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 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).
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).
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).