C. S. Lewis on Higher Criticism, part 1


I’m looking forward to attending the upcoming debate between the evangelical Dr. Dan Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and the agnostic Dr. Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on the trustworthiness of the text of the New Testament at McFarlin Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, October 1, 2011. (debate website) This debate necessarily involves the issue of the undermining effect the discipline of higher textual criticism has had on orthodox theology in general, and the orthodox doctrine of the inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy and authority of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments in particular.

Several decades ago, world famous Christian apologist, novelist and literary critic, Dr. C. S. Lewis, addressed a body of Anglican ministers and shared his concerns as an educated parishioner (or “sheep”) that modern higher criticism lacks credibility, and thus higher critics, in his view, lack literary judgment. The next several posts will include sections of this lengthy lecture/essay including my own helpful section titles. It is not the easiest read, due to many unfamiliar literary or other academic references, but there is much wisdom to be gained by the diligent reader, and it may help to motivate further diligence to know that it is generously sprinkled throughout with Lewis’ characteristic wit.

Originally entitled ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism’, Lewis read this essay at Westcott House, Cambridge, on 11 May 1959. Published under that title in Christian Reflections (1981), it is now in Fern-seed and Elephants (1998). HT: Homepage for Orthodox Theology

Introduction: A Sheep to Shepherds

This paper arose out of a conversation I had with the Principal one night last term. A book of Alec Vidler’s happened to be lying on the table and I expressed my reaction to the sort of theology it contained. My reaction was a hasty and ignorant one, produced with the freedom that comes after dinner. One thing led to another and before we were done I was saying a good deal more than I had meant about the type of thought which, so far as I could gather, is no dominant in many theological colleges. He then said, ‘I wish you would come and say all this to my young men.’ He knew of course that I was extremely ignorant of the whole thing. But I think his idea was that you ought to know how a certain sort of theology strikes the outsider. Though I may have nothing but misunderstandings to lay before you, you ought to know that such misunderstandings exist. That sort of thing is easy to overlook inside one’s own circle. The minds you daily meet have been conditioned by the same studies and prevalent opinions as your own. That may mislead you. For of course as priests it is the outsiders you will have to cope with. You exist in the long run for no other purpose. The proper study of shepherds is sheep, not (save accidentally) other shepherds. And  woe to you if you do not evangelize. I am not trying to teach my grandmother. I am a sheep, telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them. And now I begin my bleating.

How the Uneducated Might Respond to Modern Theology

There are two sorts of outsiders: the uneducated, and those who are educated in some way but not in your own way. How you are to deal with the first class, if you hold views like Loisy’s or Schweitzer’s or Bultmann’s or Tillich’s or even Alec Vidler’s, I simply don’t know. I see – and I’m told that you see – that it would hardly do to tell them what you really believe. A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia – which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes – if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church. In his crude, coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same. An experienced clergyman told me that the most liberal priests, faced with this problem, have recalled from its grave the late medieval conception of two truths: a picture-truth which can be preached to the people, and an esoteric truth for use among the clergy. I shouldn’t think you will enjoy this conception much once you have put it into practice. I’m sure if I had to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with that seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn’t exactly – only in some Pickwickian sense – believe them myself, I’d find my forehead getting red and damp and my collar getting tight. But that is your headache, not mine. You have, after all, a different sort of collar. I claim to belong to the second group of outsiders: educated, but not theologically educated. How one member of that group feels I must now try to tell you.


11 responses

  1. Looking forward to reading the rest John!

    1. Yeah, this is a series I ought to be able to stick with. It’s already written! Cut, paste, edit, intro–post! Thanks for chiming in.

  2. Great! Provide a summary after the debate, please.

    1. Will do what I can. Not quite equipped to live blog, but there’ll be pictures and commentary of some sort, to be sure.

  3. Isn’t Lewis fantastically disarming? I have not read this essay – – looking forward to it. I smile at the “introduction” he makes of himself to the company of “professors” and future professors (i.e., Vidler’s disciples), keeping in mind the recent republican debates where a complex, or at least symantically pregnant question is posed to the candidate, a question which may take 2-3 minutes to lay out with the expectation that the candidate will provide a cogent response in 60 seconds. Somehow, in order to truly communicate, we need to be using the same glossary, certainly the same language (with special attention given to the vulgar understandings of the class to which we are conversing). And then we must be prepared to invest some time and some thought or else there will be precious little communication.

    1. You can thank Rod Rosenbladt of the White Horse Inn for this find. He mentioned some of Lewis’ assertions from this essay a number of times over the years, without attributing it to Lewis. Then, on a popular Lutheran podcast/radio show, Issues, Etc., that host interviewed some other guy on higher criticism, and he tied Lewis to the claim. Then I consulted Google, and voila!

  4. […] The following is the next few paragraphs from C. S. Lewis’ essay, ”Fern Seed and Elephants,” in which he gives one educated sheep’s skeptical perception of modern liberal theology and higher textual criticism. You will find among Lewis’ comments that he evidences a lack of entire agreement with the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, but overall, his critiques of the more extermely liberal theological and textual critical views remain helpful even for conservative Evangelical inerrantists. See part one […]

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