This article is about the C.S. Lewis, Cornelius Van Til, and Agag. But of course you already knew all of that from the rather unambiguous title.
It must be remembered from the outset that the Christian world has a distinct surplus of C.S. Lewis “wanna bees.” Things have gotten to the point where any expression of appreciation for the work of Lewis is a potential embarrassment—not because of anything said or done by Lewis himself, but rather for fear of being taken for yet another rootless American evangelical enamored of apologetics with a British accent. Nevertheless, appreciation and criticism for Lewis are both in order in the area of apologetics.
The purpose here is to analyze certain aspects of the apology for Christianity presented by C.S. Lewis, and to discuss it in the light of the two basic apologetic “schools”— evidentialism and presuppositionalism. In much that follows, I will assume that the reader is familiar with the main features of that apologetic debate, and will content myself here with a brief summary.
The evidential apologist believes that there is a neutral place where a Christian may encounter an unbeliever, agree on some common ground rules, and reason from that neutral place to a faith in the God of the Bible. The presuppositional apologist, on the other hand, argues that there is no such neutral place, and that all reasoning presupposes, of necessity, the triune God of Scripture.
It is very clear that elements of both are present in Lewis’ apology for the Christian faith, but more must be said about this. For if presuppositionalism is correct, both elements are present in every apologist’s presentation—from Alvin Plantinga to Josh McDowell, from C.S. Lewis to Norman Geisler. Given presuppositionalism, everyone is implicitly a presuppositionalist. This is because presuppositionalism holds that because of the necessary relationship between the Creator and all creatures, presuppositional thinking is inescapable. A creature must start all his reasoning with certain “givens.” In fact, this entire apologetic debate could be summarized as an attempt by presuppositionalists to convince evidentialists that they are not really evidentialist.
This being the case, it is the purpose of this article to show, not that Lewis was implicitly presuppositional (for everyone is that), but rather that at certain key points, he was explicitly so.
There are also other places where he had an explicitly evidential approach. So this is not a fight over the body of Moses; this is no attempt to claim Lewis as a champion of presuppositionalism; rather it is simply an attempt to recognize and applaud him at those places where he went to the heart of the issue, and to critique him at those places where he did not.
Lewis was a master of making modern non-Christian philosophers eat their own cooking. In this regard, and to this extent, Lewis can be considered a presuppositionalist. Or, to be more precise, his critique of non-Christian philosophies required his adversaries state their presuppositions, and be subsequently consistent with them. Consider this passage from Miracles:
“All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight …It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.”
And a few pages later, he says that, given a naturalistic materialism:
“The finest bit of scientific reasoning is caused in just the same irrational way as the thoughts a man has because a bit of bone is pressing on his brain.”
In other words, materialism is a philosophy which cannot sustain itself—materialism cannot supply the preconditions necessary for doing materialist philosophy. Lewis is not arguing here that materialism is improbable; his refutation is absolute. Materialism is impossible. To use his words again: “You can argue with a man who says, ‘Rice is unwholesome’: but you neither can nor need argue with a man who says, ‘Rice is unwholesome, but I’m not saying this is true.’” There is no need to refute a philosophy which refutes itself. And those philosophies which refute themselves may be considered absolutely refuted.
Now this air of certainty is consistent only with a presuppositional approach. Evidentialism, in contrast, is concerned to present the Christian faith as probably true, as a reasonable option for reasonable men. In contrast, the presuppositional apologist says that Christianity is inescapably true. Lewis does not go this far, but he does say that certain unbelieving philosophies are inescapably false. And this makes at least one friend of his apologetic more than a little nervous. Richard Purtill writes,
“Here, I think Lewis makes one of his rare missteps in argument …What Lewis needs to argue, and indeed does argue indirectly, is that it is overwhelmingly more probable that mind will be produced by a previously existing mind than by a process such as evolution…”
This is a wonderful example of the hesitancy which afflicts evidentialism. It is merely improbable that blind purposeless chance brought our minds into existence. But evidentialism grants that there is a chance, however slight, that mindless chance could have produced all the wonders of creation. Because Lewis cuts materialism no slack—he says it is not improbable, it is demonstrably false—he is admonished for being too certain. There is a real irony here. Evidential apologists for the Christian faith want arguments for Christianity; they do not want proofs. Like the Israelites outside Canaan, they don’t want to launch a campaign of total conquest. And even though Lewis is not giving an unanswerable argument for Christianity, he is at least giving an unanswerable argument against one of its competitors, and this, for an evidentialist, is too close for comfort.
Consider Lewis again in a passage from Mere Christianity, this time recounting an objection he had to Christianity when he was an atheist.
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world really was unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
In Miracles, Lewis showed that materialism cannot consistently use or talk about reason. Here in Mere Christianity he shows that the atheist, given his premises, cannot talk about justice. For all who are familiar with a presuppositional approach to apologetics, this is familiar terrain. We see here an unbeliever confronted with his inability to generate ethical objections to the existence of God. So in conflict with various forms of modern unbelief, Lewis lays the ax at the root of the tree. In Lewis’ apologetic, contrary to the modern assumption, God is not in the dock—man is.
What Lewis is doing here is discussing first principles with modern unbelievers. In the discussion, he uncovers the fact that unbelieving arguments against God are invalid, i.e. their conclusions do not proceed from their premises. What Lewis then does is to ask his adversaries, quite politely, to change their conclusions so that they match their premises. He is quite consistent in pointing out this surreptitious inconsistency—for yet another example, consider this blunt assessment from The Pilgrim’s Regress: “The sciences bring to the “facts” the philosophy they claim to derive from them.”
In short, Lewis was a master at the demolition of modern, unbelieving attacks on Christianity. But this presuppositional method can be taken much farther than Lewis does. For a thorough-going and consistent presuppositionalism, we must turn to Cornelius Van Til.
In critiquing the materialist worldview, Lewis does a fine job of pointing out that the preconditions of reason are absent from the materialist view. Lewis does the fine destructive work of pointing out that materialists cannot derive reason from materialism, and hence have no right to employ reason in the advancement of their case. He does not go as far as Van Til, however, in that he does not go on to state explicitly where they do get reason.
If materialists cannot get reason from materialism, where is it derived? The answer given by Van Til is the God of Christianity. Lewis made the case that such non-Christian philosophies could not sustain life on their own; Van Til went on to make the case that they are parasites, and that Christianity is the host.
Another way of stating this is to say that for Lewis the self-contradiction of materialists was an argument against materialism. Van Til showed how these self-contradictions by unbelievers were an inescapable argument for Christianity. While Lewis would say that self-contradictory philosophies need not be heeded, Van Til would say that self-contradiction is the apportioned lot of every rebellious creature, and Christ must therefore be heeded.
We may therefore set the boundaries of Lewis’ limited presuppositionalism. When critiquing modern forms of unbelief, Lewis was negatively presuppositional. That is, he showed that the unbeliever’s presuppositions could not sustain the structure which unbelief wanted to build on it. So we may consider Lewis as a limited presuppositional critic of modernity.
In other areas, he was not presuppositional at all. For example, he was not presuppositional in his approach to the ancients—for example, he would not go after Plato in the same way he would critique a modern atheist. Nor was he presuppositional in his approach to modern non-Christians who were prepared to be “reasonable” as they listened to the Christian message.
While Lewis required the unbeliever to stand on his own avowed presuppositions when attacking Christianity, he did not require this of the unbeliever when he was hearing the message of Christ presented. It is here that Lewis’ compromise with the natural man is apparent. As Van Til put it:
“One can only rejoice in the fact that Lewis is heard the world around, but one can only grieve over the fact that he so largely follows the method of Thomas Aquinas in calling men back to the gospel. The ‘gospel according to St. Lewis’ is too much of a compromise with the ideas of the natural man to constitute a clear challenge in our day.”
Why would Van Til say this? In short, although Lewis believed fiercely in objective standards of beauty, ethics, etc., he also held that such standards could be, and had been, discovered everywhere, by Christian and non-Christian alike. In his Christian Reflections he states,
“If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man …he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature.”
We must be careful here. There is a great divide between proponents of “natural law” and the proponents of “common grace.” But the cleavage is not necessarily simple to understand; suffice it to say that Lewis appeared to be saying that pagan man had a good deal of ethical common sense about him, and that if he carefully listened to Confucius or the Stoics, and ignored the modern claptrap about ethics, he could learn a great deal about true morality.
This approach caused Lewis to postulate the existence of what he called the Tao—the collective moral wisdom of man. His most detailed treatment of this is found in The Abolition of Man, which Van Til cites in this passage.
“Lewis seeks for objective standards in ethics, in literature, and in life everywhere. But he holds that objectivity may be found in many places. He speaks of a general objectivity that is common between Christians and non-Christians and argues as though it is mostly or almost exclusively in modern times that men have forsaken it …But surely this general objectivity is common to Christians and non-Christians in a formal sense only. To say that there is or must be an objective standard is not the same as to say what that standard is. And it is the what that is all important.”
Lewis appears to hold that non-Christians can have these perceptions about “natural law” on their own. Of course the Lawgiver is God, but man has the ability to discover the law that God has placed in the world—in much the same way that men can discover mathematical theorems, or a new celestial body. A denial of natural law does not necessitate a denial that men have a common knowledge of ethical standards. Rather, it is the conviction that men know what they know about God because of His revelation of Himself.
Now of course if men can come to search out the truth about the world (ethical or otherwise), and they can do so on their own, then there is no problem with an evidential apologetic, which simply encourages them to do so. But if God reveals Himself to all men—at the most fundamental level possible—then knowledge of God is a matter of God’s revelation to man, and not a matter of man’s discovery of God. Because Lewis strongly accepted “natural law,” a necessary implication of this is that he approved of an evidentialist apologetic.
Lewis’s approval of an evidentialist approach can be seen also in a letter he wrote, shortly before his death, to John Warrick Montgomery concerning two lectures Montgomery had delivered at the University of British Columbia. Lewis had this comment on the lectures: “Your two lectures did me good and I shall constantly find them useful. Congratulations…Otherwise I don’t think it could be bettered.”
This comment of approval was made about lectures which were thoroughly in the evidentialist stream of things. Consider this statement by Montgomery from the second lecture.
“Now if you are not inclined in the direction of Christianity—as I was not when I entered university—the most irritating aspect of the line of argumentation that I have taken is probably this: it depends in no sense upon theology. It rests solely and squarely upon historical method, the kind of method all of us, whether Christians, rationalists, agnostics, or Tibetan monks, have to use in analyzing historical data.”
Montgomery of course is a leading proponent of the evidentialist school of apologetics; it is not surprising at all that he would make such a statement. What is pertinent here is Lewis’ approval of this form of argument—an approval which is not at all out of step with Lewis’ own approach elsewhere. What Montgomery is affirming here is that his argument for Christianity depends “in no sense upon theology.” Whatever else this proposition is, it is certainly pure evidentialism, and Lewis did not have a problem with it.
Now of course his acceptance of evidentialism at this point is inconsistent with his own forms of argument elsewhere. One can only speculate what would have happened if Lewis had observed a pointed collision between the evidentialism of a Montgomery and the presuppositionalism of a Van Til. For of course to say that certain areas of life can be lived without regard to theology (in this case, historical studies), is itself a theological claim—an all-encompassing theological claim.
So it appears that when non-Christians were willing to behave themselves in this “neutral zone,” Lewis was quite willing to deal with them under those conditions—and talk about history, or textual criticism, or literary criticism in a reasonable, “neutral” fashion. But if the non-Christians broke the truce, and attempted to attack Christianity, then Lewis was prepared to deal with them at the level of their presuppositions.
C. S. Lewis was a great man, and a great scholar, but it seems that at least in this regard he was a victim of something he described well in The Screwtape Letters: “Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together in his head.” In Lewis’ case, there were not a dozen incompatible philosophies, but only two. And they were not different philosophies of life, but rather differing philosophies of how to defend the Christian faith. Nevertheless, the contrast of differing approaches is present in Lewis’s apologetic, and the contrast is stark.
The presuppositional apologetic is one that flourishes in only one kind of soil—the theology of the Reformation. It can exist elsewhere, but it certainly cannot thrive. This may perhaps explain, at least in part, the inconsistencies in Lewis’ apologetic. As a conservative Anglican, Lewis exhibits some of the theological inconsistencies of that communion. He truly was a faithful son of his church. He seemed somewhat comfortable suggesting that eventually parallel lines might eventually intersect. I have a Lewis quote book and found this illuminating passage.
“Of course reality must be self-consistent; but till (if ever) we can see the consistency it is better to hold two inconsistent views than to ignore one side of the evidence. The real inter-relation between God’s omnipotence and Man’s freedom is something we can’t find out …We have to leave it at that. I find the best plan is to take the Calvinist view of my own virtues and other people’s vices; and the other view of my own vices and other people’s virtues…It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.”
In other words, Lewis recognizes (unlike many contemporary Christians) that Paul taught something about predestination, and Lewis was also prepared to say that whatever that teaching was, it was true. At the same time, he was not ready to spell out the content of the doctrine—he simply acknowledged its presence, and sought to guard against an unbalanced acceptance of it.
Lewis was also a classical theist—his views of God and His attributes were thoroughly orthodox. According to Lewis (and Scripture), God is not bound by time, and we cannot comprehend fully His relationship to what occurs within time. He would have had nothing to do with recent evangelical attempts to stake out a position halfway between classical theism and process theism.18 But because these recent compromises are internally more consistent (just as Socinianism is more consistent that Arminianism), this places Lewis in the awkward position of maintaining a “Reformed” view of God, while not pursuing some of the ramifications of that commitment. But one of the direct ramifications is in the field of apologetics; the result in Lewis’ apologetic was inconsistency.
The reason that presuppositionalism depends upon a reformational approach should be obvious. The evidential assumption that some areas are neutral can only be sustained by a theological premise which asserts that there are some areas which God “leaves alone.” But if God is sovereign over all things, then there is no area which He leaves alone; there is no neutrality. And if there is no neutrality, then it is impossible to share common ground with the unbeliever as the gospel is presented.
Consequently, it is possible to speculate that perhaps Lewis was presuppositional when he was building on his orthodox belief that God is all in all—a godless universe is inconceivable (and unbelievers consequently can not consistently build a godless universe). He did not apply this profound understanding consistently in all areas; consequently, he was quite willing to appeal to the unbeliever’s reasonableness so long as the unbeliever was not drawing attention to his rebellion against God.
Van Til, on the other hand, was more than willing to assert that all men are in rebellion against God because the Bible says they are. This is assumed to be the case even when the rebellion is not apparent to us. Lewis dealt with the rebellion in a presuppositional way only after the rebellion was visible and apparent. Before that time, he was willing to speak to the unbeliever as one reasonable man to another.
Perhaps an allegory may be fashioned from a situation in one of Lewis’ Narnia stories—Prince Caspian. Peter, a king of the Narnians, is in a duel with Miraz, a usurper and tyrant. In the course of the fight, Miraz falls over and Peter, a true gentleman, steps back to let him rise.
In a similar way, Lewis watches his opponents fall to the ground, and in a typical English fashion, points out that they have done so. But he is a gentleman, and he is not in a battle to the death with all forms of unbelief—only the aggressive ones.
In contrast to this, the consistent presuppositionalist is not in a gentlemanly duel, with agreed upon common rules. He is in a total war; he is not interested in a negotiated settlement. There are no diplomatic solutions to be pursued. Like Samuel, he “hews Agag to pieces before the Lord.”