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New Light from Old Books

One significant feature of theological education is the reading of books. In many ways, of course, this is not especially surprising. Christian faith is rightly formed by hearing God’s living word in the ancient words of the prophets and apostles. Above all, we read the book, the Bible. But here I want to develop the benefits of reading other works: namely, the classic texts of church history.

Down the centuries Christians have also been shaped by the writings of those who have lived and prayed the gospel before them. These writings cover a range of genres – commentary, homily, summa, catechesis – and also a range of ages and continents from the early ‘apologists’ to the Reformers of the first or second generations to those nineteenth century theologians responding to the challenges of modernity. For a pastor like Calvin such reading never displaced Scripture but was simply a response to the fact that truth, wherever it is found, is from God and ought to be used to his glory1. This is especially the case when we consider the truths that may be found in the exegetical and theological resources of Christians who have gone before us, those members of the body of Christ who lived in another age.

At Oak Hill this reading – this appreciation of the instructive riches of the body of Christ – is folded into much of our programme. First-year students, for example, encounter Augustine’s On Christian Teaching and Calvin’s commentaries on the Psalms in ‘Scripture for Theology and Mission’. The new student will pour over The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck in modules on Christian worldview and doctrine. She will also have the opportunity to take an entire module dedicated to ‘Reading Calvin’s Institutes’. The BA-level module ‘Doctrine of God’ is grounded in Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and uses selections from Gregory of Nazianzus’s Theological Orations and Petrus van Mastricht’s reflection on God’s blessedness. Sermons by Calvin, Flavel, and Chrysostom (as well as a variety of modern preachers) form part of the ‘Word Ministry II’ module while Augustine’s City of God is a key pillar of the third year module on Public Theology.

Why is this? Why devote your time and attention to the study of these texts when thousands of books are released each year by able Christian authors who know our contemporary challenges first-hand? Why make these voices central to theological education? Could they really have as much – or even more – to say to us than many modern authors?

C. S. Lewis, in his famous introduction to an English translation of Athanasius’s great work On the Incarnation, suggests three reasons.

The first of these relates to the fact that much of what is written today distils – implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously – the thought of some giant of theological history. And the great writer, Lewis counsels, by virtue of his greatness is often “much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”2 For this reason “first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” In other words, going straight to the great expositors of the Christian faith, the exemplary readers and preachers of Scripture, is sometimes to receive sustenance purer and more nourishing than their later transmitters. 

Lewis’s second reason reflects the fact that unlike older writing, modern works have yet to be filtered and evaluated with decades or centuries of hindsight. The beginning theologian, and that is virtually all of us, because he is a beginner is especially vulnerable to the dangers of contemporary thought. Much current theology makes sense within the vast network of other recent writing with which it is engaged. A great deal of present-day Christian writing reflects characteristically modern ways of thought. Now there is nothing wrong as such with being modern or contemporary; it is simply when we are. However, as Lewis observes, “if you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.”3 This leads to one further consideration.

The third point Lewis makes is that old books can offer a much-needed corrective through which we may keep “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”4 Each age has its way of seeing the world: good at seeing particular truths and liable to make certain mistakes. Even those who seem most implacably opposed to the ‘contemporary outlook’ all share in it to some extent. What old books offer us is an antidote to our own characteristic errors. Because ancient writers and modern readers are unlikely to make the same mistakes, there is something deeply healthy for the latter in hearing from the former. By contrast, the risk of a reading diet of excessively contemporary books is that where their views are false in an especially contemporary way “they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.”5 Lewis reflected on this in a famous 1939 sermon in Oxford:

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.6

Oftentimes the ‘basic assumptions’ of these older works are both profoundly foreign and warmly hospitable. On the one hand, their suppositions can be discordant with much of what we accept. On the other, though, these same convictions can be profoundly illuminating of the truths of faith and so can liberate us from conventions to which we did not know we were bound.

This sort of reading requires a particular type of reader. Texts like Bullinger’s Decades, Witsius’ Economy of the Covenants or Augustine’s On Christian Teaching can be rather far from our own experiences; reading them well involves laborious application of ourselves to the task and forgoing an exclusive reliance on easier – but perhaps less fruitful – answers to our questions. The nature of this kind of reading, in other words, relies on readers cultivating virtues like patience or studiousness in the way they approach learning from others whose faith they share but whose world differs from their own. 

Cultivating this gospel-formed distinctness is one way of ensuring that the great truths of Scripture speak to us freshly, not only as filtered through our age’s characteristic viewpoint. In God’s grace, the reading of old books is one remedy for those ills which plague our own time, for, as one theologian put it, “thought is often set free by memory.”7

1. On which, see for instance his commentaries on 1 Tim. 1:12 or Acts 17:28.
2. C. S. Lewis, ‘Introduction,’ in St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. and ed. A Religious of C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1953), 3.
3. Lewis, Ibid., 4.
4. Lewis, Ibid., 5.
5. Lewis, Ibid., 5.
6. CS Lewis, ‘Learning in Wartime’ in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001) 58-59.
7. John Webster, ‘Regina Artium: Theology and the Humanities,’ in The Domain of the Word (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 191


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