Friday, 2 September 2011

C S Lewis To A Prospective Roman Convert: Rome As Much A Variation From Tradition As Any Protestant Sect

Most theologians and pastors who read C. S. Lewis do so because he was a great communicator, not a great theologian. Lewis certainly drops some theological clangers in his writings, but when he does get it right he really 'hits the nail on the head'. There is a well known Lewis quote to the effect that he could never become a Roman Catholic because it meant agreeing in principle to accept any new doctrine Rome might define. That is a very profound insight to which many prospective converts to Rome give too little attention; conversion to Rome means not just acceptance of Rome's dogmatic past but also its future (there's a Newman quote on this that I'll try to dig up soon). That was clearly a hurdle Lewis baulked at. But Lewis also took a diachronic (looking back through time/history) approach to evaluating Rome's claims negatively, as the following letter to an Anglican considering conversion to Rome shows:

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...

Yours sincerely,
C.S. Lewis

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.


21 comments:

David Cochrane said...

Thank you for posting this. I hear so much how some teach CS Lewis became a papist. Are these rumours true I have never seen confirmation of them.

God's peace. †

Pr Mark Henderson said...

David,

Absolutely not true!

Lewis remained a 'middle of the road' Anglican all his life. His commitment to 'mere Christianity', as he defined it, precluded any conversion to Rome. This comes through in the above quote - he is only interested in what Rome holds in common with 'universal tradition', not what defines it as a thing distinct from that tradition.

Thanks for stopping by. A couple of more Lewis quotes to come.

Stephen K said...

I must say that I find myself in significant sympathy with C S Lewis, but perhaps not so much strictly because of any argument that purports to exclude anything "unprovable" by Scripture, but rather because of my conclusion that there is indeed a "mere" Christianity over which Catholicism appears to have plastered many gilt-edged layers. But I was disappointed to read C S Lewis rejected "modernism" out of hand, since it purports to present such "mere Christianity" in dynamically meaningful terms, and I think part of the problem with Catholicism is its insistence on possessing all truth.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Stephen,

Thanks for your thoughts.

On Lewis's 'mere Christianity', it is indeed very salutary to reflect that, for all the differences between various confessions, there is much that is commonly confessed and it does form much of the 'non-negotiable' heritage of the faith. Whenever I meet a fellow Christian from another confession, I rejoice in what we have in common. However that does not get us around the problem that many of the differences between confessions are about first order issues, and not secondary or tertiary issues. That is to say, they go to the heart of what is proclaimed as 'the Gospel'. The Lutheran Church, you may not realize, has never insisted on agreement in all doctrine or on uniformity in human rites or even forms of church organization 9episcopacy, etc) for unity to take place. But we do insist on agreement and unity in the doctrine of the Gospel. What that means can be gauged from surveying the doctrinal articles of the Augsburg Confession and the subsequent explication of that doctrine in the other confessions contained in the Book of Concord. I would contend that what is set forth there is the best presentation of 'mere Christianity' there is. Unfortunately, because of cultural and language factors, it is too little known in the Anglophone world.

As to 'modernism', I heartily encourage you to read Machen's book 'Christianity and Liberalism'; it is available freely on the net - I think I have a link in my books column to the right of the blog page.

Thanks for continuing to drop by the virtual old manse, Stephen.

Stephen K said...

Thanks, Pastor Mark, no worries. I've taken down the details of Machen's book, and will ask my local bookstore to get it for me. I've glimpsed at the preface and some of the page extracts and will be most interested to read how he approaches the issue.

I note your point about first order differences and the substantiality - in its belief parameters - of a core Christianity; I also note the discussion happening on Lito's blog about the pivotal element in Roman Catholicism. In a sense he identifies what I have come to appreciate: namely the centrality of the Church and of one's relationship to it as the way in which one has or grows a relationship with God, and Jesus in particular, rather than the other way round, namely the centrality of one's relationship with God, and Jesus in particular, as the way in which one has or grows a relationship with the Church.

Some will argue that there is no order of priority or that at the practical level the two are symbiotically and mutually essential and co-existent; others might say that this is a misrepresentation of the underlying theology of Catholicism. But in my experience, across the spectrum of Catholic praxis, the vocabulary and focus squarely places the Church first and foremost. This to me explains why there is so much hang-up about church identity, the criterion of orthodoxy, and why there is so much juggling in the use and sense of the term "the Church" in much Catholic discourse: in one sentence the term stands for the Pope and bishops, in the next, the "mystical body of Christ", in another, the people, individually and collectively, then the accumulated deposit and tradition of teaching or practice, and so on. No wonder the internal disputes are unremitting and intractable!

By contrast, an understanding that emphasises the once-and-for-all redemption of all mankind and creation, and the complete powerlessness of us all, seems to be so simply cutting through the ecclesiastical and apologetical overgrowth, that it seems like fresh air. (As well as being a little scary!)

I won't defend modernism or liberalism here but will simply say that, to my perspective, they appear to me - in the Catholic context at least - to have been partly born out of desire to rediscover or bring to fresh light this emphasis. Whether they have been successful or not or whether they serve good ends are hotly argued controversies.

Anyway, a stimulating subject.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Stephen,
You're not far from the kingdom of heaven! :0)

You'll enjoy Machen's book, I'm sure. Bear in mind it was written 80 years ago, although it is still a definitive treatment, as testified by the fact that it has been in publication constantly ever since. Machen left the theological faculty of Princeton because of encroaching liberalism. He was an authority on NT Greek and wrote another classic work defending the Virgin Birth. He did his advanced degree in Germany at the height of liberal influence prior to WWI, saw the damage it did to church life there, and viewed its encroachment on American church life with great concern. The subsequent history has proved his concerns were valid. Btw, he served a a stretcher bearer, if memory serves, in France. Many of the theologians who opposed liberalism after the war had first hand experience of the senseless destruction of life and property. The liberal theologians in Germany had favoured the war!

Btw, the paperback edition shouldn't cost you more than $20.

joel in ga said...

What Lutherans mean by agreement on all the articles of the Gospel seems to be one thing and what the Bible reckons as faith in the Gospel is another. Put differently, the Scriptural requirements for being a Christian worthy of Table fellowship appear to be more minimal than what Confessional Lutherans officially require. Did not the early church, like the Anglicans historically, consider the Nicene Creed a sufficient basis for ecclesiastical unity? Again, how can an arbitrary number of selected doctrinal articles, some of which the Scriptures do not necessarily require for salvation, be considered the proper basis for determining Table fellowship? This has always struck me as odd, particularly since the Lutheran understanding of the Real Presence seems so unique in the history of the Church. Did any early church Father teach, e.g., that the elements distributed during Holy Communion were four in number?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Joel,

You wrote: 'What Lutherans mean by agreement on all the articles of the Gospel seems to be one thing and what the Bible reckons as faith in the Gospel is another. Put differently, the Scriptural requirements for being a Christian worthy of Table fellowship appear to be more minimal than what Confessional Lutherans officially require.'

Joel, Lutherans themselves distinguish between the faith which saves (fides qua) and the faith which is believed (fides quae). By believing the Gospel we are saved, but that Gospel also has doctrinal content. E.g. original sin and the Christological dogmas are both implied by it, and the doctrines of baptism and Lord's Supper are related and derived from it. Then also something needs to be said about the church, the community gathered by the Gospel around the means of grace. There's a definite progression and sense to it all.

'Did not the early church, like the Anglicans historically, consider the Nicene Creed a sufficient basis for ecclesiastical unity?'

If you're talking about the ancient church, there were three 'fences' around the altar - communion with the bishop, recognition of the Biblical canon, and subscription to the Rule of Faith. We can probably identify the last with the Apostles' Creed. Later the Nicene Creed is added in response to Arianism. But I don't think anyone outside of Anglicanism seriously regards the Nicene Creed as in and of itself a sufficient basis for fellowship. Certainly, not Rome, not the Orthodox, not the confessional Lutherans. Indeed, not even the Anglicans themselves do, since they usually require episcopacy for declarations of fellowship to take place.
The Lutheran proposal to establish fellowship based on the Gospel is an attempt to get beyond the ancient 'three fences', since they have self-evidently proven inadequate to preserve unity among otherwise creedally orthodox Christian communions.

'Again, how can an arbitrary number of selected doctrinal articles, some of which the Scriptures do not necessarily require for salvation, be considered the proper basis for determining Table fellowship?'

Well, Lutherans would argue that there is nothing abitrary about them Joel. The articles of faith enunciated in the Augsburg Confession are very much the first order matters of doctrine. Compared to them, is episcopacy, for e.g., really that crucial? So, on the one hand, the AC is a protest against doctrinal 'maximalism'. But it is also clearly against doctrinal 'minimalism'. Btw, one of the ironies of doctrinal minimalism as practiced by the Baptistic movement is that it has spawned innumerable sects and groups.

'This has always struck me as odd, particularly since the Lutheran understanding of the Real Presence seems so unique in the history of the Church. Did any early church Father teach, e.g., that the elements distributed during Holy Communion were four in number?'

I don't know that the Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence is unique; it can certainly lay claim to more historical precedent than either transubstantiation or symbolism. And I've never heard a Lutheran talk about '4 elements' in communion. There are two 'elements', namely bread and wine, which are the vehicles, if you like, for the 'heavenly materials' of our Lord's body and blood. This teaching is directly derived from the apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Cor 10:16, where the cup of blessing (synechdoche for wine)and the bread are stipulated to be the means for communing with the blood and body.

I hope this clears up your confusion, Joel. I would strongly suggest reading a good handbook of Lutheran theology to get a first-hand acquiantance with the doctrine of the Lutheran Church.

joel in ga said...

Pr. Henderson,

Thank you very much for your detailed response and patience on these issues that I have noticed first-hand in my 15 years as a convert to Lutheranism from the Baptist and Reformed worlds. I am actually a misfit in good standing at a sectarian WELS church that Luther's Reformation ironically spawned :^)

Your reply raises the following questions in my mind: What is a Scriptural definition of a "first order matter of doctrine"? What specific articles do the Scriptures make first order matters? Are there, then, secondary matters of doctrine? If so, why or why not is agreement on secondary matters required (or not required) by Confessional Lutherans for Table fellowship?

In the Scriptures, I see all doctrines pertaining to the Gospel as important--nothing trivial there--but I find only a few beliefs required either to make a person a Christian or for me to regard a person as a Christian. These articles can be listed specifically: belief in Christ's Deity/Sonship, Christ's humanity (1 & 2 John), Christ's resurrection (1 Cor 15), human sinfulness (1 John 1), and a few other specific doctrines. I find no excuse for closed Communion as practiced by some Lutheran churches. If you hold to these few aforementioned doctrines, you should be considered a Christian, even if you are doctrinally imperfect otherwise, and you are still graciously invited by the Lord to partake of His Holy Supper. Where in the Scriptures are we commanded to suspend other Christians from Table Fellowship because of doctrinal imperfection? (Or because of their young age, for that matter.)

Against this backdrop, I mentioned the Lutheran understanding of the Real Presence because it is acknowledged to be a doctrinal matter of first importance, yet I find the particular Lutheran view expressed nowhere in the Church Fathers. In the Church Fathers (and the Scriptures) I see two things distributed at the Lord's Table: 1. bread that is Christ's Body and 2. wine that is Christ's Blood. Lutherans sometimes like to speak that way but, if pressed, they admit that they see four things distributed. 1. ordinary bread that merely conveys but is not to be identified with 2. Christ's Body and 3. ordinary wine that merely conveys but is not to be identified with 4. Christ's Blood. Question: Were the Church Fathers, where not completely orthodox by Lutheran standards, wrongly admitted to the Lord's Table? If they were rightly admitted to the Lord's Table, even though sometimes they were not completely orthodox by Lutheran standards, on what grounds do Lutherans today exclude from the Table fellow Christians who may not be completely orthodox by Lutheran standards?

I also mention the Lutheran view of the Real Presence because the AC purposely fudges the article on the Supper. As we all know, its wording allows for both the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation and the unique Lutheran view. If Lutherans allow latitude on this first-order matter of doctrine and were not willing to make their difference here with the pope's church grounds for breaking Table Fellowship, why is there less doctrinal latitude allowed by some Confessional Lutherans today?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Joel,

Sorry for the delay in posting your comment - I've been 'under the weather' with the flu and no energy for blogging. I'll post by way of reply tomorrow.

Lvka said...

Rome As Much A Variation From Tradition As Any Protestant Sect


Which is why Protestants should have no qualms in converting to Catholicism... ;-)

Pr Mark Henderson said...

OK, I know you're trying to be humorously sarcastic, Lucian, but you see it doesn't work, because the critical word is 'sect', not the descriptor 'Protestant'. A sect in the world of magisterial Protestantism, and in particular in Lewis's Anglican world, is by definition not 'the church'. Lewis is saying that Rome, in as much as it adheres to its peculiar beliefs, is as eccentric as any of the numerous sects which flourish where freedom of religion pertains.

Lvka said...

Well, Father, I guess I've just learned two precious lessons here:


1) without taking the risk of making a fool of oneself, one can never progress in knowledge...

If one does not allow oneself to err publically, one implicitely denies oneself the possibility of being subsequently corrected and enlightened by others more knowledgeable than him...

2) an insider's insight is always needful in truly understanding someone from a different culture, and with a different mentality or world-view...

For instance, a twenty-first-century English-speaking Australian Lutheran pastor possesses, by the very nature of things, a far deeper and more intimate understanding of a twentieth-century English-speaking British Anglican thinker than some random Romanian Orthodox weirdo, uhm, I mean 'Christian', out there.

Or, to take another example: the Early and/or Greek and/or Syriac Church Fathers probably possess, by the very nature of things, a far deeper and more intimate understanding of the meaning of the Greek texts containing the teachings of a first-century Jewish Rabbi than some sixteenth-century Germanic-speaking Western-Europeans...

Lvka said...

So Lewis is saying that non-Magisterial Protestants should have no qualms in converting to Catholicism then?... :-)

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I like you better when you're being sarcastically humourous, Lucian :-)

joel in ga said...

Pastor, no worries! May the Lord grant you a quick recovery.

Schütz said...

As is my wont,I have posted a reply to this post on my own blog, scecclesia.com, rather than put it here at the bottom of a long comment string! I hope you can take the time to go over there and read it, and engage in more discussion!

Tim said...

Does this letter also reflect the opinion of the later Lewis?

Thank you for posting this.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Tim,

You're welcome.

There is no evidence that I am aware of that Lewis ever changed his mind on Rome. He remained a 'middle of the road' Anglican (that is, neither 'high church' nor 'low church' to use the Anglican terms) until the end of his life.

Tim said...

I have heard through the years, most notably during a lecture by Joseph Pearce at Hillsdale College, that Lewis was all but Roman. I have also read several articles in First Things that seemed to make that claim. I'll have to find them again and read more closely to see if they actually said that.

This letter certainly does call these things into question. How did you "uncover" it?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I don't remember how I came across it, Tim. I think I had actually posted it a couple of years earlier and later I found the book it came out of.

I'd be very interested to see any 'hard evidence' Lewis was 'all but Roman'. In any case, he was buried an Anglican, that clinches it!