While there are huge benefits to reading old books rather than new ones, we have to be careful. Here are a few reasons why. (Incidentally, the dangers of reading old books overlap somewhat with the dangers of reading biographies.)
1. An older book is not necessarily a better book. Nearly all of the older books I have read have been more difficult to read than newer books on the same topics. Sometimes this has been worth it. Sometimes it has not. Just because the book is old, doesn’t mean it’s better, wiser, or more edifying. And in some subjects, an older book is fighting with serious disadvantages. For example, recent archeological developments have shed light on some aspects of biblical culture and geography. This helps modern scholars be more insightful about certain passages. Also, some important biblical manuscripts have been discovered recently (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). This too gives modern scholars an advantage. This does not make every older book worthless (see my previous post), but we can’t assume that the older book is the better book.
2. Reading old books can make us arrogant. In some circles, familiarity with dead theologians and their works makes you seem impressive. In discussions about sanctification, the guy who throws in the most Augustines, Luthers, and Lewises wins. But in the real world, having read Jonathan Edwards rather than John Piper doesn’t automatically make you smarter. Nor does the accumulation of data make you better than anyone. Sometimes the pride that comes through reading old books is subtle and unintentional. Other times it is blatant and calculated. So read old books, but watch your pride.
3. Old books can keep us focused on old issues. I have written about the dangers of this preoccupation with historical doctrinal squabbles before. While we do need to gain perspective on the issues we face today, and while we have much to gain from the theological debates of the past, we cannot substitute these for the issues and questions that we face today. When your college roommate tells you he wants to move in with his girlfriend, reciting the Canons of Dort won’t help the situation. As important as the Reformation was, and as significant as its impact remains, we cannot simply memorize the arguments of the Reformers and recite them in their original formulations. Instead, we need to look to the biblical truths those men explored, and ask how those truths should be applied to the questions and issues of our day. If we only read old books, we might end up fighting battles that have long been settled.
So read old books, but do it carefully. We have much to learn from dead theologians. But we must consider their unique historical setting, and we must focus on the biblical truths themselves rather than their specific formulations of those truths. And as we read old books, we should also read new books. And we should read newspapers. And blogs (you’re doing good there). We need to keep our finger on the pulse of what is happening in our God-ordained historical moment. Learn from the past, and apply what you learn to the present.