Inerrancy and the Patron Saint of Evangelicalism: C.S. Lewis on Holy Scripture
Plenary 2 — 2013 National Conference
The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis
This message appears as a chapter in The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.
At the beginning of The Silver Chair, young Jill Pole finds herself in a wood at the top of a high mountain. There she meets a lion, who gives her the task of finding a lost prince and bringing him back home to Narnia.
The lion also gives Jill four signs to guide her on this quest. When he asks her to repeat these four signs, she does not remember them quite as well as she expected. So the lion corrects her and then patiently asks her to repeat the signs until she can say them word-perfect, and in the proper order.
Unfortunately, even though she knows the signs by heart, Jill somehow manages to forget most of them by the time she needs them. The first sign pertains to Jill’s traveling companion — a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb (and who almost deserved it). As soon as Eustace sets foot in Narnia, he will meet a dear old friend, whom he is to greet at once so he can gain help for his journey. But by the time the children figure out that the old king of Narnia actually is Eustace’s friend Caspian, the king has sailed away, and they have missed their chance. “We’ve muffed the first sign,” Jill says impatiently. “And now . . . everything is going wrong from the very beginning” (The Silver Chair [London: Collins, 1974]).
And so it continues. Later in the story, when the children discover to their dismay that they have also muffed the second and third signs, Jill admits, “It’s my fault. I — I’d given up repeating [them] every night.”
Whether C.S. Lewis meant it this way or not, to me this story has always illustrated the importance and challenge of Holy Scripture in the Christian life — of memorizing Bible verses, spending time in God’s Word every day, and putting what it says into practice. To be faithful to her calling, Jill needed to go back every day to the will of Aslan (for, of course, he was the lion who sent her on the quest). Yet, as time went on, she was tempted to neglect the daily practice of reciting the four signs. And because of this neglect, she and her friends fell into disobedience and confusion, nearly to the point of death.
If there is an analogy here, then it is entirely in keeping with the importance that C.S. Lewis placed on biblical truth for Christian discipleship. For Lewis, Holy Scripture was the supreme authority for faith and practice, and reading the Bible had life-giving influence for the Christian. These writings are “holy,” Lewis said, “inspired,” “the Oracles of God” (Reflections on the Psalms) The way for us to know God is on the authority of his Word, which provides the data for doing theology.
A Few Shortcomings
These strong affirmation of Scripture may seem surprising. Although some evangelicals quote C.S. Lewis on almost everything else, usually we do not quote him on the inspiration and authority of the Bible. This is because Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture has long been regarded as something less than fully orthodox.
Presumably that is one of the main reasons for including this chapter in a book-length appreciation of C.S. Lewis. Is it possible to make sense of the puzzling inconsistencies in Lewis’s writing on the nature and origin of sacred Scripture? One is reminded of the question that Christianity Today once posed about C.S. Lewis, as to how “a man whose theology had decidedly un-evangelical elements has come to be the Aquinas, the Augustine, and the Aesop of contemporary evangelicalism” (“Still Surprised by Lewis,” Christianity Today [September 1998], 54).
When it comes to “un-evangelical elements” in Lewis’s theology, his views on the Bible are near the top of the list. My purpose here is to be honest about several shortcomings in his doctrine of Scripture and then to qualify those shortcomings by setting them in the context of Lewis’s thought as a whole, before finally mentioning some of the strengths of his approach to the Bible that can help nourish our own confidence in the Word of God.
He Downplayed the Bible’s Uniqueness
So here is a first shortcoming: C.S. Lewis placed the inspiration of Scripture on a continuum with other forms of literary inspiration, thus downplaying to some degree the uniqueness of the Bible.
As a professor of English, Lewis rightly saw many similarities between the books of the Bible and other forms of literature. Indeed, as we shall see, his sensitivity to the Bible’s literary qualities is one of his greatest strengths as a lay theologian. But his appreciation for these similarities also caused him to underestimate the unique origin of Holy Scripture in the mind of the Holy Spirit.
In an important letter to Clyde Kilby, who then chaired the English department at Wheaton College, Lewis reasoned, “If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired” (C.S. Lewis, letter to Clyde S. Kilby, May 7, 1959, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, 1,045, emphasis original). The question, of course, is in what sense are they inspired.
Lewis’s sensitivity to the Bible’s literary qualities is one of his greatest strengths as a lay theologian.Tweet
Elsewhere, Lewis used Homer as an example of a poet who was inspired by invoking his muse and quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s declaration “that there was a good deal of inspiration in a chest of good tea” (C.S. Lewis and E. M.W. Tillyard, The Personal Heresy: A Controversy [London: Oxford University Press, 1939], 23). Is this all that we mean when we say that Moses, Paul, and the other biblical writers were “inspired”?
Lewis recognized that the word inspiration is not self-defining. This term “has been misunderstood in more than one way,” he wrote, “and I must try to explain how I understand it” (Psalms, 109). Part of his explanation was that even within the canon of Scripture, there are various degrees and different modes of inspiration. Not only is Scripture on a continuum with other works of literature, therefore, but within the Bible itself, some books are more fully inspired than others.
Lewis tended to think of inspiration “as a Divine pressure that God exerted on all the biblical authors, but not in the same way or to the same degree” (Christopher W. Mitchell, “Lewis and Historic Evangelicalism,” in C.S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper, ed. Judith Wolfe and Brendan N. Wolfe [London: Bloomsbury, 2012], 165). The term “Divine pressure” appears in Psalms, 111). Obviously, the words of Jesus are the most inspired, followed perhaps by the writings of the apostle Paul, which come more directly from God than the writings of the Old Testament (Psalms, 112–13). So, for Lewis, the rationalist, “all Holy Scripture is in some sense — though not all parts of it in the same sense — the word of God” (Ibid., 19).
Michael Christensen, who regards Lewis as holding a mediating view between liberalism and evangelicalism, uses the phrase “literary inspiration” to describe Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture (Michael Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture: His Thoughts on the Nature of Biblical Inspiration, the Role of Revelation, and the Question of Inerrancy [Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1979], 77). But however we describe it, Lewis held to something less than the plenary verbal inspiration that has been normative for evangelical theology. Plenary means “full” — the whole Bible is inspired. Verbal refers to the very words of the Bible — every word in Holy Scripture is equally inspired by God.
The classic expression of plenary verbal inspiration appears in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” This verse does not say merely that God inspired the men who wrote the Bible; it says rather that God inspired the Bible itself, with the result that its words are his words. Because “all” Scripture is breathed out by God, such divine inspiration extends to every word. Thus there can be no degrees of inspiration within the canon. The Bible’s words are God’s words.
At times, Lewis takes instead what seems to be an adoptionist view of Scripture, in which merely human writings are incorporated into the Bible and used for divine purposes. God consecrates the secular to make it sacred. In one of his letters, Lewis drew an analogy to the humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ. “I myself think of [inspiration] as analogous to the Incarnation,” he wrote, “as in Christ a human soul-and-body are taken up and made the vehicle of Deity, so in Scripture, a mass of human legend, history, moral teaching etc. are taken up and made the vehicle of God’s Word” (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 961).
Although it is not divine, but human in its origin, biblical literature has been “raised by God above itself, qualified by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served” (Psalms, 111). Similarly, in his Reflections on the Psalms Lewis claims that the Bible is not “the conversion of God’s word into a literature,” but the “taking up of a literature to be a vehicle of God’s word” (Ibid., 116). This claim makes the inspiration a divine response rather than what it actually is: a divine initiative, in which God speaks through human words.
He Believed There Were Contradictions and Errors
A second shortcoming in Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture is that he believed there were contradictions and probably errors in the Bible. Here we go beyond inspiration to address a second key component in the evangelical doctrine of Scripture, namely, inerrancy. Inspiration is a claim about the Bible’s source: it comes from the Holy Spirit. Inerrancy is a claim about the Bible’s content: it is free from error.
Lewis hints at his discomfort with biblical inerrancy in the Kilby letter mentioned previously. Kilby had sent Lewis a copy of the “Wheaton College Statement Concerning the Inspiration of the Bible” and asked for his opinion. In reply, Lewis listed a series of facts that would have to be accounted for in any doctrine of biblical authority. The list included what Lewis described as “the apparent inconsistencies” between the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 and between the accounts of the death of Judas Iscariot in Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18–19 (Letters, vol. 3, 1,045).
Although Lewis was careful not to use the word error in the Kilby correspondence, he did use it in one of his earlier letters. “Errors of minor fact are permitted to remain” in Scripture, he wrote. “One must remember of course that our modern and western attention to dates, numbers, etc. simply did not exist in the ancient world. No one was looking for that sort of truth” (Letters, vol. 3, 961, emphasis original). Thus, the Bible is not the word of God “in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science of history” (Psalms, 112).
To give a more specific example, the large numbers given for the armies of Israel in the Old Testament led Lewis to rule out “the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other.” “The very kind of truth we are often demanding was,” in his opinion, “never even envisaged by the ancients” (Letters, vol. 3, 1,046, emphasis original).
Minor factual errors were not troubling to Lewis; nor did they diminish his confidence in the overall truthfulness of the Bible. In his book The Problem of Pain he claimed, “If our Lord had committed himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity.”
In saying this, Lewis did not actually attribute any error to the words of Jesus, but he was saying that discovering certain errors would not threaten the core of Christian orthodoxy. He went further in his essay “The World’s Last Night.” There, in addressing the seeming discrepancy between the disciples’ expectation of the imminent return of Jesus Christ and the actual timing of the second coming, Lewis said that Jesus “shared, and indeed created, their delusion” (98).
He Doubted or Denied Certain Parts as Historical
A third shortcoming is closely related to the second: C.S. Lewis doubted or denied that certain parts of the Bible were historical, including books that evangelicals traditionally have regarded as historical narrative.
In the list that Lewis sent to Kilby — the list of factors to be accounted for in any doctrine of Scripture — item four read as follows: “The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some narratives in scripture (the parables), which may well extend also to Jonah and Job.” Lewis made similar comments elsewhere.
To begin at the beginning, he was open to the possibility that the creation account in Genesis was derived from pagan literature (Psalms, 110). Do the opening chapters of the Bible give us reliable history? What about the fall, for example? Lewis was far from certain. “For all I can see,” he wrote, “it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence” (The Problem of Pain, 68).
He said something similar about the book of Ruth and the question of its historicity. “I’ve no reason to suppose it is not” (Letters, vol. 3, 1,044, emphasis original), he says, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. In writing to Corbin Scott Carnell, and commenting specifically on Jonah and Esther, Lewis confessed that he was uneasy about “attributing the same kind and degree of historicity to all the books of the Bible” (Letters, vol. 3, 319). Or consider this, again on the book of Jonah: “The author quite obviously writes as a storyteller not as a chronicler” (Psalms, 110).
As we shall see, Lewis issued a staunch defense of many biblical narratives — especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ and other miracles. But when it came to certain Bible stories — and here he offered “the fate of Lot’s wife” as an example — the value of their historicity mattered to him “hardly at all.” So how can we tell the difference between the stories in which history matters and the stories in which it doesn’t? The stories “whose historicity matters,” Lewis wrote, “are those where it is plain” (Letters, vol. 3, 1,045). Unfortunately, this is not a criterion that can stand up to much scrutiny. Plainness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder!
Nearly everything we have seen so far in Lewis’s views on the inspiration, inerrancy, and historicity of Scripture is summarized in a famous quotation from his Reflections on the Psalms, in which he claimed that within Israel’s hymnal, “the human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God,” conveying this Word to the reader, who “also needs His inspiration” (94). Here Lewis comes perilously close to a neoorthodox view of Scripture, in which the biblical text is not inherently divine but only becomes the Word of God when the Spirit of God makes it so for the reader.
Given these shortcomings on Scripture, it is not surprising that Lewis declined to endorse conventional evangelical terminology for the doctrine of Scripture. Nor should it be surprising that evangelicals generally did not regard him as a reliable ally in “the battle for the Bible” that raged during the 1970s and 80s.
Garry Friesen has aptly described Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture as “suborthodox” (Garry L. Friesen, “Scripture in the Writings of C.S. Lewis,” Evangelical Journal, vol. 1  24). Even if he did not develop a systematic theology of Scripture that could fairly be described as “liberal,” or even “neoorthodox,” some of the statements Lewis made about the inspiration and accuracy of Scripture fell short of biblical orthodoxy — not just evangelical orthodoxy but also the orthodoxy of mere Christianity. Since the time of Christ, genuine believers in every theological tradition have received the Bible as the true and perfect Word of God.
What makes Lewis’s “suborthodoxy” especially concerning, of course, is his extraordinary influence. For many readers, C.S. Lewis has been the first introduction to Christianity, or else the first reliable guide in living the Christian life. Evangelicals rightly have been concerned that his popularity might promote a less than orthodox doctrine of Scripture.
Yet before rejecting everything that C.S. Lewis ever said about Holy Scripture, we should put his views in context and, with Christian charity, give them some of the qualifications they deserve.
Not a “Real Theologian”
It is important to remember that Lewis was not a theologian but a literary critic. Thus he often reminded his readers of the limits of his knowledge of historical theology and deferred to scholars in other fields (especially the “real theologians,” as he called them) (Transposition and Other Addresses [London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949], 19). For example, in Fern-seed and Elephants he located himself with a group of “outsiders” to biblical studies — Bible readers who were “educated, but not theologically educated” (152–53). And in The World’s Last Night, as he offered his surprising perspective on the second coming of Jesus Christ, he gave the following caution: “I have no claim to speak as an expert and merely put forward the reflections which have arisen in my own mind and have seemed to me (perhaps wrongly) to be helpful. They are all submitted to the correction of wiser heads” (World’s Last Night, 93–94).
Lewis gave similar caveats when he was commenting on the doctrine of Scripture. As he admitted to one of his correspondents, “I cannot claim to have a clearly worked out position about the Bible or the nature of Inspiration. That is a subject on which I would gladly learn: I have nothing to teach” (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931–1949, 914).
We should take these comments seriously. Given Lewis’s awareness of his own limits, it is perhaps unfair to subject his views to the kind of rigorous critique we would give a systematic theologian. Lewis himself would discourage us from basing our own doctrine of Scripture on his views, which are not always consistent anyway. As Kevin Vanhoozer wisely observes, “It is difficult to extract a ‘doctrine’ of scripture from Lewis’s occasional writings, for Lewis was less interested in critical approaches to, or doctrines of, scripture than he was in the realities about which scripture speaks” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “On scripture,” in The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, 75).
We should also recognize the significance of the fact that Lewis’s most serious reservations about the Bible do not appear in his published writings but in personal letters. Because he knew that he did not have all the answers, he was careful about what he said or wrote in public, where it seems that he never addressed the question of inerrancy as a category of systematic theology.
One omission is particularly telling. The original manuscript for Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer includes one entire chapter that was never published. The subject of the chapter was biblical inerrancy, and in it Lewis gives some of his reasons for “disbelieving” in the literal inspiration of Holy Scripture. He argues that parts of the Bible — the Gospel of Luke, for example — come from human inquiry rather than through spiritual revelation. He also claims that the Bible contains contradictions of historical fact.
Perhaps more importantly, some parts of the Bible — Job is the clearest example, as he is a man who “lives in a country we know nothing about, at a wholly undetermined period” (Malcolm, 48–50) — do not claim to be factual at all. These arguments are hardly new, as they are familiar to anyone who knows Lewis’s correspondence. The manuscript is important rather for what it reveals about Lewis’s reticence to publish his thoughts on biblical inerrancy.
Lewis had exercised similar caution in his letter to Kilby, where he was careful not to claim that he had developed a thoroughly reliable doctrine of Scripture. In fact, he described his views on inerrancy as “pretty tentative, much less an attempt to establish a view than statement of the issue on which, rightly or wrongly, I have come to work.” He also requested that if Kilby thought his letter “at all likely to upset anyone,” he would kindly “throw it in the waste paper basket” (Letters, vol. 3, 1,044).
In the end, of course, C.S. Lewis bears responsibility for what he did write about Scripture. Every author has that responsibility, which is why the apostle James warned that not many of us should become teachers (James 3:1). But we also need to take Lewis’s qualifications seriously. When he tells us that he is not a theologian or that he is giving only his tentative thoughts, he means what he says. We should both admire and emulate his teachable spirit.
It is hard not to wonder how much C.S. Lewis might have been helped by doing more extensive study on the doctrine of Scripture. His shortcomings on Scripture come in no small measure from failing to read the right books — a fault he sometimes pointed out in others. One early critic described his “refusal to acquaint himself with responsible Biblical criticism” as “almost inexcusable” (Richard B. Cunningham, C.S. Lewis: Defender of the Faith [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967], 94).
But we should bear in mind that Lewis spent the majority of his time reading dramas, epic poems, and other great works of literature (as an English professor should). He owned barely a handful of books on the doctrine of Scripture. He read G.B. Bentley’s The Resurrection of the Bible, for example, and C.H. Dodd’s less conservative book The Authority of the Bible. But, as far as we know, he never read anything like B.B. Warfield’s seminal writings on the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
Nor did Lewis live long enough to encounter the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy — a document that offers a robust defense of biblical authority while at the same time making some of the very nuances that were important to Lewis. The Chicago Statement and the related documents produced by the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) recognize that the Bible contains a variety of literary genres. No evangelical expects a parable to be historical, for example. Nor does the doctrine of inerrancy claim that everything in the Bible is a fact but only that when the Bible does present a fact, that fact is true.
This is perfectly in keeping with Lewis’s own insistence that every work of literature should be read as the kind of literature it is. Not everything in the Bible claims to be historical; only the history does. The ICBI documents also recognize that some ancient cultures used large numbers rather unscientifically — another concern of Lewis’s. So at least some of his reservations about biblical inerrancy were later addressed by qualifications held by a majority of evangelical scholars today.
The doctrine of Scripture that Lewis disagreed with was not so much evangelical as it was fundamentalist — or at least what some people believe is fundamentalist. In one letter he clarified, “My own position is not Fundamentalist, if Fundamentalism means accepting as a point of faith at the outset the proposition ‘Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal, historical sense.’ That would break down at once on the parables.” So far, so good. Any evangelical would agree, and most fundamentalists would as well. But then Lewis went on to say this:
All the same commonsense and general understanding of literary kinds which would forbid anyone to take the parables as historical statements, carried a very little further, would force us to distinguish between (1.) Books like Acts or the account of David’s reign, which are everywhere dovetailed into a known history, geography, and genealogies (2.) Books like Esther, or Jonah or Job which deal with otherwise unknown characters living in unspecified periods, and pretty well proclaim themselves to be sacred fiction. (Letters, vol. 3, 652–53).
Here Lewis uses his judgments about literary genre to press the traditional understanding of certain biblical books. He is not saying that the history we read in the Bible is inaccurate. But he is saying that some books of the Bible, which evangelicals traditionally have regarded as history, are not meant to be history at all. They belong instead to the type of literature (or genre) that Lewis identified as “sacred fiction.”
It is this judgment about literary forms, rather than a lack of confidence in the truthfulness of the Bible, that led Lewis to deny that every sentence of the Old Testament contained historical or scientific truth. “Any more,” he said, “than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation ‘after the manner of a popular poet’ (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction” (Psalms, 92).
Here Lewis reveals his limitations in historical theology, since Calvin never denied the historicity of Job. But what is more important to note is his use of the term myth to refer to the early chapters of Genesis and other parts of the Old Testament. This is perhaps the most distinctive and complex dimension of Lewis’s views on Scripture. “Of course I believe the composition, presentation, and selection for inclusion in the Bible, of all the books to have been guided by the Holy Ghost,” he explained to one of his many correspondents. “But I think He meant us to have sacred myth and sacred fiction as well as sacred history” (Letter to Janet Wise, 652–53. See also The Problem of Pain, where Lewis writes, “I have the deepest respect even for Pagan myths, still more for myths in Holy Scripture”, 59).
What makes this aspect of Lewis’s thought so challenging is that he does not use the term myth the way most people do. He does not use it the way that Peter used it, for example, when he warned us not to follow “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16). Nor does he use it the way people often use it today, to distinguish history from legend. He does not even use it quite the way that classicists use it to describe the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome. So how does he use it?
His Use of “Myth”
For Lewis, myths are stories that awaken the human imagination, embody universal realities, and define the values of a culture. To use Lewis’s own terminology, myths are “numinous” and “awe-inspiring.” They make us feel “as if something of great moment had been communicated to us” (An Experiment in Criticism [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961], 44). In other words, they bridge the gap between the world of time and space and the eternal realms that lie beyond — much the way that the wardrobe in Professor Kirk’s house opened a portal between our own world and the kingdom of Narnia. In bridging this gap, myths allow us “to actually experience Reality and grasp eternal truths” (Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture, 64).
Nothing in this definition rules out the possibility that mythology may also serve as history. When Lewis uses the word myth, he does not mean a story that is not historically true. Rather, he means a story that is rooted in ultimate reality — a story that explains the nature of things and may in fact be true. Some myths are, and some myths are not, grounded in history. So Lewis defined a myth as “an account of what may have been the historical fact,” which he carefully distinguished from “a symbolical representation of non-historical truth” (The Problem of Pain, 64).
When he came to Scripture, Lewis found the main narrative functioning as both mythical story and factual history. According to Vanhoozer, “He therefore distinguished himself from fundamentalists, who lost the ‘myth’ (imagination), and from modern biblical critics, who eliminate the ‘became fact’ (history)” (Vanhoozer, “On scripture,” 76). In fact, as Vanhoozer also points out, Lewis’s major criticism of both fundamentalists and modernists was nearly the same: neither group displayed good literary sense (Ibid., 77).
In using the term myth, Lewis recognized that he was susceptible to misunderstanding. “I must either use the word myth or coin a word,” he wrote, “and I think the former the lesser evil of the two” (Experiment in Criticism, 43). He was well aware, for example, that Rudolf Bultmann had been using the term myth to attack almost everything in Christianity, up to and including the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lewis could not have disagreed more. Whereas “for Bultmann, ‘myth’ was a form of pre-critical thinking which was no longer viable in the modern world; for Lewis it was an essential form of communication, belonging ineradicably to divinely created human nature as such” (Alasdair I.C. Heron, “What Is Wrong with Biblical Exegesis?: Reflections upon C.S. Lewis’ Criticisms,” in Different Gospels, ed. Andrew Walker [Kent, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988], 126).
To understand why myth was so important to C.S. Lewis, it helps to know the role that it played in his coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Lewis had loved mythology from early childhood, and gradually he came to realize that the stories that awakened his imagination were pointing him to the truth of the gospel.
In his earlier years, Lewis had described myths as “lies breathed through silver” (Ibid., 122). But a different view began to crystallize for him one day when he was in the Senior Common Room of Magdalene College at the University of Oxford. His colleague T.D. Weldon — the “hardest boiled” of all the atheists that Lewis ever knew — looked up from his reading and said casually, “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once” (Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life [New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1955], 211).
Weldon was referring to the historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. His comment startled Lewis and sent him back to the Gospels, where he found the true story of a dying and rising deity. Later, Lewis looked back on his conversion and explained how mythology prepared him for the gospel:
If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted. . . . Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Ibid., 88)
We hear echoes of this experience in Lewis’s famous essay “Myth Become Fact,” in which he explains how in world literature “we pass from a Balder or Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified . . . under Pontius Pilate. . . . The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. . . . The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. . . . To be truly Christian, we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace we accord to all myths” (God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970], 66–67, emphasis original).
The path that Lewis followed in his own spiritual pilgrimage — the path from myth as myth to “myth become fact” — mirrors the progression that he saw at work in Holy Scripture. “The Old Testament contains myth,” Lewis wrote, “but it is revelation that comes still more into focus as it goes on. Jonah and the Whale, Noah and his Ark, are fabulous; but the Court history of King David is probably as reliable as the Court History of Louis XIV. Then, in the New Testament, the thing really happens. The dying God really appears — as a historical Person, living in a definite place and time” (Surprised by Joy, 222).
Although Lewis was not dogmatic about this theory of progressive revelation, it was the view that he long held. Consider this summary from his book on miracles:
My present view — which is tentative and liable to any amount of correction — 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 not merely misunderstood history . . . nor diabolical illusion . . . nor priestly lying . . . but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. (Miracles: A Preliminary Study [New York: Macmillan, 1947], 161n1, emphasis original).
The process that Lewis describes was something that God intended; it was all under his sovereign control. Lewis wrote,
The Hebrews, like other people, 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 truth, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical. Whether we can 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. (Ibid)
Note: Lewis also wrote, “If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels . . . was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets of Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature” (Letters, vol. 3, 608).
So far, we have considered two main qualifications to Lewis’s views on the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture. The first is that he was not a theologian, and he knew it, so he was careful not to present a definitive doctrine of Scripture. The second is that in regarding certain parts of the Bible as mythical or fictional, he was not necessarily denying their historicity. For Lewis, myth had become fact.
Rarely Affecting His Theology As a Whole
A third qualification to make, very briefly, is that whatever deficiencies we find in Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture rarely seem to affect his theology as a whole. Typically, theologians who have anything less than the highest view of Scripture downgrade other doctrines as well. They back away from the hard sayings of Jesus, for example, or become skeptical about biblical miracles, or dismiss the deity of Christ.
Yet C.S. Lewis continued to give a robust defense of biblical Christianity. Possibly this is because, like most principled Anglicans, he was thoroughly committed to the creeds of Christendom that ran from the early church right up through the Reformation, including the Thirty-Nine Articles. Or perhaps Lewis stayed within the boundaries of orthodoxy because, whatever doubts he may have held about the Old Testament, he was completely convinced that the Gospels give us the true words of Jesus Christ (Garry Friesen makes both of these points in his essay “Scripture in the Writings of C.S. Lewis”).
There is another possible explanation, however: despite his demurrals on inerrancy, Lewis generally had a high view of Scripture, not a low one. This brings us, finally, to some of the strengths in his understanding and use of the Bible.
Given the cloud of suspicion that surrounds Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture, we should be careful not to miss the constructive dimensions of his approach to the Bible. In considering these strengths, we need not minimize the real problems in his views on inspiration and inerrancy, but we should also learn what we can from the way Lewis read the Bible and defended it against the attacks of unbelievers.
His Doctrine Surrendered to Scripture
To begin, C.S. Lewis believed that Christian doctrine should always be surrendered to Scripture. As we have seen, he had a healthy respect for theological tradition, as codified in the creeds of the church. But his theological norm was the Bible, which he typically referred to as “Holy Scripture.” If we believe that God has spoken, Lewis wrote in a letter to the editor of Theology, naturally we will “listen to what He has to say” (Christian Reflections, 27). In his personal letters, Lewis urged his friends and other correspondents to follow this principle and submit to biblical authority. Here are a few examples:
What we are committed to believing is whatever can be proved from Scripture. (C.S. Lewis and the Church, 98)
Yes, Pascal does directly contradict several passages in Scripture and must be wrong. (Letters vol. 3, 195)
I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts. (Letters, vol. 3, 354)
In giving these exhortations, Lewis took both sides of a doctrinal equation: we believe what the Bible affirms and we do not believe what the Bible denies. Furthermore, he insisted on accepting the unity and consistency of the Bible (a view that is in tension with his concern elsewhere that there might be contradictions in the Bible).
If we believe that God has spoken, naturally we will listen to what He has to say. –C.S LewisTweet
We see Lewis applying the principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture to two of the doctrines he found it hardest to understand. One was the sovereignty of God over human suffering. In a letter offering spiritual counsel he wrote,
The two things one must NOT do are (a) To believe, on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence, that God is in any way evil. (In Him is no darkness at all.) (b) To wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is. Behind that apparently shocking passage, be sure, there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one will see that [He] is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then, it must be just left on one side (Ibid., 356–57, emphases original).
Another example of Lewis’s submission to Holy Scripture is his somewhat reluctant yet strong affirmation of the doctrine of hell, simply on the grounds of biblical authority. In The Problem of Pain he wrote, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words” (Pain, 106).
Lewis was far more concerned with what Scripture said than with what the scholars said. When one of his readers — who was tempted to come under the influence of modernist theology — wrote to express her doubts about the virgin birth, Lewis sent her back to Holy Scripture: “Your starting point about this doctrine will not, I think, be to collect the opinion of individual clergymen, but to read Matthew Chapter I and Luke I and II” (Letters, vol. 3, 127, emphasis original).
One can only wish that Lewis had followed this principle a little more closely in developing his theology of Holy Scripture. He never seems to have given serious consideration to the biblical texts in which the Bible speaks to its own inspiration and authority. Perhaps this explains why he never developed a fully biblical doctrine of Scripture: Lewis did not pay close enough attention to what the Bible says about its own nature — the self-understanding of Scripture. At the risk of speculating again, one cannot help but think that he would have had more fully evangelical views on Scripture if he had spent more time reflecting on biblical texts such as 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21. Yet the fact remains that C.S. Lewis wanted his doctrine to be derived from Scripture.
His Sensitivity to Literary Genre
Another strength of his approach to Scripture was his sensitive reading of each biblical text according to its literary form. Lewis read the Bible as literature decades before it became fashionable to do so. Not that he read the Bible merely as literature, of course. In fact, Lewis was highly critical of any attempt to claim that the Bible had any unique literary majesty apart from its sacred authorship and saving message. “Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged,” he wrote, “its literary claims will, I think, be given only ‘mouth honour’ and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book” (The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963], 32).
In reading the Bible as literature, Lewis was in his element. His primary calling was as an English professor, and in this he was virtually without peer. While at Oxford, he wrote a famous volume on the sixteenth century for the Oxford History of English Literature, and in 1954 he was awarded the chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University.
Lewis thus came to Holy Scripture as a reader, not a theologian — someone for whom the Bible was always more than literature, but could never be less (Vanhoozer, “On scripture,” 76). This is one of the things that he appreciated most about the Bible, both as a Christian and as a literary critic: in the Bible a variety of literary forms — chronicles, poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what have you — have been “taken into the service of God’s word” (Psalms, 111).
Naturally, Lewis insisted on reading every part of the Bible according to its genre. Because the Bible is literature, it “cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are” (Ibid., 3). There are even different kinds of narrative — and it would be illogical to read them all in the same way (Letters, vol. 3, 319). One has to take the Bible for what it is, Lewis insisted, and it “demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms” (Lewis, Literary Impact, 97).
Not everyone will agree with all of Lewis’s literary judgments. Jonah is a notable example. Lewis did not doubt the book’s historicity because he denied that there was a fish big enough to swallow a man, or because he had scientific reasons for thinking that no prophet could survive for three days in the belly of a whale. He reached this conclusion because, he said, “the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation” (Letters, vol. 3, 319, emphasis original).
Although Jonah’s prophecy referred to real places, it was not tied in to historical chronology like Kings or Chronicles. Lewis did not therefore believe that Jonah was historically false; rather, he believed that it never presented itself as history at all. Strictly speaking, he never denied the inerrancy of Jonah but took an alternative view of its literary genre.
Most evangelicals believe that Lewis was mistaken. However, the way to convince him of this mistake would not have been by defending some a priori doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Instead, one would have to persuade him that the Bible did in fact present Jonah as history — an argument one might make from literary qualities of the book itself and from references to the prophet in the Old and New Testaments.
When it came to many other books of the Bible — particularly in the New Testament — Lewis insisted that they be read as history. Here we see the strength of his attention to genre. In one essay, he criticized Bible scholars who regarded the Gospel of John as a poetic, spiritual “romance,” rather than as historical narrative.
Lewis frankly doubted that such scholars knew very much about literature at all. “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life,” he wrote. “I know what they are like.” So if someone “tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance,” he wrote, “I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel” (“Modern Theology,” 154–55).
For his own part, Lewis had little doubt that the Gospel of John was reliable history. “Either this is reportage,” he wrote “though it may no doubt contain errors — pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else [and here Lewis is writing entirely tongue-in-cheek], some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic, narrative” (Ibid., 155).
C.S. Lewis generally found critical Bible scholars “to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading” (Ibid., 154). He admitted that this was “a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives.” “But that might be just the trouble,” he wrote: “A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people’s studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is . . . very likely to miss the obvious things about them” (Ibid.).
To use the analogy that Lewis gave, these scholars “claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.” They “ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves” (Ibid., 157).
His Commitment to the Biblical Miracles
In defending John and the other Gospels against their critics, C.S. Lewis was steadfastly committed to the historicity and validity of biblical miracles — another strength of his reading of Scripture. He not only believed in miracles but also defended them against their critics. In fact, Lewis saw this as the bright line that divided authentic Christianity from all its pretenders. He wrote, “To me the real distinction is . . . between religion with a real supernaturalism and salvationism on the one hand, and all watered-down and modernist versions on the other” (Letters, vol. 2, 285).
What marked the dividing line for Lewis were the biblical miracles: “They are recorded as events on this earth which affected human senses. They are the sort of thing we can describe literally. If Christ turned water into wine, and we had been present, we could have seen, smelled, and tasted. . . . It is either fact, or legend, or lie. You must take it or leave it” (“Horrid Red Things,” in God in the Dock, 71). Readers who are familiar with the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” tri-lemma that Lewis posed in Mere Christianity have encountered this type of apologetic reasoning before. When it came to miracles, including the miracle of the incarnation, it was all or nothing for Lewis.
What was not an option, as far as Lewis was concerned, was to rule out the very possibility of miracles the way that modern, supposedly scientific scholars tended to do. Here is what he wrote in Fern-seed and Elephants about biblical scholarship that denied the miraculous:
Scholars, as scholars, speak on [this question] with no more authority than anyone else. The canon “If miraculous, unhistorical” is one they bring to their study of texts, not one they have learned from it. If one is speaking of authority, the united authority of all the Biblical critics in the world counts here for nothing. On this they speak simply as men; men obviously influenced by, and perhaps insufficiently critical of, the spirit of the age they grew up in. (“Modern Theology,” 158.)
His Anti-Liberal Views on Scripture
It was because he believed in miracles — including, supremely, the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ — that Lewis was so critical of liberal scholarship on the Bible. Here we can make explicit a point that more or less has been made already: C.S. Lewis was anti-liberal in his views on Holy Scripture. While we may be critical of him for failing in various ways to espouse a fully biblical doctrine of Scripture, it is only fair to say that he spent far more time defending the Bible than he did criticizing it, which he hardly did at all.
C.S. Lewis was so anti-liberal that many of his contemporaries labeled him as a fundamentalist. Here is how he explained their attitude toward his theology:
I have been suspected of being what is called a Fundamentalist. That is because I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous. Some people find the miraculous so hard to believe that they cannot imagine any reason for my acceptance of it other than a prior belief that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical or scientific truth. But this I do not hold. (Psalms, 109)
Needless to say, Lewis’s defense of miracles led many liberal scholars to treat him with suspicion. For his own part, Lewis regarded liberal scholars as wolves among the sheep, especially “the divines engaged in New Testament criticism,” whom he held chiefly responsible for undermining theological orthodoxy (“Modern Theology,” 153).
Lewis exacted his revenge in the fiction he wrote. The Screwtape Letters; That Hideous Strength; and The Great Divorce all feature liberal clergy who are held up to mockery. Lewis treated them this way because he believed that liberal Christianity was not real Christianity at all. Instead, it was “a theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia — which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes” (Ibid.).
Lewis proceeded to explain what happens when this kind of Christianity, so-called, is offered to an ordinary person who has recently come to faith in Christ. Either the convert will leave a liberal church and find one where biblical Christianity is actually taught, or else eventually he will leave Christianity altogether. “If he agrees with your version [of the Christian faith],” Lewis said to his liberal opponents, “he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church” (Ibid.).
Lewis made a similar point in Letters to Malcolm by asking a rhetorical question: “By the way, did you ever meet, or hear of, anyone who was converted from skepticism to a ‘liberal’ or ‘de-mythologized’ Christianity?” Lewis never had, which led him to claim “that when unbelievers come in at all, they come in a good deal further” (Letters to Malcolm, 152–153). What he meant by “a good deal further” was authentic faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Lewis believed that liberal Christianity was not real Christianity at all. Instead, it was “a theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia.”Tweet
The place where Lewis learned the difference between authentic and inauthentic faith was in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which he believed to be the very word of God. Vanhoozer aptly concludes that Lewis “occupies that sparse territory between fundamentalists and modern critics that is contiguous to but does not coincide with Evangelicalism” (“On scripture,” 82).
Perhaps we could go further and say that Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture is not merely adjacent to but often overlaps with evangelical theology. One area where evangelicals surely agree with Lewis in his views is that we should read Holy Scripture on its own terms, fully submitting to its authority, and completely surrendering to God’s will for our lives — lest, like Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb, we miss the signs and lose our way.
More Messages from Desiring God 2013 National Conference
Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation (Douglas Wilson)
In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination and Discipleship (Kevin Vanhoozer)