“Should I read historical theologians?”

I write today to answer a common question:

Should I read historical theologians in my personal discipleship time?”

Of course, any writer at historicaltheology.org will answer with a resounding “yes!” Yet, the vast majority of Christians never consider the 2000 years of thoughts and scriptural reflections from those saints, hermits, and religious vagabonds who went before them. Many scholars of the Protestant Reformation did champion going back to the sources with the Latin phrase ad fontes, literally meaning “to the fountains.” However, these reformers were talking about getting back to the ultimate source of their information about God: the Bible.

Certainly, our faith is nothing if cut off from this original wellspring. Yet, it is helpful to understand through which territories this fountain has traveled on its way to us moderns. Indeed, these paths were often wastelands where the stream of the true faith all but trickled through deserts. Other times, it raged in torrents as the floodgates upstream released a torrent as happened in the Reformation movements. Could we not learn from these times of drought and plenty alike? How did others see the Bible before us? What did they learn from it, and how did they apply its teachings to everyday life?

In a unique crossover event, the great British theologian C.S. Lewis wrote a preface for a new edition of a very old book by one of the early fathers of the church. Athanasius lived from about 297 to 373 AD, and his small book On the Incarnation offers a wonderful perspective on how much the Christian faith hinges on Jesus, the Son of God, coming to live on earth in the flesh. However, it is Lewis’s brilliant introduction that reminds us all to turn our eyes often to these historical writings. Using an example from students studying the ancient Greeks, Lewis writes:

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 [one of Plato’s major works]. 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 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.[1]

The rest of Lewis’s introduction is equally striking and urges readers to not exclusively consider modern authors, but in fact, if they were choosing between only “old” and “new” books, they should choose the “old” ones. Even the best modern writer is but standing on the literary shoulders of the theologians who have gone before. We often fear the original and instead turn to someone commenting on the original as Lewis suggests. If that fallacy is rooted in humility (thinking we are inadequate to understand the old texts) just as often we fall to the other extreme. In our pride, we begin anew to reinterpret the scripture and the daily task of discipleship. In our hubris, we look down on past believers. We assume that “old” means “bad, outdated, or wrong,” and we begin to rub sticks together only to rejoice that we discovered fire on our own.

In our haste to read the latest publication from a living author, let us not skip over these venerable writings of our brothers and sisters who have gone before. Without a look back, we might never appreciate these words of Athanasius as he distills the incarnation of Christ:

By the love for humankind and goodness of his own Father he appeared to us in a human body for our salvation.[2]

For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.[3]

For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death, in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of us all […] and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection.[4]

[1]Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Yonkers, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 9.

[2]Ibid., 50

[3]Ibid., 53.

[4]Ibid., 58.

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