Why your summer beach reading should include dead Christians

Younger Christians have recently become more interested in historic Christianity; and that’s fantastic. At Soma, we enjoy a historic pattern of worship in our Sunday liturgies; we may even like the chewier words and syntax of a confession pulled from Augustine or Lemuel Haynes. We like the feeling of being connected to a body deep, deep historical roots.

I’m gonzo about this, in part because I’m a pretty recent convert to appreciating Church history. I grew up in a denomination that acted like the Church basically went off the rails from AD 100 to AD 1800. The apostles died, mostly bad stuff happened, and then people rediscovered the Bible. It wasn’t until I took four semesters of Church history in seminary that I really started seeing the goodness, the beauty, the richness of centuries and centuries of Christian history.

I love that we’re engaging more with historic Christian rhythms and historic Christian writings at Soma; and I want to persuade anyone willing to consider it to do more. I firmly believe that, alongside our Tim Keller or Malcolm Gladwell or Jacqueline Woodson, we should make space in our reading for historic Christian works.

And even though Julian of Norwich knew nothing of social media; though Athanasius of Alexandria has no experience of first-world problems; these old dead folks can bring unexpected riches into our modern lives.

Here are five things we stand to gain from reading historic Christians:

1. Insight into the character and Word of God

Now, in one sense the Bible is the final, authoritative, sufficient source of truth on God. If we had nothing else but Scripture, we could live with and glorify Him. But if you’ve ever used the word “Trinity” to describe God – and then searched your Bible in vain for the word “Trinity” – you’ve already benefitted from a historical insight. The term “Trinity” comes, as near as we can tell, from an African theologian named Tertullian, from around 200 A.D. It was a verbal suitcase to hold all the following biblical truths:

  • There is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4)
  • Jesus is distinct from God the Father (John 5:19)
  • At the same time, Jesus is also one with the Father and is God (John 1:1, 8:58)
  • The Holy Spirit is distinct from Jesus and the Father (Romans 8:26)
  • At the same time, the Spirit is worshipped with the Son and the Father (Matthew 28:19)
  • Three distinct persons or personalities, but somehow also one God…
  • Tri-Unity – Trinity!

Another example is the idea that everyone has a “God-shaped hole” or “God-sized hole” in our hearts. That also isn’t explicitly stated in the Bible, but it captures something so true: How all of us are made to have God fill our hearts, and nothing else can do that.

That comes from Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was probably in turn summarizing Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who said, “You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” This is a genuine insight: it isn’t itself Scripture, but it summarizes Scriptural teaching.

2. Awareness of how the Church has come to be where she is

We study the history of America in school because we are Americans. It matters that our founding fathers came here for economic and religious liberty and built a government from scratch. It matters that we had a Civil War over slavery. It matters that we’ve fought in two World Wars. Knowing these things enriches our understanding of present-day America.

The same is true of the Church. We are shaped by what our spiritual forefathers have done, not only our biblical ones but also our historical ones. We’re shaped by the great Ecumenical Councils, the Protestant Reformation, the modern missionary movement. Learning about these things will help us understand who we are as a Church and appreciate God’s providence in guiding us to this point.

3. Correction for generational blind spots

In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis writes:

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.

Every generation, every age, has thought-patterns and values it absorbs without thinking. We don’t question them; we may not even see them. The modern/postmodern split between people born after 1980 and people born before 1970 is a living example of this: two generations with completely different sets of values currently live side-by-side in the West.

Reading ancient Christian works will expose natural cultural beliefs or idols that run counter to Scripture. Millenials naturally idolize self-actualization, and one way that’s working out is that many young Evangelicals are trying to soften the Bible’s sexual ethics. If I only read people steeped in my culture, I might be able to persuade myself that the Bible doesn’t really oppose my sleeping with my girlfriend, if we like one another a lot and one day will probably get married. Reading a generation back will give a different story.

On the flip side, there were people in the church I grew up in who thought black people were naturally inferior to whites and that the races shouldn’t mingle. Both of these errors are critiqued by Scripture; but they’re also critiqued by other generations, and studying Church history will bring us up against teaching that can expose these things.

4. Fuel for our devotional lives

Most of us are already naturally benefitting from Church history in this way. If you’re ever sung a hymn written by someone no longer living; if a book like The Chronicles of Narnia has made you more excited about the new creation; if you’ve ever prayed a prayer from The Valley of Vision, you’re benefiting. Just like the Psalms give us words to pray that we might never have known, so historic Christian works – though not Scripture – can still give us fuel for our devotional lives.

5. Encouragement from God’s ongoing work in and through fallen people

God redeemed us once for all two thousand years ago at Jesus’ death and resurrection. He gave us his definitive Word in Scripture, and that stands over everything we say and do now. But God keeps working in the world, and when we study Church history we see him at work. We see him redeem individuals like Augustine or John Wesley; we see him transform cultures, like the end of the slave trade in England; God has given us a whole lot to celebrate in 2000 years of Church history.

And another thing we notice when we start reading these stories is that the human beings involved were far from perfect. They had deep flaws, blind spots, and some of them even major sins. I don’t really know what this tells us except that God is faithful to work through jacked-up, wrongheaded people. His grace stands out large over everything else.

I’ll conclude with my personal shortlist of historic Christian texts I think everyone should buy and read:

Turning Points – Mark Noll (modern text, but a great summary of Church history)

Confessions – Augustine

Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

The Imitation of Christ – Thomas a Kempis

The Valley of Vision

Audio: “History of Christianity” from RTS Distance Education (free iTunes U course)

Image: "Saint Jerome," by Leonello Spada. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.