Like Gazing at the Open Sea

C.S. Lewis wrote a masterful essay called “On the Reading of Old Books,” which was originally published as the introduction to a 1940s translation of Athanasius’ fourth century masterpiece On the Incarnation of the Word. Lewis writes that

“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.”

I have been struck by the similarities of many contemporary Reformed writers, and found myself gravitating to older books because they correct, remind, and open new doors. I read Lewis’ essay again before reading On the Incarnation, and it’s worth the price of the book, in my opinion. In the essay, Lewis also writes about the devotional value of reading doctrinal books, arguing that they are often more devotional than devotional books. One of my favorite Lewis quotations speaks to this:

“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.”

Athanasius’ work is brilliantly written, but accessible. I was intimidated to read something so old, but he writes clearly and logically (not to mention concisely, with the book clocking in at just under 70 pages). I highly recommend it as an edifying read, as well as a breath of fresh air if you are stuck in a contemporary theology rut. Here are some choice highlights I came across in my reading:

“It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into nonexistence through corruption.” (p. 6)

“For [Christ] alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all, and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.” (p. 7)

“By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew.” (p. 12)

“In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one things that one has grasped.” (p. 62)

One thought on “Like Gazing at the Open Sea

  1. Based on my recent reading of Murray's Redemption Accomplished and Applied, I know exactly what is meant by works of doctrine being "devotional." So many of the conclusions of Murray's chapters were so eloquently (yet concisely) stated that I found myself writing simply, "Beautiful" in the margins.

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