CS Lewis is known for advocating the reading of old books. And while he put that in print in a couple of places. The best known of these is his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.
He advocates not only the reading of old books, which he advocates not because they are better, but because they have a different set up biases and blind spots. And when I read Athanasius I did run up against some of those blind spots, like this quote:
Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. (my emphasis, On the Incarnation, Location 731 in Kindle)
But most of what is here is clear presentation of ancient understanding of the importance of Christ’s bodily incarnation, his life on earth and his physical death and physical resurrection. I would not support every positions, nor would I support every position of any modern author either. But there really is something important to reading directly.
I am going to have a long quote from Lewis’ introduction to On the Incarnation. One that is emphasizing a different point than old having different biases.
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. (On the Incarnation Location 32 in Kindle)
That focus on reading directly so that we are not distracted by the ‘subtweeting’ of modern authors against other either modern or ancient authors is a point I had not really considered.
Where I think Lewis is wrong about looking first to new books about old books, is that history and context matter. Much of the focus of NT Wright has been to tell the modern reader how they have been reading the New Testament, and especially Paul, wrong because the modern reader has a different set of biases and a different culture. While I think the broader point that Lewis is making, that we should be reading old books because they are helpful, I think it goes too far if we do not seek to understand those old books in their original history and context.
One point that I did think was interesting is part of Athanasius’ defense of how we know Christ arose. It is not much different from the point my pastor made earlier this year.
The Saviour is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world, both within and beyond the Greek-speaking world, to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ? If He is no longer active in the world, as He must needs be if He is dead, how is it that He makes the living to cease from their activities, the adulterer from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the unjust from avarice, while the profane and godless man becomes religious? If He did not rise, but is still dead, how is it that He routs and persecutes and overthrows the false gods, whom unbelievers think to be alive, and the evil spirits whom they worship? For where Christ is named, idolatry is destroyed and the fraud of evil spirits is exposed; indeed, no such spirit can endure that Name, but takes to flight on sound of it. This is the work of One Who lives, not of one dead; and, more than that, it is the work of God. (On the Incarnation Kindle Location 774)
What struck me about that passage is that part of our current discussion about what is means to be an Evangelical today is controversy about what the role of doing justice is toward evangelism. Athanasius is using the working out of Christian discipleship and enacting everyday justice as proof of Christ’s resurrection. That is not proof in the historical sense, but proof in the emotional and experiential sense similar to Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic.
That tone of On the Incarnation shifts a bit when Athanasius stops commenting on the incarnation and starts responding to others that argue against the incarnation. The first section, a positive defense of the incarnation I think is far better than the last half, which is responding to complaints about the idea or reality of the incarnation from Jews, Pagans and others. While there is occasional sections of that last part that I did find helpful, for the most part, this is where the distance in time and culture make a difference. Both the method of arguing and the details of the argument are unpersuasive to me and I think would be unpersuasive to most modern readers.