The Theology of C. S. Lewis
by Dr. Cornelius Van Til
The following is an unpublished manuscript, made available thanks to Eric Sigward and his work on “The Works of Cornelius Van Til” for (LOGOS) Libronix Software
In his book Reflection on the Psalms Lewis says: “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred … strikes us in the face like heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naivete.” Again he says: “One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone. But unfortunately the bad parts will not ‘come away clean’; they may, as we have noticed, be intertwined with the most exquisite things.” 2
“We all find hatred in ourselves. We see this same hatred in the psalm-writers: only they express it in its ‘wild’ or natural condition.”
Once more Lewis asserts: “It is monstrously simple-minded to read these cursings in the Psalms with no feeling except of horror at the uncharity of its poets. They are indeed devilish.”
Now let us visit the theologians: “There were in the eighteenth century terrible theologians who held that ‘God did not command certain things are right because they are right, but certain things are right because God commanded them.’ To make the position perfectly clear, one of them even said that though God has, as it happens, commanded us to love Him and one another, He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another, and hatred would then have been right. It was apparently a mere toss-up which He decided on.”
If we seek Lewis’ standard for evaluating what a man may or may not hold to be true and right, we may read: “We must believe in the validity of rational thought, and we must not believe in anything inconsistent with its validity.”
However, we also hear that: “Our business is with historical possibility.” And further: “the sin, both of men and of angels, was rendered possible by the fact that God gave them free will; thus surrendering a portion of his omnipotence … because He saw that from a world of free creatures, even though they fell, He could work out … a deeper happiness and fuller splendour than any other world of automata would admit.”
Lewis propounds his own views in, among other places, his book Mere Christianity. According to Lewis, we must all start with a Law of Right or Wrong: “This rule of Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature.” Says Lewis: “Let us sum up what we have reached so far.… In the case of stones and trees and things of that sort, what we call the Laws of Nature may not be anything but a way of speaking.… But in the case of Man, we saw that this will not do. The Law of Human Nature, or Right and Wrong, must be something above and beyond the actual facts … a law which we did not invent and which we ought to obey.”
How far have we come now? “We have not yet got as far as a God of any actual religion, much less the God of that particular religion called Christianity. We have only got as far as a Somebody or Something behind the Moral Law. We are not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches, we are trying to find out what we can find out about this Somebody on our own steam.”
“Christians believe that an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this world. Is this state of affairs in accordance with God’s will or not? If it is, He is a strange God, you will say, and if it is not, how can anything happen contrary to the will of a being with absolute power?”
“Well, any mother can solve this puzzle. At bed-time she says to Johnny and Mary: ‘I’m not going to make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.’ Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer her children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which had left her children free to be untidy.… It is probably the same in the universe. God created things which had free will.… If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. A free will is what has make evil possible. Why then did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—a world of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs … is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in the ecstasy and delight compared to which love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.”
“When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: ‘Why did God make a Creature of such rotten stuff that went wrong?’ ”
But why bother about such stuff and nonsense? Ask rather about the central message of Christianity.
“The central message of Christian belief,” says Lewis, “has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how He did this are another matter. A good many theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people will tell you that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good.… My own Church—the Church of England—does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further but I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced.”
And what, pray, is this “thing itself”? Lewis does not inform us, except to say that we are not to believe what Scripture says about it.
I find in Lewis no awareness of my need to accept the substitutionary atonement for my sins on the cross. Where is, “Christ and him crucified”? Where is “Christ and his resurrection”? Where is the natural man, “dead through trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1)? Jesus tells Nicodemus: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said unto you, ‘You must be born again.’ ” (Jn 3:7–8)
Does Lewis teach what the Apostle John teaches in the sixth chapter of his Gospel? “Truly, truly I say to you … who so eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:53–55).
How would Lewis react to these words of Jesus: “And they will go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Mt 25:46)?
Again, where does Lewis acknowledge Malachi 1.2: “ ‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How hast thou loved us?’ ‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ says the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob and I have hated Esau …’ ” (Mal 1:2)
How does Lewis interpret the words of Peter spoken at Pentecost: “ … this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite counsel and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
Must not Lewis list Paul with the horrible theologians and Psalmists when the Apostle says:
As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:13–24)
According to Lewis all depends on man’s free will; according to Paul all depends on God’s mercy.
Reflections on The Psalms DT. 4 L585
1. The case for Christianity 14M. 1 L5856
2. Beyond Personality 1D. 1 L585
3. Cu. Behavior QA. L585
Reflections on the Psalms (New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1958
The Position Of Roman Catholicism
On the question discussed in this chapter, Roman Catholicism takes a position half way between that of Christianity and that of paganism. The notion of human consciousness set forth in the works of Thomas Aquinas is worked out, to a great extent, by the form matter scheme of Aristotle. In consequence a large measure of autonomy is assigned to the human consciousness as over against the consciousness of God. This is true in the field of knowledge and it is no less true in the field of ethics.
In the field of ethics this means that even in paradise, before the fall, man is not thought of as being receptively constructive in his attitude toward God. In order to maintain man’s autonomy—or as Thomas thinks, his very manhood as a self-conscious and responsible being—man must, from one point of view at least, be wholly independent of the counsel of God. This is implied in the so-called “freewill” idea. Thomas cannot think of man as responsible and free if all his actions have their ultimate and final reference point exclusively in God and his will. Thus there is no really scriptural idea of authority in Romanism.
It follows that Rome has too high a notion of the moral consciousness of fallen man. According to Thomas, fallen man is not very dissimilar from Adam in paradise. He says that while the sinner needs grace for more things than did Adam, he does not need grace more. Putting the matter somewhat differently Thomas says, “And thus in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz., in order to do and wish supernatural good: but for two reasons, in the state of corrupt nature, viz., in order to be healed, and furthermore in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious. Beyond this, in both states man needs the Divine help, that he may be moved to act well.” 7 In any case, for Thomas the ethical problem for man is as much one of finitude as it is one of ethical obedience. Man is naturally finite. As such he tends naturally to evil. He needs grace because he is a creature even though he is not a sinner. Hence God really owes grace to man at least to some extent. And man does not become totally depraved when he does not make such use of the grace given him as to keep himself from sin entirely. For in any case the act of his free will puts him naturally in grave danger. Fallen man is therefore only partly guilty and only partly to blame. He retains much of the same ethical power that man had in paradise. Ethical ability is virtually said to be implied in metaphysical ability or free will.
It follows still further that even the regenerate consciousness need not and cannot subject itself fully to Scripture. Thomas is unable to do justice to Paul’s assertion that whatever is not of faith is sin. His entire discussion of the cardinal virtues and their relation to the theological virtues proves this point. He distinguishes sharply between them. “Now the object of the theological virtues is God Himself, Who is the last end of all, as surpassing the knowledge of our reason. On the other hand, the object of the intellectual and moral virtues is something comprehensible to human reason. Wherefore the theological virtues are specifically distinct from the moral and intellectual virtues.” In respect to the things that are said to be knowable by reason apart from supernatural revelation the Christian acts, and should act, from what amounts to the same motive as the non-Christian. Faith is not required for a Christian to act virtuously in the natural relationships of life. Or if the theological virtues do have some influence over the daily activities of the Christian, this influence is of an accidental and subsidiary nature.
All in all it is clear that Rome cannot ask its adherents to submit its moral consciousness to Scripture in any thorough way. And accordingly Rome cannot challenge the non-Christian position, such as that set forth by Newman Smyth, in any thorough way.
A position similar to that of Rome is frequently maintained by evangelical Protestants. As a recent illustration we mention the case of C. S. Lewis.
Like Rome, Lewis, in the first place, confuses things metaphysical and ethical. In his book Beyond Personality, he discusses the nature of the divine Trinity. To show the practical significance of the doctrine of the Trinity he says: “The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.” The purpose of Christianity is to lift the Bios or natural life of man up into Zoe, the uncreated life. The incarnation is one example of how this may be done. In Him there is “one man in whom the created life, derived from his mother, allowed itself to be completely and perfectly turned into the begotten life.” Then he adds: “Now what is the difference which He has made to the whole human mass? It is just this; that the business of becoming a son of God, of being turned from a created thing into a begotten thing, of passing over from the temporary biological life into timeless Spiritual life, has been done for us.” 11
All this is similar in import to the position of Aquinas which stresses the idea that man is, through grace, to participate in the divine nature.
It is a foregone conclusion that the ethical problem cannot be fairly put on such a basis. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between all forms of non-Christian ethics and Christian ethics lies in the fact that, according to the former, it is man’s finitude as such that causes his ethical strife, while according to the latter it is not finitude as such but created man’s disobedience of God that causes all the trouble. C. S. Lewis does not signalize this difference clearly. Lewis does not call men back with clarion voice to the obedience of the God of the Bible. He asks men to “dress up as Christ” in order that while they have the Christ ideal before them, and see how far they are from realizing it, Christ, who is then at their side, may turn them “into the same kind of thing as Himself,” injecting “His kind of life and thought, His Zoe” into them.
Lewis argues that “a recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.” Why does he then encourage men to hold that man is embroiled in a metaphysical tension over which not even God has any control? Lewis says that men are not likely to recover the old sense of sin because they do not penetrate to the motives behind moral actions. But how shall men ever be challenged to look inside themselves and find that all that is not of faith is sin if they are encouraged to think that without the light of Scripture and without the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit they can, at least in the natural sphere, do what is right? Can men really practice the “cardinal virtues” of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude in the way that they should, even though they have no faith? No Protestant ought to admit such a possibility.
Lewis seeks objective standards in ethics, in literature, and in life everywhere. But he holds that objectivity may be found in many places. He speaks of a general objectivity that is common between Christians and non-Christians, and argues as though it is mostly or almost exclusively in modern times that men have forsaken it. Speaking of this general objectivity he says: “This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao.’ Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” But surely this general objectivity is common to Christians and non-Christians in a formal sense only. To say that there is or must be an objective standard is not the same as to say what that standard is. And it is the what that is all important. Granted that non-Christians who hold to some sort of something somewhere above man are better than non-Christians who hold to nothing whatsoever above man, it remains true that in the main issue the non-Christian objectivists are no less subjective than are the non-Christian subjectivists. There is but one alternative that is basic; it is that between those who obey the God and Christ of Scripture and those who seek to please themselves. Only those who believe in God through Christ seek to obey God; only they have the true principle in ethics. One can only rejoice in the fact that Lewis is heard the world around, but one can only grieve over the fact that he so largely follows the method of Thomas Aquinas in calling men back to the gospel. The “gospel according to St. Lewis” as well as the “gospel according to St. Thomas” is too much of a compromise with the ideas of the natural man to constitute a clear challenge in our day.” –
From Chapter 3 of Christian Theistic Ethics