The Bible: Myth and Inspiration

jesus mary joseph nativity bethlehem christmas“Scripture, a mass of human legend, history, moral teaching etc. are taken up and made the vehicle of God’s Word” (“To Lee” 961) – what does this mean? C. S. Lewis thought that the earliest parts of the Bible “are hardly moral at all, and are in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions” (“To Mrs. Johnson” 608). He called Psalm 19 “so much better Paganism than the real Pagans ever did!” (“To Mary Van Deusen” 701) Why? Lewis believed that the Bible was “gradually purged and enlightened till it bec[ame] the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself” (“To Mrs. Johnson” 608). He told Mary Van Deusen, “For as God humbled Himself to become Man, so religion humbled itself to become Christianity” (701-02). This process, which Lewis considered “the greatest revelation of God’s true nature” (608), appears similar to Jesus’ description of the kingdom of God: “For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself: first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear” (Mark 4:28).[1] However, on deeper inspection, Lewis’s views of Scripture are more complex.

Lewis believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God: “I believe the composition, presentation, [and] selection for inclusion in the Bible, of all the books to have been guided by the Holy Ghost” (“To Janet” 653). Just what is meant by inspiration? Writing to Lee Turner, Lewis says that inspiration is not the Holy Spirit “replac[ing] the minds of the authors (like the supposed ‘control’ in automatic writing) or at least dictat[ing] to them as to secretaries,” as he says our ancestors believed (960). Instead, Lewis states that “Scripture itself refutes these ideas. S[aint] Paul distinguishes between what ‘the Lord’ says and what he says ‘of himself’ – yet both are ‘Scripture.’ Similarly the passages in which the prophets describe Theophanies and their own reactions to them w[oul]d be absurd if they were not writing for themselves” (960-61). Lewis himself thought that the inspiration debate shouldn’t “bother” one’s faith in Christ (961), since it didn’t bother him: “neither in my own Bible-reading nor in my religious life as a whole does the question in fact ever assume that importance which it always gets in theological controversy” (“To Clyde” 1044). In a famous letter to Professor Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College, Lewis gave further details on his understanding of biblical inspiration: “Whatever view we hold on the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts.

The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Cor vii between ‘Not I, but the Lord’ (v. 10) and ‘I speak, not the Lord’ (v. 12). [Lewis cites the Greek in this letter.] . . .

St. Luke’s own account of how he obtained his matter (i. 1-4). . . .

If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.

John xi. 49-52. Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice). (1045-46)

According to Lewis, these statements “rule out the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that … it is always present in the same mode and the same degree” (1046).

Was Lewis a Fundamentalist? No. Regarding biblical inspiration and inerrancy, Fundamentalists believe that “the Bible is true because (a) God has spoken in it through the divine inspiration of the biblical writers, and (b) God being God can be trusted to guarantee the truth of his words,” so “that the Bible contains no errors or contradictions. … [It] contains not only infallible knowledge of God and our salvation, but also right knowledge of science, mathematics, and historical data” (Walker 21). Lewis said that he was not a Fundamentalist (“Modern Theology” 163), since he considered inerrancy “part of the baggage” (Walker 20). He thought that “the writers of the creation story were engaged in myth-making, not descriptive science” (21). Lewis also thought that “the Fundamentalist’s view of the Bible” dangerous in that one assumes that “God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this” (Reflections 112).

bible-hammer-wordIf not Fundamentalism, then what did Lewis believe? When asked if the Bible were infallible, Lewis divorced it from Jesus Christ, calling only the latter “the true word of God” (“To Mrs. Johnson” 246). He asserted that “all Holy Scripture is in some sense –though not all parts of it in the same sense – the word of God” (Reflections 19). What does this mean? We must return to Lewis’s statement that “in Scripture, a mass of human legend, history, moral teaching etc. are taken up and made the vehicle of God’s Word” (“To Lee” 961). He says something similar in Reflections on the Psalms: “[T]he whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature-chronicle … poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God’s word” (111). Lewis calls this “‘a unique sort of inspiration’: allegory, parable, romance, and lyric might be inspired as well as chronicle” (“To Corbin” 319). As a result, the Bible “is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science and history. It carries the Word of God; and we … receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message” (Reflections 112).

According to Robert Lotzer, Lewis “did not think that the Scriptures were ‘the Word of God,’” which instead “comes through the medium of human experience” (par. 22). In other words, he believed that “the Reality enters into the experience of the man through the medium of the mythical story. So as a whole the Bible, as a collection of myths and historical facts, can be a trustworthy medium to bring man into contact with the Reality” (par. 22). According to Andrew Walker, “Lewis saw the Bible neither as the locus nor exclusively as the focus of revelation”; for him the scriptures “point[ed] to revelation rather than embod[ied] it” (25). Michael Christensen explains: “It is the ongoing revelation of God in Christ, not its embodiment in Scripture, which is infallible. It is the message of the living word of God, not the medium of its expression, which is authoritative” (88). In the end, Lewis separated medium from message, saying that “the Bible as a medium should be approached in the same way as other literature … yet its message is to be received as inspired and authoritative” (94). For him, the Bible is “human literature carrying a divine message” (77, 90, 96).

Sources
Christensen, Michael J. C. S. Lewis on Scripture: His Thoughts on the Nature of Biblical Inspiration, the Role of Revelation, and the Question of Errancy. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989, 2002.
Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007.
Lewis, C. S. “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” Christian Reflections. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967. 152-66.—. Reflections on the Psalms. 1958. San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt, 1986.
—. “To Clyde S. Kilby.” 7 May 1959. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 1044-46.
—. “To Corbin Scott Carnell.” 5 Apr. 1953. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 318-19.
—. “To Janet Wise.” 5 Oct. 1955. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 652-53.
—. “To Lee Turner.” 19 July 1958. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 960-61.
—. “To Mary Van Deusen.” 5 Feb. 1956. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 701-02.
—. “To Mrs. Johnson.” 8 Nov. 1952. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 245-48.
—. “To Mrs. Johnson.” 14 May 1955. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 607-09.
Lotzer, Robert A. “Calvin and Lewis on the Nature of Scripture.” 54 pars. 9 May 1997.
Walker, Andrew. “Scripture, Revelation, and Platonism in C. S. Lewis.” Scottish Journal of Theology 55.1 (2002): 19-35.

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[1] All Scripture references are to the King James Version (KJV), unless otherwise noted.