Anyone who really wants to understand their faith and know how to apply it in the world has to read. Books are the most important weapon in the armoury of thinking people, whether they're pastors, theologians or just ordinary folk who want to ground their faith in knowledge.
But books are expensive. So are subscriptions to academic journals. And they go out of print, so really worthwhile material isn't easily available. If you're a pastor or a student in a developing country you can only dream of being able to browse the shelves of a top-class library with a collection built up over decades or centuries.
So Theology on the Web is an absolutely brilliant way of bringing the learning of the ages into the homes of anyone with an internet connection.
It's a project aimed at digitising and making freely available theological books that are out of copyright or where copyright has been waived. Books and articles are scanned, processed and indexed. Collaboration with journal publishers means that in total around 32,000 items are available for free downloads. There are seven linked websites under its banner, dealing with biblical studies, theological studies, the early Church, the mediaeval Church, the Reformation, biblical archaeology and missiology.
As well as actual articles, there are bibliographies that are invaluable to students. So, for instance, you can click on EarlyChurch.org.uk and go to 'Councils and Creeds'. Each Council and Creed has a section, with authors ranging from Ambrose to Wayne Grudem. Or go to TheologicalStudies.org.uk and you can search doctrines, philosophy, spirituality and much more besides. Want to find out more about Karl Barth? Click on 'Theologians', then there are books by Barth, books about him and bibliographies. There are also sections on denominational journals, and Theology on the Web also supports the STEP Bible software project run from Tyndale House, Cambridge.
For anyone interested in theology, this is paradise.
It's a massive project – and it's all the work of one man, who does it in his spare time.
Rob Bradshaw is a graduate of Bangor University and Mattersey Hall Bible College. He's passionate about Christian and church history and about making theological resources freely available for those who want them. He's in full-time employment, and he spends every free moment he's got working on Theology on the Web.
It began in 2003 when he started to upload his own articles onto the web. "It struck me that it was a waste of time because there was so much better stuff sitting on people's shelves," he tells Christian Today.
He started to write to authors and publishers of journals to ask if he could digitise them and was surprised at the positive response. Copyright is the main issue: in the UK it expires 70 years after an author's death, but in the US everything published before 1923 is in the public domain (after that it gets too complicated, he says). But many publishers were happy to see their books given a digital life after the demand for them in print had gone.
As things took off, people began to approach him and ask him to digitise their material. Just recently, Redcliffe College in Gloucester moved to a new building and passed on a thousand books from its library to Rob, which he's gradually working through.
It's gestures like this that mean the work is becoming increasingly demanding. He's learned how to scan and process books to get the best possible result, with high-quality black and white text and colour covers. But a 100-page book still takes him around two hours, and many are longer than that. He pays tribute to his wife, who takes more than her fair share of the domestic load and shares his passion to make these books available.
Rob is driven by a desire to help people learn from the best authors. "Students should read as widely as possible," he says. "They might disagree with who they're reading, but they should read the original, not just what people say about them.
"I do filter some stuff out. But I keep it as broad as possible because the essence of education is that you read very widely and make up your own mind."
That's one reason he's keen to keep the free-to-access model. "I'm independent, I have no axe to grind. I can include books by Calvinists and Arminians, Methodists and Anglicans – there's no conflict."
In a perfect world, he says, he'd be attracting enough support from a large number of small donors to make it possible for him to devote two or three days a week to the project. "More and more stuff is becoming available. This could become a major source for people to tap into if they're studying missiology, for instance."
Most importantly, the fact that the books are available for anyone with an internet connection means they can be accessed by people who can't get to libraries. "I've had contact with people from the Far East, South America, Africa – places where there's no access to journals," Rob says.
"I don't believe these resources should be restricted to university students."
Click here to find out how to support Theology on the Web.