Monday, August 28, 2023

The Value of the Ancients


We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask: “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.

From the Preface by C.S. Lewis to On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius

I will eventually get to the main book, but will spend some time with Lewis’s preface – beginning with this striking quote.  Striking not because it is inflammatory to anyone who recognizes deeper, objective truths, but striking because Lewis was not concerned about making this comparison of Hitler and Roosevelt (I won’t speak to the other comparison, not knowing enough about either person to comment). 

Without God, without understanding true good and true evil, our society has replaced Satan with Hitler.  Every bogeyman is compared to Hitler: Saddam, Ghaddafi, Putin, Assad, etc.  Lewis had the audacity to suggest one day we will look back on Roosevelt as Hitler.  Of course, for some of us, the idea is not really far-fetched at all.

There were some who saw the “untroubled agreement” between Hitler and Roosevelt at the time; more have come to see it since.  But “more,” of course, does not yet constitute a majority – still, my guess, just a small, single-digit, percentage.

Funny money, command and control of the economy, regulation of every movement, treating men as means instead of ends.  The list is endless, with much more in common than what might divide the two.  On one side there is liberty within natural law, and on the other there is everything else.  Both Roosevelt and Hitler fell toward an extreme side of “everything else,” far closer to each other than either is to liberty within natural law.

But why does Lewis point this out, in the preface to a book about the God-man?  He notes that we ignore the ancient books at our peril, that the ancient books should not be left merely to the professionals.  He sees this tendency as especially rampant in the field of theology.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. …A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.

The ancient books have withstood the test of time.  I will add, when it comes to theology, the ancient books and ancient writers are closer in time, space, and culture to the source – giving the authors an insight not readily available to a modern writer.

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.

I think about this often, in many ways when it comes to theology.  I think about it when it comes to Christian or tangentially Christian sects that came to be in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  I think about it regarding Protestantism.  I think about it regarding the early Church councils.  I think about it when trying to understand if something is an accretion or a good and necessary consequence.

Ultimately it is why I land on sola Scriptura – not in the sense of written Scripture as the sole authority, but as the sole infallible authority.

But what of their errors – the errors of the ancients.  Lewis sees little risk here.  Yes, they made mistakes – as many mistakes as we make.  But their errors are now open; they have been examined and tested.  These will not endanger us.

It is the modern errors, unexamined and untested, that are the danger – and this especially true for the layman.  Further, by not entering the conversation at eight o’clock, we are prone to make the same errors.

Lewis then goes on to express a sentiment that I have come to embrace – in no small part from reading Lewis elsewhere.  He comes to his thoughts on mere Christianity:

The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these [ancient] writers most fiercely expressed.

We are rightly distressed and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom.  But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them.  They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without.

From without, we have much more in common than we make room for when looking from within.  Lewis summarizes some of these things in common in his book, Mere Christianity.  For example:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.

There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names – Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper.

To these I will add the Trinity and Christ is the God-man (Lewis may have done this in his book; I don’t recall).  I have long felt that His sacrifice would not have been efficacious had Jesus just been a perfect, sinless man – He had to be God.  St. Athanasius will reinforce this view through this book.  Lewis touches on this here, noting the epitaph, Athanasius contra mundum – Athanasius against the world:

He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius – into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions…

Lewis describes this work as a masterpiece: “…only a mastermind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.”  It is a short, and very accessible, masterpiece – the portion dedicated to Athanasius’s writing is only about sixty pages, and each page about half the size of a tablet computer.


His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.”

This is just the preface.  Lewis follows this with an extensive introduction.  I will come to this next time.


  1. Wells and Barth were both materialists. That is their connection. Lewis wrote his space trilogy in opposition to Well's atheistic and bleak science fiction. Barth was a theologian. He went against liberal theology. But I remember reading his commentary on Acts (I think) where he rejects the supernatural and even the infallibility of the Bible. But maybe the connection Lewis was making is they were both socialists. One atheistic and the other theistic.

  2. I've always loved this Preface. By the way, Lewis was correct. Both Hitler and Roosevelt were more than willing to take the war to civilians, i.e. total war. The allies firebombing German cities was as big as a war crime as anything Hitler did, and God knows he did enough evil for any man.
    By the way, Lewis comment that we need to read three old books for every one new one - he then says at least two - has been a standard I've tried to live up to.