Lewis also proposed that old ones tend to be better than new ones! Or at least they are deeper. For a very long time, the majority of Christian books were doctrinal in nature. They elucidated the biblical text. They sought to understand biblical teaching. They dug into what God would have us realize about his character or the way of faith or how to live a godly life. It is a relatively recent phenomenon for books to be more devotional than doctrinal. Rather than helping us understand, they seek to help us apply. That’s certainly important, but a great deal of depth has been sacrificed along the way. Quite a few observers have wondered how the modern church got to be “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Perhaps the pattern of ignoring of old books is part of that problem.
Lewis shared an ironic observation about his reading.
“For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.”5
This matches some of my experience. Some today want to pit doctrine against devotion, but I find the former feeds the latter rather than diminishing it.
There’s another unexpected (to me, at least) consequence of reading old books. We see how unified the church has been in the past when it comes to core beliefs. Of course, there are far too many differences in minor issues of modes of practice. But, to quote Lewis again, “if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that ‘Christianity’ is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so.” No wonder he liked to speak so often about “mere Christianity.” He found, by reading old books, that the vast majority of God’s people have agreed on the vast majority of God’s truths. How refreshing.
I would add another reason to broaden our bookshelves with older volumes before clicking to buy the newest, hot-off-the-press item. It can prevent us from repeating mistakes of the past. Many of the old books were written to help people avoid error. Augustine’s City of God was written so Christians would not align their hopes too closely with current political power structures. (That might have some relevance today). Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians tried to clarify the differences between the gospel and works-based righteousness. Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections was presented to help people distinguish between genuine conversion and numerous counterfeits.
We could even say that some not-quite-so-old books could help us avoid current temptations toward error. A reading of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (from 1923) could have prevented many from falling for the heresy that Rob Bell proposed in his best-selling Love Wins. A student of church history and a reader of Machen would have known that Bell was saying nothing new. His universalism had been proposed in the first century and in the early twentieth century (and probably every century in between). The only difference is that Bell said it in hip, cool ways while wearing cutting-edge eyewear. But readers of old books wouldn’t have bought his new one.
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