Things New and Old
Reformed Theology first appeared on my radar in college. I was attending a large Evangelical Bible School on the east coast and knew very little of Reformed Theology or it’s rich history. It was during this time that a fellow dorm mate handed me the book What is Reformed Theology? by R.C. Sproul which opened the door to men such as John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson, D.A. Carson, John Stott and several other modern day teachers on the Doctrines of Grace. I was immediately taken by these men’s passion for the Scriptures, the Church and the glory of God. Needless to say, I never looked back. I owe a lot to these men and am incredibly thankful for the grace of God in their lives.
After consuming as many books by the afore-mentioned, I was left with little more than basic knowledge of the men they frequently cited: Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox, Athanasius, etc. While the living theologians I had discovered were encouraging me to read the works and lives of these giants of church history, I was failing to grasp the importance of studying the original writings of these men for myself. God broke through my ignorance and brought me to the richness of the older writings when I was handed a copy of Athanasius’ De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (On the Incarnation). Subsequently, I have found that the balancing of my theological study of newer texts with the study of ancient texts is a vitally important part of my growth in the knowledge of God (2 Peter 3:18).
On the Incarnation was written some time before A.D. 319 but in 1944, C.S. Lewis wrote a very important introduction for this classic work (I would be remiss at this point, based on the following comments, not to direct you to read both Athanasius' work as well as Lewis’ introduction to this classic). In this simple introduction, Lewis challenged the idea that reading the ancient texts should be reserved only for “professionals." There are many who, by their libraries, show that they believe it is better to read newer books about older books rather than the actual older books themselves. They have settled for a secondary knowledge--choosing to read books about Luther, rather than taking the time to plow through his writings. Lewis used the example of Plato when he insisted that many “would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about 'isms' and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said." While he admitted that this is understandable, Lewis believed that this practice is rooted in a fear of our lack of ability to understand these great minds.
Lewis went on to suggest that it is, in fact, the greatness of these men that will make them not only more understandable but more enjoyable than their modern day commentators. The writings of the theologians from the annals of church history are themselves a rich well of God given knowledge that we should delight to draw from. Lewis insisted that when left between the choice of reading the newest book or picking up an old book, we should always go first to the old.
Lewis then listed three major reason why we should balance our intake of both new and old books:
1. The older books that are still in print have stood the test of time. A newer text on many levels has not yet been proven. Lewis states:
"It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light."
2. Reading older books will help us avoid what Lewis himself called “chronological snobbery”--only valuing the era in which we live. Old books help us see from a fresh perspective without the prejudices of our time. They provide us with context that we are able to rightly discern errors in thought and practice that may entangle us as a result of our already limited perspectives. Lewis uses our every day conversations as an example:
"If you join at eleven o'clocka conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.”
3. Every age has its own outlook and makes it’s own mistakes, but no two ages make exactly the same mistake. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. By pressing into these older books, we can escape the blindness that our limited views can cause. Lewis sums this up beautifully:
“None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past.”
Additionally, Lewis was careful to say that “there is no magic about the past.” He did not believe that the great theologians of the past were free of mistakes. He did, however, suggest that “two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”
Since the Patriarchs, there has always existed the temptation to view history as separate ponds rather than a single flowing river. This is in part why, time and time again, God reminds His people what He has accomplished for His glory and their good (cf. Joshua 24; Ps. 143:5). Stephen just before his death in Acts 7 takes time unpack the history of the Old Testament in order to provide a backdrop to the good news of the gospel. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 walks the audience through a large portion of Israel’s history culminating in verse 11 where he says” Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” God intends for the past to serve as the training ground for His people in the present. The Corinthians would have been foolish to ignore that admonishment then and we would be foolish to ignore it now.
Looking to the past should be important to us because it puts God's beauty, majesty, glory and grace on display in all His manifold works of providence. In studying older writings, we are reminded that history is radically God-centered and that what lies at the center of that history is not man and their accomplishments but Christ, and His accomplishments. We are also humbly reminded that we join the ranks with other men and women who served Christ faithfully. As Isaac Watts put it, “Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?”
I am eternally grateful to God for the men who early on in my theological growth pointed me to the authors of the past on whose shoulders we now stand. The labors of the great theologians of the past are important to our spiritual growth in grace today. It is a good and necessary part of our theological development and equipping within the minds of pastors, theologians and all disciples of Christ.
Bliss Spillar is the Director of Church Planting and Training for Portico Church in Charlottesville, VA and for the Acts 29-Mid Atlantic Region. You can find him on About.me and follow him on Twitter at @BlissSpillar.