C.S. Lewis's Apologetics: a Reformed assessment
Many Christians admire C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and enjoy his writings. I was introduced to C.S. Lewis through my Grade 4 teacher who read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe out loud to us. I was hooked. Shortly thereafter I went out and bought my own set of the complete Chronicles of Narnia. That just got me started. I’ve long enjoyed his imagination and literary style and I’m by no means alone. But his influence goes further. He was a well-known and persuasive advocate for Christianity. Many people claim to have become Christians through the writings of Lewis. Books like Mere Christianity and Miracles are still widely-read and touted as powerful tracts promoting Christian truth. He was one of the most influential Christian apologists of the twentieth century. But what should a Reformed believer think about his method? Can we make use of his writings in Reformed apologetics? Some background Lewis was born in Ireland, but spent most of his life in England. He was a professor of English at Cambridge University. He wasn’t trained as a theologian, but did study and briefly teach philosophy. He’d been an unbeliever for much of his young adult life. He writes about this in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy:
I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.1In the early 1930s, Lewis abandoned his atheism and professed to be a Christian. He became a member of the Church of England. Today many Christians believe C.S. Lewis to have been an orthodox, evangelical believer. However, it’s important to realize that Lewis had some serious theological problems. For example, he didn’t hold to the inerrancy of the Bible. In his book Reflections on the Psalms, he insists that the imprecatory psalms (like Psalm 137) are “devilish.” In Mere Christianity, he affirms some form of theistic evolution.2 In the same book, he writes about the possibility of Buddhists belonging to Christ without knowing it:
“…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 believe) the Buddhist teaching on other points.”3There are more such issues. On the basis of some of his statements, one might even wonder to what extent C.S. Lewis really understood the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. For myself, I’m not sure. One thing that is certain is that Lewis has had a huge influence. In the last few years, this is definitely because of the Chronicles of Narnia books being made into films. As mentioned earlier, there are many people who claim to have become Christians because they read a book by C.S. Lewis like Mere Christianity or Miracles. Let’s briefly look at those books and the method Lewis uses. Mere Christianity Mere Christianity was originally a series of radio talks. It was an attempt by Lewis to argue for a basic (‘mere’) form of the Christian faith. Early in the book, Lewis uses the moral argument for the existence of a deity. He says that because there is moral law, there must be a law-giver. That law-giver must be a deity. At that point, he wasn’t arguing for the Christian conception of God, but only a generic divine being. His method becomes clear in what he says here:
We have not yet got as far as the God of any actual religion, still less the God of that particular religion called Christianity. We have only got as far as a Somebody or Something behind the Moral Law. We are not taking anything from the Bible or the Churches, we are trying to see what we can find out about this Somebody on our own steam.4Lewis was thus trying to reason to God apart from any revelation from God. He was asking readers to independently judge the existence of God on the basis of the arguments presented. This method is found elsewhere in Mere Christianity as well. Lewis tries to build up his case bit by bit. Eventually he gets to the question of what should his readers think about Jesus and his claim to be God:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sorts of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.5That’s a brilliant piece of writing, often quoted. You’ll sometimes hear it condensed down to the idea that people have to decide whether Jesus was Lord, liar, or lunatic. Yet note again that people are called to judge. You have to judge the claims of Jesus. C.S. Lewis wrote another book entitled God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. In that book he gets to the heart of the problem with his own approach in parts of Mere Christianity. He writes:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock…The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God in the dock.6That’s exactly what Lewis did in Mere Christianity. He allowed man to judge God. He flattered the unbeliever. Lewis gave him a position of authority over God. That method was and is not unique to C.S. Lewis. Many others before and after him have done exactly the same thing. I should also note that it can sometimes be persuasive. These types of arguments can work to get people thinking about the Christian faith, and maybe even convince them. However, just because they work doesn’t mean they’re right or pleasing to God. Miracles In his book Miracles, we do find Lewis using a different method at times.7 He discusses the philosophy of naturalism, the idea that nothing exists besides nature. Against naturalism is supernaturalism, which allows for the existence of other things outside of nature, and therefore also allows for the existence of miracles. Lewis starts off by rightly noting how the disagreement between the naturalist and the supernaturalist over miracles is not merely about facts. One needs to spend time considering the philosophy of facts held by each side. Lewis is saying that presuppositions matter. He writes,
The result of our historical enquiries thus depends on the philosophical views which we have been holding before we even began to look at the evidence. The philosophical question must therefore come first.8That could have been said by Reformed theologians like Herman Bavinck or Cornelius VanTil. Lewis recognizes that people have pre-existing philosophical commitments which must be exposed and discussed. So when it comes to naturalism, Lewis does exactly that. He does an internal critique of this philosophy and how it fails to account for logic, morality, and science. To illustrate, let’s just briefly look at what he says about naturalism and logic or reason. Lewis demonstrates that the naturalist cannot consistently hold to his position without undermining reason itself. His philosophy cannot account for reason and cannot support reason. Even though the naturalist tries to talk highly of reason, he actually destroys it. This is because our reasoning powers are not explainable with naturalism. Naturalism is materialistic – all that exists is matter. But what is reason? Is reason material or non-material? Because reason is non-material, naturalism cannot account for it, we have no way for knowing whether it’s true, and our reasoning has no legitimacy. Lewis writes:
A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would be destroyed by its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound…which is nonsense.9Naturalism collapses under its own weight when it comes to reason. Later in the book, Lewis shows that naturalism also collapses when it comes to morality and science. Instead of naturalism, Lewis argues that supernaturalism can account for everything. While he doesn’t get to the point of affirming that only the Christian worldview’s supernaturalism can account for everything, he comes close. Elsewhere in his writings, he did reach that conclusion. There is this famous quote from his book The Weight of Glory:
Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.10That is very well said – completely in line with Psalm 36:9, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” Indeed, only Christianity can consistently account for everything. Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. Lewis didn’t always consistently work with this method, but when he did, he used it to great effect At the end of the day, Lewis is worth reading, not only to see some wrong ways of doing apologetics, but also to learn to use some right ways -- and brilliantly. Moreover, if you have non-Christian friends, reading Lewis with them might be a great way to bring Christian truth to bear on their lives. If you do that, I’d recommend Miracles over Mere Christianity. Endnotes 1) C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, New York: Walker and Company, 1955, 170. 2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Fontana Books, 1952, 181ff. 3) Lewis, Mere Christianity, 173. 4) Lewis, Mere Christianity, 35. 5) Lewis, Mere Christianity, 52-53. 6) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. W. Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 244. 7) For this section on Miracles, I am indebted to an unpublished paper by Daniel R. Dodds, “Elements of Transcendental Presuppositionalism as Found in the Works of C.S. Lewis.” 8) C.S. Lewis, Miracles, New York: Fount Paperbacks, 1947, 8. 9) Lewis, Miracles, 18-19. 10) C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 1980, 92
Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com where this first appeared.
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Mike Ditka and Abraham Lincoln’s temporary comfort
Pithy bits of folks wisdom are everywhere – kitchen counters, business meeting room walls, even email tag lines display sayings like "Everything in moderation, and moderation in everything" or "Actions speak louder than words." Usually, there's some truth to these aphorisms, but this past week, when I received a promotional email from Thinkspot.com, I was struck again by how insufficient they often are. Thinkspot is the Facebook alternative that Jordan Peterson and others are trying to put together, and in this email they shared examples of the content they'll have, including one nugget from a Beta user touting the merits of the mantra: "This, too, shall pass." Football fans of a certain age might remember that phrase from famed Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. When he was fired he told reporters and fans again and again that, “This, too, shall pass.” The aphorism seemed a comfort to him that no matter the pain and disappointment he was feeling, it was only going to be temporary. Ditka attributed the phrase's origins to the Bible, but it can’t be found there. Instead, there is a connection to Abraham Lincoln, who, while not taking credit for it, also thought it a fantastic line. In an 1859 speech he presented it to an audience of farmers, perhaps because of the frequent ups and downs of their weather-dependent occupation: “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” The reason Ditka and Lincoln and many others have been helped by this phrase is that there is truth to it. Whether we’re changing our sixth dirty diaper of the day, or celebrating with family and friends at our wedding, it is worth reflecting that both are only temporary. Knowing it is only for a time can help us endure trials and keep us grounded in triumphs. But, like so much of man's wisdom, this aphorism gets it only partly right. This is the stoics’ comfort, which keeps us from falling too low only by keeping us from rising too high. But Christians know – and need to share with the world – that not everything will pass. There is a lasting joy, and a complete comfort, to be found in knowing that whatever else might be temporary, our God is, always was, and always will be. As David in Psalm 23 proclaims: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. ...
Soup and Buns
Finding the right words: use what you've received
During the Spring of 2004 my husband Dennis lay in the Intensive Care Unit at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Surgery had led to his inclusion in “the 10% who develop complications,” leaving me both bewildered and overwhelmed. As day followed day with little improvement, I thought, “what if I lose him?” I prayed. I read my Bible. And others shared God’s words of comfort. An assignment Each time a brother or sister in the Lord called or sent a card with a verse on it, it became a blessed assignment for my day. These were the verses that I meditated on day and night. I probably could have found them myself – I have often been the one who shared verses with others – but my emotions were raw, my body was worn out with weeping and my mind was occasionally confused. The blessed assignment for the day directed my soul to a specific passage of Scripture which the Holy Spirit then used to comfort me. It employed my mind, leaving no idle room for despair. It assured me that we were not alone, for others cared about us. All of this infused me with strength. My mother searched for a suitable card and sent one to me that included her “favorite” Psalm 46. It arrived during a difficult time and I carried it around with me for several days. When worry began, I read it. When despair appeared, I read it. When fear tried to strangle, I read it. God was my refuge and strength, a very present help in my trouble. I was comforted and I lost the fear. When it returned again, I prayed Psalm 46 once again. During the 29 days that he was hospitalized, I met others who came quite frequently to the ICU waiting room. Three women feared for the lives of their sons. Two men were there often to visit their wives, Betty and Nina. I didn’t know anyone’s background or beliefs, but at times I offered to read my card to them and to pray. God’s Word does not go out in vain, and the Holy Spirit used those instances as He would. One evening I read Psalm 46 with Betty’s family as she lay dying in the next room. Nina’s husband invited me to come daily to read the Bible, pray, and sing to her. Nina had been in ICU for over 3 months, and she was eager to know the Lord. We both enjoyed the 15-20 minute visits. As it says in 2 Cor. 1:3-4, our Lord is: "the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." Never before were these words so clear to me. I was weak and gained strength and then shared that strength with others. Calvin concludes Many people wonder what to do to encourage someone in difficult times. Some hesitate, afraid to err, or certain that “others have it covered.” Sometimes we are just so busy with our own schedules and goals that we don’t make the time to encourage. John Calvin says in his excellent Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life: We should seek the good of other believers. How extremely difficult it is for you dutifully to seek the advantage of your neighbor, unless you quit all selfish considerations and almost forget yourself. How can you perform the duties which Paul teaches to be works of love, unless you renounce yourself and devote yourself wholly to others? (see 1 Cor. 13). If this be all that is demanded, that we do not seek our own, yet we must not exert little pressure on our own nature which is so strongly inclined to love self exclusively and does not easily permit us to neglect self and our own affairs. Let us rather seek the profit of others, and even voluntarily give up our rights for the sake of others. Scripture urges and warns us that whatever favors we may have obtained from the Lord we have received them as a trust on condition that they should be applied to the common benefit of the church. Who do you know in your church or family or neighborhood that is undergoing trials right now? Calvin continues: Let this be our rule for goodwill and helpfulness that whenever we are able to assist others we should behave as stewards who must some day give an account of ourselves…. For we must not first of all try to promote the good of others by seeking our own, but we must prefer the profit of others. With just a few minutes of time, some paper and ink and perhaps a stamp, you will be, as an old prayer states, “an instrument of God’s peace.” Let us go and “comfort with the comfort with which we have been comforted by God.” This article first appeared in the October 2005 issue. Sharon L. Bratcher's "Soup and Buns" book includes 45 of her RP articles. For information contact email@example.com....
BOOK REVIEW: What Grieving People Wish You Knew about what really helps (and what really hurts)
We have all struggled with what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. Whether it be at the funeral, waiting to give our condolences, or an encounter with the bereaved at the store or at church, it can be challenging to offer words of comfort that don’t sound cliché or inadequate to our ears. What can we say that will help this person in their grief and sorrow? Sometimes we are at a loss of how we can best help a friend in their season of grief. Too often, we don’t think much past the first few months after a death. But grief is a long and difficult journey, and our brothers and sisters in Christ need us to be there for them in this painful time. With What Grieving People Wish You Knew, Nancy Guthrie has written a practical guide for those who want to help their friends and family members who are grieving. From someone who knows Nancy Guthrie / 188 pages / 2016 Guthrie writes on the perspective of someone who has suffered profound loss, as two of her three children died in infancy. She has experienced firsthand the comfort that thoughtful words and caring deeds can bring, but also the well-meant comments that can unintentionally hurt. To write this book she questioned many grieving people via an online survey, asking them to provide concrete examples of what others had said or done that helped them in the midst of grief, and throughout the book she shares many of these testimonies. Guthrie gives straightforward advice on what to say, what not to say, what to do, and what not to do. As you read the chapter “Typical Things People Say” (that miss the mark), you will probably cringe in the realization that you yourself have said some of these things, unaware how insensitive these words may sound to a person raw with grief. “I know just how you feel” is one example. This statement, though well-meaning by trying to establish camaraderie through a similar experience, in essence minimizes the other’s loss by suggesting that their grief isn’t unusual, or unique. “You’ll be fine” is another comment that sounds encouraging enough at face value, but, Guthrie notes, “what the grieving person hears you saying is that the person who died didn’t really matter enough for his or her absence to matter.” Ouch. Or have you ever said “Just call me if you need something”? A grieving person is not going to call. They likely don’t even have the headspace to know what they need. A more helpful thing to do is figure out what can be done for them and then do it. Tell them that you’re going to mow their lawn, pick up their groceries, or help them with their taxes. This is putting into action your love and concern for them in their grief. Even the simple question of “How are you?” can be a tough question for the bereaved to answer. It makes them feel put on the spot to give what is hopefully an acceptable report of how they are really doing. “The grieving person knows what the questioner most likely wants to hear – that everything is getting better, the world is getting brighter, the darkness is lifting, and the tears are subsiding. But oftentimes that just isn’t the way it is, and it can be awkward to be honest about the confusion, listlessness, and loneliness of grief.” Ways to comfort What can we say instead? Guthrie’s survey revealed that there are two particular things that grieving people really want to hear from others, and they are closely connected. First, they love to hear stories, anecdotes, or things that their loved one said or did that were meaningful, and the more specific the better. Second, they want to hear the name of the person who died. “Oh, to hear that person’s name. It is like salve to an aching soul, music to a heart that has lost its song.” So, talk with them about their loved one who has passed on! Tell them about the special thing he did for you, the way she was always so encouraging, or the joke he told that you still laugh about. Don’t be uncomfortable about speaking the deceased’s name, for hearing it spoken will bring comfort to those who mourn. Just show up! Perhaps the most insightful chapter is the one entitled “Assumptions we make that keep us away.” Often people unconsciously distance themselves from the grieving for one reason or another – possibly we’re unsure of what to do or say, or feel we don’t know them well enough, or maybe we assume that the grieving just want to be left alone. But, as Guthrie writes, “If I had to boil down the message of this entire book to just two words, these two would probably cover it: show up.” She encourages us to put aside any awkwardness we might feel and simply show up, and here again she offers many tangible ways of doing so. Also really helpful is a section about heaven, briefly summarizing what the Bible teaches about it as well as tackling some common misconceptions. Guthrie brings forward the comfort and hope that believers possess, knowing they will be with Christ when they die. She also cautions not to assume the deceased is in heaven; in such cases where it seems unlikely she encourages readers to simply offer what they know to be true about God, rather than give false hope by going beyond what the Bible says. While Guthrie’s regard for and knowledge of Scripture is evident throughout the book, the notion of covenant seems to be missing in this section on heaven, specifically in regard to the eternal destiny of children who die. But this is a minor imperfection in a beautiful chapter that focuses on the richest comfort we can offer those who are grieving – the resurrection that is yet to come! Conclusion This is not an easy read. There is so much raw emotion written on its pages, in the countless examples of real people’s experiences of hurt, hope and healing. I found sometimes I had to put this book down for a while because reading about so many individuals’ sadness and pain became truly overwhelming. If you are anything like me you will probably shed more than a few tears, but you will also learn a lot, for this book will equip you with skills, words, and ideas “for being a balm of comfort to the grieving people in your world.” I encourage you to read this book if you know someone who is grieving and you want to truly help them, to walk alongside them in their grief. And even if you don’t know someone who is grieving right now, some day you will. Reading this book will help you to help them in their time of need. I highly recommend it. A version of this article first appeared in the July 15, 2017 issue of Una Sancta, a magazine of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and it is reprinted here with permission. Below is a 20 minute video in which author Nancy Guthrie shares some of what she believes are the key points in her book "What Grieving People Wish You Knew." ...
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