Tips for Reading Christian Classics
© 1998 by Paul Thigpen
C. S. Lewis once advised that we should read several books by authors of an earlier generation for every one book we read by a contemporary. Here are a few tips for those who take his advice to heart.
1. Many of the classics are available in several translations. When possible, avoid older translations that unnecessarily mimic the "thees" and "thous" of the King James Version of the Bible. Try comparing several translations to gain a better sense of the different possible meanings of the text and a better appreciation of the challenges of translation. In addition, one translation may be more helpful to you in some passages while another translation is more useful in others.
2. Most classic texts are published with an introduction by the editor or translator. Resist the temptation to skip over this essay — it usually provides important historical context to help you understand both the text and its author.
As you read the introduction, get a sense of the setting of the text. When and where was it written? Within what kind of culture was it produced? What literary genre does the work represent (treatise, commentary, journal, sermon, correspondence, etc.)? Within which particular Christian tradition did the author stand? What historical circumstances prompted this writing? What audience was the author addressing? Who were the author's likely opponents or critics? What issues were most likely uppermost in the author's mind?
To gain further insight into the context, you might want to read a little more about the historical setting or the author by consulting a good encyclopedia. One specialized resource that's helpful in this regard is The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds. (Oxford University, rev. 1983).
3. Since you're likely to encounter new vocabulary as you read, have a good dictionary on hand, and use it. If you're looking up an unfamiliar term from an older translation, note any definitions listed as "archaic" or "obsolete" — these may be the very definitions you should apply. These older meanings should also be considered when you run across a familiar term used in an unfamiliar way.
4. Keep in mind that some common theological terms can have different meanings or emphases when used by different Christian traditions. (This was in fact one of the problems that complicated the Christological controversies of the early Church: The Greek theologians of the East and the Latin theologians of the West interpreted several critical terms in quite different ways. Instead of assuming that a writer means the same thing you do by a certain term, read the text carefully to find out what exactly the author does mean by that term. As far as possible, let the text itself define the term.
5. Contemporary American English tends toward simple grammatical constructions and short sentences and paragraphs. Older texts may thus seem complex or long-winded by comparison. Try breaking up long sentences and paragraphs into smaller units as you read. Clarify the meaning of each unit, then connect it to other units. Pause frequently, several times within a long paragraph if necessary, and ask yourself the meaning of what you have just read before you go on.
6. Read the editor's notes and commentary. As with the introduction, you may be tempted to skip these, especially if you have to turn to the back of the book to find them. But you should at least skim the notes for useful information. If you own the book, add your own notes in the margins to help you summarize, clarify, and question what you read.
7. Expect your habits of thinking to be challenged. One advantage of reading older texts is that the fundamental assumptions of another generation are often different from our own. Each historical period has its distinctive blind spots, so reading across periods provides a corrective.
8. Finally, try reading classics from a wide variety of historical periods, cultures, and genres. Take a closer look at the sources least familiar to you. The insight you need most may come from the most unexpected place!
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