C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books

Dr. Ligon Duncan read this extended quote from C.S. Lewis during his presentation on the Church Fathers this past week at Together for the Gospel.

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. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He 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. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul – or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And 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. 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 (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a 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. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed “at” some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. 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. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook-even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united-united with each other and against earlier and later ages-by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century-the blindness about which posterity will ask, ” But how could they have thought that?”-lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. 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. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

—C.S. Lewis
Introduction to The Incarnation of The Word of God by Athanasius

Read old books and keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through your mind.

Ligon Duncan on the Resurgence of Calvinism

Nine Factors Contributing to the Resurgence of Calvinism:

1. Three Preachers: one from the 19th Century, one from the middle of the 20th Century, one who is still preaching today: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John MacArthur. A Baptist, a Presbyterian, and a Dispensationalist.

Amazing the variety of preachers you find who will recommend the works of Charles Spurgeon.

Spurgeon has consistently across this century introduced generation after generation of Bible preachers to Calvinism.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, of whom J. I. Packer says “the greatest preacher I have ever heard and the greatest man I have ever known.” His impact is staggering on 20th century evangelicalism. His influence on Tyndale House, Intervarsity. His Studies in the Sermon on the Mount impacted pastors who had never read anything like this kind of exposition. His book Preaching and Preachers, and Spiritual Depression – a massive impact on this generation. A masterful expositor of Scripture. He was empahtically a Calvinist, from the Welsh-Methodist Church brought sound, reformed theology in the language Scripture into every sermon he preached. Would preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday evening.

John MacArthur from a dispensational, Bible Church background, yet so committed to the word of God he was willing to go wherever that word took him and it took him right into the doctrines of grace.

2. Books. The grandfather of them all: The Banner of Truth Trust. Established by Lloyd-Jones and Iain Murray for the preservation of reformed, Puritan writings. Published systematically and carefully, sound solid Puritan preaching. Precious remedies against Satan’s devices. Led to a deepening of a grasp of spiritual truth. Spawned many other publishers of many good books.

3. An Evangelist. The idea of a Calvinistic Evangelist would not have struck anyone as surprising in the 16th, 17th, 18th, or 19th Century. Somehow in the 20th Century, perhaps because of the pragmatic revivalism that resulted from the second great awakening, Calvinism became disassociated with evangelism. Whitefield read Matthew Henry four times on his knees in order to help him in his preaching. Matthew Henry was the great English non-conformist Calvinist.

Along comes a man named D. James Kennedy who was a passionate Calvinist who was a committed evangelist. We may question some of his methods, but we cannot question his commitment to the gospel. After Dr. Kennedy it became impossible to say that Calvinists can’t evangelize because of their theology. He dispelled the myth that Calvinism was anti-evangelistic.

4. The Battle for the Bible. The greatest theological controversy of the late 20th Century that stretched across denominations. There were many prominent non-Calvinists that took a stand, the great names associated with the defense of Scripture: R. C. Sproul, Packer, Boice, Roger Nicole, are all Calvinists. Sproul and Packer wrote the affirmations and denials adopted by the  Council on Biblcal Inerrancy. Calvinism was spread through the denial of the inerrancy of Scripture by theolohical liberals as God raised up men to stand against them.

5. Two Church Controversies, in the old Presbyterian Church and in the Southern Baptist Church. The father of L. Nelson Bell, the father of Ruth Bell Graham, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, former missionary to China who returned from the field to confront the theological liberalism in his denomination in 1940. In 1973 fifty thousand people left that old church to establish the Presbyterian Church – the largest conservative Presbyterian church in the English speaking world.

At the same time in the 1970s there was a conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Since R. Albert Mohler became the president of Southern Seminary, there has been a revival of the Calvinism of the Abstract of Principles.

6. A book and an Anglican. The book: Knowing God. The Anglican: J. I. Packer The book that put him on the landscape is Fundamentalism and the Word of God, no finer defense of the authority and inspiration of Scripture. That evangelical Anglican, because he was trusted by the larger evangelical world – endorsed by Billy Graham – introduced a whole generation to a sovereign God and the doctrines of grace. His introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death has been influential in the lives of many .

7. A Theologian Philosopher who can popularize: Robert Charles Sproul. For a half century faithfully laboring teaching church history and philosophy to thousands through his radio ministry.

8. A force of nature named John Piper. John Piper is transfixed and intoxicated by Jonathan Edwards and he channels him every time he preaches. What sets Piper apart: All unction about God’s truth comes from God. Theological precision meeting up with life consuming passion.  A woman who sat under Piper’s preaching said, “The first time I sat under his preaching I was terrified, and then I realized I had never known the God of the Bible. Then I fell down and worshipped this God.”

9. The decline and death of liberalism. Liberalism is either dead or dying in our culture sustained only by the life support of endowments. The nominalism of days past is now in a hostile, secular environment. The rise of secularism and the decline of Christian nominalism has caused a generation of young people to rise to find something they can pin their lives on – they have looked to the Calvinists. These young people were drawn to Piper, Mohler, and others because they were being told the truth and not merely what they wanted to hear.

—Ligon Duncan

Via: God and Culture Blog