CS Lewis and the Old Testament

In The God Blog

C. S. Lewis and the Old Testament

people_cs_lewis_200.jpgIn a letter dated July 3, 1963, C.S. Lewis responded to a letter by John Beversluis who "sought to show that Lewis's answer to the problem of evil was logically unacceptable." Beversluis later wrote the book "C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion" in which he disagreed with Lewis's suggestion that we should use our own reason as we seek to understand God. He specifically took issue with these words of Lewis in Mere Christianity that, "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it."

Beversluis held to the view of William of Ockham (1285-1347) that, "When we talk about God's goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean something radically different from what it means when applied to human beings. To suppose God must conform to some standard other than his own sovereign will is to deny his ultimacy. God is bound by nothing and answerable to no one…He does not, for example, forbid murder because it is wrong; it is wrong because he forbids it." Beversluis then referred to his correspondence with Lewis about "…God's behavior and to actions carried out in obedience to his commands as found in the Old and New Testaments. I had mentioned, among other examples, Joshua's slaughtering of the Canaanites and Simon Peter's striking Ananias and Sapphire dead as punishment for lying. In his reply, Lewis confirmed my suspicions."

Here is the fascinating letter from Lewis that upset Beversluis:

"Dear Mr. Beversluis,

Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on…Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s…) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God’s answer might be ‘What is that to thee?’ The passage may not be ‘addressed to our (your or my) condition’ at all.

I think we are v. much in agreement, aren’t we?

Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis"

As Lewis weighed the doctrine of the inerrancy of  Scripture and the goodness of God he will side with the goodness of God while recognizing the "grave danger" of doing so and that "we must apply it with fear and trembling." Rather than reading the Old Testament with the attitude, "the Bible says, I believe it, and that's all there is to it", Lewis appears to take a step back and to first acknowledge the goodness of God. What is refreshing about the approach Lewis takes to the Old Testament is the humility, uncertainty and willingness to allow God to reshape his understanding of the stories. Elsewhere Lewis said, "My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself…Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The incarnation is the supreme example. It leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins."

The purpose of the Bible is to introduce us to God in the Person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Lewis is suggesting that we start with the premise that God is precisely as Jesus revealed him to be. Jesus is our anchor on the goodness of God. Only then are we safe to expand outward and to allow God to "shatter" all of our misconceptions about him. Using Jesus to illuminate the Old Testament stories, perhaps we will be surprised to discover a loving God who was speaking a language and using methods to reach his rebellious children: "The people of Israel are as stubborn as mules. How can I feed them like lambs in a meadow?" (Hosea 4:16)

Perhaps we can take it further than that, however, and discover that the Bible frequently describes God as doing what he instead allows to occur (this article, "God Did It," lists many examples of this principle). The important point is that we humbly consider ourselves on a journey of discovery toward the heart of God rather than believing that we have already arrived at "the truth."

What God doesn't ask us to do is to abandon our reason as we read the Bible. This unthinking approach that does not struggle with God for a deeper meaning results in lifeless and often ridiculous conclusions – what Lewis referred to as "terrified flattery" of God. The comedian George Carlin ridicules this view:

"Religion has actually convinced people that there is an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever til the end of time! But he loves you." – George Carlin

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