Hoping the Best for C. S. Lewis: Reflections on Robbins

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One seminary I attended, Bethel Seminary San Diego, hosted lectures this week by a C. S. Lewis scholar. Though I did not attend the lectures, notice of them did prompt in me some transitory interest in Lewis, or at least in one article strongly critical of him. Unlike many Christians I know (especially at Bethel, where I once heard a professor refer to Lewis as “our hero”), I have never been a voracious reader, nor would I call myself a “fan,” of Lewis. I have read and appreciated some of his works, however. (The John Cleese reading of The Screwtape Letters is a classic.) In fact, as an adolescent, before I abandoned fundamentalism in favor of agnosticism (which I later abandoned in favor of a renewed, or my first genuine, faith), I adapted Lewis’ The Great Divorce into a two-person play for a high school English assignment. (My recollection is that my partner for the project handled other aspects of the assignment and that concept/creation of the script was “all me,” but such memories of past centuries tend to be more like Dali’s Persistence of Memory than Highlander flashbacks.)

The “strongly critical” article I have in mind is John W. Robbins’ “Did C. S. Lewis Go to Heaven?” (accessed/copied 10 November 2013), originally presented by Robbins at the 2003 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, then printed in The Trinity Review No. 226 (November/December 2003). (I forwarded links to this article to some fellow alumni I suspected might be attending—in the form of a “reply all” to an event reminder I received from one of them. I did not request any comments and none of them offered any, though perhaps they commented among themselves.) What follows is a full reproduction of that article, along with some comments of my own. The original article appears in block quotations, my comments in standard text set off by horizontal lines. The first and most essential part of the original article actually appears last but must here appear first to justify my full reproduction of the original:

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In what remains of the article, I have made the following modification: for ease of reference, footnotes have been moved from the end of the article to brackets within the article; they have also been emphasized. Also for ease of reference, I have maintained the note numbering, beginning each bracketed entry with “Note [Number]:”—in each case, the note number is original but the word “Note” and the colon are added. Hyperlinks (to related resources or other information) are also added. I’ve also made some format modifications (substituting block quotation for use of quotation marks, for instance). For readers’ reference, I have provided a PDF of the original for download. (This same PDF, along with PDFs and eBooks of many other interesting and useful Reviews, may be acquired at the Trinity Foundation’s Web site.

C. S. Lewis [Note 1: This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Atlanta, Georgia, November 19, 2003] was one of the most influential, if not the most influential, Anglican writer of the twentieth century. Any informed Western Christian could not have lived in the middle and latter twentieth century without having encountered Lewis, for he was both prolific and well-publicized. When I was young, I was enamored of Lewis, as, I suppose, many young people are. After his death in November 1963, the C. S. Lewis literary-theological complex developed in the United States, with scores, if not hundreds, of books and thousands of essays about Lewis published, largely by his admirers. His books have sold in the millions, far more after his death than at any time during his life. Despite all this, there has been little critical attention paid to the theological ideas that Lewis actually taught in his books, even by those who call themselves Protestants and Evangelicals. I have given a provocative title to my talk in an attempt to provoke some of these people to think critically about Lewis’ theology.

And well they should, for Lewis was no Evangelical. Writing in We Remember C. S. Lewis, James Houston, an Oxford University Lecturer for 23 years, later the founding Principal and Chancellor of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, said, Lewis “had no cultural connections with Evangelicals. He had no friends among them….His friends were all Anglo-Catholic or Catholic….Lewis, of course, has been adopted by the Evangelicals in America in a way that would have made him very uncomfortable. He didn’t associate with them; he didn’t think of himself as one of them.” [Note 2: James Houston, “Reminiscences of the Oxford Lewis,” We Remember C. S. Lewis: Essays and Memoirs, David Graham, editor. Broadman and Holman, 2001, 136.]

Lewis’ lack of significant exposure to Evangelical doctrine and manner of expression might, oddly enough, make it easier rather than harder to “hope for the best” when reflecting on Lewis’ spiritual status. That Lewis had no significant, long-term exposure to or interaction with Evangelicals means that we might view his un-Evangelical statements as less certainly anti-Evangelical. His religious thinking, in other words, was not likely born out of a desire to refute or correct Evangelicalism. Rather, it was probably his attempt to explain and analyze his own experiences and convictions in terms of the only theological system and religious language he’d been much exposed to, namely, the Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic. How much this aspect of Lewis’ background should influence an assessment of his work and spiritual state I’ll let readers decide.

Despite the widespread and enthusiastic acceptance of Lewis in Evangelical circles in the United States, or perhaps because of it, one must raise the question: What did C. S. Lewis actually believe and teach about God, man, sin, salvation, Scripture, government, and society? This paper, a portion of a book-in-progress, examines his teachings on these subjects and concludes that Lewis cannot accurately be called an Evangelical and may be called a Christian only in an historical or nominal sense. On point after point, Lewis taught doctrines contrary to Scripture. He denied the inerrancy of Scripture itself; he rejected the doctrine of the substitutionary, penal atonement; he set forth an odd view of the resurrection of the body, to name only three. In locus after locus of Christian theology, Lewis’ views were un-Biblical and Antichristian.

A few years ago, this Society explored the limits of the term “Evangelical.” If we mark those limits as including belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, C. S. Lewis was no Evangelical and would not have been allowed to join the Evangelical Theological Society. [Note 3: This may now be untrue, for on November 19, 2003, ETS members, violating their own Doctrinal Basis, voted to retain men who deny inerrancy as members in good standing.] So why the great admiration for Lewis in Evangelical circles?

One explanation may be that American Evangelical circles are no longer evangelical. Modern Evangelicals, unlike the Evangelicals of the sixteenth century, either do not believe or do not emphasize the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide, which historically are the distinctive doctrinal marks of an Evangelical. This has become painfully clear in the last decade with the advent of movements such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, led and vocally supported by men who claim to be and are widely regarded as Evangelicals, some of whom are members of this Society, and one of whom, Charles Colson, credits his ecumenical activities to the influence of C. S. Lewis. [Note 4: “C. S. Lewis and God’s Surprises,” We Remember C. S. Lewis, 28.]

A less plausible explanation is that Lewis was really an Evangelical at heart. But whatever the content of Lewis’ heart, the content of his books was not Evangelical doctrine; and if Lewis’ public statements are not Evangelical, can they or he be considered Christian? Is there any minimum belief required to get into Heaven, or have we all accepted the Antichristian notion that God loves all men and desires to save all, regardless of their beliefs? Has the Universalism implicit in Arminianism, which has been the majority report of American churches for almost two centuries, and which lately has erupted in the openness of God controversy, caused American Protestants to accept Lewis as a fellow Christian without question?

Examination of this last paragraph makes clear a set of definitions Robbins presupposes throughout the article. Specifically, the following all seem roughly synonymous in Robbins’ thinking: (1) Evangelical, (2) believing the minimum required to get into Heaven (believing what one must believe to be saved), and (3) Christian. Robbins, if I do not misread him, does not want to allow the label “Christian” to any person who does not explicitly embrace what Evangelicals understand to be the saving gospel of Christ. Self-identifying Christians may only be permitted their self-identification if it is understood that, to use Robbins’ earlier wording, they are “Christian only in an historical and nominal sense.” Since the label “Christian” was first applied to genuine disciples by others rather than being adopted by them as a self-identification, I see nothing objectionable in Robbins’ restricted usage. Concerning (2), however, I would note that one who believes in God’s sovereignty in salvation would better speak of “believing the minimum invariably found as evidence of God-given true faith in those who will get into Heaven” (and so, “believing what anyone truly saved inevitably will be found to believe”). If salvation is truly God’s sovereign act (Romans 9:15,18; John 6:44; Proverbs 16:4; Ephesians 1:11) and in no way produced by any work of those saved (Ephesians 2:8-9), as confessional Calvinist Robbins would affirm, then care must be taken not to speak as though salvation is produced by the good work of formulating correct beliefs. Since believing one way or another is a work, a work of the mind and the will, no belief can be a requirement, but only evidence, of salvation.

This may overstate matters, I admit. Since salvation is a gift of God through faith that is also a gift of God, since our “justification by faith alone” is brought about through a God-given faith, it does seem reasonable to ask what intellectual content is required for a belief identified as “faith” to merit the label. Even granting this, however, saying that salvation “requires that one believe such-and-such” seems always to risk teaching that humans who would be saved must somehow work their own way into an acceptable believing state. So, though “What must I believe to be saved?” and even “What must I do to be saved?” may both be permissible questions—and saying that salvation “requires that one believe such-and-such” an acceptable statement—in the inexact realm of things-as-they-appear-to-human-experience, the consistent Calvinist must avoid them in the realm of abstract theological precision. In that latter realm, “What must persons be found to believe if we are to believe them (or if they are to believe themselves) saved?” and “What must persons be found doing if we are to believe them (or if they are to believe themselves) saved?”—or equivalent queries—must replace them. More emotional types might even wish to introduce queries asking “What must persons be found to feel if we are to believe them (or if they are to believe themselves) saved?” If we agree that intellect, will, and emotion are all redeemed in Christ and so should be affected by the sanctifyng work that follows justification, it seems we should take thinking/belief, choices/action, and feelings/affect—not just our favorite one or two of these—into account when testing the genuineness of our faith or (insofar as this is even possible) that of others.

Setting progressive sanctification aside and focusing solely on justification, a final query: Does “faith” reference only the intellectual/cognitive (belief as assent to propositions) aspect of that God-given thing by/through which our justification is effected, or does it carry a broader meaning? When we say that justification is “by faith alone,” do we mean that justification is by intellectually correct belief alone, or do we see properly directed will and (perhaps) correctly inclined emotions as also part of “faith”? If the latter, is it possible that a faith could still be saving (that is, God-given to effect our justification) that was weak on the intellectual side but strong on the volitional and emotional side?

Whatever the solution to the puzzle of the veneration for Lewis in Evangelical circles, it is my duty here today to tell you that Lewis was no Evangelical, and may be called a Christian only in a tenuous sense. Let me briefly discuss his teachings on major doctrines essential to Christianity. I shall begin with the doctrine with which this Society is most concerned: the doctrine of Scripture.

Lewis’ Opinion of Scripture

Lewis allowed that “all Holy Scripture is in some sense—though not all parts of it in the same sense—the word of God.” [Note 5: Reflections on the Psalms, 19.] Leaving aside the question of which books Lewis denoted by the term “Holy Scripture,” is it true that the phrase “word of God” is used equivocally of various parts of Scripture? Are the Psalms the word of God in a sense different from Romans? If so, what are those different senses? In a letter Lewis wrote to Clyde Kilby on May 7, 1959, he argued, “If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights, then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must in some sense be inspired.” [Note 6: Letters of C. S. Lewis, W. H. Lewis, editor, 1993, 479-480.] There’s that phrase again, “in some sense,” without further explanation, coupled with the assertion that writings that are not Scripture are “inspired,” that is, they come from God. The net effect of even a brief examination of Lewis’ statements about Scripture is to leave us much less sure that Lewis asserted anything distinctly Christian or Biblical about Holy Scripture at all. One sympathetic Lewis scholar concluded that “Lewis does not confine his religious views to the Bible but recognizes God’s revelation in literary masterpieces, in other religions, in ancient world myths, and through human reason and intuition. Christianity is true…not just because the Bible says so but because God chooses to reveal himself through many different ways, yet supremely through Christ.” [Note 7: Michael J. Christensen, C. S. Lewis on Scripture, 1979, 24.]

The fundamental question of how we know anything accurate about Christ apart from an unerring, revealed Scripture is not a question that Lewis considers. It doesn’t seem even to cross his mind.

Given all else that this article reveals about Lewis’ concept of religious authority, I think we can surmise that Lewis saw a combination of tradition and (perhaps) historical evidences (such as evidence that the resurrection actually occurred), joined to interesting widespread correspondences between traditional Christian claims (including those in Scripture) and various themes in the myths and legends of various peoples, joined to subjective experience of professing Christians and the like, all helping validate (build a “cumulative case” favoring) a picture of Christ broadly in accord with the traditional Christian understanding. Yes, this seems rather weak and fuzzy compared to the inerrant witness of infallible Scripture “kept pure in all age,” but it is not particularly rare among professing “Christians.” The idea that Christian faith might plausibly be maintained without belief in infallible Scripture, but only granting that the documents making up the Bible should be treated like any other ancient documents used for historical research, is quite widespread, particularly among apologists of a more classical/evidentialist than presuppositionalist temperament.

When in Christian Reflections Lewis lists his assumptions for his arguments, he lists them as “the divinity of Christ, the truth of the creeds, and the authority of the Christian tradition,” a rejection of the Biblical and Reformational principle of sola Scriptura. Not only is Scripture alone not the assumption or basis of his arguments, Scripture is not even mentioned as an assumption or basis. This Society has a “Doctrinal Basis,” which is sola Scriptura. According to his statement in Christian Reflections, Lewis’ theological bases do not include Scripture, except insofar as “tradition” might include Scripture.

It may be worth noting that by presupposing “the divinity of Christ, the truth of the creeds, and the authority of the Christian tradition,” Lewis actually takes for granted more than some of the aforementioned classical/evidentialist-temperament apologists think an apologist should take for granted.

In that May 7, 1959 letter, written in response to Mr. Kilby’s request that Lewis comment on Wheaton College’s statement concerning the inspiration of the Bible, Lewis went on to explain in some detail:
Whatever view we hold on the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts.
  1. The distinction which St Paul makes in I Cor vii between [“not I, but the Lord”] and [“I speak, not the Lord”].
  2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matt i and Luke iii: with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt xxvii 5 and Acts i.18-19.
  3. St Luke’s own account of how he obtained his matter (i.1-4).
  4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well extend also to Jonah and Job.
  5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.
  6. John xi.49-52. Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).”

These “facts,” Lewis said, “rule out the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other: e.g. that the numbers of O. T. Armies…are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct.”

Lewis set forth a very subjective, almost Neo-orthodox, view of inspiration when he wrote: “That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe.”

Then Lewis denied what might be called objective inspiration: “That it [Scripture] also gives true answers to all the questions…which he [the reader] might ask, I don’t [believe]. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.”

This mention of kinds of truth—which Lewis, once again, did not explain—takes us off into more complex epistemological problems, which we cannot discuss here today. I intend to address those problems in my book. But it is clear that Lewis denied that Scripture was completely true in the ordinary sense of the word true.

In Lewis’ opinion, the Apostle John did almost as well as James Boswell in getting the facts straight: “Either this [John’s Gospel] is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic, narrative.” [Note 8: Christian Reflections, 154-155.]

But the Apostle, narrowly excelled in historical accuracy by Boswell, comes out smelling like a rose compared to the Psalmists. Referring to them as a group, Lewis said they were “ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric men.” [Note 9: Reflections on the Psalms, 24.] Speaking of their writings, the Psalms, Lewis characterized some of them as “fatal confusion,” “devilish,” “diabolical,” “contemptible,” petty and vulgar. [Note 10: Reflections on the Psalms, 18-22. His actual words are “But of course the fatal confusion between being in the right and being righteous soon falls upon them [the Psalmists]….There is also in many of the Psalms a still more fatal confusion—that between the desire for justice and the desire for revenge….Even more devilish [than Psalm 109] in one verse is the, otherwise beautiful, [Psalm] 137….This [Psalm 23:5] may not be so diabolical as the passages I have quoted above; but the pettiness and vulgarity of it…are hard to endure….One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone.”]

Nor did Lewis stop with these adjectives to describe what he called “Holy Scripture.” He wrote: “Naivety, 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….” [Note 11: Reflections on the Psalms, 94.] Scripture is not the word of God; it “carries” the word of God. “It is Christ Himself,” Lewis said, “not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.” [Note 12: Letters of C. S. Lewis, 428.] The Bible is not the true word of God, according to Lewis. In order to lead us to Christ, it must be read in the right spirit (he did not tell us what that is) and with the guidance of good teachers. It does not speak for itself, but only through its interpreters. Somehow, when we least expect it but truly need it for our “spiritual life,” we will know “whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is myth (but of course myth specially chosen by God from among countless myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history….But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts…can be taken for use as weapons.” [Note 13: Letters of C. S. Lewis, 428.]

It seems clear that Lewis denied the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible. After studying these statements, one is not even sure what the word “inspiration” or the phrase “word of God,” let alone “Holy Scripture,” meant for Lewis.

Now, one might argue that a person can still go to Heaven even though he disbelieves portions of the Bible and rejects the doctrine of verbal inerrancy. The authors of the Westminster Confession seem to disagree, saying, “By this [saving] faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein….” They reject the notion that the Apostle John made errors, that some of the Psalms are diabolical, that there are contradictions between Biblical statements, and that mythology is part of the Old Testament. The Westminster Confession theologians go on to state that the “principal acts of saving faith” focus upon Christ alone: “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (14.2). It is not the mere person of Christ, but his work also, that is a necessary object of saving faith.

Lewis, like the demons that James mentions, believed in one God. He tells of his conversion to monotheism in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. In the last chapter of that book he briefly discusses his conversion to Christianity. Yet, strictly speaking, even that conversion, let alone his conversion to monotheism, is not to Christianity, but to the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That too, seems to be the faith of at least one demon, who in Mark 1:24 addresses Jesus as “the Holy One of God” who has come to destroy him. Regarding Jesus as Messiah or even as divine is not sufficient for salvation, for the Judaizers in Galatia, upon whom the Apostle Paul pronounces damning curses, presumably believed in Jesus as Messiah and the deity of Christ as well.

I wonder: Is saying that something is a “principal act of saving faith” the same as saying it is a “necessary object of saving faith”? Whereas a necessary object of faith would have to be included in faith for faith to be genuine, an act of faith might be understood to be an expression or evidence of faith that might not be immediately manifested in every case where genuine faith is present. At any rate, this is a matter of interpreting the Westminster Confession which, though doubtless an excellent effort to systematize scriptural truth, is a human document, not Scripture itself.

Wondering aside, I grant that we must normally expect a certain minimal intellectual content in the belief of any truly saved person (just as we should expect certain changes in behavior and affect, certain volitional and emotional “content,” in any truly saved person’s life). (I say “normally” because God may, of course, sovereignly save persons whose minds are incapable of the required belief, such as infants and persons with congenitally defective or injured brains.) The question is whether belief in biblical inerrancy and sola Scriptura are included in this minimal necessary content or are evidences of true salvation one should only expect to arise at some point in the process of Christian growth (sanctification), possibly (in some cases) not even until glorification (when all uncompleted sanctification is brought to fullness). The same question might also be asked about sola fides and penal substitution. Must one understand the substitutionary nature of the atonement to be saved, or might someone who professed the following be truly saved: “I trust in Christ alone for my salvation, knowing I thereby accept him as my Lord in all things. I confess, however, that I’m not yet sure how his saving of me works.” Personally, I find it very difficult to say that persons making that profession could not really be saved because they did not understand and endorse penal substitution. (The same complexity attends questions about what sorts of changes in behavior and affect should be expected immediately upon genuine salvation, what changes might only be expected after some time has passed, and what changes might even be unmanifested until glorification at the last day.)

So, what about the comparison between Lewis and this demon in Mark 1:24? Where I think Lewis might differ from this demon is that, whereas the demons stood against Christ, Lewis sought, however imperfectly, to stand with Christ. As well, the Christian content of Lewis’ values and aesthetics (so pervasive that even stories he professed were not meant to teach anything uniquely Christian have struck countless later readers as teaching Christianity almost blatantly) might serve as evidence of true faith counterbalancing the lack of such evidence in his beliefs about Scripture and his thoughts about other doctrines. The whole question seems to be whether the difference between saving (justifying) faith is a matter of intellectual content alone, in which case any intellectual content also embraced by a demon must be less than required of saving faith, or whether other factors (volitional, emotional) might be key. It is interesting that when James points out how the monotheism of demons is not saving faith, the distinction he is drawing is between faith that produces good works and faith that does not. His focus does not at all seem to be the intellectual completeness or incompleteness of demonic or human beliefs, but whether intellectual beliefs are or are not accompanied by volitional (and perhaps emotional) qualities producing correct behavior (wills set on doing God’s will, likely aided by suitable emotions empowering those wills) (James 2).

Without question, persons self-identifying as “Christians” sometimes differ on issues so fundamental that only those holding one of two contending positions could possibly be teaching the saving gospel of Christ. When gospels contradict, either one or neither must be true, one or both false. When I suggest that there might be non-intellectual aspects of faith that justify hoping the best for Lewis, I do not at all mean to downplay the importance of correct doctrine or to encourage the sort of “let us forget doctrine and just love one another” nonsense that many ecumenically-minded sorts embrace. Robbins’ contention that Lewis fails in some instances to teach the saving gospel strikes me as persuasive, and I hope fans of Lewis will give Robbins a hearing. Robbins’ contention that Lewis’ doctrinal defects prove that he was not himself saved seems less persuasive, in part because it is based solely upon intellect, not upon the full set of human facets that any test of redeemed status must (it seems to me) take into account.

Here is how Lewis described what he considered to be his conversion to Christianity:
The last stage in my story, the transition from mere Theism to Christianity, is the one on which I am now least informed….

As soon as I became a Theist I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays; not because I believed in Christianity, nor because I thought the difference between it and simple Theism a small one, but because I thought one ought to “fly one’s flag” by some unmistakable overt sign….

Thus my churchgoing was a merely symbolical and provisional practice. If it in fact helped to move me in the Christian direction, I was and am unaware of this….The real clue had been put into my hand by that hard-boiled Atheist when he said, ‘Rum thing, all that about the Dying God. Seems to have really happened once’; by him and by [Owen] Barfield’s encouragement of a more respectful, if not more delighted, attitude toward Pagan myth. The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, ‘Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?’….Paganism had been only the childhood of religion, or only a prophetic dream. Where was the thing full grown? or where was the awakening?….There were really only two answers possible: either in Hinduism or in Christianity….

Robbins doesn’t key in on this, but the idea that “all Paganism” is to Christianity as childhood is to adulthood recalls a discussion I recently had with one visitor to this site. Though I won’t repeat everything I said there here, since interested readers may simply follow the link, I would note briefly that Scripture pictures false religions like paganism, not as imperfect early attempts of humans to reach out to God (that would later reach fulfillment in Christianity), but as attempts to evade God’s truth. This doesn’t mean that false religions don’t in fact contain “hints” of the truth; they do, but this is because humans as God’s image can never wholly evade God’s truth. “Hints” of it are always seeping into their thoughts, their dreams, and their creative work, even when their minds and hearts are hard set against recognizing, much less assenting to, God’s truth.

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.” [Note 14: Surprised by Joy, 1956, 230-237.]
Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, by his own account, is tantamount to acceptance of the doctrine of the Incarnation. But is that saving faith? Is that Christianity? If it is, then everyone who believes the deity of Christ is saved. But we have, in Scripture itself, examples of those who accept the deity of Christ who are not saved. Even at the last judgment, there will be many who address Christ as Lord, acknowledge his deity, and yet are sent to Hell (see Matthew 7:21-23).

The Apostle Paul saw at least one other doctrine as the sine qua non of Christianity: justification by faith alone. Not only does he make this clear in his cursing of those who teach another Gospel in his letter to the Galatians, but he makes this doctrine of justification the foundation of his argument in his letter to the Romans.

Again, Robbins’ exclusive focus on the intellectual or cognitive aspect of Christianity merits note. Without doubt, justification by faith alone is an essential doctrine; where it is ignored or denied, the true gospel of Christ is no longer taught. But is intellectual grasp of this doctrine an evidence of true faith certain to be found in every redeemed individual? Perhaps it is. Then again, perhaps it is not.

To reiterate: I agree with Robbins (and with Paul) that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is essential, the very core of gospel truth. I also share Robbins’ discomfort with ecumenical activities that ignore or deemphasize this vital doctrine. Because Protestant Evangelicals and Roman Catholics share a great many values (moral, aesthetic, social), they naturally and rightly desire to work together to pursue common objectives. This prompts some (many) Protestant Evangelicals to seek ways to view Roman Catholicism as a true-gospel-teaching Christian body. However, common values and common objectives cannot justify compromising the gospel, nor any teaching of Scripture. One notes that Roman Catholics are not the only persons self-identifying as Christians with whom Protestant Evangelicals share many values and objectives. They also share values with Mormons; yet, Protestant Evangelicals seeking to identify the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a true-gospel-teaching Christian body, if they exist at all, are very rare. I would agree with the common judgment that official LDS doctrine diverges from Scripture more than does Roman Catholic (or Anglo-Catholic or Orthodox) doctrine; nevertheless, I look forward to a time when persons with shared values and objectives can work together for common goals without feeling they must convince themselves that significant differences in their beliefs can be ignored or explained away. When this time arrives, we may hope both that Mormons, because of the values they share with us, may be invited to sign their agreement with a document like the Manhattan Declaration, and that Bible-believers will not feel that shared values obligate them to identify Mormons (or any other group failing to teach the saving gospel of Christ with full accuracy) as true-gospel-teaching Christians.

The question that arises, then, is this: Did Lewis believe and teach the doctrine of justification by faith alone?

The answer is that one looks in vain throughout his rather ample corpus for any assertion of the doctrine of justification. It certainly is absent from his Mere Christianity, where he discussed and defended what he called Christianity. Neither The C. S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, [Note 15: Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. Wets, Jr., editors. Zondervan, 1998] nor The C. S. Lewis Encyclopedia [Note 16: Colin Duriez, Crossway Books, 2000], nor C. S. Lewis A Companion and Guide [Note 17: Walter Hooper, Harper, San Francisco, 1996] contain any entry for “justification.” Only one volume, The C. S. Lewis Index [Note 18: Compiled by Janine Goffar, Crossway Books, 1998], contains any entry at all for justification, and it directs us to Lewis’ comment in a December 21, 1941 letter to Bede Griffiths, OSB, which I quote here in its entirety:
You see, what I wanted to do in these [radio] talks was to give simply what is still common to us all, and I’ve been trying to get a nihil obstat from friends in various communions. (The other dissentient besides you is a Methodist who says I’ve said nothing about justification by faith.) [Note 19: Letters of C. S. Lewis, 1993, 364.]
That’s it. That is the only mention of justification by faith cited by any of the four massive encyclopedias on Lewis.

If one looks for statements by Lewis on salvation or righteousness or faith, one finds several, none of which asserts justification by faith alone. Here is a sampling of Lewis:
Humanity is already “saved” in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work—the bit we could not have done for ourselves—has been done for us. We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts; it has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it is fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, he will do it in us and for us. Remember what I said about “good infection.” One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him.

Of course, you can express this in all sorts of different ways. You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do [sic] not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarreling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.” [Note 20: Mere Christianity, 156-157.]
Now these paragraphs are an attack on Christianity, not a defense of it.

Lewis’ first sentence is a denial of the Biblical doctrine that Christ died for certain individuals, whom he referred to as his people, his sheep, his friends, and those whom the Father had given him—not for humanity in general. Each of the individuals for whom Christ died will inexorably be saved, or Christ died in vain. Lewis’ first sentence is a denial of an effectual atonement, and an assertion of an atonement—if we can properly call it an atonement in Lewis’ theology—that makes it possible, but not actual, that anyone will be saved.

Next, Lewis described the work of Christ as the “bit we could not have done for ourselves.” To be sure, he also described it as the “really tough work,” but by using the word “bit,” Lewis minimized the work of Christ and magnified the work of sinners in achieving salvation. Then Lewis used the phrase “lay ourselves open,” a metaphor for who knows what. Just when clarity was most needed, obscurity was most emphasized.

But Lewis was clear as to what salvation is: It is a subjective change in the sinner, which he called a “good infection.” In Lewis’ theology, a sinner is not saved by a perfect righteousness outside of himself imputed to his account, but by a subjective infection, which he called “new life.” Jesus does it “in us and for us.” If we get “close enough” to him, whatever that means, we catch the new life, as one catches an infection.

Lewis, like some of the Jews in the Old Testament, did not understand, and therefore could not obey, the command to look from a distance at the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses for their salvation from the poison that raged through their bodies. [Note 21: See Numbers 21.] How could something outside of them save them from the poison within? Yet that is precisely what Christ said about his work: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

In his second paragraph Lewis offered what he said are several different ways of saying what he had said in the first. He told us that they are “all true.” Then, in a most remarkable move, he told us that we may accept and reject any and all of these true statements, depending on what “appeals” to us. What kind of truth is this, that has no authority? It seems that our taste, our personal preference, is the only basis for accepting and rejecting these statements that Lewis said are “all true.” Lewis did not insist that we accept all these true statements. We can take or leave them, depending on our taste. At the point when it is most important to insist on the primacy and authority of truth, Lewis lapsed into subjectivism and relativism. If anyone rejects this conclusion by arguing that Lewis merely meant that all these expressions were figurative, and that one can choose whichever figure of speech is appealing, then the statement “Christ died for our sins” is merely a figure of speech, and the atonement vanishes.

Lewis’ reason for saying these expressions are unimportant is clear from his last sentence: He commanded us—and we have no choice to take or leave this fiat—not to quarrel with anyone who uses a different “formula.” Apparently theological formulae are a good deal more flexible than chemical formulae, since we can use any theological formula we wish and still not harm ourselves. The really important thing, according to Lewis, is not to quarrel. This, of course, is not Christianity, for Christians in the Bible were always quarreling with some who also professed to be godly and Christians. It is a peculiar blindness that can read the New Testament and not see Christians such as Paul, James, Peter, and John—to say nothing of Christ himself—continually confronting and correcting those professing Christians whose actions and formulae were wrong. Far from encouraging theological discussion and debate, Lewis forbade it, writing, “Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.” [Note 22: Mere Christianity, 6. Monotheism and the deity of Christ seem to be Lewis’ minimal definition of Christianity.] How foolish of the Holy Spirit (I speak as a fool) to have put debates and denunciations in a book that any unbeliever might pick up and read.

Finally, missing from Lewis’ litany of theological formulae that will save us is the full Gospel: justification by faith alone. He did not even mention it.

Robbins here offers an excellent, and quite cogent, critique of Lewis’ unfortunate rhetoric. Though I think Lewis speaks from within what I earlier called “the inexact realm of things-as-they-appear-to-human-experience,” a realm in which a single truth may permit or require various figurative descriptions, he does seem to assume to be figurative some expressions that Scripture gives readers no reason to believe are anything but literal. As well, he fails to even suggest what is the literal truth of which these all-true-but-none-mandatory expressions are supposed to be the figurative expression. Figures with no literal sense do not communicate meaning; they only evoke an emotional or aesthetic response.

Let us consider another statement from Lewis:
Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. A serious moral effort is the only thing that will bring you to the point where you throw up the sponge. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come.” [Note 23: Mere Christianity, 129.]
According to Lewis, both faith in Christ and “good actions” are necessary to lead a Christian “home.” The Apostle Paul says that this is not Christianity (“Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”)[Note 24: Galatians 3:3], and anyone who teaches this will not make it “home.”

Lewis’ failure to embrace (perhaps even a failure to understand) justification by faith alone is nowhere more evident than is this scissors analogy. Lewis here seems very much in line with Roman Catholicism, which does not teach justification by faith alone, but conflates justification and sanctification into a God-with-human synergistic salvational process (opposing Evangelical Protestantism’s God-alone monergism, where justification is not a process but once-for-all divine act, and where even sanctification, though it does involve ongoing process, is a divine work in and through believers). I believe Orthodoxy (“Eastern Orthodoxy”) commits the same conflation. (Even “Reformed” persons have from time to time let concern over sanctification move them toward such conflation. On this, see O. Palmer Robertson’s The Current Justification Controversy and Robbins’A Companion To The Current Justification Controversy.) Is it possible to be genuinely saved (redeemed) with such a fuzzily conflated understanding of justification and sanctification? Robbins does not think so, but I am less certain. I am not certain if a lack of fine, exact, technical correctness of understanding in this area is proof that one has not been redeemed or proof that one’s sanctification has not yet progressed far enough in its intellectual aspect (perhaps compensated for by greater strides in its volitional and emotional aspects). To what degree is intellectual mastery of doctrinal details required for salvation and to what degree is it simply an expected evidence of progressing sanctification?

Further, Lewis seemed to think that each person must despair before he can be converted, but such is surely not the case. The Apostle Paul, to say nothing of James, John, and Andrew, did not seem to be despairing before he was converted. We have no record of the other apostles despairing before their conversions either. In fact, it is difficult to find any believer in the Scriptures who must pass through the so-called “dark night of the soul” that mystics are always jabbering about before he is converted. Job might have suffered such, but he was already converted. On the other hand, Judas Iscariot despaired, and he was not converted. Lewis here seemed to make his own experience prior to his conversion to monotheism normative for all conversions.

A third statement will make Lewis’ theology more clear:
And let me make it quite clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being “in Christ” or of Christ being “in them,” this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body. And perhaps that explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution—a biological or super-biological fact….He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. [Note 25: Mere Christianity, 64-65.]
I shall not comment on Lewis’ metaphysical errors here, but simply focus on his last three sentences. First, he said the new life is spread by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. Here Lewis silently abandoned his stated goal of presenting “mere Christianity” and taught a view of the sacraments that not only is not common to all professing Christian denominations, but is directly opposed to Scripture. If bodily acts can give new life, that is, salvation, then Christian faith is unnecessary for new life and salvation. Lewis drew this inference, for in the next paragraph he wrote:
Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is that God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him. [Note 26: Mere Christianity, 64-65.]

It should be noted that the idea that “Christian faith is unnecessary for new life and salvation” does not follow necessarily from the belief that bodily acts involving material things (baptism, participation in the Lord’s Supper) somehow help “bring one home.” Working from his justification-sanctification conflated viewpoint, Lewis suggests that the ceremonies of the Christian life contribute to the salvational process. When it comes to sanctification, even Reformed people would grant this. This is why many Reformed persons insist on calling these sacred ordinances “means of grace.” While their contribution to our progressing intellectual sanctification may be limited, their contribution to our volitional and emotional sanctification may be significant. Is it possible, in fact, that some not-yet-justified persons might be helped along to saving faith through participation in such aspects of the Christian communal life? Even were Lewis not conflating justification and sanctification, he might still answer “yes.” Though such participation could contribute little to the intellectual side of faith, it might well help along the volitional and emotional side (if we grant, as Robbins might not, that faith has such a side). I’m skeptical of the the suggestion that Lewis’ belief that persons who know nothing of Christ might somehow be saved through him is an extension of the idea that non-intellectual factors like participation in certain Christian ceremonies might contribute to faith and sanctification. The proposed connection strikes me as at best tenuous. To say that non-intellectual factors might contribute in no way implies that they can stand alone. If Lewis in fact jumps to this conclusion, taking the ability of non-intellectual factors to contribute as justification for believing that intellectual factors may be wholly absent in genuinely redeemed persons (that is, concluding that no minimum intellectual content is required for faith to be saving), he goes well beyond necessary inference. I suspect, however, that Lewis’ belief in saved-persons-who-know-nothing-of-Christ is just the sort of well-meaning-but-misguided wishful thinking one finds very often among tender-hearted Christians.

The truth is, of course, that God has indeed told us what the “arrangements about the other people,” that is, those who do not believe in Christ, are. Christ said, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). The problem is that Lewis simply did not like this “arrangement.” So he asserted, falsely, that “God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are.” Lewis rejected the God of Scripture who sovereignly decides who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. He found such an arrangement “frightfully unfair.” His last sentence—“we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him”— directly contradicts Christ’s statements in John 3:14-18, for Christ repeatedly says that only those who know the Son can be saved, and that those who do not know the Son are condemned. Lewis denied that Christian faith is necessary for salvation.

He wrote:
[H]ere are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. 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. For example, 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 believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position. [Note 27: Mere Christianity, 176-177.]
And, echoing Kierkegaard,
I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him. [Note 28: Letters of C. S. Lewis, 428.]
Sincerity, not truth or knowledge of the truth, is what makes a prayer saving, according to Lewis, and some Buddhists (“Buddhists of good will’) and Pagans (“good Pagans”) will also be saved.

In these statements, Lewis was simply working out some of the implications of the universalism inherent in his un-Scriptural notions that Christ died for humanity and that, in principle, all of humanity is already “saved,” and that God sends “good dreams” to all people in the form of mythology.

Note how recognition that such things as mythology are attempts to evade God’s truth, attempts that are never wholly successful, eliminates this problem while retaining the aspect of it that is useful for Christian outreach. Because mythology is the creation of persons who are God’s image, it will of course retain glimmers of God’s truth, not because that is the purpose of mythology (which purpose is to evade, to substitute for, God’s truth), but because it is simply impossible for those who bear (who are) God’s image to avoid including such glimmers in all they produce.

Despite his pious words about Christ being the true word of God, Lewis rejected the Biblical view of both Christ and the Bible. In fact, he asserted that Christ, as well as the Scriptures, erred. Lewis referred to Mark 13:30, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place,” as “certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” He continued: “The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance [Mark 13:32] grow side by side. That they stood thus in the mouth of Jesus himself, and were not merely placed thus by the reporter, we surely need not doubt….The facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so.” [Note 29: “The World’s Last Night,” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 1960, 98-99. Notice that Lewis reversed the sequence of Christ’s statements in order to make his point.]

These statements demonstrate that Lewis not only denied the inerrancy of Scripture, but he also denied the inerrancy of Christ. Why then did he assert that Christ is the “true word of God”? Whatever the phrase “word of God” might have meant to Lewis, it did not mean completely true or reliable.

I admit, my project of “hoping the best” for Lewis is sorely challenged here. Bible-believers fond of Lewis should closely attend to the preceding. Are these remarks attributing errancy to Christ remarks a truly redeemed person could make? Even if we allow that a truly redeemed person might (at least for a time) fail to believe in Scripture’s inerrancy, fail to embrace Scripture as the sole ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice, and fail to understand or believe in justification by faith alone, are we willing to say belief in the Savior’s inerrancy is also optional? Or might this camel simply be too large to swallow? One possible way to save the project and continue to hope that Lewis was truly redeemed might be to say that Lewis simply got carried away in his effort to unpack the full implications of Christ’s humiliation (humbling himself by setting aside exercise of his divine attributes except as granted permission per-occasion for their earthly exercise by his Father [Philippians 2:5-8]), unwisely suggesting that the non-exercise of his omniscience went so far as to involve his making genuinely erroneous statements. This is unacceptable, of course, since the Christ who is “the Truth” (John 14:6) could not state a falsehood even if his humiliation prevented him from stating some truths. Unacceptable though it is, is it an error no redeemed person could make?

Time will not permit me to discuss many other doctrines that Lewis believed and taught that contradict the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but a brief list is in order. Lewis taught and believed in purgatory (despite the fact that Article 22 of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England describes the doctrine of purgatory as “repugnant to the Word of God”), said prayers for the dead, believed in the physical presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine, a sacrament that he came to call “Mass,” practiced and taught auricular confession, believed in baptismal salvation, and free will. As we have seen, he rejected the inerrancy of Scripture and justification by faith alone, as well as the doctrines of total depravity and the sovereignty of God.

Robbins’ inclusion of “free will” among Lewis’ errors might merit comment. Possibly oversimplified, the following categorization may be useful. Among Calvinists of presuppositional bent, two groups stand out: (2) Van Tilians (after Cornelius Van Til), who leave many “tensions” and “apparent contradictions” they perceive in Scripture unresolved, arguably even creating some where doing so is unnecessary (suggesting that glorifying God yields a “full-bucket difficulty,” for example); (2) Clarkians (after Gordon Clark), who aggressively resolve or harmonize what may appear to others “tensions” or “problem passages,” arguably on occasion going beyond the “good and necessary consequence” of Scripture’s content to achieve these harmonizations. Robbins falls into the Clarkian camp. A Van Tilian statement like “God foreordains the free actions of [humans]” would not likely meet with his approval, hence his listing of “free will” as an objectionable belief. While I, like any Calvinist, must object to statements portraying God as limited in his actions or prevented from achieving all that he wills by the choices and actions of humans, I’m also uncomfortable with too-tidy Calvinist systems that forbid recognition of the reality of human free will in terms of which no human (not even Clarkians) can stop thinking and acting.

So we ask again: Did C. S. Lewis go to Heaven? And our answer must be: Not if he believed what he wrote in his books and letters.

If the faith through/by which God effects our justification is limited to intellectual assent to a set of propositions including sola Scriptura, scriptural inerrancy, and sola fide, Robbins’ evidence does lead inexorably to his conclusion. If God-given saving faith has volitional and emotional aspects as well as intellectual, and if the required intellectual content is less comprehensive than Robbins believes, we might hope that Lewis fared than better after death than Robbins concludes. (Robbins passed away in 2008, so now knows for certain whether his conclusion was correct. Alas, he could not be contacted for comment as I prepared this post [Deuteronomy 18:10-11].) Regardless, the intellectual content of Lewis’ writings clearly falls short of Bible-believing orthodoxy. Robbins and the Trinity Foundation should be thanked for bringing the flaws in Lewis’ work to our attention.

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