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Reading old books with C. S. Lewis

27 February 2024 By C.S. Lewis

Helping us see beyond ourselves and our own cultural moment


Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.

–C. S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis’ now-famous essay "On the Reading of Old Books" was first published as the introduction to the English translation of Athanasius’ classic 4th-century work On the Incarnation of the Word. It may seem odd for an English literature professor to introduce one of the great works of Christian theology. But once the essay is read, the oddity evaporates.

Lewis’ introduction to On the Incarnation functions as an exhortation for why Christians should read it and other texts like it. Athanasius was a key figure in Christian history because he helps us understand the biblical grounding of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, and how that bears on our salvation.

In his words, "[Jesus] assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection."

For Lewis, it was books like these that are essential in establishing "mere" or essential Christianity. He was calling Christians to know our own theological heritage. This call has a distinguished pedigree in the history of Christianity because it is biblical. Paul himself encouraged the Thessalonians to "stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). He praised the Corinthians for "holding the traditions just as I passed them on to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2).

The earliest Church leaders believed they were part of this process of receiving these same teachings, protecting and passing them on. Some Evangelicals have recently been drawing on this venerable biblical and historical pedigree through something called res-sourcement. The term is originally associated with French Roman Catholic theologians from the middle of the 20th century (like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou) who were trying to address the challenges of Europe’s secularization after the war.

Ressourcement means re-sourcing or returning to the sources. These theologians believed rediscovering the Church’s own resources would aid in spiritual and theological renewal. Some Evangelicals today have taken this idea to heart, and a ressourcement movement has been underway among them for several years, with books, conferences and blogs discussing how the Christian past can be re-sourced for the good of evangelical churches. Baker Publishing has even published a series of evangelical ressourcement books.

In "On the Reading of Old Books," Lewis suggests ressourcement can help us see beyond ourselves and our own cultural and theological assumptions. "Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes."

Too often we assume our ways are the best ones and fail to recognize we don’t have a corner on truth. Lewis called this the "characteristic blindness of the twentieth century." Thus, old books (a re-sourcing of our past) can be a great aid in removing the blinders and putting the past in service of a strong future.

It’s not that the past is a golden age from which we can mine pure gold. Lewis was fully aware every human being, past and present, cannot fully escape their blindness. But to guard against it, old books are essential – not because they didn’t make mistakes, but because they often don’t make the same mistakes we make. As Lewis states, "Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction."

This is good advice for a world that requires fact checking more than ever. Social media has become a substitute for good education, and it has caused significant social fractures. Lewis encourages reading and thinking in ways that are humble and responsible because they start from understanding our finitude and blindness. We need help, and old books are a good place to start.

craig d. allert
Craig D. Allert is a professor of theological studies at Trinity Western University and author of Early Christian Readings of Genesis 1 (IVP Academic, 2018). Read more at

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