Loyal to the King: C.S. Lewis

“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.” Letter  dated 8 November 1952, published in Letters of C. S. Lewis (1966)

Though it has been noted that Lewis was not an adherent to “inerrancy” as many conservative Evangelicals define such today (and may infer as much from the above quotation), he was a stalwart defender of the word of God, right on down to the much debated Pauline Epistles.   

As a pioneer in modern apologetics, Lewis was as thorough in thought in matters of faith as he was in literary criticism.  Today, on his 114th birthday, I am sharing a few quotations from one of my favorite tidbits by Lewis that is less circulated today than are his classic books.  The selections are from his introduction to J.B. Phillip’s translation of the Pauline Epistles entitled, Letters to Young Churches. I will subdivide the sections in to my own headings in order to supply a flow of thought lost in not reproducing the entire introduction.

There are many inferences which may be drawn from the following section – but above all you see the preeminence of Christ and the reverence Lewis held for the Scriptures in interpreting the things of Christ.  The necessity of the language of the Bible being understandable in its current context helps us in avoiding translational idolatry.  The concern with which he defends the Pauline epistles are as appropriate (and needed!) today as these thoughts were in 1948. 

1)      Modern English translations are necessary and helpful.

. . . the kind of objection they feel [those opposing a new English translation] is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all.  Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) “barbarous” English.  A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into “language such as men do use” – language steeped in the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street.  The answer then was the same as the answer now.  The only kind of sanctity which scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernised is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. 

. . . The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation.  There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing.  If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

2)      The common language of the Bible is as shocking as the Incarnation.

Does this [the common language of the Bible] shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us.  The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic, and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. 

3)      The Pauline Epistles are essential to Christianity.

For a man who wants to make that discovery [of Christianity] must face the epistles. And whether we like it or not, most of them are by St. Paul. He is the Christian author whom no one can by-pass.

4)      The misconception about Paul is untenable.

A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St. Paul.  It is to this effect: that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the gospels) and that St. Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the epistles).  This is really quite untenable.

5)      The letters are really a working out of the Gospel.

All the most terrifying texts came from the mouth of our Lord: all the texts on which we can be saved come from St. Paul.  It if could be proved that St. Paul altered the teaching of the Master in any way, he altered it in exactly the opposite way to that which is popularly supposed.  But there is no real evidence for a pre-Pauline doctrine different from St. Paul’s. The epistles are, for the most part, the earliest Christian documents we posses. The Gospels come later.  They are not “the gospel”, the statement of Christian belief.  They were written for those who had already been converted, who had already accepted “the gospel”. . . God’s act (the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection) comes first: the earliest theological analysis of it comes in the epistles: then when the generation who had known the Lord was dying out, the Gospels were composed to provide for believers a record of the great Act and of some of the Lord’s sayings.

6)      The attack on Paul and his writings is staging for an attack on Christ and His Identity.

The ordinary popular conception has put everything upside down. Nor is the cause far to seek.  In the earlier history of every rebellion there is a stage at which you do not yet attack the King in person. You say, “The King is all right.  It is his Ministers who are wrong.  They misrepresent him and corrupt his plans –  which, I’m sure, are good plans if only the Ministers would let them take effect.”  And the first victory consists in beheading a few Ministers: only at a later stage do you go on and behead the King himself.  In the same way, the nineteenth century attack on St. Paul was really only a stage in a revolt against Christ.  Men were not ready in large numbers to attack Christ himself.  They made the normal first move – that of attacking one of his principle ministers.  Everything they disliked in Christianity was therefore attributed to St. Paul.  It was unfortunate that their case could not impress anyone who had really read the Gospels and the Epistles with attention: but apparently few people had, and so the first victory was won.  St. Paul was impeached and banished and the world went on to the next step – the attack on the King Himself.  But to those who wish to know that St. Paul and his fellow-teachers really said the present volume will give very great help.

C.S. Lewis

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