Lewis agreed with me about the Canaanite genocides. Smart fella!

All flaws duly acknowledged, I still loves me some C.S. Lewis. He is the reason I am where I am today (whether that’s credit or blame is up to you to decide, of course!). His thoughts here have been articulated time and again on my blog in my words, but I am glad to present them here in Lewis’s well-spun words.

Dear Mr. Beversluis,

Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God’s answer might be ‘What is that to thee?’ The passage may not be ‘addressed to our (your or my) condition’ at all.

I think we are v. much in agreement, aren’t we?

Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Big thanks to Alex Smith at the Evangelical Universalist message board for this gem (and David Baldwin for tipping me off).

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  • Stevencarrwork

    ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’

    That isn’t God speaking. 

    What is Lewis claiming? That human beings can judge Jesus comments and decide for themselves if Jesus was right to ban divorce?

    • “That isn’t God speaking.

      As I’m sure you’re aware, even laying aside any question of Jesus’ divine ontology, Christians usually quote him under the assumption that as a prophet he usually spoke authoritatively on God’s behalf. Not such a stretch.

      What is Lewis claiming? That human beings can judge Jesus comments and decide for themselves if Jesus was right to ban divorce?

      I think it’s fairly clear from the context of the quote that Lewis was claiming the necessity of judging God’s character as a monster or a benevolent deity and deciding whether he was worthy of worship on that basis. No doubt Lewis is saying that if we are satisfied that God is omnibenevolent, we are still “on the hook for” those teachings we have reason to believe that originate in Him and do not obviously contradict His essential goodness (unlike the OT commands to kill people). Be that as it may, Lewis may have supported what you suggest if he thought Jesus taught something that impugned the character of God — I just don’t know that we have evidence that he thought Jesus’ teaching on divorce fit the bill.

      Sigh. I just spent entirely too much time explaining that to someone who probably doesn’t care. Oh well.

  • Sigh. I just spent entirely too much time explaining that to someone who probably doesn’t care. Oh well.

    That’s the endeavor you’ve undertaken.  If you’re going to think about God and scripture, you’re going to have to ignore or else take some time for those for whom “faithfulness” is equivalent to finding the limits of thinking.

    Unfortunately, that’s a problem with the idea of revelation.  Anybody who begins with the assumption that some things cannot be known by humans has already established that there comes a moment when the object of our thought is opaque to our thought.  Which might be true, though I don’t know how you’d know it.

    • Thanks, Otter. And thanks for passing on this post at your site, as well.

  • Jeff

    Interesting post.  I don’t read Lewis as making a statement against inerrancy in this quote, though (which is not to say that he was an inerrantist).  The part of the quote I latch onto is this one: 
    “We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to.”
    I think agnosticism of the sort Lewis proposes here is the most reasonable option; I’m uncomfortable enough with presuming to mind-read God, let alone going beyond this and concluding, on the basis of claiming to know what God would or would not do, that therefore the text must be inauthentic.

    • Hi Jeff,

      I think his remark about trusting in God’s “invisible goodness” was a desperate stop-gap against divine command theory for instances in which people refuse to call inerrancy into question. Knowing that Lewis called Joshua’s supposedly divinely mandated actions “atrocities” and “treacheries”, plus the fact that he here stated that there was a real and not imagined conflict between God’s goodness and the doctrine of inerrancy, I would have to maintain my position that this is about inerrancy. He was understandably reluctant to do so in less black and white scenarios, and thus the stop gap for less certain scenarios; I think it’s fairly clear that he thought the Conquest narratives were a clear instance of biblical error, however.

      • Jeff

        Actually, I think it’s the exact opposite — I think it’s meant to counteract the license that rendering the text inauthentic appears to grant.  For if our moral compass is allowed to become the arbiter of the authenticity of a text, then where do we draw the line?  On what other passages are we permitted to wield the scalpel of revision?

        I guess that for me, while I can say “I can’t imagine the circumstances that would have necessitated so drastic and terrible an act”, I’m reluctant to extrapolate from that to “therefore, it must not have actually happened.”  And I do think we too easily forget that sin is far worse than we imagine, and that the cure for sin is far more severe than we can stomach. (Who among us, after all, would be willing to volunteer his son to be brutally executed as payment for the crimes of others?) 

        To put it a different way; God is good and God is merciful, but God is also Holy, and His holiness supercedes His mercy — it /must/, because His goodness and His holiness are inextricably bound.  I think this creates situations that are unpleasant but necessary.  I don’t think God derives any pleasure from condemning persons to Hell, and it hardly seems like a “good” thing.  Some things are necessary without being pleasant. 

        This of course doesn’t mean that the text is authentic, either! 

        • Given the amount of time I’ve discussed these topics on the blogs (have a look around) I’m afraid it’ll have to suffice to say that I firmly disagree with almost everything you wrote. I do not believe in penal substitutionary atonement, and I do not believe that holiness can be anything other than perfected love. You simply cannot square perfect, self-sacrificial, all-consuming love with a standard of holiness that requires sending people off to their eternal deaths. I side with Lewis that God’s goodness, and by “goodness” he agreed that it must mean what we mean when we say “goodness”, is the only permissible reason to worship God; all the conceivable “holiness” (by your definition) in the universe could not manage to make God worthy of our worship apart from love.

          • Jeff

            Fair enough Steve; but to simply close the loop, it’s no stretch to say that /Lewis/ believed in penal substitution, /Lewis/ believed in sin, and /Lewis/ believed in Hell.  So if we want to discuss his views about what implications God’s goodness has on the authenticity of “troubling” passages, even if we accept the letter in question as coming down on the side of errancy, certain extrapolations from there would nevertheless be incompatible with Lewis’ views, and that was what the first paragraph of my comment immediately preceding this one was trying to assert.

          • Granted. I’m just not nearly as bothered by the fuzzy distinctions of where to draw the line as some are. At the risk of repeating myself, having to err I’ll err on the side of “God is more good and loving than I can imagine Him, but not in an altogether different way.” Not having any reason to believe in inerrancy means that stuff in the Bible is subjected to that standard. I might be wrong, but if I’m His child I trust He’ll lovingly correct me one day.

          • Edwin

            It is indeed a stretch to say that Lewis believed in penal substitution. He includes it as one legitimate model in Mere Christianity, true. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe he presents a view that some might call penal substitution, but I would not, because of the strong presence of ransom/Christus Victor themes. It’s the Witch who wants to kill Edmund, not Aslan. That’s key to the present discussion.

  • God said war was “servicemen competing”.  Just image teenage male video games if there had never been war.  God wants praise for Creation.  Don’t criticise Creation!

    I chuckle — don’t worry about atheist critics.  Oh, God exists, all right.  They should be so luck that He’s a wimp!

    God says, “infinitude ask endurance whit gratuitous .”

  • No. YOU agree with HIM. So YOU’RE the smart fella. 🙂

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  • Edwin

    One textual emendation: I think it’s pretty clear that in the third line of the last paragraph “consult” is a corruption of “insult.”

    • Hi Edwin, I thought the same thing myself but I could not find a source that actually had the word “insult” instead of “consult”, so I left it in just in case there was a meaning that he intended that I was unaware of. I do not have access to any published version of this letter. If anyone supplies it to me I would be happy to change the post!


      • Obviously there could not have been an error in the original manuscript. This must be a corruption somewhere later down the line. 

        • Otter

          Tsk. German higher criticism: it’s un-American.

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