How To Read Hard (and Old) Books

It can be intimidating to pick up a 1700 year old classic on philosophy or theology. C.S. Lewis would agree.

Lewis says that:

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 modern books… 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…. 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.

Half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face, He feels inadequate.

I completely resonate with the hypothetical student that Lewis is talking about. Many times I have thought to myself: “I should really pick up some of the church fathers. Maybe read some Chrysostom or Iraneus. I need to read some of the modern classics. I have to read Schleiermacher. I need to dive into Jonathan Edwards’ stuff. I need to read some contemporary classics. I really need to pick up Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  But all of these works seem so hard to read. Barth is impossible! Schleiermacher…those Germans are so complicated! Iraneus, I don’t even know where to start.”

So my natural inclination is to pick up some secondary work, to pick up Holmes or Jensen or Marsden on Edwards. To pick up McCormick or Torrance or Hunsinger on Barth. Trust me I have done this, often to much reward but also often to much frustration. The truth is that the people who write secondary works on these theologians will often focus on the minuatae and the disputed details and nuances of their works. If you want a general picture of what these theologians are all about go ad fontes!

I learned to go ad fontes while I was at UCLA, and I am glad that they instilled that value into me.

I learned to go ad fontes while I was at UCLA, and I am glad that they instilled that value into me. In our Greek Philosophy class we didn’t read about Plato or Aristotle, we read Plato and Aristotle. When we wrote papers about them  we weren’t asked to regurgitate what the professor had taught us (a secondary source) we were asked to engage with and wrestle with one passage from a classic work. The same held true for our medieval philosophy class, we didn’t read “the foremost authorities” on Aquinas, Augustine, or Avicenna; we read Aquinas and Augustine and Avicenna. We wrote on Aqunias interpretation of Aristotle’s theory of universals by reading what Aquinas had to say about it in his Summa. We read what the “great philosophers” and theologians had to say. So don’t be afraid to meet them face to face. You will feel inadequate, but you aren’t. You will feel as though you will not understand them, but you will! It will take a bit of work, but the payoff is huge. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Find a good and brief introduction/biography. You will find it easier and more enjoyable to read these greats if you know a little bit about their personal life. Also much of what they say will make a ton more sense if you have a tiny bit of background on their works. Basically you need a grid to read them through. I recommend the Very Short Introduction series. They have them on pretty much every great philosopher and theologian ever. It’s a good place to start, and its short enough and broad enough that it won’t taint your views on these greats.
  2. Find a good and readable translation. This won’t be a big problem with Barth and Edwards since the translations are standardized and easy to find. But if you want to dig into the Church Fathers, find a good series. I really like the Popular Patristics Series, it has a good and readable translation plus it comes with a nice little introduction. And they are cheap! I recommend starting off with Athansius’ On the Incarnation its preface was written by C.S. Lewis back in 1944!
  3. Don’t try to understand all the details. I think this is very important to remember. Much of more complicated details will go over your head but that is okay! You aren’t a ________ (Barth, Edwards, or Iranaeus) scholar yet! You are just starting to read _________ (Barth, Edwards, or Iranaeus)! Read in order to get the general drift of their writing!
  4. Have fun! By going back to the sources you are accessing  human wisdom that was important enough to last and make its way into your hands thousand or hundreds (or tens) of years later. Enjoy the fact that you can go ad fontes and drink from the fountains of wisdom found in these books!
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