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Think on These Things Articles

C.S. Lewis

(September 2006 - Volume 12, Issue 8) 

There is probably no Christian in modern times better known or more influential than Clive Staples Lewis. Born in Belfast in the year 1899, Lewis would write dozens of books on a variety of topics before his death on November 22, 1963 (on the very day of the deaths of John Kennedy and Aldous Huxley). At the time of his death his popularity was starting to wane but shortly thereafter there was a revival of interest in Lewis and, arguably, today he is more deeply admired than ever. He is considered by many to be the greatest apologist for the Christian faith to have ever lived. Whether you agree with this assessment or not, there is no doubt that Lewis was in a league almost by himself in his ability to write great truths in ways that spoke to our hearts and opened our eyes. For this reason, even those who are troubled with much of Lewis’ theology can hardly resist quoting him. There is a danger, however, of all-but-canonizing Lewis, giving more weight to his imaginative explorations and philosophical reasonings than to Scripture. Ruth Tucker writes, “Among Protestants there is only one pope of apologetics…. If C. S. Lewis said it, it must be true. In many circles it seems that the voice of C. S. Lewis is second only to the voice of God.”[1]

There is no doubt that Lewis has earned the respect he receives.

Lewis penned over fifty books, some of them compiled posthumously. There are seventeen biblical, theological, and philosophically-related works, fourteen works of literary criticism, twenty of a more imaginative literary nature (including seven children’s books, four science fiction thrillers, and four books of poetry – two of these penned as a youthful atheist), and three compilations of his letters.[2]

Lewis’ insights into life are often astounding, yet the discerning Christian needs to be aware that Lewis is not the final word on faith and practice. As a matter of fact, while much of Lewis’ apologetics are sound and his understanding of life penetrating, his theology was somewhat of a mess. Even his “friends accused Lewis of a rumpled dress and a somewhat rumpled theology too.”[3]

In Mere Christianity, Lewis attempted to identify the essential doctrines that would define all Christians of whatever stripe. He claimed to accept the major creeds such as Nicene and Athanasian, yet he championed many unorthodox theological views. He was heavily influenced by Roman Catholics such as J. R. R. Tolkien and G. K. Chesterton[4] and so closely aligned with Catholic theology that “many who read Lewis’ first book after his conversion, The Pilgrim’s Regress, assumed he was a Catholic, and, in fact, the second edition was published by a Catholic publisher.”[5] Today he continues to be accepted by Rome as much as he is by evangelicals. While he was sympathetic toward Catholicism, it was the high Anglican Church of England, the church affiliation of his youth, which he joined after his conversion and remained a member the rest of his life.

He received no formal biblical training and did not seem to immerse himself in the best of sound theological literature, which may account for many of his “rumpled” doctrinal views. He never claimed to be an evangelical and, in fact, denied much that evangelicals hold dear. And so, while Lewis’ works are certainly worth examining and pondering, the wise believer will want to proceed with caution. For years, when asked about C. S. Lewis, I have answered that he was a good apologist but a poor theologian but, in all honesty, it must be admitted that a person’s theology will have a profound effect on his apologetics. So, rather than paint with a broad brush, I thought it might be profitable to detail some of Lewis’ aberrant theological beliefs in order that the reader of Lewis would be aware of these pitfalls.

Creation

Lewis believed in theistic evolution. In the Problem of Pain he wrote,

If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objections…. For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumbs could be applied to each of its fingers, and jaws and teeth and the throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man…. We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.[6]

Of course such a view will have an influence on one’s understanding of the Fall. Lewis does not believe in the literal accuracy of Adam and Eve sinning in the Garden. In reference to the Fall he says, “I have the deepest respect even for Pagan myths, still more for myths in Holy Scripture…. What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know; but if it is legitimate to guess, I offer the following picture – a ‘myth’ in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale”[7]

Lewis understood the events found in the first three chapters of Genesis as “true myths” (stories that are not literally factual but teach some truth, a view usually held by theological liberals but increasingly by some “evangelicals”). We would expect that this belief would have a major impact on his grasp of other doctrines, especially the next two.

Total Depravity

Lewis states, “I disbelieve that doctrine [total depravity], partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved and partly because experience shows us much good in human nature.”[8] Lewis, of course, misunderstands what theologians mean when they use this term. Total depravity does not mean that mankind is as bad as it could be nor that unredeemed individuals can do nothing but evil. The unsaved are capable of great acts of kindness and love as well as recognition of both good and evil (in themselves and others). They are capable of comprehending that a creator God exists (Romans 1:18ff). What total depravity means is that every aspect of our being is depraved, or corrupted, by sin: our minds, our hearts, our words, our emotions, etc. (Romans 3:10-18). It also means, unaided by the power of the Holy Spirit, no one would ever choose to turn to God (2 Corinthians 3:15-4:6; John 6:37, 44). Lewis, whose theological bent is toward Arminianism as we will see below, has an unbalanced view of the capabilities and free will of the unbeliever.

The Scriptures:

Lewis analyst Richard Cunningham claimed: “Lewis did not believe in the infallibility of the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures.”[9] This deduction is evident throughout the writings of Lewis and hardly needs to be prooftexted, but one important statement found in Miracles would be helpful:

My present view… would be that just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History. This involves the belief that Myth in general is… at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other peoples, had mythology: but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology – the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical. Whether we can ever say with certainty where, in this process of crystallization, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter. I take it that the memoirs of David’s court come at one end of the scale and are scarcely less historical than St. Mark or Acts; and that the Book of Jonah is at the opposite end (emphasis his).[10]

It becomes obvious that Lewis’ love for mythology seriously clouds his understanding of biblical truth. He is playing a dangerous game here – deciding which parts of Scripture are historically true and which parts are “true myths.” Lewis comes down on the side that the New Testament is largely factual, including the stories of Jesus. But how can he make that determination? If God revealed to us vast amounts of information, all of which He claimed to be true (but were really myths), how are we to know with any certainty that anything in Scripture is more than myth? How can we, with Lewis, arbitrarily decide that the story of Jonah was a myth but Jesus was not? The manipulation of Scripture in this manner leaves the door open for rejection of any or all that it contains – determined only by our presuppositions and personal desires. Lewis’ perception of Scripture is a serious flaw in his thinking.

Salvation:

As far back as 1963 Martyn Lloyd-Jones warned that C. S. Lewis had a defective view of salvation and with good reason. Let’s take a look at several soteriological errors in Lewis’ theology.

The Substitutionary Atonement

In Mere Christianity Lewis was clear that he rejected the substitutionary atonement:

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying [Christ’s] was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to…. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works.[11]

While Lewis reframes this doctrine to make it sound a bit ridiculous he is nevertheless clear that he is not a fan of what is considered one of the fundamentals of the faith. That Christ died in our place, taking upon Himself our sin and satisfying the righteous wrath of God is not an “immoral” or “silly” theory – it is the very heart of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Justification and Sacramentalism

J. I. Packer lamented that Lewis never mentioned “justification by faith when speaking of the forgiveness of sins, and his apparent hospitality to baptismal regeneration.”[12] In Mere Christianity Lewis wrote,

“There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and…the Lord’s supper…. And perhaps that explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion…. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us.”[13]

Lewis obviously had a faulty, sacramental view of justification which only naturally leads to the next problem.

Eternal Security

Lewis believed that a Christian could lose his salvation, “There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians…. A Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it.”[14]

The mission of Screwtape was to bring a young man who has just become a Christian back to the devil’s fold. “I note with grave displeasure,” the demon Screwtape admonishes his apprentice demon Wormwood, “that your patient has become a Christian…. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”[15]

Inclusivism

Lewis was an inclusivist believing that some moral non-Christians would be saved: “Though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life.”[16] In the Last Battle, the final volume in the Narnia series, Aslan (the Christ figure) accepts the service of a follower of the god Tash: “Son, thou art welcome,” Aslan says to this individual. Emeth (the Tash-server) protests, “I am no son of Thine but a servant of Tash.” But Aslan insists, “All the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”[17]

Even more clear, and more shocking, is this statement:

There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position.[18]

Miscellaneous

True to his Anglican faith Lewis confirmed that he made confessions to a priest, believed in purgatory and prayed for the dead. Lewis expert Wayne Martindale writes,

Lewis believed in Purgatory, both because of tradition and because it appealed to his imagination…. His argument goes like this. We are all sinners. We die with a sin nature. The gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the creature is so unimaginably wide and deep that a profound transformation must happen. And, borrowing from Dante’s view that the soul in Purgatory willingly and even joyfully undertakes the discipline of each step in learning to love properly… Lewis sees Purgatory not as something formed upon us as punishment, but willingly embraced for the good it will do us.[19]

Conclusion

A recent article in Christianity Today admits, “Though he shared basic Christian beliefs with evangelicals, he didn’t subscribe to biblical inerrancy or penal substitution. He believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration.”[20] His attraction to evangelicals may have been because of his evangelical-like conversion – “He had an evangelical experience, this personal encounter with the God of the universe.”[21] His works actually fell out of fashion in the 1960s only to come roaring back more recently. In fact, sales of his books have increased 125% since 2001[22] and, since his Narnia series is being made into movies, his star will continue to rise for some time to come.

So how should we view Mr. Lewis? His ability to cut through the intellectual clouds and offer insightful analysis of human nature and our relationship with God perhaps has no equal. Most of us have gained much because of the writings of C. S. Lewis. On the other hand, he was no evangelical. His theology is deficient at best in the key areas of Scripture and salvation. He believed in neither sola fide nor sola scriptura, the two battle cries of the Reformation. Those who read him must keep these things in mind, filter his teaching through the grid of Scripture and hold him to the same standards that we are to hold all others. Because Lewis was a man with an incredible ability to package his insights in thought-provoking ways does not mean that what he writes always aligns with God’s Word. He was a man who had keen analytical abilities and incredible writing gifts. But he was a man who rejected or minimized many of the most important truths given to us by God.

 


[1] Ruth A. Tucker, God Talk ( Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2005), p. 56.

[2] James Townsend, “C. S. Lewis’s Theology: Somewhere Between Ransom and Reepicheep,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Spring 2000), p. 52.

[3] Ibid., p. 53.

[4] See Christian History (Fall, 2005), pp. 17-18.

[5]Ibid., p. 4.

[6] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 72, 77, 79.

[7] Ibid., pp. 71, 77.

[8] Ibid., pp. 66-67.

[9] Townsend, p. 56.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947), p. 139.

[11] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1969),pp. 57-58.

[12] J. I. Packer, “Still Surprised by Lewis,” Christianity Today (September 7, 1998), p. 56.

[13] Lewis, Mere Christianity,pp. 62, 65.

[14]Ibid., p. 64.

[15] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 11.

[16] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1983), p. 102.

[17] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Collier Books, 1951), p. 156.

[18] Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 176-177.

[19] Wayne Martindale, Beyond the Shadowlands ( Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), p. 203.

[20] Bob Smietana, “C.S. Lewis Superstar,” Christianity Today (December 2005), p. 29.

[21] Ibid., p. 31.

[22] Ibid., p. 42.