Extracurricular

I had never read while in a swimming pool before, but now I have. I read in the bathtub all the time, of course. It is a good way to spend an hour, and most wholesome. This morning I was able to read in a hot tub. It’s more splashy, but if you’re reading one of your own books you can do it. The pool can be perfectly dry—for the book in question.

I enjoyed the last chapter of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant that way. Anthony Powell’s novels are not long, but they are only divided into four or five chapters, which it is best to do without enormous interruptions. I do not know what general status he has as a writer. I find that what he does is humorous, melancholy and wise, and I think that if it provides wisdom, then in some way it must be literary—not just an interesting story. A Dance to the Music of Time is aptly named. Characters enter and depart, re-enter predictably as in a dance, but changed by time. Powell permits himself reflections, once a book or so, and these help you understand what he’s doing. I find the cumulative effect is working on me, and I look forward to each chapter and each of these nine volumes.

More conventional settings await my science fiction. The Lost Fleet has some interesting insights, and I hope his writing will improve as I advance in his long series. I find that reading a mediocre writer is useful because one can think of the mistakes. And there are things he does well. As well, I have The Expanse, which has returned me to science fiction with renewed enthusiasm, for which I’m grateful. The Expanse, I find, is irresistible.

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Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 by James M. Renihan

Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705This work of historical inquiry explains the origins and distinctives of English Particular Baptists. English Particular Baptists emerge in 1640, and by 1644 the first London Baptist Confession is adopted, the one disavowing Anabaptism. It was a surprise to me to learn that my buddy Praisegod Barebones, of whom I’d seen mention while investigating John Owen, was one of the figures running around London being an early Particular Baptist. Praise God! William Kiffin is explained, as well, eventually, as is the position and significance of men such as Hanserd Knollys, Nehemiah Coxe and Benjamin Keach, Particular Baptists all. This book also touches on a few of the controversies, distinctives, and various options, thus enlarging one’s understanding of the situation. My understanding is meager, so I am grateful for any amplification.

What is most interesting is the ecclesiology which drove these men, and about which they had very clear ideas. I learn in this volume that the kind of congregationalism I’m used to (elder led) was not what then prevailed. It is Renihan’s argument that the language of the Second London Baptist Confession reflects the elder rule approach to church government. I picked up the book looking for this in particular; it was entirely new to me. I also find that Renihan’s historiography seems to me altogether sound. Had I known that this was not only a historical option, but the historical option (though not necessarily what I believe Scripture teaches) my life would perhaps have been much different.

“The question at hand is this: Where is the seat of authority for the government of the church? Is it in the church as a gathered body, and thus delegated to the elders as their representatives, or is it in the elders as a ruling body, delegated directly from Christ? The answer to these questions makes all the difference in understanding the church government of the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists.”

That is a clear way of framing the issue. Renihan always succeeds at least as framing the issue clearly, it seems to me. In that is one of the great things about the book. The other is in his careful use of primary sources.

Another of the arguments Renihan wants to make is that the Second Confession requires that independent Baptist churches form associations to help each other. I am all for associations. I am not sure his argument, that the word “communion” at that point means “formal association” is altogether correct, but it is valiantly made. I do not need to be persuaded of the advantages of formal associations, though there are apparently many Reformed Baptists who are against. But Renihan’s assumption behind the argument is an important one: the Confession means something, and you have to subscribe according to what it means. If his argument holds, then that is what the confession teaches.

Worth Noting

The Republic is the centre of a group of less technical works, intended, not primarily for students of philosophy, but for the educated public, who would certainly not read Parmenides and would find the Theaetetus and the Sophist intolerably difficult. These more popular writings would serve the double purpose of attracting students to the Academy and of making known to the Greek world the doctrine which, in common with most scholars, I hold to be characteristically Platonic. Its two pillars are the immortality and divinity of the rational soul, and the real existence of the objects of its knowledge—a world of intelligible ‘Forms’ separate from the things our senses perceive.

-Francis M. Cornford

It is worth noting that if you want to deal with Plato seriously, you have get to the deep end of the pool of his writings. Why should you listen to Francis Cornford on this? Because to this day some of his translations and forever his notes and observations are canonical to the study of Plato.

What you get from the popular writings of Plato is the basic theory. What you get from the more technical writings is the thorough argument. If you want to dismiss Plato, read no further than the popular words. If you want to understand and appreciate so that you may then properly evaluate Plato, you need to do the technical works.

Do you know that it cannot be said of Plato, as it can of most writers of antiquity, that any of his works have ever been lost? So there are no excuses.

The Early Reformation on the Continent: Oxford History of the Christian Church by Owen Chadwick

The Early Reformation on the Continent: Oxford History of the Christian ChurchI have never read a better organized or more interesting book about the Reformation. First sentence:

1 “During the fifteenth century the Germans improved the use of metals, with startling results. Guns that destroyed less inefficiently, clocks that more or less kept the time, organs that played in tune, and a new way to making books easy for readers.”

The book consists of 18 topical essays into which he inserts the narratives. “The book,” the first, of course tells us about Gutenberg, but also about Stephanus. “Conversion” of course deals with Luther. “Radicals,” had Thomas Munzer, “Toleration” Servetus, and “Divorce,” oddly enough, is called Divorce rather than “Sex and Marriage.” It is almost courtly, though the chapter is not.

85 “Hesitant government, or slow change, or moderation, could produce worse results for public order than accepting at once what the majority of councilors, their leading pastors, and a majority of the people now thought to be a necessity for the health and prosperity of the city.”
There was a real balancing act. Judgment was needed and mistakes were made. Chadwick examines all kinds of situations and the various outcomes. He provides shrewd insight. His topical arrangement permits it. This book is ingeniously organized.

383 “It was an axiom accepted by everyone but anabaptists that a state cannot exist safely unless it contains only one religion—with large exception that many sates allowed hedged communities of Jews.” This is how the chapter on toleration begins. It is the best chapter of all. It shows how the confusion of the Christian religion with a Christian society played out in the Reformation. It is very important to understand what was and was not obvious to the Reformers when we consider their views regarding church and state. Also the view of the radicals, which they reacted against. Chadwick works though chronologically from Servetus to Castellio to Acontius developing the dilemma, showing how the personalities involved figured, and the limited horizons. Servetus was a contumacious heretic arguing with intelligence and without wisdom for religious toleration, as it transpires.

396 “This much only is certain: the Protest divided Europe in religion and a divided Europe was forced to tolerate or destroy itself.” That sentence is the statement of a very great historian; he says a great deal, but he only says what can be said. And that sums up the book.

Athens and Jerusalem: An Interpretative Essay on Christianity and Classical Culture by E.G. Weltin

This book provides “the story of the intellectual give and take between Athens and Jerusalem during the first four and one half centuries when Jewish-Christian convictions encountered the commitments of the honored but aging Greek and Roman Classical world. On the whole, it would appear that Christianity was quite selective in its rejections, compromises, and endorsements of Classical values. It was fortunate that such was the case because the choices were momentous ones destined to have an incalculable impact on emerging western thought arising out of the synthesis of the two cultures, a synthesis so profound that it would reach its apex only in the thirteenth century and would suffer serious dissolutions only in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.” (233)

Notice: (1) the apex of the synthesis rests squarely on Aquinas, and (2) the dissolutions come when the premodern philosophy the Classical world supplied was jettisoned. These last are observations Weltin throws out, not things he researches or argues, but they map onto what Muller and Trueman teach, so I include them. The synthesis is the burden of the book.

“Though born in Hellenized Judaea, young Christianity quickly leaped over the wall of Palestine, alienated its Jewish parentage, and chose to risk its future among Gentiles in the Classical world of Greece and Rome.” (1) This is as good a summary of the first three centuries of the church as you will find in one sentence.

Weltin works through five different areas, explaining the synthesis. What kind of sense of the individual did the pagan world had? It was not strong. “As the original but persistent tribal consciousness yielded to the inexorable drive toward the larger commonwealth of polis and empire, the individual’s consciousness of his meaning and importance became blurred and more remote.” (22) Weltin himself is good at synthesizing. You read of Cicero and his moment, of Augustus and his moment, of Tiberius, of what Constantine did. Weltin puts it into a story, from the growing totalitarian concept of the Empire to its eventual demise. In order to achieve his ends, Weltin has to understand classical civilization thoroughly. He demonstrates that he does by showing he has read all there is to read, both in Antiquity and in Christian Late Antiquity. Of course, since I’m not an expert and have not read as widely or deeply as he has, I am in a way unqualified to judge. But what little I do know—thinly but widely distributed—rings true. His interpretations make sense. His argument is sound.

It is not how we usually think of the ancient world: they were totalitarians. But it is not a hard argument to make. You were for or against. You were in or you were out. You had everything or nothing. How did Christianity do with this totalitarian empire? “Once a larger number of individuals found meaning outside the corporate, the totalitarian sweep of the Classical commonwealth was threatened. When Jesus remarked ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ he not only enraged the Jews but eventually upset the whole Classical consensus.” (49) And so Christianity challenged, but as Weltin argues, it also modified and adapted the Classical consensus. The church and the state would vie for the individual afterward, resulting in a sense of the individual’s domain, or human rights.

His second area is the Rational, his third is Legal and Institutional, fourth the Aristocratic, and the last is Humanism. His survey of the philosophical outlooks is accurate, from what I can tell, and daunting: he has done his reading. The argument is that Christianity opted for appropriating speculative thought and providing rational answers (with Clement and Origen at the center of the story, as they should be), and that it got from Rome the way of practical, consistent laws and viable institutions to perpetuate itself. He argues that Christianity made a compromise with the Aristotelian aristocratic ideal (an elitist trap otherwise). Where he gets bogged down is in the chapter on Humanism, which ends up tangled Augustine’s views on free will. Yet he concludes that the classical project of humanism was uninterrupted, indeed, made more possible by Christianity because of the reaction to Augustine’s hard, dim outlook.

This was a hard book to read because the pages are so very full. One does not go as quickly as expected. I think its 236 pages could easily be 400, so one senses little progress. It is worth persevering through, however. It is always a joy to read a historian who can demonstrate a deep and wide knowledge of the primary sources because it is more interesting: there is more to learn, more to observe, more to connect. I was surprised how rich the book was. That it is long does not mean it is not lucid and interesting, but it does mean that the sustained effort of concentrating is protracted.

How much is the modern world indebted to Christianity? What might have been had Classical Antiquity not encountered Christianity? “Would not Protagoras, Aristotle, and Cicero have lived largely in vain?”

David Jones: A Biography by Thomas Dilworth

David Jones: A BiographyIt is not easy to write a good biography about an artist. Not only do you have to understand the artist, be absorbed in his life, do the history and be sensitive. You still have to put together a good book.

What a good book this is! How refreshing to read a good telling of an important artist’s life. Dilworth illuminates the man and his work, and does it all with good prose, with interesting paragraphs, with an approach devoid of tediousness. The great interesting thing, David Jones, is always properly displayed. Dilworth has done outstandingly.

David Jones was wounded in the battle of the Somme. He was an artist who made important engravings, metaphysical watercolors and ambitious poetry. He was a difficult poet. Considering the manuscript of The Anathemata, T. S. Eliot remarked that one had to read it three times to understand it. I’ve read elsewhere that Auden kept reading it without really understanding it. It is not an incomprehensible work, but it is ambitious in what it seeks to accomplish. If you have seen any of his paintings you’ll understand. They seem scribbly. You have to keep looking at them. They need explication, actually, and Dilworth provides it. One of the things difficult genuine art requires is a critic who can guide the non-specialist in appreciation. Dilworth provide this.

One learns about the people who befriended Jones (Christopher Dawson and Kenneth Clark), about the books he read and re-read (Finnegan’s Wake and Morte d’Arthur), about his poverty and financial difficulties, and many other useful bits. One of the best things about this book does is the lavishly illustrations (you get some very generously large reproductions of Jones’ best works), with the reproduction usually on or facing the section of the text discussing it. Indeed, the size of the margins, the typesetting, the colors used, all these are part of the enjoyment of this book. It is properly bound, not just glued, weighs nicely, and only has one peculiarity: a bad, rubbery smell. This last may seem odd, but when you spend so much time in close proximity to an object so otherwise enjoyable, it stands out. It is an intriguing failure.

Which can easily be forgiven. David Jones is as worth investing yourself in as T. S. Eliot is. Dilworth has drawn him nigh to you in his excellent biography. I urge you, draw nigh to David Jones.

The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580 by Ewan Cameron

The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps, 1480-1580This book carefully sifts the historical evidence in order to demonstrate that much of the historiography of the Waldenses is smoke and mirrors. How can this be?

1 – the Waldenses were a rural community whose lore was oral and proverbial rather than written. There is very little we can say for certain about them.

2 – the accusation of Waldensian heresy was taken up by the Reformers and turned into a matter of pride. These retrospectively projected Protestantism on this particular, stubborn and somewhat religiously autonomous people. “They were special only because propagandists paid so much attention to them” (262).

3 – the Waldensians responded to medieval corruptions by developing self-reliant patterns of practice and piety, preferring their own confessors and variations in rites and practice. Rather than a monastic reform, which was more characteristic of the middle ages, they relied on their informal clergy, known as barbes.

77 “Waldensian teaching was that because priests lived too fast and loose, they had lost the power to absolve sins, or even administer sacraments, according to some; the barbes, by constrast, were saintly men, imitators of the apostles, and had at least as much, or possibly more power, when compared to the priests.”

253 “The first striking feature of the Waldensian heresy to emerge from this examination is its lay character.” This was a departure from the medieval order, which is what made them suspect to those who kept records.

254 “Equally, the most distinctive features of heretical practice were those which were on the fringes of religious behaviour. They were: a preference for intermarriage and the maintenance of a close community; a conscious avoidance of casual blasphemy, to the point of seeming sanctimonious; the use of separate rituals in burial; and the cultivation of special emblems, like the barbes’ needles. In contrast to these signs, the worship and beliefs of the Waldenses were distinguished by irregularity and conventionality.”

“The popular nature of this dissent, finally, is most important. Its popular character lay most visibly in its failure to use logic to sort out the implications of its beliefs.”

256 “In their doctrines we have seen little evidence to place the Waldenses amongst the precursors of the reformers.”

258 Cameron stresses the importance of the rural setting. There is more difference between rural and urban reformations than between differing rural phenomena. “In the countryside protestant and catholic could mix, and in the case of the Valtelline even share places of worship.”

261 “The Waldenses reveal themselves simply as a group of people dedicated to their distinct, communal vision of their own importance and their own holiness, a group which refused to be bullied or distracted by outsiders unless for the most pressing of reasons.” To what is this owing? Mostly their setting in deep valleys of difficult access in the Alps (12).

Sometimes that’s what research achieves. It is an interesting historiographical lesson.