Reading good books is an essential part of spiritual formation. But what should we read? A good start is to allow the church calendar to guide your reading. This ensures that you are growing in your knowledge of God on the matters of first importance. Then, seek out the best books on those vital subjects.
This year for Passion Week, I chose to focus on the doctrine of Christ’s descent, which the church celebrates on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). We confess in the Apostle’s Creed that “he descended to the dead” or “he descended into hell.” This makes some people uncomfortable, but it’s an essential, biblical, and creedal Christian doctrine. Reading Matthew Emerson’s book “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday guided my meditation on what Christ accomplished on Holy Saturday for us and for our salvation. I now have a much deeper appreciation for this beautiful doctrine and its vital implications for salvation, worship, and pastoral care. Next year, I will likely use Passion Week to focus on the cross and try to finish The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. Perhaps the year after that, I will focus on the resurrection.
As we approach the Christmas season, there are many books that could be read on the incarnation of Christ. Most people will probably settle for a 31 Days of Christmas Devotional. And while these may offer some encouragement, they are unlikely to take us deeper into the knowledge of God. Most modern devotionals are more “milk” than “meat.” Some people are stuck on this “milk” for far too long: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” (Heb. 5:12). God’s desire is for us to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13–15).
One way to grow into maturity is to feed on solid meat. That’s why I’m recommending that you consider reading On the Incarnation by Athanasius this year. It’s only around 60 pages and it’s one of the most important books in church history. Athanasius was the church father who defended the Nicene Creed and the full deity of Christ against the heretic Arius. You might think, “Yeah right, I could never read something from that guy.” But consider what C. S. Lewis wrote in his preface to one translation of On the Incarnation: “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with modern books.” Lewis goes on to explain why reading great men of the past (e.g., Plato) is often easier than one expects: “But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said.”
Are there difficult sections in On the Incarnation? Yes! But keep reading. The benefits are immeasurable. The writing of Athanasius is clear, warm, beautiful, and worshipful. There is nothing dry, boring, stale, or “heady” about it. I recommend the translation by John Behr from the Popular Patristics Series published by SVS Press. If you cannot afford the book, a different translation is available for free on ccel.org. Here are a few miscellaneous quotes from Behr’s translation:
- From nothing and having absolutely no existence God brought the universe into being through the Word. (51)
- Our own cause was the occasion of his descent and our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings. (53)
- We were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body. (54)
- Being the Word of the Father and above all, he alone consequently was both able to recreate the universe and was worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to intercede for all before the Father. (56)
- He was not enclosed in the body, nor was he in the body but not elsewhere. Nor while he moved that [body] was the universe left void of his activity and providence. But, what is most marvelous, being the Word, he was not contained by anyone, but rather himself contained everything. (66)
That last quote is brilliant. Have you ever considered that when the Son of God became a man, he didn’t stop filling the universe? As the omnipresent God, the Son was never confined to the body of Jesus. At the same time he was born in the manger, he was upholding the universe by his power. This is just one of many glorious insights that Athanasius shares. But my favorite insights are those that emphasize the fittingness or the beauty of God’s redemption. Athanasius helps us to understand why the Son and not the Father or the Spirit became incarnate. Since God created all things through his Word, it was fitting that all things should be recreated by him. It was fitting that the one through whom all things were created should be the one through whom all things are redeemed.
It’s now my practice to reread this book each Christmas. After discovering this glorious work for yourself, perhaps you will join me in making it part of your Christmas tradition. Lewis said, “When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered…that I was reading a masterpiece.” I couldn’t agree more. Tolle lege!
If you’re interested in reading more of the church fathers, please consider the 2021 Patristics Reading Group being offered by Holy Joys: https://holyjoys.org/patristics-2021/.