In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis tries to make an argument for the fundamental teachings of Christianity. He aims to give a refreshed take on Christianity while staying away from the traditional language of theology. Lewis, while trying to avoid controversies that, as he said, “… should only be discussed between scholars,” made a poor biblical (yet strong logical) case for Christianity. Not that Lewis himself didn’t believe any of the hotly debated topics, but excluding everything that is debated in the church, not just from the outside, you will inevitably exclude most of everything that is essential to Christianity.
C. S. Lewis is not a writer to which we should turn for growth in a careful biblical understanding of Christian doctrine. There is almost no passage of Scripture on which I would turn to Lewis for exegetical illumination. He doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, (1) and defaults to logical arguments more naturally than to biblical exegesis. He doesn’t treat the Reformation with respect, but thinks it could have been avoided, and calls aspects of if ludicrous. (2) He refused in public or in letters to explain why he was not a Roman Catholic but remained in the Church of England. (3) He makes room for at least some people to be saved through imperfect representations of Christ in other religions. (4) He made a strong logical, but I think unbiblical, case for free will. He speaks of the atonement with reverence, but puts little significance on any of the explanations for how it actually saves sinners. (5) There was something about the way he spoke of doctrine as the “roadmap” that leads to Reality, and the way he treasured truth and reason, that made me cherish more, not less, the historic articulations of how the work of Christ saves sinners.
Lewis believed that some people, devout members of false religions, were saved and didn’t even know it:
“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 points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position” (Mere Christianity, p. 176-177).
C.S. Lewis plainly stated that he believed a person has to work to keep salvation:
“There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians…” (Mere Christianity, p.162).
“…a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it” (Mere Christianity, p.49).
He also denied a literal Heaven:
“All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendor and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it” (Mere Christianity, p.106).
Lewis was writing in a time where Christianity had just started seeping its way out of mainstream culture and being passed off as just some people’s opinion or worldview. This is exactly what is happening today in America if not completely already. The problem with this age is not apathy, though that could be a big problem, but the whole notion of the spiritual is gone. Now all we tend to base facts on is what science can prove and science cannot prove anything in the spiritual realm. Therefore the spiritual aspect of all life must not exist at all, and it is much more easier to chalk it up to personal feelings (some go so far as to say delusions).
Lewis aimed to give a refreshed take on Christianity while staying away from the traditional language of theology. While trying to avoid controversies he made a poor biblical case for Christianity and resorts to using reason. I don’t remember seeing any direct quotes from the Bible (probably because he didn’t believe in the inerrancy of scripture). This is what I believe to be one of Lewis’ biggest flaws and greatest attributes. It is one of his great attributes because it shows that Christianity can be reasoned even in common knowledge of reality. But, it is one of his greatest flaws because instead of making a biblical defense for Jesus, he subjects himself to his own opinions of what Christianity truly is (which is why we must believe in and use the Bible).
Not that Lewis himself didn’t believe any of the debated topics, but excluding everything that is debated in the church, not just from the outside, you will inevitably exclude most of everything that is essential to Christianity. I don’t think it wise that anyone should attempt to explain something as complex as Christianity without addressing the controversies. Anything that has been debated amongst Christians has been debated for a good reason. He spoke quite a bit about free will and never such as mentions predestination or God’s elect, which are actual terms used in the Bible. That has been one of the greatest debates amongst Christians for the last few centuries.
But Lewis’ view is not simple or completely transparent. He could say, “You will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” Problem of Pain, p. 111. I think it would be possible to argue that by “free will” Lewis sometimes only means “voluntary” rather than “having ultimate self-determination.” For example he writes, “After all, when we are most free, it is only with freedom God has given us; and when our will is most influenced by Grace, it is still our will. And if what our will does is not voluntary, and if ‘voluntary’ does not mean ‘free’, what are we talking about?” Letters of C. S. Lewis, 1966, p. 246. And perhaps most significantly, after saying that a fallen soul “could still turn back to God,” he adds this footnote: “Theologians will note that I am not here intending to make any contribution to the Pelagian-Augustinian controversy. I mean only that such a return to God was not, even now, an impossibility. Where the initiative lies in any instance of such return is a question on which I am saying nothing.” The Problem of Pain, p. 83.
I was just a bit confused when I read chapter three of book two because in every book I’ve read by Lewis it was always God initiating the “salvation” climax of the story. For instance in Perelandra, Ransom had this moment of enlightenment where he realizes freedom and necessity are the same thing. Or when (spoilers) Eustice is trying to get…I guess you could say “out of the dragon,” he couldn’t do it on his own. Maybe this is one of the thing he was thinking of when he said something should only be discussed by the experts. In my opinion I think the key to what Lewis understood of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is with Ransom in Perelandra. What I think Lewis understood was that at the highest level these two coincided together.
Despite the disagreement I would have with Lewis on nearly every point of theology, he reads and understands scripture in an amazing way. His understanding of joy that comes from faith in Christ is simply amazing.
(1) C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: Harper Collins, 2000), p. 45.
(2) C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 37.
(3) C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), pp. 223, 230.
(4) Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper, revised edition (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 468.
(5) Letters of C. S. Lewis, 1966, pp. 197–198.