C. S. Lewis and the Bible
By Jerry Root
The 700 Club
Introduction from The C. S. Lewis Bible
As a liberally educated Oxford don and later Cambridge professor, C. S. Lewis was well aware of the fact that to understand Western culture — let alone culture in general — one ought to know the Bible. He believed that no other book had such a profound influence on the literature of the world as this one book, for even the Quran instructed its followers to know the Gospels and the Psalms. He clearly saw the profound value of the Bible as a religious book and wrote,
Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only “mouth honour” and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book… It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.
Once Lewis became a theist, even before he became a Christian, he began his lifelong practice of daily Bible reading. For Lewis, Bible reading was as natural to his daily routine as eating or sleeping. From the time of his conversion, the atheist turned Christian most often read passages prescribed in the Anglican prayer book, but his method of reading, study, and meditation varied. Sometimes he simply read from cover to cover the King James Version (also known as the Authorized Standard Version) or the Moffat translation; and as a medievalist he was also familiar with the Coverdale Bible. Sometimes, as his published letters indicate, he would focus for a time on a particular book of the Bible such as Romans or the Psalms. Often, as a trained classical scholar he would read frequently from the Greek text of the New Testament.
No matter what section of the Bible captured his attention at any given time, this one thing must be said about Lewis: he was a man of the Book. Toward the end of his life Lewis was asked what he thought of the practice of daily devotions. He answered,
We have our New Testament regimental orders upon the subject. I would take it for granted that everyone who becomes a Christian would undertake this practice. It is enjoined upon us by Our Lord; and since they are His commands, I believe in following them. It is always just possible that Jesus Christ meant what He said when He told us to seek the secret place and to close the door.
Lewis faithfully got into the Bible each day, and it is clear from all he wrote that the Bible got into him. In his writing, Lewis sought to focus on what he called “mere Christianity” — that is, those things most central to Christian faith and teaching, and that which is most central to the Bible. From the Scriptures, all that is essential to faith and practice is drawn. As spiritual questions arise out of the text, Lewis intersected with those questions and developed profound apologetics for the faith, including his well-known commentary on whether Jesus was a “liar, lunatic, or the Son of God.”
C. S. Lewis as a Guide for Bible Reading
Lewis’s popularity as a writer who transcends all Christian traditions is evidence of how widely he has become a trusted voice and a spiritual guide for those confronted with life’s biggest questions. His years of faithful Bible study as well as his ability to state things clearly and imaginatively reveal that Lewis had the ability to open more than wardrobe doors. His wide background of reading literature of the Western world informed his perspective so that in his one voice we can hear the echo of many voices. Lewis’s uniquely informed knowledge of the terrain of human thought, culture, and experience makes his commentary particularly helpful. He is a valuable guide for any reader who wants to grow in an understanding of Scripture and therefore wants to grow in his or her own life of faith.
Though Lewis wrote only one book that could in any way be construed as something approximating a Bible commentary — Reflections on the Psalms — much of his writing is very much informed by his study of the Bible. It is precisely in this way that Lewis’s own words can become a helpful commentary or guide for Bible reading and study. Someone might ask, “Why is it necessary to have anyone guide a reading of the Bible?” The answer, in part, is that the very history of Jewish-Christian thought has always had respect for biblical guides and teachers. This is as obvious as the record of rabbinical teaching and as proximate as the most recent Sunday-morning sermon given at any church in virtually every country of the world. Certainly anyone who has ever read the Bible more than once knows that a single read through the Scriptures does not leave every question answered. In fact, multiple reads of the text provide enriched and deepening understanding at each new reading. It is a book with layers upon layers of insight. It stands to reason that, if more can be discovered from the text, those who have gone further in the study of the text can benefit those of us who are still learning and teachable. In this way, Lewis is a helpful guide.
In Lewis’s fiction and nonfiction works alike he reminds readers how biblical wisdom is necessary for everyday life. Lewis wrote, “Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and cry for help?” The world is complex, and none of us, on his or her own, is sufficient for the demands of any given day. We need help. The Scriptures give wisdom for those knowing they need more than their own cleverness to negotiate their way through life’s labyrinth.
As a guide, Lewis points out that there is an arrogance embedded in the belief that one can get a last word about God or, for that matter, a last word about the Bible. How is it possible that finite minds—not to mention fallen minds—could ever gain a final and finished grasp of the Omniscient? Certainly we can have a sure word about God: the Bible leaves no door open to relativism. But we cannot have a last word about God, for the Bible leaves no door open to that kind of absolutism that believes it has God fully figured out. It is at this point that Lewis becomes a particularly good guide to the reader of Scripture. Lewis will not let his readers forget that sure words are obtainable while the last words are not. There is in much of his writing a sense of the wonder of the majesty and glory of God that awakens wonder and awe. Lewis never seems to forget that he is small and God is enormous. Application of this fact can be seen in a number of ways.
Lewis was adamant that the Bible, properly read, opens one up to a wider understanding of the world, full of the wonders and wisdom of God. This is something he sought, and he commented,
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”5 Lewis believed that the Bible does not close the minds of its readers. On the contrary, it opens them up to the presence and wonder of God as He has displayed His glory everywhere. For example, in reading other books, one’s own understanding of Scripture is bound to deepen. As Lewis observed, “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.” The questions of the human heart, embedded in the literature of the world, allow us to seek answers in the Scriptures and thus be impressed once again by their enduring wisdom.
Here again, as a man of letters, Lewis is valuable as a guide because he reminds his readers that literature can open up the Scriptures to us in fresh ways. When reading Lewis’s fiction work—The Chronicles of Narnia—one cannot help but notice that his heroes are all flawed in some way or another. Edmund yields to temptation. Digory struggles to obey. And when Caspian is made King of Narnia, Aslan—the Christ figure of the Narnian books—speaks to him: “You come from the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” says Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in earth. Be content.”
Such insight from Lewis sends the reader back to the biblical text with new eyes to see things he or she might otherwise have missed. For instance, to read Proverbs after reading Lewis, one cannot help but notice the dramatic contrasts within that book. A reader will be struck by the contrasting of the wise man with the fool; the righteous man with the wicked man; the industrious man with the sluggard. Proverbs marks the lines of demarcation that Lewis reminds us run through every human heart. Nobody would take us seriously if we claimed to be wise, or righteous, or industrious, for these qualities still elude us. And yet, certainly, we must be weary of being the fool, and the wicked man, and the sluggard.
Lewis also reminds readers to knock down their images of God. He once wrote: “reality is iconoclastic.” It is one of the biggest ideas occurring throughout his published work. What did he mean by the phrase? An iconoclast is an idol breaker. I may have an image of God in my mind shaped by my reading, sermons I’ve heard, or conversations in which I’ve participated. Pieces of the puzzle come together and take a more robust shape. Nevertheless, the image of a given moment, helpful as it may be, begins to compete against my having a growing understanding of God. Lewis reminds us that God wants to knock out the walls of the temples we build for Him because He desires to give us more of Himself. Lewis wrote, more than once, that he wanted God, not his idea of God. Lewis will not let his readers forget that good thought is dynamic thought and it must not become stagnant. In this way, he will be a helpful guide for the reading of the Scriptures. And in light of this, it is important to remember that Lewis’s own words are not the last words, either, but they can lead us back to Scripture to seek answers and truth.
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Jerry Root wrote both his M.A. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation on C.S. Lewis. He has been teaching college and graduate courses on C.S. Lewis for over thirty years. He currently teaches at Wheaton College (Illinois) and is a visiting professor at Biola University and Talbot Graduate School of Theology. He is the author of C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil and coeditor of The Quotable Lewis.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898—1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably the most influential Christian writer of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. His major contributions in literary criticism, children’s literature, fantasy literature, and popular theology brought him international renown and acclaim. He wrote more than thirty books, allowing him to reach a vast audience, and his works continue to attract thousands of new readers every year. Visit the C. S. Lewis website at www.cslewis.com.
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