C. S Lewis as an Interpreter of Scripture

The following is based in part on an article on C. S. Lewis’s attitude to biblical scholarship that I wrote for A Sewanee Companion to “The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis.”[i] It remains the © of The University of the South and the author.


C. S. Lewis was not, as he made clear more than once, by any means a fundamentalist, “if Fundamentalism means accepting as a point of faith at the outset the proposition ‘Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal historical sense.’”[ii]  As he pointed out in a letter written from Magdalen College in 1955, his very awareness of the biblical texts as literature, and, moreover, as different kinds of literature, made this impossible for him.

“[T]he same commonsense and general understanding of literary kinds which would forbid anyone to take the parables as historical statements, carried a very little further, would force us to distinguish between (1.) Books like Acts or the account of David’s reign, which are everywhere dovetailed into a known history, geography, and genealogies (2.) Books like Esther, or Jonah orJob which deal with otherwise unknown characters living in unspecified periods, and pretty wellproclaim themselves to be sacred fiction.

“Such distinctions are not new.  Calvin left the historicity of Job an open question and, from earlier, St. Jerome said that the whole Mosaic account of creation was done ‘after the method of a popular poet’.[iii]  Of course I believe the composition, presentation, and selection for inclusion in the Bible, of all the books to have been guided by the Holy Ghost.  But I think He meant for us to have sacred myth and sacred fiction as well as sacred history… The basis of our Faith is not the Bible taken by itself but the agreed affirmation of all Christendom: to which we owe the Bible itself.”[iv]

Lewis did not consider that he was at all limiting or questioning the Bible’s authority by designating some parts of it “myth,” though he did find it possible to envisage a kind of progression from “myth” to “fact.”  He expressed such a view, tentatively, in a footnote in Miracles.

“[J]ust as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History.  This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history (as Euhemus thought) nor diabolical illusion (as some of the Fathers thought) nor priestly lying (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment thought) but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.  The Hebrews, like other people, had a mythology: but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology—the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical.  Whether we can ever say with certainty where, in this process of crystallisation, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter.”[v]

This notion of Jesus and the story of Jesus as “myth become fact” was clearly important to Lewis: “Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact.  The story of Christ demands from us, and repays, not only a religious and historical but also an imaginative response.  It is directed to the child, the poet, and the savage in us as well as to the conscience and the intellect.”[vi]

In some quarters this insistence on the presence and significance of Myth in Scripture has been seen as calling into question Lewis’s credentials as an Evangelical.  But then, as Kevin J. Vanhoozer points out, Lewis “was not terribly troubled over his Evangelical credentials”[vii]– nor, we might add, over his credentials in the eyes of Roman Catholics or Anglo-Catholics or anyone else.  Lewis was concerned, as the title of his short and probably best-known apologetic indicates, with “mere Christianity”[viii] – and as my friend and colleague Brown Patterson reminds me, we may be sure Lewis used the word “mere” with a full awareness of the senses that it could carry – “pure, unmixed, undiluted… that is what it is in the full sense of the term; nothing less than; absolute, entire.”[ix]  Thus, and again to the disappointment of some Evangelicals, Lewis seems to have been uninterested in adapting or adopting any particular doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture.  He is quite clear that, “The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to [Christ].”[x]  Nevertheless, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God.”[xi]


Lewis’s Critique of Biblical Critics

These very concerns and commitments led Lewis, however, to be hostile to the tenor and direction of some critical biblical scholarship, and in particular, some New Testament scholarship.  This does not mean that he was hostile to all.  In June 1950 we find him writing to the President of the Socratic Club at Oxford to say if he had carte-blanche in arranging the program for the coming term he would have Austin Farrer read a paper on “The Historical Value of the New Testament.”[xii]  But he was certainly hostile to some critical scholarship, a hostility that he expressed in forthright fashion in a paper on “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” that he read to students at Westcott House on 11th May, 1959.[xiii]

What concerned him were, he said, views expressed or implied by New Testament scholars that called into question “a huge mass of beliefs shared in common by the early Church, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformers, and even the nineteenth century.”[xiv]  More precisely, he challenged the grounds on which these scholars put forward their views and were heard by many as speaking with authority.  In this connection, his paper raised four issues – four “bleats,” as he called them, as from a hungry sheep looking to be fed.

The first stemmed directly from his view of the Bible as literature.  There was indeed (and is) a kind of talk about reading the Bible as literature that Lewis rejected: that is, the notion that one might profitably read it “without attention to the main thing that it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome.”[xv]  That he regarded as nonsense.  “But there is,” he said, “another, saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature, and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”[xvi]  What then?  His problem was that as he read the work of certain New Testament scholars, he found that however learned they might be as Biblical critics, he distrusted them “as critics” – by which, of course, he meant literary critics:

“They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading.  It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in these books all their lives.  But that might be just the trouble.  A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of the New Testament texts and other people’s studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious things about them.  If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel.”[xvii]

By way of illustrating this distrust, and his reasons for it, Lewis pointed to Bultmann’s often-quoted observation that, “the personality of Jesus has no importance for the kerygma of either Paul or of John… Indeed the tradition of the earliest church did not even consciously preserve a picture of his personality.  Every attempt to reconstruct one remains a play of subjective imagination.”[xviii]  These remarks drew from Lewis a blistering response:

“So there is no personality of our Lord presented in the New Testament.  Through what strange process has this learned German gone in order to make himself blind to what all except him see?  What evidence have we that he would recognize a personality if it were there?  For it is Bultmanncontra mundum.  If anything whatever is common to all believers, and even to many unbelievers, it is the sense that in the Gospels they have met a personality…. Even those passages in the New Testament which superficially, and in intention, are most concerned with the divine, and least with human nature, bring us face to face with the personality.  I am not sure that they do not do this more than any others.  ‘We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of graciousness and reality… which we have looked upon and our hands have handled.’  What is gained by trying to evade or dissipate this shattering immediacy of personal contact by talk about ‘that significance which the early Church found that it was impelled to attribute to the Master’?  This hits us in the face.  Not what they were impelled to do but what impelled them.  I begin to fear that by personality Dr. Bultmann means what I would call impersonality: what you’d get in a Dictionary of National Biography article or an obituary or a Victorian Life and Letters of Yeshua Bar-Yosef in three volumes with photographs.”[xix]

Lewis’s second ground of complaint against the New Testament scholars of his day was that what he called “theology of the liberal type” invariably “involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed by modern scholars.”[xx]  Having pointed to the same phenomenon in other fields of academic discourse, and the degree to which its suppositions in those fields are regularly exploded, he observed: “The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.”[xxi]

Thirdly, Lewis objected to “the constant use” among New Testament critics “of the principle that the miraculous does not occur.”  He noted,

“I do not here want to discuss whether the miraculous is possible.  I only want to point out that this is a purely philosophical question.  Scholars, as scholars, speak on it with no more authority than anyone else.  The canon ‘If miraculous, unhistorical’ is one they bring to their study of the texts, not one they have learned from it.  If one is speaking of authority, the united authority of all the Biblical critics in the world counts here for nothing.  On this they speak simply as men: men obviously influenced by, and perhaps insufficiently critical of, the spirit of the age they grew up in.”[xxii]

Lewis’s fourth complaint concerned the attempts of Biblical criticism “to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences – the whole Sitz im Leben of the text.  This is done with immense erudition and great ingenuity.  And at first sight it is very convincing.  I think I should be convinced by it myself, but that I carry about with me a charm – the herb moly[xxiii] – against it.”[xxiv]  This charm was Lewis’s own experience of critics and reviewers who had tried to explain the genesis of various aspects of his and his contemporaries’ work, producing to that end ingenious and in many respects plausible theories that Lewis knew on the basis of personal knowledge to be nevertheless completely wrong:

“Am I then venturing to compare every whipster who writes a review in a modern weekly with these great scholars who have devoted their whole lives to the detailed study of the New Testament?… If the former are always wrong, does it follow that the latter must fare no better?

“There are two answers to this.  First, while I respect the learning of the great Biblical critics, I am not yet persuaded that their judgement is equally to be respected.  But, secondly, consider with what advantages the mere reviewers start.  They reconstruct the history of a book written by someone whose mother-tongue is the same as theirs; a contemporary, educated like themselves, living in something like the same mental and spiritual climate.  They have everything to help them.  The superiority in diligence and judgement which you are going to attribute to the Biblical critics will have to be almost superhuman if it is to offset that fact that they are everywhere faced with customs, language, race-characteristics, class-characteristics, a religious background, habits of composition, and basic assumptions, which no scholarship will ever enable anyone now alive to know as surely and intimately and instinctively as the reviewer can know mine.  And for the very same reason, remember, the Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never be crudely proved wrong.  St Mark is dead.  When they meet St Peter, there will be more pressing matters to discuss.”[xxv]


Is Lewis to be taken seriously?

Lewis was in the habit of prefacing any public comments he made on Scripture by proclaiming his status as an amateur.  He was “extremely ignorant of the whole thing” and “may have nothing but misunderstandings to lay before you.”[xxvi]  He wrote “for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself,”[xxvii] and “as one amateur to another.”[xxviii]  He presumed to write only because it is sometimes the case “that two schoolboys can solve difficulties for one another in their work better than the master can.”[xxix]  Now I am as willing as any to be charmed by this captatio benevolentiae.  How should we not listen courteously to one who comes before us with such modest self-deprecation?  In his chapter in The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Stephen Logan notes “an impulse in Lewis towards self-abnegation, which, paradoxically but in a way fully consistent with Christian teaching, became a distinctive feature of his literary personality.”[xxx]  As far as Christian teaching is concerned, Logan appears here to be confusing “self-abnegation” with “humility,” which is not at all the same thing – as Lewis made clear in Chapter XIV of The Screwtape Letters.  As far as the impulse is concerned, I am not sure that something of this should not simply be attributed to the manners of the age: I still recall J. R. R. Tolkien addressing us in class, and gently reminding us that “the writers whom we were considering were just possibly rather greater than ourselves.”  In other words, as literary critics we were taught to be modest, and certainly not to imagine that it was our task to set our authors to rights, or that all who came before us were thieves and robbers.  All that granted, perhaps in Lewis’s case this modesty has worked a little too well.  It may even have led some to take him at his word, which would be folly indeed.

Thus Lewis, as I have noted, insisted that biblical texts could not properly be approached except as literature, since they were literature, albeit of a certain kind.  If he was right – and in my opinion there is no question that he was[xxxi] – then ability as a literary critic is evidently an element, and a major element, in competence as a biblical critic.  And if that is so, then we must concede that in at least one area relevant to discussion of Scripture Lewis was anything but an amateur.  The author of The Allegory of Love,[xxxii] A Preface to Paradise Lost,[xxxiii] and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama,[xxxiv] was, in both ancient and modern literature, one of the most widely read and deeply learned scholars of his own or any generation.  So when he says, for example, of the Fourth Evangelist’s account of Jesus meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26), “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this,”[xxxv] then while we may not necessarily agree with Lewis’s own view of the passage, still we need to take his comment seriously.

It may be worth reflecting on this passage, and Lewis’s opinions about it, in a little more detail.  Lewis claimed that it was either “reportage – although it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell.  Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”[xxxvi]   In my opinion, Lewis was here vastly oversimplifying: but he was surely oversimplifying no more in one direction than does Sandra M. Schneiders in another. InThe Revelatory Text,[xxxvii] Schneiders (a scholar, let me say, whom in many respects I greatly admire and from whom I have learned much) sees the Samaritan woman as a “representative figure,” “symbolic not only of the Samaritan community but… of the New Israel who is given to Jesus the Bridegroom ‘from above’.”  Thus, as Schneiders points out, it is significant that in their dialogue the woman questions Jesus on “virtually every significant tenet of Samaritan theology.”[xxxviii]  So far, so good. I have no quarrel with any of this.  It is what Schneiders claims as its concomitant that is the problem: because “the entire dialogue between Jesus and the woman is the ‘wooing’ of Samaria to full covenant fidelity in the New Israel by Jesus,”[xxxix] therefore (in Schneiders’s view) the dialogue can have nothing at all to do with a real woman – and certainly not with a real woman who might have a “shady past” or a “private moral life.”[xl]  But this fails to take into account precisely that literary quality of the passage to which Lewis draws our attention, namely, that it is not at all like parables or merely symbolic narratives.  The Samaritan woman’s contribution to the conversation leaves us with far too rich and robust a sense of her as an individual for that.  Moreover, pace Schneiders and various other critics from Origen onward who have sought by farfetched expedient to drag out of this text something that is not there, there is absolutely nothing in this narrative to suggest that “five husbands” is to be understood as a reference to Samaria’s worshipping “the false gods of five foreign tribes”[xli] or “the religious situation of her people,”[xlii] or in any way at all other than in its plain and obvious sense.  Thus feminist biblical scholar Adele Reinhartz frankly and sensibly concedes its reference to a “sexual history.”[xliii]  If this plain sense is accepted, then the passage does imply a “shady past” and a “private moral life” for the Samaritan woman.  It is part of her story, as, indeed, in one way or another it is part of the story of just about all the women and men whom God calls and uses throughout Scripture except for Jesus and his mother Mary.  In short, Schneiders’s hermeneutic oversimplifies as much in one direction as Lewis’s unqualified “reportage…or realistic narrative” oversimplifies in another.  For my part I suspect that both (as is often the case) are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.  An analogy to the way we ought to understand this narrative is, I would suggest, offered by much of Dante’s Commedia.  In considering Canto II of theInferno, for example, we may reasonably say that Mary represents prevenient grace, Lucy is illuminative grace, and Beatrice is the specific vehicle of grace to Dante.  Each of them, like the Samaritan woman in the fourth gospel, is a “representative figure.”  That, so far as it goes, is well and good.  But if we take the further step of turning Dante’s narrative into mere allegory or meresymbol, if we forget that the poet is a real man talking about real women who are concerned about his fate because one of them happens to love him (I mean the Beatrice of Dante’s narrative of course, not necessarily the historical Beatrice Portinari)—if we forget that, then we have lost Dante, we have lost his poem, and we have lost his theology.  As Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi observes, “always, Dante begins from a personal fact in order to declare facts and values whose range is universal.”[xliv]  Mutatis mutandis, I would say that the same is true of John 4.5-42, and, indeed, of much of the fourth gospel.  It is, incidentally, true of much good poetry, one gift of which is to see the universal in the particular.  I have just been reading (with great delight) A. E. Stahlings’s Archaic Smile.[xlv]  Poems such as The Dogdom of the Dead, The Mistake, and Elegy for the Lost Umbrella evidently raise universal issues about life and death: yet they also speak clearly of real dogs (and cats), of real dandelions, and of a real umbrella.  Lose either, and you lose both: which is the incarnational and sacramental principle.

Lewis graduated from Oxford with a first in “Greats.” This meant that before turning to English literature as his major area of study, he had a thorough training not only in Greek and Latin literature – in other words, that his Greek (and also, incidentally, his Latin) was at least as good as and possibly better than that of most New Testament specialists – but also that he had received a thorough grounding in philosophy. True, as he became committed to the study of English literature, he was not able to keep abreast of developments in philosophy. Not even Lewis could read everything! Nevertheless, he had received that basic training, and his first job at Oxford was as tutor in philosophy. When therefore he points out to New Testament scholars, most of whom do not have anything like such a basis, that the question of the possibility of miracle is a philosophical one, with regard to which their expertise in matters concerning the New Testament is irrelevant, it is again, generally speaking, they, not he, who are the amateurs in the matter under discussion.

While we are reflecting on the question of the propriety of taking Lewis seriously, we ought also to say something about his written style. Lewis wrote like an angel. That was one of his strengths, both as an academic and an apologist. It is certainly one of the qualities that drew me to him, and I am sure it is a quality that has drawn and continues to draw many. It has helped to make him “popular.” But precisely because of that it has also, I suspect, made him suspect in the eyes of some.  Lewis had an ability to carry massive learning and deep reflection with a lightness that made it seem effortless, even casual.  Let chapters 10, 11, and 12 in Reflections on the Psalms[xlvi] stand as an example of the kind of thing I mean.  In these pages he tackles the difficult question as to whether and in what senses we may, or may not, understand the Old Testament to be speaking of Jesus Christ.  To approach that question he ranges over literature ancient and modern, pagan and biblical.  Such a discussion could easily become heavy going and with most writers I dare say it would.  Yet Lewis does the thing with a lightness of touch that seems as effortless to us as to him.  There is even whimsy and humor – neither of them virtues often found in academic prose.  Yet precisely because it is all done so gracefully, those of us who are used to heaviness and mile-long footnotes may well be tempted not to take it seriously.  We ask ourselves, can this really be academically sound?  Can something so enjoyable really be deepenough?  Perhaps we should take Lewis at his own word as a dilettante, an amateur who knows nothing of the matter!  Nothing, in my view, could be farther from the truth.  Lewis gives us a discussion that is overall as good as any I have seen, and comes to a series of decisions that still, after over fifty years, appear to me to be generally and fundamentally sound.  I would unhesitatingly recommend any student or believer wrestling with the question of “Jesus in the Scriptures of Israel” to read those chapters in Reflections on the Psalms.  They should be on every seminarian’s reading list.


Why was Lewis Hostile to Some Biblical Scholarship?

I would suggest that Lewis’s hostility towards some biblical scholarship sprang from his sense that the scholars of whom he spoke were violating two principles, the former of which he regarded as important for clear thinking, the latter as important for the health of humanity itself.

As regards the former: in 1924, while Lewis was teaching philosophy at “Univ”[xlvii] for a year, he read Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity.[xlviii] There he met with a distinction that he “accepted…at once and have ever since regarded as an indispensable tool of thought.”[xlix]  The distinction was between “enjoyment” and “contemplation,” used by Alexander as technical terms.  “Enjoying” an experience has nothing to do with pleasure as such: it means participating fully in the results of attending to the object of your experience.  Likewise “contemplating” does not refer to the contemplative life: it means consciously examining and analyzing those results.  The essential point, for Lewis, was that the two forms of attention were mutually exclusive:

“It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object.  To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is, so far, to cease being afraid.  But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object.  In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible.  You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself.  Of course the two activities can and do alternate with great rapidity; but they are distinct and incompatible.”[l]

In An Experiment in Criticism, which was among his latest published work, Lewis appears to be applying this distinction to literary criticism. In Lewis’s view our primary task as good literary critics – our task, in fact, as good readers – must be to pay attention to the texts in front of us and toreceive them as well as we can: that is, in Alexander’s sense, to “enjoy” them.  This is the basis of a properly appreciative approach to any art.  “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”[li]

How then is the best to be distinguished from what is inferior?  It will distinguish itself, because only the best will be able to endure such close attention and reward it.  An inferior production “cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined ‘reception’ which the few give to a good one.”[lii]  Thus John Gatta speaks to us of such close attention and its reward when he describes encounter with the narratives of the Transfiguration of the Lord – indeed, with the story itself: “Like the visual icon, a text that functions as a verbal icon requires us to look through the surface, to behold the dynamic source behind the individual words or brushstrokes. This beholding is a meditative act, drawing forth impulses of emotion and will beneath the plane of rational cognition…. What the Transfiguration gospel thus conveys to us about Jesus, beyond his previously unforeseen power and majesty, is the all-surpassing beauty of his presence. So it is indeed ‘good for us to be here,’ in a world hallowed materially by virtue of its infusion with the Lord’s body.”[liii]  A great work of art, a great text, shows itself by the very fact that it can endure and reward such reception over long periods of time among many of people.

Of course we may, and some of us must, still go on from this enjoyment to ask questions about them, just such questions as Lewis asks about the John Milton’s work in A Preface to Paradise Lost: What is it about them that gives them their greatness?  Why have they worked as they do?  What is it that their authors were seeking to do?  In other words, we may legitimately move from “enjoyment” to “contemplation,” the analysis of our experience.  There is a place for academic detachment – or, at least, the nearest to it that we can attain.  And no doubt, when we are considering the New Testament, historical questions will be a part of that contemplation.  Since the New Testament writers’ overall claim to be telling us about things that really happened, in the plain and obvious sense of the word “really,” it is perfectly reasonable for us to explore that claim.[liv]  And obviously Lewis did not object to that activity in principle: we have already seen him proposing a paper on precisely that subject (“The Historical Value of the New Testament”) for the Socratic Club.  What then was Lewis’s objection when Bultmann and others did it?  His answer, as we have seen, was that these scholars seemed to him “to lack literary judgement” and be “imperceptive” about the quality of the texts they were reading.  What this meant, I think, was that Lewis did not see in Bultmann’s work evidence of that essential surrender, the Alexandrian “enjoyment,” that in his view had to come first in any just encounter with a text.  Consider, for example, Bultmann’s approach to the gospel that led him to question that there was a “personality” of Jesus—the passage for which Lewis so excoriated him. Then contrast Erich Auerbach:

“The random fisherman or publican or rich youth, the random Samaritan or adulteress, come from their random everyday circumstances to be immediately confronted with the personality of Jesus; and the reaction of such an individual in such a moment is necessarily a matter of profound seriousness and very often tragic.”[lv]

The difference between the two is not hard to see.  Bultmann’s concerns – to discern the history of the tradition, its relationship to what Jesus may actually have taught[lvi] – these concerns, no doubt legitimate enough in themselves, constantly lead him away from the actual gospel to text to what lies – or to what he imagines lies – behind it.  Auerbach, by contrast, was paying attention to what was in front of him, to what was written.  He could hear it, because he was listening to it, not deconstructing it.  And that was what enabled Auerbach to see what apparently escaped Bultmann – the “personality” of Jesus.  Let me here be clear.  I am not speaking of Bultmann personally.  I have every reason to believe that Bultmann was a faithful Christian, and loved the texts he studied.  I am speaking merely of the effect his written examinations of them had on Lewis.  I think Lewis perceived Bultmann and his colleagues as challenging the witnesses without really listening to what they were trying to say, and therefore as lacking respect.  “All criticism,” he wrote, “that is not based on reading authors as they wished to be read – e.g. reading Hooker, Mill for what they have to say – is chimerical. Those who are not interested in an author’s matter can have nothing of value to say about his style or construction.”[lvii]

That, I think, was one violation that Lewis perceived.  But there was another.  Throughout much of his life, Lewis expressed concern about changes he perceived in our understanding of what it is to be human.  He described and criticized these changes in The Abolition of Man,[lviii] gave a fictional account of their effects in That Hideous Strength,[lix] and touched upon their implications in parts of The Screwtape Letters[lx] and The Great Divorce.[lxi]  Lewis believed that there were some values that were absolute and axiomatic, being in themselves not principles that reason itself could arrive at or defend unaided, but rather the basis of all sound practical reasoning.  Such values included justice, compassion, honesty, good faith, and veracity.  Lewis referred to them collectively in The Abolition of Man as “the Tao,” and pointed out that an acceptance of some version of theTao had hitherto been universal in human history:

“Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract ‘sublime’ and disagreed with the one who called it ‘pretty’ was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same….’Can you be righteous,’ asks Traherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.’  St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it.  Aristotle says that the sum of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”[lxii]

Against this, however, in his own time Lewis saw a different idea gaining ground, the idea that all such values and ethical judgments were merely subjective, the product of our own feelings or possibly (at certain times) the needs of society; that therefore any view that took them seriously as statements about reality needed to be “debunked”;[lxiii] and that an enlightened society would naturally “see through” and “explain away” such old-fashioned notions.  Lewis regarded this new thinking as dangerous, not only because he thought it mistaken, but also because he believed that if taken to its logical conclusion it threatened to undermine everything that makes humanity humane – hence the title of his book, The Abolition of Man.  Of course he granted that sometimes humanity had made gains by explaining some things away:

“But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.  You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever.  The whole point of ‘seeing through’ something is to see something through it.  It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque.  How if you saw through the garden too?  It is no use trying to see through first principles.  If you see through everything, then everything is transparent.  But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.  To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”[lxiv]

I believe Lewis sensed in some New Testament scholarship a tendency toward just such “debunking” as he had spoken of in The Abolition of Man.  When New Testament scholars easily abandoned long-held Christian beliefs, when they claimed that they alone could for the first time understand what “really” happened or what Jesus “really” meant, and perhaps above all when they imported into their allegedly “historical” work facile and undemonstrated philosophical assumptions about miracles: then, he suggested, however scholarly they might be in other ways, they were not speaking as scholars or as literary critics or as historians, but simply as persons “obviously influenced by, and perhaps insufficiently critical of, the spirit of the age they grew up in”[lxv] – the very “spirit of the age” that he had, of course, criticized in The Abolition of Man.

We all of us at all times tend to see the insights and assumptions of other ages and societies as relative, limited, and conditioned, but our own as absolute.  Other people’s beliefs and ideals are ideologies and may be dismissed; ours of course are true.  One of Lewis’s gifts was that he resolutely refused such distinctions.  He regularly pointed out how newly established and local are many assumptions that seem to us normative and universal, and encouraged us to be skeptical about them.[lxvi]  Quite by coincidence (if there is such a thing) I happened this morning to be reading James H. Charlesworth’s useful little book, The Historical Jesus. Speaking of miracles in the gospel tradition, he reminds us that “we should avoid two distorting myths: the ancient one that blindly follows the miraculous and the modern one that categorically denies the supernatural.”[lxvii]  Lewis would have agreed; and he would have pointed out that of the two it is the second, for the present, that is the more dangerous.  Why?  Precisely because it is ourdistorting myth, and therefore the one whose operations we can most easily overlook.


© Christopher Bryan, School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. All rights reserved. If you would like permission to reprint any part of this article, please Contact the Author.


[i] A Sewanee Companion to “The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis,” Robert MacSwain, ed.,STR 55.2 (Sewanee, Tennessee: University of the South, 2012): 180-207.

[ii] Letter to Janet Wise, 5th October, 1955, in Collected Letters 3, Walter Hooper, ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2006) 652.

[iii] Quoting this expression of Jerome’s elsewhere, Lewis added, “as we should say, mythically” by way of explanation: see C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958) 109.

[iv] Collected Letters 3, 652-53 (where Lewis in his original used abbreviations I have replaced them with the complete word); see also Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958) 2-6; “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” in Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995 [1967]) 163-64.

[v] C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947; revised 1960) Ch. 15, note 1. (Caveat lector: in the final sentence of the passage I have quoted, in the HarperCollins paperback edition [2001] the word “falls” is misprinted “fails.” The error is quite serious, since the result makes a kind of sense, although evidently not the sense Lewis intended. I understand from my friend [and, for the Sewanee Companion, editor] Robert MacSwain that he has drawn the publisher’s attention to this error.)

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “On Scripture,” in Cambridge Companion 75.

[viii] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Collins, 1952). There have, of course, been many reprints.

[ix] OED2, “mere” 1 and 4. Lewis was, of course (and as he acknowledged) borrowing the phrase from the seventeenth century Puritan divine Richard Baxter, who had used it in his book The Saints Everlasting Rest; see Lewis, Mere Christianity vi.

[x] Letter to Mrs. Johnson, November 8 1952, in Collected Letters 3, 246.

[xi] Ibid. Various criteria for recognition as part of the Christian canon are referred to in the early sources. One criterion in particular seems, however, to dominate: that the chosen texts enshrined and reflected the faith that the Church already held. As Augustine put it, “I would not believe the gospel to be true, unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me to it (ego vero evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae ecclesiae commoveret auctoritas)” (Contra epistolam Manichaei quam vocant fundamenti: in Zycho, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 25.6.1, 197). What we have here is a process that is finally, of course, circular. The Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit chose the texts that witnessed to her faith. But then, because they witnessed to that faith, they also came under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to ground that faith and set limits to what the living voice of the Church may say about it. But the circle is benign. There are some things so basic that you cannot go beyond them. See further the remarks of Joseph Ratzinger (afterwards Benedict XVI), “What in fact is Theology?” in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as CommunionStephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnür, eds, Henry Taylor, transl. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005 [2002]) 29-37.

[xii] Letter to Stella Aldwinckle, 12 June 1950, in Collected Letters 3, 35.

[xiii] C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” in Christian Reflections, 152-66; see also Hooper’s “Preface,” xiv. The essay was subsequently republished under the title “Fern-seed and Elephants” in Fern-seed and Elephants and other essays on Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper, ed. (Glasgow: William Collins, Fontana, 1975) 104-25. In his preface to the latter collection Hooper says that Austin Farrer “told me he thought it the best thing Lewis ever wrote” (Fern-seeds and Elephants 9). If Hooper’s memory was serving him correctly, then Farrer presumably meant by this, “the best thing among Lewis’s writings on scripture.” As an assertion about Lewis’s opus as a whole the claim would of course be ridiculous.

[xiv] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” 153.

[xv] Reflections on the Psalms 3.

[xvi] Reflections on the Psalms 3.

[xvii] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 154.

[xviii] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 156, citing Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Kendrick Grobel, transl. (London: SCM, 1952) 1.35.

[xix] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 156-57; cf. “The apostles were transported by what they saw, heard, and touched – by everything manifested in the form; John especially, but also the others, never tire of describing in ever new ways how Jesus’ figure stands out in his encounters and conversations; how, as the contours of his uniqueness emerge, suddenly and in an indescribable manner the ray of the unconditional breaks through, casting a person down to adoration and transforming him into a believer and a follower” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetic. 1. Seeing the Form, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, transl., Joseph Fessio and John Riches, eds. [San Francisco: Ignatius / New York: Crossroad, 1982] 33).

[xx] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 157.

[xxi] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 158.


[xxii] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 158; see also Reflections on the Psalms 109-110.

[xxiii] Lewis is here alluding to the magic herb, μῶλυ, of which Homer speaks (Odyssey 10.304-5).Hermes gives it to Odysseus to protect him from the spells that Circe will try to cast on him if he goes to rescue members of his crew that she has imprisoned and turned into pigs.

[xxiv] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 158-59.

[xxv] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 161; see also Letter to Francis Anderson, 23 September 1963, in Collected Letters 3.1458-59.

[xxvi]“Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 152.

[xxvii] Reflections on the Psalms 1.

[xxviii] Reflections on the Psalms 2.

[xxix] Reflections on the Psalms 1.

[xxx] Logan, “Literary theorist,” 34.

[xxxi] For my reasons, see And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today(Lanham: Cowley, 2002) especially 31-39; I intend to deal further with this question in a forthcoming study on The Art of Biblical Interpretation.

[xxxii] C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936).

[xxxiii] C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942)

[xxxiv] C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, The Oxford History of English Literature 3 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954); Clarendon re-issued this volume in 1959 as Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, The Oxford History of English Literature 4.

[xxxv] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 155.

[xxxvi] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 155.

[xxxvii] Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 2nd edition (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999) 180-99.

[xxxviii] Revelatory Text 188, 189, 190.

[xxxix] Revelatory Text 191.

[xl] Revelatory Text 189 A Sewanee Companion to “The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis,” Robert MacSwain, ed., STR 55.2 (Sewanee, Tennessee: University of the South, 2012): 180-207., 191.

[xli] Revelatory Text, 190.

[xlii] Revelatory Text, 191.

[xliii] Searching the Scriptures, 2: A Feminist Commentary, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1994) 573.

[xliv] Dante Alighieri: Commedia Vol. 1 Inferno, Anna Maria Ciavacci Leonardo, ed. (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1991) 238–39 (my translation).

[xlv] A. E. Stahling, Archaic Smile: Poems (Evansville: University of Evansville, 1999).

[xlvi] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms 99-138.

[xlvii] University College, Oxford. See C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The shape of my early life(London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955) 204.

[xlviii] Samuel Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow 1916-1918, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1920); see Surprised by Joy 205-207.

[xlix] Surprised by Joy 206.

[l] Surprised by Joy 206.

[li] Experiment in Criticism 19.

[lii] Experiment in Criticism 20.

[liii] John Gatta, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2011) 9.

[liv] The issue was stated with classical brevity in Sir Edwyn Hoskyns and Noel Davey’s small masterpiece, The Riddle of the New Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1931) 11-13; more recently James H. Charlesworth presents the essence of the matter in The Historical Jesus(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008) xvi. See also John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991) 1-40; José Antonio Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation (Miami, Florida: Convivium, 2009), 16-21.

[lv] Auerbach, Mimesis 44.

[lvi] These, not the content of the tradition as we have it, are the questions that Bultmann poses, not only at the beginning of The History of the Synoptic Tradition, John Marsh, trans. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell / New York: Harper and Row, 1963 [1921 enlarged 1931]) 1-7, but even at the beginning of his Theology of the New Testament (1.3-53).

[lvii] Letter to George Watson, 9 October, 1962; in Collected Letters 3, 1375. Note Meier’s remarks on the importance of considering the “literary whole” and “focusing on what otherwise could get lost in our zealous quest for sources and historical background” (A Marginal Jew 1.11-12).

[lviii] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: Reflections on Education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools (Glasgow: Collins, 1943; reprint Las Vegas: Lits, 2010): my page references are to the latter.

[lix] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown-ups (London: Bodley Head, 1945 / New York: Macmillan 1946).

[lx] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942).

[lxi] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Glasgow: Collins, 1945).

[lxii] Abolition of Man 14, citing Traherne, Centuries of Meditations 1.12, Augustine, City of God15.22, and Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1104b [2.3]. In Mere Christianity Lewis shows that he considers our innate sense of moral order to be an evidence for the existence of God (e.g. 17-21); in the Abolition of Man, however, he is clear that for his purposes there he does not need to go so far: his point is simply that, as an observable fact, certain moral assumptions have been pretty well common to the human race.

[lxiii] See e.g. Abolition of Man 7-19; cf. That Hideous Strength passim; Screwtape Letters chs. i, xxv; Great Divorce 35-43.

[lxiv] Abolition of Man 47. Cf. Marilynne Robinson, “The Fate of Ideas: Moses” in When I Was a Child I Read Books, 95-124.

[lxv] “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” 158; see also Reflections on the Psalms 109-110.

[lxvi] On this characteristic of Lewis, see the useful remarks of Stephen Logan, “Old Western Man for Our Times” in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, 51 (1998).

[lxvii] James H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008) 68.

Christopher Bryan