Saturday, September 19, 2009

The elusive goal of linearity

For the kind of book Brian has written, it is important to make your arguments essentially linear. This raises a challenge that is particularly acute for speakers or preachers who become authors: Reiterating points made previously, or foreshadowing points yet to come, may quite often be a good approach when speaking. It is rarely the best approach when presenting the same material in written form.

I came upon an example of this in editing chapter 3, a discussion of justification. Brian had come to a place where he was making three sub-points about justification:

  • Justification is legal in nature
  • Justification is declarative in function
  • Justification concerns our status before God
Having been at this kind of work for a while, I know it is going to be extremely difficult to write this section in a way that really teases the points apart to make them distinct from one another.
Why? Because these three points are so interdependent that it's very difficult not to make them all at once: "Justification is a legal declaration of our status before God."... "When God justifies me I am legally declared righteous in his sight."... or any one of 1000 variations. They can sound like one point, and in a sense they are. But based on the divisions you just offered the reader, that one point can and should be understood as being made up of three points. So the author can't have it both ways. He can't say, "Here are three separate things to understand about justification," and then fail to discuss them...separately.

There is no way you're going to be able to write three or four paragraphs about justification being legal in nature without drifting into saying things that better belong in one of the other two categories. But then there was another layer of complexity. In the case of Brian's draft, he made the first point about justification being legal in nature and then spent some time setting forth the fundamental purpose of God's law: not to give us a way to heaven but to show us we can't get there on our own. When I saw this, I began to realize that this whole section about the definition of justification was going to need some work. More importantly, I began to recognize that clarifying the purpose of God's law is absolutely foundational to any clear discussion of justification. It ought not to be buried as a sub-point of a sub-point of the definition of the word. So I pulled out the whole three- or four-paragraph section and moved it up earlier in the chapter, doing some rewriting in order to make it fit into its new context. In this way, by the time you are reading about how justification is legal in nature, you already have fresh in mind the purpose of God's law, and that makes understanding these sub points about justification much simpler.

With the material about the purpose of God's law removed, I was then able to return to this three-part definition of justification and really focus on trying to keep those three naturally interwoven points distinct from each other—a bit of a trick in itself that may be the subject for a blog post at another time.


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