At 4:00 PM on a recent Saturday afternoon, my cell phone rang. It was my pastor, telling me (our congregation's music director) that he had the flu and wouldn't be able to lead the next day's worship service. I thought he said his temperature was 105, so he had extra empathy from me. (I found out later that he had said "100-point-5.")

As Episcopalians, not having an ordained priest available meant we could not celebrate the Eucharist. So I offered to rearrange the hymns we had chosen for the service so they would fit into that old reliable Anglican standby, the service of Morning Prayer.

"Thank you. That would be nice," my pastor said, "but that leaves the matter of the homily."

Despite having spent 11 years as a pastor and having taught homiletics for a short while, I was not eager to begin a fresh sermon preparation so late on a Saturday afternoon.

"Would you like me to find a classic treatment of one of tomorrow's Scripture lessons?" I asked. "I could read the congregation a classic meditation on the passage."

He said he would be grateful for that.

And so I set to work looking for an old and authoritative commentary on Jesus' teaching on the Vine and the branches. I began looking where I knew I would find a rich trove of historic Christian material, the website known as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Ach du lieber Augustine
CCEL (pronounced "Cecil" or "SEE-sell" by many users) contains about 700 classic writings, 500 of them coded with a special mark-up language called ThML (for Theological Markup Language). At CCEL I perused Calvin's comments on John 15 (good comments, but not in preachable form), and sermons by the fourth-century preachers Hilary of Poitiers and John Chrysostom, before I settled on what I would share with our congregation: Augustine's sermons on John 15:1-3 and 4-7. (Click here and search for Tractates LXXX and LXXXI.)

I spent the next few hours doing for Augustine of Hippo what editors do for most writers: I broke up long sentences into shorter ones. I simplified vocabulary (for example, encomium became tribute). I rearranged material thematically.

I also inserted historical context to help the congregation make sense of what they were hearing. Augustine was born only 29 years after the council of Nicaea, I told the congregation, and the Nicene teaching on Jesus' divinity was still not fully accepted during much of Augustine's lifetime. That, I told the congregation, was why his comments on Jesus' being the Vine focused so heavily on his full divinity. (Indeed, just two years before he died, Augustine had to publicly defend orthodox Christology as his beloved city of Hippo was being besieged by an army of Arian Goths.)

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Similarly, when in these sermons Augustine rails against those who think they can bear good fruit apart from the Vine, his conflict with the followers of Pelagius comes to the surface. And when he tells those Pelagians to "vapor away at [their] windy talk" it is helpful to remember that Augustine was a trained rhetorician.

The next morning I delivered to our congregation the words of Augustine, updated, simplified, rearranged, and condensed. Remarkably, these old, old words held the listeners' attention.

A Kempis in an E-book
Grateful for the way CCEL makes such resources available, I wanted to learn more about the site and its creator, Calvin College computer science professor Harry Plantinga.

In a 1997 essay, Plantinga recalled his personal struggle that gave birth to CCEL. One day, the Plantingas' three-year-old son, Peter, was standing outside of a glass door and his mother inside. Remarkably, Peter understood what his mother said, even though the door was closed. Then it dawned on the Plantingas: Peter was lip-reading. They took him to an audiologist who confirmed that, at least by most people's definition, Peter was deaf. Soon they discovered that their 14-month-old daughter Anna was also profoundly hard of hearing.

This discovery threw Harry Plantinga into a state of spiritual questioning: How could God do this to them?

In the course of his spiritual anguish, Plantinga discovered an electronic copy of Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ on the Internet. He saved this e-book to his laptop and took it with him for private devotion and reflection away from the distractions of his office.

"I found [the Imitation] to be wonderfully deep and sincere and challenging to the point of making me angry at times. It helped me a great deal," Plantinga wrote. "And I had found it on the Internet! I hadn't even heard of this book before, having no interest in dusty old theological books, but there it was, freely downloadable on the Internet."

That was the start of his vision for getting to know "dusty old theological books" better and to share them freely with others over the Net. That vision begin in 1993, and 12 years later, he is well past the half-way point in reaching his original vision of scanning, coding, and posting 1000 such works.

In a recent telephone conversation, I asked Plantinga which books of the many available on CCEL have meant the most to him. Without hesitation, he said that in addition to the Imitation of Christ, his top books were "Augustine's Confessions, the Revelations [of Divine Love] of Julian of Norwich, and the Theologia Germanica," an anonymous document that heavily influenced Martin Luther.

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The current database draws about 500,000 hits per day from around 600,000 unique visitors per month. Many of these live outside the United States and have little access to theological libraries. Others are like me: I find it easier to use the searchable text of online databases than to drive a mile-and-a-half to the library at Wheaton College, or even to use the hard copies I own of some of these books. Since many of the works are coded as e-books for the Palm platform, I can carry them on my personal digital assistant.

According to Plantinga, the CCEL collection is heavily used by college and university teachers who want to assign classic spiritual reading without adding to their students' already hefty textbook bills. The other main users seem to be people preparing sermons or Bible studies and those who simply want to read for edification.

The CCEL Community
In closing, four updates:

First, Plantinga's next project is to enhance the site by adding community or multi-user capabilities to the library. These features will allow users to post comments and engage in multi-user discussions related to texts. In addition, he wants to add translations of key works in other languages. An unnamed benefactor has made a generous grant to make this possible.

Second, the site is in need of a technical upgrade. A message on CCEL's home page says colorfully, "Uuuunghx … The server is feeling rather sick. The CCEL will likely continue to be up and down until it is replaced, to the tune of $3208." Currently, Plantinga has raised $1273 toward that new server. (Scroll to the bottom of CCEL's home page for information on how to help.)

Third, Plantinga is weary. "I'm tired," he told me. "It was a labor of love. Now it's just a labor. And I still put a lot of time into it. It's not as easy as it was then." Fortunately, there have been volunteers. "Hundreds of people have contributed tens of thousands of volunteer hours in scanning, coding, and marking up text. One person has scanned and marked-up more than 100 volumes," he told me.

Fourth, his children are doing well. Shortly after the Plantingas discovered that Peter and Anna were hard of hearing, they were given a scary diagnosis: usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that involves profound hearing impairment and progressive loss of vision. To date, Anna and Peter "still have full vision," they have stopped using sign language, and their verbal skills are just fine. Indeed, Anna just placed fifth in her regional spelling bee, according to the Grand Rapids Press. She spelled verdure, before finally stumbling on Pythiad (the four-year period between celebrations of the Pythian games in ancient Greece). You go, Girl.

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David Neffis editor and vice president of Christianity Today. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Related Elsewhere:

Christian History Corner, a weekly column from the editors and writers of Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

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The Jewishness of the Nicene Creed | It was the Bible, not Greek philosophy, that shaped the theology of the Nicene bishops. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Still Fighting over Nicaea | The Anglican Communion dusts off and debates some of the Council of Nicaea's forgotten canons. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Dostoyevsky's Disregarded Prophecy | The famous Russian author shows us what's to fear in a world without God. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Losing Jesus' Language | The Assyrians, Iraq's main Christian population, struggle to keep their heritage and their ancient language. (Feb. 04, 2005)