I’m a huge C.S. Lewis fan. And yet I had never read one of his most enjoyable essays – until a seminary professor made me purchase Athanasius’ famous little book On the Incarnation for a class on Christology. It turns out that the English translation of Athanasius contains an introduction by C.S. Lewis, in which he makes his famous observation about the necessity of reading old books.

Below is the entire introduction. Enjoy!

C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation) by St. Athanasius

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 the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. 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; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.

A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.

In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity.

They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so.

Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne.

In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age.

It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

The present book is something of an experiment. The translation is intended for the world at large, not only for theological students. If it succeeds, other translations of other great Christian books will presumably follow. In one sense, of course, it is not the first in the field. Translations of the Theologia Germanica, the Imitation, the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable, though some of them are not very scholarly.

But it will be noticed that these are all books of devotion rather than of doctrine. Now the layman or amateur needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This is a good translation of a very great book. St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the “Athanasian Creed.” I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words “Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep.

The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame. But this is not my immediate concern. I mention “the creed (commonly called) of St. Athanasius” only to get out of the reader’s way what may have been a bogey and to put the true Athanasius in its place. His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression.

His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.

The translator knows so much more Christian Greek than I that it would be out of place for me to praise her version. But it seems to me to be in the right tradition of English translation. I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages. That is as much as the English reader will notice; those who compare the version with the original will be able to estimate how much wit and talent is presupposed in such a choice, for example, as “these wiseacres” on the very first page.

This past week, Matthew Arbo argued very intelligently in an essay for the Gospel Coalition that Christians should not support capital punishment. I’m writing this essay to disagree with Matthew. Though we know each other personally and interact regularly over Twitter, I find that I need more than 140 characters to engage meaningfully with his very well-crafted argument. Ah, but wait! I have a blog. And so it begins.

I should start by noting that Matthew Arbo is more educated, more intelligent, and more philosophically inclined than me. If those facts alone end the argument for you, so be it. But as my high school football coach said, “At least you try hard.” Though I do not claim to be Arbo’s intellectual peer, I do hope to make some thoughtful contribution to the debate through my analysis and critique of his argument.

I write as a cautious supporter of capital punishment. Cautious, because as Arbo deftly points out, the application of this penalty within American jurisprudence leaves much to be desired. I basically agree with the entire second section of Arbo’s essay, in which he surveys the practical problems of racial bias and misapplication of evidence in death-row cases. He concludes that these are “reasons enough to place a temporary national stay on capital punishment” – with which I can heartily agree. However, that’s different than saying that the death penalty itself is objectively wrong. My own position, as I’ve discussed here, is that the death penalty is just in principle though it may be unjust in application. That’s the position I’ll seek to advance in this counter-essay.

Arbo’s contention is that “Christians… should not support [the death penalty],” and he divides his reasoning into three categories: philosophical objections, practical objections, and theological objections. Leaving aside the practical category – since I agree entirely with his points in that area – I’ll focus my counterpoints on his philosophical and theological arguments.

Philosophically, Arbo makes three main points:

  • Execution doesn’t settle the debt of justice: killing the wrongdoer can not reestablish the state of affairs that existed before the murder took place.
  • Capital punishment doesn’t have a pedagogical/restorative purpose: “The dead do not learn from their mistakes.”
  • Capital punishment doesn’t serve as an effective deterrent.

As it stands, I agree with all three of these points. A thoughtful Christian affirmation of capital punishment must affirm that capital punishment cannot undo the injustice of the crime committed, nor teach the offender, nor deter all like crimes. A Christian affirmation of capital punishment rests upon a philosophical foundation that Arbo seems to snub in his argumentation: the doctrine of the imago Dei. If human beings bear the divine image, the taking of a human life is a grave offense, unlike any other. In cases of murder, the death penalty is not required, but it is justified because of the imago Dei. And thus we turn our attention to theological considerations.

At the outset of his theological argument, Arbo seeks to put the burden of proof on those who disagree with him:

If one wishes to base one’s justification for capital punishment on the Old Testament’s lex talionis (eye for an eye) principle, then one must demonstrate how death as a punitive measure is morally right, since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ.

In this statement, Arbo has made a category mistake, for the earliest instance of lex talionis – especially as it pertains to the death penalty – is Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Genesis 9 is neither civil nor ceremonial law, but is prior to both. Genesis 9 is a covenantal text. The very next verse is a restatement of the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). Some biblical scholars categorize Genesis 9 as a “covenant of creation,” in which God pledges his faithfulness never again to destroy the earth: “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). This covenant is made with ALL of humankind, not just with one people: “God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’”(Genesis 9:17). Therefore, Genesis 9:6 cannot be summarily dismissed as “civil or ceremonial law” which is fulfilled in Christ. And, perhaps even more importantly, the justification for lex talionis in Genesis 9:6 is exactly the doctrine of imago Dei: “…for God made man in his own image.”

The burden of proof, then, is on Arbo, not on those who disagree with him. Instead of blithely dismissing appeals to Genesis 9:6 as “far too paradoxical to accept,” he must show with cogent theological reasoning why the covenantal ordinance established in this text has been set aside. Broad, sweeping generalizations of “civil and ceremonial law” won’t do.

Arbo makes a similar category mistake when he asserts that “Christian advocates of capital punishment will also have to reckon with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:38–41, where he makes clear this retaliatory interpretation of the law was incorrect.” But most interpreters understand Jesus to be talking about a personal ethic, not a state ethic. Turning the other cheek to Vladimir Putin makes for bad geopolitics. If retribution is wrong in any and every case – including in national defense – then let’s just turn over the keys to the nearest dictator. (Or maybe we already have? But that’s another post). I surmise Arbo knows his Augustine well enough to respect the Christian just-war tradition, which is rooted in exactly this distinction. While persons are not justified in waging war, nations are. Likewise, capital punishment by the state heads off the temptation toward personal vigilante justice and retribution.

What’s odd about Arbo’s argument is that he seems to conflate arguments against capital punishment with arguments for wisdom in its application. To say it another way: a defender of capital punishment can agree with 70% of Arbo’s assertions in his essay. Without reading into his intentions, it seems he’s adopted a rhetorical strategy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – marshall any and all objections to the death penalty, in principle or application, and imply that they add up to “Christians should oppose the death penalty.” But this just isn’t so. For instance, when he argues, “Governing authorities are sometimes required to use force to uphold the law and secure peace, of course, but nothing constrains them to kill offenders in order to do so… Neither is the Christian insubordinate or disrespectful in pleading for measured clemency,” I find myself saying, “Yes and Amen!” But this is not an argument against the death penalty. It is an argument for wise jurisprudence and faithful Christian witness. And it’s an argument that works equally well for my position as for his.

One final point before I conclude. Arbo ends his essay sounding a note that’s being sounded far and wide in Christian circles these days – the note that “the Christian faith is fully and entirely pro-life—beginning to end.” This idea is being trumpeted as a de facto case against the death penalty, as if a Christian cannot be “consistently pro-life” without being anti-death-penalty. However, I have not yet seen cogent argumentation to back up this assertion. I was hoping that Arbo’s essay might fill the gap, but it didn’t (or it hasn’t yet; perhaps this response will spur fuller treatment). I consider myself someone who is “fully and entirely pro-life,” as well a supporter of the death penalty in principle. I don’t think I’m the only one. Therefore, I plead with all who are repeating this “consistently pro-life” trope:

  • Please distinguish clearly between Christian opposition to the death penalty in principle and Christian opposition to the death penalty in application (or, just admit that the main objections are practical/applicatory, and let’s focus our Christian activism there);
  • Deal meaningfully, exegetically and theologically, with Genesis 9:6;
  • Show why the basic assumptions of just war theory (state ethic vs. personal ethic) don’t apply to the death penalty as well.

Perhaps this work has been (or is being) done somewhere, and I’m just not aware of it. If so, feel free to point me there in the comments section. And then I’ll take Arbo to task for not quoting such work in his essay.

In the end, Arbo has made necessary arguments against the death penalty, but his arguments are not sufficient to establish his conclusion. I say this with humble gratitude for Matthew Arbo as a friend, a brother in Christ, and one of the church’s bright intellectual and philosophical minds. My critiques of his work are offered in charity, with the expectation that he may in fact answer every single objection in this post by breakfast tomorrow. And if he does, I trust I will have served the Lord’s people well by giving him the opportunity.

In this video, I continue to explain the Cross Chart diagram by showing two ways that we short-circuit gospel renewal — pretending and performing. Only when we live with an ongoing, growing awareness of the grace of God toward us in Christ can we be free from these patterns of sin and experience growth in Christ.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. (C.S. Lewis)

Clear, coherent thinking about marriage is utterly necessary in our current cultural moment. And the beautiful thing about marriage is that it has an objective structure. What marriage IS is clear, whether or not we choose to admit it.

Last week I taught a special lecture entitled “What is Marriage?” My goal was to speak simply and clearly to that fundamental question, showing why only the conjugal view of marriage is philosophically defensible. I chose to work from a natural-law perspective in order to a) help Christians think more broadly about the issue and b) make common cause with those who don’t yet espouse a Christian worldview.

Below you will find audio files for both the lecture and the Q&A, as well as video of the lecture. In the lecture I acknowledge my dependence on the written work by Girgis, Anderson, and George on this subject, which I highly recommend. I am also indebted to the fine people who attended the event and put forward some challenging and thoughtful questions.

What Is Marriage? [Teaching Audio] [Q&A Audio] [PDF Lecture Outline}