September 15, 2019

C.S. Lewis and Inerrancy

lewis.jpgThis post reprints part of an article that first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 27, number 4 (2004). It is an assessment of Lewis’s strengths and weaknesses as an apologist and theologian. Remember that Lewis was a professor of English Literature at Oxford and Cambridge his entire career.

This article is footnoted and referenced in the original. I am reproducing the material under the heading “Lewis and Inerrancy.”

Let me suggest to a number of bloggers that according to this article, Lewis was a “boilerplate liberal,” no different from “Fosdick,” and logically, turning his back on Christianity.

Attracted by Lewis’s clear presentation of Christianity, readers often are surprised when they discover Lewis’s assessment of the Bible. He discussed questions such as: What does it mean for Scripture to be “inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16)? Is it true and trustworthy? At first glance, readers may assume that Lewis had a high view of Scripture. He had said that the Gospels were not myths. He had been critical of those who reject supernatural elements of Scripture and had observed that modern theologians often base their conclusions on naturalistic assumptions instead of the biblical text. Further reading, however, calls his own view into question:

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, any more 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.

Lewis believed that “all Holy Scripture is in some sense — though not all parts of it in the same sense — the word of God.” The book of Job, for instance, lacking historical details and context, appeared to Lewis to be unhistorical. The idea that the creation account in Genesis was derived from earlier mythical and pagan accounts did not trouble Lewis. These earlier stories were retold and modified (whether consciously or unconsciously) until they became an account of “true Creation and of a transcendent Creator.” When this happens in Genesis, Lewis concluded, there is no reason to “believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.” In Lewis’s thought, Genesis conveys divine truth but not necessarily scientific or historical truth; still, God reaches us through its message.

In this same way, all Scripture, written in many literary styles, and for different purposes, may all be “taken into the service of God’s word.” Whether it was produced by poets, by the Jewish community, by early Christians, whether modified by redactors (revisors) and editors, Lewis concluded, “On all of these I suppose a Divine pressure; of which not by any means all need have been conscious.”

In a personal letter, Lewis raised other issues that he thought were difficulties in the doctrine of inspiration, including inconsistencies in the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, inconsistencies in the account of the death of Judas, the admitted unhistorical nature of parables (which he believed may extend also to the stories of Job and Jonah), and Luke’s admission that he conducted research on his Gospel. Lewis concluded that because of this:

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 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 and temper and so learning its overall message.

Similarly, he wrote, “That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader (he also needs inspiration) who reads in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.” Indeed, Lewis considered this challenge of Scripture to be an asset: understanding God’s Word requires not only the intellect but also the entire person.

Lewis clearly believed Scripture has authority and communicates God’s word, but his grounding of that authority is confusing to many. On this point, Lewis, who was ordinarily objective in his theological understanding, added a layer of subjectivity. If Scripture only in some sense is the word of God, then in some sense it is not. Parts of it are trustworthy; others must be less so. The problem such a view creates is, how is the Christian to decide which part to trust? If all Scripture can be the word of God but not communicate truth, then inspiration is of little practical consequence.

Lewis’s statements may frustrate Christians who hold that Scripture is inerrant. One wishes that Lewis had taken more time to examine other apologetic responses to his objections against inerrancy, but the message of his writings remains clear. Lewis did not believe in an inerrant Bible, though he did believe that Scripture was in some sense inspired. Some have tried to harmonize Lewis’s words with biblical inerrancy and infallibility; unfortunately, this attempt is futile.

Comments

  1. There are also some concerns that Lewis was a universalist towards the end of his life…I don’t have any references I know of, just some reliable word of mouth from sincere readers of him…

  2. Please be specific otherwise you are possibly slandering Lewis.

  3. So as not to slander him…

    “He also believed in the existence of purgatory, though he did not consider it to be a place of punishment. Lewis, rather, believed saved people were purified of their sins in purgatory before entering heaven itself. Another controversial belief he held was that a person could belong to Jesus Christ and be saved without necessarily knowing Him specifically. This is not exactly universalism, but it goes beyond the clear teaching of Scripture.”

    Quoted off equip.org, not the most scholarly site, but it will do for half a minute of search…

  4. Yes, he believed in some version of purgatory. I don’t.

    What the author calls universalism is clearly not universalism, but salvation by faith outside of the knowledge of the historical Jesus, a totally different matter.

    Lewis was never a universalist.

    I find it interesting that reformed Baptists and other Calvinists routinely will cite Lewis (ex: Piper) and then discover these facts, which in their opinion generally mean you are not a Christian.

  5. I’ve heard plenty of others criticize him for this besides your two favorite scapegoats 🙂

    Not universalism mabye, but not exclusivism

  6. Fremen_Warrior66 says

    Hey, I’ve been reading this blog for a while. I believe it was linked to by one of your students over at http://forums.guide2games.org/ . I have to say that I’ve really been blessed by your blog and have found that I agree with much of what you write(Despite not agreeing with Calvinism).

    I went through a time of extreme doubt in my faith. I grew very skeptical of Christianity, my church, and my family. For the past several years I have been sitting on the fence as to what I really believed. Funnily enough it started through evangelism. I a newly baptized, all knowing, high school junior took it upon myself to convert my agnostic and atheist friends to Christianity with apologetics. I began to do lots of research and found the very foundations of my faith flung out from beneath me. There was a lot of evidence against the “inerrant” bible. I can no longer believe in a lack of error within the bible. I naturally found myself gravitating toward the same conclusion as Lewis. I just don’t see any other way. The bible does not hold up as a science textbook or a History book. Its much more than that. Its a description of God’s relation to humanity.

    As for Lewis’ “universalism”, it has seemed to me that there is a small amount of support for salvation through ignorance. Those who have not come into contact with the gospel and live according to the law on their hearts. l John 9:41, Romans 2:12-14. I’d love to hear your thoughts on those verses, as I’ve found them a bit of an enigma myself.

    Anyways thanks for this blog, God bless.

  7. Good post. Thank you for this review of Lewis’ theology regarding this hot topic.

  8. Inerrancy amongst evangelicals has become an embarrassment. Thinking Catholics rightly accuse us of having a “paper Pope” and I’ve come to understand what they mean.

    For many evangelicals, inerrancy goes right along with rapture theology when it comes to deciding who is part of the elect, or as I’m hearing more and more of these days, part of the remnant.

    As far as they’re concerned, if you don’t worship inerrancy and the rapture, you aren’t in the remnant!

    So, Michael, what do you think of this statement?

    Taken as a whole, the Bible does not affirm anything that is not true.

  9. “If Scripture only in some sense is the word of God, then in some sense it is not. Parts of it are trustworthy; others must be less so. ”

    Michael, I am not sure how you get this out of what Lewis has said about scripture. It is not an either or proposition.

    “all Holy Scripture is in some sense — though not all parts of it in the same sense — the word of God.”

    Here Lewis is saying that all Holy Scripture is the word of God. It is not that in some sense part is not the word of God but that it all is the word of God just in differenct senses. A historical narrative is not carrying spiritual truth in the same way as a parable or the direct words of a prophet. It is like saying a biography, a portrait and a poem may all carry the truth of George Washington in some sense, though not all in the same sense.

  10. C. S. Lewis was an Anglican and had Catholic friends. He was part of orthodox, traditional Christianity.

    What seems to be missing here is the knowledge that Lewis believing that ‘a person could belong to Jesus Christ and be saved without necessarily knowing Him specifically’ is frankly perfectly in-line with traditional Christianity. The Catholics and Anglicans call it ‘baptism by desire’. It’s a concept that’s been around for a long time. (You see a fine example of the idea in The Last Battle, btw.)

    And, how odd that many people who proclaim God’s absolute sovereignty have a hard time honoring that sovereignty by humbly admitting that God can save whomever He pleases based on whatever criteria He chooses. Why it is so hard to wrap the mind around the idea that God, Who knows our hearts, knows who is following Him no matter what religious label that person may be wearing? And Lewis’ belief here, and that of his fellow Anglo-Catholic Christians, just simply leave the final judgement to God. On the whole, I find that the far less hereticl position (but then I’m an Anglican).

  11. Michael, I gotta go with C Grace on this one.

    Dan

  12. Michael,
    I’ve been watching the BHT and this place for quite a while now; both places always make for engrossing reading.

    I’ve always thought of it this way:
    Christ was the only perfect manifestation of the divine Logos- God’s wisdom, His continuing revelation with man, itself made man.
    From there I tend to think that the divine Logos continues to be made known to man through other manifestations, all dispensed by the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that what Scripture is? A dissertation on the nature of God & creation prompted by the Holy Spirit? But it wasn’t written miraculously by the hand of the Holy Spirit itself; it was written by the hand of man. The Holy Spirit reveals the nature of things to the children of God, the children of God record this revelation. The revelation is inerrant, but the minds of the scribes receiving and recording it are fallible.

    As to questions of Lewis and universalism/purgatory etc, I think he often maintained a due agnosticism about such details. The concept of purgatory features in The Great Divorce, but that was a dream recorded. Lewis would only sell the contents of that book as a speculation or meditation- not a revelation.
    Again in Divorce, when the dreaming man asks MacDonald about universalism, MacDonald replies that it may be that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” But he says that it is ill to talk of such things, because the answers to such questions always deceive. For us, within a temporal world, looking upon Eternity, we *necessarily* follow specific revelation. Because it was provided for our use in this world. But who know knows? Perhaps if we were able to stand and look from a less restricted vantage point, we might find that the answers are much more complex and glorious than we expected.