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)…”
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
 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.
5 thoughts on “When C.S. Lewis Goes Astray: How to Resolve the Tension”
Thanks for engaging with my article, and for your good word on this topic. Just a point of clarification with respect to your footnote: I don’t take myself to be advocating that anyone “altogether abandon” penal substitution. What I’m advocating is the possibility of considering penal substitution as something other than the “central, Christianity-defining doctrine of the atonement” (p. 303 of my article).
But to view PSA as other than the defining doctrine of the atonement is not to abandon it altogether. Rather, it’s to take a view of it similar to that of Adam Johnson in _Atonement: a Guide for the Perplexed_, pp. 5–6, quoted in footnote 12 of my article: “We reject the pursuit of the one theory of the atonement that is at the heart of the biblical witness and allows us to account for and systematize the others.”
This does not mean rejecting any theory of the atonement; it means rejecting giving a kind of all-or-nothing pride of place to one theory over all others. I take New Calvinism to practice this kind of all-or-nothing approach to penal substitution: PSA is not just one theory among others, or one aspect or facet of the atonement. Rather, New Calvinism see it as the sine-qua-non of really understanding the atonement (pp. 286–7 of my article). It is that attitude, which (in my opinion) unduly excludes those who don’t hold such an exclusive view (like Lewis), that generates the twisty hermeneutics I examine in my article.
Again, thanks for your engagement and thoughts here.
Thanks for commenting on the post. I’m so sorry for misrepresenting your position in the footnote. I never want to do that. Thank you for your thought-provoking article.
Trevor, I went back and looked at your article to try to figure out how I could have misunderstood your own position on penal substitution (which I obviously did misunderstand, per your clarification above). But for the sake of my readers, I want them to see the words you actually put on the page so that they might get an idea of how I came to the conclusion that you were agreeing that Lewis’s rejection of penal substitution was a good thing. Here are your words on pages 303-304 of your article: “To close, I would like to say a word in favor of changing one’s stance on the non-negotiability of penal substitution, rather than on Lewis’s status as a Christian. I understand what I am saying, and that I have perhaps lost my audience by saying it (if I have not done that already!)… It is good that New Calvinists reject such an ethos [the ethos of liberalism]. But I also think that penal substitution has become the linchpin (even the axle?) for orthodox (=non-liberal) theology; lose it, and you lose biblical Christianity. Thus John MacArthur: those who offer as the fundamental meaning of the cross anything other than penal substitution are ‘liberals, cultists, and pseudo-Christian religionists’. I point this out in order to say that insofar as standard concerns and responses to critiques of penal substitution are directed at liberal disagreements with penal substitution, these concerns and responses will misfire when deployed against disagreements with penal substitution that are not liberal in origin – that is, ones that have different sensibilities, motivations, and arguments than liberal Protestantism.” Honestly, even on my second reading of this—and despite now knowing that you do not agree with Lewis’s rejection of penal substitution—the words themselves make it sound like you are supporting him. At the least you are unclear. I think that I must have been distracted by your lines: “say a word in favor of changing one’s stance” and “responses will misfire when deployed against disagreements with penal substitution that are not liberal in origin”. But I still want to apologize for misunderstanding you. One of my main intentions when drawing upon an author is always to represent those I cite accurately, even when I disagree.
Kenneth (if I may),
Good point. My verbiage in the sections you quote is at least unclear, at most (and probably) inconsistent. I was trying to address too many facets of the issue without staking out the terrain clearly. Let me give a little commentary on the lines of the article that are in question to see if I can shed some post facto light on (what I hope is) the underlying unity of thought.
(T1) “[T]he New Calvinist must decide which to change: the view of Lewis as a Christian in good standing (or as a Christian at all), or the stance on penal substitution as the non-negotiable, crystal-clear, central, Christianity-defining doctrine of the atonement” (p. 303).
I’ll stand by my gloss of this quotation in my previous comment: what I’m proposing is a revision to one of two views (one regarding Lewis, another regarding PSA), but the change regarding PSA would not involve rejecting PSA wholesale; it rather would involve regarding PSA as something less than “non-negotiable…central, Christianity-defining” doctrine.
(T2) “To close, I would like to say a word in favor of changing one’s stance on the
non-negotiability of penal substitution, rather than on Lewis’s status as a Christian. I understand what I am saying, and that I have perhaps lost my audience by saying it (if I have not done that already!)” (p. 303).
Here I take myself to be voicing my support for the latter of the two options in (T1), namely the option to revise one’s opinion about the “non-negotiability” of penal substitution (though again, not jettisoning PSA altogether). I may have gone overboard with the faux-direct address about losing my audience (viz., “I understand what I am saying…”), because that makes it sound like I know I’m advocating something that is intolerable/heretical to my audience (which might make them think, “Oh, he must be asking us to wave goodbye to PSA!”) rather than what I’m actually advocating (something like “I’m asking you to consider whether PSA has to define the atonement, because if it does you’re ruling out people like Lewis”).
But the thing is, New Calvinists by and large do think that even questioning the centrality of PSA is, in fact, intolerable and, if not actually heretical, seen as being on the fast track to heresy. If one reads through the quotations from the leaders at the beginning of my article (and that later quotation from MacArthur), the boundary markers are quite clear: anyone who questions the central status of PSA ought to be viewed with extreme suspicion or worse. So when I wrote the article, I really did think that just my advocating that someone consider whether PSA really defines the gospel the way Piper, Sproul, Dever, Mohler et al. say it does, might be enough for people to write me off as a subversive/insidious influence (who, if not one of them, at least hangs out with “liberals, cultists, and pseudo-Christian religionists”). So what I was going for was more of a “Hear me out!” vibe, rather than a “Yep, I’m going there–time to kick PSA to the curb!” vibe. But what I actually said was ambiguous and open to alternate readings.
(T3) “I point this out in order to say that insofar as standard concerns and responses to critiques of penal substitution are directed at liberal disagreements with penal substitution, these concerns and responses will misfire when deployed against disagreements with penal substitution that are not liberal in origin – that is, ones that have different sensibilities, motivations, and arguments than liberal Protestantism.” (303–4).
The particular part here that was misleading sounds like it was: “these concerns and responses will misfire when deployed against disagreements with penal substitution that are not liberal in origin.” Here, as you rightly observe, I was referring to Lewis’s ‘disagreements’, which, from my quotations of him, amount to a mix of averse affections (it just doesn’t appeal to him) and a critique of the logic of PSA (his distinctions involving courts and types of debts).
Also, as you surmised, my intention–insufficiently communicated in the article–was indeed to remain philosophically/theologically neutral with regard to Lewis’s critiques of PSA. Because in fact, how good or bad Lewis’s objections to PSA are was immaterial to my argument. It is enough that someone exists, who all of us here agree is a good-faith Christian, who rejects PSA. Right or wrong; good reasons or bad; there he is and he’s not changing his mind. So now what? That was the message I wanted to get through.
I also should have made the following distinction–one that was tacitly established but not explicitly formulated in my article–even clearer:
(1) Person A changing from believing PSA to not believing PSA
(2) Person A being ok with Person B not believing PSA
What I was advocating in my article was never (1), always (2), where “Person B” is Lewis (and, potentially, other Christians who have problems with/reject PSA as the essence of the atonement). Obviously, if Person A starts out by thinking that it’s impossible to not believe in PSA and be a Christian at the same time, then embracing (2) will involve changing his or her stance on PSA, though this again will not mean rejecting it, only coming to accept that Person B can be a Christian in good faith while not believing PSA.
That’ll do it for now. Many thanks, Kenneth! I really appreciate your charitable engagement and push back.
Thanks for this set of clarifications, Trevor. Much appreciated…
Now, for anyone who has had the patience to read this far in our dialogue, let me remind the reader that the Trevor and I have not been interacting on the substance of my initial (short!) post, but on a tangential comment I made in the footnote that is mostly unrelated to what I originally posted. But I’ve allowed these comments to remain on the site since I apparently misunderstood/misrepresented Trevor originally and wanted him to have the opportunity to clarify his intentions.
Thanks again, Trevor, for helping me understand your intentions. Perhaps we’ll have the opportunity to meet in person some day.