I am always thankful that the first theology book I ever read was C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I stumbled upon it in the B. Dalton Bookseller at the local mall early in the summer before my senior year in high school, was intrigued, took it home and devoured it in less than a day. From then on I read anything I could get my hands on by Lewis: Miracles, The Great Divorce, God in the Dock, The Abolition of Man, you name it. Lewis’s clarity, cleverness, creativity, intelligence, and piety all captured my imagination. My love affair with his writings transformed my faith and my life from that of just muddling through, to being thoughtfully engaged in thinking about God, the universe and everything. For that I will be ever thankful.
But I am thankful, too, to have had Lewis early on as a hero because from him I learned that there were far more theological options available to the serious Christian than what is being offered on American evangelicalism’s theological menu. There are lots of things I could cite: his coziness with evolution, his openness to purgatory, his ambivalence about justification sola fide. But today I wanted to highlight Lewis’s take on the Bible.
Many Evangelical Protestants are gearing up again for another skirmish in “the battle for the Bible,” this time fussing, yet again, over the doctrine of “inerrancy.” Whatever side you take in that debate, a little perspective can go a long way. For one thing, there’s never been a time when Protestants weren’t arguing about the nature and function of the Bible with someone. First it was an argument between Lutherans and Catholics, and then between Lutherans and Reformed and between Reformed and Catholics, and so on and so forth. And, even before the Reformation, there’s never been a time when there weren’t a variety of views of the Bible on offer within the Church. It’s good to remember that fact whenever you feel like your particular view of the Bible is under attack. It may not always be the case that the Bible itself is at stake.
Lewis’s view of the Bible draws deeply both from his intimate knowledge of the Church Fathers and the Medieval Doctors of the Church, and his awareness of modern biblical scholarship. That is to say, he creatively draws from the deep resources of the Church’s grand tradition in order to think through the contemporary problems posed by modern historical-critical scholarship. And his take on the Bible is rather different from that of most conservative evangelicals.
For Lewis, the Bible, while being a vessel of the divine Word, is a profoundly human collection of documents. Here is a representative passage from chapter XI in his book Reflections on the Psalms:
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.
This position, needless to say, would not meet with approval from many Fundamentalists.
That is because most Fundamentalists, inerrantists, and conservatives primarily frame their doctrine of Scripture with an a priori argument that depends on the premises 1) that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, and 2) that God just would or wouldn’t inspire His Word this or that way. Lewis thinks that this a priori approach to thinking about the Bible is 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.
Instead, says Lewis, when figuring out just how the Bible is God’s Word, we should take a humble a posteriori approach, looking and seeing what kind of book He has actually given us before making making grand doctrinal declarations. And this is par for the course when dealing with the God of surprises Who, against all expectations sent His Son to die on the cross and sent His Spirit even to anoint unwashed Gentiles and rot-gut sinners. As with everything else in Christianity, so it is with Scripture.
We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no books. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system….He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down.”
In many, many ways the Bible defies our a priori theological expectations of what the Bible should be. In each case, however, our response should not be to force the Bible to fit what we thought or were taught it must be, but to humbly accept it as it is given to us, trusting Him who is ultimately its giver. As Lewis says, “Since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best.”
Lots of folks are getting worked up about the precise relationships between the Bible and history and science and the like. These are difficult and important subjects, to be sure. But I have always been comforted by the fact that even if I decided that the Bible doesn’t always give us “impeccable history or science,” all is not lost. It just means I might be standing with my old teacher, C.S. Lewis, and that’s not too bad.