I recently read a list of the best selling Christian books of 2014 and I noticed that all of the books mentioned were written in the past several years and at least a few of them were theologically questionable at best. It is a fortunate thing that Evangelical Christians have become known as readers; it seems as if the only bookstores that have survived the internet are Christian book stores. While many of us are quick to pick up a book about our God and our Christian faith, the selections made can be disappointing. If you go into the average Christian book store you will find dozens of copies of the latest prosperity Gospel, aisles of books on Christian romance (not to mention the Christian romance novels), and an assortment of recently rolled out Christian living books on everything from healthy diets to the future of Israel. Nothing is really inherently wrong with reading these different genres save the first one, however it is of note what is missing amongst these various genres. It is typically not so easy to find books written by some of the great Christian minds of prior generations. If I remember correctly the Christian book store in my home city had all of a quarter of a shelf in the back dedicated to anything written before 1992.
Evangelicals in the 21st century seem to have a puzzling ignorance of our beautiful protestant heritage. Several years ago I led a men’s Bible study and no one in the class was aware of Martin Luther or the 95 theses. This ignorance church history and aversion towards past Christian preachers and teachers is detrimental and has allowed many to slip from the great theological foundation that past Christians fought so hard to instill. I believe that modern Christians would benefit greatly by turning to some of the great Christian works that have stood the test of time. Modern Christians can benefit from old Christian books in at least four ways; it reveals cultural presumptions in our interpretation of scripture, it clarifies our doctrinal framework, it shows us God’s sovereignty in history, and it inspires us to boldly stand for Biblical truth and Godliness.
- It Reveals Cultural Presumptions
Some might be reading this and already dismissing this post on the grounds that our spiritual walk should be guided by no other writings than scripture. As Protestants have long affirmed, scripture alone is indeed to be our authority and it is the only area in which we can find God’s inerrant revelation for His people. We should have no interest in reading past Christian works in the same manner that liturgical traditions read their various “saints.” I however believe that we can read the works of old Christian writers in a way that does not substitute for the Word of God but helps us to better understand it. As much as we might be the last to acknowledge it, we all have our cultural presumptions. When we read scripture, we all come to it with preconceived ideas and assumptions that can make our interpretation of the Bible subjective and flawed. Like it or not our 21st century American blinders are always up when we read the Bible or even watch a movie and reading Christians of past generations can help us identify our biases and where they have led us astray. Christians in previous generations and places certainly also had their own blinders and assumptions of which we must be keenly aware, however because they are frequently so very different from our own we are granted a more objective perspective in our understanding of God’s Word and its meaning. Much of what is considered Christian teaching today is more a reflection of our American cultural values rather than insight from scripture (even when it uses Bible verses as support) and much of what was considered Christian teaching in the past was more a reflection of past cultural values rather than insight from scripture. If you read broadly across the generations you gain the perspective and discernment to begin differentiating Christian truth and cultural assumptions.
- It Clarifies our Doctrinal Framework
Augustine of Hippo never wrote a book on how Christians can praise of the pounds. Perhaps Augustine never wrote that book because it would have been less catchy in Latin, but more likely Augustine has bigger fish to fry as we say. A great deal of popular Christian works of today has the tendency towards being frivolous and eternally insignificant. The great Christian heroes of the past (especially of the reformation) did not have the luxury to focus on the superfluous. Prior to the rise in modern medicine most people had little assurance that they would survive the next few years and thus rightly understanding the nature of God and salvation was of foremost interest. Men like John Huss and Thomas Cranmer even gave up their lives to help the world understand the Bible’s teaching on the importance of scripture and salvation by faith alone while some popular “Christian” writers today subtly contradict those historic pillars to the Christian faith. The great theologians who have stood the test of time have not seen the Bible as a story mainly about us, but a story of God’s relentless redemptive love and they made rightly understanding it their life’s endeavors. Even if we have assumed right doctrine, reading the early church fathers, the Protestant Reformers, or the English Puritans helps us to better understand what we believe and why it is so significant.
- It Shows us God’s Sovereignty in History
It’s so easy to become discouraged as Christians when we watch the news. We seem to see stories of the Biblical worldview being opposed by our culture nearly every day and it is tempting to lose hope in God’s plan. Scripture provides much solace from our outside pressure and grants us assurance that God’s kingdom purposes will indeed come to pass and if we turn to church history we can find affirmation that God has and will accomplish his plans for the Christian church. If one thinks our present persecution are a significant obstacle we can be humbled by studying church history or reading biographies about Martin Luther, John Bunyan, or John Knox among many others throughout the ages. When we read church history we are reminded that the ages are in the hands of our God and obstacles far greater have come and gone against God’s people. Understanding past Christians can help us see how God was able to save men and women from all tribes and tongues even when by human thinking it seemed impossible.
- It Inspires us to Boldly Stand for Biblical Truth and Godliness.
I have never read How to Win Friends and Influence People but I would guess it doesn’t exactly recommend sharing the Gospel with lost people or standing up for a Biblical morality out of love when most people call it bigoted or hateful. It’s not popular to proclaim a Gospel that says we all are sinners and deserve eternal damnation and because of the temptation towards fear of man it is frankly pretty hard. As I mentioned earlier countless number of Christians throughout the ages have given their lives up standing for the truth of the Gospel message and they are now better off because of it and so are we as a church. Sometimes when you read old Christian books you peak into a world much darker than even our own, far less tolerant towards our Gospel message. Despite how dark the scenario might have been we find great men and women who trusted God enough to stand for unpopular truths of even live out Christian morality when few others did. The English Puritans especially showed both piety and bravery when they faced opposition especially from those who proclaimed to be Christians. We can be inspired with these stories and we can remember that we too have the same Holy Spirit who will enable us to do wonders in service of our Lord.
Their are far more reasons to read old Christian books or study church history but I hope this encourages you all to dust off some old books and let your souls be edified. I have especially been influenced for the better by the 17th century English Puritans. Perhaps you could start off with The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.