We are coming off our national conference dedicated to the life and legacy of C.S. Lewis, who died fifty years ago this fall. When you think of celebrating a guy like Lewis, you must also be conscious of Lewis’s failures and weaknesses, which were addressed at the conference — there’s celebration and critique. Pastor John, did you process this, especially the critique, throughout the conference?
One of the big, recurrent questions at the conference — sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes on the panel — was, Why can we benefit? Why do I benefit from Lewis so much when he is so defective in some important doctrines? And he never saw himself as an advocate for any tribe like my little Reformed tribe. He wouldn’t have thought of himself that way.
Six Ways C. S. Lewis Helps Believers Today
We had to try to answer the question, What is it about Lewis that is different from people who share some of his defective views whom we wouldn’t have at a conference, and yet here we are devoting a whole conference to Lewis? So it may seem like a contradiction to some folks. And here are some of the thoughts that I have had that came out of some of those conversations about what it is about Lewis.
1. Lewis is not a living dinosaur.
To be honest, number one is probably that he is dead. I don’t want to pass over that and ignore it. I am sure that has an effect. I am not sure what we would do with Lewis as a living dinosaur, which he called himself.
But I think the fact that he is dead is the least significant in answering this question, though I don’t want to minimize it. His deposit is made. He is not changing anything. He is there in his books. We can kind of deal with him at a distance. We don’t have to deal with a real person. So he is dead, and yet I don’t think that is the main thing.
2. Lewis always moved toward orthodoxy.
He was a convert from atheism to orthodoxy and was moving all his life into an increasingly robust Christianity. He was never moving away from it. Most of the people today who share some of his errors — views of Scripture, or whether people can be saved without knowing the gospel or Christ — have been fundamentalists or evangelicals, and they are moving away. You can tell. Something has happened in their life to disillusion them with a person or with a relationship or with a church, and they are moving away. That is not a very safe or reliable guide.
Lewis had a different instinct. His trajectory and his instincts were toward orthodoxy and toward Scripture, and he embraced what the church had always taught. He wasn’t becoming a disillusioned fundamentalist like so many of the wayward teachers today.
3. Lewis believed in the Reformed doctrine of salvation.
He was orthodox on the core commitments of the deity of Christ and the Trinity and the death of Christ as a substitute for sinners and the way of salvation by faith alone. Lewis did not crusade for reformed soteriology, but Doug Wilson made a pretty strong case that he believed it. I took away from Doug’s talk that the best prima facie evidence is that he was a settled churchman in the Anglican communion. And the Thirty-Nine Articles, against which he never said a word, are reformed in their soteriology, and he was at home there. He was an honest, orthodox Anglican.
And when he wrote about the faith of the Puritans in his Oxford History of English Literature, it was with glowing admiration that they were rejected by the Roman Church because they were simply too happy. And what made them so happy was, like Luther said, they had walked through the gates into paradise when they discovered justification by faith alone.
So Lewis is very solid on the center of soteriology, I think, even though he didn’t want to jump into anybody’s camp.
4. Lewis was serious about rational thought.
Another reason I think I am helped by Lewis so and not threatened by him is that he was totally devoted to being rational. He believed in reason — in the law of non-contradiction, and in the importance of propositional truth and crystal clarity and being utterly honest and forthright. Most of the people I get frustrated with today, who are moving away from orthodoxy, are slippery. They debunk propositional truth. They almost mock it. They roll their eyes at it in a way that Lewis never, never did. They cannot hold a candle to Lewis’s joy or his rationality.
And so, he was just utterly exemplary in this and, therefore, I feel safe around Lewis. He is never spinning anything. He is never playing with words. He loves clarity, because he was pure and honest in the way he communicated.
5. Lewis committed himself to saving souls.
He really believed in heaven and hell and thought people were going there and that the most sophisticated don at Oxford should try to rescue the perishing.
I mean, I’ll tell you, when I read his statements about bending every effort to save souls, he distances himself from a lot of disillusioned Christians today who are misleading people because they have lost their confidence in the power of the gospel to save souls. They don’t even like to use that language anymore. And C.S. Lewis said it is the main business of life.
6. Lewis practiced serious joy.
And maybe the last thing would be that Lewis was seriously joyful, not glibly clever. I just get tired today of so many people trying to be clever. So many are disinterested in doctrine, moving away from truth, and doing so with a kind of cavalier cleverness and shrewdness, and Lewis had none of that. He was totally earnest and jovial all at the same time.
So those are a few of the things that make me feel like he is a remarkably helpful person in spite of his doctrinal wavering in certain areas. He doesn’t seem to me to be subtly dangerous like some people are. What you see is what you get, and in all these ways, he is really helpful.