If you had a choice between a good book written this year and a good book on the same topic written over 100 years ago, which would you choose? Here are a few reasons why you might consider choosing the older book.
1. Old books give us perspective. Sometimes we get caught up in our modern world with our modern problems and our modern solutions. When we are isolated within our own historical moment, these issues can seem unique, unbelievable, insurmountable. But when we read old books, we gain perspective. Issues like homosexuality and abortion seem new and progressive, so we get to work developing a Christian response to these things. But Christians have been facing these issues since the days of the Apostle Paul. To neglect the wise words of those who have preceded us is foolish. And arrogant.
2. Old books give us a sense of tradition. We can learn a lot from the way that Christians throughout the ages have worshiped, prayed, evangelized, apostatized, and defended the faith. We can do ourselves great harm by rethinking our theology, worship, and church life as though church history skipped from Acts 28 to 2012. We do need to be biblical, and this will mean patterning our churches after the New Testament model. But the church has learned many lessons in 2,000 years; lessons we ignore at our own peril.
3. Old books force us to check our work. If you suddenly discover that a passage of Scripture means the opposite of what God’s people have believed it to mean for thousands of years, you might be wrong. You might be right, but if I had to put my money somewhere… I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t explore the Scriptures with every interpretive tool available, nor do I believe that the church has ever been interpretively infallible. But if you find yourself disagreeing with all the wise and godly theologians of the past, you’d better look again. And again. And again.
4. Old books keep us humble. In the counseling class I teach, I assign a couple of books by modern counselor/scholars, and a book by the Puritan John Owen. Not only did Owen say what these modern authors are saying, he said it some 350 years before they did. And he often said it better than they are saying it. Reading old books reminds us that we’re not the first ones to understand the Bible. This keeps us humble.
We should always choose our authors wisely. As you do, I encourage you to look not just to the living, but also to the dead. Dead authors are often more difficult to understand, but the extra effort is sometimes (not always) worth it.
Tomorrow: The dangers of reading dead theologians.