I really didn’t realize that anyone in R/reformed circles would argue against semper reformanda: always reforming. So I began this post with some alternatives above. “Never reforming!” or “Stop reformation!”
Those are better?
I assume the anon I’ve quoted above is referring to Karl Barth, the “wanton heretic.” Note, Barth did his adult work in the 20th century. But while it’s true that Barth used the phrase semper reformanda, he did not develop it.
It’s at least from the 17th century. “The saying first appeared in 1674 in a devotional book by Jodocus van Lodenstein…a key figure in the Dutch Second Reformation.” KDY gives more context in this article, which is all good. But the point is, semper reformanda is old school, not a product of haters.
And the phrase still plays. The semper is built in to the reformanda.
“We are unfaithful to the spirit of the Reformation – as well as to all that is implied in the word “reformed” – if we ever imagine that the task of reform was finished with Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others in the sixteenth century. Ours is a glorious heritage, but if we only look back and revel in great moments in the past we negate our calling to be continually reforming.”
If there are people who use semper reformanda to justify their evangelical deconstruction, I haven’t come across them.
And more than lacking lots of examples of bad motto users, I have lots of questions.
Who decided when/that the Reformation was done? Why argue for the 17th century rather than the 16th century? And if not the first generation, why are we stopping at the following and also now-dead generation?
What established Westminster as the END? Did those “divines” think there was nothing more to be said or changed? There were no new issues that might come into the church that would require addressing? Does Westminster Longer cover all the bases? If their Assembly assembled among us today, would they say, “Guys, you do NOT need more reformation. Stop it!”
And how come it is that all that (great) Westminster work hasn’t successfully kept Presbies together, in doctrine or in denomination, let alone guaranteed spiritually prosperous families and culture and nations and personal morals? I’m not saying Baptists are smarter per capita, but how many died-in-the-wool Dispies dye their hair pink and even bother trying to argue that it fits with their theology?
If we, the 21st century church, have problems that need fixing, problems that might take generations to turn around, I’m assuming we should try to fix them, but we’re just not supposed to refer to it as “always reforming”?
This comes back to the basic issue of behaving like reformers, not freezing reformers in our minds as the replacement “saints” and their writings as Protestant authority ex cathedra. We thank the Lord for the reformers, men who learned from the early church fathers and used whatever they wanted that helped them. But they loved the Scriptures and tried to submit their teaching and practices more and more consistently with inspired revelation. That work must continue until our final redemption.
What an amazing treasure of resources we have, through them and in their examples. But the Reformed chronological snobbery of “only the old” and acting according to #ReformNeverMore has too many similarities to how the 16th century church got into such a dark place where reformation was so needed.
It is really fun to be here, and to mutually encourage one another’s faith for building culture in hostile territory. We are in a non-fiction fight with the “principalities and powers and depraved hypersomatic beings at great heights” (as C.S. Lewis put it in Perelandra, 21), not to mention our reductionistic and materialistic earthly authorities. While we need faith to be strong in the Lord, He strengthens our faith through fellowship in truth, and I can testify that the Lord can and does strengthen our friendships through good fiction.
You may have seen that earlier this year a UK anti-terrorism group has identified reading books by C.S. Lewis (along with Tolkien, Huxley, and Orwell) as a possible sign of far-wing extremism and white supremacy (source). If you’ve ever imagined yourself enjoying a cup of tea and piece of cake at St. Anne’s, you are the enemy. Well done.
I’ve spoken about That Hideous Strength before, and for as amazing as my observations were (at least to me, ha!), I’ve often failed to appreciate how many of the people I’m talking to haven’t yet read THS; I might as well be speaking the solar language. Let me know: how many people am I’m going to be babbling in front of?
There are a lot of resources for basic character introductions and plot points for all three books in the Ransom trilogy; today I want to make a more particular appeal for expanding our imaginative coordinates in order to encourage our image-bearing culture-building.
More Literary Connections
Before I make my point, which is mostly drawn from THS, we shouldn’t fail to recognize that Lewis works back and forth between making his point in THS and The Abolition of Man. He explicitly references Abolition in the preface to THS; THS is the narrative ride of his prophetic thesis (“This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my The Abolition of Man”). There’s also a lot of narrative overlap with his essay called “The Inner Ring” (here’s a reading on YouTube). But it’s not stepping out too far to say that the greatest connection to THS is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
I’d like to present a case that the Tower of Babel is the key to understanding THS, it is the key to fixing a critical misstep in Abolition, and it is the rallying point for us to fight the good fight better.
What’s in a Name
There are two obvious connections between THS and Babel Tower. First is the title, second is the easy climax, or the penultimate—not final climax, of the plot.
The name of the book, That Hideous Strength, is a line in a poem written by Sir David Lyndsay in 1555 (one of the first readers of William Tyndale’s translation of Scripture into English, also a supporter of John Knox and the Reformation in Scotland). Lyndsay’s line is: “when the building of the tower of Babel was abandoned the schaddow of that hidduous strenth was already six miles long” (glorious Old English spelling found in English Literature in the 16th Century Excluding Drama). Lewis uses the phrase, “the Hideous Strength”; each time H and S are capitalized, like a proper noun: Hideous Strength. It’s used three times in chapter 13 which is titled: “They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven on Their Heads.” What is the Strength, and why is it Hideous? Those are essential terms to define.
Of course the other connection to Genesis 11 is the Banquet at Belbury (second to last chapter), when Merlin brings “the curse of Babel,” also capital B, and confuses their language, but not just into dispersing the party—they disperse alright—but into the chaos of killing and being killed. The disorder in language is only the beginning of the disarray and destruction and death. “Wither had once heard [Merlin’s] voice calling loud and intolerably glad above the riot of nonsense, ‘Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis.’” Meaning, “They that have despised the word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away.” The Babel curse conquered the NICE.
Back up to Babel
What is the deal with this Babel influence? The biblical story itself is only one paragraph, nine verses long at the beginning of Genesis 11. At this point in the biblical narrative we’re post flood by a few generations, not quite sure how many people were around, but likely in the tens of thousands.
The “whole earth had one language and the same words” (verse 1). They settled together in the same place, Shinar.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:3–4 ESV)
Attentive readers already see some problems, and the response of the Lord corroborates it. Three times they say “let us make…let us build…let us make.” That should sound familiar. In Genesis 1:26 “God said, ‘Let us make…’” Hmmm, and let us keep going. Building themselves a city is not necessarily bad, though it hints at premeditated refusal to “fill the earth” as the Lord mandated in Genesis 1:28. Their tower was to have “its top in the heavens,” none would be above them, and it would presumably be tall enough to protect them in case there was another flood. These projects would “make a name for ourselves.” They thought they could determine their place, their own limits.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5–7 ESV)
Initially it might seem that the LORD is being petty, that He is threatened by what they’re doing. What is His concern?
This goes back to Genesis 1 and God’s creation of man and the nature of man and the mandate to man. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). They were made with the capacity for relationship and family. As they, and their offspring, filled the earth they were to subdue it and have dominion. They were made with the capacity for responsibility and rule as God’s stewards.
Isn’t that what the men in Shinar were doing? No one man, or family, could accomplish the city and tower enterprise. They were in a community, in relationship; they were trying to build culture. And certainly the tools and the plans and the construction were parts of demonstrating human ingenuity and creativity and responsibility.
But virtuous relationship and responsibility depend on God’s blessing (doing it the way God said to do it). The first part of Genesis 1:28 is key: “God blessed them” and then God said be fruitful.
And even more, the relationship and the responsibility were part of what it meant to be made in His image. Note the plural, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). While the doctrine of the Trinity is obviously not fully revealed here, God didn’t make humans in the likeness of Himself and angels, or in the likeness of Himself and lesser gods. Men are made as images of God, the imago Dei. In Babel, the LORD said, “Come, let us go down” (Genesis 11:7). That plural pronoun in God’s mouth is used in 1:26 when He purposes to make man in His image and only again in 11:7 when He sees men using His language without reference to Him.
A man is not a man in his own name or his own image. When the LORD said, “this is only the beginning of what they will do,” He was referring to the beginning of their abolition of man. They were running into self-sufficiency, autonomy, and attempts to live and master themselves as if God wasn’t necessary.
In the “shadow of that hideous strength” the tower symbolized or embodied the will and work of men. There is glorious strength in image bearing relationships and responsibility, but all the results are hideous as men try to define the image for themselves.
Back to Belbury – The Nice Guys
The setting for THS is on earth where the Macrobes have convinced men in the name of “Science” not just to ignore, but to destroy, what is human (how prescient was Lewis about our present culture). They were reimagining in order to reengineer the human race. But mirrors reflect a given shape, they can’t create their own shape. So by the end of the story Wither (think: Dr. Fauci) and Frost and Straik have lost even the love of their own flesh, their own lives.
The NICE, the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, the NICE guys are experimenting themselves right into vanity and dust in the wind. The story of Babel, and the story of Belbury, are Men, in the name of Man, ruining men and Man. This is the key to understanding THS.
The Tao < the Dei
I said at the beginning that Babel is also the key to fixing the misstep, or at least insufficient (and actually self-refuting) step, in the otherwise glorious The Abolition of Man.
I don’t know that I could read Abolition (or THS) enough. There’s barely anything in it that doesn’t edify me. If Lewis was alive to see our generation I’m sure he’d clarify that when he argued for men with chests, he wasn’t talking about big prosthetic boobs at the city library’s Drag Queen Story Hour.
And while I appreciate his setting, that he was giving academic lectures at a university, and while I am compelled by his success in showing the nonsense of objective claims that there are no objective realities, for my money I think he doesn’t quite go far enough.
What is needed is to recognize that the Dei (in the imago Dei) trumps the Tao; the Tao < the Dei. This is needful for two reasons. First, it’s not just that men must recognize objective values, they must reflect objective values as image-bearers. Second, the objective values we reflect as image bearers are personal, they are revealed to us in God, and the Triune God at that, Father, Son, and Spirit. We are made in the image of one God in three Persons.
This means that to be truly men we cannot be alone. So “the LORD God said, ’It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18). (What is so gutting in the movie “Castaway”? It’s not mostly his lack of shoes, but his lack of companionship.) The Tao has a rhetorical value in exalting the real world, but it falls short of the glory of God.
Friendship at St. Anne’s
The “company” at St. Anne’s isn’t just literary detritus. Lewis uses “company” 29 times in THS and a couple of them are capital C. A company refers to the group of companions, from the Latin words “com-” meaning “together” and “panis” meaning “bread” so those who shared bread/meals together. The company at St. Anne’s wasn’t perfect, but it was powerful; it pulled Jane in.
(Jane:) “You keep on talking of We and Us. Are you some kind of company?” (Ransom:) “Yes. You may call it a company.”
St. Anne’s provides a true picture of image-bearing: singing, gardening, doing dishes, eating cake and drinking wine, having word play and making puns(!), dressing up, having a cup of tea.
The main human characters struggled as image-bearers. Mark wanted relationship with the wrong set, Jane wanted responsibility according to her terms. Mark avoided true responsibility, Jane avoided true relationship.
I’d argue that the climax of the story happens after “The End.” Not only are Mark and Jane converted, they are unified. The end should remind us that the first word of THS is “matrimony.”
“Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,” said Jane Studdock to herself, “for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.” (Location 54)
She repeats it a few paragraphs later: “Mutual society, help, and comfort,” said Jane bitterly. (Location 620)
The last sentence in the book, as Jane stood outside the lodge: “Obviously it was high time she went in.” Here are image-bearers, male and female, about ready to be fruitful and multiply. And their fellowship is only the beginning.
Winning the Good Fight
No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as “what a man does with his solitude.” (“The Inner Ring”)
Today, this conference, talking about culture building, is part of the good fight. It’s not the only part, but those who fight alone on the right side only understand half of what it means to be on the right side.
We don’t read THS to become “Athanasius Contra Mundum,” we are like the little company of St. Anne’s contra mundum simul, against the world together. We do not love the world or the things in the world, but we do love one another and sharing these stories keeps us from being solo soldiers. You don’t have to read in a group, but you better read for the group, not to isolate yourself from it. It is our fellowship in receiving good gifts from God, including our flesh and blood relationships, as hard as they may be, that make us jealousable salt and light.
May the Lord of heaven and earth, one God in three Persons, bless us to be fruitful as we multiply our reading of good fiction that we would fight the good fight of faith with broader imaginative coordinates and stronger connections.
In the spirit of starting somewhere, I finally followed up on this post. Instead of Standard I decided to go with Sun, because it has obvious metaphorical value AND because it seems like a playful acknowledgment that in Marysville’s geographical/meteorological condition, we really would like more sun.
I now own the digital property at marysvillesun.com but there’s no building there yet.
And actually, I decided to try Substack for a 1.0 version. A weekly newsletter seems right, and Substack makes subscribing and eventual paid subscriptions easy. There’s just a Coming soon there now, but nothing is stopping you from subscribing today. 🙂
The following are notes from my quick talk at tonight’s Comeford College Information Night.
The Lord will return and we want to have our lamps filled with oil. The foolish virgins took their lamps to meet the bridegroom, but they brought no extra oil, and as the bridegroom delayed, their oil ran out and their lamps went out. The door was shut and they missed out on the marriage feast (Matthew 25:1-13).
The Lord will return and we will give an account for the talents He has given us. That happens to be the very next parable (Matthew 25:14-30). Not all the servants were given the same capital to start with, but they were all expected to invest and give a return to their returning master. The one who buried his talent had his one and only talent taken from him. Each of the servants who had made more talents were told, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21 and 23).
The Lord will return, and Jesus is Lord. That is the minimum confession of every Christian disciple (per Romans 10:9), but it is a minimum with no bottom, or top, or sides for that matter. It’s really less a minimum and more a maximum, even more, it’s a maxim. Maxim comes from maxima in Latin, the “largest or most important proposition.” What covers and touches more than all the things that Jesus created and cares about (John 1:3)? That’s the kind of confession that really keeps our lamps burning.
Because He is Lord He sets the cosmic curriculum for what we must learn and because He is Lord we are to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord our labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). In short order we’ve got the what, the how, and the why. Because He is Lord He also tells us where.
And where we are is here. Jesus is Lord in and of Marysville no matter how many recognize it. This is our home, this is where we want to “take root downward and bear fruit upward” (see Isaiah 37:31, ESV).
It’s why we named this college Comeford), after James P. Comeford, who set up shop around two miles from this very spot, literally, in 1872. History records that he was a Catholic, and a capitalist. We are at least his geographical descendants, loving Marysville into greater loveliness by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ our Lord alone.
We want Marysville to be a destination for learning how to take dominion (Genesis 1:28) as men and women, and what God hath gendered asunder, let not man color light purple. We want so much more for our kids and grandkids, for our neighbors, and for our city, than the crippling crap spewing out of so many colleges and the mala fides credentials given with decades of debt.
As Abraham Kuyper put it in his inaugural address to the Free University of Amsterdam:
“To put it mildly, our undertaking bears a protest against the present environment and suggests that something better is possible.”
This isn’t just because of what we’re fearful of, but because we fear the Lord who gives wisdom and understanding and joy and fruit.
Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:16–17, ESV)
May the Lord bless us with good sense and with strength. May we be faithful in this little place with the little we’ve started with, so that when He returns we will be ready for our larger responsibilities and enter into His joy.
I’ve always preferred Twitter more than Facebook. In the early days, the most that someone could waste my time on Twitter was limited to 140 characters. Plus there were a variety of apps to choose from, the timeline was chronological not algorithmic, replies were more limited (and also limited to 140 characters), there weren’t long tweetstorms/threads, and again, a tweet was just a tweet and not a treatise.
I signed up for Facebook a few years ago because it seems to be the preferred place of communication for a lot of the people in our church and school. Fine. I decided it was important to carry my own digital man-purse. I’ve never had FB installed on my phone, though, and still don’t enjoy the experience of using the service (let alone being used by the service).
As for Twitter, it has gradually become more fussy and less fun. I actually thought Trump’s tweets were entertaining, not least because his tweets clearly weren’t run through any White House PR person. Banning him seemed wrong, and later suspending The Babylon Bee was petty.
So I’ll admit that it’s fun to see someone effectively hassle the expurgators. “Free speech” requires a definition, and, at least at the moment, I wouldn’t say I’m for absolute free speech, but I certainly think that political (and medical, which was obviously political these past couple years) disagreements should be uncensored. Let the best arguments and ideas and data fight it out. But don’t put your thumb on the scale and call that democracy (though we don’t live in a democracy anyway).
I’ve already seen some “Elon isn’t the savior” church-lady scolding. Who knows for sure what, if any, changes (or Twitter prison breaks) there will be? I don’t think Musk is a social media messiah, but I can appreciate watching the conniption fit being thrown by at least some of the corrupt/censor-happy liberals who wouldn’t know true liberty if a bird bit them in the face.
For a number of years I have talked about making Marysville a destination. I’ve thought about it in terms of being the kind of people with a gravity that could be an encouragement, and maybe even a sort of mini-haven, to Christians in an otherwise leftist (political/moral) state. In fact, ours is already one of the few sane cities on the I-5 corridor, which goes up and down the furthest left (geographical) part of WA State if you’re looking at a map.
Our legislature and governor are trying to make WA a destination for different reasons. They’ve put forward a bill to invite more abortions.
“We know this bill is necessary because this is a perilous time for the ability of people to have the freedom of choice that they have enjoyed for decades. To the citizens of Idaho, if Idaho will not stand up for your constitutional rights, we will.”
But killing is not a constitutional right.
If you do click through and read the article, note that immediately following the governor’s quote, our state is also abandoning words like “woman” and “mother” for “pregnant individual.”
We are lost. And while it isn’t surprising, it is sinful, depraved, evil, and worth doing something about.
If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work? (Proverbs 24:10–12, ESV)
I committed at the beginning of the year that I would not read any new-to-me books in 2022 about productivity or getting things done. I’ve already read a bunch in this genre, the grist is largely the same, and so it seemed reasonable to work on remembering and doing instead of searching for the next hack. So I choose twelve previously read books to review, one for each month.
In March I’m reviewing my highlights for The Supper of the Lamb. Capon’s book isn’t a self-help or to-do book, in fact, it’s actually a cook book. But it does an excellent job of helping one to see the world, to be thankful for it, and to be fruitful in it.
A common temptation for “truth lovers” (as David Wells labels in The Courage to Be Protestant) is to get stuck loving truth in two-dimensions. We get stuck at the sentence level rather than caring for propositions and also embodying their truth. Capon stirs the pot:
Every time he diagrams something instead of looking at it, every time he regards not what a thing is but what it can be made to mean to him—every time he substitutes a conceit for a fact—he gets grease all over the kitchen of the world.
C. S. Lewis argued that God doesn’t find man’s desire for pleasure too strong, but too weak. I think it’s also true that God doesn’t find the Christian man’s interest in politics too powerful, but too pathetic.
I know that the “Idol of Politics” is a favorite model of rented car for preachers to abuse who say that Christians act like politics and politicians can save them. Recently the beat-sticks have come out against so-called Christian Nationalists. But I have never met a Christian who actually thinks that the government is the Savior.
Most of the preachers who fear some Inevitable Compromise from Christians who spend too much time talking about politics are not more spiritual, they are ignorant. They may know how to speak accurately about the gospel, but they do not know how to disciple their people to obey all the Jesus commanded, which is the Great Commission, which includes how to obey Jesus when we live together with our neighbors in a city, state, and nation. I’ve had to repent from this sort of naivety and ignorance myself.
Jesus is Lord. We should believe it, and we should live by faith like it. And, what is surprisingly controversial question, shouldn’t we want the laws in our land to honor Him as Lord?
Here is a 17 minute video by Douglas Wilson on General Equity Theonomy. He’ll define theonomy, but it basically combines theos-God and nomos-law, and there is always a God/god of every law. He asks and answers some plain questions, and it’s really valuable whether or not you’ve asked the Westminster Confession of Faith into your heart.
A couple years ago I took a stab at explaining why Christians are allowed to, and should be expected to, think in theonomic terms. My notes for that talk are here, but there’s video, too.
A friend of mine shared this video with me a while ago, and it only makes me more excited about the idea of getting a local newspaper going in Marysville. As Glen Morgan says near the end, “The future belongs to those who show up.”