Some believe he was the best Christian philosopher in his time. However, that brings some disturbing thoughts to mind when you mention Christianity and philosophy in the same sentence. It is vague. Quite vague. At least the part about being “philosophical”.
To me, it is vague because the word philosophy is vague to the common (post)modern mind. We all say we have some sort of philosophy when it comes to this or that, or we consider one business to have a poor business philosophy, whereas another one is much better. If we can isolate the word for what it means by definition, then that will help.
Philosophy is made up of the two more separate words philo and sophy. Philo means to have a strong affinity or preference for, or to love. Sophy means to indicate knowledge or an intellectual system. It comes from the Greek word for wisdom. So there you have it. Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom or intellectual thought. Makes sense.
Then we come back to the term we all know: Christianity. It is its own philosophy in a sense that it is based on the teachings we find in Scripture, God’s Holy Word for our correction, rebuke, teaching and training in righteousness (1 Tim. 3:16). Our wisdom is found in God’s word. God’s word is not man’s wisdom. We know that there are two types of wisdom according to James 3: So-called “wisdom” and wisdom that comes from Heaven. This much should be clear.
At the same time the very nature of philosophy is solely the love and pleasure of the things that are intellectual, profound, deep and mysterious. Anyone can become philosophical, but where this has developed is that philosophy has become a train of thought all of its own. Instead of an abstract depiction of loving “wisdom”, it has become a train of thought that can be broken down into smaller sub-categories, or schools of thought, as we have seen through the ages: Absolutism, Existentialism, Pragmatism, Dualism, Pantheism, Realism, Romanticism, etc. These just scratch the surface. The study of philosophy means, now, more than just what the definition of philosophy really is. It is the study of all of these schools of thought.
So, then, to say that C.S. Lewis was a fascinating Christian philosopher is a precarious thing because I then have to explain where and how Christianity and philosophy, as we know it, can co-exist. Can they?
Well, it’s quite simple really. C.S. Lewis is clearly of the philosophical type because of the deep thinking that he puts into the reasons for the existence of things and their purpose. I know that was an awkward sentence, but it says it all.
Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, et al, all struggled with what it meant to exist, or to be. It gets a little mind boggling after a while when you try to make it through their writings and understand their perspectives based on their limited science of the day. Even then, however, they indicated a clear lack of understanding of the Holy Scriptures and what it taught about Creation, the Fall of Man, the sovereignty of God, etc. The human nature; the human will; and the “off-chance” that a divine being existed took many different forms in the schools of thought.
When I started reading C.S. Lewis I sensed the same analytical spirit in him, yet it was with a Christian world-view. This is much different than that of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. The thinking of C.S. Lewis goes deep and he could often put himself in the other person’s shoes in order to explain a much better understanding of a given concept like he does so well in The Screwtape Letters.
He also showed a great deal of knowledge in the motives behind people’s actions. By this I mean that he was able to articulate what we are so often afraid to. Again, this can be noticed in his brilliant work The Screwtape Letters. In this book a master demon, Screwtape, writes letters to his understudy demon, Wormwood, to tell him how to make people stay unsaved and keep them away from the faith. He writes about how the little ways to make people think they are Christians are really fooling themselves and everyone else around them, which delights the older and younger demon. Lewis’ philosophical mind takes him deep into the understanding of these scary realizations as we can only agree with his careful assessment of human nature, left to itself. It simultaneously reminds us that spiritual warfare is real.
Where I think C.S. Lewis’ philosophical mind often “got the best of him” was in areas relating to the existence of free will vs. God’s omnipotence; inerrancy of Scripture; the existence of Hell; and the validity of certain Roman Catholic beliefs like praying to dead saints to intervene on our behalf to God. He even made some interesting, rather disturbing, book recommendations for spiritual reading, which I will get to. Yeah, I was surprised by this, too, but take a look.
A number of times he stated his clear belief that man had free will. So free, in fact, that God could do nothing about it, rendering God powerless over that individual’s free will. Some of you may believe this, but let me help show you where this is intrinsically wrong. I’ve worked on this in quite a few other posts, but stating that men have a completely free will denies God’s omnipotence. If God is not in full control and does not have full power and sway over people’s heart and soul, rendering Him powerless to their human will, then he is no God at all and does not deserve our praise for being mighty to save. Problems abound with the thought that men have a will so free that they can resist God.
C.S. Lewis in his own words, which is pulled from his book The Problem of Pain (keep in mind, again, that The Joyful Christian, which I read, is a compilation of most of his books, so I will reference quite a few):
“It is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.”
Basically, Lewis gets really tricky with his explanation for his belief in the defeat of omnipotence by explaining how the defeat itself is really quite a miraculous thing that God allows. This is nonsense. God never “submits to the possibility” of anything, especially defeat! He is always in complete authority and control. Our will is still only able to act according to God’s good purpose by God working in us, thus we are still living under his grace to perform anything good at all (Phil. 2:13). For those who are unregenerate, their human will is, as Augustine would quip, indeed free: free of righteousness, but not freed.
His statement on omnipotence is interesting because it seems to contradict another statement he makes, which is pulled from the same book, originally (The Problem of Pain). He says:
“It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because his power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
It needs to be understood that to say that man has total free will is in complete opposition to the fact that God has full omnipotence. They are two mutually exclusive alternatives and cannot coexist together. If man can resist God even when God calls him, then God is not omnipotent, nor is He effective. The issue at stake here is huge. This second portion from Lewis makes a great point, but his first one I mentioned just doesn’t fly…even in Lewis’ own other words.
The second issue that is extremely damaging to anyone’s faith is that he doesn’t hold a high view of Scripture, apparently. Does C.S. Lewis believe Scripture is inerrant? Let’s take a look.
In the section of The Joyful Christian entitled Scripture, which is pulled from his book Reflections on the Psalms, he says:
“Some people find the miraculous so hard to believe that they cannot imagine any reason for my acceptance of it other than a prior belief that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical and scientific truth. But this I do not hold any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation ‘after the manner of a popular poet’ (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction.”
I struggle greatly with this if I am understanding him correctly. He seems to be saying that he doesn’t necessarily believe that every single sentence in the Old Testament is historical, or even true. He mentions that Jerome seemed to be of the same opinion. Then he mentions Calvin, which perplexes me, because Calvin used Job as a brilliant example of how God sovereignly works through the actions of people, nations and even Satan for the purpose of His will. I don’t remember reading in the Institutes that Calvin actually doubted the historicity of the very story he used to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human responsibility, but maybe I missed it? Maybe he doubted it at one time and then confirmed his belief in it later. Calvin had an amazing grasp of the inerrancy of Scripture, so I have a hard time believing he doubted Job was historical or true.
Nonetheless, Lewis continues on to what it is that gives him confidence in knowing whether the Scriptures are entirely accurate:
“The real reason why I can accept as historical a story in which a miracle occurs is that I have never found any philosophical grounds for the universal negative proposition that miracles do not happen. I have to decide on other grounds (if I decide at all) whether a given narrative is historical or not.”
This is where C.S. Lewis’ philosophical mind gets the best of him. What I am reading here indicates that he is relying on his own ability to comprehend the possibility of a miracle only because he has “never found any philosophical grounds for the universal negative proposition that miracles do not happen.”
Thanks Lewie, that’s really helpful. You’ve wrapped your mind around the universe and concur that miracles are not proven to be unheard of, philosophically, and so determine that, indeed, maybe most of the Old Testament is historical!
Well let’s not lose sight of the fact that he said he has to decide on “other grounds” whether a story is historical or not. He continues:
“The Book of Job appears to me unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say; because, in fact, the author quite obviously writes as a storyteller not as a chronicler.”
It gets worse:
“I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.”
How can C.S. Lewis honestly believe he can have any real conviction on anything if he doesn’t accept the Bible as true and historical? For all of the other marvelous quotes we get from his books, this just blows me away. His explanation for this, again, is taking this absurd idea and making it sound like it is just God’s fascinating way of spreading his story:
“At every step in what is called—a little misleadingly—the ‘evolution’ of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such retellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the retellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God…”
Once again, I find his explanation tricky and misleading itself. To his credit, he ends on the fact that the retellers are being used by God even though the retellers may be bringing in their own attitudes and whatever else. I get that. That’s okay. Paul had plenty of his “own” attitude that came through many of his letters, but it was still inspired by the Holy Spirit. All Scripture is God breathed (1 Tim. 3:16).
What is completely unacceptable to me is that he would refer to the origination of the Creation account as Pagan and mythical even though he said that God somehow miraculously turned it into an “idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator” for us all to believe in, in the end.
To me, it reeks of the same type of thinking that goes into trying to reconcile God with the Theory of Evolution by saying that God uses Evolution to create everything. The Bible does not support this. If we cannot take Genesis 1 literally, then where do we start taking the Bible seriously? Chapter 7? Where?
Again, to his credit, he later admits that on the “Road to Emmaus” account in Luke 24, Jesus chastises the two disciples for not believing all that the prophets of old had spoken, so there is clearly a mandate to believe what was written. Lewis then goes into a great explanation of how Christ reveals Himself in many of the Old Testament passages, thus determining that some of the OT passages had a kind of second meaning to them since they represented Christ, though not yet fulfilled at the time those OT passages were actually written.
However, what he does in this whole combined section is argue that “if even Pagan utterances can carry a second meaning, not quite accidentally but because…they have a sort of right to it, we shall expect the Scriptures to do this more momentously and more often. We have two grounds for doing so if we are Christians.”
His two grounds were what we just went over: 1) the fact that a Pagan myth could be sovereignly turned into a true depiction of Creation; 2) that Christ was throughout the OT, but the texts were more of a mystery in its meanings until Christ fulfilled His prophecy of His First Coming.
All in all, his philosophical approach to how he decides which parts of Scripture are historical or not are sadly shallow and faithless, yet he still tries to reconcile the fact that we ought to believe the prophets in the OT just as Jesus pointed out in his rebuke of the two disciples heading to Emmaus. My conclusion to this portion? C.S. Lewis was, sadly, confused.
The third issue I found in his compiled work The Joyful Christian was on the subject of the Doctrine of Hell. The first time I had read anything about C.S. Lewis on Hell was in some quotes that Rob Bell used in his most recent book (at the time of this post) Love Wins, a book detailing how in the end, all people will be reconciled to God and no one will be left in Hell because God is not a mean God that Jesus is trying to save us from, He is actually a God who wins in the end by bringing everyone to Heaven even if they die with no faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Basically, Rob Bell’s book was textbook heresy to the nth degree. I was surprised that Bell found anything in common with Lewis because I always heard of Lewis being a strong advocate of evangelical Christianity, so I was happy to come across the very passages that Bell quoted from C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain to see for myself what he wrote in its full context.
Rob Bell hung on this line from C.S. Lewis for a good portion of his own book: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside.”
Bell used this to say in his book that people will keep themselves in Hell because they are so rebellious to God, but that eventually, God will melt their hearts and bring them to salvation (keep in mind they are already dead and in Hell in these hypothetical situations), which poses some other real problems about being “saved” after death, which is unbiblical.
Where both Lewis and Bell are overlapping in their theology is in the fact that they ascribe a great deal of “free will” to men. C.S. Lewis makes this clear throughout many portions of his book and Rob Bell is as far away from Calvinism as you could probably get. However, I do believe that Bell may have misused C.S. Lewis’ words.
Bell was trying to convince his readers that the very reason Lewis would have said the doors of Hell were locked from the inside is because of their own desires and not because of the wrath of God. God wouldn’t put people in Hell. People put themselves in Hell. God is doing what He can to continue pulling people out of Hell even after death because…you know: Love Wins in the end.
I don’t see Lewis outright rejecting the wrath of God, which is a good thing. People are indeed responsible for their rejecting God even though it takes God’s initiation to turn to Him in the first place, but as soon as any reprobate soul enters Hell, there is no mistake to them that they were wrong when they were in the mortal flesh. They were wrong about their state of morality and they were wrong when they rejected Christ. There is no more anger in those souls and hatred towards anything because all they can do is feel the punishment and pain.
A second part to this issue of Hell that even Bell was trying to push in his book was that Hell is not really eternal, as in forever or unending. Indeed, Lewis had his own misunderstandings of the eternality of Hell apparently:
“That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration—or duration at all—we cannot say…”
Again, his philosophical tendencies bring him to a point of thinking too much about how eternity works. His human mind is getting in the way of his faith (or so it seems to me). We need to just believe that the Bible literally says Hell and Heaven will be an unending amount of time. Matthew 25 speaks of eternal fire and punishment prepared for the devil and his angels and all who don’t believe.
Lewis comes to a conclusion on Hell when he says: “They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”
While the regenerated souls in Heaven are as free as they can ever get as soon as they get there (not becoming more and more free) they are indeed blessed in the presence of God as he indicates. Not to be picky about his views on Hell, but I do care when I see anything that doesn’t present Hell as absolutely horrible and frightening, or eternal, because it is. To his credit, he did start off this portion by saying he was “not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable. Let us make no mistake;” he says, “it is not tolerable.” Too bad Rob Bell tried to do exactly that.
Two final issues jumped out at me in The Joyful Christian. The first is his defense for praying to dead saints. There is a Roman Catholic belief that you can gain extra help by praying to dead saints, even Mary, the mother of Jesus, and they will intercede with Jesus to God for you. Lewis says of this: “There is clearly a theological defense for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead?”
I don’t know about you, but his logic here does not satisfy me as being “clearly theological”. In fact I’m reminded of King Saul who sinned against the Lord by summoning the prophet Samuel for help in battle in 1 Sam. 28. It was sinful to go to anyone other than God for prayer or divine intervention. Even now, there is not one dead saint who hears prayers. Jesus Christ is our only mediator and even still, because of Christ, we can now confidently approach the throne of grace, of God Himself (Heb. 4:16).
The last issue I found as a bit disturbing was his recommendation he made for spiritual readings. I’ll make this quick. He mentioned a whole list of names and books that he found personally insightful and spiritually invigorating and encouraged his readers to pick them up if they had a chance or an interest. Once of his side notes was “I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.”
I wish he explained more of what he meant here, but the little I have heard and read about Soren Kierkegaard was that he was a type of mystic in some respects and not a great proponent of all things Biblical. To quote an article I came across once, it said:
“[Kierkegaard] has marked structural similarities to mystics such as Eckhart, who is warmly received by the Japanese philosophical tradition, particularly in the writings of its Zen and Pure Land Buddhist representatives.”
Wow. Okay, Mr. Lewis. Bad recommendation. Yet, he makes another one:
“Have you read anything by an American Trappist called Thomas Merton? I’m at present on his No Man Is an Island. It is the best new spiritual reading I’ve met for a long time.”
Now, let me quote Merton himself in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
"It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, ... now I realize what we all are .... If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are ...I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other ... At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth ... This little point ...is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody."
This is downright frightening. As Ray Yungen put it: “What Martin Luther King was to the civil rights movement and what Henry Ford was to the automobile, Thomas Merton is to contemplative prayer. Although this prayer movement existed centuries before he came along, Merton took it out of its monastic setting and made it available to and popular with the masses.”
It is downright irresponsible and reprehensible for anyone in the body of believers to support this kind of philosophy. Again, I just feel that C.S. Lewis was too much of a philosopher and not enough of a theologian and would oftentimes get caught in the very webs of human reasoning that he warned apologists not to get into. It is a dangerous place to be because it takes our eyes off of Jesus and places our faith in the so-called wisdom of the world, not the real wisdom that comes from Heaven as we read in James earlier.
I hope this book review of The Joyful Christian helped and that it at least challenged you to constantly keep a mind of discernment that is trained from constant study of God’s Word. I should clarify that I have quoted C.S. Lewis on a number of occasions for some of the great things he has articulated that brought great clarity to some type of biblical truth. This is precisely why I was shocked at some of the other things I saw in his writings.
I am thankful for a lot of the good things that C.S. Lewis has done for understanding certain biblical truths, but I do stay very much concerned for some of the theology that he articulated and recommendations he made to other spiritual sources especially since C.S. Lewis is one of the most popular Christian theologians being published in the United States today. Perhaps these reasons are why he still sells so many books. He is an incredible mind, but with a lack of solid understanding on key Biblical doctrines. Plus, with his affirmation of popular mystics, he no doubt holds some sway with even some of them still. This makes me sad.
This was a hard review to write because I love many other things he has written. Nonetheless, the things that seemed too wrong to ignore...well, they cannot go unnoticed.
Let me know if you have any questions or concerns on anything I’ve written. I only want to represent him fairly and the Bible accurately.