Tag Archives: Books published in the 1930s

About Beliefs

This article about the resurrection of Christ was published in G. K. Chesterton’s 1936 book of essays, As I Was Saying. Since that book is now almost impossible to obtain—and the title has been co-opted for an unrelated compilation—I’ve reproduced the essay here in full.


Some time ago, when a stir was made by a rather striking book called Who Moved the Stone? which might almost be described, with all reverence, as a divine detective story and almost a theological thriller, a pugnacious little paper in Fleet Street made a remark which has always hovered in my memory as more mysterious than any mystery story in the world. The writer said that any man who believes in the Resurrection is bound to believe also in the story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights. I have no idea what he meant. Nor, I imagine, had he. But this curious conjunction of ideas recurs to my mind in connexion with a rather interesting suggestion made by Mr. Christopher Dawson about what we may call the History of Science. On the face of it, the remark I have quoted from the pugnacious paper seems to have no quality whatever except pugnacity. There is no sort of logical connexion between believing in one marvellous event and believing in another, even if they were exactly alike and not utterly different. If I believe that Captain Peary reached the North Pole, I am not therefore bound to believe that Dr. Cook also reached the North Pole, even if they both arrived with sledges and dogs out of the same snows. It is a fallacy, therefore, even where the two things are close enough to be compared. But the comparison between the Gospel miracle and the Arabian fairy-tale is about the most unfortunate comparison in the world. For in the one case there is a plain and particular reason for thinking the thing true, or at least meant to be true. And in the other case there is a plain and particular reason for realizing that the tale is not only untrue, but is not even meant to be true.
The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham. In the case of the Apostles’ testimony, the general circumstances suggest that it is true. In the case of the Arabian tale, the general circumstances avow and proclaim that it is false. For we are told in the book itself that all the stories were told by a woman merely to amuse the king and distract his attention from the idea of cutting off her head. A romancer in this personal situation is not very likely to confine herself strictly to humdrum accuracy, and it would be impossible more plainly to warn the reader that all the tales are taradiddles. In the one case, then, we have witnesses who not only think the thing true, but do veritably think it is as true as death, or truer than death. They therefore prefer death to the denial of its truth. In the other case we have a story-teller who, in trying to avoid death, has every motive to tell lies. If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded, and had saved his life by inventing a long string of Messianic or Early Christian legends on the spur of the moment, in order to hold the attention of King Herod, I should not regard any “resurrection myth” he might tell as a strong historical argument for the Resurrection. But, as the Apostles were killed as St. John was killed, I think their evidence cannot be identified by sound scholarship as a portion of the Arabian Nights.
I merely pause for a moment upon this wild and preposterous parallel as a passing example of the queer way in which sceptics now refuse to follow an argument and only follow a sort of association or analogy. But the real reason for recalling this strange remark about the Arabian Nights is to be found in a much more genuine analogy between Western Science and Eastern Sorcery. Nobody but a lunatic would look either for his facts or his faith in the Arabian Nights. But, oddly enough, there really was a touch of the Arabian magicians in the Arabian mathematicians. There really was a faint flavour of the Oriental wizardry about the quite genuine Oriental wisdom; even when that wisdom was really doing work for which the world will always be grateful, in geometry or chemistry, in mathematics or medicine. Thus we find the paradox: that a man might, after all, look for some of the elements of science in the Arabian Nights, though he would hardly look there for anything very edifying or elevating in the way of the elements of religion. In short, the old dim, or even dark, connexion between Medicine and Magic has a sort of hidden meaning of great historical interest. It is developed by Mr. Dawson in an essay on the Eastern element in early mediaeval science, and occurs in a book of essays called Mediaeval Religion.
But this particular point is not concerned with religion, but is connected in a curious way with science. The point is this: that Magic (in the ancient sense) and Medicine (in the modern sense) are really in one way very like each other, because they are both very unlike the pure and abstract idea of Science as conceived by the Ancient Greeks. Science only means knowledge; and for those ancients it did only mean knowledge. They wanted nothing but the pleasure of knowing; they were particularly proud of knowing a great deal of utterly useless knowledge. Thus the favourite science of the Greeks was Astronomy, because it was as abstract as Algebra. And when the Philistine among them said: “What are the Pleiades to me?” the Philosopher really answered the Philistine by saying: “They are all the more to me because they are nothing to me.” We may say that the great Greek ideal was to have no use for useful things. The Slave was he who learned useful things; the Freeman was he who learned useless things. This still remains the ideal of many noble men of science, in the sense that they do desire truth as the great Greeks desired it; and their attitude is an eternal protest against the vulgarity of utilitarianism. But there was and is another side of science, also to be respected, which was from the first represented by things like Medicine. And if there were some association of Medicine with Magic, it was because Magic was always extremely practical.
The modern Magician, often a most respectable gentleman, may have altered his opinion that sticking pins in the wax image of a politician would be a practical act of social utility. But so the modern Medicine-Man may have altered his opinion that the blood of badgers mixed with wine and salt is always an immediate cure for rheumatism. But there is nothing in this change of opinion on the mere fact or details that differs from any other modern change in medical method, as in curing consumption first by shutting all the windows and then by opening all the windows. The point is that both types of Medicine-Man were employed by people who wanted something prompt and practical, such as killing politicians or curing rheumatism. And the note of this sort of science, which Mr. Dawson traces to the East, is that it always boasts of possessing Power, as distinct from the other sort set upon enjoying Truth. We have most of us met the kind of theosophical mystic who is always whispering that he can show us the Path to Power; that if we will only say “I am Wisdom; I am Power” seventy-seven times before the looking-glass we shall control the cosmos. There was some such note even in mediaeval medicine. Mediaeval science was really more practical than Pagan science, but sometimes it did really sound a little too practical to be quite wholesome. So some modern hygienic idealists are rather more concerned about health than is quite healthy. It is hard to dwell perpetually on this element of power without poisoning it with some element of pride. So, queerly enough, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really has some remote relation with the miracles of science, though hardly any with the miracles of religion.

Review: When the Swans Fly High

Who: F. W. Boreham, British pastor and author of 49 books. He spent most of his life pastoring in New Zealand and Australia. (See the article “Who Is F. W. Boreham?”)

Genre: On Boreham’s spiritual essays: F. W. Boreham is difficult to place into a genre. A reviewer wrote in Preacher’s Magazine, “There is only one Boreham.” His writing is a mix of essay writing and what I call “literary preaching”—preaching that is intensely informed by both Christian and classic literature. In the main body of his work (“classic Boreham”), some chapters were originally sermons; others were culled from his 3000 biographical essays. In any case, most of his 49 books are a goldmine of suitable (if light) devotional reading. (See my list of his published works.)

Overview: This is a great book of essays, and very hard to obtain. It is definitely one of my favorite volumes from the pen of F. W. Boreham. Thanks to my collaborators, it is now available for Kindle.

“The Order of Melchizedek” illustrates in several ways the meaning of the somewhat enigmatic figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews: “without beginning of days or end of life” (Heb. 7:3).

“Rainbow Gold” compares the human longing for eternity to the search for the gold at the end of the rainbow.

“The Rainbow” speaks of the meaning of the biblical symbol of the rainbow in its several uses (Genesis, Ezekiel, and Revelation), and also tells the fascinating tale of a etiological myth about the rainbow among the Maori where Boreham spent his first pastorate. (On the rainbow, see also this fine passage from missionary Temple Gairdner.)

“A Pair of Spectacles” is about the tendency to see things, not through your own eyes, but through the eyes of the crowd.

Quotes:

“One of the highest forms of courage is cold-blooded courage, four-o’-clock-in-the-morning courage, the kind of courage that is born of no excitement, is witnessed by no spectators and evokes no cheers.”

“In his Areopagitica, John Milton says that a man may hold an orthodox creed and yet be the worst of heretics.”

“God committed to paper the choicest thoughts of His divine heart.”

“‘Come, wander with me,’ she said,
‘Into regions yet untrod;
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God.'” (quoted from Longfellow in “A Midwinter Holiday”)

“Each man’s individuality is itself a message to mankind, a message which he, and he alone can faithfully deliver. And the whole art of life lies in giving such genuine and accurate and rational expression to that unique individuality of mine that, by the things that I do and the way in which I do them, men may receive a message from my Father that could have come to them in no other way.”

“He cares, we feel, for certain things—the making of worlds, the control of the universe, the destinies of mighty empires. But does He care for the individual soul with its individual needs? Does He care for Barbara with her passionate prayer for the boon of a quiet night? Does He care for John Ridd? Is He prepared, not only to steer the planets on their fiery courses, but to guide John’s heart amidst its complicated entanglements? Does He care for ordinary mortals? Does He care for me?” (“The Doll’s House”)

Review: Christus Victor

Rating: ★★★★★

Full title: Christus Victor: A Historical Study of Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement.

Author: Gustaf Aulén was a Swedish theologian known mainly for Christus Victor. In historical context, he is also part of a movement towards neo-orthodoxy in Swedish Lutheranism (the “Lundensian” movement).

Overview:

The book begins with the following statement:

My work on the history of Christian doctrine has led me to an ever-deepening conviction that the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement is in need of thorough revision.

Aulén sees previous atonement literature as divided into two camps, while a third option has been overlooked since the Reformation. Many previous studies of the atonement used a dichotomy of two logical theories: the “objective” atonement theory (penal substitution) and the “subjective” atonement theory. Aulén’s book, however, traces atonement theory from a third, older view: the “classic” or “dramatic” view seen in Scripture and the Eastern Church Fathers, which is less logically rigorous but just as important. In a nutshell, the classic view is exemplified in the Narnia novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wherein the atoning triumph is specifically over evil forces, not against an angry deity. The triumph is also sometimes seen as an act of deception over the devil, who attacked Christ at Calvary, not knowing that such a violation of divine law would overthrow his own kingdom:

Christ—Christus Victor—fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the “tyrants” under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself. Two points here require to be pressed with special emphasis: first, that this is a doctrine of Atonement in the full and proper sense, and second, that this idea of the Atonement has a clear and distinct character of its own, quite different from the other two types. (ch. 1)

In Aulén’s view, the atonement as conflict and triumph over Satanic forces (including sin and death) is the most prominent explanation in the New Testament and Church Fathers, and the objective and subjective theories are later attempts to iron out tensions in the New Testament’s account of atonement.

Thus, Aulén divides atonement history into:

1) The classic view (conflict and triumph), which was the usual explanation in the New Testament and the Church Fathers for the first millennium of church history;

2) The objective atonement (satisfaction theory or substitution), which was developed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and became the “orthodox” Protestant view;

3) The subjective atonement, which is typically credited to Abelard, a near contemporary and critic of Anselm. In Aulén’s view the subjective theory of the atonement is basically a reaction to the objective theory.

Meat:

Aulén’s book is tranquil where others are incendiary, brief where others are verbose, historical where others are critical. It has become key to the entire atonement controversy and should be discussed by modern theology students.

Key to Aulén’s book are the many quotes from Irenaeus, Anselm, Abelard, Luther, and others. He shows quite effectively that “conflict and triumph” is at the very least an underappreciated facet of Christ’s atonement. This was part of a movement of “re-Reformation,” in which Luther’s theology was re-appraised and some key concepts were given new treatments in Lutheranism. Aulén states in the fourth chapter that legal explanations of the atonement had become the only “orthodox” explanations:

The theologians of Protestant Orthodoxy took it completely for granted that the theory of the satisfaction of God’s justice was to be found everywhere in the New Testament, or, rather, that it was presupposed both in the New Testament and in the Old; in fact, it was primarily from the Old Testament that the “scriptural proofs” of the Atonement were primarily drawn, and this is a highly significant point. (ch. 4)

The goal in view in Christus Victor, however, is not to criticize satisfaction theory, but to revise “the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement” (ch. 1).

There are some unique elements of the classical/dramatic atonement that come out in his study:

1) The classical view of the Atonement is a view, not a theory. Aulén contends:

[The classical view] is not a logically articulated theory of redemption but rather an idea, a motif, a theme, which is essentially one and the same in Paul and in the early church, but finds ever-varying forms of expression. (ch. 4)

2) The classical view brings the Incarnation to the forefront. Aulén points out that early explanations of the Atonement were indelibly bound together with Christ’s Incarnation. The legal view, however, is somewhat at odds with the Incarnation, and critics point out that penal substitution pits the Trinity against itself.

3) The classical view makes God the main actor in the Atonement. The legal view of the Atonement often makes God the object of the Atonement, whereas he is the Initiator of the Atonement in the classical view (2 Cor. 5:19). Aulén aptly summarizes this tension:

It may be summed up thus: The classic idea shows a continuity in the Divine action and a discontinuity in the order of justice; the Latin type, a legal consistency and a discontinuity in Divine operation. (ch. 5)

4) Finally, the classical view emphasizes a new order based on grace. The legal view makes the act of grace also an act of payment; in the classical view, God not only makes amends (in Christ) or accepts the means of making amends (in the Father), but he initiates a change in the universal order which we may freely appropriate by faith in Christ. He enables believers to live in freedom from the devil and death. Law does not triumph over law; rather, grace triumphs over law, and the tension in the divine order is palpable in the classical view:

The nerve of the whole is the idea of the Divine Love breaking in pieces the order of merit and justice, and creating a new order to govern the relation of man with God, that of Grace. (ch. 6)

This acceptance of paradox, which is the final note of triumph in Aulén’s conclusion, resonates both with Christian mysticism and with modern writers on paradox such as Gerald Kennedy (in The Lion and the Lamb: Paradoxes of the Christian Faith) and G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy).

Bones:

Aulén’s book is a potent challenge to proponents of substitutionary atonement. If the substitutionary atonement is so important, why is it only discussed during the second millennium of church history? Aulén probably doesn’t give proper weight to the Calvinist explanation, however. The options are these:

1) Aulén’s view: Substitutionary atonement is not mentioned during the 1st millennium A.D. because the dramatic view of the atonement was the dominant explanation.

2) The Calvinist view: Substitutionary atonement is not mentioned during the 1st millennium A.D. because there was no rigorous atonement theory.

As I see it, it would be shortsighted to say that there was “no theory” for 1000 years. This may be just another way of saying that explanations of the Atonement didn’t have all their kinks ironed out, which Aulén freely admits. But the fact of the Atonement was passed on from generation to generation, even in Britain’s medieval mystery plays, with a clear conflict and triumph motif. It cannot be passed on in a vacuum, just as anyone who says they have “no theology” just means that they do not know what theology they have.

Aulén manages to play to the strength of this problem by claiming that the classical/dramatic view is not logically rigorous; but I only mention it to point out that his explanation of this problem could be teased out in a longer work.

Quotes:

“The New Testament teaching corresponds with that of the early church; it being understood that there is not to be found in either case a developed theological doctrine of the Atonement, but rather an idea or motif expressed with many variations of outward form.” (ch. 4)

“It is possible to fix with precision the time of the first appearance of the Latin theory. Tertullian prepares the building materials; Cyprian begins to construct out of them a doctrine of the Atonement.” (ch. 5)

“The Latin doctrine of the Atonement is closely related to the legalism characteristic of the medieval outlook.” (ch. 5)

“Satan’s triumph would be his undoing. This strange paradox, that He who was the stronger than Satan should succumb to the power of evil and thereby break it—this paradox was involved in His situation as the Son of Man in lowliness, but having His high vocation, and all the while an instrument of God’s will.” (quoting Anton Fridrechsen)

Review: Out of the Silent Planet (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview: Lewis takes us on an unexpected space journey with Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist (or linguist). Much of the book deals with his encounters with exotic beings and his attempts to communicate with them. This book would be appropriate for teens or middle-school children, although the rest of the trilogy treats more mature themes.

Meat: The strengths of this book are essentially the same as those of The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’ description in this book is simple and beautiful, and the metaphors are plain and elegant. The crux of the book lies in Ransom’s realization that his species, is, in fact, the strange one. Through this lens he explores what it means to be human, and imagines the possibility of an unfallen species. The insights on this line deepen in the sequel, Perelandra.

Bones: As in Narnia, Lewis’ metaphors for divinity are thinly veiled, but to the believing reader this is merely Lewis being himself. Critics point out that Lewis’ explanations are unscientific—but then, that’s not really the point of the trilogy. Others might find, on the contrary, that he uses too much of the scientific perspective in the book. As a scientist and a believer, I found the book concise, elegant and readable.

Quotes: “At length he understood that it was his species that was the strange one.” (ch. 11)

“Like a silence spreading over a room full of people, like an infinitesimal coolness on a sultry day, like a passing memory of some long-forgotten sound or scent, like all that is stillest and smallest and most hard to seize in nature, Oyarsa passed between his subjects and drew near and came to rest, not ten yards away from Ransom, in the centre of Meldilorn.” (ch. 18)

“The very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply ‘the heavens.'”