"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." - C. S. Lewis "Introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius"
Every Christian writer who encourages others to try to read some of the classics of the Christian faith quotes this somewhere, so I thought I'd be no exception. Old books are rather out of fashion, though there has recently been a bit of a revival of interest. Lots of people find them hard to get into with their thees and thous and words you've never heard of, lots have simply never heard of the older books and don't know where to start and others, I think, assume that whatever the earlier Christians have, we must have built on it to make something better. Afterall, if you wanted to learn about getting from A to B, you wouldn't look for a horse and cart, that was fine for its time, but now we have cars. Together with C. S. Lewis, I hope to illustrate a couple of the benefits of theological time travel.
"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... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase 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."
Another way of saying this is that people from deep in the past come from different cultures to our one, even if they came from the same country and spoke broadly the same language as us. There were some things that seemed completely natural to people in 17th Century England, that would seem equally completely alien to people in 21st Century England. The Church Fathers, almost exclusively Greeks and Romans, started with different background ideas to the ones we do. That means that when they come to the Bible, they asked a different set of questions. These days people ask how God can be loving and still punish sin with Hell. In the old days people asked how God could be just and still save sinners.
People in the Middle East, with their background in Islam, imagine God to be something much bigger, much more powerful and much more remote than the superman grandfather-in-the-sky image that is current in modern Western Culture, where the idea of God as Father has been exaggerated to the extent that He is no longer King. Consequently, people coming to Christ in the Middle East ask how God could possibly abase himself so much as to become a man - and not a powerful man either, and then die an agonising death for sinners, all of which seems so natural to us that we have a tendency to risk losing our appreciation of it. We, on the other hand, struggle with the idea that God is completely sovereign over everything that happens, and has the right to tell us what to do.
That means that if we were to sit down and study Phillippians 2:5-8 "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Our brother, who lives for Christ in a background dominated by Islam, will remind us quite what a scandal it is that God should become man and suffer for sins, the the Holy and Righteous God who made the Heavens and the Earth should be shamefully treated as the worst of criminals by wicked men who proudly put themselves above him. This in turn deepens and augments our appreciation of the very thing we thought we understood better in the first place: the very great love God has for us. Verses like John 3:16 or Galatians 1:4, or the power of the argument Paul uses in Romans 8:32 "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" suddenly take on a new and deeper significance by taking on board the insights that Christians who faithfully interpret the Bible in the context of their own struggles can give us.
But of course, all cultures have unbiblical attitudes which they foster as well. I'm not trying to suggest that foreign cultures or older time periods are inherantly better than our own. Nor am I trying to claim that coming to the Bible with a different set of questions and assumptions makes for better theology. Sometimes, people just get it plain wrong. Augustine understood things about the power and grace of God which the modern Church desparately needs to hear. He also thought that the state should persecute heretics. If his thinking sparked the Reformation, it equally sparked the Spanish Inquisition. We cannot, we must not treat the teachings of men, any man, no matter how brilliant or respected that man may be, as though they were next to the Bible. We know that Augustine's thinking on Salvation by grace and grace only from start to finish is right because it is in the Bible, and we know the Spanish Inquisition is not right because it is not. But this is the beauty of Theological Time Travel: it shows us things we get wrong, while we are largely innoculated against many of the things the men of the past got wrong. As Lewis puts it:
"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."
A final benefit I'd point out is contained in the Biblical maxim "There is nothing new under the sun". A lot of the things that we struggle with are things countless other people have struggled with before us, and we can learn a lot by looking at the good and bad ways they dealt with it. When Alaric, leader of a gothic army, sacked the city of Rome in 410AD, people thought the world was going to end. Literally. A city that had dominated the known world, and enjoyed impregnible security for 900 years was at the mercy of Barbarians. Jerome wrote "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?". He withdrew to a cave, and waited for the end of the world. Augustine was spurred on to write one of his finest works: The City of God. He reminded people living at a time of unimaginable turmoil that our home is Heaven, and while we live for the time being in the City of Man, and should work for its benefit, our treasure lies elsewhere. He also pointed out that the barbarian invasions brought in a mass of people that previously the Church had not reached. Missionaries had by and large not gone to them, so God had sent them to the missionaries. Before long, many barbarians had become Christians. Today, western culture is seeing a huge influx of muslim immigrants. Again, many in the church are acting as if the world is about to end. How many are remembering that it is difficult and dangerous to send missionaries to the countries from which they come, and that by and large most churches haven't paid much interest in doing so? We have a unique opportunity to reach muslim people who can greatly help us in the task of proclaiming Christ to people from other muslim cultures.
To finish where we started, if you must read either only the new, or only the old, read the old, old books of the Old and New Testaments. But God has been generous to us and given us not only the Word, but also teachers to expound that word to us. We would do well not to neglect the gifts that God has given his Church in the centuries gone by.