C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books & Theology

Unknown C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius: “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, at that the amateurs should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Plato the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read “Symposium”…The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers fact to face…But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism… This mistaken preference for modern books and shyness of the old ones is nowhere more prevalent than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are not studying St. Luke, or St. Paul, or Augustine, or Aquinas… Now this seems to me topsy-turvy…If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said… 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 characteristics mistakes of our own period…None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… Not, of, course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us… To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

Lewis’ Problem with Prayer (Pt. 2)

In the last post I ended with two questions:

#1. Assuming we have the required faith, and the person we’re praying for having faith, should we pray with assurance, as  Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 18:19-20, & John 14:13 imply, or with the qualifier “if it is Thy will Lord?”

#2. If a prayer is prayed with assurance, as Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 18:19-20, & John 14:13 imply they should be, what are we to think when such prayers seem unanswered, or negatively replied?

I think that the answer to #1. should be, unequivocally,  that we should pray “with assurance”. The most commonly used passage against this method would be Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane. But, this prayer was made by Jesus for himself. So, strictly speaking, Jesus only modeled for us how we should surrender to God in our own lives when we are specifically suffering because we are living a life that opposes the dominant culture. When we’re praying for others, on the other hand, there are a number of places in scripture where we’re given either commands or examples to pray with assurance. One of the most potent would be Mark 11:22-24 .

Yet, the answer to #2. pushes back against the idea that “just having assurance”, “just believing”, will result in a prayer answered. Even the phrasing of #1 assumes that “faith” is only “believing” in a mental sort of way, as though if I only “believe really hard” then anything I pray for will come to pass. I say however, that according to the Bible, true faith always is a whole-life lived (see this passage). So, perhaps, one of the things that inhibited CS Lewis’ ability to swallow the full implications of the passages in Mark, Matthew, and John was the lack of a full-blown “warfare worldview”. Here’s a story in the Bible to show how faith as “a whole life lived for Jesus” connects to the warfare worldview and prayer. The story is from Daniel 10 (netbible.org):

In the third year of King Cyrus of Persia a message was revealed to Daniel (who was also called Belteshazzar). This message was true and concerned a great war. He understood the message and gained insight by the vision.

 In those days IDanielwas mourning for three whole weeks. I ate no choice food;no meat or wine came to my lips,nor did I anoint myself with oil until the end of those three weeksOn the twenty-fourth day of the first month I was beside the great riverthe Tigris. I looked up and saw a manclothed in linen; around his waist was a belt made of gold from Upaz.

Then he said to me“Don’t be afraidDanielfor from the very first day you applied your mind to understand and to humble yourself before your Godyour words were heardI have come in response to your words. However, the prince of the kingdom of Persia was opposing me for twenty-one daysBut Michaelone of the leading princescame to help me, because I was left there  with the kings of Persia. Now I have come to help you understand what will happen to your people in the latterdaysfor the vision pertains to future days.”

The core lesson for prayer is that though Daniel had faith, and that God responded to his prayer promptly, there was opposition that inhibited his prayer being answered for a significant period of time. Yet, his persistence, his dedication, not just in words prayed but in actions done, allowed him to be in a position to receive the answers he requested even though they took some time to arrive.

Did Daniel pray with assurance? Most likely. He had already experienced other-worldly rescues in his life (see Daniel 6). Did his prayer go unanswered? For a time. But the reason was neither that God was “testing him” nor was God waiting for him to “really believe”. There were other factors at work which Daniel did not see, and the same is usually true in situations which we are praying for as well. We are called, like Daniel, to be humble, be persistent, pray with the assurance that Jesus said we should have. We also know from the many examples of prayer in scripture that when a request goes without the answer we desired, when we desired it, that reality is complex.

As we petition God for others we must remember that there are more factors at work than just our faith and God’s willingness to respond. These things might be a cause for a request to go (seemingly) unanswered, but it is not always necessarily so.

Lastly, I did not here distinguish between strictly “petitioning God” and directly “commanding” things to come to pass in Jesus’ name. Throughout the Bible we see people simply commanding for certain things to happen (most frequently this is in respect to someone being healed from a physical or mental illness), and these things coming to pass. In these cases, I think that there are even more factors at work which I did not discuss, though they are illustrated in the Daniel story. I’ll elaborate on that next time!