Thursday, July 10, 2014

He Was Not a Tamed Arminian

Some time ago, I offered a brief survey from some of CS Lewis's writings exploring the question of whether he was a Calvinist or an Arminian (see here, and here). Though I offered the conclusion that Lewis was likely more of an Arminian, perhaps it would be helpful to speak more clearly about what he actually believed beyond simple categories. Lewis, though gifted and informed in the area of theology, was no theologian. He preferred to avoid divisive theological discussions and preferred a mere Christianity. As such, categorizing Lewis is an oversimplification. Labeling him an Arminian, which is my position, fails to consider what Lewis actual articulated.

Throughout this debate, particularly within the popular level, the debate hinges not on Calvinism and Arminianism but on Calvinism and non-Calvinism or even anti-Calvinism. That is to say, many who engage the issues may not have the proper vocabulary but are clear that whatever they are, they are not Calvinist. This does not describe Lewis and it ought to be made clear that he frequently engaged the issues openly and struggled with the paradox.

In fact, there are places where Lewis sounds like a Calvinists as some of the following examples show. Yet I do not think his arguments regarding agency throughout his works disqualify him from holding Reformed theology. In the end, however, I believe it is best to describe Lewis not simply as an Arminian, but rather as an untamed one.

Undressing Eustace and Regeneration

Without a doubt my favorite scene in the Narnia chronicles regards the "undragoning" of Eustace Clarence Scrubb - "and he almost deserved" the name (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Eustace personifies what Lewis describes in another work as a man without a chest. In his book The Abolition of Man, Lewis prophetically laments the trend of education in his day. He describes the head as the source of our intellect, the belly as the source of our passions, and the heart (the chest) as the source of our moral values. Lewis suggests that education had in his day, and fulfilled in ours, focused exclusively on the intellect that it failed to teach moral values and integrity. Such a scenery creates "men without chests" driven by their passions.

That is precisely what Eustace is and does. While exploring an island, the ever-intelligent Eustace (who read the wrong books) is enchanted with gold and his greed transforms him into a fire-breathing dragon - a common image throughout ancient and modern myths (like J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit). Greed, Lewis is illustrating, makes us all dangerous creatures.

The undragoning of Eustace takes place when he finds himself alone trying to remove the dragon skin himself. But he cannot. No matter how hard he scratches, Eustace is condemned forever in this state. That is until Aslan enters the scene who does what Eustace cannot.

The transformation of Eustace is a vivid picture of regeneration. It is the turning point in the boys life. Everything changed on account of Aslan's sovereign work in the boys life.

But this is not the only example of regeneration in Narnia. After Aslan's resurrection, the great Lion proceeds to breath on countless Narnians whom the White Witch had turned into stone. Aslan, in a sense, gives new life - a new birth - to these creatures. The Witch does not kill in the traditional sense. She uses her dark magic wand by which she ruled over Narnia to turn her enemies into rock. Only Aslan can free them from this eternal death and it is not accident he does so following his own return from the dead. He who conquered death conquers death.

The Pauline Doctrine

In a letter to Mrs. Emily McLay on August 3, 1953, Lewis wrote the following:
I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts . . . .  The real inter-relation between God’s omnipotence and Man’s freedom is something we can’t find out. Looking at the Sheep & the Goats every man can be quite sure that every kind act he does will be accepted by Christ.  Yet, equally, we all do feel sure that all the good in us comes from Grace.  We have to leave it at that.  I find the best plan is to take the Calvinist view of my own virtues and other people’s vices; and the other view of my own vices and other peoples virtues.  But tho’ there is much to be puzzled about, there is nothing to be worried about.  It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.  You know what Luther said:  ‘Do you doubt if you are chosen?  Then say your prayers and you may conclude that you are.
We are here confronted with Lewis' willingness to allow the paradox of divine omnipotence and sovereignty and human agency to coexist. Perhaps the above quote could serve as a commentary on Ranson's thoughts in Perelandra: "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) In the counsel of the Trinity and in the wisdom of God, the two are gloriously "reconciled."

Shakespeare's Doing

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis makes suggests, "If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet it must be Shakespear's doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing." In the footnote, he added:
Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The "Shakespeare" within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of the Shakespeare's creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation.
Only a brief note about this. The above highlights a clear distinction between the Creator and his creation. Furthermore, it offers insight into Lewis's understanding of the incarnation. In the manger, God enters the human story. That is a sovereign act of God.


More needs to be said here, but the above is intended to clarify that Lewis is not merely a non-Calvinist but one that freely and frequently wrestled with the tension between sovereignty and human agency. Therefore, I find the description of Lewis as an Arminian to be oversimplified. Certainly he likely leaned in that direction but he, as the above shows, was not a tamed Arminian.

For more:
Was Lewis a Calvinist?: A Brief Look at Perelandra
Was Lewis a Calvinist?: Doug Wilson Says Yes
"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  
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