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The great political philosopher Machiavelli once reveled in the time he spent during his free evenings as a farmer.  He said that he would stay in his room and surround himself with his books.  While reading it would be as if he was conversing with departed intellectual giants.  The same can be applied to working through the writings of the wise men and women who have gone before us in Church History (I would not just limit this principle to theology, but to all disciplines.  It is absurd to discount the wisdom of thinkers from Socrates to Pope John Paul II).  These brothers and sisters (departed saints, of course) can provide clarifications in the Biblical text.  Of course they should never supersede the Bible, but they can also warn you if your interpretation is approaching dangerous grounds theologically.  If I view Jesus as someone who was made, since He is the Son of God, and had a beginning, then Athanasius’ On The Incarnation will help correct this error.  He will force you to go back to the text and reexamine it.  If he says something that is false though then you will have to analyze it deeper.  CS Lewis believed that old books were important to read because, while they might contain errors, those errors have been vetted through history and can be spotted quicker since they are from a different time.  New books have errors in them that we are still steeped in and are more difficult to spot.

The heritage of the Reformation was that all people could read the Bible for themselves.  Indeed while I entirely endorse this idea, we cannot simply be by ourselves.  We must engage with other people in a time-transcending Bible study.  That is why I endorse the reading of Scripture with other solid Christians, both in present and past (read: books) conversations.  Doing so will correct our errors and potentially dangerous, heretical mistakes while also sharpening our minds and deepening our relationships with God who has revealed Himself in Scripture.

I was asked recently by a family member why they should read other writers than the biblical ones.  After all, if I truly affirmed the Reformational idea of Sola Scriptura, what profit would it be to me to also consult with the likes of John Calvin, Augustine or Thomas Aquinas?  Why can’t I sit in the comfort of my own home office and read the Bible by myself?  Why can’t I just interpret it myself?  After all, I am a Protestant who believes in the “Priesthood of all Believers!”  While I certainly do believe in the necessity for every Christian to read the Bible, to do so completely by oneself is potentially hazardous to the individual.

GK Chesterton once noted that tradition was the democracy of the dead.  Chesterton said this about the Nineteen Hundred years of the Church Triumphant (those who have died).  While we have the ability to ask a theologian, pastor or lay-scholar a question in our various congregations and communities, this ability does not stop there.  We have the capability to ask the host of brilliant Christians from the past about their opinions on Biblical concepts and passages.  Influence does not stop at the grave.

We ask other people for help in interpreting passages, so why wouldn’t we ask the brilliant people of the past?  It is helpful to read them because modern day people often read themselves into the text.  Many American Evangelicals (of the more Dispensationalist types in this example) will view the Bible through the prism of current events or political philosophy.*  All events point to the Antichrist and people bring proof-texts to serve their purpose.  Exploring the thoughts of past Church Fathers and Mothers will help root us in our faith with clarity.  While it might not alter a position, at the very least it will challenge the individual to think deeper about their faith.  So those who believe in freewill, get into an argument with Calvin or Charles Hodge.  For those who are Reformed, get into a sparring match with Wesley.  So in short, read widely and broadly in order to read Scripture more deeply.

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* Of course there will be issues with Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and other denominations.  I use Dispensationalists because the example is very clear.

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