C.S. Lewis on Holy Scripture - page 3


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From the Spring 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

C.S. Lewis on Holy Scripture

by Philip Graham Ryken, D.Phil.
Professor of Theology, President, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois

 
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  Lewis thus came to Holy Scripture as a reader, not a theologian—someone for whom the Bible was always more than literature, but could never be less.14 This is one of the things that he appreciated most about the Bible, both as a Christian and as a literary critic: in the Old and New Testaments a variety of literary forms—chronicles, poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what have you—have been “taken into the service of God’s word.”15
  Naturally, Lewis insisted on reading every part of the Bible according to its genre. Because the Bible is literature, it “cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”16 There are even different kinds of narrative—and it would be illogical to read them all in the same way.17 One has to take the Bible for what it is, Lewis insisted, and it “demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms.”18
  When it came to biblical history—especially the Gospels—Lewis insisted that it should be read precisely as history. In one essay he criticized Bible scholars who regarded the Gospel of John as a poetic, spiritual “romance” rather than as historical narrative. Lewis frankly doubted that such scholars knew very much about literature at all. “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life,” he wrote. “I know what they are like.” So if someone “tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance,” he wrote, “I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel.”19
   For his own part, Lewis had little doubt that the Gospel of John was reliable history. “Either this is repoage,” he wrote, “or else some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic, narrative.”20
  C.S. Lewis generally found critical Bible scholars “to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading.”21 He admitted that this was “a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives.” “But that might be just the trouble,” he wrote:

A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people’s studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is . . . very likely to miss the obvious things about them.22

  To use the analogy that Lewis gave, such scholars “claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.” They “ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves.”23

Christianity versus Liberalism

  In defending John and the other Gospels against their critics, C.S. Lewis was steadfastly committed to the historicity and validity of biblical miracles—another strength of his reading of Scripture. He not only believed in miracles but also defended them against their critics. In fact, Lewis saw this as the bright line that divided authentic Christianity from all its pretenders. He wrote: “To me the real distinction is . . . between religion with a real supernaturalism and salvationism on the one hand, and all watered-down and modernist versions on the other.”24
  What marked the dividing line for Lewis were the biblical miracles: “They are recorded as events on this earth which affected human senses. They are the sort of thing we can describe literally. If Christ turned water into wine, and we had been present, we could have seen, smelled, and tasted . . . It is either fact, or legend, or lie. You must take it or leave it.”25  Readers who are familiar with the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” tri-lemma that Lewis posed in Mere Christianity have encountered this type of apologetic reasoning before. When it came to miracles, including the miracle of the Incarnation, it was all or nothing for Lewis.

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