Book Review: The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis. Edited by John Piper and David Mathis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis. Edited by John Piper and David Mathis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

I seldom give much consideration to the title of non-fiction books other than from the perspective of whether it is a book which might be worthy of my time and (perhaps more importantly) of my limited dollars. However, as I read the first couple of essays on the thought of C.S. Lewis in this book by well-known evangelicals, I was struck by the thought that the book was misnamed. The book should be called, “Why we think it is ok for evangelicals to like Lewis.” They go so far as to call Lewis “the patron saint of evangelicals” which is a bit of an unusual moniker for someone whose view of Scripture included such ideas as the Bible contains mythology, the generation of mankind was though the process of evolution and whose eschatology borders on a kind of universalism. Couple that with Lewis’s smoking and drinking, and it seems like an odd fit, though to be fair, the smoking and drinking are not as much of an issue as when I was growing up. So this volume is in some ways, an apologetic for the great apologist, or perhaps it would be better to say that it is an attempt to develop a hermeneutic which can be used to read Lewis though evangelical eyes.

Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the chapter by Philip Ryken, “Inerrancy and the Patron Saint of Evangelicalism: C.S. Lewis on Holy Scripture.” Ryken is given the task of dealing the aspect of Lewis’ theological thinking which is most difficult for evangelicals – Lewis’ view of Scripture. This is especially important since modern evangelicals are still living – in some ways – the Battle for the Bible which began in the early 20th century. Ryken’s basic argument is that Lewis’ doctrine of Scripture remains largely an undeveloped aspect of his overall thought and that while Lewis uses some terminology which Evangelicals would not use (like the aforementioned ‘myth’) to refer to Scripture, his view of Scripture cannot fall into what evangelicals typically call “liberal.” This can be especially seen in Lewis’ defense of miracles, “C.S. Lewis was steadfastly committed to the historicity and validity of biblical miracles – another strength of his reading of Scripture” (61, emphasis in original). Since this was key to Lewis’ whole argument in the book, Miracles, it seems like in this regard, Ryken has a strong point in favor of his argument.

Ryken makes a further point which brings Lewis at least closer to the Evangelical fold. This point is really two-fold – Lewis was not so much rejecting an evangelical view of inspiration and inerrancy, as he was rejecting two other views: fundamentalism and liberalism. On the fundamentalist side, “The doctrine of Scripture that Lewis disagreed with was not so much evangelical as it was fundamentalist or at least what some people believe is fundamentalist” (50). Specifically, this is dealing with Lewis’ understanding of certain books (especially in the OT) as being of the literary genre of mythology, or more specifically, that these books should not be understood as records of history, at least in the way that we typically think of history. And I think that Ryken has a point, evangelicals are not fundamentalists in the sense that Scripture is to be read devoid of historical interpretation, or that we read all of Scripture the same way (prophecy is read differently than parable for instance). However, I am not convinced that focusing on Lewis’ take on Genesis necessarily brings Lewis closer to the fold of evangelicals. In part, this is not so much because of Lewis’ position, but because evangelicals themselves are currently debating this very question. It is difficult to bring Lewis closer to “our” position when we are currently battling over what do we do with the “history” recorded in Genesis 1-11 or Job for instance? For Lewis, it would seem to be an easy answer, he would not want to call them history in the sense that we can rely on them to describe the events as they really took place or that the descriptions of the people in Genesis 6 (the Nephilim), or their extended ages are to be understood as descriptions of actual events. Saying that of course does not remove the reality that for Lewis they were still Scripture and contained truth and that they were the revelation of God to man. And yet, for Lewis, they were different than the Gospel accounts for instance, but part of that seems like it was not so much part of his doctrine of Scripture as it was his understanding of the way which mankind has recorded human history, especially early or deep history. And it seems like that is part of what is missing in Ryken’s treatment of Lewis on this point. It is not that Ryken is getting Lewis’ views wrong per se, just that it is reading of Lewis through a particular grid which means that he never quite gets the fullness of Lewis’ thought. Perhaps that is necessitated by the project, but it does cause a measure of frustration when reading an essay on the topic of Lewis on Scripture.

On the other side, “C.S. Lewis was anti-liberal in his views of Holy Scripture” (63). Lewis has, according to Ryken, a view of Scripture which could not be classified as being classically liberal because Lewis rejects the idea that the Bible needs to be deconstructed by modern literary criticism. And this certainly seems to have some traction as well, especially considering how Lewis wants us to consider the Gospel presentation of Jesus Christ in his famous “Trilemma” (Mere Christianity, book 2, chapters 3 and 4). For Lewis, the Gospels present to us a tradition which is received, which is to be accepted as is, or rejected, but not be recast based on our terms. If we think of liberal in these terms, then certainly Lewis could not be called a liberal. Ryken even evokes images of the great evangelical stalwart, J. Greshen Machen, “Lewis treated [liberal clergy] this way (mocking them in his fiction) because he believed that liberal Christianity was not real Christianity as all” (63). But this brings us back to things like Lewis’ discussion of human generation, where many evangelicals would say that holding to a view of human generation in which mankind is not specially created by God or the possibility of a non-literal Adam and Eve would classify one as bearing the moniker of liberal. Also unaddressed are issues like authorship of the first five books of the Bible, which many evangelicals consider to be a shibboleth which make one evangelical or liberal. Ryken concludes, “while we may be critical of [Lewis] for failing in various ways to espouse a fully biblical doctrine of Scripture, it is only fair to say that he spent far more time defending the Bible than he did criticizing it, which he hardly did at all” (63).

While I do not think that Ryken can be charged with glossing over the differences between Lewis and evangelicals on Scripture, his conclusion is really what the whole project of the book seems to be about: Lewis is not really against classical evangelical positions. But that seems to leave out the other side of that coin: what do we do with the points of disagreement, even if it is acknowledged that there are some points on which there is not a unified understanding among evangelicals. This same dilemma is also evident in Randy Alcorn’s essay (and subsequent Appendix) on Lewis’ eschatology. In his chapter on heaven, Alcorn’s focus is on Lewis’ doctrine of an eternity which is material as a corrective against the oft held dualistic notion of a “mystical” or “spiritual” kind of heaven (though many evangelicals would hold to a very physical view of hell). And while I think Alcorn does a very good job of bringing Lewis’ view of wonder or holiness, to this discussion of heaven as part of this corrective, he neglects Lewis’ understanding of theosis and really does not fully develop Lewis’ thinking on the questions of hell/punishment and universalism.

Alcorn does take up the issue of hell in the first appendix but Lewis’ doctrine of theosis – that we eternally participate with the divine nature through the Incarnate Christ – remains completely absent. Alcorn briefly addresses the major difficulties in Lewis’ doctrine of hell/punishment: Emeth in The Last Battle, The Problem of Pain, and The Great Divorce. What I think is ultimately absent from this discussion, and I think is related to his doctrine of theosis, is Lewis’ anthropology: who/what is this creature who can stand in defiance of the living God who made him? An understanding of Lewis’ doctrine of natures, man’s in particular, is necessary to fully grasp both his doctrine of heaven and hell – if heaven is more real, hell must be less real. And that is Lewis’ point is in The Great Divorce – the discussion of the effacement of human nature – the people in hell are ghost-like, especially when they come in contact with the realness of heaven. Alcorn’s discussion on hell seems to me to take the richness of Lewis and his evocative imagery and flattens them into evangelical categories, which is exactly opposite of what Alcorn attempted to do in his discussion on heaven. The appendix reads like a short addendum which was added as an after-thought because an editorial committee believed it was necessary for the target audience, not because it fit the tenor of the rest of the book.

The final essay I would like to highlight is Doug Wilson’s, “Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation,” which is a fascinating discussion of Lewis’ theology of salvation in light of Wilson’s hard-core Calvinism (It should be noted that each of the essays was originally a paper read at a Desiring God conference and there is a dialogue between the authors at the end of the volume). Even if you are not of the same theological persuasion, I think most people will find this a delightful essay, if for no other reason than it is so different from the other essays. Filled with literary references, Lewis references, theological references, and historical references, Wilson’s essay stands apart for its winsomeness and utter lack of academic feel. I found this refreshing, not because of the argument Wilson was making as such, as much as he was demonstrating a mind which was saturated with Lewis the author, not Lewis the theologian. It was in many ways, what this volume needed – someone to demonstrate that he was what the volume was arguing for: not just an appreciation of Lewis, but an imbibing of him.

As a concluding thought, would add that the word “evangelical” is a term which lacked real usefulness in a project like this because it has such a slippery meaning depending on the context in which it is used. For instance, in this book, it seemed like Ryken thought in terms of evangelical scholars, whereas Alcorn seemed to have more of a populist idea in mind. While this difficulty in terminology is not unique to this book, as any scholar who calls herself evangelical will understand, it does make the book’s target audience a bit more difficult to locate. In the end, I think the authors would be happy if readers just picked up a Lewis book and started reading.

I would recommend this volume to those evangelicals who appreciate Lewis’ thinking, both his fiction and his non-fiction. While this group of essays may not be the final word on how evangelicals should interpret some of the more difficult aspects of Lewis’ thought, it is at least a beginning, especially on issues of Scripture and eschatology. As with any book on a controversial topic, there will be parts of this discussion with which there will be disagreement, at times even enough disagreement which will spur writers to take up the pen to offer counter arguments and ways of understanding Lewis. In some regards, that is exactly what is needed with Lewis, or any author whose writings do not necessarily fit neatly into a category. This book is worth both the time and money of those who, like me, appreciate Lewis and seek to incorporate his thinking into their own.

*For additional discussion of Lewis’ reception among evangelicals, see McGrath’s recent biography, C.S. Lewis: A Life, pp. 371-376.

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Michael J. Stell, MATS

I am a PhD student in theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I am studying the theology of John Williamson Nevin, who taught in the seminary of the German Reformed Church in America in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also the president of Franklin and Marshall College and a friend to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. I am currently a teaching fellow at CUA, teaching undergraduate theology and Church History classes. My goal is to teach at a college or university after completing my degree program. I am also the current vice-president of the graduate student association at CUA. Before life as a grad student (if that were an acronym it would be BLaaGS) I was a teacher and principal in secondary education at various Christian schools in the Northeast. My family and I currently live in Hagerstown, MD.

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    Liam Atchison commented on October 4, 2016 Reply

    It seems that it would be useful to ask the identity of the intended audience of this book? And when you say that Alcorn had a “populist idea” (presumably of “evangelical”) in his essay, what do you mean?

    Michael Stell commented on October 4, 2016 Reply

    Liam – thanks for the question. Yes, the assumption was an evangelical audience throughout the book and my review as well. I guess I was contrasting the “populist” idea against the “evangelical scholars” from the same sentence. In general, I was thinking of populist from the perspective of more of a general audience, or if you will an audience which is educated but not necessarily a scholar.

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