Any idea that this paper will turn out to be something like others which might bear a similar title will probably be fallacious, because few Christians realize in any way that we are, all of us, confronted with a very serious dilemma indeed.
One of the most influential writers of our time on behalf of Christianity in a largely pure form was the late C. S. Lewis. He succeeded in gaining a general hearing where most of us have completely, one might say abjectly, failed to get any hearing at all. This is a fact which ought to haunt our whole thinking and agonize our consciences. Something is desperately amiss, somewhere.
He certainly wrote much of great value, and he certainly succeeded in doing what few, if any, of us managed to do: secure a widespread audience. As always, such success has to be paid for. Was the price he paid too high? Or, if one can find a way of making known some of the truth, is it permissible to leave other truth out of account? Did he secure the purity of his teaching by diluting it? Or by ignoring some of the issues?
Since his death, the executors of his estate have been publishing various writings of his, hitherto not generally available. One such, entitled "Christian Reflections" has brought out with painful clarity what I here call the Christian dilemma. The Preface, by an old friend of his, describes him and his point of view very frankly and, I think, adequately; for it tallies exactly with the impression of the man given in his various books. Many years ago, the first book of his I ever read, a work of fiction, caused me to say to myself quite early in my perusal: "This man is a Christian."
This Preface sums up his point of view. Here are five extracts:
No. 1 " Shortly after his conversion in 1929, C.S. Lewis
wrote to a friend: 'When all is said (and truly said)
about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by
God's mercy, an enormous common ground." (p. vii).
NO.2 " As he was minded to write only about ' mere '
Christianity, so he steadfastly refused to write about
differences of belief. He knew that discussions (or
more likely, arguments) about differences in doctrine
or ritual were seldom edifying. At least he con-
sidered it far too dangerous a luxury for himself—
far better stick to that 'enormous common ground.'"
NO.3 " A great deal of my utility has depended on my
having kept out of dog-fights between professing
schools of 'Christian' thought." (p. xi).
NO.4 "But I think his idea was that you ought to know how
a certain sort of theology strikes the outsider. .. There
are two sorts of outsiders: the uneducated, and those
who are educated in some way but not in your way.
How you are to deal with the first class, if you hold
views like Loisy's or Schweitzer's or Bultmann's or
Tillich's or even Alec Vidler's, I simply don't know.
I see and I'm told that you see—that it would hardly
do to tell them what you really believe. A theology
which denies the historicity of nearly everything in
the Gospels. . . if offered to the uneducated man can
produce only one or other of two effects. It will make
him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. . . . If he holds
to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in
which it is no longer taught and look for one where
it is." (pp. 152, 3).
NO.5 " Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to
Modern Theology. It is right you should hear them.
You will not perhaps hear them very often again.
Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite
frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the
fact that he believed so much less than the Vicar: he
now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much
more. Missionary to the priests of one's own church
is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling
that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the
future history of the Church of England is likely to
be short." (p. 166).
"It is right that you should hear them." Yes; and it is, regrettable that nothing is said in this book, which was not published until some seven years after Lewis had read the paper at Cambridge from which Nos. 4 and 5 are quoted, about the way it was received there. We may fairly deduce that the paper was found unanswerable and therefore ignored. However that may be, subsequent events have shown that its effect must have been very small.
The quotations are here printed in order of appearance. If the first three stood alone they would provide at least an arguable justification of the attitude of mind they assume. Why argue about differences, or even details of opinion, when there is an enormous common ground of agreement? If this "enormous common ground" really exists, one can only echo, "Why indeed?" Readers of this magazine will be aware already that it does not exist, so for them Lewis' argument falls to the ground.
In fact, it begs the question, though neither Lewis nor his friend who wrote the preface from which the first three are quoted appear to have noticed this. He wrote (No. 1) "common to nearly all Christians." But how nearly? And how is it possible to reckon those who reject some of that "enormous common ground" as Christians at all? It might be retorted, "Why not leave that to God?" But why should we? Are we to suppose that it is not possible so to define "a Christian" that we can definitely decide what is, and what is not, compatible with Christian belief? Have we any right to leave to God what we should decide for ourselves?
On p. vii the friend lists nine things that Lewis believed. Yet each in turn has been questioned by some. What about Creation versus Evolution? What does "the Fall" mean, and why does the New Testament fail to name it thus? Is there really general agreement about, say, the Virgin Birth? The Resurrection is denied by certain clerics and their followers. The "Second Coming" is a vague term which the New Testament avoids using. Some deny that "death" is really death, and affirm that it is a different kind of life; and some also repudiate the notions of Judgement, Heaven and Hell. The common ground of all these nine among those who call themselves "Christians" is very small indeed nowadays.
Here it is proper to tum to the last quotations, Nos. 4 and 5. NO.4 names men of enormous repute nowadays among the clergy who have a "theology which denies the historicity of nearly every thing in the Gospels," that is, which denies most, if not all, of the nine. One might fairly have asked Lewis: "Is it nothing to you that these men hold most of the positions of power and influence?—that is, but for quotation NO.5. For from that, the closing remark of his paper which discusses both Nos. 4 and 5, it is plain that it was not" nothing" to him, that the issue mattered very much indeed. Yet Lewis added, speaking as it were to such clergy: "But that is your headache, not mine."
But it was his "headache" too, for the rest of the article from which Nos. 4 and 5 are culled: "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," is a courageous and successful effort to refute certain of the men, these men, who "hold views like Loisy's, etc." Lewis was primarily a literary man, and one of note; so that his efforts (which were solely from this literary point of view) are of value. He claimed to be "educated, but not theologically educated"; and he appears to have regarded the modesty of this claim as excusing him from going outside the realm of literary criticism.
Such a point of view is understandable and, up to a point commendable for its modesty. I certainly would not have the audacity to venture on his chosen ground. While his modesty is to be admired, there remains an uncomfortable doubt whether he was not unconsciously allowing it to become an excuse for failing to attack on a wider front and to a greater depth; in fact, failing to understand what the attack was all about.
The real issue, though Lewis never appears to have perceived it in the round, so to speak, but only sectionally, is, simply: What is a Christian?
Doubtless Lewis was satisfied that certain beliefs were Christian and certain were not. From Quotation NO.2 it is plain that for him a Christian was one who believed that "enormous common ground"; so he was able to treat "differences of belief" as if they were no concern of his, and actually" too dangerous a luxury for himself." Yet not only was the enormousness of that "common ground" a fiction (Would it be too uncharitable to say for some, if not Lewis, himself a convenient fiction?), but the assumption that defending truth is a "luxury" was also a fiction, and most outrageous one, too. Look how the Apostle Paul enjoyed his indulgence in that luxury! Jails, blows, rods, stoning, dangers of sorts, famine, "thirst, fasts, cold, nakedness (2. Cor. 11:23-28), not to mention his infirmities (2. Cor. 12:7-10).
If it be retorted that Paul says near the end of this epistle, "Try yourselves if you are in the faith; test yourselves" (13:5); the inference being that we ourselves should be in the dock, not those whose beliefs differ from ours; the answer is plain: How em you even begin to carry this out unless you try to test the "differences of belief"? It is useless to endeavour to push aside the views of Loisy, Schweitzer, Bultmann, Tillich and Vidler; because they refuse to get out of the way. You yourself may be able somehow to avoid reckoning with them, but, as Lewis admits (Quotation NO.4), others cannot. In this sort of context, our first duty in practise is to ourselves; for if we fail to try and test "difference of belief" for ourselves we certainly will never be able to aid others to face them. Lewis tried up to a point, and with great success thus far, to give this help; and we should take note that in so far as he did that he was departing from his own precept; but too many, even most, leaders do not even accomplish that much, and what Lewis attempted he did supremely well.
Such leaders seem to be content, like the priest and the Levite, to pass by on the other side—very much like them, for they, as we ourselves when we behave similarly, fail to realise that the predicament of the injured man can easily be ours, is ours, though we are unaware of the fact.
No! The Christian is not one who occupies common ground with other reputed Christians, but one who believes the Lord Jesus Christ and is consequently in Christ, who like His Apostle Paul, and the other Apostles, indulges in the luxury of defending his Lord's truth whatever the cost, knowing full well that this is the only way of faithfulness, one who is not prepared to go only part of the way with the Lord, the Crucified and Risen and Ascended, but the whole way, even if it should lead also to some cross, as in fact it always does.
Failure to go the whole way is easy to excuse, and should often, given the individual's circumstances, be given the benefit of what doubt there may be. Lewis gives his reason in Quotation No.3. His utility depended on keeping out of dog-fights! That is to say, to put the issue in stark plainness, he was content with the "enormous common ground" because if he kept on that he could avoid the battle over the even more enormous disputed ground which surrounded it on every side. He was content to maintain "his utility" by drastically limiting its scope.
"Common to nearly all Christians" (No. I). He never seems to have attempted to define this. His friend, the writer of the Preface, did so (see above); but he too failed to get down to the root of the matter. Lewis was eventually more successful, for presently he had to face reality (Quotation NO.4) when he found himself confronted with "a theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels." That it hurt him is apparent from the rest of the article from which Nos. 4 and 5 are quoted; yet nevertheless he took the easier way out by claiming to be "educated, but not theologically educated." Yet why not? With his exceptional literary ability he certainly could have educated himself theologically; and he certainly had the mental power to subject to critical examination, the writings of Loisy, Schweitzer and the rest.
Long ago, before the first World War, I was an "uneducated man" in these matters; but by God's mercy I was persuaded to carry out a critical examination of these highly lauded critical writers. I lacked the education to check their translations of the Greek; but my training in Science, particularly the logical bases of Science, which had long been a favourite study, enabled me to check the logic of their findings. Before very long I discovered beyond any sort of doubt that as reasoners, logicians, critics; these men were hopelessly unsound and irrational. Lewis could have done likewise. In fact, in the article from which Nos. 4 and 5 are taken, he actually did to some extent. Why then did he fail to go on and, with his considerable influence, knock down the whole card-house these critics had tenderly put together? The answer is that terrible phrase in No.2, "dangerous luxury." I beg forgiveness for referring to those words again; but I cannot refrain, for they haunt me. Seldom have I read anything more revealing, for they unwittingly display how completely Lewis failed to appreciate the realities of our modern situation.
Three hundred years ago there might have been some sort of case for taking that line; for, although the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant were wide and bitter, there really was an extensive, if not enormous, common ground. But now there is none, or almost none, "between professing schools of 'Christian' thought." What common ground can there be between those who have fixed their "Christian life and affections and thought" on the Gospels as verily and indeed the Word of God and the "theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in" them (Quotation NO.4)?
Lewis must not be accused of levity in using that word "luxury" because for him it was "dangerous"—not for him personally, but dangerous for his mission to write only what he regarded as about pure Christianity. So we cannot avoid the issue here raised. Was he right?
Many a time have I been told that I ought to proclaim the Evangel itself and to leave alone the criticism of errors and heresies. The argument has always been that if we present the truth we need not concern ourselves about error. I wish, how desperately I wish, that this were true! At least, the side of me does that desires rest and ease and freedom from struggle. The very day I was drafting these words came presently a letter from a reader in England. It reads: "If you were to publish a summary of the facts about British Israel beliefs it could be a great help. . . I shall hope to see something in The Differentiator from you on this subject."
Yes: but will my mentors please tell me how I am to comply with this request and yet be "kept out of dog-fights between professing schools of 'Christian' thought," as Lewis did? I can follow Lewis, decline the call for help and "pass by on the other side." Yes, and I can ask, as Lewis did: "What would you yourself think of me if I did?"—and his retort was in answer to an editor who asked him to write a critique of an exceedingly evil book!
If one tries to present the truth without troubling oneself about error, one soon discovers that it cannot be done—adequately at any rate. This results from the simple fact, all too easily overlooked, that there is no Christian truth, no, not one, that has not been challenged and denied by somebody. Any attempt to set out Christian truth in a non-controversial manner is met and defeated instantly by the retort: "Oh yes! but my Bible, or my favourite teacher, or Professor So-and-so, says otherwise," How can one reply, except by pointing out that the ordinary Bible contains many mistranslations and that the preacher and the professor are unsafe guides? And the moment one does that, one is involved in what Lewis calls a "dangerous luxury" if not a "dog-fight."
Quotation NO.4 refers to the Lord's command to the Apostle Peter, "Feed My sheep." That is what we ought to desire to do. We should carry out the command, even though it was not made to us, for it is the quintessence of the Christian spirit as applied to others. The Apostle Paul did much and suffered vastly in ministering to believers everywhere and we ought to be ready and eager to do so. Yet in this we must take special pains to refrain from that most pernicious way of making the Word or God of none effect: text picking. For anyone who knew no, better might well be excused for supposing that this summed-up all the Lord Jesus had to say concerning His sheep.
The words "Feed my sheep" are only, so to speak, the tip of the iceberg, even if we consider John 21:15-19 alone. The 1930 C.V. Note well says: "The rich pathos of this passage will be apparent only if we carefully keep the finer shades of meaning conveyed by the original, as 'fond' and 'love', 'graze' and 'shepherd', 'lambkin' and 'sheep.' The accurate rendering of "Feed My Sheep" is "Be grazing My lambkins." The verb here boskO, occurs nine times, of which seven refer to swine grazing under supervision; and only in John 21:15, 17 is it applied otherwise. In the former, lambkins are grazed; in the latter, little sheep. The former word is arnion, occurring only here, and twenty nine times in Revelation as a title of the Lord Jesus Christ. The latter, the plural of probation, a diminutive of probaton, sheep, occurs here only; and even this is not certain, as the textual evidence for it against probaton is not conclusive.
Three commands were given to Peter: Be grazing My lamb kins. Be shepherding My sheep. Be grazing My little sheep. The verb to shepherd, poimainO, occurs eleven times. The duty of a shepherd is to control and protect the sheep and to: supervise their movements from pasture; a duty made extensive than simply feeding them. It is hard to believe that feeding was all the Lord commanded Peter to do, or that Lewis thought so. One can hardly be surprised, therefore, that the paper from. which Quotations Nos. 4 and 5 are taken was certainly more than simply providing spiritual food. It was a brilliant and effective. attack on some of the assumptions and pronouncements of certain destructive critics of Scripture.
Just why Lewis stopped short instead of attacking all along the line has never been clear to me; but I think his belief in the existence of the "enormous common ground" may well have been the reason. Why fight frontier adjustments when you have plenty of room? Yet it is evident from Quotation NO.5 that when he wrote it he had discovered that such room had already become very restricted. He read the paper in 1959; and by then he may have realized, too, that not much more time was left to him on earth, and it was too late for him to inaugurate "such mission work." Alas! if we do not come to terms adequately with reality while we are able, the time soon arrives when we shall be unable to do so at all. Yet he did much. He called himself "one bleating layman"; but in that he underrated himself What he accomplished for helping many towards Christianity was of great and abiding value. Two things worked against him: his place in the seats of learning and academic authority, and his reliance on the supposed "enormous common ground" which is, itself, largely error.
The writer of the Preface speaks of "the central premiss of all Lewis's theological works—a premiss implicit, even, in his books on other subjects. It is that all men are immortal." This speaks for itself, for taken literally it is a direct denial of 1. Tim. 6:16.
Nevertheless, I think I know what he meant: that no human being will be permanently destroyed. This is true from the fact that in Christ all will be reconciled. Even so, death is death the extinction of a person until God chooses to raise and rouse that person out of dead ones; and the tradition which Christendom adopted from the teachings of evil spirits in pagan religions, that death is merely passing over into another form of existence, is a lie. That Lewis was deceived in this matter is the direct consequence of his uncritical acceptance of the "enormous common ground."
Another point arises which I do not intend to develop here, but only to note in passing. Even if the "enormous common ground" existed, would it be in practise a sufficient resting-place for the Christian? I suggest that it would not; because the real issue is not whether we agree with the majority of our fellows, but whether we agree with God's Word. If we do not, then, whatever we may think, we are not believers. We have to believe all, not what little we wish.
Further back, I referred to the great and abiding value of what Lewis accomplished. Although this paper is in some measure a critique of his work, I would not have it thought that I intend it as an unfavourable one. To say, as I am convinced is true, that much more could have been done, is not to assert that much more could have been done by him. Figuratively, speaking, he played the cards that had been dealt him, and he played them superlatively well. To complain that he did not play the better cards that did not happen to have been dealt him is not only absurd, it is grossly unfair as well.
Justice and Christian love both demand that we should understand and sympathize with his limitations while giving him due credit for the great good he has done. For there is no escaping the fact that our own failures, where they are not our own fault, are the consequence of our own limitations. None of us can afford to cast stones at our brethren for these.
The letters to the seven churches of Asia are not for us, as they are not addressed to us; but the lessons they convey are for our learning, and for our admonition so far as they are applicable. Those who believe in the "enormous common ground" have something in common with both Pergamum and Thyatira; so we can well put their two exhortations together, somewhat as follows:
All I can affirm is that I would be a traitor to the spirit of truth if I attempted to follow the course that Lewis took; but it would be unreasonable to deduce from this that because it would be wrong for me it must have been wrong for him. I believe he did what he was called to do, with the best means at his disposal. No man can do more. Most do far less.R.B.W. Last updated 6.4.2006