Biblical Copiousness


“Screw the truth into men’s minds.” – Richard Baxter

Doug Wilson, (in an interview a while back concerning Collision, I think), spoke about “copiousness.” It is the Christian’s practice of picking up striking thoughts and illustrations from reading, and from life, for future use. He advocates keeping a Commonplace book to jot things down.

“Keep a commonplace book. Write down any notable phrases that occur to you, or that you have come across. If it is one that you have found in another writer, and it is striking, then quote it, as the fellow said, or modify it to make it yours. If Chandler said that a guy had a cleft chin you could hide a marble in, that should come in useful sometime. If Wodehouse said somebody had an accent you could turn handsprings on, then he might have been talking about Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Tinker with stuff. Get your fingerprints on it.” [1]

He describes an incident that makes this book (or blog or mental practice) sound more like keeping caches of ammunition near at hand.

“When you collect phrases, points, metaphors, and whatnot in this way, you are, as Cicero used to put it, loaded for bear. By linking “loaded for bear” up with Cicero, incidentally, I am providing another example of the previous point. But this last point is an important part of what the ancient rhetoricians called copiousness.

One time G.K. Chesterton, the rolypologist, was patted on the stomach by his adversary, George Bernard Shaw, a beanpole of an infidel, and was asked what they were going to name the baby. Chesterton replied immediately that if it was a boy, John, if a girl, then Mary. But if it turned out to only be gas, they were going to name it George Bernard Shaw. Now we hear that story and marvel at his amazing quickness. And it may well have been such, a prodigy of the moment. But I also wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find out that Chesterton had that particular pistol loaded beforehand, and concealed on his person. When copiousness is active, you not only know how to respond in the moment, but you can also see the moment coming, and prepare for it beforehand.

Your commonplace book is just a staging area. You are collecting things in order use them, to get them into your mind and heart, and thence into your writing.” [2]

The writer’s life is a scavenger’s life. This should go also for pastors, teachers, dads and mums, and in fact any Christian: all our ministry is didactic and apologetic, discipleship and witness.

But then, isn’t this how God has always worked? What amazes me is our failure to recognize this practice in the wisdom literature and the prophets. The guns were loaded, the pumps were primed, well before they fired and gushed. All the writers had been young Timothys waiting for Paul to join the dots with the bloody stylus of the Spirit.

Jordan says Ecclesiastes is a meditation on the Feast of Tabernacles, ruminating on texts from Deuteronomy. [3] We won’t believe that without a footnote. How obtuse.

What about Isaiah’s reference to the wolf and lamb lying down together? The Restoration Covenant was a new ark, and the Gentiles submitted to Mordecai. [4] Peter’s trance predicted exactly the same thing: a peaceful, floating Covenant zoo resting on the mountain of God. And the exiles crossing the river dryshod? It was also a new conquest of the Land, as we see in Esther. That’s all Isaiah means, and the structure of the passage proves it.

Or Hebrews’ reference to Jeremiah’s New Covenant with Israel and Judah? Fulfilled in the Restoration. [5] It is simply a literary allusion to a similar process in rejoining the two sticks of Jew and Gentile through another fiery furnace.

Biblical copiousness is one thing we love about Spurgeon. The Bible was his muse. The biblical texts are high walls but they are not lonely, cold, disjointed bricks. Spurgeon preached from the fiery turrets of inspired literature with apparent ease. Yet uninspired, banal-retentive modern boffins do dog paddle in a moat of footnotes and call it scholarship. They classify everything with abstract nouns, squabble and nitpick over their own definitions and disappear in an inky cloud of superior irrelevance. To these illiterati, the “apostolic hermeneutic” is a marvel and a mystery, an impenetrable keep, when it is simply biblical copiousness. Is it any wonder they can make no sense of the details of the Revelation? Its cinematic Covenantal ironies are lost on them. Jesus and His prophets are far cleverer — and funnier — than Chesterton and Wodehouse. But we don’t get the jokes. [6]

Jesus created a world where everything is related Covenantally; every physical object is also mirror and metaphor and lyric and rant; every Covenant-historical event is a self-referential innovation. He is the Master of Allusion, and we, as we read the Bible, are to be His commonplace books.

“…always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”
(1 Peter 3:15)

[1] Doug Wilson, Seven Basic & Brief Pointers for Writers.
[2] Doug Wilson, Uncommon Commonplaces.
[3] See How To Read The Bible.
[4] See The Wolf and the Lamb.
[5] See Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog.
[6] See Hermeneutics of Humour and Menu for the Dirty Birds.

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2 Responses to “Biblical Copiousness”

  • Shepherd Says:

    Yes indeed. Wilson himself shows this sort of copiousness constantly on his blog and in his books.

    It seems to me that part of the problem is a post-Enlightenment fear of illusion that has over-reached and become a fear of traditional allusion. After the Enlightenment, people began to fear symbol and metaphor; the liturgy had appeared to be a dry and life-throttling formalism. Sacraments became tombstones of past events rather than expressions of a living new reality.

    Symbols, by nature, are traditional and borrowed, but post-Enlightenment writers prefer to subvert and reinterpret symbols, turning them on their heads and destroying their meaning in the process. The symbol is no longer appreciated unless you give it a new or novel meaning, so that everyone can marvel at your twist of profundity. People do not realize that the symbols and metaphors and stories of the Bible and of history give us the richest, most beautiful colors to paint with. In order to not be constrained by the symbols of the past, they mix them all together in a jumble and paint their stories in different shades of black. It saddens me really; I feel this loss of traditional symbolism every time I crack open a new work of fiction. I see it also all too often in modern worship services.

    Thanks for your post. I love this topic; keep encouraging folks to keep their arsenal strong.

    from the Knight Blog

  • Angie B. Says:

    I had a great-aunt who was also a great talker…she always had a funny story to tell and a constant stream of amusing metaphors. After she died I was helping the family sort through her belongings. I came across a little notebook, blank except for one brief phrase she had written on the first page: “He doesn’t know a fugue from a paintbrush.” I’ll bet she had other “commonplace notebooks” stashed around the house, too.