“Tradition,” writes G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead” (from chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”).
Every year in October, some branches of the Christian faith celebrate the dawning of the Reformation (even as some other branches ignore or vilify it), marked by the date that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for academic debate. He chose October 31, 1517, to do so, a date that he believed had already become encrusted with extra-Biblical and even pagan practices. He never dreamed that his little invitation to academic debate would be lifted from its context at the university, published far and wide, and set off a movement that still rocks the world, Christian and otherwise.
We can learn from those Reformers still and from many others who lived before and after them. What is so refreshing about reading (almost invariably in translation for me) great souls of the past is that they usually address questions that we, too, ask, but they answer them in a different manner and from a different cultural milieu. Even Christian writers from the past who may share our essential convictions often draw attention to ideas and practices that we neglect. Now and then, they hold to viewpoints that we can’t share completely, but they just as often challenge us to think more Christianly about matters we take for granted.
In 1944, C. S. Lewis wrote the preface to a new edition of a classic by Athanasius called On the Incarnation of the Word of God. That little pamphlet was first sent out into the world in the mid-4th century, when professing Christians were hotly debating the very nature of Jesus Christ. Lewis obviously thought reading such books would really be good for us at present. “Every age has its own outlook,” he writes. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” He goes on: “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.” What is so great about this now is that many of these “classics” can be read for free online or with a digital reader. For example, I became interested in G. K. Chesterton a few years ago, and so I checked my Kindle to see what might be available. I found 34 different Chesterton titles for free. So, for the next two hours I felt like Christmas had come as I downloaded all of them.
Learning from great souls from the past is just an extension of what the Apostle Paul observes about the Old Covenant Scriptures: “For as many things as were written beforehand were written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and through the encouragement of the scriptures we might keep on having this hope” (Romans 15:4, my translation). Every time we open our Bibles, we are learning from those long dead who have had profound and eternity shaping experience with God. Their viewpoint is foundational for ours if we are followers of Jesus today. Then, as we read the books of those who have lived since that time, we learn that people continued to have profound and eternity shaping experience with God based on the teaching of Scripture and their own personal walk with God. And that encourages us to persevere, indeed.