Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A nerd and a Friday night's existential crisis

Some years ago I was at Dallas Baptist University taking a class with Dr. William E. Bell. He's second from the left here. I learned about the penal substitutionary atonement, and happened to learn that, according to Dr. Bell, C. S. Lewis denied the doctrine.

No, not that William Bell. (Picture by Gage Skidmore, available here.)

I considered Lewis to be the great Christian thinker that he is. I grew up on Lewis: originally the Narnia books and movies (the old BBC ones, with the bad special effects and the awesome portrayals of the White Witch and Puddleglum), then Screwtape Letters in middle school and Mere Christianity in high school. My family has been reading Lewis for several generations.

My reverence for Dr. Bell was no less. I saw him as the bulwark of orthodoxy and serious biblical teaching that he is.

So my college hero was telling me that my childhood hero was a heretic whose salvation was uncertain as a result of his bad doctrine. This was a big deal. We're talking about a genuine existential crisis here (though I admit I've had worse existential crises in my time).

So, of course, I went to the library and wrote a paper. What else is a little nerd with an existential crisis supposed to do on a Friday night?

In it, as I recall, I tried to make three points.

1. In Mere Christianity Lewis doesn't deny the penal substitutionary atonement. He just admits that the modern mind has trouble understanding the idea, and then suggests an understanding of the atonement that makes sense to the modern mind: the theory that Jesus paid our debts on the cross. (Looking at the relevant passage recently, I had to admit I may have misread it; I think he really does reject the penal substitutionary atonement here, although it wasn't the main point of the passage.)

2. The theory that Jesus paid our debts on the cross is an orthodox theory. Here I cited a passage in the New Testament; it may have been 1 Timothy 2:5-6. I also alluded to the old hymn that says of Jesus, "He paid a debt he did not owe/I owed a debt I could not pay/I needed someone to wash my sins away."

3. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis illustrates the penal substitutionary view of the atonement in Aslan's death in place of Edmond.

I shared my paper with Dr. Bell, who read it more than once. He thought it was a valiant effort to defend Lewis, but he wasn't convinced.

Now up to this point I still thought Lewis did not reject the penal substitutionary atonement, but Bell shared with me a story that finally convinced me: that Lewis had personally told J. I. Packer that he did not accept the penal substitutionary atonement. Packer had personally passed this information on to Bell, who now passed it on to me. I now pass it on to you.

The third point from my paper is puzzling in light of this, but I think it may yet be correct. I suspect that in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis wrote a better book than even he intended, and managed to illustrate an extra view of the atonement. (See here for a brief word on the Christus Victor view he intentionally depicted. )

Still the man.
(Picture from here)

C. S. Lewis is still the man. This may suggest a poor memory on my part, but I can only think of about three sentences in all of the fifteen or so books I've read by Lewis with which I disagree. It is largely because of the occasional problem like this that I suggested that Christians read N. T. Wright and John Stott alongside Lewis. But C. S. Lewis is irreplaceable. A solid grounding in ten or twenty of his little books will do any Christian good, and, I might add, will probably do more good than thirty or forty large books in philosophy and theology.

P. S. Todd Kappelman, another of my favorite undergrad teachers, wrote this on the need to read Lewis. I agree.

P. P. S. This sort of allegation that C. S. Lewis is a heretic and the author of "demonic fantasies" is no doubt well-intentioned; but it is incorrect, impolite, unhelpful, poorly researched, and hardly worth the time I've already spent writing this sentence.


Thomas Ladd said...

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe scene where Aslan substitutes his life for Edward's always struck me as straight up ransom theory of atonement.

Aslan pays the debt to the witch (she is owed Edward's life as a traitor), and the Emperor Beyond the Sea (God the Father) isn't even part of the equation.

This is what Origen, among others in the early church, emphasized when writing about the atonement: the cross is about ransoming us from Satan, more than satisfying the wrath of God.

I'm hardly an expert on Lewis or the early church, so feel free to jump in, Mark, or just ignore my comment altogether :-)

Mark Boone said...

I'm sure it is ransom. I always thought of it as a substitution of punishment as well. This is probably a literary question; does the punishment-substitution view of the incident also make sense of the literature? Is there anything in the literature that implies it?

I think those are the questions I'd have to ask if I wanted to defend the view I've sort of always held. But I can't ask them now. It's late. Maybe some other time.

Adam D Jones said...

Splitting hairs. I don't think it's fair to criticize a fairy tale based on possible theological assumptions that don't hold up to scholastic, theological rigor. Lewis himself said that the story does not hold up to a perfect allegory, but only (in my own words) in broad strokes and semblance of themes. In other words, he was trying to tell about things like redemption rather than the details of theology.

Adam D Jones said...

Dr Boone, I'm STILL not convinced that Lewis was wrong about atonement. You claim that a certain anecdote proves it, but that's like saying that a certain anecdote proves alligators live in the sewers! (It's true, I heard it from a friend who's friend saw the alligators first-hand.) You have only strengthened my resolve to stand by Lewis on this matter! (I think this might make you happy, even though I'm technically disagreeing with you.)

AHLondon said...

No substantive comment to add. I'm with Adam, and I can't stop giggling at this: "What else is a little nerd with an existential crisis supposed to do on a Friday night?" Indeed.

Thomas Ladd said...

I mentioned the ransom model in connection with the scene from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe simply because it's a viable way of thinking of redemption -- perfectly illustrated by Lewis depiction in The Wardrobe -- that stands the test of historical orthodoxy. Sure, it's not PENAL substitution, but it's substitution nonetheless. In other words, it's the substitutionary part that makes you orthodox, not the penal part (though I think you need that part for proper understanding).

Once you have Jesus dying a substitutionary death (which I can't think of any of Lewis' writings that come anywhere close to denying), you're good.

We don't need to make Lewis use all the right words and the right "ologies" when discussing redemption (it's a children's book written by a laymen), BUT we are certainly being fair in examining how he fundamentally conceives of redemption. He doesn't get off the hook for thinking about it correctly, even if we don't expect a fairy tale to flesh it out to the same extent or in the same ways as a theology textbook.

And in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I see a picture of redemption that is just fine if you want to keep on loving Lewis as a great CHRISTIAN thinker :-)

Adam D Jones said...

Then we must accuse him of being wrong for something other than his fairy tales. I haven't seen such a charge, yet, that showed evidence of his wrong thinking through his writings.

Thomas Ladd said...

In case it might interest anyone, Scot McKnight wrote an excellent book called A Community Called Atonement, which looks at the various atonement models and sees them as all being helpful when view together.

It's a good place to start for anyone interested in more general issues of how to think about the atonement based on what we've discussed here.

Thomas Ladd said...

I agree, Adam. Lewis is totally in the fold in my book. And what I find interesting is that even his fairy tale description of the redemption (which I personally don't think illustrates penal substitution within his extended metaphor, especially since he has a "God the Father" character and chooses not to include him in the transaction) is more than enough to keep him there. So unless you can find some quote where Lewis says, "Pttthhht! Jesus' dead didn't do crap!" I'm cool with the guy :-)

Mark Boone said...

Thanks for the great comments, all!

Normally I'd agree about the alligators in the sewer, but when the first friend is Dr. Bell and the second friend is J. I. Packer, I believe the story!

Then there's the line from Mere Christianity: "And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense." It seems to me that this does amount to rejecting the penal view, though I didn't notice it for quite some time.

Ladd's remark is good: "Sure, it's not PENAL substitution, but it's substitution nonetheless. In other words, it's the substitutionary part that makes you orthodox, not the penal part." I am inclined to agree, given that various Church Fathers accepted the ransom view but not the penal view. But there a difference between rejecting a view and not accepting a view. Lewis rejecting the penal view is more serious than the Fathers simply not accepting it. (Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe is clearly good, since there's no rejection there.)

On this I rather like Michael Wittmer's disctinctions in Don't Stop Believing between different kinds of essential doctrines: those you must believe to be saved, those you must not reject, and those it is far better to accept for having a full Christian faith and life. I think the penal view is in the third category; I expect Wittmer agrees, although Bell may not.

By the way, I'm still inclined to accept that Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe illustrates a penal view, albeit imprecisely through layers of imagery. I always got the idea idea that Edmund's sins had merited death as a punishment.

Bruce in Ohio said...


There are some good responses here that I adjure you to heed. I don't know Dr. Bell, but i do know Packer's work, and, i must say, I am not impressed with his overall grasp of Lewis's context, project, and impact, nor his published "tributes" to Lewis in CT and other venues. They are as unspecific as they are tin-eared. But that's neither here nor there.

What I find puzzling and disarming is the overall tone of your piece--about which, even its conception, I find unwarranted. What's its provocation? To show that you are the superior philosopher/theologian? To place the "appropriate" distance between you and those hero-worshipping Lewisites who are blind to his ignorance? To "warn" people against this "heretic" Lewis. (The most disingenuous statement in your piece, is, ". . .This sort of allegation that C. S. Lewis is a heretic and the author of 'demonic fantasies' is no doubt well-intentioned. . ." WELL-INTENTIONED? What's "well-intentioned" about a radical Baptist blowhard whom you label " incorrect, impolite, unhelpful, poorly researched"; why would you want to concede even that much to someone I'd consider a real threat to people's faith and well-being? That's a very unfortunate sentence in my opinion and reveals some misaligned sympathy.

Is the church somehow in danger of falling into the "wrong theory of atonement"? if so, this fact has by-passed me. isn't it the case that the greater threat is in the church's disbelieving altogether? Golly gee willikers.

A large measure of post-1960s believers owes, directly or indirectly, their embrace of the authenticity and, yes, authority, of Scripture to the courage and clarity of vision that Lewis espoused, even though it doesn't fit our evangelical categories. He keeps all the salient terms in the contemporary conversation, and yet Piper and other detractors of Lewis are barely a blip on the radar of eternity, speaking basically to themselves and driving the conversation, Screwtape-like, into lower and lower levels of false specificity and incoherence, distinctions without much difference.

You are a talented and insightful thinker and writer, but it is irksome to see you squander time and purpose to this kind of tail-wagging, your "three sentences of disagreement" with Lewis. Your "compliment" to Lewis by the end of the column is "no doubt well-intentioned" but at its heart is really ungracious.


Adam D Jones said...

Hmm, Mark, I just can't go along with the rumor against my hero, Lewis. Since he's not here to defend himself, I must do it, for him. (He'd do the same for me, I'm sure.) Have at you!

So, what shall it be, Dr Boone? A duel, then? Swords? Pistols? Choose your weapon!

Mark said...

Those laser guns from summer of '03.

Mark Boone said...

Bruce, I'm not sure what to say. I fear I must have been unclear because I think I may have been misunderstood. Alas! If only we could talk it out over tea.

I disagree with Lewis on a couple of technical points of doctrine, but beyond stating one disagreement I'm not endorsing anyone's criticism of him, not even Bell's.

I didn't really have a specific purpose in writing this, just a vague feeling that it needed to written.

Lewis is wonderful. No author of fiction, save Tolkien, has done more for me. No non-fiction writings outside the Bible and, MAYBE Augustine, have taught me more.

Mark Boone said...

By the way, lest there be any confusion on the state of Lewis' salvation, I am not worried about it. I look forward to having tea with him after the eschaton.

reneamac said...

"I suspect that in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis wrote a better book than even he intended..."

I suspect this is true regardless of where Lewis ultimately landed on the specific issue of atonement. This is what I love about literature.

Thanks, Mark, for opening this great discussion.

Meghu said...

In Existential Crisis person generates negative thoughts about his existence, But there are a few things that when explained can reduce his feeling of emptiness of his life. It is important to make him understand that the situation is not caused due to his thoughts. Besides, everything that he thinks is not real but an illusion, and his idea of the world is how he perceives it, and not what it actually is.

Mark Boone said...

The reason I have memories to the effect that Bell said Lewis is a "heretic" is probably that I was told as much by a third party. I believe I initially heard about Bell's concern with Lewis from another student, who may have (mis)quoted Bell as using that word.

The more I think about it, the more my memory settles on this: I do not think Dr. Bell called Lewis a "heretic." I suspect he used a careful phrase such as "less than fully orthodox" or something like that.

In one of his Systematic Theology lectures he mentioned that all heresies get the Trinity wrong. With the definition of "heresy" implied in that remark, Lewis rejecting one correct view of the atonement would not be enough to make him heretical.

Miss Amy Smarty said...

Guess who is on the far left of the picture?