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C.S. Lewis on the Bible: God’s Word in (very) human words, Part 2

In my last post I highlighted C.S. Lewis’s take on what it means to approach the Bible humbly: namely, we should first ask honestly and with an open mind, What sort of book has God actually given us and how has He given it?  When we do that, we find that God has given us a Book not at all like what we might have expected if we had formulated a doctrine of Scripture a priori.  Instead He has given us something else entirely, something far more extraordinary:

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language.  If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.  The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion.  When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.  The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.

So says Lewis in the Introduction to J.B. Phillips’s Letters to Young Churches.  God’s work in the inspiration of Scripture not only communicates but also emulates God’s humble, self-effacing work in the Incarnation.

As Pete Enns puts it in his fantastic book Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, the Incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of Scripture are “analogous.” Lewis clearly agrees.  In his longest piece on Scripture, chapter XI of Reflections on the Psalms he writes:

For we are taught that the Incarnation itself proceeded “not by the conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by taking of (the) manhood into God”; in it human life becomes the vehicle of Divine life.  If the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God’s word into literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God’s word, this is not anomalous.

According to Lewis the means whereby God gives us Scripture is not by faxing us transcripts of inner-Trinitarian dialogue direct from Heaven, but rather by taking up very human literature and utilizing it to communicate His Divine life to us.  As he says earlier in the chapter, “The human qualities of the raw materials show through.  Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed.”  Nevertheless, he says, “It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it….”

In this way, for Lewis, the Word is also like the sacrament: Ordinary water, bread, and wine are taken up into, become conduits for and communicators of the Divine life that we so desperately need.  So, too, here:  all too ordinary human writings are taken up into, become conduits for and communicators of the Divine life and word.  Such a sacramental and incarnational understanding of Scripture impacts the way in which we receive the word of God in it.  Grammatico-historical or historical-critical acumen are not enough, and are possibly not even necessary.  We must receive the Divine word by approaching Scripture in a sacramental manner.  We “receive that word from it,” says Lewis, “not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.”  Or, to put it another way, if the Word is Sacrament, then, as Eugene Peterson puts it, perhaps our task is to recover the art of spiritual reading and (re)learn how to eat this Book; prayerfully consuming and being consumed by these (very) human words, for in them lives the very Word of God.



6 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on the Bible: God’s Word in (very) human words, Part 2

  1. I was in heartfelt agreement up until you seem to dismiss a couple of centuries of biblical scholarship as “possibly not even necessary.” We are at best at a 2,000-year distance, in an alien culture, speaking a different vocabulary. Even at the time, to paraphrase the eunuch, “How can we understand if there is no one to guide us?” (Acts 8:30-31)

    Prayerful and well-intentioned spiritual reading too often produces distorted and even harmful understandings of scripture when done with no knowledge of context, vocabulary, mistranslation, and cultural influences. Get the human words and thoughts straightened out first, and then it is likelier that what we pray into may be the Word of God.

    Posted by nanbush | March 13, 2012, 4:20 pm
    • I might have been better to say “not entirely necessary” rather than “not even.” Though, I am not sure that that will scratch your very legitimate itch. I don’t mean to be dismissive of critical Biblical scholarship. I am trained in that field myself. I did a masters in Biblical studies at Westminster Seminary in Philly and then a masters specifically in New Testament at Duke. My biblical reading habits and theological instincts have been profoundly shaped by the last two hundred years or so of biblical scholarship, and I think we owe a great deal to it. And I certainly think that no academic theologian who is worth her salt as a scholar can do without it, either.

      However, I do not think that we can insist upon those methods being THE normative way to read all of Scripture for all Christians. For one thing, a historical-critical reading of the NT quickly reveals that the NT authors themselves were not reading the OT Scriptures in either a historical-critical or a grammatical-historical fashion. I would refer you to the works of James Kugel, Peter Enns, Richard Hays, and Richard Longenecker on that point. Rather, the NT writers were creatively rereading the OT texts in the light of God’s new revelation in Christ and according to the flexible and even freewheeling interpretive practices of Second Temple Judaism. The interpretive approach of Jesus, the Apostles, and the Church Fathers to the OT was much more a sort of intense, Christologically-focused spiritual reading than it was anything like modern critical interpretations. When it comes to reading the OT, then, I am much more inclined to urge regular folks in the Church to follow the creative hermeneutical program and paradigm of the Apostles than I am to insist that they get acquainted with Wellhausen and Von Rad. On that score, I think Lewis’s voice is a very helpful one.

      But that’s just the Old Testament. I definitely think historical-critical readings are necessary for the responsible handling of the New Testament. Otherwise the Pharisees just become a cipher for whoever we don’t like, as do Paul’s opponents in Galatia. Scripture becomes, in Luther’s words, “a nose of wax.” But I think that’s the case for the NT and not for the OT because, along with the Church Fathers, I think that both OT and NT are equally Scripture, but are not both Scripture in the same way. Quod in vetere latet in novo patet. “What is latent/hidden in the Old is patent/open in the New.” The “what,” in that formula, is the gospel, the word of God. The ways in which the OT and the NT carry the gospel are different and call for different hermeneutical approaches if your goal is to hear the same gospel in both of them. In that sense, they function as Scripture in rather different ways.

      What do you think?

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | March 13, 2012, 8:09 pm


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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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