Friday, December 09, 2011

Cherishing God’s Every Word, Jot, and Tittle

In the appendix of Altar to an Unknown Love, I address MacDonald’s and Lewis’ generational influences regarding the use of language. Neither man was well disciplined in the use of scriptural language, and those who reproduce their teachings tend to repeat this problem. Though this may not seem like a strong complaint, it is, especially since both men proffered themselves as teachers of the Word (if even casually, as in the case of Lewis). After illustrating this point in the appendix of Altar to an Unknown Love, I went on to point out the dangers of any form of teaching which draws the believer away from the very language of Holy Writ. Let me reproduce that portion here:

When Scriptural language converges to a fairly monolithic meaning, we dull the blade of Holy Writ through a misuse of such important terms. And while such tactics may garner the attention of others, we must ask the question: who is ultimately getting that attention? In the introduction of this book, we consulted J.C. Ryle for his wisdom on the dangers of seeking theological novelty. Here, we should look at what he says about the dangers of using novel words and expressions:

"Finally, I must deprecate, and I do it in love, the use of uncouth and new-fangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification. I plead that a movement in favor of holiness cannot be advanced by new-coined phraseology, or by disproportioned and one-sided statements--or by overstraining and isolating particular texts--or by exalting one truth at the expense of another--or by allegorizing and accommodating texts, and squeezing out of them meanings which the Holy Spirit never put in them--or by speaking contemptuously and bitterly of those who do not entirely see things with our eyes, and do not work exactly in our ways. These things do not make for peace: they rather repel many and keep them at a distance. The cause of true sanctification is not helped, but hindered, by such weapons as these. A movement in aid of holiness which produces strife and dispute among God's children is somewhat suspicious. For Christ's sake, and in the name of truth and charity, let us endeavor to follow after peace as well as holiness. 'What God has joined together let not man put asunder.' It is my heart's desire, and prayer to God daily, that personal holiness may increase greatly among professing Christians in England. But I trust that all who endeavor to promote it will adhere closely to the proportion of Scripture, will carefully distinguish things that differ, and will separate 'the precious from the vile.' ( Jeremiah 15:19.)"[1]

Ryle's wisdom is timeless, helpful, and should not be easily dismissed in the present day - because it is biblical. Clearly, Ryle's battle of yesteryear is the battle of the modern day, because nothing is new under the sun. His warning for his generation is for us as well. We all misspeak at times,[2] and our vocabulary will continue to be refined and transformed[3] as the Lord sanctifies us. But the direction that we must seek is one which presses back to the ancient anchor of Holy Writ, rather than forward to this ever-changing and dying world.  [Altar to an Unknown Love]

We live in a world that seems to be more interested in being cool, hip, or even titillatingly shocking; therefore, we often hear “uncouth and new-fangled terms” being used to describe the precious truths of Scripture. Ryle is right to express concern over this tactic. The theological shock-jocks of the modern day may be able to identify themselves with the legacy of men like Lewis and MacDonald – but why not seek out the greater legacy of God as found in His perfect word?

As someone has rightly said: “what you win them with is what you win them to.” I agree, and this also applies to this issue of words: the powerful Word of God vs. the words of men. 

P.S. Though I never explicitly address the language and philosophy of “Christian Hedonism,” per se, Gary Gilley is correct in his review to point out several inferences to the root idea of “Christian Hedonism” in Altar to an Unknown Love. Ultimately, the notion of “Christian Hedonism” is a derivative of Lewis’ own theology and use of language.


[1] Ryle, Holiness, p. XXIX.
[2] James 3:2-3.
[3] Romans 12:1-2.