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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Did C.S. Lewis go to Heaven?

This is the admittedly provocative title of an article by John W. Robbins, which you can find here. In the article Robbins makes the argument that Lewis "cannot accurately be called an Evangelical and may be called a Christian only in an historical or nominal sense."

Robbins is a conservative evangelical and the publisher of The Trinity Review posted on the The Trinity Foundation website, which appears to be a collection of primarily his views.

Readers of this blog know my admiration for Lewis and so you can imagine that I was quite interested to read the article and take a look at the arguments Robbins presents. Before I begin, however, I should note that I don't think it's proper to make judgments on "who's in and who's out". Only God sees the heart as they say.

Robbins begins by noting how venerated Lewis has been in Evangelical circles posthumously when in life he had little connection or dialogue with Evangelicalism in America. While I don't think that's particularly relevant to the question of whether C.S. Lewis went to heaven I also see little mystery as to why Lewis has garnered such a following. Simply put, his logical argumentation, deep understanding of the human psyche, and clear presentation make both his apologetically and prose books a joy to read. They are modern classics.

In analyzing the article Robbins makes three arguments against Lewis taken from quotations of his writings. These are:

  • Lewis held a low view of Scripture and did not hold to inerrancy (sola Scriptura)

  • Lewis did not believe in justification by faith alone (sola fida) and did not hold the substitutionary view of the atonement

  • Lewis did not believe that Christ was the only way to God (sola Christus)

  • Of course Robbins emphasizes that these sola are the "distinctive marks of an evangelical" and so if Lewis did not hold them then he surely cannot be counted as an Evangelical - and by strong implication, that Lewis cannot have been saved.

    On the first point Robbins supports his arguments by quoting primarily from a letter Lewis wrote to Clyde Kilby of May 7, 1959 and passages from Reflections on the Psalms. In quoting these passage I think Robbins accurately captures Lewis' view of Scripture as I understand it. Basically, Scripture is inspired in the sense that the reader takes in God's Word when the Bible is read in the proper spirit (that is, as the Holy Spirit guides and instructs). Lewis did not hold to inerrancy in the conservative evangelical sense that every word written in the Bible is historically or even theologically accurate (for example, the "cursing Psalms"). In the letter to Kirby Lewis specifically mentions the varying accounts of the death of Judas and the genealogies in the Gospels as examples of passages that are difficult to take as historical reporting. As I mentioned in my previous post on Miracles, Lewis also viewed the first parts of the Old Testament as unhistorical Hebrew myths that God used to convey underlying truths about creation, the fall, and judgment. Rather Lewis held the view that the ancients did not perceive or attempt to undertake the modern newspaper style reporting but instead fashioned their narratives (in the NT for example) for other reasons including collecting the sayings of Jesus and recording his miracles.

    This view clearly differs from conservative evangelicals but the question is whether Lewis' view violates sola Scriptura? As far as Lewis believed that Scripture could lead someone to Christ absent a priest I believe he did hold to this pillar of the reformation. In other words, to not hold to the literalist view of Scripture does not mean that you cannot hold a high view of Scripture as adequate for conveying God's truth to humanity.

    On the second point Robbins argues that Lewis never accepted justification by faith alone but only the doctrine of the Incarnation as Lewis recounts in Surprised By Joy. He backs up this view by searching for the doctrine in several Lewis indexes in vain. In my own index on Lewis I pulled off the shelf I found several passages that refer to this view but of course none specifically use the words "justification by faith alone" which I assume is what Robbins is looking for. Robbins also quotes several paragraphs from Mere Christianity where Lewis talks about the atonement as something that Christ already did for us and that men need to appropriate.

    Here I think Robbins is being critical simply because Lewis chose not use the catch phrases of modern evangelicalism but instead relied on metaphors and terms that I assume he thought his largely unchurched listeners during World War II in England would understand. After all, Lewis asserts that Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves and that it is a free gift that we would have to accept that gift by "laying ourselves open" to Him. Sounds a lot like sola Fida, salvation by grace and faith in Christ to me. Particularly, the phrases "good infection", "new life", and "lay ourselves open" seem to be a sticking points for Robbins. I will certainly concede with Robbins that Lewis violated his pretense to "Mere Christianity" (although one could argue that he was talking primarily about Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism and did not have American evangelicalism in mind) and did view the sacraments as playing some role in Christianity but I don't believe Lewis viewed them as salvific but rather as a means to greater sanctification. For clearly he believed a person could come to Christ without having taken the sacraments. Robbins is also clearly anti-Arminian in that he sees Lewis as holding to an antonement that is potentially ineffectual since each person has free will to accept or reject it.

    Robbins also takes Lewis to task for instructing readers that there are several ways to think about the atonement and that if one doesn't appeal to the reader, it should be dropped and another taken up. While I personally believe the substitutionary view of the atonement, Christians have historically viewed all of the ways Lewis mentions as true (Lewis mentions "Christ died for my sins", "God forgave us because Christ did we should have done", "we are washed in the blood of the Lamb", and "Christ defeated death"). I don't think many Christians would see holding one as more understandable (after all, Lewis is talking not of the correct theological formula but the most understandable way of thinking about it for a paricular reader) than the others as precluding salvation.

    On another aspect of this point Robbins argues incorrectly that Lewis believed that both good actions and faith were necessary for salvation. In the passage Robbins quotes to support his point from Mere Christianity, Lewis does not state that both are required, in other words that salvation is in part by works, but that they interact in a kind of virtuous circle. A "serious moral effort" or willingness to to what is right finally forces a person to despair since they cannot do what is right on their own. Faith in Christ then saves the person from the depair leading to inevitable good actions.

    Finally, on this point I also found Robbins' criticism of Lewis for using the word "bit" as in Christ did "the bit we could not have done for ourselves" as more than a little nit-picky. Clearly, the word "bit" has slightly different shades of meaning in 1940s England than it does in 21st century America. Here I think Lewis was using a word simply to denote a part rather than an insignificant piece of the whole.

    On the thid point of Lewis not holding to sola Christus, I have blogged about Lewis's views previously. In epitome, Lewis held to a belief in inclusivism, not universalism as Robbins suggests. Lewis held that even those who have never heard of Christ can be saved, not through their pagain religions, but through Christ's sacrifice that they may appropriate by worshipping God the best they are able. Clearly, a belief in inclusivism does not violate sola Christus because Lewis did not hold that it is the pagan religions that save. Only Christ's work on the cross saves. The question is how it can be appropriated by individuals in non-Christian cultures. Robbins hold to the exclusivist position that those who have not explicitly been preached Christ are lost. As a I said in my previous blog, I have difficulty to holding such a view.

    In summary, I certainly agree that C.S. Lewis was not an evangelical in the modern American sense. His views on the inerrancy of Scripture and inclusivism exclude him from such an understanding. However, it is a rather narrow view of Christianity that assumes that no one is saved outside of evangelicalism and that Lewis writings cannot be beneficial.

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