In Defense of Second-Hand Knowledge

The following essay was my writing sample for my application to Bethlehem College and Seminary.  I was asked to respond to the following:

In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis writes, “[F]irst-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” Do you agree? Illustrate this concept with an experience from your life.

What is the relation between first-hand knowledge and second-hand knowledge? In his introduction to On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis said that, “[F]irst-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”1 I agree that this is true in the limited sphere to which Lewis was referring, once an assumption regarding mechanics has been made more explicit. However, I think that outside that sphere, the statement is incomplete, specifically in failing to account for second-hand sources that, in the words of Mortimer Adler, “effectively mediate”2 their primary source. That said, I do find the concept generally helpful, and applicable in my present situation.

Assuming that the first-hand knowledge is indeed worth acquiring, the question remains: Is it actually easier and more delightful to acquire than second-hand knowledge? This rests on a big assumption regarding the mechanics of the reading process. By this, I mean the nuts and bolts of how the information gets from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader. For the reader this includes his familiarity with the language and form of the first-hand source. For example, first-hand knowledge of Shakespeare may be worth acquiring, but unless the reader has the mental mechanics of some familiarity with Elizabethan English, it may be neither easy nor delightful to read. In my own high school English class, most of us struggled to actually read Romeo and Juliet. We couldn’t wait for the unit to be over so we could watch the movie. Mechanics also plays a vital role in how the first-hand source gets to the reader, particularly if it needs to be translated from another language. Lewis himself acknowledges this later in the essay, when he refers to, “that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages.”3 No matter how worthy the book, it can be rendered difficult and distasteful when presented in a dry and wooden form. Lewis is assuming two things regarding mechanics when he makes his statement: that there are quality translations of these original works, and that the reader has enough ability to comprehend them. These, at least, must be true in order for his statement to be true.

What I see as the main limitation in his statement is that it does not account for the capability of both worthiness and delight to be transmitted effectively from first-hand to second-hand sources. In his given example he is completely correct. Plato is more worth reading than the, “dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”4 When second-hand sources behave like this, Lewis’s statement obviously holds. However, not every second-hand source is like this at all. Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, sets the bar for second-hand sources of knowledge: “He should not “come between” as a nonconductor, but he should come between as a mediator – as one who helps the less competent make more effective contacts with the best minds.”5 Lewis was lamenting the state of academia in his day. Adler gives us the solution. An example will help illustrate this.

In God’s Passion for His Glory, John Piper combines first-hand knowledge (The End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards) with his own second-hand contribution. Why don’t I follow Lewis’s advice, tear out the first 100 pages of the book and just get my knowledge first-hand? For several reasons. First, Piper helps the reader with some mechanics. He took the liberty to, “add or remove commas and semicolons, for example, to make the flow of the sentences as clear as possible. The same applies to Edwards’s use of italics, capitalization, dashes, parentheses, spelling, contractions and abbreviations.” He divided paragraphs, changed some grammatical constructions, added subheadings and lengthy explanatory footnotes to the text.6 All this mechanical effort by a second-hand source that makes it easier for the reader to get what the first-hand source is trying to say, contra Lewis’s statement.

Putting mechanics aside, more important is the idea that what makes Edwards worth reading and delightful to read, can and does spill over into the second-hand source to such a degree that Piper’s introduction is also worth reading and delightful to read and for the same essential reasons. Second-hand sources are worthy of being read to the degree that they effectively mediate what is worth reading in the original. John Piper does this. I read him and I shout in my heart, “I get this! God’s glory is supremely delightful! I don’t know how effectively I can “get” Edwards (my own mechanics might be lacking), but I get this, and this is good.” What is worth acquiring in Edwards spills over in Piper, it seems easier to grasp, and it is definitely delightful.

Ultimately, Edwards himself is also a second-hand source, commenting on a first-hand source, and what is worth acquiring in Edwards is simply what he has effectively mediated from that original source. Piper expresses this well:

“Thus, in the most profound sense we are all secondary teachers and secondary beings. Only One is Primary. Why he created us, and how to join him in fulfilling that end, are the most important questions in the world. Only he can reveal the answer [first-hand knowledge]. That is why Jonathan Edwards gave himself to the Word of God and wrote The End for Which God Created the World [second-hand]… and that is why I take my stand on his shoulders and write about God’s Passion for His Glory [third-hand!].”7

Interestingly, the very universe is structured this way, such that what is worthy and delightful in a first-hand source can and ought to be effectively transmitted through second-hand sources. The very Trinity is a display of this. We cannot see the face of God first-hand (Exodus 33:20), but we can see it reflected in the Son (2 Corinthians 4:4-6, John 1:18), yet, even this we cannot see unless the Spirit reveals it to us (1 Corinthians 2:14, John 16:14-15). This is second and even third-hand knowledge of the glory of God, and yet, in a sense, it remains first-hand knowledge as God mediates His glory to us, as He works directly in us. This spills over to our experience as we are commanded to proclaim the message second-hand (Romans 10:14) to all the world (Psalm 96:3) that others might come to first-hand knowledge themselves. The worthiness and delightfulness of the first-hand knowledge is not diminished by its being passed along second-hand. In fact, it was intended from the beginning to be this way. We were made to delight ourselves in the glory of God. This is primarily second-hand in this age – in His Word, in His creation, in His works in history, in His saints, in His gifts and graces. We are commanded not to despise second-hand sources – to do so is called the doctrine of demons! (1 Tim 4:3) – but rather to see “through” them, as it were, to The Primary Source and to delight in Him through them. It even seems that the delight of the first-hand source is made more complete, and its worthiness experienced more fully when shared among second-hand sources, and in the age to come, both aspects will be interplaying for all eternity as God’s glory and worth is delighted in first-hand in Himself and second-hand in His saints.

Lewis would protest, “Of course! I’m only talking about boring commentators on original texts.” In this, I agree. Whenever second-hand sources, “come between as non-conductors,” Lewis’s statement is a helpful encouragement to dig into those worthy primary sources for ourselves. “And besides,” he might add, “Isn’t my point ultimately true? Isn’t knowledge of God Himself most worth acquiring, and most delightful to acquire?” I guess I’ll have to ask him about it in heaven, as the glory beams from his face and in his words.

As I contemplate my own situation, I find this concept has direct application to me, and here I find myself in wholehearted agreement with Lewis. One of the reasons for applying to Bethlehem College and Seminary is my desire for first-hand knowledge of the Word of God in the original languages. Yes, we have had good and faithful translations which have effectively mediated the truth of the original to us in English. These “second-hand” sources are worthy of study, easy to read, and delightful to the soul. And yet, I am persuaded that reading it “first-hand” is indeed “more worth acquiring,” and my experience is that accurate knowledge of what the text means is, “much easier and more delightful to acquire,” in the originals. It may be mechanically easier to simply read the words of my English Bible, but acquiring the knowledge of the actual meaning is easier done in the original, without having to resort to a dozen different original language helps. For me, the issue comes back to mechanics, and this is why I am applying to BCS: to develop the mechanical ability necessary to more easily acquire knowledge of the Word of God, for my great delight, because His Word is infinitely worth acquiring, first-hand.

1. C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock in The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1970) , 434.
2. Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), 60.
3. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books, “ 438.
4. Ibid., 434.
5. Adler, How to Read a Book, 60.
6. John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 123.
7. Ibid., xiii.

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