Surprised by Jack: C.S. Lewis on Mere Christianity, the Bible, and Evolutionary Science, Part 1

| By David Williams

Note: David Williams begins this series by noting that C.S. Lewis is held in such high esteem by American evangelicals that we often overlook the fact that his actual views did not entirely conform to popular evangelical paradigms, and cautions that we must be very careful when trying to enlist Lewis as an ally in contemporary debates about science and faith. An earlier version of this essay more directly addressed The Magician’s Twin, a collection on Lewis edited by John West, but the issues raised by that volume deserve a more sustained critique than was allowed in an essay whose main focus is discussing Lewis’ stated views on the Scripture, Adam and the Fall, and on evolution. We and Williams hope to engage with the arguments of West and his fellow authors more extensively in the future.

“All reality is iconoclastic.”1 When C.S. Lewis—or ‘Jack’ as his friends called him—penned that line in 1961, he was writing about God’s proclivity for repeatedly smashing our inevitably half-baked notions about Him. But much the same can be said for what reality does to our own cultural icons as well. And, if nothing else, Lewis himself has become a cultural icon for many American evangelicals, identified by many as the 20th century’s Christian intellectual par excellence.

With his compelling personal story of becoming England’s “most reluctant convert,” his towering intellect, and his inimitable eloquence, American evangelicals’ lionization of Lewis is certainly understandable.2 But when we attempt to lionize people we often ironically end up taming them, paring their claws so that our heroes and our preconceptions can safely cohabitate in our imaginations. But Lewis is no safer a lion than Aslan, and he will not go quietly into our tidy evangelical boxes. To be frank, American Evangelicalism’s infatuation with Lewis is in many respects somewhat odd. For here is a pathologically populist movement with a penchant for Big Tent Revivalism, an obsession with liturgical innovation, a deep-seated suspicion of ecclesiastical tradition, and a raw nerve about the doctrine of justification, falling head-over-heels for a tweed-jacketed, Anglo-Catholic Oxford don—a curmudgeonly liturgical traditionalist who was fuzzy on the atonement, a believer in purgatory, and, as we shall see, whose views on Scripture, Genesis, and evolution position him well outside of American Evangelicalism’s standard theological paradigms. All of that is to say that Lewis was not “just like us”—any of us—and if we would do him justice, we must be prepared to be surprised by Jack.

In what follows, I would like to look at three areas relevant to faith and science discussions where Lewis’s stated views might be surprising for his American Evangelical admirers—namely, his views on Scripture generally and Genesis in particular, his views on Adam and the doctrine of the Fall, and his views on evolutionary science and the myth of ‘Evolutionism.’

Reflections on the Scriptures: Lewis on the Bible, Myth, & Fact

Lewis derived his theological understanding of the Bible from his reading of Scripture, his intimate knowledge of the Church Fathers and the Medieval Doctors, and also from his awareness of modern biblical scholarship. While Lewis was regularly critical of Modernist biblical scholarship’s naturalistic dismissal of the miraculous, its pedantry, literary tin-ear, and over-eagerness to conflate Jesus’ story with the stories of pagan mythologies (he had precious little patience for Rudolf Bultmann, for instance ), he was not at all given to the knee-jerk reactionary Fundamentalism which has held so much sway in American Evangelical culture. In fact, Lewis incorporated many of the more well-supported conclusions of modern biblical criticism into his theology of Scripture, not least critical opinions about the historicity of much of the Old Testament. In good Anglican fashion, Lewis creatively drew upon the deep resources of the Church’s grand Tradition in order to think through the contemporary problems posed by modern critical scholarship. Here I wish to focus on three features of Lewis’s theological conception of Scripture—his understanding of the Bible as being incarnational and sacramental in character, and Christotelic in focus—before turning to his theological reading of Genesis 1-3.4

Inspiration and Incarnation

According to Lewis, the Bible is both a vessel of the divine Word and also a profoundly human collection of documents. In his longest, most substantive piece on Scripture, chapter XI of Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis frames a thoroughly incarnational understanding of the Bible:

The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.5

Lewis’s reference to “[the] human qualities” of the Bible’s “raw materials” is suggestive. As Peter Enns puts it in his book Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, the Incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of Scripture are “analogous.”6 Lewis clearly agrees. He goes on in the chapter to articulate a theology of Scripture precisely in incarnational terms:

For we are taught that the Incarnation itself proceeded “not by the conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by taking of (the) manhood into God”; in it human life becomes the vehicle of Divine life. If the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God’s word into literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God’s word, this is not anomalous.7

According to Lewis, the means whereby God gives us Scripture is not by faxing us transcripts of inner-Trinitarian dialogue direct from Heaven, but rather, on analogy with the Incarnation, by taking up very human literature and utilizing it to communicate His Divine life to us.

“We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form—something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.”8 But God has instead deigned to give us a very human book, just as He deigned to send us a fully human Savior. Lewis makes this point most poignantly in his Introduction to J.B. Phillips’s Letters to Young Churches where he writes:

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.9

For Lewis, God’s work in the inspiration of Scripture not only communicates but also emulates God’s humble, self-effacing work in the Incarnation. If the heart of Christianity, “an incurably irreverent religion,” should be the Incarnation, “an irreverent doctrine,” then it ought to come as no surprise that that doctrine should be most fundamentally communicated via an irreverent book.

A corollary of Lewis’ incarnational and sacramental view of Scripture is that when it comes to studying the Scriptures we must be prepared to be surprised. Lewis warns against “the Fundamentalist’s” procedure of attempting to frame our ideas of Scripture a priori, deducing parameters for what the Scriptures can and cannot be from our preconceptions about God. Lewis thinks such an approach to be a nonstarter:

[There] is one argument which we should beware of using…: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done–especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it.10

Instead, says Lewis, we should take a humble, a posteriori approach, looking and seeing just what kind of book it is that God has actually given us before making grand doctrinal declarations. “To a human mind,” Lewis recognizes, an incarnational Bible “seems, no doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle.”11 But it appears that this is what God has given us, and we must trust that God knows what He is doing. As Lewis says, “Since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best.”12

Myth Became Fact

For Lewis, the Word is also like the sacrament. Just as ordinary water, bread, and wine are taken up into and become conduits for and communicators of the Divine life that we so desperately need, so, also, all-too-ordinary human writings are taken up into and become conduits for and communicators of the Divine life and word. In Lewis’s view, we must receive the Divine word by approaching Scripture in a sacramental manner. We “receive that word,” as Lewis says, again, “not by using [Scripture] as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.”13 For Lewis, at least when it comes to the Old Testament, receiving the Word means more than simply paying critical attention to the surface meaning of the text, the sensus literalis. Instead, we must press beyond the surface to the sensus plenior, to the “second sense” of the Old Testament, namely, Christ Himself. “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God,” Lewis once wrote in a private letter. “The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.”14 While such Christological sensus plenior interpretation may have fallen out of favor with many Protestants (to say nothing of thoroughgoing Modernist historical-critics), Lewis believes that “[we] are committed to it in principle by Our Lord Himself.”15 Citing Jesus’ words to His disciples on the road to Emmaus, Lewis argues that Christ “accepted—indeed He claimed to be—the second meaning of Scripture.” Citing a litany of Dominical sayings and New Testament texts, Lewis is clear that Christ is mysteriously the true spiritual center, climax, coherence, sum, and substance of the Old Testament Scriptures.16

Lewis stands in good company in thinking along these lines. The “good teachers” from which Lewis learned this hermeneutic are undoubtedly Aquinas, Bernard of Clairveaux, Augustine, Origen, and Irenaeus, not to mention the Apostles and Christ Himself. In short, Lewis is standing within the mainstream tradition of pre-Reformation theological interpretation. But Lewis is not simply striking a traditionalist posture. Like a scribe trained for the Kingdom, he is prepared to bring forth treasures new and old. By positioning himself within the grand tradition of pre-modern theological interpretation, Lewis frees himself to follow his highly-attuned modern literary-critical instincts regarding the historicity of much of the Old Testament while simultaneously upholding both a robust belief in the historicity of the Incarnation and a vital theological hermeneutic. He writes:

The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical—hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical. From things like Noah’s Ark or the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate. And “incarnate” here is more than a metaphor. It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “God became Man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “Myth became Fact.”17

He sets up the above paragraph by saying, “[The Christian story] is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine.”18 Apart from the Incarnation, then, much of the Old Testament would be but “myth,” “ritual,” and “legend.” These elements of the Old Testament only become tangible historical “Fact,” for Lewis, in the person and work of Christ.



Next time, Williams looks at how this understanding of Scripture framed Lewis' reading of Genesis 1-3.


About the Author

David Williams

David Williams is the campus staff for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's Graduate & Faculty Ministries at NC State University, Meredith College and Campbell Law School in Raleigh, North Carolina. A native of North Carolina, David earned his MAR from Westminster Theological Seminary and his ThM from Duke Divinity School. He has taught students from grade school to college at St. David's School and Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, respectively. In April 2012 David organized the symposium Biblical Faith in an Age of Science: Adam and Eve, Evolution, & Evangelicalism at NC State University, which was cosponsored by InterVarsity and Ratio Christi. As a part of his ministry, David works to encourage healthier and better-informed conversations about the Christian tradition and modern science in both the university and the local church. You can follow him on his blog