Sunday, February 16, 2014

Was CS Lewis a Calvinist?

Everybody wants a piece of CS Lewis. His "anti-brand" of Mere Christianity has the power to run amok over denominational lines, leaving awesome in its wake. It's not surprising, then, that Calvinism has recently tried to score a slice of Lewis pie. What is surprising, though, is the willingness to take statements out of context (or ignore them entirely) in order to make their case stick.

The case has been most popularly (and most recently) put by Doug Wilson here.

At the very beginning, he asserts his thesis: While Lewis may not be a "modern" Calvinist (whatever that means), while he may not use the "language and jargon" of modern Calvinism (whatever that means), "There are a number of indications that show that he understood the essential teachings of the Reformation and he signed off on them."

His position is, first of all, incredibly vague. What does Calvinism look like, in his view? What are the "essential teachings"? Is he willing to abandon TULIP in order to bring Lewis into the Calvinist camp (as one friend of mine was willing to do?). What is Wilson's Calvinism that Lewis holds to?

Then he moves into his arguments, and the very first Lewis quote is one where Ransom, in Perelandra, discovers that "Predestination and freedom were apparently identical." It's definitely a good quote, but also pretty confusing (as Wilson admits when he laughingly refuses/declines to clarify what, exactly, the quote means). That confusion doesn't stop Wilson, though: while someone else might admit that this could be used to argue for either Calvinism or a more free-will-oriented position. Wilson doesn't even admit the possibility of an alternate interpretation.

Such is the problem with many of his examples. Some are stronger (Jill in The Silver Chair, for instance), but the rest are so weak as to be non-existent. It's not even worth it to go through piece by piece (is it really necessary to point out that Aslan only undragons Eustace after Eustace explicitly agrees to allow him to?). But the thing is, we don't have to go through every example, because Wilson, in either the most ignorant or the most dishonest move of the entire video, completely and utterly ignores The Great Divorce.  Let's take a look, shall we?

"Time is the very lens through which ye see--small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope--something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality."

So far, so good, right? If this were all it was, no doubt Wilson would be only too happy to claim it as further evidence that Lewis embraced the truth that freedom and predestination co-oexist (a truth that apparently only Calvinists hold to, according to Wilson?). But Lewis isn't done yet: not by a long shot.

"Every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination, which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two."

In all honesty, we could drop this right here, and I believe that no self-respecting Calvinist would dare to maintain Lewis' Calvinism in the face of this. But we'll go on, because there's one more argument that I've heard before.

"But what if Lewis is talking about some "straw-man" version of Predestination? What if this isn't the actual Calvinist version?"

To which I say: Make up your darn mind.

Wilson states at the very beginning of his argument that "[Lewis]understood the essential teachings of the Reformation and he signed off on them."

So which is it? Does Lewis not understand the essential teachings, and so we can write this off as an incorrect understanding of Predestination?

Or (as seems more likely), does he indeed understand the essential teachings, attribute a certain level of truth to them, but also recognizes that Freedom is the "deeper truth"?

Wilson can't have it both ways. He can't approve one reading when it suits him, and another when it doesn't. He can't claim that Lewis knows exactly what he's talking about one moment, but talking out of ignorance the next. That's not how this works.

There's one more way out of the net, which Wilson tries to keep open and which I've had argued to me before. That you can ditch TULIP, ditch all the confining language of today's Calvinism, and spread the net so wide that Lewis fits perfectly into it. At it's absolute best, this move destroys Calvinism and makes the term meaningless.

Calvinism has to mean something. No matter how you reduce it, no matter how you explain the "jargon" and the "language" and the partisanship of it, it has to mean something, and not just anything, about the relationship between predestination and free will. It either means something, or it means nothing. And if it means something--if it means anything--then it means that predestination is "the deeper truth." Calvinists can sidestep the issue, they can claim harmony, they can do whatever the heck they want--the fact remains that at some point, they have to say that Predestination is first and has priority.

If it doesn't mean that, then it means nothing. And if it does mean that, then it means that Lewis was not Calvinist, in any sense of the word.

THE END: Of course, there's a lot more to say. It's not as though the non-Calvinist Lewis rests solely on The Great Divorce. In the last volume of Lewis' letters, he claims "It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite." Note the "in whatever sense" there...quite a far cry from Wilson's claim that Lewis necessarily upheld fundamental reformed teaching!

And then there's his claim in Perelandra, that God makes plans that humans have the power of upsetting: I've written more about it here. This theme is repeated again in That Hideous Strength, where Merlin laments that "It was the purpose of God that she and her lord should between them have begotten a child...[but] be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed." This is hardly the God who cannot help but be sovereign over each and every detail of existence!

It's ignorant, at the very best, to argue for a Calvinist Lewis. At worst, it represents an intentional misrepresentation of either Lewis or Calvinism (or both). I've written this to provide an antidote to Wilson's video, because I do not believe the Church is served by either ignorance or falsehood.

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