The Pastor’s Study – An Economics Pondering

In the mail today came the latest Christian Book Distributors (CBD) catalog. It is always interesting to see thee things: a) who the high-flying Evangelical authors are by what is on the cover and who has their own author pages, b) which translations of the Bible are taking up more space or less and c) the offerings/prices of the academic or pastor’s study section.

There is a somewhat funny to modern ears clip from (if I’m remembering correctly) CFW Walther about how a circuit counselor (monsignor or ecclesiastical hierarch who is not the bishop) should judge a pastor’s library. There are certain staples that you (should) find: Augustine, Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule, at least one good commentary on each of the gospels and Romans, the confessions of your denomination (for me a Book of Concord), I’m not a dogmatics person but at least one orthodox presentation of the faith, and for a Lutheran some Luther (fill in with Wesley, Aquinas, Calvin, etc for whoever your tribe likes best). These books are expensive, or at least they were. Pastors would bequeath them if they didn’t need the money or sell them when they retired. I am the inheritor of parts of two collections. (I suppose I should throw onto that list a book like The Lutheran Liturgy by Reed which gives the history and theology of worship.) I know to the average lay-person that this will sounds nuts, but those books are grist of pastoral life. You find yourself going back to them again and again.

Now to the economics. One of the investments I’ve made is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series. It is a series of books arranged by biblical book that gives you a passage and a location to find more of what the Church Fathers had to say about every passage in the bible. This is a new updating, revising and enlargement of the what was called the catena aurea or golden chain. 29 volumes x $35ea ~ $1,015 for the complete series. I find the patristics the most useful source, and since it is new this is like buying the just released drug. The publisher needs to get back their investment and I’m one who would pay it.

Now back to CBD. Calvin’s Commentaries, and Calvin is a great and insightful commentator, 22 volumes for $150. Barth’s Church Dogmatics (I can’t read the guy, but a neo-orthodox Reformed theologian worth reading), 14 volumes for $120. Schaff’s Early Church Fathers, a monumental piece of scholarship, 38 volumes for $250. A little shorter but still a watershed, Keil & Delitzsch 10 volumes on the Old Testament for $80. (I inherited 2 volumes on Isaiah which I reference every Christmas and Lent). So why am I quoting volumes and prices? Why would anyone want dead tree editions anyway?

First the dead tree question. These are reference works. You don’t read them straight through. Much of what is in them is available online. The contents are in the public domain. So the primary advantage of digital is search, which you can get for free with many of them. But what that doesn’t give you is underlines (both yours and prior owners) or margin notes or the serendipity of opening these great authors for one thing but reading just a bit before or just a bit after. The ideal is both digital and a dead tree copy. That is why these things are still available.

Now the crux – why am I quoting these prices? Because the Reformed World has learned something. They want their ministers to have these works at hand length. These books are priced in a digital world to have both. What would I as a Lutheran minister have to pay for a similar set of Luther’s Works? 55 volumes x $35+shipping ea. or roughly $2,200. Here is Calvin’s Commentaries online for free. What would I pay for a similar digital copy of Luther’s Works? The closest I get is this (which I have the pre-cursor on CD-ROM) for $259. So Calvin – digital and dead tree – $150. Luther – $2500.

Now I’d love to be able to say that was because Luther was worth so much more. But the real answer probably has to do with copyright. The American Edition of Luther’s Works is held by Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press. Most of the editions (the ones with the meat) were published in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The index was published in 1986. They will probably enter the public domain 95 years from date of publication if I’m reading copyright correctly. The Reformed translated and published in English their founding works earlier and hence are in the public domain. Lutherans in America hung onto German for a long time. Lutheran’s will just have to wait until 2046 to get a deal.

And that is if Paul McCain doesn’t figure out a way to put a new crimson cover on them (or is he going to be forced to blue now) and extend copyright somehow.