Read Old Books First

Old is often better. New is often bad. Why think the newer is truer, especially on philosophy and theology? Old books have withstood the test of time. That doesn’t mean they are true, but they are venerable. Most books are printed once or twice, go out of print, and are forgotten. And we spend so much of our time reading ephemera, this listless dust. When reading about physics, we need the latest discoveries and theories, but not so about the first principles and ultimate issues of life. As C.S. Lewis said, inspired by his friend Owen Barfield, moderns practice chronological snobbery, deeming the newest as the truest. There is no reason for it.

New books usually say nothing truly new and say the old things worse than the old books themselves. Who can top The Confessions by Augustine in a modern memoir? No one can, of course. Then why read Blue Like Jazz? We have The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. Then why read Love Wins by hipster and slacker Rob Bell? One could go on, but I will not. Instead, I offer a few old books worth reading, pondering, and rereading. This list is neither comprehensive nor adequately justified. Nevertheless, the reader may, one hopes, find inspiration for reading what ought to be read, instead of reading what everyone else is reading (or claiming to have read).

  1. Augustine, The Confessions. Augustine reflects on this life theologically and existentially.
  2. Anything by Thomas Aquinas, the greatest thinker of the medieval world.
  3. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Many condemn Calvin without have ever read him. I always consult his commentaries on the Bible in preparation for preaching.
  4. Martin Luther. The 95 Theses set the Reformation in Motion. See also his commentary on Romans and much more.
  5. Blaise Pascal, Pensees. The polymath’s ruminations on God, man, and Christ. An unfinished apologetic for Christianity.
  6. Anything by Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest thinkers. See his much maligned, but seldom read in toto, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
  7. Creeds and confessions: The Athanasian Creed, The Counsel of Chalcedon, The Westminster Confession and Catechism, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Thirty-Nine Articles, Luther’s Catechism.
  8. Some works of Soren Kierkegaard. SK was a fideist and I am not. However, his insights into the psyche and some of his biblical reflections are profound. See especially, The Sickness unto Death and Purity of Heart.
  9. The Dutch titan of theology, politics, and journalism, Abraham Kuyper wrote voluminously and is experiencing a revival in recent years. Start with Lectures on Calvinism.
  10. The works of biblical scholar and theologian, B.B. Warfield.
  11. The works of biblical scholar and theologian, J. Gresham Machen, especially Christianity and Liberalism.
  12. Anything by G. K. Chesterton, but especially Orthodoxy, a book I often quote. I have memorized several passages from it.
  13. Books by modern, but established, masters of devotion, theology, and social critique: A. W. Tozer, C. S. Lewis, J. I. Packer, R. J. Rushdoony, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, and Carl F. H. Henry.

Christians should be well-read and discerning people in order to out-think and out-live the world for Christ. A diet of the contemporary at the expense of the perennial is unwise. Read old books and become a wiser soul. Then re-read them.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

9 thoughts

  1. I kept your last list! Thank you! I am getting old enough that I take this quote to heart: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Henry David Thoreau

  2. Lewis commented something to the effect of … Yes every age has their blind spots. But the authors of an earlier age had different blind spots than we do and often have clarity on issues which WE do not see.

  3. A very filled-out list of works, though heavily slanted on the Protestant side of things, which isn’t the complete picture. (I still have a book you gave me by Kuyper, years ago.) How about a little rousing reading by the ante and post Nicene Church Fathers, such as this volume:

  4. Wonderful. I’ve read – and still read – many on your list. I love that you mention Stott in your modern, established Masters section. His various commentaries I’ve found incredibly poignant.

  5. I agree with what you are saying in this blog about reading the classic. They are my preferred read, but we or somebody needs to read books like “Blue like Jazz.” We need to know what is published and circulated. I did not care for the book, but I am glad I read it. I read “The Shack,” “The God Delusion” and “God is Not Great,” and found them dreary, but the books gave insight into bad theology and the new atheists. However, I recommend being well steeped in good classics first.

  6. The classics are very important, because they have stood the test of time. However, every classic started out as a new book. Let’s not substitute prejudice against the new for prejudice against the old: I think we should value both.

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