Augustine for the 21st Century (1): Why Should We Read Old Books?

I have never been trampled by a herd of evangelicals on their way to the Augustine section of the local bookstore. Perhaps one reason for this is chronological snobbery, our tendency to believe that the new books are better than the old ones. Another reason might be that the local bookstores don’t even have an Augustine section (True, Barnes & Noble and Borders carry books by Augustine, but Christian bookstores rarely do. The Christian stores are up to their necks in sales of Precious Moments figurines, tester tubes of anointing oil, boxes of Test-a-mints, and tee-shirts with inscriptions like “I’m Cross-Eyed.”)

Either way, the point remains. We rarely read old books. We tend to limit ourselves by era, tribe, and category-we read books written in our day, but people just like us, and that can be placed in one or two limited genres. But this sort of epistolary reductionism is to our detriment-the older books are precisely the ones that will help us to escape the limitations of our current era, learn from those who are not a part of our local tribe, and transcend the categories to which we have become accustomed.

We benefit from reading great authors from eras past more than from reading a great number of books. In Christian theology and related fields, this means that we want to pick a handful of theologians who have influenced the church and make sure that we have read at least a little bit of what they wrote. If you are a seminarian, you want to read Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the towering figures in church history. (Frank Peretti is not a towering figure in church history.) In fact, you may want to choose one or two of these authors and read everything they’ve written, and read some of their books multiple times.

The City of God is one of those books. Its author, Augustine, over the course of his lifetime penned more than five million words which would become the backdrop for the next millennium of Western theological and philosophical thought. At the apex of his writings stands The City of God.

The present blogpost is the first installation of a series of posts reflecting upon Augustine, his book, and its relevance for Christians living in a 21st century context. The particular occasion for writing the series is a seminar I am teaching this semester, entitled “History of Ideas III.” Each student at The College at Southeastern is required to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars we read books written by the titans of theology, philosophy, history, and literature (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, Pascal, Descartes, Locke, Milton, Nietzsche, etc.). We read the books and then reflect, from a confessionally Christian point of view, on the ideas contained in those books. The seminar is not only a course in intellectual history but hopefully also an act of worship as we submit these books to theological and philosophical analysis in the light of God’s revelation.

In forthcoming posts, we will discuss (1) Augustine’s thesis in City of God; (2) what we can learn from Augustine’s apologetic strategy; (3) how we share certain of Augustine’s presuppositions and can put them to use in the 21st century; (4) what we can learn from Augustine’s person; and (5) a few selected passages by Augustine, as well as a handful of reading recommendations and concluding thoughts.

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  1. Pingback: A look at Augustine « Evangelical Village

  2. Dave Miller   •  

    You said,

    (True, Barnes & Noble and Borders carry books by Augustine, but Christian bookstores rarely do. The Christian stores are up to their necks in sales of Precious Moments figurines, tester tubes of anointing oil, boxes of Test-a-mints, and tee-shirts with inscriptions like “I’m Cross-Eyed.”)

    That was classic.

  3. Bryan Rabon   •  

    I couldn’t agree more. Two of my favorite authors are Tertullian and Athanasius.

  4. Brent Hobbs   •  

    Hey! I’m wearing my “I’m Cross-Eyed” T-Shirt today!

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Matt, thanks for linking to us.
    Dave, sad but true isn’t it?
    Bryan, Athanasius is da man.
    Brent, don’t let me catch you wearing it. I’ll beat you like a rented mule…

  6. Jason Lewis   •  

    “…trampled by a herd of evangelicals on their way to the Augustine section of the local bookstore.”
    What a hilarious and unlikely mental image! It is kind of sad isn’t it – that you can buy these kinds of books at B&N but not at a Christian bookstore?

  7. Patrick B   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    I’m thankful you take the time to blog. Always challenging.


  8. Jacob Bluebaugh   •  

    What a great topic! I look forward to future posts! This is indeed something Christians do not do enough of.

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, silly isn’t it?
    Patrick and Jacob, thank you for your encouragment.

  10. Joshua Owens   •  

    I’m very excited to read this series. I read City of God a couple years ago though I must say I understood about a word per chapter ;) Still,, I think the exposure was good and the ancient books must not be forgotten! It is, after all, in front of the ancient backdrop that today’s books are written.

  11. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Joshua, you’re not the only one who reads through one of the Great Books and doesn’t “get it” all the first time through. But with a book like City of God, it is worth the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to read a book that long. It is a book that deserves to be read several times even. Hope this series is helpful.

  12. Dr. James Galyon   •  

    I think you were the one guy standing next to me in the B&N while I was perusing St. Augustine. Nice to know your name! ;)

    I’m hoping a lot of younger guys take this post to heart.

  13. A. Battah   •  

    1. I never tire of reading your thoughts, comments and criticisms.

    2. Being “trampled by a herd of evangelicals on their way to the Augustine section of the local bookstore” is certainly one of the more hilarious things I have read in a recent while.

    3. My life is surrounded by, as you say, ‘chronological snobbery.’

  14. rebecca battah   •  

    I have never attended college, and have never been challenged to read the ‘old books’, that is until my son attended Southeastern and got his classical education. I have been challenged now and am taking my son Andrew up on that challenge. I’ve started with Pascals “Christianity for Modern Pagans” and am loving it. I am anxious to start reading next, “City of God” by Augustine as well as beginning to broaden my thinking! Thanks Dr. Ashford for your blogs…I am delighting in them!

  15. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dr. Galyon, Andrew, and Rebecca, thank you for your input.

    Andrew, you are out of control! Hope you are doing well.

    Rebecca, if you like Pascal, you’ll like Augustine! Andrew has pointed you in the right direction! Happy reading.

  16. Pingback: Augustine for the 21st Century – Justin Taylor

  17. Chris Zodrow   •  

    I whole-heartedly concur. Just one question: why do you consider The City of God the apex of his work? Because it is so large? Given the number of other writings, what makes this one so unique?

    God bless,

    Chris Zodrow

  18. Pingback: Reading Outside of Our Own Era. « Noah Kephart

  19. Todd Wilhelm   •  

    Quote from C.S. Lewis:

    “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 the modern
    books…. [Students are directed not to Plato but to books on
    Plato]- all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in
    twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said…. But if
    he only knew,the great man, just because of his greatness, is
    much more intelligible than his modern commentator….
    Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. 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. And I
    would give him this advice precisely because he is an ama-
    teur and therefore much less protected than the expert
    against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A
    new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a
    position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great
    body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hid-
    den implications (often unsuspected by the author himself)
    have to be brought to light….

    It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to
    allow yourself another new one till you have read an old
    one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at
    least read one old one to every three new ones….
    We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the
    characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means
    the old books. . . . We may be sure that the characteristic
    blindness of the twentieth century-the blindness about
    which posterity will ask, “But how could they have
    thought that?”-lies where we have never suspected it, and
    concerns something about which there is untroubled
    agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or
    between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can
    fully escape this blindness…. 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.”

    -Contending For Our All by John Piper, page 11

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