May 9, 1945
Dear Mr. Stebbins,
My position about the Churches can best be made plain by an imaginary example. Suppose I want to find out the correct interpretation of Plato’s teaching. What I am most confident in accepting is that interpretation which is common to all the Platonists down all the centuries: What Aristotle and the Renaissance scholars and Paul Elmer More agree on I take to be true Platonism. Any purely modern views which claim to have discovered for the first time what Plato meant, and say that everyone from Aristotle down has misunderstood him, I reject out of hand. But there is something else I would also reject. If there were an ancient Platonic Society still existing at Athens and claiming to be the exclusive trustees of Plato’s meaning, I should approach them with great respect. But if I found that their teaching was in many ways curiously unlike his actual text and unlike what ancient interpreters said, and in some cases could not be traced back to within 1,000 years of his time, I should reject their exclusive claims—while ready, of course, to take any particular thing they taught on its merits.
I do the same with Christianity. What is most certain is the vast mass of doctrine which I find agreed on by Scripture, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, modern Roman Catholics, modern Protestants. That is true “catholic” doctrine. Mere “modernism” I reject at once. The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specially from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the Blessed Virgin Mary I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament; where indeed the words “Blessed is the womb that bore thee” receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul toward St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists on defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claim: though this, of course, does not mean rejecting particular things they say...
From 'The Boldness of a Stranger:
Correspondence Between C.S. Lewis and H. Lyman Stebbins'
I've omitted the last sentences of the letter as they concern Anglicanism, which is not my focus here; however, for those wondering about Lewis's apparent ascription of authority to 'universal tradition' they do contain a forthright statement of 'scripture alone': 'What we are committed to believing is whatever can be proved from Scripture'. This is probably what Lewis meant by 'apostolic Christianity', which he then saw reflected down the centuries in 'universal tradition'. Note also Lewis's dismissal of 'modernism'.
As a personal aside, I once expressed a view similar to Lewis's in a dogmatics lecture at seminary, namely that Rome's particular and peculiar doctrines made it a sect, albeit one with a lot of adherents! The lecturer didn't take too kindly to the remark, perhaps because he was deeply involved in official Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, but I feel somewhat vindicated now that I have uncovered Lewis's letter.