On reading 4: Reading Classics

By Gerry Straker, 26 Apr 2020

On reading 4: Reading Classics

In our first article in our series on reading, we saw that the place to start is always the Word of God and it’s been great to hear of some of our people reading the Word more. In our second article, we saw how in God’s light we see light (Psalm 36:9). We see God's glory reflected in truth, beauty and goodness outside of his Word, precisely because we are bathing in the light of His Word. In yesterday's email, we saw how we need help - that's why we should read; reading is about hunger and humility. Given the millions of books available, and our limited time coupled with rereading the best in order to gain the most, we need help choosing. And we are to take recommendations, so hopefully you've taken mine and sent off for your copy of Lit! or got your copy down from the shelf and dusted it down.

But what else should we read? Here is a plea (along with a reminder to myself), to read Classics, books that have stood the test of time. J I Packer said that we should ‘read two old books for every new one’. But, why should we read the classics?

Why read the classics?

1. To make the most of what has already been learned in the Church

Here’s my old tutor at Bible college, Garry Williams: ‘As a ‘movement’ (for want of a better word) we are very seriously disconnected from the riches of our past, and this means that we are often stumbling around trying to work out things that were worked out long ago under the Lord’s providence. The Puritans plumbed so many of the depths of God’s word that we have not. It is as if someone has already built a computer and we don’t know it, so we are fumbling around trying to figure out how to make the first microchip.’ Williams was influenced by his mentor Oliver O’Donovan: ‘He rarely showed much interest in me reading secondary literature and encouraged a philosophy of ‘few books, but good’. This left me firmly convinced that the classic are classics for a reason and that we almost always gain more from first-hand engagement with them than we do from those who write about them.’ [1]

2. To read God-centred books

The centre of much modern Christian literature is the self, the individual, you, rather than on God. As John Piper has written: ‘Most of my soul’s food comes from very old books. I find the atmosphere of my century far too dense with man and distant from the sweet sovereignty of God.’[2]

C S Lewis wrote a very helpful introduction to Athansius’ On the Incarnation[3] that I mentioned yesterday. It is itself a classic now, and its four pages can be found here, and are well worth your time. One thing Lewis says is this: 'I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.' [4] Good theology, focused on God leads to heart-singing praise of God!

3. For enjoyment

Lewis again: ‘Firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.’[5] If you have a choice between new or old, go for the old. Read the original theologian rather than what someone has written about him. It is often easier than you might think (try Charles Spurgeon or J C Ryle or C S Lewis himself) and it is very rewarding.

4. To know it is worth it.

Lewis again: ‘A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.’ [6] A new book has not been tested – we don’t know if it might be moderately useful or whether it will be very helpful to the Church and become a classic. Whereas, the classics are classics. Hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of Christians are saying: read this book!

5. To show us our errors

Every era has its own viewpoints which makes us good at seeing some truths and blind to other truths – by definition, we cannot see our own blindspots. Classics help us see the errors of our day, while their own errors are unlikely to tempt us. Lewis again: ‘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…They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors…will not endanger us.’ [7]

Let’s get reading the classics!

Which classics?

Start with some Charles Spurgeon, J C Ryle or C S Lewis – they really are surprisingly straightforward. Feel free to ask for something specific. Read some Reformers, try Martin Luther’s Tabletalk, or get your teeth into John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. Enjoy the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), or some of the Westminster Standards (1643-49) like the Larger Westminster Catechism or the Shorter Westminster Catechism or Westminster Confession of Faith. Read something millions of Christians are recommending to you!

J C Ryle recommends the Puritans – don’t let their name put you off. The Puritans were full of the joys of knowing Christ; they loved God and they loved his gifts. The Puritans were English Reformed Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to 'purify' the Church of England and keep reforming it back to the Word of God - they were wholeheartedly committed to the Christian faith as taught in the Bible. The Pilgrim Fathers who went to America in 1620 were Puritans and the Westminster Standards mentioned in the paragraph above were written by the Puritans.

Ryle says about the Puritans writings: ‘Few things need reviving more than a taste for such books as these…But the more I read, the less I admire modern theology. The more I study the productions of the new school of theological teachers, the more I marvel that men and women can be satisfied with such writing…In matters of theology the old is better.’[8]

Again, ‘The Puritans as a body, have done more to elevate the national character than any class of Englishmen that ever lived… Judged with ‘righteous judgement’ they will be found men ‘of whom the world was not worthy’…For myself, I can say only, that the very reason why I love them and delight to do honour to their names. They deserve honour, in my opinion, on account of their bold and unspoken Protestantism. They deserve honour on account of their clear, sharply-cut, distinct Evangelicalism. I want to see their writings more widely read, and their conduct more fairly judged and duly appreciated...'[9]

He’s not the only one who thinks this: ‘Never were pens more powerfully wielded in the cause of God than by the Puritan divines of the seventeenth century.’ [10]

In their introduction to the Puritans, Allen and Chester give four reasons why we should read the Puritans today:

  • The Puritans learned to discover grace in their suffering
  • The Puritans were committed to learning and education
  • The Puritans longed to see the power of gospel transformation
  • The Puritans wanted to know God above all. [11]

This means to read the Puritans is to do some family history!

And so, pick a classic, pick a Puritan and get started. Or ask for a recommendation. Why not read a book with someone?

Remember our motto: take a step!

[1] Garry Williams: cited 23/4/2020.
[2] John Piper, The Pleasures of God, (3rd ed. Fearn Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2013), 2.
[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, (Crestwood, NY: St Validimir's Seminary Press, 1977).
[4] C S Lewis, Introduction in Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 8.
[5] Lewis, Introduction in Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 3.
[6] Lewis, Introduction in Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4.
[7] Lewis, Introduction in Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 5.
[8] Quoted in Iain H. Murray, J C Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone, (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016),103.
[9] Quoted in Murray, Ryle, 143.
[10] Publishers' Foreword in Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, (1630 Rev. ed.: Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), vii.
[11] Lewis Allen and Tim Chester, The Glory of Grace: An Introduction to the Puritans, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2018), xiv-xv.