C.S. Lewis on the Bible

I’ve been gradually re-reading my copy of the three volume ‘Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis’. Lately I’ve come across a few of his thoughts on the authority and inspiration of the Bible – thoughts that seem relevant to a discussion some of us have been having over at connexions. I post Lewis’ thoughts here (hopefully I don’t run into copyright trouble!).
First, in a letter to Mrs. Johnson, written on November 8th 1952, Lewis says:
It is Christ Himself, 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. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to 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, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

Second, in a letter to Janet Wise on October 5th 1955, Lewis has this to say:
My own position is not Fundamentalist, if Fundamentalism means accepting as a point of faith at the outset the proposition ‘Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal, historical sense’. That would break down at once on the parables. All the same commonsense and general understanding of literary kinds which would forbid anyone to take the parables as historical statements, carried a very little further, would force us to distinguish between (1.) Books like Acts or the account of David’s reign, which are everywhere dovetailed into a known history, geography, and genealogies, (2.) Books like Esther, or Jonah or Job which deal with otherwise unknown characters living in unspecified periods, and pretty well proclaim themselves to be sacred fiction.
Such distinctions are not new. Calvin left the historicity of Job an open question and from earlier, St. Jerome said that the whole Mosaic account of creation was done ‘after the method of a popular poet’. Of course I believe the composition, presentation, and selection for inclusion in the Bible, of all books to have been guided by the Holy Ghost. But I think he meant us to have sacred myth and sacred fiction as well as sacred history.
Mind you, I never think a story unhistorical because it is miraculous. I accept miracles. It’s almost the manner that distinguishes the fictions from the history. Compare the ‘Once upon a time’ opening of Job with the accounts of David, St. Paul, or Our Lord Himself. The basis of our Faith is not the Bible taken by itself but the agreed affirmation of all Christendom: to which we owe the Bible itself.
Thirdly, in a letter to Clyde Kilby on May 7th 1959 (written in answer to Kilby’s asking for his thoughts on the Wheaton College statement on the inspiration of the Bible), Lewis says:
To me the curious thing is that neither in my own Bible reading nor in my religious life as a whole does the question in fact ever assume that importance which it always gets in theological controversy. The difference between reading the story of Ruth and that of Antigone – both first class as literature – is to me unmistakable and even overwhelming. But the question ‘Is Ruth historical?’ (I’ve not reason to suppose it is not) doesn’t really seem to arise until afterwards. It would still act on me as the Word of God if it weren’t, so far as I can see. All Holy Scripture is written for our learning. But learning of what? I should have thought the value of some things (eg. the Resurrection) depended on whether they really happened: but the value of others (e.g. the fate of Lot’s wife) hardly at all. And the ones whose historicity matters are, as God’s will, those where it is plain.
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 1 Corinthians 7 between ‘yet not I but the Lord’ (v.10), and ‘I say, not the Lord’ (v.12).
  2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 2: between the accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18-19.
  3. St. Luke’s own account of how he obtained his matter (Luke 1:1-4).
  4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables) which may well also extend 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 11:49-52. 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).
It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule out the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and to the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other: eg. that the numbers of O.T. armies (which, in view of the size of the country, if true, involves continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct. That the overall 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. That is also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, never even envisaged by the Ancients.
Lewis’ statements here seem to me to embody his usual sanctified common sense, and they have helped guide my own reading of the Bible for some time now.
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About Tim Chesterton

Family man, pastor, storyteller, musician, songwriter. E-mail me at timchesterton at outlook dot com
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9 Responses to C.S. Lewis on the Bible

  1. paul says:

    Sanctified common sense, as you say, Tim. Thanks for this.

  2. NW says:

    Thanks Tim, great quotes (I've never read the Collected Letters, looks like they're worth reading). Do you mind if I use some of them for a list of quotes of non-creationist / non-literalist religious thinkers I'm making?

  3. Help yourself, NW. Hopefully the Lewis Estate doesn't come after either of us!

  4. NW says:

    Thanks, and well, I've linked your page where I quote them so you hopefully they'll only come after you, hehe :-)What I want to show with that list is that non-literal interpretation has at least been existant, if not the norm, in religious thought as far back as possible. My oldest clear reference so far is the 13th century Zohar. Hoping Saadia Gaon will be another Middle Ages reference but I've read some conflicting things there (ordered his book on Amazon though).It's not even to prove it's the *right* interpretation, just to point out how wrong the idea is that almost all religious people read the Bible in the most irrational way possible and there are just a handful of cryptoatheist sophisticates who allow reason in.

  5. Richard Hall says:

    Thanks for posting this Tim — very helpful

  6. JJ says:

    Hi Tim,

    Haven’t been in touch for ages, so long that you probably don’t remember this blog friend anymore. But I had to leave a note because i was googling around for help with a chapter I am writing for my masters thesis on CS Lewis today, and this page proved extremely helpful. I was surprised when I link-jumped in to see your face up there in the corner. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks!

  7. Tim Chesterton says:

    Good to hear from you,John – I hope you’re well!

  8. Paul Pavao says:

    This level of quoting from Lewis’ Complete Works would surely be regarded as fair use.

    These quotes are outstanding. Lewis was an excellent writer. Your picture and name look familiar, but I don’t remember ever visiting your blog before today. It’s hard to imagine I haven’t bookmarked a blog with a post like this and a list of subjects like those on the right.

  9. Tim Chesterton says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Paul, and for your kind words.

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