Douglas Groothuis and the Value of Old Books

Shelves of Old Books

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.

This the opening paragraph in Doug Groothuis’ latest post at DouglasGroothuis.com. I must confess that what first caught my eye was the phrase “old books” in the title and the banner image. (I can just image in the treasures buried in that aisle alone!) My wife can attest that I love books and any chance I get I buy books from our local used book stores. She’ll say that I have too many books, but I tend to think that I’m just getting started. 😉 There’s something to buying used books in general; it’s as if buying a used book gives it new life and purpose. More specifically, it’s as if I have the opportunity to learn from someone else who has gone before me. As such, I have an affinity toward older books (as is evidenced by my personal library) and used books stores.

Groothuis, I can imagine, is like-minded when it comes to used books. However, what he claims is something that goes deeper than one’s love of old books. Rather, what he conveys is that it behooves us to read books by theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers who have gone before us. Too often we can be caught up in the most recent and “cutting-edge” books that claim to uncover some secret to life. This approach reflects the attitude that what happened in the past is archaic, out dated, and irrelevant. Our age is identified with progress and discovery; hence, we need to be reading the most current work.

Such an attitude, however, does not fit when it comes to books that discuss life’s perennial questions. Questions of purpose, origin, meaning, etc. are questions that have occupied the minds of thinkers throughout the ages. Books written by thinkers who have reflected deeply on  life’s ultimate questions do not wither with age – rather, they stand the test of time and give us a glimpse into the wisdom that has been handed down to us. Much of what we see today is just a repackaging of what others have said in the past. Just as The Preacher states in Ecclesiastes, there really is nothing new under the sun.

It behooves us to reach into the past by reading old book – those books that have stood the test of time – to see what we can learn, what we can avoid, and what we need reminded of. God often pointed the Israelites to their own history to remind them of their faithlessness and his faithfulness. The writers of the gospels appealed to the Old Testament in order to demonstrate to their audience that the life and work of Jesus Christ has been a part of God’s plan from the beginning. And Paul in Hebrews 11 reminds believers of the faith of those who have gone before us as an encouragement to remain steadfast in their walk with the Lord.

Though old books are not inspired, they do stand as a record of other believers’ struggles and victories, doubts and insight, and mistakes and principles – things that remind us that we are not alone this side of heaven. Someone has been where you are right now. Someone has been where I am right now in my own life. We have, therefore, much to learn from those who have made it through the fires of life. Neglect not the old books, but read them!

Post Script: I think a note should be added that in addition to reading old books by Christian thinkers of the past, it is beneficial to read old books by non-Christian authors as well. They struggle with many of the same questions believers struggle with. Though many non-believers do not arrive at conclusions with which we may not agree, they can touch on ideas that are in alignment with Scripture.  We can learn from those who do not know the Lord. Further, any ideas that are not alignment with Scripture can serve  as an encouragement to the believer to remain steadfast in God’s truth, and they can inform us on how we can reply to questions and objections to Christianity.

Thus, read widely!

Finally, take the time to read this wonderful article from BBC News titled: “A Point of View: Is There Still Any Point Collecting Books?”  The author Howard Jacobson pens a wonderful piece on the allure of old books and the special place they have in his life. I felt I met a dear friend when I read this piece – he puts into words what I can’t express when it comes to old books. It would be so much fun to see his personal library…

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