Sunday, October 30, 2011

C. S. Lewis was not a gnostic heretic

"You don't have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body." I recently saw a friend of mine share this quote on facebook, attributing it to C. S. Lewis. According to the internet, a lot of people think this is from Lewis: Mere Christianity, usually. But it's not. Go through Mere Christianity page by page, or any of his other books, and you won't find this anywhere. It's actually a quote from an entirely different book, Canticle for Liebowitz, by an entirely different dude, Walter Miller. I can kind of understand why this would be attributed to Lewis: it's a nice, compact phrase turning a popular notion on its head. It's so deep, right? So true... But it's not, actually. This statement implies a strange separation of the body from "personhood," a notion that the body is something extraneous to the actual person: and this thought is much closer to gnostic heresy than orthodox Christianity. If we let this thought influence us too much, it can begin to dangerously influence how we think and even how we act.

This statement implies that the actual person is the soul. Just the soul. And the body is something extra to the person: take away the body and you still have the complete, whole person. This is completely wrong, and it is addressed directly in the New Testament. The church in Corinth had fallen into gnostic heresy: they thought that the body wasn't important. That was why they had fallen into sexual immorality, "of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans" (1 Cor. 5:1). And they were proud of this immorality, because the fact that they did whatever they wanted with their body demonstrated how spiritual they were: they were so spiritual that they didn't even care what happened to their bodies. I hope you can see what's wrong with this kind of thinking: Paul certainly could. He says, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?" (1 Cor. 6: 19).

So the body, specifically, is the temple of the Holy Spirit. If the body actually was something extraneous to the actual person, that would mean that the Holy Spirit would be inside the body, but not inside the actual person: both the soul (person) and the Holy Spirit would be inside the body. Thankfully, this is not the case, as Paul goes on to plainly state that the Holy Spirit is "within you." Note that I am not saying that "person = body," or "soul = body" or anything like that: the body and soul are both integral parts of a person. In this particular passage, the body is clearly identified as an integral part of a human being, meaning that sexual immorality affects the entire person exactly because it affects the body.

But what about when we die? What about when we are resurrected? Paul addresses this too, also in 1 Corinthians. Speaking of the resurrection, he says, "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:44). Even when we die and are resurrected, we retain the body. Surely we won't be resurrected with "extra parts," so to speak: the fact that we are resurrected with our bodies intact demonstrates that the body is an integral part of us. And note that Paul uses distinct plant-seed imagery: the spiritual body comes from the seed of the natural body. Rather, both are instances of the aspect of ourselves that is "body." The resurrected person, as well as the natural person, is not complete without the body.

The vital importance of this idea is seen nowhere so clearly as in the person of Jesus Christ.

That Jesus Christ was and is a human being like ourselves is part of the central tenant of our faith. Paul tells us that "In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col 2:9).  If the body is only a shell, then we see that the fullness of deity dwells in the body of Christ, but not in his soul, which is a strange thought. Going further, if the body is only a shell, than what people saw in the New Testament wasn't the actual person of Christ.

We must say that John was wrong when he says that with his very hands he touched "that which was from the beginning" (1 John 1:1)--we must say that he merely touched the unimportant outer shell, completely extraneous to the actual person of Christ. The actual person of Christ is then shrouded and hidden from us, absent from the entire New Testament, from our entire history. The Word did not "become" flesh but merely inhabited it, wearing it like the cloak of a Black Rider from The Lord of the Rings, its only purpose to give shape to something otherwise totally unrelated to it. Finally, if the body is only a shell, then Christ didn't actually die for our sins: he let the unimportant outer shell die. If Christ did not die, there is no atonement for sins. If only Christ's unimportant body died and was raised, than only our unimportant bodies are saved: our souls are lost.

"You don't have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body." This statement, fully fleshed out, makes our faith incoherent. It allowed early "Christians" to indulge in blatant immorality because it didn't affect them, only their bodies. It means that John did not touch Jesus, did not see the only Son from the Father: Only his meaningless body was touched and seen. It does away with Christ's death and makes his resurrection meaningless. It destroys our faith. Please stop attributing it to C. S. Lewis.


  1. Have you read Matt Anderson's book "Earthen Vessels"? He's a fellow chum and the book is quite good. Worth a read.

  2. I agree, Anderson has a lot to say on the subject and I have witnessed him get worked up over the same quote. The sad truth is that people go looking for inspirational C.S. Lewis quotes on the internet end up at wikiquote and find this then think, "Wow, that sounds so right, I love Lewis, he is brilliant, this must be brilliant to!" I had to give my brother this same talk at one point when he found this quote, he got better.
    But great analysis and defense of the real Lewis. I especially liked your use of Incarnation theology. You'd think we as Christians would be done with the Gnostic problem by now but it just keeps coming up. Same think with Arianism. Its in these cases that we already have the answers somewhat flushed out not only in Scripture (where it is clearly stated) but also in Church history with the early defenders of the faith. Nice use of Scripture, reason and the examples of Christian works like Tolkien's fantasy.