Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
the Nanty Glo in My Mind'

What (who) is a Christian?

A recent article about Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown said he considers himself a strong Christian, to which I retorted, "and pigs fly, right?" But after writing about C. S. Lewis a few days ago, I found a couple of web pages that describe him as not a Christian or "hardly a Christian" at all. His profession of the faith didn't measure up to the standards of those web pages' authors, which I found highly objectionable. Who makes me (or any of them) a judge of who or what is a Christian, and by what standard dare I judge?

A page labeled "Who Was C.S. Lewis" in a site opposing all literary works dealing with fantasy elements like witches (and in particular, the Harry Potter books), says "Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a leading Evangelical of his time, declared that C. S. Lewis was not a Christian at all." As Lloyd-Jones was the English leader of the organization that sponsored Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and as the web page offers no footnote or bibliography—and as I always since first encountering it have had a high opinion of Inter-Varsity—I found this hard to believe and have not been able to corroborate it. I did find another page in which an Inter-Varsity staff member admits he once heard something like this from the lips of Lloyd-Jones and asked him why he had such a low opinion of Lewis. To which Lloyd Jones (1899-1981) replied, "he smoked a pipe all his life." And the Inter-Varsity person said he took it as a joke in the context. Which adds up to far less than corroboration.

Lewis's long-time local parish pastor is famously quoted as saying he'd never known anyone as totally converted to Christ as Lewis, and having read most of Lewis's books and many others about him, I consider the claim that his faith was not genuine untrue and slanderous.

A more specific citation of Lloyd-Jones' reservations about Lewis's bonafides appears in a web page of M. J. Stanford, titled simply C. S. Lewis:

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said in Christianity Today, Dec. 20, 1963, p. 27: Because C.S. Lewis was essentially a philosopher, his view of salvation was defective in two key respects: (1) Lewis believed and taught that one could reason oneself into Christianity, and (2) he was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal theory of the Atonement.

At least the citation is clear this time, but the "condemnation" of Lewis is not. This appears more along the lines of denominational quibbling than anathematizing or calling Lewis heretical or apostate. To call Lewis's theology "defective" is hardly consigning him to hell, as yet another web document, an 8-page Acrobat PDF article, "Did C. S. Lewis Go to Heaven?" by John W. Robbins concludes, "if he believed what he wrote in his books and letters."

I've said earlier that I'm not inclined to label suspect spokesmen for the faith who fail to recite all the right doctrines as heretics or apostate. It's safer to label heresy based on positive assertions of wrong doctrines, like the assertion attributed to Mormonism that Jesus and Satan were brothers, or the assertion attributed to Christian Science that matter is the antithesis of spirit, and therefore matter is evil or the source of evil. Or the assertion in Dan Brown's novel that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered children to her, and that the church—every church that claims to be biblical orthodox whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant—has been party to evil conspiracies to keep the truth about Jesus from the world.

This would be enough to say Lewis is a bonafide Christian and Dan Brown is not. But there's more.

Besides his critics' claim that Lewis was "weak" on "the substitutionary and penal theory of the Atonement" they also have problems with his failure to emphasize the centrality of the Bible in Christian doctrine (this is why they call him a "philosopher") and that he professed "the tradition of the church" over the Bible. I believe I have a higher view of the Bible than Lewis did, but no creedal statement of the church makes a certain kind of belief in the Bible a fundamental of the faith. Modern fundamentalist and evangelical "doctrinal statements" do, but there is nothing about this is the standards produced in the first millenium of the church. Nevertheless, that the Bible is the source of God's revelation, and in that sense of God's Word, is central to the tradition of the church, which Lewis is accused of making primary. For Orthodoxy, for example, the Bible and tradition are equal sources of church teaching, with the addition that no teaching of anyone claiming to represent the church can be accepted or approved if the teaching does not align with what the Bible says on the topic (this is a higher view of the Bible than that of the contemporary Roman Catholic church which, nevertheless, declares in every mass, after the reading of the Gospel, "[this is] the Word of God."

The substitutionary atonement is specified in the Nicene Creed, the most ancient catholic creed of the church subscribed to by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches, when it says, Christ "was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate." "For us" means, and could mean nothing other than, "He was crucified as our substitutes." Anyone who has read any of the thorough reviews of the Narnia movie released in December, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, knows that the Lion Aslan, a metaphor for Christ, is offered as a substitute offering to fulfill the penalty of breaking the law of Narnia (sin) at the film's dramatic climax (and this is true, of course, also in the Lewis book the film is based on). So where did Lewis get such an engenious concept if he didn't believe in the Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement?

The penal aspect of the substitutionary atonement has been debated from the early centuries of the church. Eastern Orthodox theologians have debated with Augustine (the seminal theologian of Roman Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism) since that saint's own lifetime (fourth century A.D.) down to the present, about how much emphasis should be put on the "penal" aspect. Augustine suggests it should be larger; Orthodox theologians say it should be smaller. But neither church has suggested the other church should be anathematized over the difference of opinion. "Penal," when made large, suggests that God the Father was angry with the Son and penalized or punished Him by making Him suffer and die on the cross. Orthodox theology says that the Father was never angry at the Son and that the penalty of the atonement, when referred to in the New Testament, is a legal formulation not worthy of inclusion in a creedal summary like the Apostles' or Nicene Creed (the ecumenical creeds) or determining orthodoxy or heterodoxy.

When M. J. Stanford and John W. Robbins and (to whatever extent he is complicit) Martyn Lloyd-Jones anathematize C. S. Lewis for failing to profess something that has never been confessed in the ecumenical creeds, it is they who are divorcing themselves from the catholic church of the first millenium and whatever is descended from the primordial church to our time. So I would say that if anyone has opened himself to the charge of being less than Christian, to whatever extent that to be a Christian is to be a member of the church that Christ established, it isn't Lewis, but his detractors who have so opened themselves.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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If we insist on keeping hell (or even earth), we shall not see heaven; if we accept heaven, we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

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