Celebrating the New Year with Old Readings

The New Year has come, and so also our resolutions. Whether you’re determined to start a diet or form fresh habits or simply to pick up a new hobby, there are many ways to start this New Year “anew.” For Christians, reading often can be included in such New Year’s resolutions. Every year new books are published and each may grab our attention—fiction and non-fiction alike. While “new” has brought many great things and has done much for the church (everything has been new in its own time), one of the best ways to learn and start afresh is dusting off the old books by saints from the longtime past. There is a significant benefit to refresh ourselves with timeless classics—old works that have shaped us and continue to shape us. What is this benefit and why are old(er) classical books in the Christian tradition beneficial? To answer this, we can learn from C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to Saint Athanasius’ classic work, On the Incarnation, offers us lucid rationale as to why we ought to read “old” works from Christians before us. He opens his “Introduction” to the classic work by saying, “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” (p. 9). He gives the example that many people, instead of reading Plato himself, read books about Plato and Platonism (p. 9). However, Lewis finds this bewildering. He writes, “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful” (p. 9, emphasis added). 

Take careful notice here—“much easier and more delightful,” says Lewis. How can this be so? Think of, for example, the children’s game of “Telephone.” One person whispers a sentence in another person’s ear, that person then relays the sentence to the next person, and so on and so forth until the last person tries to reiterate the sentence, yet most of the time, the sentence “gets lost in translation,” as the saying goes, and the final person says something quite different than the first. This illustrates what often happens with books. The (good) contemporary theologians build from what the early theologians wrote, but reading someone who writes stuff about what someone else said can be a bit confusing and muddying. Lewis gives this example: If two people had a conversation starting early morning, and then “If you join at eleven o’clock,” you certainly will not fully understand the whole conversation (p. 10). This is the case for good books—they are “conversations” of doctrine (i.e., teaching) that has been already taught (to teach something truly “new” is a dangerous thing in theology). Starting with newer books is like coming late to a conversation in Lewis’ mind.

In this light, Lewis offers some advice: “If he [‘the ordinary reader’] must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old” (p. 10). Why would Lewis suggest this? He answers, “I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet” (p. 10 emphasis added). But why would Lewis want to “protect” the “ordinary reader—the “amateur”—from reading only “new” or modern books? Lewis explains, saying, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications … have to be brought to light” (p. 10).

The image Lewis provides is stellar. Like a new vehicle must go through multiple tests (tech tests, crash tests, etc.) before it hits full production and the market, a new book still needs to be determined if it is really “worthy” of our limited time, in part, because it might be false. Unlike classic works that are still read and still influence us today that have passed the test of time, such “new” books have yet to pass that test. Many new books often won’t and don’t pass that test. And since we are finite creatures, sheep that need a shepherd, we ought to be shepherded by those who have proven not to be wolves, or at minimum, those that won’t unintentionally lead us down unwanted paths.

To be clear, Lewis just before this does say that he does “not wish the ordinary read to read no modern books” (p.10). Lewis rather suggests that “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between” (p. 10). 

As a professor (a green one at that!), I try to implement such rationale of using old, timeless classics, requiring my students to read works from, for example, Athanasius (On the Incarnation), Augustine (On the Trinity), Anselm (Proslogion or Why God Became Man), Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae), John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion), Francis Turretin (Institutes of Elenctic Theology), and though a bit more modern, Herman Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics). Or my colleague requires his students to read is the fantastic work by Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching. I’m not perfect at this and I still require my students to read a host of contemporary works (e.g., Scott Swain, John Webster, etc.), but I do find that the classic works are often just that—classic.

For this new year, I think pastors and church leaders would do well to recommend not only new books to their sheep, but that they recommend the books that have passed the test of time—those great classic books in the Christian tradition that continue to shape, encourage, and teach us today (even if indirectly). Where could you start? The Center for Baptist Renewal (CBR) has a great list here and here. I for one led a study at a church on a modified version CBR’s list of classics, and it was a joy. And so, as we enter the New Year, I encourage pastors and church leaders to celebrate the New Year by reading old books, for their teaching is both timeless and refreshing.