Tuesday, October 19, 2010

C.S. Lewis' Advice For Writers

Here's some tidbits of advice from C.S. Lewis on writing well. Lewis had a knack for expressing profound truths clearly, plainly, and memorably.  He knew how to use language beautifully to grip readers, evoke emotion, paint a picture, and draw you into his thoughts and world.  Writers and preachers alike should heed his advice.

C.S. Lewis’s last interview was on May 7, 1963—six months before he died. One of Sherwood Wirt’s questions was on writing: “How would you suggest a young Christian writer go about developing a style?”  Lewis responded:
The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.
The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.
I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.
Here's advice on writing from a couple of C.S. Lewis' letters:

"Letter of 26 June 1956," Collected Letters, Volume III, pp. 765-766.
  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn't mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don't implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean 'More people died' don't say 'Mortality rose'
  4. In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was 'terrible', describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was 'delightful': make us say 'delightful' when we've read the description. You see, all those words, (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers 'Please will you do my job for me.'
  5. Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very': otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
"Letter of 14 December 1959," Collected Letters, Volume III, pp. 1108-1109
  1. Turn off the Radio.
  2. Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
  3. Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You shd. hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
  4. Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about . . .)
  5. Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn't, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know -- the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn't the same in his.
  6. When you give up a bit of work don't (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.
  7. Don't use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.
  8. Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

J.I. Packer on Justification

J.I. Packer accurately captures how union with Christ is the mechanism of imputation:
“[God] reckons righteousness to them, not because he accounts them to have kept his law personally (which would be a false judgment), but because he accounts them to be united to one who kept it representatively (and that is a true judgment)”
—J. I. Packer, “Justification,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984], p. 596.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Wright on God Seeking His Own Glory

Below is an excerpt is from N.T. Wright's book, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. In this section of the book, Wright is critiquing John Piper's idiosyncratic view of God's righteousness as 'God's concern for His own glory.' While I think Wright's comments regarding God's concern for His glory are a fairly accurate assessment of the Scriptural data, I'd also say that Wright's view of God's righteousness as 'covenant faithfulness' also seems to have flaws. Instead, I think I'd follow Mark Seifrid who argues that "All 'covenant-keeping' is righteous behavior, but not all righteous behavior is 'covenant keeping,'" but I'd qualify this by saying that 'covenant faithfulness' is often a correct interpretation of God's righteousness in a setting where the God's covenant is contextually paramount.
There is a sense in which what Piper claims about 'God's righteousness' could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction. He sees it as God's concern for God's own glory, which implies that God's primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God's overflowing, generous, creative love--God's concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God's glory because God, as the creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply 'for the sake of his own name.' But 'God's righteousness' is regularly invoked in scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosyne theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God's own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God's creative, healing, restorative love. God's concern for God's glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel, and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and 'God's righteousness' is a way of saying, Yes, and God will be true to that character. Indeed, it is because God will be true to that outward-facing generous, creative love that he must also curse those ways of life, particularly those ways of life within his covenant people, which embody and express the opposite. It isn't that God basically wants to condemn and then finds a way to rescue some from that disaster. It is that God longs to bless, to bless lavishly, and so to rescue and bless those in danger of tragedy--and therefore must curse everything that thwarts and destroys the blessing of his world and his people. (pp. 51-52)

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Problems with Divine Determinism

William Lane Craig just posted a wonderful summary of some of the problems with divine determinism, which is what most Calvinists believe in the form of compatibilistic human freedom. He suggests that Molinism (or middle-knowledge) gives a much more coherent and powerful explanation of how divine sovereignty and human freedom coexist. Indeed, the Molinist maintains a robust account of human freedom and at the same time wholeheartedly affirms the following statement from the Westminster Confession: "God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." (Section III).

Below are the problems Craig lists with divine determinism:
1. Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture. 
The classical Reformed divines recognized this. They acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom. Determinists reconcile universal, divine, causal determinism with human freedom by re-interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms. Compatibilism entails determinism, so there’s no mystery here. The problem is that adopting compatibilism achieves reconciliation only at the expense of denying what various Scriptural texts seem clearly to affirm: genuine indeterminacy and contingency.

2. Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed
There is a sort of dizzying, self-defeating character to determinism. For if one comes to believe that determinism is true, one has to believe that the reason he has come to believe it is simply that he was determined to do so. One has not in fact been able to weigh the arguments pro and con and freely make up one’s mind on that basis. The difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe and the other not to believe. When you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and that even your present realization of that fact right now is likewise determined, a sort of vertigo sets in, for everything that you think, even this very thought itself, is outside your control. Determinism could be true; but it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed, since its affirmation undermines the rationality of its affirmation.

3. Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility. 
In contrast to the Molinist view, on the deterministic view even the movement of the human will is caused by God. God moves people to choose evil, and they cannot do otherwise. God determines their choices and makes them do wrong. If it is evil to make another person do wrong, then on this view God is not only the cause of sin and evil, but becomes evil Himself, which is absurd. By the same token, all human responsibility for sin has been removed. For our choices are not really up to us: God causes us to make them. We cannot be responsible for our actions, for nothing we think or do is up to us.

4. Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency
Since our choices are not up to us but are caused by God, human beings cannot be said to be real agents. They are mere instruments by means of which God acts to produce some effect, much like a man using a stick to move a stone. Of course, secondary causes retain all their properties and powers as intermediate causes, as the Reformed divines remind us, just as a stick retains its properties and powers which make it suitable for the purposes of the one who uses it. Reformed thinkers need not be occasionalists like Nicholas Malebranche, who held that God is the only cause there is. But these intermediate causes are not agents themselves but mere instrumental causes, for they have no power to initiate action. Hence, it’s dubious that on divine determinism there really is more than one agent in the world, namely, God. This conclusion not only flies in the face of our knowledge of ourselves as agents but makes it inexplicable why God then treats us as agents, holding us responsible for what He caused us and used us to do.

5. Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce
On the deterministic view, the whole world becomes a vain and empty spectacle. There are no free agents in rebellion against God, whom God seeks to win through His love, and no one who freely responds to that love and freely gives his love and praise to God in return. The whole spectacle is a charade whose only real actor is God Himself. Far from glorifying God, the deterministic view, I’m convinced, denigrates God for engaging in a such a farcical charade. It is deeply insulting to God to think that He would create beings which are in every respect causally determined by Him and then treat them as though they were free agents, punishing them for the wrong actions He made them do or loving them as though they were freely responding agents. God would be like a child who sets up his toy soldiers and moves them about his play world, pretending that they are real persons whose every motion is not in fact of his own doing and pretending that they merit praise or blame. I’m certain that Reformed determinists, in contrast to classical Reformed divines, will bristle at such a comparison. But why it’s inapt for the doctrine of universal, divine, causal determinism is a mystery to me.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Romans 7: Not a Christian Struggle (Part 3)

One of the central issues surrounding the Pauline doctrine of sanctification is the identity of the “I” that Paul uses in Romans 7. When Paul uses the first person singular pronoun who, exactly, is he referencing? This issue gets at the heart of spiritual formation because our understanding of this passage largely dictates what we expect the Christian battle with sin to entail. In Romans 7, Paul uses the first-person singular pronoun to depict a person in a state of inner turmoil—this person is depicted as simultaneously having a genuine love for God’s Law, and yet faced with the dilemma of being unable to fulfill it: "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (7:15). In this post, I will be explaining the different interpretive options.

At this point, everyone agrees that Paul is not speaking purely autobiographically. He is speaking as a rhetorical representative of a group of people. He's speaking in solidarity with a group of people to make a rhetorical point. The question is, "Which group of people is in view?" The major options are below:

1. "I" = Paul as a non-Christian (viewed from his present Christian perspective).

2. "I" = the experience of any person, Christian or non-Christian, who tries to live under law (i.e., tries to be good and holy by their own efforts).

3. "I" = Adam, or to mankind in Adam, with the Genesis narrative being in the background.

4. "I" = Paul in the years immediately following his conversion when he still tried to live under the Law before learning to live by the Spirit (= "the Victorious Christian Life" view).

5. "I" = a picture of Paul and any normal Christian who is "simultaneously justified, yet still a sinner" and is struggling with the normal tension in the Christian life (this is again the dominant view and has been since Augustine).

6. "I" = Israel in her initial encounter with the Law at Mt. Sinai and then throughout her history through the eyes of a pious, believing Israelite ("I" = Paul's rhetorical figure of speech as a representative Israelite).

To interpret this passage correctly, you have to make sure you're asking the right questions. Often we think in categories that are foreign, or at least secondary, to the categories in which the biblical authors thought and lived and breathed. In our age, the division between Jews and Gentiles is not prominent in our daily thought life and interactions. However, in Paul's day, and in his dealings with the Roman church in particular, the prominent categories in his thoughts were Jew vs. Gentile, Old Covenant vs. New Covenant, Era of Law vs. Era of Grace. So, when we approach this text and ask whether Paul is speaking as a Christian or a non-Christian, we are actually asking a question that Paul was not intending to answer. Instead, a better question would be, "Is Paul speaking as a Jew or Gentile?" or, more precisely, "Is Paul speaking as an Old Covenant Jew under the Law, or a New Covenant believer indwelt by God's Spirit?" I'll wait until my next post to answer these questions and give my interpretation of Romans 7, but for now, I'll make a few observations that I think are crucial to any accurate interpretation of Romans 7:

1. Paul is addressing a Jewish audience. We know this from his address in Romans 7:1 (brothers who know the Law) and the example of Romans 7:1-4 which is an example taken directly from the Mosaic Law.

2. Paul's concern is with the Law, not anthropology. Two rhetorical questions are asked about the Law which frame his entire discussion (7:7, 7:13), showing that Paul's concern is with the historical function of the Mosaic Law.

3. How you understand Romans 7:9-11 will largely dictate how you understand the passage as a whole. These verses are crux of interpreting this passage.

4. Romans 7:5-6 serves as a summary thesis statement for Romans 7:7-8:17. Romans 7:5 is the thesis for Romans 7:7-25, and Romans 7:6 is the thesis for Romans 8:1-17.

5. Romans 7 deals with a temporal contrast. This is seen in the thesis statement of Romans 7:5-6 and the continuation of thought in Romans 8:1.

6. "I" is a rhetorical device used to represent a group of people (as discussed above).