung Galaxy Note which includes a very accurate stylus. On the tablet side they make tablets that run as small as 7-inches on up to 12-inches and almost every one-inch increment between. The Galaxy Tab series and the Galaxy Not are like the Galaxy S or Galaxy Note phones only they’re tablets. The other most popular tablet comes from Google in the form of the Google Nexus 7. They maker a bigger Nexus 10 as well, but it didn’t sell as well. Google also sells the Google Nexus 5 phone. My favorite phone is the HTC One M8, a great almost all metal phone with an beautiful screen, excellent speakers, fast processor and decent camera. Finally, there’s the Motorola Moto X, Moto G and now a budget Moto E. These phones don’t add too much extra cruft on top of Android making them pure and simple.

Some people ask which mobile OS works better. iOS may seems simpler at first so new users might want to start out with an iPhone or iPad. However, as someone gets more advanced in their understanding of smartphones and tablets, the ability to customize the Android experience more aggressively will satisfy the tinkerer’s hunger to tweak. That’s something iOS doesn’t give us.

Some users might complain that I don’t include Microsoft’s Windows Phone or Google’s ChromeOS. The Windows Phone market grows bigger, but don’t expect great Bible apps on the platform till it gains at least 10-20 percent market share, which may never occur.

ChromeOS runs the Chrome browser as it’s OS and works great with online Bible study sites like MyStudybBible.com (http://mystudybible.com), Faithlife online library from Logos (http://bible.faithlife.com), Bible Gateway (http://biblegateway.com) or other cool online sites. However, none of these do as much as a full-fledged Bible program running on a computer. Even the best mobile apps will offer more advanced study functions that these online sites. That’s why I can’t recommend ChromeOS for Bible study use yet. They’re great second computers, but for serious Digital Bible Study, they’re not yet ready for primetime.

The apps and programs that I know of that meet the above requirements of running on cross-platforms, offering advanced study tools and a large library include the following:

  • Logos Bible Software (http://www.logos.com)
  • WORDsearch Bible (http://www.wordsearchbible.com)
  • Olive Tree Bible (http://www.olivetree.com)
  • Laridian PocketBible (http://www.laridian.com)

The last one is currently developing a version for Mac OS X. We expect to see it some time later this year. Two more that run on all but Android include:

  • Accordance (http://www.accordancebible.com)
  • e-Sword (http://www.e-sword.com)

Before you say you need an app that runs on Windows since you use a Mac or on Mac because you will always use Windows, remember that I used to be a Windows fan-boy. I told people that I’d never use a Mac because of how expensive they are and because Apple was so arrogant. I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro. Never say, “Never!” Take out some insurance against the future and start investing in a cross-platform program.

People who make Bible software need to consider the trends and start hiring programmers that can port their package to the other platforms or get left behind. Even better make a great online version that a user can run on any platform without need of one specific operating system.

 

Buy a Base Package

Start with a base package. This will cost more at the beginning, but in the long run gives the user more books at a cheaper price per book. Also, consider upgrading to a higher-level base package. It will include books or commentaries that you will want in your library. You will pay more up front but save by buying a base package.

Here’s an example of how this can save you some money. Let’s say I own the Best Bible Software Alpha Package (made up name) which I bought for $99.99 on sale down form $129.99. It includes $500 worth of books if I bought them separately. Then I look at their available commentaries and I see the Purcell Trustworthy Commentary (also made up, but should be published) for $149.99. It’s known as the best set of commentaries on the market and I really want to buy it. However, I also see that the Best Bible Software Delta package includes the set and I can upgrade from the Alpha set for $299.95. Along with that I also get a bunch of other books, atlases and few other amazing features like the One-button Sermon Writer Tool which exports a complete and incredibly insightful sermon in 30 seconds that’s worthy of preaching at my denomination’s annual meeting and is guaranteed to produce 30 baptismal candidate every time I preach it (also made up but should be invented). I can either get just the commentary set for $150 or get the complete collection plus the cool new wizbang features for $300. For those who can afford the extra expense and when you see that the extra expense adds some great books and tools, this is a no-brainer.

While my silly examples don’t exist, the concept does. Look at the books in the upgrade packages and make the leap in jumps, not steps, to save some money in the long run.

 

Wait for Sales or Give Aways

This seems obvious, but pick a platform and then repeatedly look to their website or follow the company’s Twitter, Facebook or Google+ accounts for sales.  Some of the popular programs give away a book each month or every Friday. They announce these through social media, blogs and on their front page. Some of them even include small ads in the software, which may seem annoying but can help us get some good books for a steep discount or sometimes free.

I’ve added dozens of books to my various programs and apps using the each company’s discounts.

Also, look at Amazon, which gives away many public domain books for free and offers sales on book that users can buy often for a buck or two. They won’t work in your Bible program, but you can still use them digitally in the Amazon Kindle reader apps for mobile devices or computers or even the Cloud Reader available in a browser.

 

Don’t Buy More than You Need

After all of this advice on how to add books, lets take a step back and consider good stewardship. I’ve purchased books just because the company that makes my favorite tool offers steep discounts. Now that I own them, I seldom use them.

Getting back to Dr. Danny Aken’s advice about four good commentary sets, remember that most students of the Bible will only use that many at the most. The best practices for inductive Bible study leads us to discover the Bible on our own. Use the search capabilities in the program. Use the original language tools that help us understand the Greek and Hebrew, often without knowing Greek or Hebrew. Read the  passage in multiple translations. Make good observations about what you already know and ask good investigative questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) and look up answers in references like Bible dictionaries, atlases and Bible handbooks. Only then do you consult commentaries and mainly just to check your own interpretation against the church in general’s theological understanding of the Word.

Doing good inductive Bible study means that we don’t really need to invest in too many digital books. Dr. Danny Aiken at Southeastern collected a great list of the best resources in a little book he gives away to all of his students. Building a Theological Library (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary – http://www.sebts.edu, 2011) will help you figure out what’s the best book to buy in each category. Download the PDF at http://www.danielakin.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Building-a-Theological-Library-Revised-2011-Final.pdf.

In the above work, Aiken categorizes the works in the following categories:

  • General Reference to the Bible
  • Categories for both OT & NT
    • Introduction and Surveys
    • History and Background
    • Archaeology
    • OT or NT Theology
    • Word Studies
    • Special Studies
    • Break down of best books on each book of the Bible
  • Biblical Languages
  • Various categories in Theology, Philosophy and Hermeneutics
  • Ecclesiology
  • Eschatology
  • Church History
  • Ethics
  • Missions
  • Evangelism and Church Growth
  • Preaching
  • Counseling
  • Book on the various duties of the pastor (counseling, marriage/family, Christian education and leadership)
  • Worship

Check out the PDF mentioned above and also take a look at http://www.bestcommentaries.com to get recommendations for books to add to your library.

 

Look for Public Domain Works or Free Books

Some of us think that if it’s not published in the last 50 years, it’s not worth reading. That’s a terrible idea. Most of the great works of the church were published by the great minds in past centuries. Find these online for free at Amazon, on e-Sword or many of the Bible software packages available.

Some of the software programs I’ve listed above will charge for their version of these public domain works because they add value by tagging them and making them easier to search or by adding verse links so that we can hover over a reference in the book and see the verse pop up on screen. Save money by avoiding these unless such features will be important to you.

 

Don’t Forget Mobile

Let me end by saying, “Don’t forget mobile!” In other words, don’t forget that many of the apps that don’t run on a computer will include free or low priced books that a user can pull up with just a few taps. Search your device’s app store for Bible and you’ll find a ton of apps. Some of them include libraries of public domain books presented in an attractive, easy-to-use format.