When C.S. Lewis Goes Astray: How to Resolve the Tension

Many of us admire C.S. Lewis for his unusual ability to clearly, intelligently, and winsomely explain and defend various Christian doctrines.  Think merely of…Mere Christianity.  I am happy to be numbered among Lewis’s admirers.  Nevertheless, the more I have pondered Lewis, the more I have become convinced that he is sub-biblical in some of his opinions on doctrines evangelicals hold dear.  For example, Trevor Anderson argues (rightly, if I have read Lewis correctly) that Lewis did not hold to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.  In addition, “Lewis held very different views of…the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture (inspired, but not inerrant); the nature and duration of hell (it is ‘locked from the inside’ and one can eventually get out); purgatory (that it exists); religious inclusivism (Emeth is accepted into Aslan’s country)…”[1]

Now, let me acknowledge that I am aware of how “politically incorrect” it is in our current evangelical subculture to say anything negative about Lewis.  Evangelical Christians (rightly in many ways) continue to admire Lewis; and for some people I know his writings are one of the primary reasons that they are Christians at all.  Nevertheless, the Bible is our inerrant guide; Lewis is not.

Here are a few approaches I do not recommend when trying to resolve the tension of encountering sub-biblical comments in an author who is greatly admired for his ability to explain Christian doctrine.

  1. I could treat Lewis as always right. If I think the Bible disagrees with Lewis, I accept Lewis over the Bible.  This approach, obviously, will not do.
  2. I could reinterpret Lewis’s writings to make them more congenial to my own doctrinal beliefs. This approach, also, is unacceptable.  I need to make every effort to allow an author’s writings to say whatever it appears the author intended to say, rather than attempt to make an author say what I want him to say.
  3. I could refuse to deal with the tension, that is, simply ignore the tension. This also is problematic, since it implies that well-known Christians don’t need to be evaluated by the same biblical standards as the rest of us.

So, as a way to help you when you encounter the tension, let me briefly sketch out how I can continue to admire and draw upon Lewis, on the one hand, but profoundly disagree with him on a few doctrines that seem biblically important (exclusivism, substitutionary atonement, inerrancy, hell).  Here is my approach:

I try to read Lewis carefully and make every effort to accurately understand what he is trying to say.  Then, in any area that seems to contradict biblical teaching, I simply acknowledge that Lewis is wrong—and even sometimes woefully wrong.  I continue to acknowledge that Lewis is right on many other things biblical Christians hold dear—and sometimes even brilliant in the way he explains and defends them.  Furthermore, I happily view Lewis as a going-to-heaven Christian.  But I can’t place him in the category of generally trustworthy guide in doctrine, with the result that I exercise greater caution when I mention and quote Lewis than others apparently do.

In other words, I don’t give Lewis the special treatment that he so often receives from evangelicals.  I have to view him similarly to the way I view and use Roman Catholic scholars who seem to possess genuine faith and affirm much that is biblical—and who can even help us defend or deepen certain aspects of our faith (e.g., Peter Kreeft; Henri Nouwen)—but whose views on other important issues I have to repudiate.

Perhaps this description of how I resolve the tension will help you in the future when you face your own internal tensions while reading C.S. Lewis.

 

[1] Trevor Anderson, “C.S. Lewis and Penal Substitution: A Problem Case for New Calvinist Theology, Evangelical Quarterly 88.4 (2016/17): 300.  Anderson continues his list to include other issues that a “new Calvinist” might dispute, but I have stopped his list with issues that most evangelicals will find troubling.  Please note that Anderson’s own resolution of one doctrinal tension is to altogether abandon(!) the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement instead of critiquing Lewis (see p. 303 in the same article).  I certainly do not recommend his solution.

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