CS Lewis’ Views on Interpreting Scripture

FROM P. H. BRAZIER A PROTO DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
 
    On Pentecost 1944 C. S. Lewis delivered a message he titled “Transposition.” He shows how heaven is not just a human idea even though it is described in natural ways. In his defense of the use of natural imagery in the Scriptures, he first explains how our varied emotions (the “higher medium”) may be “transposed” into physical sensations of, say, tears or trembling (the “lower medium”). The tears are not the joy or grief itself; this would imply grief and joy are one and the same. These emotions are never experienced to us apart from the sensations into which they’re “transposed.” 
 
   Let us construct a fable. Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and a little patch of the sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky. This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of deliverance, she is constantly teaching her son about that outer world which he has never seen. She does it largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like. He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that that the outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times, she succeeds. On the whole he gets on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes.    
 
    Finally, it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. “But,” she gasps, “you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?” “What?” says the boy. “No pencil marks there?” And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. 
 
    For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it. He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition–the waving treetops, the light dancing on the weir; the colored three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shapes at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve. The child will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mother’s pictures.. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.
 
     “We know not what we shall be” [1 John 3:2]; but we may be sure we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth. Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun.
 
     You can put it whichever way you please. You can say that by transposition, our humanity, senses and all, can be made the vehicle or you can say that the heavenly bounties by transposition are embodied during this life in our temporal experience. But the second way is the better. It is the present life which is the diminution. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom [1 Corinthians 15:50], that is not because they are too solid or too distinct, they are too flimsy, too transitory. 
 
     In Lewis’s story the child is convinced that the outside world is therefore less than the visible world of the prison cell in which they are incarcerated. The real world is without ‘lines’ because it is more visible, more real, but the child, like all of us humans, falls for the realism of the pictures, the drawn lines, and takes it for all there is.
 
     To understand what Lewis proposed was happening in God’s revealedness, we first need to examine how he understood scripture. Scripture, for Lewis, bears witness to revelation, :but in ways that separate it from revelation; Scripture is divinely inspired but humanly generated, and thus complements revelation. The belief in the objectivity of reason and truth was central to his understanding of scripture.. From an acknowledgement of God’s infallibility Lewis could see that if creation was to be, it could then exist only in freedom. 
 
     The writers of scripture were divinely inspired, but each was a fallen and fallible human, characterized by a degree of free will. Biblical inspiration can therefore be described as the dove whispering into the ear, the illumination of the Holy Spirit imparting intimations to the human mind, though the mind is free to make of these intimations what it will: This is the divine presence behind the Bible.
 
     This is where Lewis’s understanding of the humanity of scripture comes into play. In the context of the Book of the Psalms, for example, Lewis speaks of the human qualities – naivety, error, contradiction, cursing and wickedness – which are not excluded. The total result is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. 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 not by using it as an encyclopaedia… but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
 
    The humanity of scripture presents us with a Bible which is – as Lewis termed it – an “untidy and leaky vehicle.” We no doubt would have preferred absolute truth systematically presented. However, this is not what has been given.. Lewis does not approach the Bible with the fundamentalist mindset characteristic of certain Evangelicals.
 
     On the relation of the historicity of scripture to revelation Lewis did not subscribe to the view that scripture, in itself, is God’s revelation to humankind.. Revelation is not propositional truth, or pairings between biblical words and God’s utterances. A “baptized imagination” (Lewis and Tolkien’s term) in themind of a faithful writer would seek to be as true to the revelation as possible, Here, Lewis’ Platonism contends that  any revelation from on high, will be a diminution–in effect, watered-down or changed:
 
   Michael J. Christensen, writing on Lewis’s understanding of scripture, explains that‘ to demand  (too much) of scripture is to fail to recognize that God’s
 infinite wisdom exceeds man’s ability to conceptualize it. The divine light is obscured by the medium through which it shines.’ The key term for Lewis and
 Tolkien here was refracted.
 
     If the books and chapters of the Bible are not all of the same type or genre, then contradictions over historicity do not necessarily undermine the truth of the claims. For example, Lewis regarded the Book of Jonah as sacred fiction, and gave greater respect to its mythical qualities than many would.. Lewis in the The Problem of Pain: writes:

 
     The Adam and Eve tale, for instance, may express poetically the reality of man’s fall from perfection better than any strictly historical account possibly could. Was the forbidden fruit symbolic, then? ‘For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit,’ ‘but the question is of no consequence.Clyde S. Kilby, an acknowledged authority on C. S. Lewis, states that “Lewis’s frequent discussions of the Garden of Eden make it apparent that it means a hundred times more to him as myth than it does to most Christians as history.

   
   We
 make demands on the historicity of scripture that it will not sustain, precisely because it is not the product of an ordinary academic discipline: it isboth human and divine in origin. Lewis makes a distinction between the Word of God (the universal Christ of all eternity incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth) and the word of God (scripture). Scripture is partial and incomplete; Andrew Walker notes how there is no evidence that Lewis subscribed to the doctrine of sola scriptura.
 
     Lewis commented that some of his critics argued that he was a fundamentalist for not dismissing,, per se, the miraculous and the historic in the Old Testament. Others criticized him if he did not accept every event recorded sentence in the Hebrew Bible as historic and scientific truth: Lewis wouldn’t dismiss a miraculous world view. 
 
     The problem is compounded when a passage is taken in isolation; Any contradictions are then ignored:. We cannot assume that if one event written in the Bible is true, then all accounts are without flaw – ‘that the numbers of Old Testament armies (which in view of the size of the country, if true, involvescontinuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection historically correct.
 
Lewis asserted that the Holy Spirit may also be behind the inspiration of many other works – including myths and works of great literature from a variety of cultures and civilizations. In the letter from Clyde Kilby, his comment, onJames 1:17 are pertinent: ‘If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.’ Lewis, writing to a Mrs. Johnson in 1952 commented:
 
It is Christ himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is myth (but of course myth specially chosen by God from among countless myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read with attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

 
      In this context, Lewis cites Paul’s comments that, ‘Scripture itself refutes these ideas. St Paul distinguishes between what ‘the Lord’ says and what he says ‘of himself’ – yet both are ‘scripture’’ (1 Corinthians 7:8–10). In addition, much that is now scripture was not written with the sort of audience in mind which it is now exposed to: ‘. . …. in scripture, a mass of human legend, history, moral teaching etc., are taken up and made the vehicle of God’s Word. Errors of minor fact are permitted to remain. (Was our Lord himself incapable, qua man, of such   errors? Would it be a real human Incarnation if He was?.’