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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

Read The Old Books

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

There’s something about the smell of old books. It’s not just the nostalgic reaction, it’s the idea of the wisdom being passed through time and the profound significance of knowledge being preserved and maintained for those who come after to learn and grow from.

One of the foundational principles I use when doing theology is that I would always prefer to look to the primary sources rather than secondary sources. What this means is that if you want to know what any given person through history thought or believed, my opinion is that it is better read the source itself than to read somebody else’s opinion on what the source means. If I want to learn about what Martin Luther thought or believed, I would rather read his own thoughts than the thoughts of someone in the twenty first century speculating on what he thought through their modern filter. If I want to know the core tenants of Islam and whether they are compatible with Christianity, I would prefer to read the Qur’an itself rather than a blogger from Portland’s opinion.

This principle applies to classic literature in general, but I believe that more than anything else, it applies to God’s Word. If one wishes to know what God says, there is no better starting place than God’s Word itself. When studying the Bible, I have always used a “scripture first, then modern commentator” approach. It is certainly true that the Holy Spirit can also reveal himself to the people who wrote the commentaries, and they indisputably have valuable insight to help one understand Scripture on a deeper level, but modern writers and their views and opinions can never be a substitute for the raw unfiltered truth of God’s Word.

This has been my conviction for far longer than I have been in ministry. Reflecting on the curiosity of this, I recently came to realize that I can trace this principle back to my first class on my first morning of my freshmen year at a small Lutheran college in Mankato, where we read a well known quote by C.S. Lewis on the importance of reading the old books.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books…. This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”

He goes on to point out that in his day, whenever there was a Christian study group of lay people (people who were not formally educated pastors), they were almost never studying Scripture itself, but some popular writer’s take on Scripture. This trend is startlingly similar today. Any given life group at any given American church is most likely going to use some curriculum or video series by a popular Christian influencer, than to sit down with just the Holy Spirit and God’s Word open before them. This excerpt above comes from an introduction that Lewis wrote for St. Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, which is currently on my “to read” list.

What my 18-year-old mind gleaned on that Tuesday morning, sitting in the basement of Trinity chapel, was that anyone who is a serious about learning and applying their mental faculties to understanding should have the confidence to try. Admittedly, this statement needs qualification. It is true what they say: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This means that if someone knows very little about something but considers themselves an expert it is a recipe for some very wrong and potentially destructive ideas, but as William D. Mounce points out in his introduction to his book Greek For The Rest Of Us, it is not a little knowledge but a little pride that is dangerous. It is perfectly safe to look to the original source with the intention of seeing and understanding the world through the original writer’s eyes. As long as it is done with humility and a right perspective, reading the old books yields amazing insights into our Christian faith. If one happens upon something that they do not understand, they need only seek out the modern writers and see how they handle the matter.

What Lewis is advocating is not an “either/or” approach, but rather looking primarily to the old books and supplementing what one does not understand with the insight of modern commentators. What happens, when one reads the old books (or the “old dead guys” as some like to put it), is that we realize that our faith is much older than we often realize. Many thinkers have wrestled with the same questions that we do and have come to some beautiful and helpful conclusions. We may not always agree with their conclusions, but when that is the case it is just as helpful to rule out faulty ideas when we measure them against God’s truth.

What we find is that there really is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Many modern distortions of the Christian faith like the New Age and the current societal fascination with vague “spirituality” are not new developments but are rather repackaged forms of ancient heresies like Gnosticism. When we look to the early Church fathers like Irenaeus, we see that the same false teachings we face today challenged the early Church and that they were addressed and subsequently crushed. This is why it is so fruitful to read the old books. It gives us a fresh look at the same age-old issues without the filter of our modern perspective.

What I perhaps appreciate even more about Lewis’ perspective on this is that he was a distinguished professor at Cambridge University who specialized in medieval literature. He was intimately familiar with the old books and knew the merit they had. This is significant because he was also intimately familiar with the theological trends of his day. The Historical-Critical method was being championed by such theologians as Karl Barth and was picking up momentum in academic circles. The Historical-Critical method was a modern way of interpreting the Bible which approached it with the assumption that we, as modern humans with access to more scientific data and an enlightened mind, were in a better position to determine what the authors of Scripture meant than they themselves were. The fruits of this method fundamentally changed the way that the Academy looked at Scripture. When it records things like Jesus walking on water, the assumption is that they couldn’t possibly have meant that Jesus really walked on water because we, with our superior scientific minds, know that human beings cannot, in fact, walk atop water. Using this method, we would explain it away as either a story invented to tell a myth about who the authors wanted Jesus to be or that it was an allegory intended to show us something about Jesus without having to actually believe that Jesus could really have walked on water. Whatever the conclusion, this method would roundly deny that it was possible that Jesus of Nazareth could actually have walked on water.

C.S. Lewis was repulsed by this approach and saw the arrogance in approaching any ancient literature (let alone Scripture) in such a way. To assume that we know more about what the original writers meant than what they did is, aside from being pretentious, is simply not a good way of doing theology. As with any literature, Scripture was not written in a vacuum. Each book of the Bible was written by a person who was immersed in a human culture, and was writing to others who were also part of that shared culture. Even a modern trip to a different country yields the insight that human culture is not universal, and that there are things in one culture that seem very foreign and strange which are commonplace in others. Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but was written down to communicate ideas in ways that those living in their culture would understand. To assume that we can imprint our skewed ideas from the twenty first century into an ancient text and allow it to maintain any integrity is simply misguided. This approach, which was enthusiastically embraced by many of the prominent theologians of the twentieth century was flatly rejected by Lewis.

For this reason, Lewis throughout his many literary works maintains a certain distance from the popular theologians of the day. Repeatedly he insists that he is “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England,” a fact which I thoroughly appreciate. It is obvious to anyone who has read anything C.S. Lewis has ever written that he does not make this distinction because his writing is devoid of any theological insight. Rather, he makes this case to separate his humble brand of theology from those of the time who approached the text with hubris and pride. Lewis very rarely vocalized his disgust with his contemporary theologians outright until later on in his life, but enough of a trail of crumbs exists to infer that this was the case.

Much of what Lewis writes, he writes with a great many small, simple words. There is nothing at all extraordinary about the language with which he communicates, but the ideas themselves are often profound. He masterfully toes the line of using accessible language without compromising the depth of his theological insight. This has been a great help and inspiration personally and has been instrumental in my own development. It is with confidence from such intellectual giants as Lewis that we, starting with a teachable heart, can feel free to read the old books. By looking to the past, we are freed from the blinders that inhibit our modern minds and can get advice from the many voices who have gone before us.

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