Elephant in the room: Evangelicals continue to value C.S. Lewis despite theological differences
According to four evangelicals, C.S. Lewis was sometimes wrong.
Less than a month after Lewis’ death in November 1963, a writer for Christianity Today cited English pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones — who was a friend of Lewis’ — as an evangelical with “reservations” about Lewis.
CT writer J.D. Douglas paraphrases Lloyd-Jones, saying Lewis’ view of salvation was “defective in two key respects: (1) Lewis taught and believed that one could reason oneself into Christianity; and (2) Lewis was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal theory of the Atonement.”
In the same essay, Douglas notes Lewis’ wide celebration among evangelicals and even credits Lewis with making “righteousness readable.”
“Most evangelicals enjoyed Lewis’s work and acknowledge especially his tremendous contribution in exposing the superficialities of many intellectual unbelievers,” he writes.
More than 50 years later, Lewis still receives mixed commendation.
Kevin DeYoung, blogger, author and senior pastor of University Reformed Church in Lansing, Mich., sees “two significant problems” with Mere Christianity. These problems he lists are the doctrine of the atonement and inclusivism, according to DeYoung’s 2011 post on his website.
Concerning inclusivism, DeYoung cites a passage from Lewis’ most popular non-fiction work where Lewis asserts that “there are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”
DeYoung says that Lewis fails to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in a biblical way.
“No matter how much we may like Lewis, this is simply a profound misunderstanding of the Spirit’s mission,” he writes. “The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring glory to Christ by taking what is his — his teaching, the truth about his death and resurrection — and making it known. The Spirit does not work indiscriminately without the revelation of Christ in view.”
Concluding, DeYoung ends up where many evangelical readers do: a cautioned enjoyment.
He writes, “I have some cautions when it comes to Mere Christianity. Good book. But some serious deficiencies.”
Similarly, John Piper, popular author, speaker and pastor, discussed his own journey with Lewis in a 2010 address, “Lessons from an Inconsolable Soul.”
“Why has he been so significant for me, even though he is not Reformed in his doctrine, and could barely be called an evangelical by typical American uses of that word?” Piper asked [italics original].
Piper described six aspects of Lewis’ thought that he finds problematic: (1) he was not an inerrantist; (2) he viewed the Protestant Reformation as avoidable; (3) he remained in the Church of England, despite his largely Protestant beliefs; (4) he allowed for “at least some people to be saved through imperfect representations of Christ in other religions”; (5) he used an “unbiblical case for free will” in order to explain suffering; and (6) he gave little attention to the doctrine of atonement.
“Lewis is not a writer to which we should turn for growth in a careful biblical understanding of Christian doctrine,” Piper said. “There is almost no passage of Scripture on which I would turn to Lewis for exegetical illumination. … His value is not in his biblical exegesis. Lewis is not the kind of writer who provides substance for a pastor’s sermons.”
And yet Piper, like DeYoung, sees value in Lewis’ work that transcends — but does not excuse — his theological shortcomings. For Piper, the value of Lewis is the way he brings together “the experience of joy and the defense of truth” in his writing.
He said, “The way Lewis deals with these two things — Joy and Truth — is so radically different from Liberal theology and emergent postmodern slipperiness that he is simply in another world — a world where I am totally at home, and where I find both my heart and my mind awakened and made more alive and perceptive and responsive and earnest and hopeful and amazed and passionate for the glory of God every time I turn to C.S. Lewis.”
Kenneth Magnuson, professor of Christian ethics at Southern Seminary, sees the same errors in Lewis’ writings as other evangelicals. He requires students to read Lewis’ Mere Christianity for his introduction to ethics course.
“To be sure, Lewis is not orthodox on some important matters,” he said. “I assign reading from a range of authors who are worth engaging; I am happy to have students read one of the most important apologists of the 20th century. Lewis is not always right, but he is nearly always worth considering and engaging.”
According to these evangelicals, Lewis was sometimes wrong — but is always worthwhile.