Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

28 Jan 2013

On Reading Old Books: A Few Suggestions from the Fourth Century

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A couple of weeks ago I suggested that believers would benefit from occasionally reading older books. However, just because a work was written in a previous era does not mean that it’s necessarily worth reading today. In fact, far more old books exist that any one person could ever hope to read. So assuming the reader is convinced that some older books may be worth reading, where does one begin?

Below I’m going to recommend four books that were written in the fourth century. These books are selected from a variety of genres. Two are doctrinal treatises. One is a book on parenting. And the fourth is an autobiography of sorts. Each of these works is readily available, fairly short, and definitely worth reading.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation (paper, Kindle, online)

Athanasius is remembered as the figure who defended the full deity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea and who stood against the Arians during the tumultuous decades that followed. Some years prior to the council, Athanasius penned a little book explaining and defending the truth that God has manifested himself to humanity in the person of Christ.

An excerpt: “It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body” (1.4).

Basil, On the Holy Spirit (paper, Kindle, online)

Written by one of the great Cappadocian fathers, Basil’s book is the first full-length doctrinal discussion of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In the decades following the Council of Nicaea, the debate gradually shifted from the deity of the Son to the deity of the Spirit. Basil’s work was instrumental in turning the tide back toward a more biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit.

An excerpt: “Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to Paradise, our ascension to the Kingdom of heaven, our adoption as God’s sons, our freedom to call God our Father, our becoming partakers of the grace of Christ, being called children of light, sharing in eternal glory, and in a word, our inheritance of the fullness of blessing, both in this world and the world to come” (15.36).

Chrysostom, Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring up Children (pdf)

You probably won’t agree with everything Chrysostom has to say about bringing up children, but it is both refreshing and helpful to read a work on the subject that pre-dates Dr. Spock, Gary Ezzo, and the rise of the “Tiger Mother.” Written more than 1600 years ago, Chrysostom wrestles with the enduring question of how to raise children who love the Lord and live wisely in a wicked world.

An excerpt: “The man-child has lately been born. His father thinks of every means, not whereby he may direct the child’s life wisely, but whereby he may adorn it and clothe it in fine raiment and golden adornments. Why dost thou this, O man?… Implanting in him from the first an excessive love of wealth and teaching him to be excited by things of no profit, why dost thou plot even greater treachery against him?… The girl who has been raised in her mother’s quarters to be excited by female ornaments, when she leaves her father’s house will be a sore vexation to her bridegroom and a greater burden to him than the tax collectors…. Raise up an athlete for Christ and teach him though he is living in the world to be reverent from his earliest youth” (16, 17, 19).

Augustine, Confessions (paper, Kindle, online)

The longest of these four works, Augustine’s Confessions should, in my opinion, be read at least once by every Christian. Augustine was one of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of the church, and this book contains his worshipful reflections on God, life, and eternity.

An excerpt: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1).

8 Responses

  1. Former KJVer

    Hello, my Name is Webb, my Pastor attends your seminary , I tell you this so you wouldn’t think of me as a drive by argumentative hack. I do have Augustune’s book Confessions , but I was wondering could you give me some idea as to where to locate material that could convince me that he was truly a Christian? The reason I say this is from what I’ve read on the history of some of his actions towards other Christians as well as what seems to me a big part of his doctrine being heretical, infant baptismal regeneration ,veneration of saints etc. I’m certainly not trying to be a snake in the grass and pretend to be interested only to draw out a fight, but I love to read an I love the classics especially theology , I bought Augustines book years ago , but shelved it once I found out more about him. And since many of the theologians I respect always quote him as well as Detroit recommending his books any help you could give would be greatly appreciated , thanks!

  2. John Aloisi


    Thanks for the question. If I understood you correctly, you own Augustine’s Confessions but haven’t actually read it yet. Augustine recounts his conversion experience in book 8 of that work.

    As Baptists living in the 21st century, we’d certainly disagree with Augustine on a number of theological issues. At the end of the day, I think he was a regenerate man. But even if somehow he was not, his writings are still worth reading.


  3. Tim Scott

    I would just like to add to John’s comment by pointing out that Augustine’s conversion took place before his baptism in the Confessions.

    The issue of baptism in church history is admittedly difficult when it comes to individual people in history. The vast majority outside the Baptist tradition have held to the error of infant baptism. The great preacher of justification by faith alone, Martin Luther, held the doctrine. The likes of Calvin, Luther, Knox, Wesley, Owen, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, and countless others have had problematic views on baptism. However, I am not prepared to consign all of them to hell over this. All of these men were strong preachers and teachers of sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus, and sola Deo gloria. I believe their strong insistence on salvation by grace should take precedence over their views on baptism. The same goes for Augustine.

    I would also point out that in the case of the Church Fathers, it is often difficult to determine exactly what to make of many of their views of baptism. Peter on the day of Pentecost proclaimed, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Taken at face value, this text could be understood to mean that Peter taught baptismal regeneration. This text has to be interpreted in light of other texts on salvation. The same is true with the Fathers. Their statements on baptism have to be balanced out with their statements on salvation by grace. That is not to say that some of them did not believe in baptismal regeneration, but I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt on these matters just like I give the benefit of the doubt to the Apostle Peter.


    Tim Scott

  4. Webb

    I don’t know I I’m prepared to give te teachings if the early fathers the same status as Scripture( in fact I know I’m not) ie give them the benefit via Peter statement, because that’s Scripture there was no confusion in Peters part whatsoever, but there most certainly is on many many men since then. With that said I Made the same statement about the fact that we don’t need a full understanding of baptism in order to be saved ( as long as your not trusting in baptism itself) to my Pastor. Also I think there is much more that Augustine wrote that is clearly false ( as I know many here do as well) , but my biggest “problem ” is figuring out how they can be so right and so wrong at the same time (post salvation) on the issue of how one is saved to begin with. Can one be saved through faith and then come to believe that it’s by an external work via sacrament ? These are the things folks that come from my background are struggling with as well as myself, I know that these arguments have been here for along time and will always be , and many of them come from angry hateful and mean spirited ” Baptists”and I used to be one , I was once a KJVonlyist with all the landmark trappings ( nuff said there sure) but now as I search for truth in church history apart from a Landmarkism lense , I am faced with these issues , and as I love to read these men I have a hard time thinking I should glean from them in spiritual matters , when many of them were responsible for the death of believers and non believers alike as well as some if their false theology. This isn’t a slam or an attack disguised as a real interest And I appreciate all who have helped in responding and it’s given me a lot to dwell on. As I said my Pastor Matt McPhillips of Grace Life Baptist Church attends your seminary and I’m sure once he gets to church history it’s gonna get interesting .

  5. Tim Scott


    Let me clarify my previous post as my concluding statement has misdirected the subject when it was intended as a poor attempt at subtle humor (I thought it was obvious that we do not need to give the benefit of the doubt to Peter here). Let me state my position directly–I do not equate the writings of the Fathers with the writings of Scripture. The Scriptures do not contradict themselves, but men can. What I meant to communicate in the Peter example was the need to understand one statement by an author in light of another. Peter preached a sermon in which he called people to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” According to Peter, here, there is a close connection between repentance, baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Holy Spirit. I would submit that it is legitimate for us to preach that people should repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. If you demur, I ask, “Why?” Peter preached this message. In fact, this was the first sermon in church history (assuming the church began on the day of Pentecost). Is there any wonder there has always been a close connection between baptism and salvation in church tradition? So close was the connection, that early Christians would use the terms conversion/baptism almost interchangeably to describe the time when they came to Christ. Of course, the significance one places on baptism is key. Is it baptism, in and of itself, that produces the forgiveness of sins and allows for someone to receive the gift of the Spirit? Based on other passages that clearly indicate that we are saved apart from works (Eph. 2:8-9, Titus 3:5, etc), we cannot conclude that baptism itself provides these spiritual benefits. Peter’s own statement about repentance in Acts 2 indicates that something more than the baptismal rite must happen before the spiritual benefits of salvation are bestowed on an individual–you must REPENT and be baptized, etc. Peter also omits any reference to baptism in a similar sermon he preached in Acts 3:19, which would indicate that Peter does not see baptism as the ultimate cause of an individual’s regeneration. All this illustrates the fact that we interpret Peter’s statement on baptism in light of other statements in Scripture that pertain to the nature of salvation itself, and (importantly for our discussion here) we give priority to those other clear statements in formulating how we view Peter’s understanding of salvation. We cannot accuse Peter of teaching that baptism saves us, but he thought that baptism was so important to the Christian experience that he brings it up during a gospel message and associates it with the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. In a similar way, I believe that we should give priority to an individual’s clear statements on the nature of salvation in evaluating the credibility of that person’s own conversion status (obviously God is the ultimate judge).

    Consider this example from John Calvin:

    In one place he writes:

    “But Scripture, when it speaks of faith righteousness, leads us to something far different: namely, to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection. Indeed, it presents this order of justification: to begin with, God deigns to embrace the sinner with his pure and freely given goodness, finding nothing in him except his miserable condition to prompt Him to mercy, since he sees man utterly void and bare of good works; and so he seeks in himself the reason to benefit man. Then God touches the sinner with a sense of his goodness in order that he, despairing of his own works, may ground the whole of his salvation in God’s mercy. This is the experience of faith through which the sinner comes into possession of his salvation when from the teaching of the gospel he acknowledges that he has been reconciled to God: that with Christ’s righteousness interceding and forgiveness of sins accomplished he is justified. And although regenerated by the Spirit of God, he ponders the everlasting righteousness laid up for him not in the good works to which he inclines but in the sole righteousness of Christ. When these things are pondered one by one, they will give a clear explanation of our opinion” (Institutes, 3.11.16).

    In this passage, it would be difficult to find fault with anything Calvin says. Salvation is initiated by God, is not through works at all but by faith, and is based only on God’s mercy, grace, and the righteousness of Christ. Regeneration comes by the Holy Spirit, and the individual ponders the everlasting righteousness found only in Christ. Baptism is not even mentioned.

    However, in his section on baptism he writes:

    “But if it was the baptism of God, it surely had, enclosed in itself, the promise of forgiveness of sins, mortification of the flesh, spiritual vivification, and participation in Christ (Institutes 4.15.16).
    Also, in his section on infant baptism he writes:
    “But how (they ask) are infants, unendowed with knowledge of good or evil, regenerated? We reply that God’s work, though beyond our understanding, is still not annulled. Now it is perfectly clear that those infants who are to be saved (as some are surely saved from that early age) are previously regenerated by the Lord” (Institutes, 4.16.17).
    In the first passage, Calvin seems to say that baptism includes regeneration (i.e. “spiritual vivification”). In the second, Calvin clearly teaches infant baptism and connects it regeneration. All this seems to go against what he said before about faith righteousness.

    To make the issue even more complicated, he says:

    “Nowhere do we find that he has ever condemned anyone as yet unbaptized. I do not want anyone on this account to think of me as meaning that baptism can be despised with impunity (by which contempt I declare the Lord’s covenant will be violated–so far am I from tolerating it!); it merely suffices to prove that baptism is not so necessary that one from whom the capacity to obtain it has been taken away should straightway be counted as lost” (Institutes, 4.16.26).

    Here he allows (however reluctantly) that it is possible for someone to be saved without being baptized at all!

    Confused yet? You are not alone. Karl Barth perhaps said it best when he wrote: “One may read the 15th and 16th chapters in Book IV of the Institutio one after the other and convince oneself where the great Calvin was sure of his subject and where he obviously was not sure, but visibly nervous, in a hopelessly confused train of thought, abusing where he ought to inform and when he wants to convince, seeking a way in the fog, which can lead him to no goal, because he has none” (Karl Barth, The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006], p. 49).

    So what do we do with someone like Calvin? I suggest that we allow his clear statements about the gospel to take priority over his statements on baptism, which seem inconsistent with his teaching on justification by faith alone. I believe that if you pressed Calvin, he would deny that salvation or even regeneration is ultimately tied to baptism, especially in light of the statement at the end there where he allows for exceptions. However, I do not excuse Calvin for what he taught on infant baptism. He is wrong on this subject, and his teaching can even be dangerous because it might lead people to put their trust in their baptism rather than in Christ. But I believe that Calvin would say that his trust was exclusively in Christ; and for that reason, I consider him among God’s children.

    In conclusion to what has already been too long a response, I would like to return to the Apostle Peter. Sometime after Peter preached his famous Pentecost sermon, he engaged in behavior that called into question the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Gal 2:11-16). Paul openly rebuked Peter for his behavior, saying that he was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (v. 14). Peter, not only treated other Christians poorly by his actions (cf. the original post about Augustine), but also distorted the message of the gospel. Paul rightly rebuked him. However, Paul did not go so far as to say that Peter was not a believer because of his errors here (these were serious errors by the way). I suggest a similar approach to someone like Calvin. We point out their errors without necessarily assuming that they are lost.

    Thankfully, neither you nor I is the final determiner of who is saved or lost. God alone has that role. However, we can learn a lot even from those who we may not be sure about. Interaction with people we disagree with can help us hone our own position and enhance our own understanding of Scripture. They become our conversation partners. I trust you will not be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. I hope that my comments here give at least a basic rationale for seeing men like Augustine, Calvin, and others as Christians (despite their errors). I also hope that this discussion provides you enough justification for reading and profiting from their works.


    Tim Scott

    P.S. The views presented above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary (although I am a graduate, in case you were wondering).

  6. Webb

    Wow, that’s was a big steak to chew on, I’d never had it explained that way and in that much detail . And I apologize for not picking up on your humor, but also know I realized you were not putting men’s views in par with Scripture. Your post was a big help and I will certainly be thinking about it , it ha also caused me to decide to read both the Confessions and the Institutes with a new goal , instead of reading it in order to cherry pick heresy an blast these men ( especially if their believers ) I will , as you say, glean what can be gleaned , certainly theseen had a high view of the Godhead etc. as well as a lot more. I appreciate you taking so much time to explain and you’ve certainly been more than edifying and kind. As youse be able to tell I’m not a seminary grad ,( I do have an associates degree from or old Bible Institue , which nowhere near comes to what DBTS offers) as well as much of what I’ve learned is self taught and studied ( which I now know has certainly been somewhat detrimental as there was really no one to challenge my conclusions to make sure I was arriving to the right ones ) anyway , again I do so thank you for your time

    PS – I guess the last real struggle I will have is the fact that so many of the reformers were persecutors and were at the same time known ( and still held so) as great theologians , and didn’t see that Paul , upon salvation , realized it was evil to kill believers , but I guess it could be in the same category as the rest of their faulty doctrine , I don’t know , but I’m open to seeing it through its proper lense.

  7. Tim Scott


    I really have enjoyed our discussion. This sort of thing was difficult for me as well when I was younger. I grew up in a KJV only church like yourself, and it took me a while to appreciate people who did not see things exactly as I did. I just wanted to give one final thought in regard to the issue you raised about persecution. I agree that what they did was wrong, and we certainly should not follow their approach to these matters. There are a number of things going on with the persecution issue in church history, depending on the time period. For much of the Middle Ages, there was no separation between the church and the state. To commit an ecclesiastical crime was to commit a crime against the state. Hence, the state punished people who were not in good graces with the church (Baptists, of course, advocate a separation of church and state). Also, poor Bible interpretation led to many of the problems regarding persecution. Theologians and church officials misapplied Old Testament penalties to the New Testament era. For instance, Israel was required by the Mosaic law to stone false prophets. Therefore, killing false teachers at one time was biblical. However, many have failed to see that the church is no longer under the Mosaic law, and this oversight/misunderstanding (whatever you want to call it) led them to do terrible things to people who opposed the teaching of the established church (whether Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise). I think many of them honestly thought they were doing the right thing (much like Paul before his conversion), but they were basing their actions on a misunderstanding of the how the Old Testament relates to the New. Again, I’m not excusing their actions, but I hope this explains a little bit as to why they did what they did.


    Tim Scott

  8. Webb

    Thanks again, and I understood from research and study and used to argue vehemently that they should have just known better, but that may be too simplistic and expectation , although hard to believe , I guess , because I wasn’t there nor did I grow up in that time frame( although many Christians knew persecution was wrong ) should I base their salvation upon actions that came later in their life and I’m also sure some ( not all) had the glory of God in mind when doing so because of their replacemt theology mindset. You certainly have been a help in clearing this matter up and though I have to allow for the emotional aspect ,which has guided so many to condemn these men as lost ,to subside , I will now be able to begin to read these men as saved but misguided and out right wrong in many issues. Thanks again!