Thursday, May 15, 2014

Was Lewis a Calvinist?: A Brief Look at Perelandra

Was CS Lewis a Calvinists?  Although I have already briefly explored the options in a previous post, the question was raised again after reading through Lewis' second volume of his Ransom Trilogy Perelandra. The book tells the story of Ransom who is sent to Venus (or Perelandra) to ransom, or really prevent, the planet's Eve (the Green Lady) from being seduced by the Un-man - Lewis' version of the serpent.

At one critical point in the story, Ransom struggles with the calling on his life and it is in this context that Lewis raises the issue of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. Lewis writes:
The thing still seemed impossible. But gradually something happened to him which had happened to him only twice before in his life. It had happened once while he was trying to make up his mind to do a very dangerous job in the last war. It had happened again while he was screwing his resolution to go and see a certain man in London and make to him an excessively embarrassing confession which justice demanded. In both cases the thing had seemed a sheer impossibility: he had not thought but known that, being what he was, he was psychologically incapable of doing it; and then, without any apparent movement of the will, as objective and unemotional as the reading on a dial, there had arisen before him, with perfect certitude, the knowledge “about this time tomorrow you will have done the impossible.” The same thing happened now. His fear, his shame, his love, all his arguments, were not altered in the least. The thing was neither more nor less dreadful than it had been before. The only difference was that he knew—almost as a historical proposition—that it was going to be done. He might beg, weep, or rebel—might curse or adore—sing like a martyr or blaspheme like a devil. It made not the slightest difference. The thing was going to be done. There was going to arrive, in the course of time, a moment at which he would have done it. The future act stood there, fixed and unaltered as if he had already performed it. It was a mere irrelevant detail that it happened to occupy the position we call future instead of that which we call past. The whole struggle was over, and yet there seemed to have been no moment of victory. You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say that he had [been] delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged into unassailable freedom. Ransom could not, for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical. He could no longer see any meaning in the many arguments he had heard on this subject. (126-127)
The language from the narrator is striking and in which most Calvinists would applaud. In his book Mere Theology, Will Vaus looks at the evidence from all of Lewis' writings beginning with the above quotation from Perelandra and draws an important distinction when he writes:
Lewis' line of thought suggests, in regard to human salvation, that God has predestined who will be saved based on his foreknowledge of who will choose him.
In any case, according to Lewis, God will not violate a person's free will. Again, in Beyond Personality, Lewis writes that our free will is trembling within us like the needle of a compass. However, ours is a needle that can choose. We can point to our true north, but we need not. Will our needle swing around and point to God? God can help it to do so, but he cannot force it, Lewis maintains. God cannot put out his hand and pull our needle into the right position, for then we would have not free will any more. (52)
One major difference between Arminians and Calvinists regards whether God foreknew those who would be saved or foreordained the elect to salvation. This distinction is not made clear in Perelandra. From my understanding, both Arminians and Calvinists would find agreement in what Lewis writes of Ransom. In regards to Vaus' argument, I believe he is correct. Lewis' assertion that absolute sovereignty turns us into fleshly robots in Mere Christianity is taken from the Arminian playbook.

In regards to the latter part of Vaus' argument taken from Lewis' own writings draws another distinction. The suggestion that, to Lewis, our free will is trembling within us like the needle of a compass prevents Lewis from Pelagianism. There appears to be some basic understanding that sin has real affects on our will. Nonetheless the metaphor of a needle in the compass is missing one major component: the needle is in the hands of the traveler. The traveler does indeed point the needle north or south by simply turning the compass in that direction. The needle is not free, strictly speaking, but can only fulfill the nature it has. This is what Calvinists believe; humans are only free within their nature.

So, was Lewis a Calvinists? I tend to think not contrary to what some have argued (like Doug Wilson). In light of this, there are four things worth noting. First, Lewis, though theologically astute, was not trained in the area of theology. It is rare that one comes to Calvinism easily being that Pelagian is the default and natural theology of every human (especially non-believers) and Arminianism, to oversimplify, offers a balance to Pelagnianism and Calvinism.

Secondly, we must guard against trying to make our favorite Christian writers and theologians line up with our theology. This is increasingly becoming a serious trend among Christians. Often we'll quote a leading and recognizable theologian or Christian in order to prop ourselves up rather than appreciating the giant shoulders on whom we now stand.

Thirdly, discovering that such an influential writer like Lewis does not line up perfectly with our personal theology ought not diminish their influence. There is much with Lewis I disagree with and a number of those doctrines regard more serious theological concerns (like his leanings toward inclusivism). Nonetheless, I can appreciate what Lewis has to say on matters on which we disagree with and grow even more in areas where we are unified. No doubt Lewis says things better than most other writers.

Finally, asking such a question misses the point of Lewis. As I have already suggested, Lewis was not a theologian and he was generally uninterested in deep theological issues and conundrums - especially doctrines that divided Christians. Lewis frequently writes in his letters regarding his frustration with this question of sovereignty and responsibility. Lewis wanted to promote what he famously called mere Christianity and mostly avoided debates that divided denominations.

So was Lewis a Calvinist? It is doubtful. But though such questions are fun to entertain, we should not let us distract us. What really matters is that Aslan is not a tamed lion.


For more:
"CS Lewis: A Life" by Alister McGrath: A Review
"If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis" by Alister McGrath: A Review 
McGrath on the Memory of Lewis
"Letters to Malcom" by CS Lewis: A Review
"Screwtape Letters" by CS Lewis: A Review  
"A Mixture of Fool and Knave": CS Lewis on Theological Liberalism
Lewis on Practical Theology
Lewis on the Why of Democracy
From Uncle Screwtape:  Christianity and Politics 
Theology As a Map: Lewis, Practical Theology, and the Trinity
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 1
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 2
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 3 
"Willing Slaves of the Welfare State": CS Lewis on Freedom, Science, and Society - Part 1
"Willing Slaves of the Welfare State": CS Lewis on Freedom, Science, and Society - Part 2
He is Not a Tame Lion: Aslan, Jesus, and the Limits of Postmodern Inclusivism  
To Be Undragoned: Aslan, Christ, and the Gift of Regeneration 
Lewis on Practical Theology  
Lewis on the Why of Democracy
From Uncle Screwtape:  Christianity and Politics      
Theologians I Have Been Influenced By - The Dead
"The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism" Full Documentary


From Lewis' Pen Series:
From Lewis' Pen: Worship God as Creator
From Lewis' Pen: Thirsty
From Lewis' Pen: Joy is the Serious Business of Heaven
From Lewis' Pen: Not Idealistic Gas
From Lewis' Pen: But He's Good
From Lewis' Pen: Read Old Books
From Lewis' Pen: When Love Becomes a Demon
From Lewis' Pen: Until You Fully Love God
From Lewis' Pen: As the Ruin Falls
From Lewis' Pen: Screwtape on Marriage
From Lewis' Pen: Lay Down Your Arms
From Lewis' Pen: Aslan is on the Move
From Lewis' Pen: Lead us, Evolution, Lead us
From Lewis' Pen: Lead us, Evolution, Lead us
From Lewis' Pen: An Exaggerated Feminine Type
From Lewis' Pen: Theology as a Map
From Lewis' Pen: A Lot of Wrong Ideas
From Lewis' Pen: Children Know Better Than Grownups
From Lewis' Pen: The Historical Jesus
From Lewis' Pen: Aim at Heaven
From Lewis' Pen: Satan Speak
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