Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Faith... whole and undefiled"

Further words for our time from C.S. Lewis' introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation:
St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the "Athanasian Creed."  I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing.  The words "Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" are the offence.  They are commonly misunderstood.  The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep.  The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought.  They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame. [Emphasis added]  But this is not my immediate concern.  I mention "the creed (commonly called) of St. Athanasius" only to get out of the reader's way what may have been a bogey and to put the true Athanasius in its place. His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, "Athanasius against the world."  We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world.  Athanasius did the same.  He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, "whole and undefiled," when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius — into one of those "sensible" synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended to-day and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen.* [Emphasis added]  It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

* For an example of what Lewis is talking about, note the Episcopal clergyman who regularly appears on Oprah Winfrey's program dealing with "spirituality."

Anyone who is interested in reading Lewis' introduction in its entirety will find it here, (however, it does not have the italics that are in the original, and it has a few typographical errors).

I began re-reading Athanasius' On the Incarnation on an airplane the other day and was struck, once again, by its impressive clarity and classical simplicity (which caused Lewis to express his admiration for the work and its author) but also for its freshness and relevance to many of the situations in which Christians find themselves today.  Having quoted Lewis' introduction in my last post and this one, I think I will post a few reflections and excerpts from On the Incarnation itself in the next few days, as time permits.

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