Over the past year I have done a lot of reading and studying about C.S. Lewis, the world famous author of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Prelandria Series, as well as many famous theological works such as Mere Christianity and A Grief Observed. In early 2013, Tyndale released a new biography of C.S. Lewis by renowned theologian Alister McGrath entitled C.S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. I had the chance to review the book (though I must admit that I didn't complete it- it's a whopping 430 page tome) and recently received a galley of an upcoming release from Baker Press of a book entitled: A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis by Devin Brown (currently reading) and have been drawn with much intrigue to the life of the man who I had heard so much about as an Evangelical. C.S. Lewis was no doubt one of the most brilliant men of the last century- his genius and academic rigor paralleled with his wildly creative imagination and love for narrative make him a Patron Saint for our postmodern generation. Lewis didn't become a follower of Christ until late in life under the influence of J.R.R. Tolkein and dozens of other writers that he engaged with during his educational career that all spoke of faith in Jesus Christ. Lewis resisted faith in Christ at all costs- how could he, a man of such an intellect, believe in some fairytale religious non-sense. He was truly a man of modernity with strong interests in philosophy but just couldn't stomach theological discourse. Until one day God broke through, as he so often does, and brought C.S. Lewis to faith in Christ kicking and screaming (quite literally). Lewis describes his conversion in Surprised By Joy:
"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him who I so earnestly desired not to meet." (Chapter 14)
And the rest, as they say, is history. Lewis became a Christian and began to engage in theological discourse and writing- both fictional and nonfictonal. Lewis' theological works have shaped Western Christianity as we know it today and it seems that every Christian denomination tries to claim him. Lewis himself resisted joining the Roman Catholic Church to Tolkiens dismay, and joined the Church of England (The Episcopal Church). But nearly every Protestant group today relies heavily on Lewis' as a great gem and treasure to their camp. (I even have had Mormons try to convince me that Lewis was in fact a LDS Convert! We all love the man!) But what constantly surprises me is how dag-on progressive C.S. Lewis was theologically. He most certainly would not be considered an Evangelical Christian by the leaders of the movement today. In fact, if any group could comfortably claim Lewis' as a theological ally I would say the "Emergent" churches as well as the liturgical mainliners have the most hope. Lewis communicated much of his theology through his fiction works and even his lesser known poetry which has helped make it palatable for Evangelicals and other conservative protestant denominations- but what stuns me the most is that the things Lewis suggests are even more radical than what people like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and N.T. Wright (who has been called the modern-day C.S. Lewis) ever have written. Yet these men are literally burnt at the stake for their views while Lewis is celebrated and embraced. In fact, John Piper's 2013 Annual Desiring God National Conference theme is "The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, & Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis". Yes, this is the same John Piper who tweeted the infamous "Farewell Rob Bell" tweet at the release of Bell's controversial book Love Wins. Celebrating C.S. Lewis!
Now many of you may be wondering what exactly I am referring too when I call C.S. Lewis a "heretic". Now I want to be clear- I don't believe Lewis is a heretic. Nor do I believe Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, or N.T. Wright are heretics either. (I have written extensively on what I believe constitutes heresy here ,here and here.) But the word heresy has lost a lot of it's meaning in the evangelical world today- I cannot tell you the amount of times I have been called a "heretic" by my peers- and I am a classic evangelical! So when I use the word, I am using it in the same way the Evangelical community has come to use it. We have made many non-orthodoxy defining issues, orthodoxy defining. And based on that view of heresy, I submit the following beliefs of C.S. Lewis to you as proof that he is indeed the "heretic" that all Evangelical happily embrace.
Theology of Atonement/Gospel:
Modern Evangelical leaders identify the Gospel as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory. In fact, Al Mohler and D.A. Carson, leading evangelical scholars says the following concerning Emergent Church leaders Brian McLaren and Steve Chalkes rejection of penal substitution: "Given the fact that McLaren and Chalke deny the substitutionary nature of the atonement- indeed, rejecting virtually any notion of penal substitution- Carson sees the ghost of discredited theological liberalism. "I have to say, as kindly buy as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the Gospel." (The Disappearance of God by Al Mohler, Pg 91) Here is C.S. Lewis:
Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor an other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter: A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. (Mere Christianity, 57-58)
“We believe that the death of Christ is just that point at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found we could fully understand it, that very fact would show that it was not what it professes to be--the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning…A man may eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he as accepted it.”
Lewis didn't believe in Penal Substitutionary atonement, nor did he believe understanding it was even remotely necessary for salvation. It most certainly wasn't the Gospel in his opinion.
Theology of [Potential] Universal Salvation:
"There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ's birth may have been in this position." (p.176, 177).
A process by which the work of redemption continues, and first perhaps begins to be noticeable after death." (pp. 246-247)
No Literal Eternal Hell:
"...every shutting-up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind is, in the end, Hell" (The Great Divorce, p. 65)
"For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself" (The Probelm of Pain, p.177).
"...but he (man) remains still a primate and an animal." (Reflections on The Psalms, p. 115, 129)
"I have therefore no difficulty accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical." (Reflections on The Psalms, p.110)
"I have the deepest respect for Pagan myths, still more for myths in the Holy Scriptures" (The Problem of Pain, p.71)
"To me the curious thing is that neither in my own Bible reading nor in my religious life as a whole does the question in fact ever assume that importance which it always gets in theological controversy. The difference between reading the story of Ruth and that of Antigone – both first class as literature – is to me unmistakable and even overwhelming. But the question ‘Is Ruth historical?’ (I’ve not reason to suppose it is not) doesn’t really seem to arise until afterwards. It would still act on me as the Word of God if it weren’t, so far as I can see."
"I am myself a little uneasy about the question you raise: there seems to be an almost equal objection to the position taken up in my footnote and to its alternative of attributing the same kind and degree of historicity to all books of the Bible. You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.
In what sense does the Bible “present” the Jonah story “as historical”? Of course it doesn’t say, “This is fiction,” but then neither does our Lord say that the Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason). How does a denial, a doubt, of their historicity lead logically to a similar denial of New Testament miracles? Supposing (as I think is the case), that sound critical reading revealed different kinds of narrative in the Bible, surely it would be illogical to suppose that these different kinds should all be read in the same way?
This is not a “rationalistic approach” to miracles. Where I doubt the historicity of an Old Testament narrative I never do so on the ground that the miraculous as such is incredible. Nor does it deny a unique sort of inspiration: allegory, parable, romance, and lyric might be inspired as well as chronicle. I wish I could direct you to a good book on the subject, but I don’t know one"
(A Letter from C. S. Lewis to Corbin Carnell, dated April 4, 1953)
Theology of God/Knowability of God:
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
(A Footnote to All Prayer by C.S. Lewis)
Now, going through this short list of theological quotes by Lewis we can see that C.S. Lewis didn't believe the Bible was inerrant, believed in the possibility of Universal salvation (Universalism), believed in Evolution, believed that God was indescribable with human speech, believed in purgatory, and rejected the Evangelical notion that the Gospel is synonymous with Penal Substitutionary atonement. In these quotes alone, Lewis far out-heresies Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and N.T. Wright combined. But we all often overlook these "heresies" because we realize that though we may severely disagree with Lewis on these matters, his works and words are beneficial none the less. We can disagree with him about the Bible and hell and still learn a lot from him. God still uses Lewis to enrich the spiritual lives of millions around the world. But according to all of our evangelical standards, Lewis shouldn't even be defined as a Christian (which is absurd, of course, because none of the issues he speaks about are matters of Christian Orthodoxy). But we love Lewis none the less. We host conferences in his honor. We have classes devoted to him at our most conservative colleges. And we, year after year, are captivated by the beauty of his writing about our faith and our God. Despite all that we disagree with him about. Isn't that an amazing thought?
I only wonder if we as Evangelicals could begin to lower our defenses a little bit to honor and be informed by the treasure troves of theological and spiritual riches that hundreds of theologians, pastors, and teachers offer to us today- even though they embrace theistic evolution or reject Biblical inerrancy. Maybe we should learn to love and dialogue with these gifts of God to the Church today, while they are still living, and not wait for the next generation to look back in awe at how we could have rejected the great gifts that the grace of God has brought to us. I am not asking us to forsake our commitments as Evangelicals- to the contrary. I am asking that we stand firm where we may but lean forward with benevolent ears to those who differ from us. And maybe, just maybe, we might have our worlds turned upside down for the glory of God.
Because if we can do it with Lewis, we can certainly do it with N.T. Wright...
Grace and Peace,