Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: C.S. Lewis



This past Thursday Pope Francis delivered an unprecedented papal address to the U.S. Congress. In it he told Congress that “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” At one point in his address he cited the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) and declared, “This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Here we have an unassailable truth, rooted in Scripture itself, that all should follow. And yet many members of his audience, on both sides of the aisle, would have problems with the agenda he laid out. On the one hand he attacked abortion and recent attempts to redefine marriage. On the other hand he called for efforts to combat global warming, the abolition of the death penalty, and for an end to the international arms trade. His views on economics were nuanced, however. “It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.” It sounds like a call for a socially responsible capitalism.

Interestingly, it was the British writer C.S. Lewis who had earlier made the observation that “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying ‘Do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment” (Mere Christianity, 1960 ed., pp. 78-79). But he goes on to say, “All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like” (p. 80). And what would it look like? Lewis’ answer is similar to the Pope’s. On economic issues, “Christian society would be what we now call Leftist,” but that in social relationships it would be “rather old-fashioned – perhaps even ceremonial and aristocratic” (Ibid.).

But how would you go about creating such a society? Pope Francis, in addressing Congress, could tell them directly, “you are asked to protect, by means of law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” Lewis, however, did not think that things were so simple. “A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it” and we are not going to want it until we have become fully Christian.” And so, “we are driven on to something more inward – driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home” (op. cit., pp. 82-83).

On this point I think that Lewis is absolutely right. The New Testament writers seem almost oblivious to the social and economic problems of society around them – and neither Jesus nor His apostles made any effort to influence the government under which they lived. It is taken for granted that human society requires some sort of authority structure, but it is largely a matter of indifference what form that should take – monarchy or democracy, socialism or capitalism. The New Testament does not even condemn slavery outright. But in whatever station in life we may happen to find ourselves we are morally obligated to practice the Golden Rule, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: how would you want to be treated if the roles were reversed? And as for society as a whole that will mean, on the one hand, that we will want to preserve the traditional family structure, while at the same time we should genuinely be concerned about the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in our midst.

But the Christian will always be conscious that at the bottom of it man’s deepest problem is his sin, and that the only real solution to that problem is salvation in Christ. The cure for society’s ills must begin with the renewal of the inner man. This is why the church’s primary task is to preach the gospel, not to get involved in the secular political process.

As a matter of right every human government ought to conform to God’s moral standards. God is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. And He has given to Jesus Christ “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . .” (Phil. 2:9,10; NKJV; cf. Col. 1:16-18). But at the same time immoral court decisions are just a small part of the big picture. The fact of the matter is that the entire human race is in a state of rebellion against God. The primary task of the church, then, is not reform secular government, but to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19,20), calling individual sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.

As Americans we have the right to vote and to choose our own leaders, and as Christians we should do so wisely and carefully. And on a moral issue such as abortion or same-sex marriage we must speak out clearly. But we must be careful about being aligned too closely with any one political party or platform. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats fully reflect Christian values, and Christians should not let secular politicians speak for them. Our first responsibility is to “preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23).

Having said that, we hope that Congress took seriously the Pope’s remarks.



C.S. Lewis


Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis

Macmillan, 1960

190 pp., pb.

When dealing with a writer like C.S. Lewis one is always confronted with the question of whether the proverbial glass is half-full or half-empty. There is much to commend Lewis as a writer: he is intelligent, thoughtful and articulate. Lewis was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University and the author of the children’s stories The Chronicles of Narnia. As a former atheist who became a professing Christian, he is especially effective at pointing out all of the flaws in modern secular thinking.   But when he turns his attention to theology his work has serious problems of its own. As it turns out, his strength as an apologist is his weakness as a theologian.

His book Mere Christianity began as a series of radio addresses which were then published as three separate books between 1943 and 1945. The final printed version is divided into four parts: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” “What Christians Believe,” “Christian Behaviour” (we retain Lewis’ British spelling here, even if Spellcheck doesn’t like it!), and “Beyond Personality.”

In the first part (“Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”) we see Lewis at his best. Here he lays out the apologetical argument for belief in Christianity. He appeals to the innate human sense of right and wrong, and argues from that that there really must be an external, objective standard of morality; and that this, in turn, can be accounted for only if there is a Supreme Being. Lewis demonstrates convincingly that there is no adequate secular alternative. It is either God or nothing.

It is in the second part (“What Christians Believe”) that Lewis gets into trouble, and the chief flaw is contained right within the title of the book. He is seeking to defend “mere” Christianity, which he defines as “what Christians believe.” The problem here is that he is defining Christianity so broadly that it includes the Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox churches, as well as Protestantism (he himself was a member of the Church of England). This means that instead of going to Scripture and expounding it, he is merely content to state what all the branches of professing Christendom hold in common. Unfortunately this means that he is hopelessly vague on the most important doctrine of all, the nature of salvation.

Lewis tells us that he does not want to commit himself to any particular theory of the atonement, but he is particularly dismissive of the one that is the most biblically orthodox, what is generally called the Penal Satisfaction theory. Biblically orthodox theologians, end even Roman Catholic ones, for that matter, have argues that Christ died as a substitute for those who would believe on Him, and effectively paid the penalty for their sins. All that Lewis will say, however, is that “Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start” (p. 57). “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself” (p. 58). And that is as far as Lewis is willing to go.

And probably because he is so vague on the nature of the atonement Lewis was also vague on how we receive its benefits. He tells us that there are three means by which we receive the life of Christ: baptism, faith, and Holy Communion, but he will not tell us how the three relate to each other. “. . . I am not saying anything about which of these three things is the most essential” (p. 63). But the Bible itself is quite clear on the matter: we are “justified” (i.e., made righteous in the sight of God) by faith (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:24). Baptism and the Lord’s Table are signs and seals of that faith, the formal, outward means by which we publically express our faith and make a formal commitment to Christ. But what actually saves us (what theologians call “the instrument of justification”) is our personal faith in Christ alone as our Savior. (Note: there is no direct command and no clear example anywhere in the New Testament for baptizing anyone who cannot personally make a public profession of faith in Christ. Infant baptism makes about as much sense as a label on an empty bottle!).

Unfortunately Lewis even goes so far as to suggest that a person could be saved who had never heard of Christ at all. “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (p. 65). At this point Lewis has quite taken leave of his senses.

The third part of the book is entitled “Christian Behaviour,” and here again he does not take a strictly biblical approach, but is content simply to lay out “what Christians believe.” Thus at one point he delineates the “seven virtues” – the four “cardinal virtues” (prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude) and the three “theological virtues” (faith, hope and love). These distinctions he borrowed from Roman Catholic teaching, and the Catholic Church, in turn, borrowed the “cardinal virtues” from Greek philosophy. But it is nothing less than astonishing to see Lewis, and the Roman Catholic Church, reaching to non-biblical, and even non-Christian sources, for guidance on morality! Sadly, however, it has to be admitted that modern evangelical Protestantism has tended to avoid the subject of Christian ethics altogether, and Lewis does have some helpful insights on the subject.

The fourth section of the book, “Beyond Personality,” entails a rather abstruse discussion about the nature of the Trinity, and here Lewis is not alone in philosophizing about the metaphysical distinctions within the Godhead. Lewis then concludes that section with a discussion about how to live the Christian life. But here it is hard to discern what role, if any, that the Holy Spirit plays in conversion and sanctification. At points Lewis seems to be saying that God uses natural means to change us – if we let Him – and that it is a slow, gradual process that lasts over a lifetime. Lewis concludes his book with a speculative discussion about what the future evolution of the human race might look like.

Part of the problem with Lewis’ approach to “mere Christianity” may stem from the fact that he was a member of the Church of England, a church which has typically tried to be all things to all men, and has sometimes tried to straddle the fence between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. But if a church is not soundly biblical in its theology, and especially if it is not clear on the issue of salvation, in the end it has nothing to offer a perishing humanity. The most valuable thing that the church can give the world is the truth, the truth about its predicament and salvation. If we genuinely care about our fellow human beings we will give them the gospel, and we will do this both lovingly and faithfully. Anything else is nothing less than criminal – it leaves men and women to perish in their sins.

Lewis has performed a valuable service to the church as an apologist. As a former atheist who converted to Christianity he was forced to think through the issues and arrive at some firm conclusions, and as a result he can present the case for Christianity very convincingly. We can only wish that he had done a better job of explaining Christian doctrine – as it has been revealed to us in Scripture!