A Gentle Lament

The weekend approaches, and with it the end of exams and this third of eight semesters. Two exams remain, Church History and New Testament Background, and as they were the only two this week, we’ve had plenty of time to study. One aspect of Dr. Van Raalte’s Church History course that I appreciated was actually reading the works of past Christians. We read Prosper of Aquitaine’s rebuttal to John Cassian, wherein he responded to Cassian’s claim that Job had stood without God’s help against Satan. Cassian argued that when God told Satan “behold, [Job] is in your hand,” God was leaving Job to test his own human mettle against the attacks of the devil. Cassian believed that there was some good left in man, that the fall had made us sick rather than dead, and he was using Job as evidence. Prosper’s response was clever and revealed his good grasp of the whole of Scripture. He pointed to 1 Corinthians 12:3, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit,” and applied that to Job’s words, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” Job’s confession could not have arisen from his heart without the indwelling of God’s Spirit, argued Prosper, which meant that God was with Job throughout his sufferings. Checkmate.

The best, though, was reading from Augustine’s Confessions. To read good writing is in many ways to enter a foreign country. If reading Margaret Atwood is a lot like visiting Detroit, which it is, reading a great book is much more like visiting London. There’s a city that you could never fully experience in a lifetime, and in the same way great books have depths that you can never fully plumb. Augustine’s Confessions is one of those books. It demands of you a slow and fully engaged reading and invites you to wander the streets of a clear, imaginative, and brilliant mind. He takes you through his own conversion thought by thought, event by event, and always with a spiritual intimacy that confronted me, anyways, with my own often bland and shallow thinking. The book is, as all the best ones are, endlessly re-readable and worth anybody’s time.

This is probably not fair, but after reading the writings of Augustine and others, returning to studying textbooks can be a most dull exercise. I’m not talking about my Church History textbook, which is a little better than most and does contain some nuggets:

“[Constantine] may not have been consistent in his policy of unity, but he was constant in naming his children: Constantine II received Spain, the Gauls, and Britain; Constans received Africa, Italy, and Illyricum; and Constantius II received the East. (Constantine also had a daughter, Constantina)” Ferguson, 199.

But too often, for a book to be a textbook it has to display a certain deadness of imagination. Maybe it’s an insistence on being “objective” that provokes some authors to artificially divorce themselves from their writing, but whatever it is, it leaves you with a book that isn’t worth opening again. Nor does it have to be that way. What John Calvin teaches in his Institutes is no less objective truth than that contained in a textbook, but his writing is at once fully expressive of the lively and incisive character of his unique mind. That’s why we still read him as fruitfully now as his readers did then. Entering into his mind and allowing him to lead you through his examination of Scripture is a journey of wonder, joy, and beauty. An openly biased textbook written with flair, passion, and an eye to the transcendental, whatever the subject, would be a valuable and instructive book indeed.

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