Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
- Hebrews 13:8
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17
“Of the imitation of Christ, and the contempt of the world and all its vanities: He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ; and they teach how far we must imitate His life and character, if we seek true illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of heart. Let it be our most earnest study, therefore, to dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ.”
- Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
“In order to make your prayer more profitable, it would be well from the beginning to picture yourself as a poor, naked, miserable wretch, perishing of hunger, who knows only one man of whom he can ask or hope for help.”
- François Fénelon, The Royal Way of the Cross
At this writing, I have read 136 books so far this year, and nearly half of those being Bible studies, commentaries, or Christian fiction (like a reread of The Screwtape Letters). Among my pleasure reading was the last Mr. Moto novel from Paul Marquand and the last Charlie Chan novel written by Earl Derr Biggers (having read the others in the two series in prior years). It was hard finding these books that read just like the B movie film noir of the same names, although sometimes drastically different plot lines. I think that’s why I enjoyed them. Yet, I don’t think that these books will survive the test of time. I enjoyed them, because I grew up watching the old black and white movies. The Charlie Chan movies can be found on DVD, but they have lost favor, due to the actors (more than one over the years) being Caucasians and playing a Chinese detective from Honolulu. Odd, it’s the same thing as someone in black face, but people do not complain as much. At least ‘black face’ seems to be a criminal offense these days. Could the lack of interest toward the Asian be further prejudice?
But what prompted this post was the quoted books above. Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) and François Fénelon (1651-1715) have survived the test of time. They are not the only ones. The writings of St. Augustine (354 – 430) are a bit more impressive in longevity in that his writings were transcribed much as the Holy Bible was until the days of the printing press (invented in 1440).
Before I talk about the Thomas à Kempis book, the preface to the book mentions that there are many who disagree with the authorship. The Imitation of Christ was written in the early 1400s, at least no earlier manuscripts have been found. This doesn’t stop some scholars attributing the work to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. This is inconvenient in that the book quotes St. Francis of Assisi, who had not been born until thirty years after St. Bernard’s death. Others attribute English mystic, Walter Hilton, who died in 1395, long before the earliest found manuscript.
Thus, the logical conclusion is that the vast majority of scholars are correct, and Thomas Hemerken (or Hammerlein) wrote the book. Thomas Hemerken is better known as Thomas à Kempis, Thomas von Kempen (Dutch), or Thomas van Kempen (German). The town of Kempen, the “à”, “von” and “van” meaning “from”, is about forty miles north of Cologne, Germany (Köln). The variations in his name are due to his split German / Dutch heritage, and the slight variations in the languages. Even with deciding that Thomas à Kempis wrote the book, most of the book is a combination of quoted Scripture and quotations from the great mystics that Thomas à Kempis may have learned from, either directly or from their writings.
Why make such a distinction? The Thomas à Kempis book stands the test of time, in much part like some of the writings of St. Augustine, in that it clearly states the essential beliefs of a true believer in Jesus Christ. If you feel lost, wandering around trying to figure out what is important about the Christian faith, wanting a boost in Christian growth, read The Imitation of Christ. As I read the book, I felt that I could grab a quote from every paragraph of the book and expand upon it. But maybe part of the beauty of the book is that Thomas à Kempis simply states, without expanding. He keeps it simple.
Now we come to François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, François Fénelon for short. I purchased the complete Fénelon, which does not include all his writings, just four of his key theological books. Maybe the publisher was thinking that if you read these writings, you could “completely” understand Fénelon’s theology. Like Thomas à Kempis, Fénelon keeps it simple, to the point, with little expansion on a theme, and nearly every morsel quotable. I have read three of the books in the collection and plan to read the fourth before the end of the year. They’re short.
Maybe the point is to keep it simple. In keeping it simple, the Truth of the Gospel shines through regardless of the changes in worldview.
And that brings us to the Scriptures above. God never changes and the Bible is useful for instruction, yet language changes. Each language of the world evolves. As for the writings already mentioned, Thomas à Kempis wrote in Latin and François Fénelon wrote in French. Latin is a dead language in that people only speak, write, and read Latin on a scholarly level. If Latin were used by the common man in a small area of the world, Latin would evolve to have words for airplane, computer, and the Internet, if for no other reason. I have written about growing up both “gay” and “square.” I am not Gay, as it is defined today, but I am very square, although most people would use that word, in that context, as an insult. Yet, I am guilty. I went from being an Eagle Scout to being a Captain in the US Army to being a good citizen that tries to obey the laws of the land and respects others and their views. It’s hard to go through those steps and not be “square,” in a 1950s context and definition of the word.
As for the present translations of the Bible, they will become dated and stale. They may even become confusing. As the meaning of words changes, the modern translations must keep up while not changing the essence of God, because God does not change.
But let’s go full circle. What of the modern writers who explain Scripture? Charles Spurgeon died over a hundred years ago, yet many would think him a present-day writer. For the present, his writings have staying power. C. S. Lewis has been dead for a little over 50 years, yet a recent article stated that all his books are still in print. I have often quoted Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) and A. W. Tozer (1897-1963). Billy Graham recently passed away. He wrote in volumes but with the clear simplicity, like the quoted authors above. I would like to think that Max Lucado would have staying power, but maybe not. He speaks clearly and simply, but his writing style is homespun, with a flair for the here and now. You can relate to it, having had common experiences. But that may be where other writers of the past have faded into oblivion. Can you relate a spiritual concept to the Great Depression and have it ring true in modern times? Maybe we need to hang onto that book, if it exists. The next recession may morph into a depression. I heard a comedian who asked if World War I was the War to End All Wars, why did they give it a number? Once we have another depression, they’ll start numbering those too. And thus, more “language” that changes.
But while a book written in the early 1400s and other books written in the early 1700s, if not earlier, can speak today due to their simplicity and directness and focus on Jesus Christ alone, other writers can speak for today. They can relate with current events, the modern worldview, and the present state of grammar, vocabulary, and language. God uses both the old and the new to draw those who He loves to Him. Does it matter if what you write fails the test of time if you have helped just one soul take one step in the right direction, a direction that leads to salvation and a beautiful personal relationship with Jesus, our Lord?
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.