One of the most helpful things I learned from my history teachers at school was this: read the primary documents!
One online university library helpfully defines primary documents (or sources) as:
... original materials. They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based.
Don't rely on later reports of what was originally said—don't rely only on what people—even ‘experts’—have said afterwards (in the secondary documents)—read the primary documents. Secondary sources may often report accurately and interpret fairly, but not always. Distortion can occur. Context can be lost. Subtleties glossed over. And so on.
I'm sure many readers will have heard someone asserting confidently that Jesus never talked about horrible things like hell and judgement, and telling people to be nice and to love one another. Often the best reply we can give to this is to ask, “Have you actually read the primary documents? Have you bothered to read the records of what Jesus said—records that date closest to the time he walked the earth? Or are you just relying on what you heard from someone else secondhand?”
One very dear relative told me he'd been led by the brothers of his school's religious order to think of the Bible as a mix of good morals alongside fables. Yet he'd never actually read a Gospel for himself. (To be fair, he had tried to read the Bible from the start, but quickly got bogged down in the early Old Testament, and gave up.) He finally read the Gospel of Luke right through for himself in his 50s. With some astonishment, he told me he now realized that, according to Luke's own introduction, Luke was trying to record history accurately!
Conversely, one of the best ways to deflate the popularity of the other ‘lost’ Gospels that are attracting such attention these days (like the recently published gnostic Gospel of Judas) is to encourage people to read them. Many who don't bother with the discipline of reading the primary documents will gladly spout alternative version of Jesus and Judas as authoritative. Yet even the casual reader who bothers to read this latter document will see how bizarre much of it is, and how out of keeping it is with the canonical (and earlier) Gospels and their more historical feel.
Reading the primary sources is also important if you plan to criticize someone. How many times has a young preacher shot himself in the foot by stating confidently that Roman Catholics say we are saved by works, only for someone to point out that he hasn't represented their teaching accurately. A cursory reading of the official Roman Catholic Catechism strongly affirms the place of grace alongside the subsidiary merit of our good works. The young preacher's criticism may be accurate in substance (Roman Catholic teaching fatally compromises salvation by God's grace alone, through faith alone, without works—Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 4:1-8 etc.). But the force of his comments are blunted because he has not represented the view he critiques with precision. This problem may have been alleviated if he had examined and quoted a primary source for the teaching he wished to critique.
With this principle of reading the primary documents in mind, I want to commend Matthias Media's Classics of the Reformation. The reason I'm thinking about this is that many our our church's Bible study groups are using the study series Ideas that Changed the World from our friends at Christians in the Media. This four-week DVD teaching series (with small group discussion material) explores the four great solas of the Protestant Reformation—grace, faith, Bible and christ alone—that are so dear to this blog. Each topic also gives a brief pen portrait of one of the heroes of the Reformation: Luther, Calvin, Tyndale and Cranmer. Many members of our church have especially enjoyed this window into our Reformation heritage. But they've also said it's been all too brief; they want a bit more!
Here's where Classics of the Reformation steps in. This book (very lightly edited by Kirsten Birkett for reading by moderns) contains primary documents from the period: Martin Luther's famous pamphlet on ‘The Freedom of the Christian’, John Calvin's exposition of Christian prayer, William Tyndale's introduction to the Scriptures, and Thomas Cranmer's inspirational sermons on faith, salvation and good works.