We have been fed the idea over and over again that the new is best. We have been tutored to be impatient with anything old. Anything new is supposed to be most valuable and accurate. The idea is based on circular logic, already assuming that what is new is better. If we don’t know what is old and only embrace what is new how can we assess whether it is an improvement? But what if it doesn’t in fact improve on what we have had but only replaces it? Much of the content we consume – even blog posts – is temporary in the sense of being connected to the moment and soon forgotten. Older books bring us a sense of perspective away from current fashions and blind spots. They have also passed the test of time but new books are still being tried and assessed. These are some of the reasons of course, why we make use of them in these weekly blog posts and show how they bring a perspective on our contemporary situation. If we are prepared to learn from contemporary Christians why not from those in the past? Let’s hear the case for making use of older books.
Here are a few reasons we should take older books seriously. Many older books are now published in a way that makes them easier to read in terms of their format and explaining some of the difficult words. It’s easier than ever to make use of them.
(a) Older Books Take Us Out Of Our Current Context. Sometimes we need to take a break and not be caught up in the myopia of our own context. We need to listen to people who are asking questions we have never thought of. We need to engage with their refreshingly different ways of answering the questions we ask. They help us assess new ideas critically.
(b) Older Books Help Us Grow in Our Understanding. Perhaps they do have more theology – that is a good thing. They are often more full of Scripture quotations and so bring us to the fountain of truth more frequently. They also tend to quote and apply Scripture in a different way than we might have considered.
(c) Older Books Humble Us. When we see the depth of understanding and learning evident from older writers we are humbled. We have many opportunities, resources and technologies that they did not have but yet we still feel that we are walking amongst giants when we read them.
(d) Older Books Edify Us. They often feed the soul more because the authors had a higher spiritual temperature than exists in our day. We are warmed by their love of Christ and His Word.
James Durham gives wise counsel in this area. He gives simple rules that if truly weighed would help us zero in on the most beneficial reading possible. The less time we have for reading, the more selective we need to be. The following is an updated extract from an essay that he wrote on the subject of reading and hearing. We must take heed what we hear and how we hear (Mark 4:24 and Luke 8:18); it is the same with reading. Older books that have stood the test of time have been approved by more as most beneficial.
Just as we should beware of listening to false teaching, so we should beware of reading it. He warns against a “lightness” and indifference in our reading and hearing. Our ears may be “itching” after some new teaching and we may have a secret discontent with sound teaching (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
Reading is a special means of edification if used well but a great step towards destruction if otherwise, as experience shows. Thus, people are commanded to watch and choose that which is most excellent. They cannot be left to be indifferent in this. We must spend our time wisely (as a special talent give by God). In reading many things our time can be greatly misspent and abused to our harm.
Christian wisdom is called for in order to make a right choice. Especially considering that many can only spend a little time in reading. A wrong choice means that they incapacitate themselves from reading things that may be more profitable for their condition and situation. Also, seeing that not everyone has the ability to discern poison from good food, people must regulate their Christian liberty in this aright. Otherwise it will become carelessness and turn into a snare. Some due to their gifts and calling need to acquaint themselves with writings of all kinds in order to refute them. Yet not everyone should take this liberty for themselves any more than they would attempt to publicly debate with adversaries of any kind. The strength and weight of their errors are stuffed into their writings and we are unable to counter their writings just as much as their speeches.
1. Read Books Recommended by Godly Christians
Spend your time reading the books from which godly Christians have previously derived benefit or recommend. Such have (so to say) been tried and tasted and, like good food in which there is no danger, may therefore be used. There is no difficulty here, for it is easy to find out which books are commonly esteemed to be such.
2. Consider the Character of the Author
Consider the author to help decide whether such and such a book may be made use of. Other writings, preaching or otherwise will make it clear whether he is known to be sound and serious so as to give confidence to venture on the book. This is why the names of authors are inserted in their writings frequently (John’s name occurs frequently in the Book of Revelation). No man’s name ought to carry such weight that we digest anything without first testing it just because it comes from him. Yet it may give liberty to make use of their writings rather than those of another in whom there are no grounds of confidence.
3. Don’t Read Books and Authors Rejected by Godly Christians
Some books and authors are noted by the godly to be dangerous and unprofitable and have been found to be so by experience. Keep your distance from such lest you have to prove by your own experience what you will not learn from others.
4. Avoid Unknown Books and Authors
Where both books and authors are unknown it’s safer to abstain from reading them until those best able to discern discover what they are. In the meantime, spend your time reading those that are unquestionably profitable. This means that we waste no time. It may also be done in faith, knowing that we are not risking temptation (which would not be the case in reading unknown books).
People usually do this in choosing doctors for the body. They choose those who others have found to be skilful and useful, rather than take a risk on any who are yet unknown and no one has tried. Wisdom would say that no less should be required in making use of doctors or remedies for our spiritual edification; it is no less important than the other. If these things were observed in writing, reading, and hearing respectively, the Church of Christ might be preserved from many errors and offences. Many might be saved from much damaging and unprofitable writing and reading.
Some of the most highly commended books by those of Durham’s contemporaries are of course William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest and Samuel Rutherford’s Letters (The Loveliness of Christ contains quotations from the Letters). The Westminster Confession and Catechisms together with associated documents make vital reading. One of the documents is The Sum of Saving Knowledge, a valuable little book that strengthens assurance in explaining and applying the gospel. Durham wrote this together with David Dickson. Dickson also produced Truth’s Victory over Error to defend the Westminster Confession against many errors.
James Durham himself preached and published 72 sermons on Isaiah 53. These have been very highly commended. They are a rich presentation of Christ crucified as the “marrow of the gospel”. His commentary on the Song of Solomon explores the depths of communion with Christ in Christian experience. Spurgeon said that Durham was always good but in this commentary, he was at his best. He also discussed many practical aspects of church principles and order. His Treatise on Scandal also gives wise counsel in how to avoid stumbling others as well as in matters of church discipline and government.