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February 21, 2014

How Would He Know?

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The longer I think about Beza’s position expressed at the Colloquy of Montbéliard, the more puzzling it becomes.  Beza “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally.”  But … how would he know?

These aren’t people who were baptized as children and then grew up and apostatized.  Andreae would have granted that apostates perish and wouldn’t have been at all shocked that Beza affirmed that they did.  No, Beza must be speaking of children who die in infancy or at least in early youth, so that we cannot say of these children “They were clearly unbelievers.”  They were baptized; they did not apostatize (at least, that we know of!); and yet Beza is sure that thousands of them perish.

I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of reasons why Beza would assert such a thing, but I haven’t been able to come up with anything really plausible.  Did Beza perhaps think that any child who is baptized but who has ungodly parents is bound to perish in spite of his baptism?  Would Beza include in that number any child baptized in a Roman Catholic church, which Beza would likely regard as a false and apostate church.  Is that the reasoning behind Beza’s strong — and, to Andreae, shocking — affirmation?  If so, isn’t this close to Donatism, where the efficacy of the sacrament is thought to depend on the godliness of the one administering it?  I find it hard to believe that Beza would hold such a view.

Or is Beza reasoning backwards from the fact that many thousands who are baptized do end up apostate and perish to the idea that there must be many thousands of children who are baptized but who also perish?  Or …?

I really have no idea what could have prompted his claim.  Anyone out there have a suggestion?

Posted by John Barach @ 1:29 pm | Discuss (0)
February 20, 2014

Horrenda Vox

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As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, at the Colloquy of Montbéliard, Beza “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally” — prompting Andreae, in shock, to write a marginal note: “Horrenda vox.”

Horrenda indeed.

It appears that in some circles, though, this view was identified as the Reformed view.  But it is certainly not the view expressed in the Reformed confessional documents.  The Canons of Dort, in the First Head of Doctrine, Article 17, declare something quite the opposite of what Beza affirms:

We must judge concerning will of God from His Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents.  Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.

“Ought not to doubt” means that, according to the Canons, it is wrong for such parents to doubt that their children, who die in infancy, are elect and saved.  “Don’t do it!” say the Canons.  “Don’t doubt, but believe that your children are among God’s elect and that they are saved from their sin and from death — and believe it because that’s what God’s Word declares.”

But that’s not the only statement about the matter in the Canons of Dort.  In the Conclusion of the Canons, the Synod talks about how some people have tried to “persuade the public” that the Reformed churches teach various things, including that

Many innocent children of believers are torn from their mothers’ breasts and tyrannically thrown into hell, so that neither the blood of Christ nor their baptism nor the prayers of the church at their baptism can be of any help to them.

That seems to be what Beza thought, when he “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally.”  But the Canons say of this view that it is something “which the Reformed churches not only do not confess but even detest wholeheartedly” (emphasis added).  The Canons, then, agree here with Andreae against Beza: “Horrenda vox!”

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Beza and Baptismal Assurance

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Sometimes when I read about a debate in the past, I find myself frustrated with both parties.  So it was with Jill Raitt’s summary of the debate between Jacob Andreae and Theodore Beza about baptism at the Colloquy of Montbéliard (“Probably They Are God’s Children: Theodore Beza’s Doctrine of Baptism” in Humanism and Reform [Blackwell, 1991]).  At times, I find myself appreciating a point Beza makes; at other times, Andreae seems to have the upper hand — and at times, the whole debate becomes frustrating.

But perhaps most troubling is what Raitt puts into the title of her essay: Beza’s use of the word “probably.”  Beza “said that infants also probably receive remission of original sin and the fruits of adoption, as long as they do not repudiate these benefits as adults” (159).  Raitt notes that Beza “had always taught, as had Calvin, that the children of believers are probably elect” (159).  But as it turns out, if they did grow up and “repudiate these benefits as adults,” Beza would say that they had never really received the benefits at all.  As Raitt points out,

Were they to repudiate their baptism, they would evidently be reprobate from the beginning.  In that case, they did not receive any benefits from baptism, something that could not be known at the time since, in Reformed theology, the action of the Holy Spirit is God’s secret and cannot be commanded by human actions, even sacramental actions” (159-160).

So, for Beza, “Baptism is … a probable, not a certain, sign that baptized children receive the fruit of adoption.  To say otherwise would be to make God’s choice dependent upon human actions” (164).  In fact, later on Beza went further and “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally” (167) — prompting Andreae, in shock, to write a marginal note: “Horrenda vox.”

Andreae rightly noted that Beza’s approach undermines any comfort we might receive from baptism and, in fact, in grounding assurance on our experience of faith and on feeling “the motion of the Holy Spirit testifying that one is truly regenerated and adopted as a child of God,” Beza was reducing “assurance to subjective feeling” (166).  “Andreae objected that the sacraments would not be sources of comfort if they were merely sources of probability rather than certainty” (164).

In contrast, “There should be no doubt that when a child is baptized, it enters into God’s adoption and love, said Andreae.  There should be no ‘probably,’ but rather assurance” (167).

One does not have to agree with all the details of Andreae’s theology of baptism to grant his main point: Baptism ought to be a comfort, and that comfort is undermined if we add the word “probably” to it.  If baptism only “probably” means that we belong to God, if we are only “probably” baptized into Christ, if our children are only “probably” included in God’s love but could, if they die in infancy, end up perishing, then baptism can no longer function to give — or even to buttress — our assurance and we will end up looking elsewhere.  As history has shown, that “elsewhere” usually turns out to be our own subjective feelings, our own sense that our faith is strong enough, which in the end leads to what Raitt terms a “psychological morass” (168).


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Warrant and Worship

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I’ve often heard that the early Reformers were opposed to organs and other musical instruments in worship, as well as to art (Scriptural paintings, statutes, sculptures) in churches, to say nothing of the rejection of the Roman Catholic altar in favor of a table.  But it appears that that wasn’t universally the case.

In an essay on the Colloquy of Montbéliard (“Probably They Are God’s Children: Theodore Beza’s Doctrine of Baptism” in Humanism and Reform [Blackwell, 1991]), Jill Raitt points out that Theodore Beza, who was Calvin’s successor in Geneva, agreed with the Lutheran Jacob Andreae “that [Roman Catholic] churches should not be destroyed, that altars used by ‘papists’ could be used by Protestants, that art and music in church services was a matter of prudent judgment.”

The difference was “that while Andreae argued for organs, polyphony, painting, and sculpture, Beza preferred simply psalmody and felt that the Reformed churches were under no obligation to install organs.  As for statues and paintings, Beza said that they were most useful in civil life, but the Reformed preferred not to put them in their churches”  (156).  Beza said “that while artistic representations need not be eliminated from churches, they could do more harm than good, given the tendency in human nature to fall into idolatry” (155).


They agreed that Scripture gave no precise commands that must be obeyed on these matters, since even the specific commandment against graven images was obviously interpreted to allow for statues and other representations in ancient Israel.  On the other hand, while the Psalms mentioned all sorts of musical instruments to praise the Lord, there was no specific command to use any particular instrument or any instruments at all.  The final note sounded by both theologians was that in these matters the churches should exercise Christian liberty.  At the same time, excess in either direction should be avoided so that there would be no cause for scandal (156).

It interests me to see that the two men seem to be working with a very similar “regulative principle of worship” here.  It is sometimes said that the Lutherans and the Reformed had (have!) radically different principles.  For Lutherans, it is said, the principle is “If it isn’t forbidden, it’s permitted in worship,” whereas for the Reformed the principle is “If it isn’t commanded, it’s forbidden in worship.”

But clearly, if Beza agreed with Andreae, he wasn’t working with that principle.  Beza agreed with Andreae that “Scripture gave no precise commands that must be obeyed on these matters” and therefore “churches should exercise Christian liberty,” albeit with wisdom so as to avoid excesses and cause scandal.  For instance, Scripture doesn’t prohibit statues in church and therefore they are allowed (“need not be eliminated”).  That is an “If it isn’t forbidden, it is permitted” argument.

But it would also be a mistake to think that Andreae would argue for a bare “whatever isn’t forbidden is permitted.”  Andreae appeals to Scripture for warrant for whatever is allowed in worship.  He points out that Scripture prohibits graven images but notes that that prohibition goes hand in hand with a command to make cherubim for the Ark of the Covenant, so that we must conclude that not every sort of image is excluded by that prohibition.

He points out that Scripture commends the use of musical instruments (e.g,. in Psalm 150) — indeed, he said that the Psalms not only tolerate but actually command the use of instruments (Raitt, 155) — but apparently in the end agreed that Scripture doesn’t give a “specific command to use any particular instrument or any instruments at all” (as if it is sin to sing without instruments).  Thus, Reformed churches aren’t obligated to use instruments, though they were certainly permitted and Andreae would argue for them.

Andreae isn’t arguing for a free-for-all in worship (“You could even bathe your kids in the worship service, because Scripture doesn’t explicitly forbid it!”).  Rather, he aims to stay within Scriptural bounds, doing what is commanded and refraining from what is prohibited, but also noting what is commended, what practices modify the commands and prohibitions, and so on.

In the end, it seems, both recognize that God can commend things that are not absolutely commanded, both grant that what is not forbidden is permitted if there is at least some Scriptural warrant for it, and both urge wisdom and Christian liberty with regard to what takes place in corporate worship.  That’s where the discussion apparently landed, but it seems to me that it ought to have been the springboard for greater unity in these matters between the Reformed and the Lutherans.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:06 pm | Discuss (1)
February 10, 2014

Ancient Greek Religion

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I would not be surprised to find that Simon Price’s Religions of the Ancient Greeks (1999) is now a standard text in that field.  He wears his learning lightly and provides a survey of ancient Greek religions (the plural is deliberate) that takes into account the many local variations instead of pretending that all Greeks thought the same way at all periods of Greek history.  In fact, one could argue that the one “misstep” in the book is apparent in the title already: the word “religions.”  As Price shows, the ancient Greeks would not have thought that they were practicing religion over here at this point in time and politics or war or family life over there at that other point in time.

Here’s Price’s summary, springboarding off a quotation from Xenophon:

Many aspects of Xenophon’s account are surprising to those reared on Jewish or Christian religious assumptions.  In place of one male god, in the Anabasis there is a multiplicity of gods, even unidentifiable gods.  Gods are both male (Zeus, Apollo), and female (Artemis).  There is no religious sphere separate from that of politics and warfare or private life; instead, religion is embedded in all aspects of life, public and private.  There are no sacred books, religious dogmas or orthodoxy, but rather common practices, competing interpretations of events and actions, and the perception of sacrifice as a strategic device open to manipulation.  Generals and common soldiers, not priests, decide on religious policy.  The diviners are the only usual religious professionals, and religion offered not personal salvation in the afterlife, but help here and now, escape from the Persians or personal success and prosperity.  Religious festivals combined solemnity and jollity.  Practice not belief is the key, and to start from questions about faith or personal piety is to impose alien values on ancient Greece (3).

But in at least one regard, I wonder about Price’s distinction between “Jewish or Christian assumptions” and what Price describes with regard to the ancient Greeks.  While modern Christians might be surprised that for ancient Greeks “There is no religious sphere separate from that of politics and warfare or private life; instead, religion in embedded in all aspects of life, public and private,” Paul wouldn’t have been.

When Paul came, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, that proclamation was surely not the announcement that, after all, religion is only a sphere in life, to be sharply distinguished from politics and warfare and family life and all those other things (which, themselves, are spheres distinct from each other), and that in the sphere of religion Paul’s hearers ought to drop their allegiance to Zeus and the rest of the pantheon and put their trust in the Triune God instead.

Paul did not come teaching his hearers to invent a religious sphere in which they would serve Jesus and freeing all other spheres from the influence of “religion.”  Instead, he came proclaiming a Jesus who was Lord of all, Lord of the whole of life, Lord on Sunday but also on the other six days, Lord in the church’s assemblies but also in “all aspects of life, public and private.”

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January 28, 2014

Charlemagne and The City of God

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Edward R. Hardy, Jr., begins his essay on Augustine’s The City of God by noting that the emperor Charlemagne used to have Augustine, and particularly The City of God, read to him at dinner.  One might think that Charlemagne was most interested in Augustine’s political theology, on what Augustine has to say about empires and rulers and so forth.  Maybe, says Hardy.  But probably not:

Some of these broader implications of St. Augustine’s ideas were doubtless in old Kaiser Karl’s head as he listened to the reader in his hall at Aachen. But probably the books of the City of God — which the biographer quite properly refers to in the plural, as a series rather than a unit — provided the monarch with amusement as well as instruction at mealtime.  In these XXII Books of St. Aurelius Augustine the Bishop on the City of God against the Pagans one is charmed and sometimes confused by finding notes on almost every subject of human interest.  The extracts from them which appear in the pages of the Breviarium Romanum for the devotional reading of the clergy do not deal with political theory but with the Second Temple, the names of the Prophet Hosea’s children, and the miracles of St. Stephen.  Some other items to be found in the City of God are a sketch of the Assyrian Empire, attacks on the absurdity of paganism, discussions on the nature of time, the eucharistic sacrifice, and the main principles of social ethics, and a rhetorical passage on the wonders of nature.  One never knows quite what is coming next, and doubtless Charlemagne, like many other readers since, found this one of the attractions of the work.  It has the fascination of a book about everything (“The City of God,” in Roy W. Battenhouse, ed., A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine, 259).

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January 22, 2014

Jewish Spartans?

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Perhaps you knew about this already.  Perhaps you will tell me that if I were more familiar with 1 Maccabees, I would have known this already myself.  Be that as it may, it was news to me when I read in Paul Cartledge’s The Spartans that King Areus I, who took the throne in 309, “was the supposed recipient (under the spelling ‘Areius’) of a letter from the High Priest in Jerusalem, appealing to the common ancestry of the Spartans and the Jews with a view to procuring Spartan aid against the Seleucid king Antiochus” (240).

Cartledge leaves out part of the story.  According to Josephus (Ant. 12.4), Areus wrote to Onias the high priest:

AREUS, KING OF THE LACEDEMONIANS, TO ONIAS, SENDETH GREETING. We have met with a certain writing, whereby we have discovered that both the Jews and the Lacedemonians are of one stock, and are derived from the kindred of Abraham.  It is but just therefore that you, who are our brethren, should send to us about any of your concerns as you please. We will also do the same thing, and esteem your concerns as our own, and will look upon our concerns as in common with yours. Demoteles, who brings you this letter, will bring your answer back to us. This letter is four-square; and the seal is an eagle, with a dragon in his claws.

From the account in 1 Maccabees, it sounds as if, in fact, Areus was the one who initiated the correspondence.  In 1 Maccabees 12, Jonathan, the new high priest, writes to the Spartans “to confirm and renew the friendship with them” (12:1-2, RSV).   The letter that was sent refers to the previous letter Areus (here spelled Arius) sent Onias:

This is a copy of the letter which Jonathan wrote to the Spartans:

“Jonathan the high priest, the senate of the nation, the priests, and the rest of the Jewish people to their brethren the Spartans, greeting.  Already in time past a letter was sent to Onias the high priest from Arius, who was king among you, stating that you are our brethren, as the appended copy shows.  Onias welcomed the envoy with honor, and received the letter, which contained a clear declaration of alliance and friendship.

Therefore, though we have no need of these things, since we have as encouragement the holy books which are in our hands, we have undertaken to send to renew our brotherhood and friendship with you, so that we may not become estranged from you, for considerable time has passed since you sent your letter to us.  We therefore remember you constantly on every occasion, both in our feasts and on other appropriate days, at the sacrifices which we offer and in our prayers, as it is right and proper to remember brethren. And we rejoice in your glory.

But as for ourselves, many afflictions and many wars have encircled us; the kings round about us have waged war against us.  We were unwilling to annoy you and our other allies and friends with these wars,  for we have the help which comes from Heaven for our aid; and we were delivered from our enemies and our enemies were humbled.  We therefore have chosen Numenius the son of Antiochus and Antipater the son of Jason, and have sent them to Rome to renew our former friendship and alliance with them. We have commanded them to go also to you and greet you and deliver to you this letter from us concerning the renewal of our brotherhood. And now please send us a reply to this” (1 Macc 12:5-18).

At this point, 1 Maccabees includes a version of the earlier letter (slightly different from what Josephus has):

This is a copy of the letter which they sent to Onias: “Arius, king of the Spartans, to Onias the high priest, greeting. It has been found in writing concerning the Spartans and the Jews that they are brethren and are of the family of Abraham. And now that we have learned this, please write us concerning your welfare;  we on our part write to you that your cattle and your property belong to us, and ours belong to you. We therefore command that our envoys report to you accordingly” (1 Macc 12:19-23).

Later, we read:

It was heard in Rome, and as far away as Sparta, that Jonathan had died, and they were deeply grieved. When they heard that Simon his brother had become high priest in his place, and that he was ruling over the country and the cities in it, they wrote to him on bronze tablets to renew with him the friendship and alliance which they had established with Judas and Jonathan his brothers. And these were read before the assembly in Jerusalem.

This is a copy of the letter which the Spartans sent:

“The rulers and the city of the Spartans to Simon the high priest and to the elders and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people, our brethren, greeting. The envoys who were sent to our people have told us about your glory and honor, and we rejoiced at their coming.  And what they said we have recorded in our public decrees, as follows, `Numenius the son of Antiochus and Antipater the son of Jason, envoys of the Jews, have come to us to renew their friendship with us. It has pleased our people to receive these men with honor and to put a copy of their words in the public archives, so that the people of the Spartans may have a record of them. And they have sent a copy of this to Simon the high priest'” (1 Macc 14:16-23).

So, contrary to the impression Cartledge gives, it appears from both Josephus and 1 Maccabees that it was Areus who sent a letter to the High Priest of Jerusalem first, and — what is most intriguing to me — that he did so because of a writing that indicated that the Spartans and the Jews were both descended from Abraham.  That’s not something you’d conclude from reading, say, Genesis 10.  So what was Areus reading?


Posted by John Barach @ 3:46 pm | Discuss (1)
April 26, 2013

Imaginative Biographies

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In an enjoyable survey and critique of young adult novels, the historical novelist Geoffrey Trease touches on what he calls “imaginative biographies,” those fictionalized accounts of a person’s life in which whole scenes and conversations are invented by the author:

We may feel that the imaginative biographer is a doubtful ally of history when he writes for adults.  There has been a great vogue for his books in recent years, for there is a class of intellectual snobs (mainly feminine, it must be pointed out with more candour than chivalry) who declare that they do not waste time on novels but read only biographies and memoirs.  Such readers have no interest in footnotes, appendices and authorities.  They want dogmatic statement, garnished with salacious innuendo.  They are duly catered for.  As the late John Palmer said of them, in that masterly life of Moliere, which demonstrates that wit and a respect for truth are not incompatible: “It is a poor biographer who allows himself to be defeated by lack of evidence.” It would not be so bad if these writers would acknowledge, in a foreword to their fancies, that they lack complete omniscience; if they would emulate Froude’s candour, who completed his contribution to Newman’s Lives of the Saints with these words: “I have said all that is known, and indeed a good deal more than is known, about the blessed St Neot” (Tales out of School, 57).

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April 20, 2013

Rational Fanaticism

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In his biography of Robespierre, Hilaire Belloc identifies two kinds of fanaticism:

Those whom it is customary in soft times to call fanatics are of two kinds.  There is he who maintains what he very well knows to be incapable of positive proof, and very far from being a self-evident proposition — as, that the Book of Mormon fell from heaven, that Pinkish Elephants are alone of animals divine, or that some chief or king is descended from a Bear.  The fanatic that would convince others of these truths will sometimes threaten with the sword, or be at the pains of working wonders to prove them; but most commonly it is by an earnest advocacy and by the power of insistent repetition that he will convert his hearers to accept his vision.  It is his glory that the thing he premises has in it something wholly  unusual, and he praises it as a chief virtue in his proselytes that they accept reality by the channels of affection and appreciation rather than by those of comparison and experience.  Robespierre was emphatically not of this kind.

But there is a second kind which has often, oddly enough, a more irritant effect upon humanity than the first.  They attach themselves to some principle which is highly probable, or generally acceptable, or even self-evident, and armed with this truth, which few care (and sometimes none are able) to deny, they proceed to a thousand applications of their rule which they lay down as an iron standard, crushing the multiple irregularities of living things.  Of these it has been well said that they go to the devil by logic.  It is in their nature to see nothing of the mysteries, and to forget that the aspects of truth must be co-ordinated.  They do not remember that the Divine Nature in which all truths are contained and from which all proceed, has not as yet been grasped by the human mind, and they fail to perceive at how prodigious a rate the probability of divergence increases as deduction proceeds step by step from its first base in principle.

Yet so strong is the current of deduction in us that when such fanatics most disturb and torture us by their practical enormities we are forever reproaching ourselves with the unreasonableness of our instinctive opposition, and thinking, as their system reposes on a truth and is consistent, that therefore its last conclusions may not be denied; and it is this weakness in us that gives fanatics of the latter sort their power.  Of this kind were the lawyers of the later middle ages, of this kind are the defenders of many modern economic theories, and of this kind was Robespierre (Robespierre 33-34).

And of this kind may be some people in the church today.  And of this kind may be (at some times and in some ways) some of us, piling deduction upon deduction and pressuring others to follow our reasoning all the way to conclusions that they feel to be wrong (but what are feelings against our deductions?!) and that we (in our own eyes) are bold enough to embrace.  No one wants to be a Robespierre, but sometimes we meet them today and sometimes we are closer to that sort of fanaticism than we think.

Belloc goes on to add that such men have other notable characteristics.  Robespierre appeared to be conceited or vain, but that is misleading: he didn’t think he was devoted to himself; he thought he was devoted to the principles he was applying, with which (he thought) others agreed.  He was suspicious of others because he was convinced of these principles and because others said and did things that didn’t seem consistent with that sort of conviction.

Again, this unique conviction destroyed humour and proportion.  Did he hear a gibe against his wearisome insistence?  It seemed to him a gibe against the liberty and the God whom he preached.  He missed relative values, so that he was in politics like a man who in battle has no sense of range; he blundered unexpectedly upon oppositions; he shot short or over the heads of his opponents (35).

He was “bewildered by the opportunist,” Belloc says (36), and he saw inconsistencies as the result of some moral flaw:

That practical temper and those inconsistencies of affection which are the general tone of all mankind, he, on the contrary, imagined to be peculiar to some few evil and exceptional men, and these he was for removing as abhorrent to the perfect State and corrupting to it.  “You say that self-government is of right, and yet you will not immediately grant the suffrage to all?  You are insincere, a liar, a deceiver of the people.”  “You say you believe in God, and yet you oppose the execution of this atheist?  You are corrupt and perhaps bribed.  If God be really God, this infinite God and his Majesty must certainly be defended.  But perhaps you do not believe in Him — then you also must go the way of the man you are defending.”  “You say the people are sovereign, and yet you are seen in the house of men who approved of the middle class militia firing on the crowd?  Then you are a traitor.”  Wherever men of the usual sort perceive but one of the million inconsistencies of life — inconsistencies that vary infinitely in degree, and that must be of a rare sort to be counted as crimes or aberrations — Robespierre saw but glaring antitheses; something unjust, untrue, and very vile” (36-37).

More than that, he lacked love or even friendship:

While theory thus led him to violent animosities, it forbade him sincere affections.  This, which is the widest gap in the texture of his mind and the principal symptom of his unnatural abstraction, explains a great part of his adventures.  There can be no better corrector of intellectual extravagance than the personal love of friends, for this gives experience of what men are, educates the mind to complexity, makes room for healthy doubt, puts stuff into the tenuous framework of the mind, and prevents the mere energy of thought from eating inward” (37).


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December 21, 2009

Levantine Adventurer

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A couple of weeks ago, I read W. H. Lewis’s Levantine Adventurer: The Travels and Missions of the Chevalier d’Arvieux, 1653-1697. W. H. (“Warnie”) Lewis was the brother of C. S. Lewis and his area of expertise was the history of seventeenth century France, a period he referred to as The Splendid Century. Though I have read a lot of C. S. Lewis’s works, I hadn’t read anything by his brother. And so, having discovered that the local library had Levantine Adventurer, I requested and read it.

I knew nothing about this time period nor, I must confess, about the Chevalier d’Arvieux before reading this volume, which is largely a summary of his memoirs. At first, the narrative seemed a bit dry and assumed some knowledge I didn’t have, but before long the story itself began to interest me. D’Arvieux spent most of his adult life in the Levant, both working as a representative of the king and traveling for pleasure. Lewis has read the travel memoirs of d’Arvieux’s contemporaries — Spon, Thevenot, and Lucas — as well as of more recent travelers, and he frequently compares d’Arvieux’s descriptions with theirs, in a way that is sometimes illuminating. Consider this passage:

Kinglake [a 19th century traveler] and d’Arvieux both visited Damascus and I know no more striking example of the gulf which separates the romantic from his predecessors than their respective descriptions of the famous gardens. First Kinglake:

They bring back to your mind the memory of some dark old shrubbery in our isle that has been charmingly unkept for many a day … all through the sweet wilderness a loud rushing stream goes tumbling along till … in the lowest corner of the garden it is tossed up in a fountain by the side of a simple alcove.

Now d’Arvieux:

Although rustic they are delightful. They are surrounded by fruit trees which furnish the town with all kinds of fruit, both for eating in season and for turning into conserves all the year round. Caravans carry these fruits to Seide, Beirut, Tripoli and other places … One cannot imagine how prodigious is the consumption of fruit in Damascus (90-91).

At several points, it becomes obvious that Lewis considers d’Arvieux a better memoirist than these others. As he writes in his “Foreword,”

My own impression is of a man who enjoyed every minute of the business of living, whether he was eating, drinking, money-making, sight-seeing, or engaged in the petty diplomacy of the Council Chamber; though to be fair to him he more than once showed considerable diplomatic skill on a larger stage. With all his gusto d’Arvieux was neither ingenuous nor an enthusiast, but a good-humoured cynic who observed the follies of mankind with an indulgent eye, qualities which stood him in good stead as a memoir writer, where he is crisp, vivid, and generous; not so oppressively archaeological as Spon, Thevenot, or Lucas, and mercifully lacking in the bombast of Nointel…. d’Arvieux’s work has the unmistakeable ring of truth, and I agree with his first editor, Labat, when he says that “one never tires of reading these memoirs because they are a continuous blend of the useful, the instructive, and the pleasing” (8-9).

I suspect that Lewis saw d’Arvieux as a kindred spirit. Lewis’s own good humor shows up frequently in this book. He has a knack for picking out interesting tidbits from d’Arvieux’s account, holding them up for us to wonder about (is it really possible that the lions of a certain area were so timid that the women doing their washing could simply shoo them away?) and, even better, humorous anecdotes.

For instance:

Teonge, chaplain of the English frigate Ginny — by which I suppose he means either Guinea or Jenny — records with gusto their dinner on February 4, 1676, when in the cabin the afterguard demolished “a gallant baked pudding, an excellent legg of porke and colliflours, an excellent dish made of a pigg’s petti-toes, 2 roasted piggs, on (sic) turkey cock, a roasted hogg’s head, three ducks, a dish of Cyprus burds, and pistachioes and dates together and store of good wines.” His diary for February 5 begins with the entry, “Captaine not well this day” (112-113).

Or this:

To our ideas all these ships, especially the coaster, must have been abominably uncomfortable, particularly in heavy weather. Lucas, on a two-day passage in a small craft bound from Chios to Smyrna, got no sleep, “being importuned unceasingly by the babble of ninety women passengers.” Who were they, one wonders, and how did they come to be travelling alone? Thevenot took passage in a country ship, a caique, from Chios to Egypt in 1656 where the accommodation was so cramped that though he had the purser’s cabin, when he and his servant were in bed “there was not six inches of room left”; and as a caique “was almost round” and could sail only with the wind dead aft, their progress was leisurely. In this curious craft the unlucky man endured des vomissements horribles and in the intervals “blamed bitterly my own stupidity in quitting my ease to go voyaging”; though he was a trifle comforted by a large dose of opium administered by a sympathetic Turk. d’Arvieux, a much tougher man, caught out in a gale aboard a similar craft, has little to tell us except that he restored the courage of some despondent Moslems with tots of brandy. “Is it wine?” they asked suspiciously. No, no, only brandy, said d’Arvieux soothingly, after which they drank freely. Lucky for them, he concludes, that le bonhomme Mahomet had never heard of brandy (113-114).

Once started, I am tempted to keep looking up passages to quote. One can imagine Warnie Lewis, at work in his researches, regaling his brother or all the Inklings with these sorts of anecdotes.

While the anecdotes make the book particularly enjoyable, though, its value also lies in its illuminating observations. As the contrast with Kinglake above makes clear, he was he not a romantic, loving wild gardens. D’Arvieux preferred his gardens with the trees all in straight rows, and the sight of a garden prompts him not to raptures over sublime nature but to reflections on fruit.

But D’Arvieux is also not at all a contemporary of ours and he doesn’t share our attitudes. Lewis writes:

… no place in the Empire contained a larger population of burglars and highwaymen, a fact which gives d’Arvieux an opportunity to describe in detail the ghastly punishments of impaling and flaying alive. It is this sort of passage which suddenly reveals to us the gulf by which we are separated from a man of the seventeenth century. We jog along with d’Arvieux through the Levant, appreciating his good nature, his dry humour, and feeling that we should have got along famously with him, when all of a sudden we find him watching the infliction of horrible tortures with less emotion than he would show over a Greek inscription or a ruined temple (51-52).

There is more in this volume: descriptions of customs in many lands; the strange story of the battle over which Roman Catholic sect could say mass in the building in which d’Arvieux worked; episodes of amazing incompetence on behalf of the French government’s representatives — none of which, perhaps, may sound particularly interesting in themselves. But there you would be wrong. With good humor and keen insight, Lewis tells a story that overcame my initial ignorance and indifference to that time and place and made me want to read more.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:40 pm | Discuss (1)
December 20, 2008

The Most Reluctant Convert

Category: History,Literature :: Link :: Print

For some time now, I’ve been reading through C. S. Lewis’s Collected Letters.  I’ve finished Volume 1, together with his diary, All My Road Before Me, and now I’m well on my way through Volume 2.  The first volume ends with Lewis returning to the faith and to the church, and so when I reached that point, I paused to read David C. Downing‘s recent book The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith.

Downing is perhaps best known for his book Planets in Peril, a highly regarded study of Lewis’s Ransom trilogy.  More recently, he has written Into the Wardrobe, an in-depth treatment of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Both books are very helpful for understanding Lewis’s writing.

One might wonder why, in between these literary studies, Downing would bother to write a book about Lewis’s conversion.  The story is familiar to most fans of C. S. Lewis, not only because Lewis himself wrote a book about it but also because it is central in most biographies of Lewis.  The story has been told repeatedly.  And yet Downing tells it again.

We should be glad he did.  Downing’s account does not simply repeat the things Lewis discusses in Surprised by Joy; he draws on many other sources to put together a much fuller account of Lewis’s early life, leading up to his return to faith.

Along the way, I learned many things that I hadn’t from other sources.  Downing begins with Lewis’s childhood in Ireland and paying special attention to how the conflict between Protestants and Catholics played out in Lewis’s own family.  He raises the question of how the death of Lewis’s mother affected his early childhood faith.

In the next chapter, Downing discusses Lewis’s boyhood years, spent in England at school, including one school that was particularly horrible.  Lewis and his brother begged their father to rescue them from the school.  In Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that his father chose this school.  But Downing points out that the only member of Lewis’s family to have actually seen the school, and the one who recommended it after touring it, was not Lewis’s father but rather his mother.  Downing calls this

a detail that illustrates the Lewis brothers’ tendency to idealize their lost mother and to be too hard on their father….  Lewis recognized this fault in himself in later years, but even so, this instance reminds us that his judgments of his father do not always give us a fully rounded picture (p. 37).

Later on, Downing points out, as well, that, far from being mere churchgoers, as Lewis himself thought, his mother at least, and perhaps also his father, appear in their own writings to have been sincere Christians:

One of the most significant items Warren discovered in [his parents’] mountain of papers was his father’s diary, in which the latter had recorded his wife’s conversation on her deathbed.  Albert wrote that Flora had advised her sickroom nurse that, when it came time to marry, she should find “a good man who loves you and who loves God.”  They had been quietly discussing the goodness of God when Flora asked suddenly, “What have we done for Him?”  To this quotation, Albert had added, “May I never forget that” (p. 144).

While this brief comment doesn’t reveal much about their faith, it does suggest that Lewis may have misjudged his parents at this point. Chapter 3 introduces Lewis’s atheism, but Chapter 4 illustrates the conflict that Lewis had between his atheistic materialism and his romantic bent.  On the one hand, he believed that whatever appeared beautiful to him was meaningless, just a random arrangement of atoms.  On the other hand, he loved the beauty of nature and saw in it “glimpses of Joy,” which “seemed to suggest some hidden glory at the center of things” (p. 62).   As Lewis said, “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless” (cited p. 63).  During this period, Lewis discovered George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes which, he said, “baptized” his imagination, even though intellectually he was still a materialist.  As well, it was at this time that Lewis began writing fiction, and in this chapter Downing gives a helpful summary and examination of Lewis’s unpublished manuscript “The Quest of Bleheris,” showing its similarity at some points to things Lewis would write later.

In chapters 5 and 6, Downing describes Lewis’s dualism, his conviction that materialism was wrong and that there was something (or Something) other than the material world, and then his interest in and later repulsion from the occult.  Chapter 7 traces Lewis’s journey through idealist philosophy and a sort of pantheism, ending with his embrace of theism. Finally, Chapter 8 gives us Lewis’s full conversion.

Here, Downing rightly points out that even though Lewis at first says that he was converted to theism and then to an acceptance of the claims of Jesus Christ, when Lewis starts moving toward a belief in “God,” he isn’t thinking merely of some sort of god but of the God of the Bible.

His distinction between “theism” and “Christianity” is not entirely satisfactory, for it is clear that he was surrendering for the first time to a Person visualized as the God of the Bible, not of the Koran or the kabbalah (pp. 139-140).

In fact, I would question even the phrase “for the first time.”  In the story Downing recounts, as well as the story you can piece together from Lewis’s letters and diary, neither the conversion to theism in 1929 nor the conviction of the truth of Christianity in 1931 were really “first time” events.I don’t recall if Downing addresses this, but it isn’t really proper to think of Lewis’s story simply as a move from atheism to Christianity.  Rather, Lewis starts out as a Christian, baptized and believing as a child, then apostatizes (even while hypocritically being confirmed in the Anglican church) and lapses into atheism, and finally returns to faith, now a mature and grown-up faith but still the faith of his childhood.  This is a richer and more complex story, in other words, a story not just of a conversion but of a conversion which was a return from apostasy.

Throughout the book, Downing draws connections between elements in Lewis’s own life and elements in Lewis’s writing.  Some readers may find that distracting, but I found it particularly interesting.  Again and again, Downing would show that Lewis uses certain words consistently in his writings, so that things he says in his letters or diary shed light on what he says in later writings.  He also shows how Lewis, in his later writings, attacked and refuted some of the false paths that misled him on his way to faith.

When I finished the book, I remember thinking that there were a couple of flaws, but at this point I remember only one: Downing doesn’t discuss Lewis’s interaction with Owen Barfield and Cecil Harwood.  Their friendship began when Lewis came to Oxford and lasted throughout their lives.  Barfield and Harwood were Anthroposophists (though also Anglicans and professing Christians?) and Lewis and Barfield in particular engaged in what was later called “the Great War,” as Lewis rejected Barfield’s views strongly.  After his conversion, though, Lewis wrote to Harwood’s wife and said he was glad she had never read what he wrote about those matters,

for all that is dead as mutton to me now: and the points chiefly at issue between the Anthroposophists and me then were precisely the points on which anthroposophy is certainly right — i.e. the claim that it is possible for man, here and now, in the phenomenal world, to have commerce with the world beyond — which is what I was denying (Collected Letters 2:107).

He goes on to mention a continuing disagreement with Barfield and Anthoposophy.  But from what he says here, it sounds as if his debate with Barfield may have had some impact on him during his journey to faith. Even though he was vigorously rejecting Barfield’s arguments, he was constantly made aware of and thinking about certain matters that he would later embrace when he came to faith.  Perhaps Downing didn’t spend time on this because it is discussed in depth elsewhere (perhaps in Lionel Adey’s C. S. Lewis’s Great War with Owen Barfield which I haven’t read), but I do think that by omitting this debate Downing has skipped over a significant part of the story.

In short, the book was surprisingly good — surprisingly because I thought I already knew the story from Surprised by Joy and also now from Lewis’s letters and diary, and yet Downing revealed several new aspects to the story.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Lewis, and perhaps especially to those who think they know this story already.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:28 pm | Discuss (2)
February 21, 2008


Category: History :: Link :: Print

Another good blog entry by Doug Wilson, from a few years back:

Dominion will never be understood through worry. The natural tendency of those who are able to identify trajectories is to assume that what they currently see will go on forever and ever. Herman Melville thought that civilization would end as soon as we ran out of whale oil. After a week of rain, farmers think that they will be ruined if the rain keeps up. After a week of sun, they start worrying about drought. A generation ago, everyone panicked about the population bomb, and so the western world threw itself into the gospel of birth control. But now we see the trajectory going the other way. It is a bomb all right, but it is the imploding kind.

A kind of uniformitarianism plagues our thinking, and interferes with genuine wisdom. We are like someone who is driving to a distant city, and who assumes that he must drive north by north east the entire time. But this leaves out a multitude of curves and bends in the road, and forgets his duty to follow the road. Cultural trends, projections, and trajectories are never absolute. Rather, they are just one leg of the road. Christians believe that human history is going somewhere; it has an intelligible destination. And, to return to the image of driving used earlier, we believe that God is the driver of the car. All the pundits, historians, social critics, art historians, et al. are nothing more than glorified back seat drivers. We don’t really know where we are going-and so we need to be more humble about the observations that are coming forth from the back of the car.

We walk by faith, and not by sight.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:04 pm | Discuss (0)

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