Born November 29, 1898 was one Clive Staples Lewis. His friends called him Jack. We know him as C. S. Lewis. He died just shy of 65 years old on November 22, 1963, the same day as John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Davdi Mathis over at Desiring God writes a birthday note along with a link to this John Piper tribute to Lewis in his biographical address “Lessons from an Inconsolable Soul.”
1) It Seems I Shouldn’t Find Lewis So Helpful
My approach in this talk is personal. I am going to talk about what has meant the most to me in C. S. Lewis—how he has helped me the most. And as I raise this question, as I have many times over the years, the backdrop of the question becomes increasingly urgent: Why has he been so significant for me, even though he is not Reformed in his doctrine, and could barely be called an evangelical by typical American uses of that word?
He doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, 1 and defaults to logical arguments more naturally than to biblical exegesis. He doesn’t treat the Reformation with respect, but thinks it could have been avoided, and calls aspects of if farcical. 2 He steadfastly refused in public or in letters to explain why he was not a Roman Catholic but remained in the Church of England. 3 He makes room for at least some people to be saved through imperfect representations of Christ in other religions. 4 He made a strong logical, but I think unbiblical, case for free will to explain why there is suffering in the world. 5 He speaks of the atonement with reverence, but puts little significance on any of the explanations for how it actually saves sinners. 6
In other words, Lewis is not a writer to which we should turn for growth in a careful biblical understanding of Christian doctrine. There is almost no passage of Scripture on which I would turn to Lewis for exegetical illumination. A few, but not many. He doesn’t deal with many. If we follow him in the kinds of mistakes that he made (the ones listed above), it will hurt the church and dishonor Christ. His value is not in his biblical exegesis. Lewis is not the kind of writer who provides substance for a pastor’s sermons. If a pastor treats Lewis as a resource for doctrinal substance, he will find his messages growing thin, interesting perhaps, but not with much rich biblical content.
The Ironic Effect of Reading Lewis
So you see the kind of backdrop there is for this message. How and why has C. S. Lewis been so helpful to me when I think he is so wrong on some very important matters? Why don’t I put Lewis in the same category as the so-called “emergent” writers? At one level, the mistakes seem similar. But when I pose the question that way, it starts to become pretty clear to me why Lewis keeps being useful, while I think the emergent voices will fade away fairly quickly.
In fact, I think posing the question this way not only explains why he has been so helpful to me, but also goes right to the heart of what the life and work of C. S. Lewis were about. There was something at the core of his work—of his mind—that had the ironic effect on me of awakening lively affections and firm convictions that he himself would not have held.
Something About Lewis
There was something about the way he read Scripture that made my own embrace of inerrancy tighter, not looser. There was something about the way he spoke of grace and God’s power that made me value the particularities of the Reformation more, not less. There was something about the way he portrayed the wonders of the incarnation that made me more suspicious of his own inclusivism, not less. There was something about the way he spoke of doctrine as the necessary roadmap that leads to Reality, 7 and the way he esteemed truth and reason and precision of thought, that made me cherish more, not less, the historic articulations of the biblical explanations of how the work of Christ saves sinners—the so-called theories of the atonement.
It may be that others have been drawn away by Lewis from these kinds of convictions and experiences. I doubt very seriously that more people on the whole have been weakened in true biblical commitments than have been strengthened by reading Lewis. I am sure it happens. I am sure that for many, for example, who have taken the road to Roman Catholicism away from evangelicalism, Lewis has played a part in that pilgrimage. He devoted his whole Christian life to defending and adorning what he called “mere Christianity”—“the Christian religion as understood ubique et ab omnibus [everywhere by everyone].” 8 “I have believed myself to be restating ancient and orthodox doctrines. . . . I have tried to assume nothing that is not professed by all baptized and communicating Christians.” 9 This means that he rarely tried to distance himself from Roman Catholicism or any other part of Christendom. He rarely spoke about any debates within Christianity itself. 10
A Pastoral Price to Pay
There is a price to pay when you set yourself this kind of agenda. You will almost certainly omit things essential to the gospel. Not that you yourself do not believe those things, but since virtually all important doctrines have been disputed from within the church (not just from outside), the effort to omit what’s disputed runs the risk of omitting what’s essential. We all should be warned about this, because the disputes in the New Testament letters themselves are virtually all disputes within the church, not with those outside. In the marketplace and the synagogue, Paul argued for the gospel with unbelievers. But in his letters, he defends and defines the heart of the gospel not by disputing with those outside the church, but with those inside the church. He did not consider these disputes—for example in Galatians—as peripheral skirmishes but rather as part of what “mere Christianity” actually is. This dispute is what the Reformation was about.
Therefore, Lewis set himself a lifelong task that no pastor should follow—namely, to adorn and defend only those truths that he thought all Christians always and everywhere have believed. 11 Lewis was not a pastor. He was a professor of English Literature from 1924 to 1963, first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. He did not have to open the Scriptures week after week for a group of people over the course of 30 or 40 years. He didn’t have to explain to his flock the fullness of God’s written revelation. He was a scholar, a writer of science fiction, children’s books, poetry, essays, and apologetics. In these spheres, he chose his focus. He called it “mere Christianity.” Within that limited focus (which he would say is infinitely large), he fell short of saying many important things regarding the gospel of Christ. But if I focus not on what he failed to say, but on what he said and did, I find that even for me—for one who considers some doctrines to be crucial that he neglected—even for me, the blessings of his work have been incalculable.
2) Why Lewis Is So Helpful to Me