Writing History

Writing history is not as easy as people sometimes think. Many assume it’s simply a matter of assembling a jumble of facts in chronological order, lacing the narrative with insights borrowed from academics and other authorities, throwing in one or two truly sensational details, and then rounding it all out with comparisons to contemporary events to make it relevant to readers. In fact, though, the real labor of history has little to do with writing down the brute facts of the past. It’s about understanding why people back then acted or spoke as they did, which means understanding the context in which events arose and unfolded. Explaining this context to readers is hard work and doesn’t come easily as praising or blaming historical figures for what they did or didn’t do.

Arthur Herman, Claremont Review of Books (Winter 2020/21), 57.


Peter Sterry had theological anomalies. Here is a paragraph free of them:

The Resurrection and Ascension of our Saviour, have not abolish’d his Human Nature, which was a Vessel of so much Grace and Love to Man, as well, as of so much Glory to God. They have not swallow’d it into the Divine Nature. They have not taken away the Distinction of Essences between the Godhead and Manhood in our Blessed Saviour, nor the Distinction of Persons between the individual Soul and Body of Christ, and the particular Soul and Body of each individual Saint; as Notes in Musick, or Strings upon a Lute; so do all thefe remain distinct to Eternity, that the Harmony in Heaven may be more full.


Reading Scripture as One Who Seeks the Truth

They bring forward then their cavillings, and say, You allow Matthew is an Evangelist. We answer: Yes indeed, with a godly confession, and a heart devout, in neither having any doubt at all, we answer plainly, Matthew is an Evangelist. Do you believe him? they say. Who will not answer, I do? How clear an assent does that your godly murmur convey! So, brethren, you believe it in all assurance; you have no cause to blush for it. I am speaking to you, who was once deceived, when as in my early boyhood I chose to bring to the divine Scriptures a subtlety of criticising before the godly temper of one who was seeking truth: by my irregular life I shut the gate of my Lord against myself: when I should have knocked for it to be opened, I went on so as to make it more closely shut, for I dared to search in pride for that which none but the humble can discover. How much more blessed now are you, with what sure confidence do you learn, and in what safety, who are still young ones in the nest of faith, and receive the spiritual food; whereas I, wretch that I was, as thinking myself fit to fly, left the nest, and fell down before I flew: but the Lord of mercy raised me up, that I might not be trodden down to death by passers by, and put me in the nest again; for those same things then troubled me, which now in quiet security I am proposing and explaining to you in the Name of the Lord.

-Augustine, Sermon 1 on the New Testament

From an Interesting Book

Despite its many hypocrisies, the awful truth is that pro-slavery Protestantism was sincere and consistent. It is less a unique aberration than an example of Protestantism’s protean adaptability. Southern society needed a religious justification for slavery, so Protestants provided it. There was no central religious authority who could tell them that they were wrong, and when their national churches expressed qualms, they simply walked away. Pro-slavery Protestantism did not lose the argument; it lost a war. That catastrophe was accepted by most of slavery’s former religious defenders as divine judgment. The consensus came to be that they had failed to built a truly Christian slavery and had tolerated too many abuses. If some continued quietly to believe that slavery might sometimes be justified, they nevertheless accepted the reality that American slavery was gone.

-Alec Ryrie, Protestants

Quite a paragraph.

Quite a book.

The truth is that the Bible does not prohibit slavery, it regulates it. That’s a controversial statement, but Ryrie runs through the options and arrives at a similar conclusion.

One of the things that impelled the English Evangelicals in their push to abolish slavery was that the Americans won the revolutionary war. Surely a sign that God was not with England, as Ryrie, who likes to point out such ironies, remarks. Not long before, in the French and Indian war, the North American subjects of England had wondered if that moment had not come on them because of national sins. And, as the paragraph above demonstrates, Ryrie is making something of a theme of that idea. When America won the war with England, it meant God was on our side, obviously. He has a persistent, gentle and effective way of mocking what we often do.

Ryrie believes the Gospel ultimately opposes slavery, though the Bible does not. I think that is a statement calculated to make people uneasy. It depends on what you think the Gospel is. One question for Ryrie would be to wonder where he believes the Gospel comes from. Still, the man presents the dilemma neatly: either slavery is wrong and the Bible is too, or the Bible is not wrong and neither is slavery. You can see him running through the options and discarding all but these alternatives if you get the book.

This is the strongest example I’ve encountered of how Ryrie, himself a Protestant, impresses the historical record on his readers in the pages I’ve read. It is a rewarding book just for the challenges it presents. He makes you think, he questions accepted categories, and he makes it hard to argue with him. No doubt on this and other subjects he can be challenged. Here is the thing: he’s making sure the challenges are about consequential and not trivial matters.

Spiritual Interpretation

And you, therefore, unless you ascend the ‘mountain of God’ and ‘go to meet’ Moses there, that is unless you ascend the lofty understanding of the Law, unless you mount up to the peak of spiritual understanding, your mouth has not been opened by the Lord. If you stand in the lowly place of the letter and connect the text of the story with Jewish narratives, you have not gone to meet Moses ‘on the mountain of God,’ nor has God ‘opened your mouth’ nor ‘instructed you in what you must say.’

-Origen, Exodus Homily III

See then that you walk circumspectly

In other words, Theology is practical: especially now. In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones–bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression–like believing the earth is flat.

-C.S. Lewis, 1943


The knowledge of each Creature, in the Divine Understanding, arriveth from without, or ariseth from within. The first of these hath following it an horrid train of direful inconveniences represented above, such as I may well tremble to mention and the holy Angels stand amazed to hear, the passibility, mutability, dependency, imperfection of the Divine Essence it self, compositions, divisions in the Divine Nature: in a word, the desposing of God from being God.

-Peter Sterry

A Change Regarding the Experience of Conversion

Men in or entering the ministry were to be converted, but the assembly certainly does not appear to have ever inquired about conversion narratives or experiences in a way analogous to American congregationalists or to the revival preachers of the First Great Awakening in America and the Evangelical Revival in Britain, such as George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, or John and Charles Wesley. This in one indication that there were differences among puritans and that the latter puritan piety of the early eighteenth century should not be read back into much, perhaps most, of mid-seventeenth-century puritanism.

– CVD, God’s Ambassadors, 80

Ephesians 3:13

It is a marvelous thing that men, having so many means to come to God, strive to go from him as much as possible, and it only needs a straw to make them turn back; and yet nevertheless they think they have a reasonable excuse if they can say, I was hindered by this and that. It may be nothing at all, but the least excuse possible will serve, because their endeavor already is to shrink away from God. And this is too common nowadays. For they that desire to justify themselves because they reject the doctrine of the gospel will always be putting forward some causes of offence. O, they say, this troubles me, this takes from me all appetite and relish for the doctrine of the gospel, this makes me forsake it utterly. All that they can ever bring forward are only trifles, but yet we need to strive so much the more to overcome all the obstacles and hindrances which the devil endeavors to cast in our way, so that we may always keep on our direction and course.
And that is what St. Paul is aiming at here.

-John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians

Then and Now

Thus if we follow the theme of self-control through the vicissitudes  of our Western tradition, we find a very profound transmutation, all the way from the hegemony of reason as a vision of cosmic order to the notion of a punctual disengaged subject exercising instrumental control. And this, I would argue, helps to explain why we think of ourselves as ‘selves’ today.

The crucial capacity for the great ancient moralists was that of seeing the order—in the cosmos (for Plato) or in the priority of human goals (for the Stoics). Introspection had no significance for the first, and wasn’t thought to be crucial for the second. The Stoics gave us an argument about reason, nature, and self-sufficiency to convince us that we shouldn’t set any store by ordinary satisfactions; they don’t ask us to examine ourselves.

By contrast, the modern ideal of disengagement requires a reflexive stance. We have to turn inward and become aware of our own activity and of the processes which form us. We have to take charge of constructing our own representation of the world, which otherwise goes on without order and consequently without science; we have to take charge of the processes by which associations form and shape our character and outlook. Disengagement demands that we stop simply living in the body or within our traditions or habits and, by making them objects for us, subject them to radical scrutiny and remaking.

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, 174-5

The Good Good

Thou certainly dost not love anything except what is good, since good is the earth, with the loftiness of its mountains, and the due measure of its hills, and the level surface of its plains; and good is an estate that is pleasant and fertile; and good is a house that is arranged in due proportions, and is spacious and bright; and good are animal and animate bodies; and good is air that is temperate and salubrious; and good is food that is agreeable and fit for health; and good is health, without pains or lassitude; and good is the countenance of man that is disposed in fit proportions, and is cheerful in look, and bright in color; and good is the mind of a friend, with the sweetness of agreement, and with the confidence of love; and good is a righteous man; and good are riches, since they are readily useful; and good is the heaven, with its sun, and moon, and stars; and good are the angels, by their holy obedience; and good is discourse that sweetly teaches and suitably admonishes the hearer; and good is a poem that is harmonious in its numbers and weighty in its sense. And why add yet more and more? This thing is good and that good, but take away this and that, and regard good itself if thou canst; so wilt thou see God, not good by a good that is other than Himself, but the good of all good. For in all these good things, whether those which I have mentioned, or any else that are to be discerned or thought, we could not say that one was better than another, when we judge truly, unless a conception of the good itself had been impressed upon us, such that according to it we might both approve some things as good, and prefer one good to another. So God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself. For the good that must be sought for the soul is not one above which it is to fly by judging, but to which it is to cleave by loving; and what can this be except God? Not a good mind, or a good angel, or the good heaven, but the good good.

-Augustine of Hippo. (1887). On the Trinity. In P. Schaff (Ed.), A. W. Haddan (Trans.), St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises (Vol. 3, p. 117). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

He entered into a covenant of life with him, upon the condition of perfect obedience.

“Christ by suffering the penalty, and so making atonement for us, only removes the guilt of our sins and so sets us in the same state that Adam was in the first moment of his creation: and it is no more fit, that we should obtain eternal life, only on that account, than that Adam should have the reward of eternal life, or of a confirmed and unalterable state of happiness, the first moment of his existence, without any obedience at all. Adam was not to have the reward merely  on account of his being innocent; if so, he would have had it fixed upon him at one, as soon as ever he was created; for he was as innocent then as he could be: but he was to have the reward on account of his activeness in obedience; not on the account merely of his not having done ill, but on the account of his doing well.”

-Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone

My Table

Two heavy trestles, and a board
Where Sato’s gift, a changeless sword,
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato’s house,
Curved like new moon, moon-luminous,
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where ’twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul’s beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
Me soul’s unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven’s door
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country’s talk
For silken clothes and stately walk,
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno’s peacock screamed.
-Yeats, The Tower, 1928

How the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son

“We must also observe that every act of knowledge is followed by an act of the appetite. Of all appetitive acts love is the principle. Without it there is no joy at gaining something one does not love, or sadness at missing something one does not love – that is, if love is taken away; likewise all other appetitive acts would go, since they are all somehow related to sadness and joy. Therefore, since God has perfect knowledge, he must also have perfect love, which arises as the expression of an appetitive act, as a word arises as the expression of an intellective act.”

-The Ingenious Thomas Aquinas

Of the Tradition

In an essay called “The Secret Commonwealth” David Bentley Hart considers a 1691 treatise written by the reverend Robert Kirk (1644-1692, and now believed to be imprisoned in a pine overlooking the site of his alleged grave) entitled The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. He winds his essay down with these words:

One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes to the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion—but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition. Even the dreariest Kantian can tell you that our ability to know the world depends upon those transcendental qualities the mind impresses upon it before it can impress them upon the mind, and that all perception requires the supreme fictions of the synthetic a priori. At the most primordial level of consciousness, the discrimination between truth and fantasy—if, by truth, one means the strictly empirically verifiable—becomes merely formal. Moreover, even if one suspects this is not a matter so much of illusion as of delusion, again that is of no consequence. A delusion this amiable is endlessly preferable to boredom, for boredom is the one force that can utterly defeat the will to be, and so the will to care at all what is or is not true. It is only some degree of prior enchantment that allows the eye to see, and to seek to see yet more. And so, deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute materials in haphazard combinations.

Reader, read him.

Late Medieval Religion

There was once a certain knight, whose castle stood upon a highway and who mercilessly robbed passing travelers. Despite his conduct he nevertheless maintained his pious daily prayers to the Blessed Virgin. One day, when it was the turn of a certain holy monk to be stripped by this knight’s henchmen, the victim demanded a personal interview with his oppressor, saying he had certain secrets to communicate. Taken inside the castle he asked the knight to assemble his whole household, yet when the knight so obliged him the monk declared that one of its members had absented himself from the assembly. A check revealed that the missing member was a serving man who, when at last located and brought before the monk, proceeded to behave as one insane. Finally he admitted he was no real man but a demon in human guise, who for fourteen years had served the knight by special order of the Devil. The latter had commanded him to watch for the day when his master failed to salute the Virgin in prayer; whenever this fatal moment of neglect should occur, the demon servant would be free to kill the knight and drag his wicked soul to perdition. So far, though ignorant of his precarious situation, the knight had never allowed his devotions to lapse. Now learning the truth he was dully appalled and hurled himself in repentance at the feet of the monk, who commanded the demon to vanish and to trouble the Virgin’s devotees no more. With reverence and thanks the knight permitted his saintly deliverer to go free and thenceforth he changed his own life for the better.

-A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 25

God’s Word

MY God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies. O, what words but thine can express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word, in which to one man that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the word of God, is the reverent simplicity of the word, and to another the majesty of the word; and in which two men equally pious may meet, and one wonder that all should not understand it, and the other as much that any man should.

-John Donne

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.


Since the heavenly bodies are in constant motion, so far as we can judge, it may seem that if their substance remains, they will keep on moving also in the state of consummation. And, indeed, if motion were possessed by heavenly bodies for the same reason as that for which it is possessed by elements, such an assertion would be logical. Motion is found in heavy or light elements to promote the perfection they are to attain: by their natural motion they tend to the place that suits them, where they are in a better condition. Hence in the ultimate state of consummation each element and each part thereof will be in its own proper place.

But this cannot be maintained of the motion of heavenly bodies, for a heavenly body does not come to rest in any place it may occupy; as it travels naturally to any particular place, it no less naturally departs thence. Therefore heavenly bodies suffer no loss if they are deprived of motion, because motion is not found in them for their own perfection. Also, it would be ridiculous to contend that a heavenly body is moved in circles by its nature as an active principle, in the way that a light body is impelled upward by its nature. For, as is evident, nature tends invariably in the direction of unity; and therefore that which by its very concept opposes unity cannot be the ultimate goal of nature. But motion is opposed to unity, in the sense that what moves varies in its mode of being by the very fact that it is in motion. Therefore nature does not produce motion just for the sake of motion, but in causing motion has in view the terminus to be reached by motion.

For instance, a body that is naturally light seeks an elevated place in its ascent; and so of other bodies. Consequently, since the circular motion of a heavenly body does not tend to a definite position, we cannot say that the active principle of a heavenly body’s circular motion is nature, in the sense that nature is the principle of the motion of heavy and light bodies. Accordingly there is no reason why heavenly bodies should not come to rest, without any change in their nature, even though fire, if its nature is to remain constant, cannot cease from its restlessness as long as it exists outside its proper sphere. Nevertheless we say that the motion of a heavenly body is natural; but it is natural not by reason of an active principle of motion in it, but by reason of the mobile body itself that has an aptitude for such motion. We conclude, therefore, that motion is communicated to a heavenly body by some intellect.

However, since an intellect does not impart movement except in view of some end, we must inquire what is the end of the motion of heavenly bodies. The motion itself cannot be said to be this end. For motion is the way leading to perfection, and so does not verify the concept of end, but rather pertains to that which is tending toward an end. Likewise we cannot maintain that a succession of locations is the term of the movement of a heavenly body, as though a heavenly body moved for the purpose of actually occupying every position for which it has a potency; this would entail endless wandering, and what is endless contradicts the notion of end.

We ought to think of the end of the heaven’s motion somewhat as follows. Any body set in motion by an intellect is evidently an instrument of the latter. But the end of an instrument’s motion is a form conceived by the principal agent, a form that is reduced to act by the motion of the instrument. The form conceived by the divine intellect, to be realized by the motion of the heavens, is the perfection of things. as achieved by way of generation and corruption. But the ultimate end of generation and corruption is the noblest of all forms, the human soul; and the soul’s ultimate end is eternal life, as we said above. Accordingly the ultimate end of the movement of the heavens is the multiplication of men, who are to be brought into being for eternal life.

Such a multitude cannot be infinite; the intention to be realized by any intellect comes to rest in something definite. Consequently, once the number of men who are to be brought into being for eternal life is filled out, and they are actually established in the possession of eternal life, the movement of the heavens will cease, just as the motion of any instrument ceases after a project has been carried through to completion. And when the movement of the heavens ceases, all movement in lower bodies will cease by way of consequence, excepting only the movement that will be in men as flowing from their souls. And thus the entire material universe will have a different arrangement and form, in accordance with the truth proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 7:31: “The shape of this world passes away.”

Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, 171

A Pregnant Paragraph

The late Scholastics lost faith in the intelligibility of reality because they relinquished the metaphysical unities. For them reality was held to consist of unrelated particulars. Church and state are not antecedent entities but simply contractual associations. The church then becomes a voluntary society, the state a compact, and marriage simply a contract. Here is the philosophy of individualism undercutting the great unities well in advance of the Reformation. Certain theological dogmas also were undercut, for if reality consists of unrelated individuals, then the three persons of the Trinity must be three gods. Nevertheless the doctrine of the Trinity was retained on the ground that what is true for philosophy need not be true for theology. But in that case theology, with no philosophical undergirding, can rest only on authority. The tendency of the papacy to make more pretentious claims as its power waned was also paralleled by the recourse in theology to authority when the grip on truth was relaxed.

-Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 15-6