“Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” But they said ‘We will not walk in it.’ (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV)
We are living in an unprecedented age of information. We used to say, “With just a click of a button you can get all the information you want on the internet.” We’ve taken even this incredible feature to the next level: we carry it in our pockets. Access to information is running on all cylinders and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The final word on whether this is a good or bad thing is yet to be determined. Not only is the availability widespread, but forgetfulness is also. We have all the information our swollen brains could ever desire, and we forget about it. We’re so used to having the Bible in our pockets that we forget to read it. And forgetfulness is no virtue.
As Christians, we affirm the doctrine of creation. What we often fail to recall is that in our affirmation of creation, we are rejecting chaos. To believe in the Creator God and His subsequent creation inherently requires us to reject all other non-Christian worldviews. And it just so happens that all other non-Christian worldviews find our origins as being chaotic. Evolution, unpredictability, and even a cyclical view of history all stem from an unbelieving worldview, built on the doctrine of chaos. Which means that we have a decision to make. Will we stand firm on the shoulders of the Reformers and uphold the Word of God in the face of paganism? What will we do with these warring worldviews? More to the point, what can we possibly do with history that gives us a firm foundation? My answer to this is a manifold answer, but being that it’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, my suggestion is that we read the dead guys.
Five Reasons Why Christians Should Read the Work of Those Who Have Gone Before Them
Their work has been tested. One of the advantages of reading the dead guys is the fact that history has paid its toll on their work. Their work has been read, re-read, critiqued, and re-critiqued—over and over, time and time again. The arguments have been on the table for hundreds of years, and we now have the beauty of 20/20 hindsight to peer through all the fog. Because their work has been tested by time, it becomes tested by various readers of various backgrounds. This proves to be an invaluable feature of the dead guys.
Now, a word of caution is in order: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it is right. Don’t swerve into the other ditch on this one! The value of something being tested by time is that, whether the work is good or bad, it’s been handled several times over. Which means that if it’s good work, like that of the Puritans, then the counter-arguments are all on the table. The same goes for the work that isn’t good. Read the dead guys because their work has been tested—and tested well.
They help us slow down. I have a King James Version of the Bible on my nightstand that I love to read from time to time. I value the KJV because it forces me to slow down. The same goes for the dead guys. Old English can be very challenging. Guys like Jonathan Edwards can be very difficult to sift through. But that’s all an argument for why we should do it, not why we shouldn’t. Because our culture is bent on instant communication, we fail to take the time to read and explore with thoughtfulness. Because of our meme-obsessed internet world, careful thoughtfulness is at an all-time low, which also means that emotions run high. 140 characters or less is the communication du jour, but that’s not always a good thing. Not when you have voluminous work after voluminous work on your hands. The same goes for books today. People love the less-than-100-page book. Most balk at the thought of reading a 1,000-page work. Why? Because we don’t have the time. Read the dead guys because they took the time to write—the same time you and I both have.
They challenge contemporary culture. Dead guys who have been tested are dead guys who were worth the test. When a theologian or pastor’s work has lasted hundreds of years—and said work has been the subject of discussion for generations—you can bet that they were a challenge to thinking then, and they are a challenge to thinking now. Thought-provoking work from men like Thomas Watson and John Owen were just as brilliant in their day as they are in our day. That’s because they challenged their culture. Now, admittedly, we live in different times. I’m in Michigan as I write this, and John Owen was from England. He didn’t have Twitter; I do. But the problems are always the same: sin, rebellion, judgment, and striving. Men were just as sinful back in the early 17th Century as they are in the 21st Century. The reason the dead guys challenge contemporary culture is because contemporary culture, though looking quite different on the outside, still has the same internal problem: sin. Which also means the same solution applies: Jesus. Read the dead guys because they will challenge your thinking—today.
History is sovereignly orchestrated by God. As mentioned at the beginning, we affirm Creationism. Which also means we reject chaos. Our origins lie in the hands of the Triune God, not the natural selection theories of Darwin. Which means that, contrary to the prevailing views of pagan worldviews, history is not random, not governed by chaos, and decidedly not governed by fate. It is sovereignly orchestrated by God. Which means that when we approach history, and for our purposes, we’re talking about reading dead theologians, we’re talking about how God worked in history. We need to read the dead guys to see how God worked in history. We need to know the battles they waged and the solutions they proposed. We need to know what happened then, so we can know what will happen now. Read the dead guys because history is on our side, not Darwin’s.
You can’t talk back. The trouble with Twitter and instant social contact is that careful thoughtfulness takes a hit. We like to “tweet out” the gospel in 140 characters—a noble pursuit indeed—but we’re immediately opening ourselves up to critique, something the dead guys had to wait years for. It took quite a bit of time for Luther’s interlocutors to “talk back”. Certainly, in Luther’s day, his actions spread like wildfire, but in our day, communication is even quicker.
To state the obvious: you can’t talk back to a dead guy. What I mean is, you can’t emote in the immediate. You can’t lament without careful critique; the guy is dead. You can’t call him a ninny hammer and laugh; nor can you brush it off like most anti-intellectuals. You have to deal with him. You can debate him in your head all you want, but he ain’t gonna talk back. So, neither should you. Critique his writings, critique his position; support or reject his theology. Just don’t post an insensitive comment on his Facebook update—he won’t see it.
So yes, you should read the dead guys. Read them with thoughtfulness; read them with great care. Be prepared to be challenged, and prepare to do the challenging. But don’t flippantly dismiss them. They’re dead. Soli Deo Gloria!