The Lutheran Appreciation of C. S. Lewis by Dr. Eric Phillips

Today’s guest author is Dr. Eric Phillips, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Nashville, Tennessee. Before attending seminary, he earned a Ph.D. in Early Christian Studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He lives with his wife Kristina and their three children, the oldest of whom is six.

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Twice a Genius

In sitting down to write an essay on “how Lutherans appreciate C.S. Lewis,” I am confronted with the question of whether there is a distinctly Lutheran version of this appreciation.

I could write for a long time about my own admiration for the man and his work, but I suspect that most of my points would be echoed by most of the other essayists who are participating in this tribute. In fact, if this were not the case—if Lewis were not immensely attractive to Christians from across the denominational spectrum—this project would never have been conceived. He was first and foremost an apologist, whose goal and especial talent was to explain Christianity to the Modern mind. Whether that mind is in other respects a Lutheran mind, or a Baptist, Anglican, or Roman Catholic mind, or a secular and unbelieving mind, hardly matters. His message gets through, and is little changed by the various filters.

Mere Christianity was only one of his many books, but the project defines his whole corpus. In the preface to that work, he famously described Christianity as a great house, and the individual Christian communions as rooms within the house. While he counseled his readers to find a room, and not “live in the hall,” his primary goal was to convince people to enter the house in the first place:

Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.

This was indeed his forte, but in so doing he also explained the faith to all of us who already believe, with the result that we understand it better and are made bolder in the face of contrary Modernisms, having been shown how flimsy are their claims next to those of the Christian Church. I like to say of Lewis that he was twice a genius: first to have the thoughts he did, second to be able to communicate them with such clarity and simplicity. Many great intellectuals can speak to the public only through interpreters. C.S. Lewis speaks for himself.

Lutherans and a Mere Christianity

So Lewis is the great apologist and exponent of “mere Christianity,” i.e. Christianity-vs.-Secular Modernism. This endears him to most Lutherans (of the theologically conservative variety, at least, who are the only ones I am really qualified to speak for), but not in a way that’s substantially different from how it endears him to the rest of the conservative Christian world.

Where the distinctively Lutheran observations begin is also the point at which “mere Christianity” becomes less attractive, because the Lutheran Church is a strongly confessional church, one of the “rooms” that is most insistent about the doctrines that distinguish it from the others, and therefore least enthusiastic about the hallway and the other rooms. We acknowledge the basic accuracy of the model, but we also insist, for example, that Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, is “the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.” So Roman Catholics are in the house with us not because this is a nonessential doctrine—one that defines the Lutheran quarters but not the house—but because (or to the extent that) they really do put all their trust in Christ and not in their own works, despite some of their official doctrinal pronouncements. I think it is similar to the way that the Roman Catholics, after Vatican II, recognize Protestants as house-mates without conceding that submission to the Pope is a nonessential doctrine. They say we are in the house because (or to the extent that) we actually are in fellowship with the Pope, although we don’t realize that we are. In other words, while both Lutherans and Roman Catholics may love Mere Christianity, we also both deny that such a thing exists, except as a mental construct that is useful when comparing Christianity to competing –ities and –isms. There is pure Christianity, and then there are various declensions from it, in which people may still be saved, because they do not generalize their errors in such a way as to destroy faith in Christ (the Lutheran explanation) or the love of God (the Roman Catholic explanation).

The distinctions I have just made may be surprising and distasteful to some of my readers. There are good reasons, as Lewis explains in the preface, why he carefully omitted all such questions and considerations from Mere Christianity, even going so far as to circulate Book One among four clergymen from different confessions as an external check on his own Anglican bias (none of these four was Lutheran because Lewis was, well, English). He writes, “I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold,” and such content would also have impaired the nearly universal appeal that the book holds for Christians of varying confessions. I don’t fault him for his method, and I do agree that one of the fruits of his project has been to show that “the Highest Common Factor turns out to be something not only positive but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all” (Preface).

In short, I am not criticizing Lewis when I say that “mere Christianity” is a mental construct. I think he realized this himself:

I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions…. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. —Preface

Still, the point is central to the essay at hand: when we begin talking about specifically Lutheran appreciation of Lewis, we are moving away from this construct that defined his approach and has contributed so much to his wide popularity.

The Deeper, Lutheran Appreciation

It would be pointless, though, to turn the rest of this essay into a catalogue of points on which Lutherans are critical of Lewis, just because those might be the most distinctively Lutheran interactions.

For one thing, many of the other contributors could do the same, and for basically the same reasons, and that would be boring. For another thing, it would be ungrateful. What’s great about the man is how he appeals to all of us. So how can I be appreciative and distinctively Lutheran at the same time, when so much of what I appreciate is his ability to speak for all Christians? I think the best way will be a personal approach, because I did not grow up Lutheran, and by the time I converted, I had already read quite a bit of Lewis. There are three books I have read only as a Lutheran (Until We Have Faces, Surprised by Joy, and Letters to Malcolm), but there are many more that I read initially as a baptist-like Evangelical, and then reread as a Lutheran: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters.

If I compare my pre-Lutheran appreciation of Lewis to my post-Lutheran appreciation of Lewis, I can perhaps isolate a distinctively Lutheran appreciation.

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia are at least as good now that I’m a Lutheran.

The themes that appear in every book (trusting God and not leaning on your own understanding, the love and care of Jesus for His children, the need for boldly doing the right thing, the way that pride and dissension will get you into trouble) translate well across confessions. The scene in The Silver Chair in which the Emerald Witch tries to defeat the heroes by demythologizing the world above-ground, and concepts such as “lion” and “sun,” is just as clever and wonderful as ever. Lewis’s depictions of heaven and hell at the end of The Last Battle are just as plausible and intriguing, and his experimentation with the idea of “anonymous Christians” in the person of the virtuous Calormene just as problematic. If any are saved in the end without having believed in Jesus in life, this will not be based on the relative virtue they displayed; why would Christians be saved by grace through faith, but pagans by their works? This is one of the very rare cases in which I think Lewis is simply wrong; but I thought that before I became a Lutheran too. The changes I note are both in the direction of increased appreciation:

  1. I no longer object, even mildly, to his employment of the Ransom (“Devil’s Rights”) Theory of the Atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Although the Lutheran emphasis (like the general Evangelical emphasis) is heavily on Substitutionary Atonement, our theology manages to do justice to both biblical themes. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explained the work of Christ in these words: “[Christ] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the Devil” (II.2). Since Lewis makes it clear that the White Witch has this right only as a provision of the Emperor’s Law (“the Deep Magic”), the two theories mesh rather well. There’s even a suggestion of the central Lutheran principle of “Law and Gospel” in the distinction between the Deep Magic and the Deeper Magic.
  2. I no longer have a theological problem with the apostasy of Susan in The Last Battle. It’s still terribly sad, especially when I’m rereading the earlier books, but Lutherans do believe, as Lewis apparently did, that it is possible to stop believing the Gospel and lose one’s salvation.

The Space Trilogy

I love The Space Trilogy too: the depiction of Earth as the silent planet and the classical gods as good angels worshiped against their own will by fallen man, the critique of the specifically technological kinds of human rebellion made possible in Modern times (Weston is in many ways a science-fiction version of Uncle Andrew from The Magicians’s Nephew), Lewis’s insight into the nature of sin and temptation in Perelandra, Ransom’s realization that the only way to save the Green Lady is to have a fistfight with the Devil (yes, there is a place for holy violence!), his battle cry as he heaves a rock at the Unman: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… here goes!” It’s all good stuff, and I could say more, but I don’t think being a Lutheran actually helps or hinders my appreciation here.

Mere Christianity

Reading Mere Christianity as a Lutheran, I was happy to notice something I certainly hadn’t agreed with the first time I read the book: that Lewis lists Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, along with belief, as the three things “that spread the Christ life to us.” He also says that we can lose “the Christ life.” On both these scores, I appreciate the book more as a Lutheran.

Now, when it comes to the central idea of “mere Christianity,” as I said above, I approach it much more cautiously than I used to when I was going to an independent Bible Church and was not aware of inhabiting any particular “room” in the “house” myself. But I think my present appraisal is closer to what Lewis meant.

For the most part, my appreciation for the book is unchanged. It’s a brilliant work, and I frequently remember points from it, especially now that I’m a pastor and I get to do a lot of teaching and preaching. Most of these have to do with the seriousness of sin: his point that a king may appear to be a worse sinner just because he has more power to do bad, but a common man might be just as bad and no one know it; his point that a sin that seems not so bad to us now could take on hellish dimensions after a thousand years (see also The Great Divorce); and his point that people who ask why God doesn’t come fix the world are generally unaware that they are part of the problem, and part of what must be fixed.

The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters is diabolical fun, and so perceptive. The way it leads us to see our own weak spots, the things that we fall for, the ideas that lead us astray, is helpful not only in combating them, but simply in teaching us the truth of what we confess in theory, but do not always feel acutely: that we are sinners to the bottom, in desperate need of divine protection, able to be saved only by grace. “Still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe.” Again, I greatly value Lewis’s insights on the subject of our sin. This is also one of the best features of The Great Divorce. To see the ghosts squirm and justify themselves is to see ourselves: or at least, what we would all become if there were not Another to justify us. These are very Lutheran themes, although I appreciated them deeply in my pre-Lutheran days, too.

When I return to these two books now, I find them just as amazing, but I begin to miss something, too. I wish he would talk more about the promise of the Gospel, about the sacrifice of Christ. Because what is stronger than the Word of God to counter the deceptions of demons? What is surer than the Gospel to strengthen the soul of one who knows himself a sinner? And Christ is “the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing,” without whom we cannot face the Devil. The emphasis in The Screwtape Letters is on prayer as a way to escape the likes of Screwtape and Wormwood, and the emphasis in The Great Divorce is on repentance—simply on admitting that one is wrong and miserable and entirely helpless. These are fine emphases, but prayer is greatly strengthened when the one praying is reminded of the Gospel promises that invite such prayer, and true repentance is made possible only by the blessed message that Christ has died for all your sins, so that you don’t have to. There is one wonderful passage in The Great Divorce where this is powerfully evoked: “I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity” [says a ghost]. “Oh, then do so [says a blessed soul]—at once! Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and absolutely nothing can be bought.” But it seems that every one of those conversations should have some explicit appeal to Christ and the Cross. In The Screwtape Letters everything is phrased from the perspective of the demons, so it’s probably understandable if there’s a lack of such objective reinforcement, but in The Great Divorce the blessed souls are trying to save the ghosts. What else saves but the Gospel? This is definitely something to which I’ve become sensitive during my time as a Lutheran.

The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce is actually my favorite book by Lewis, which makes it one of my favorite books, period.

In the context of a highly speculative (but ingeniously justified) set-up, Lewis explains what might be the hardest doctrine for Modern folk to accept: eternal damnation. And he makes it make sense. Sinners collapse in on themselves in selfishness and pride. They don’t want to be happy, really. They just want their own way. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” This is an amazing achievement, and so valuable to the Church in our day. Judgment is not arbitrary, not cruel. It is simply the natural and inevitable wages of sin.

Then as a bonus, he also tackles the question of Predestination in a discussion that I find a good deal more impressive as a Lutheran than I did when I was influenced by Calvinism. He speculates again about the possibility of salvation for those who did not die in the faith, but he does so in a much more responsible manner than in The Last Battle. The one ghost who stays in heaven is able to do so because he repents and abjures his pet sin, not because he has lived a virtuous life. But still, in the long scene where he is working up to this repentance, there is no reference to Christ and His sacrifice. He is promised help, happiness, innocence, freedom; Lewis certainly believed, and his Christian reader knows, that all of this is possible only through “the Bleeding Charity,” but no one tells that to the poor ghost.

Concluding Thoughts

I know I said that I wasn’t going to list Lutheran criticisms of Lewis, but I think I’ve done it anyway, just because there are so few, and because they pale next to the thousand points on which he is not only orthodox, but brilliant, fertile, and eminently convincing.

I thought he was a genius before I became Lutheran. I think I appreciate him a little more now.

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