In David Lyle Jeffrey’s book, Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture, there is a chapter entitled Reading the Bible with C. S. Lewis. In this chapter Jeffrey explores Lewis’ own understanding of the text of Scripture as well as how he interacted with it. In Jeffrey’s own words he finds Lewis to be “in no way amenable to the notion of a verbally inspired and textually inerrant Scripture.” Even so, he notes, Lewis maintains an incredibly high view of Scripture which is something that has led many people to ask, how could this be the case? How can one simultaneously deny the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture and also see it as something to be held as absolutely authoritative?
It is the purpose of this paper to dig into Lewis’ own relationship with the Bible and to examine his expressed thoughts on the nature of what the Bible is and what authority it holds for us as believers as well as questions of what role the Holy Spirit plays in bringing the church (as individuals and corporately) to acknowledge its truth and even about what kind of translation is best. In so doing we will see of what help Lewis can be to the contemporary believer in reading and understanding the word of God while, perhaps, also seeing some places where we should distance ourselves from Lewis when it comes to the doctrines of Scripture. Above all we will see that Lewis’ views were his own and were neither theologically conservative or liberal enough to make anyone, on either side, entirely happy. But, then, Lewis rarely, if ever, expressed his views simply for the purpose of making others happy.
Lewis’ Relationship with the Bible
If anything undeniably true could be said about Lewis it might be that the man was a reader. From the moment Lewis was able to read he was busy doing just that. When one reads the letters and personal exchanges of Lewis, even from boyhood, it is evident that he read books both deep and wide and that they were always an important part of his life. The Bible, for Lewis, was certainly among the books that he read. Even as an unbeliever, before his conversion at about thirty years of age, Lewis quoted from the Bible so freely and knowledgably that it would put many contemporary believers to shame for their own lack of familiarity with Scripture.
Lewis’ earliest experience of Scripture was not, by any means, a skeptical experience. In fact, as a young boy, Lewis tacitly accepted the Bible as being from God as do most children who grow up in a home with believing parents. It would not be until his early teenage years that Lewis would consciously self identify as an unbeliever. By that time, however, Lewis was already quite familiar with the story of the Bible and that seed, “the implanted word” as James calls it, would eventually bloom into faith some years down the road. It is important to see that Lewis’ journey with the Bible started off in an assumed acceptance on the authority of his parents, then entered a stage of skepticism and eventually came around to fullness of faith when reason led him back to the Bible.
For a time Lewis became convinced that the Scriptures were nothing more than a myth with nothing of real significance to them. At least no more significance than that which we should give to Greek or Norse mythology, which is to say a fascinating read that tells us about archaic cultures and their beliefs but which tells us nothing about objective reality. Lewis on more than one occasion as a teenager told his good friend Arthur Greeves what he really thought about Jesus. “You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention – Christ as much as Loki.” This is not to say that Lewis did not believe that there was any historical figure named Jesus, and he scolds Greeves for not taking careful note of his words when later he wrote “I distinctly said that there was once a Hebrew called Yeshua”. At that time, however, the most Lewis could bear to credit the Gospels with, as far as history is concerned, was that meager point that there was once really a Jewish man named Jesus.
It would not be until more than a decade later that Lewis’ committed atheism began to come undone and the first major strike against it came from the most unlikely of sources. Lewis’ primary source for his position against the historicity of the Gospels was the two volume work of James Frazier called The Golden Bough. Lewis held it as definitive and seemed to feel no need to study the matter further until, as he recounted, one day “the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’” And so came the first serious blow to Lewis’ confidence that the Scriptures could not be trusted to tell historical truth.
It would come about that over the next several years that Lewis would have numerous conversations with men of great intellect who very much believed the Gospel narratives to record reliable history. The end result was a mountain of evidence in favor of the Christian Scriptures that Lewis became unable to ignore. As Lewis would put it himself ““I gave up Christianity at about fourteen. Came back to it when getting on for thirty. An almost purely philosophical conversion. I didn’t want to. I’m not the religious type. I want to be left alone, to feel I’m my own master: but since the facts seemed to be the opposite I had to give in.” From the time he gave in Lewis would regard the Bible as God’s word and authoritative but he did not see all of the Scripture in the exact same light.
Lewis on the Matter of Inerrancy and Inspiration
The doctrine of inerrancy is succinctly defined by Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, in this way: “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” This was a doctrine that Lewis did not feel he could affirm, nor did he feel that it was particularly important to affirm. In 1959 Lewis wrote a letter to Clyde Kilby, a professor at Wheaton College, and offered some thoughts on why he sees the issue of “inerrancy” as less important than many of his fellow Christians believed it to be.
To me the curious thing is that neither in my own Bible-reading nor in my religious life as whole does the question in fact ever assume that importance which it always gets in theological controversy. The difference between reading the story of Ruth and that of Antigone – both first class as literature – is to me unmistakable and even overwhelming. But the question “Is Ruth historical?” (I’ve no reason to suppose it is not) doesn’t really seem to arise till afterwards. It can still act on me as the Word of God if it weren’t, so far as I can see. All Holy Scripture is written for our learning. But learning of what? I should have thought the value of some things (e.g. the Resurrection) depend on whether they really happened, but the value of others (e.g. the fate of Lot’s wife) hardly at all. And the ones whose historicity matter are […] those where it is plain.
For Lewis, with the exception of events that needed to be historical to have meaning, such as the resurrection, the importance and power of the Bible is not tied up in such questions as “did it really happen in history?” or “is all of the information in this story factually correct?” but, rather, the importance was in the question “What did the author means to say?”. Jeffrey captures this point when he writes “However unfashionably for most postmodernists, Lewis was deeply concerned to recover the author’s intention: ‘it is not enough to make sense’ when we interpret, he [Lewis] writes in his introduction to Studies in Words; ‘we want to find the sense the author intended.’” It is the author’s own intention, what he meant to communicate, that is the important thing to discover. It is not that Lewis felt that the Bible did not contain much historical truth (in reality he believed it held a lot of historical truth) but that unless the historicity was essential like it is with the crucifixion and resurrection, then the historicity of the text was completely beside the point. The message, the meaning of the author, was primary whereas the question of historicity was, generally speaking, secondary for Lewis.
But it is important to make note at this point that there are many today who are inclined to agree that historicity is not the main thing who would, however, still be inclined to hold to the doctrine of inerrancy. The issue of authorial intent versus the need for all that is in the Bible to necessarily be historical is being hotly debated presently within evangelical biblical scholarship. What sets Lewis apart even more than his lack of concern for the historicity of certain stories (e.g. Ruth and Job) is that he accepted the notion that there might actually be things contained in the Scripture that are factually errant, contradictory or even plain wrong morally speaking.
Referring once again to the same letter to Kilby, Lewis writes:
Whatever view we hold on the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts: 1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 7, verses 10 and 12. [“not I but the Lord…” “I and not the Lord.”] 2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3; between the accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18-19. 3. St. Lukes own account of how he obtained his matter (1:1-4). 4. 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. 5. 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. 6. John 11:49-52. Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it. […] It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule out the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and the same degree; therefore, I think, [it] rules out the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other.
It is here, at this point, which we see Lewis is willing to depart from an orthodox understanding of inerrancy and inspiration by suggesting that (1.) the Scripture contains non-historical accounts which, from his perspective, seems to challenge the idea of inerrancy. (2.) He notes that the Scripture also has contradicting reports on certain events. (3) Finally he also suggests that anything which is true, since God is the author of all truth, is in some sense inspired by God.
To his first point, we should respond to Lewis, there is no reason for this to be a cause of denying inerrancy. Even the most conservative of inerrantists will grant his point that certain portions of the Scripture are non-historical (e.g. the parables) even while they may contend Ruth and Job are historical. This being the case it seems something of either an ignorance or red herring on Lewis part to suggest that those who believe in inerrancy must believe that all of the Bible must be considered historical in that kind of wooden sense. So Lewis’ first reason alone would not necessarily disqualify him from inerrancy since, properly understood, inerrantists can absolutely agree that there are non-historical stories in the Bible. This hyper-literal reading would demand that Nathan’s story to David about a man who stole his neighbors sheep actually happened but most inerrantists would see this as a mere illustration.
As to his second point, however, while many harmonies of the accounts concerning Jesus’ genealogies and the death of Judas have been offered, Lewis seems to prefer to see these stories as in factual opposition to one another and this does put him outside the orthodox view of inerrancy. This is unfortunate given the good work that has been done to reconcile these apparent conflicts but, again, we may give Lewis the benefit of the doubt that he was ignorant of such harmonization. It is, however, possible that he knew them and did not find them compelling. Regardless, under his own view of Scripture, it is not important that they may disagree. For Lewis what is important are questions such as “what spiritual truths do these accounts teach us?” and “what does the author mean to say by this?”. It is answers to those kind of questions which he finds are the most meaningful to pursue.
Finally, Lewis’ notion that all truth is “inspired” shows that he means to use that word in a very different way than the inerrantist means to use it and, indeed, the way the church has historically used it. When the apostle Paul wrote “All Scripture is inspired by God” he certainly meant something unique and he did not equate this inspiration with other means of speaking or apprehending truth. Mathematical truth, for instance, would not be inspired in the way Paul meant to speak of the Scripture. Inspiration, by the Bible’s own definition, is an intentional work of God whereby “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Many truths may be ascertained by many different ways but only the Scripture is inspired by the direct influence of the Spirit in this way. There is a difference that needs to be recognized between the Spirit convicting people of truth or leading them to a truth, versus the Spirit inspiring people to write or speak truth equivalent to God’s own words. Lewis conflates the idea of inspiration with coming to know and express truth in other ways. These points are enough to demonstrate that Lewis is not an inerrantist and also that his view of inspiration is deficient according to orthodoxy.
Even so it is interesting to see the way Lewis works out his view of inspiration. His thoughts about the creation account in Genesis seem to afford us a clear example of one way in which Lewis believes the text of Scripture was inspired. In his book Reflections on the Psalms Lewis writes “I have … no difficulty accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.” The reason he can say this is because he believes that, at least in certain cases, God drives the revision of Pagan stories and changes them into something that reflects the actual truth of the matter. Lewis continues, “When a series of such re-tellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.” In his view the inspiration of Scripture is organic and may form slowly over time. God can take something that was not His word and refine it over time until it becomes His word.
Lewis sees the Scriptures as a very human work. While orthodox views of inspiration and inerrancy contend that the Bible is ultimately a product of the divine will, there has always been a recognition of the very human element in its composition. While God “carried along” the writers it has always been understood that their own personalities and stylistic impressions were left on the pages which they wrote upon. But here Lewis means more than that, he means to say that Scripture, at least some of it, was primarily a human work and yet it was exalted, almost by adoption, to become God’s word. Herein he write about the Old Testament specifically saying, “I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature – chronicles (some of it obviously pretty accurate), poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God’s word.” That statement “taken into the service of God’s word” is key in understanding Lewis’ view.
It’s not that Lewis believes God was absent in the construction of Scripture by any means. As he says, “On all of these I suppose a Divine pressure; of which not by any means all need have been conscious.” but still “Divine pressure” seems to come across as a less precise kind of work than the orthodox statement of inspiration. Indeed this differing view is largely why Lewis is not, nor could be, an inerrantist. Inerrancy flows from the doctrine of inspiration. The reason the Scripture cannot err is because God cannot err and the Scripture is his very own word. But if inspiration means something other than men wrote exactly what God willed them to write, and it is only a product of Divine pressure or some other more passive influence than traditional inspiration, the finished product cannot help but contain some error. This is exactly how Lewis sees the Scripture. “The human qualities of the raw material show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed.”
Though the Scriptures, from Lewis’ point of view, contain contradictions and inaccuracies and even expressions wickedness they nevertheless have been taken up to be God’s word. Actually Lewis goes so far as to argue that it is these very things, which more conservative Christians would identify as problems, which he argues become the strength of the Scripture. Lewis writes that “the value of the Old Testament may be dependent on what seems its imperfection. It may repel one use in order that we may be forced to use it in another way – to find the Word in it”. The parts of Psalms which Lewis finds objectionable, that is the parts where the author is calling down curses upon his enemy, he reasons to be teaching him not to follow suit but to be able to see the contrast between light and dark. He writes, “I have gained something I might not have gained from a flawless, ethical exposition. The shadows have indicated (at least to my heart) something more about the light.” In this way, he reasons, that the Scripture contains error, at least of the moral sort, helps it to highlight the perfect morality of God in contrast.
This adoptionist view of inspiration Lewis likens to the incarnation wherein he argues that the divinity of Christ was not so much drug down to the level of humanity but, rather, the human nature, united with the divine, was taken up to be something more than it naturally was. So too, the Scriptures are not left to be human works only, but taken up as God’s own word. Because of the example of the incarnation Lewis argues “If the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God’s word into a literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God’s word, this is not anomalous.” God is in the business, in other words, of taking something lowly and making it more than it was, taking a lower nature and giving it a higher one.
But, interestingly, not all of what is contained in the Scripture is susceptible to this possibility of error according to Lewis. At least not as it relates to the person and recorded teaching of the Lord Jesus himself. In regards to Christ’s teach Lewis says that “…there is no imperfection…” at all. Yet this demonstrates very well the difference between Lewisian inspiration and orthodox inspiration. What he credits to the recorded teaching of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God the orthodox inspirationists credit to the whole Bible. Orthodox inspiration yields no more or less weight and authority to the “red letters”, as it were, than it does any other part of Scripture because it supposes it all to equally be the words of Christ.
One point of commonality between Lewis and more Orthodox theologians is that both argue that another reason for believing the Old Testament to be God’s word is because “We are committed to it in principle by Our Lord Himself.” That is to say Jesus referred to the Old Testament as the very word of God and, as God in flesh, he should know. Interestingly, then, although the view of inspiration differs between Lewis’ position and the orthodox position, both Lewis and the orthodox theologian find themselves committed to the same idea that the Old Testament is authoritative as God’s word.
Lewis sums up his thoughts about the totality of the Scriptures when he writes:
The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science and history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
So then we can wrap up Lewis’ view of inerrancy and inspiration by neatly concluding that he does not believe in inerrancy under any definition and his view of inspiration is of a different sort than the orthodox sense of the term. The Scripture is a vehicle of God’s Word, the Word of God is contained therein and is to be honored and submitted to but not every jot and tittle, apparently, is factually correct according to Lewis. But those errors and moral imperfections might just be as much the means by which God intends to communicate truth to us as much as anything else.
Lewis Responds to Higher Criticism
Lewis’ position on the inspiration of Scripture may have been sub-par according to orthodoxy but we should not herein conclude, based upon the that Lewis denied biblical inerrancy and had a deficient view of inspiration, that he was not concerned to defend the historicity of those parts of Scripture which he understood were meant to be taken as historical. In fact, as was already mentioned earlier in this paper, it was the evidence in favor of the historicity of the Gospel narratives that convinced Lewis of the truth of the Christian worldview.
In his essay, Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, Lewis challenges the so-called higher criticism of the Bible that was going gangbusters in his day and has certainly continued on into our own. He posits that there are essentially three characters in play when it comes to biblical criticism of which the first is the learned theologian and critic, the second is the uneducated Christian believer and the third is the educated Christian believer but who is not educated in theology proper. Lewis uses the the second figure, the uneducated Christian, to highlight the chasm between the critical theologian and the simple, everyday, Bible believing Christian. About the uneducated Christian believer, and to the critical scholar, he says:
[I]t would hardly do to tell them what you really believe. 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 – if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an Atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church.
The picture is clearly painted that their is a real dissonance between the simple faith of historic Christianity and what the modern critical theologian now supposes.
In light of this dissonance Lewis uses himself as an example of the third category, an education Christian but not educated in theology proper. One of the valuable things about men such as Lewis in this third category is the ability to judge and interact on a scholarly level with ideas that they are not themselves buried beneath. In other words Lewis, as a literary critic and philosopher, can apply his training to consider the issue of modern biblical criticism as an outsider but still with some valuable insight. He might just as well admit that the theologian would be able to make some good judgments about Lewis’ own work which he does not see because he stands too close to it. This is indeed the case he makes against critical theologian:
[W]hatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives. But that might be just the trouble. 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 experiences 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, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious things about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends or romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel.
As the saying goes they are “missing the forest through the trees” according to Lewis. One thing he means to bring out here is the need for a wider education, a liberal one, so that narrowness of study does not blind a person to the obvious.
The modern biblical critic lacks the literary substance to tell the difference between history and “romance” (here meaning something more like fantasy or myth in our day). It is because of this lack that they cannot discern the difference between one of the Gospels or something written by Sophocles but the differences are there and they are real. With his humorous and sharp wit Lewis brings to the forefront the kind of details in the Gospels that never occur in fictional works. All of this leading Lewis to proclaim about the Gospel of John, “Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage….Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” In which case we would seem to have a brand new proof of miracles which would only create more angst for the modern critic.
As if this first criticism of biblical criticism were not enough to put the theologian back on his heels the second might just be a more powerful rebuke than the first. Lewis rightly notes that one of the most common things done by biblical critics is to claim that the actual teachings, words, and works of Jesus were quickly obscured by his followers and therefore the historical Jesus is buried under a pile of myth heaped on him by his later adherents. Because of this, it is claimed, the real goal of the theologian is to clear away all the rubble and extract the poor, buried, historical Christ from the heap.
This phenomena is not new nor is it contained only to biblical criticism. In fact, as Lewis point out, he had seen it “long before he became interested in theology” in the way Aristotle was treated in regard to Plato. He writes, “One was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato had been misunderstood by Aristotle and wildly travestied by the neo-Platonist, only to be recovered by the moderns. When recovered, it turned out (most fortunately) that Plato had really all along been an English Hegelian”. This is indeed the same problem that modern biblical critics have. Instead of objectively mining out truths from the past we find they are not in the business of export at all but, rather, they are in the import business. Importing, that is, the contemporary worldview back into the first century Palestine and making a Jesus after their own image.
The arrogance is palpable when modern scholars ignore the insights made by those who came so much closer in time and culture to the original audience of Plato or of the apostles. As Lewis put it:
The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.
When one soaks for a moment in the point that was just made it seems to be a self evident observation. The work of a modern biblical critic, when he goes to the extent of arguing against first and second century understandings of the text, is something like a second year French student correcting a Frenchman on his French colloquialisms. It’s not impossible that the student might be wrong but it is probably wise that he approach that situation with humility and the admitted possibility of ignorance and error.
Thirdly Lewis levies an argument against the work of those in higher biblical criticism on the basis of worldview. If the critic presupposes that miracles never occur then whenever Jesus gives credence to a miracle, or even performs one himself, then it is often assumed that the passage in the Gospel cannot be historical. But why is this assumption made? What evidence in the text, or even outside of the text, warrant the assumption that Jesus would never have given credence to a miracle? Here Lewis’ point is simple, “I only want to point out that this is purely a philosophical question.” Such a question as this calls for mere honesty on the part of the critic. Is there any textual reason or even extra biblical evidence that supports the assumption that Jesus did not teach on or perform miracles, or is this merely a belief they hold which informs the limits of their own ability to consider the possibility that a given text is actually historical?
Lewis’ fourth and final critique against the modern biblical critics, and the work of reconstructionism, comes from his own experience from having been critiqued by contemporary literary critics who have reviewed his own books. An observation that he had made by reading the reviews of his own works as well as reviews of books written by his friends, whose personal histories he was well acquainted with, was that no matter how many intuitive guesses the literary critic made about how an idea came into being in the book, they were almost exclusive wrong!
When the biblical critic tries to break down the text of the New Testament and postulate where certain ideas came from, or they suggest that an idea was imported into the text at a much later date (because their theology wasn’t so developed yet, etc.) it would seem to Lewis that this is just conjecture that is likely to be just as wrong as the conjecture of critics about his own works or the works of his friends. To this point he has written:
Many reviewers said that the Ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was suggested by the atom bomb. What could be more plausible? Here is a book published when everyone is preoccupied by that sinister invention; here in the centre of the book is a weapon which it seems madness to throw away yet fatal to use. Yet in fact, the chronology of the book’s composition makes the theory impossible.
Although the plausibility of the theory is undeniable it is nevertheless completely amiss of the truth of the matter.
The point stands, then, that no matter how plausible a theory one may put forth trying to explain what led to construction of a book, whether ancient or contemporary, there is a very real chance that those plausible theories are nonetheless completely wrong. The difference between Lewis’ case at the time he wrote this and the case of the apostle Paul was that Lewis was still alive to defend himself and his friends. So “The ‘assured results of modern scholarship’, as to the way in which a book was written, are ‘assured’, we may conclude, only because the men who knew the facts are dead and can’t blow off the gaff.” So we ought always be less sure of what we are assured of by critics because the critics of modern works so often miss the ‘why’ and ‘how’ even though they are contemporaries of the writers whom they are critiquing, how much more so might the critics of the ancients then miss the boat?
A great summary of Lewis’ feelings on the entire movement of higher biblical criticism comes when he writes “These men 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 line themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see the elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.” Lewis critique of modern biblical criticism is still relevant today and the objections he raises should be raised once again and all the louder now. This critique of criticism may be one of Lewis finest contributions to his expressed thoughts on the Scripture and it leads right into another discussion, namely, since the Bible seems to be worth taking much closer to face value what is the Christian’s responsibility in relationship to the Bible?
Lewis Standing on the Errant Word of God
One of the most interesting things, perhaps, about Lewis’ view of the Scripture is that although he was by no means an inerrantist that was never used as a reason to disobey Scriptural teaching. The fact that the Scripture, on Lewis’ view, may have contained some factual error or that it may have contradicted here and there about some minor fact was not a problem for him. The point was not inerrancy but, rather, the message of Scripture. What did the author, and ultimately God, want the reader to take away from the text? And whatever the Scriptures meant to communicate was what the Christian was to dutifully yield to and to obey.
Even on issues that were controversial, and upon which many others who shared his view of inerrancy would have gladly backed away from, Lewis was never ashamed to say what the Bible said or to let the full weight of its meaning hit someone in the head. Though the Scripture was not “inerrant”, as far as Lewis was concerned, it was nevertheless the word of God and therefore to be obeyed. His unrelenting willingness to challenge his culture on the basis of what Scripture taught is admirable regardless of how one might feel about his position on inerrancy.
One example of Lewis refusing to shy away from the biblical revelation was on the reality and historicity of miracles despite the serious chagrin of many of his critics and peers. “I have been suspected”, writes Lewis, “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.” In the academic climate that Lewis lived in there was much pressure to deny the actuality of the miraculous. This was a worldview issue which Lewis eventually tackled head on in his book Miracles where he examined the two philosophies of Naturalism, which contends that “nothing exists except nature”, and Supernaturalism, which contends that “there exists something else”. Despite the simpler road before him Lewis chose to defend the existence of miracles with all of his intellectual force.
Another example of Lewis not fearing to say what the Scripture says no matter how unpopular is the matter of hell. Although Lewis has often been fallaciously charged with being a theological universalist the reality is he actually was a defender of the doctrine of hell. For example, in his well known essay Learning in War-Time, Lewis spoke of the real tragedy of Nero was not “that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.” In just this very statement Lewis knows that already, by the sheer mention of the word “hell” that the hounds have been released against him for giving any credence to such an idea. It is in anticipation to the objection that Lewis writes:
You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention Heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.
That we as believers should be ashamed to say what the Lord Jesus himself said without shame was preposterous to Lewis.
Not only did Lewis hold the line on miracles and the reality of hell but he also defended God’s intention for human sexuality. In one of his most famous works, Mere Christianity, he makes the statement that “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.” As such many within the church, just as they have done with hell and the historicity of miracles, have yielded to popular culture and taken off the restraints of necessity of belief and adherence. But in so doing the church really ceases to be the church in any meaningful way. Lewis himself recognizes the authority of the teaching on human sexuality and does not relent. He writes, “the Christian rule is, ‘either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’” This is certainly not a popular party line to draw in our culture today and it had come to be not very popular in his day either.
All of these points, and more could surely be given, demonstrate that Lewis’ view on the Scripture was anything but a dodge of its claim on his life and the lives of others. Is the Bible inerrant? Lewis thought it was not. Is the Bible binding on the conscience of Christians? Lewis thought it was without exception. It is this odd combination of denying inerrancy and yet fully believing and yielding to the Bible that makes it so hard to define Lewis or put him in a box. It is the reason why so many people with diverse forms of Christianity and, in some cases, other worldviews including agnostics and atheists find him so compelling and intriguing. It is a real part of what helps the reader to know that Lewis is his own man and that he never tows a line just because it is what you would expect but, rather, he tows lines because it is the line as he himself sees it.
Lewis on the Operation of The Spirit Upon the Scripture
We may now say a word about how Lewis believed the Holy Spirit to be at work within the lives of believers as readers of the text and also as preservers of the text. According to Jeffrey “What most undergirds Lewis’s convictions concerning the authority of the Bible, aside from his mature literary sense of the text, is his strong belief in the continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in transmitting the intention of the Divine Author to the consciousness of all who well attend to it.” The idea that Lewis puts forth is one and the same as what the apostle Paul wrote “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned…But we have the mind of Christ.” The active operation of the Holy Spirit is key in understanding the text of Scripture as it was meant to be understood. We must have the mind of Christ in order to receive from God that which he intended to say.
But it is not just in the individual reader which the Spirit has been actively working but also in church as whole. “This operation of the Holy Spirit, he believes, was present in the Councils and in the establishment of the biblical canon.” So the Spirit of God not only helps us each as individuals to encounter God’s word as God intended but he has worked in the church as a community to ensure that the right books and letters came into the canon of Scripture and that when the church met to settle crucial doctrinal issues they would reach an understanding of God’s revealed truth.
For the average Christian it may be encouraging that a man of Lewis’ intellect and ability has used his giftings to speak up about the validity of the Holy Spirit’s active work in the life of the believer and the church. There is no contradiction in being an academic and a Christian. Only when someone presupposes naturalism, that is, the impossibility of immaterial and supernatural realities and forces, such as God who is a Spirit, does there seem to be a contradiction in being intelligent and a Christian. Lewis dispels us of that myth with great authority.
Lewis on Bible Translations
One final interesting facet of Lewis’ thinking about holy Scripture is his stance on Bible translations. It would only be natural to assume that as a literary critic that Lewis would look to aesthetic beauty and probably look no further, especially in his day, to the King James Version of the Bible. But as noted earlier in this paper what sometimes seem to be obvious connections turn out to be entirely false.
This may be a perfect example of the sureness of Lewis’ conversion to the faith. His own interests and likes be damned if it is not what is best and true. There may not be any doubt that as a man of letters Lewis would have derived the most aesthetic pleasure from reading the King James Version for its literary form, but “for Lewis, accuracy of translation ought always to trump the less essential aspect of style.” His desire to get from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, the purity of what God had said, as close as possible into our own language, far outweighs the benefits of aesthetics.
Furthermore Lewis’ keenly observes the way beautifying the text may actually detract from the value of the text itself. When the original was perhaps more crudely stated and we, in translation, smooth over that crudeness do we not actually miss the true beauty of what has happened in the Scriptures? Lewis develops this stunning point saying:
The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek has become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a ministrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that he should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language.
What an amazing truth about God’s word that Lewis brings before our eyes. The word of God is beautiful, in part, because it is not as beautiful as it could have been.
We as human beings, and religious ones at that, always expect God who is the definition of goodness and beauty, to come in the most beautiful and grandest of packaging. In reality that is exactly what he does, he simply doesn’t do it in the way we would expect him to. “When we expect that it [the Word of God] should have come before the world in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorized Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.” How God makes foolish the wisdom of this world and makes great beauty out of that which is not naturally beautiful!
Because Lewis felt that the Scripture ought to always maintain as accurate a rendering of the actual sense of the text and not just literary beauty he also saw Bible translation as something that must be revisited as often as common language changes. So then the work of translation, not just into other languages as for the purpose of foreign missions but for our own language, is a perpetual work almost in constant need of revision. This certainly is not a position that the religiously committed King James Only crowd could appreciate but it is a position that all of us who love God’s word as it was originally written should.
Of all the things we can say about Lewis in relation to the Christian Scriptures, there is no doubt that the man reverenced Scripture. Jeffrey says of Lewis that:
His approach to Scripture in his work as a preacher was quite different. There, precisely to repress the inevitably egotistical character of a critic’s powers and the rhetorical mastery of which he of all people was so capable, he labored to read the text patiently, expositionally, referentially, reading ‘with’ rather than ‘teaching down’ to his congregation. To emphasize this intention he refused the pulpit, instead sitting in front of his hearers with the text of Scripture open upon his knees, as a reader among readers, or we might say, simply as a reader with an audience.
Not that any of his humility towards the Scripture somehow validates any of his own errant views but what it does seem to do is place Lewis in a light in which we can see a man who loved God and revered his word even though he was far from perfect.
Lewis’ has many insights into the Scriptures which are precious gems. That a man of his academic background should emerge as something other than a Liberal higher biblical critic himself is amazing. That he embraced the Scripture as God’s word and sought to let it change him and that he became a sharer of its truth is nothing short of a miracle in itself. He wrestled with the Word like Jacob with the Angel of the Lord, he clung to it and asked for its blessings. It broke him and humbled him and he became its servant. Through his non-fiction books, his powerful essays and even in his fictional worlds of Narnia and extra-terrestrial planets, Lewis brings to life biblical principles for his reader to experience the way he has experienced them.
Jeffrey has said that “In the end, what Lewis seems most to have wanted to affirm is a confidence in what Christians get from reading the Bible.” Of this there should be little doubt, the Bible seriously impacted Lewis. It did so first as a child in simple reading, it did so later as a source of historical reality about a man named Jesus who was God in flesh, and it do so even more in communicating spiritual truths to a man who was now spiritual. What Lewis got from reading the Bible was something he was sure that we all, as followers of Christ, were meant to get as well.
The truth is that just about anyone who reads Lewis’ views on the Bible is going to be uncomfortable. If a person is a conservative Christian they may be horrified to see Lewis deny inerrancy and express a wonky view of inspiration. On the other hand if they are a theological progressive or liberal (which what the difference really is between those two positions, if indeed there is one, only God may know) then they may scream in horror to find the Lewis really believed the Bible was the Word of God in a meaningful, authoritative way. Not to mention that he actually believes in miracles and a real place called hell! But it may just be the case that no matter what camp you find yourself in, if you are willing to hear Lewis out, you may just see some things you never saw before. Maybe your own thinking about Scripture and God will widen, or maybe it will narrow. Whatever happens, you will not be the same.