The Mixed Blessing of C. S. Lewis (Part 1)

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. In 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. Chesterton4 and closely aligned so closely 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 of 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.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.

Notes

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.

5Ibid., 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.

Gary Gilley Bio


Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.

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