There are certain Christian celebrities one becomes aware of who seem untouchable in their status as adored and beloved. These particular celebrities are held in such high regard that it’s not often that people actually study their theology to see if they are approved. One of these is Clive Staples Lewis (C. S. Lewis).
Early in my walk, on the basis of nearly universal acclaim and heartily positive recommendations, never mind being quoted from the pulpit, I bought and consumed his books.
Over time I’ve read The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, and Miracles; and some essays such as The Weight of Glory. I didn’t like any of them. Well, maybe Screwtape was amusing and accurate in the way the demon Screwtape taught his protege nephew demon to harass a Christian, but overall I was either bored by or confused by his works.
I don’t think it was that I lacked the intellect to understand what Lewis was teaching. I did all right in school. I didn’t think it was that Lewis lacked the skill to make his point, Screwtape showed me that. Lewis had tremendous authorial skill, nuance, and delicacy to bring his meaning to the fore. So what was it? It couldn’t be his theology…could it?
The verse in 2 Timothy 3:7 refers to some silly women who are being held up as a negative example of those who learn but do not understand. But we can hold up their example for men as well. The verse says,
Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Barnes Notes explains this issue well.
And never able to come to the knowledge of the truth – They may learn many things, but the true nature of religion they do not learn. There are many such persons in the world, who, whatever attention they may pay to religion, never understand its nature. Many obtain much speculative acquaintance with the “doctrines” of Christianity, but never become savingly acquainted with the system; many study the constitution and government of the church, but remain strangers to practical piety; many become familiar with the various philosophical theories of religion, but never become truly acquainted with what religion is; and many embrace visionary theories, who never show that they are influenced by the spirit of the gospel. Nothing is more common than for persons to be very busy and active in religion, and even to “learn” many things about it, who still remain strangers to the saving power of the gospel.
In my opinion, that is Lewis, who has learned much but never got to the core of the true nature of the religion. Even his beloved Narnia chronicles have extremely problematic theology.
The Bible warns us that the antichrist and lesser false teachers use language to flatter and puff up their hearers and themselves. And it warns that there will be those taken in by flatteries and high-minded philosophies. I know I am one of those who is at risk for being attracted to how a teacher uses language and promotes his teachings in unique and skillful ways. I just love language. CS Lewis no doubt was a great user of language and his high-minded philosophies sound and look good- at first.
But let’s delve.
CS Lewis – his style dupes many Christians…his style is a Trojan horse for bad theology. ~ Mike Abendroth
In this podcast series, Pastor Mike Abendroth discusses the problem of Christians who accept at face value the things that seem like they are from God, because their style is so attractive. Abendroth explains the importance of thinking, and shows that though Lewis has a skillful way with words, and has said many wonderful, truthful things, the theology behind his words is at odds with the Bible in many cases. For example:
Good: “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” Source: The Problem of Pain.
Good: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Source: “Mere Christianity”
Bad: “If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection.” Source: The Problem of Pain.
Bad: Concerning the doctrine of “total depravity,” Lewis wrote: “I disbelieve that doctrine.” Source: The Problem of Pain.
Abendroth advises caution when reading Lewis and also advises that if you are going to mention him to others, do so with qualifications. Abendroth said he does not quote Lewis from the pulpit, because he does not want his flock reading Lewis. Abendroth continues the discussion of CS Lewis’ theology in podcast Part 2, which is linked below.
In the essay from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) written by Aaron Cline Hanbury, the author focuses on Lewis’ theology and the statements regarding the errant portions made by Martyn Lloyd-Jones shortly after Lewis’ death in 1963, and continues examining the reservations current evangelicals have of Lewis today. For example,
Kevin DeYoung, blogger, author and senior pastor of University Reformed Church in Lansing, Mich., sees “two significant problems” with Mere Christianity. These problems he lists are the doctrine of the atonement and inclusivism, according to DeYoung’s 2011 post on his website.
Concerning inclusivism, DeYoung cites a passage from Lewis’ most popular non-fiction work where Lewis asserts that “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.”
DeYoung says that Lewis fails to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in a biblical way.
In this blog post by Mike Duran, former pastor and currently an author, the question is asked, How “Christian” was C.S. Lewis… and Why is He an Evangelical Hero? Duran writes,
His books have influenced more Christians than possibly any other author; his stories are classics, beloved by children and adults alike. There are foundations to his legacy, a movie about him, bumper stickers that quote him and his caricature can be found on t-shirts and coffee mugs. C.S. Lewis is the poster boy for “Christian thinkers,” inspiration for vast numbers of Christian authors, an icon in the already crowded pantheon of religious heroes.
But does he deserve the acclaim? Not only do some question the uncritical embrace of Lewis by American evangelicals, they question his Christian faith.
Christianity Today columnist Bob Smietana, in an article entitled, C.S. Lewis Superstar, sums up the essence of the “Lewis resistance”:
Clive Staples Lewis was anything but a classic evangelical, socially or theologically. He smoked cigarettes and a pipe, and he regularly visited pubs to drink beer with friends. Though he shared basic Christian beliefs with evangelicals, he didn’t subscribe to biblical inerrancy or penal substitution. He believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration. How did someone with such a checkered pedigree come to be a theological Elvis Presley, adored by evangelicals?
You might be surprised to see that there is any concern over the theology and writings of CS Lewis at all, given the hoopla over Lewis’ intellectual prowess and authorial skill on matters of Christianity. That is the point. The CS Lewis adoration was never present in Lewis’ own life and was not even present for several decades after his death. Abendroth notes that there has to be a reason that Lewis started to become so unthinkingly popular in the 80s, 90s, and onward. He noted that in the 1998 Christianity Today poll Lewis was rated most influential evangelical writer, an acclaim Lewis never enjoyed in his living and writing days of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In 2005 Lewis was on the cover of Christianity Today, with the accompanying headline “CS Lewis, Superstar.” Abendroth surmised that the reason for the popularity is that Christians have of late become undiscerning and prefer style over substance rather than the mental work of study and discernment. He quoted Henry Ford, who said “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.”
I think this excerpt from the SBTS piece on Lewis makes Abendroth’s point of style over substance. The SBTS piece quoted how Pastor John Piper handles the problem of Lewis,
“Lewis is not a writer to which we should turn for growth in a careful biblical understanding of Christian doctrine,” Piper said. “There is almost no passage of Scripture on which I would turn to Lewis for exegetical illumination. … His value is not in his biblical exegesis. Lewis is not the kind of writer who provides substance for a pastor’s sermons.”
And yet Piper, like DeYoung, sees value in Lewis’ work that transcends — but does not excuse — his theological shortcomings. For Piper, the value of Lewis is the way he brings together “the experience of joy and the defense of truth” in his writing. [emphasis mine]
In other words, CS Lewis’ biblical substance isn’t there, but the way he writes sure is a nice experience.
In my own opinion, after having read through the aforementioned Lewis books and having studied Lewis’ theology, I ask the same question The Trinity Foundation asked, Did CS Lewis Go to Heaven?
Lewis accepted evolution for much of his life, taught and believed in the unbiblical doctrine of purgatory, denied sufficiency of scripture, denied inerrancy of scripture, misunderstood the work of the Holy Spirit, promoted open theism, denied the penal substitutionary atonement, and was muddy and unclear on a number of other doctrines. Can one even BE a Christian who denies and twists such foundational doctrines? Can one deny the very things that make one a Christian and yet still be called a Christian? Does Lewis get a pass simply because he was a good writer…but Benny Hinn is unmasked as a fake because he isn’t?
The point Pastor Abendroth made was also that we need to think for ourselves. As he said, and I reiterate, I personally do not recommend C. S. Lewis, but I’m not advocating immediately throwing out all books written by Lewis that may be standing on your bookshelves. Think about these things and come to your own conclusions. There is no doubt CS Lewis was a scholar and a philosopher who made significant contributions to the world. It’s up to you to decide how much of a contribution he made to Christianity.
Sources and Further Reading/Listening
Essay, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary- CS Lewis: Elephant in the Room
Podcast, Bethlehem Bible Church/No Compromise Radio-
Essay, Mike Duran- How ‘Christian’ was CS Lewis & Why is he an Evangelical Hero?