C.S. Lewis on reading the Bible

by Richard on October 7, 2009

Tim Chesterton has been looking again at C.S. Lewis on the inspiration of scripture. Here’s a morsel to whet your appetite

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 ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1

DH 10.07.09 at 3:58 pm

I don’t buy that the Bible is myth. I also don’t say that the Bible alone is the Word of God but if God says something in the Bible then it is clearly part of the Word of God and what God says is always consistent with Himself and what God does will always be consistent to what He has said or says.

2

Richard 10.07.09 at 4:02 pm

Nobody said “The Bible is myth”.

3

Tim Chesterton 10.07.09 at 4:06 pm

DH, do you think that all biblical numbers are absolutely accurate?

4

DH 10.07.09 at 4:45 pm

Richard, then why even use the term “myth” with any part of the Bible? I believe biblical numbers are accurate and I believe that there is also a context with numbers. If a person observes that 100 people are at a meeting and one does a count and it is 105 that doesn’t mean that what the person said from their observation is wrong for it appeared to be “around” 100 people and in fact it is “around 100 people”. The same goes for the Bible. So with that context in mind the biblical numbers are absoultely accurate.

5

Richard 10.07.09 at 4:53 pm

That’s at least partly because you use the word myth to mean ’something that isn’t true’. That isn’t how it is being used in this context. This hasn’t got anything to do with numbers. It’s about recognizing literary genre, of which myth is one. So I wouldn’t say “The Bible is myth”. But I have no embarrassment about saying ‘The Bible contains myth’. They’re two very different statements.

6

DH 10.07.09 at 5:01 pm

Richard, then one needs to use another term than myth to describe the Bible. Scripture says “Obstain from even the appearance of evil.”

Richard can something be literaly true in every single way and still be myth?

7

Richard 10.07.09 at 6:15 pm

Therw’s no need to use a different word. Myth is perfectly respectable. I’m not sure I understand your question.

8

DH 10.07.09 at 6:32 pm

What is it about the question you don’t understand? I will be happy to help let me know where you don’t understand the question and I’ll rephrase it.

9

Richard 10.07.09 at 8:26 pm

Well, I’m not sure how to respond to “can something be literaly true in every single way”. I don’t know what it means.

10

DH 10.07.09 at 8:50 pm

I’ll rephrase: Can something be myth and be literally true in every single solitary way at the same time?

11

Richard 10.07.09 at 9:09 pm

That doesn’t help. But if you mean, could Genesis 1 be both a scientific description of our origins *and* a myth, I’d say no.

12

PamBG 10.07.09 at 9:11 pm

Myths can be utterly true, yes.

I don’t know what “literal truth” is either. But I suspect I don’t believe in it.

13

Tim Chesterton 10.07.09 at 9:57 pm

My post was about C.S. Lewis, and so the important thing is what he meant when he used the term ‘myth’. He was speaking as a professional literary critic who had spent a lot of time around mythology - Greek, Roman, Norse - and so had a good ‘nose’ for sniffing it out.

He used his professional training when it came to his Bible study, and the conclusions he came to worked both ways. For example, in his day some were claiming that the gospels were myths, and Lewis dismissed that idea without hesitation, because to him the gospels did not seem anything like the sort of myths that are known around the world. When people made claims like that, he said, he wanted to know how much mythology they had actually read!

On the other hand, there did seem to Lewis to be material in the Old Testament that had the literary characteristics of myth, and so could be best understood in that genre. And I think he was right. I think if you compare the early chapters of Genesis to (a) the literary form of myth as it is known all around the ancient world, and (b) the literary form of scientific description as it is seen in modern scientific textbooks, it’s quite clear that the early stories in Genesis are closer to the literary genre of myth.

This does not mean they don’t contain truth (and this was what Lewis was getting at). For instance, a book like ‘Lord of the Rings’ can be said to express a mythology (that of its creator, Tolkien), and yet, although a work of fiction, it contains great and profound truths about the world and about the human condition. Even pagan myths such as the Odyssey and the Aeneid contain truths about human nature. When Lewis used the language of myth to describe certain Old Testament stories, he meant that, as God-inspired myths, they used the literary form of myth to communicate God’s truths. These would include, for instance, the ideas that God was the creator of everything, that human beings were made in the image of God, that human beings were created to be the stewards of God’s world, and that human beings used their free will to step outside God’s plan and discover good and evil by their own experience.

Speaking for myself, I have to say that I found Lewis’ views enormously liberating. At one time I tried to take a more fundamentalist view of the OT but found I couldn’t ignore the nagging doubts in my head. I read authors like Josh McDowell and others who tried to explain the issues but found their explanations superficial and trite (”God drowned all those Egyptians in eighteen inches of water!!!”). Then Lewis came along and handed me another way of looking at the stories, and it instantly made sense to me. As I share it with others, Christian and not-yet-Christian, I can see them sighing with relief as well.

DH, you said, if God says something in the Bible then it is clearly part of the Word of God and what God says is always consistent with Himself and what God does will always be consistent to what He has said or says. I would agree with that. The question is, does God ’say’ everything that is in the Bible?

14

tortoise 10.07.09 at 10:35 pm

Thanks, Tim, for summarising Lewis’ approach so clearly. And I concur with his conclusions and yours.

One thing though - you say: I think if you compare the early chapters of Genesis to (a) the literary form of myth as it is known all around the ancient world, and (b) the literary form of scientific description as it is seen in modern scientific textbooks, it’s quite clear that the early stories in Genesis are closer to the literary genre of myth.

In fairness, oughtn’t comparison (b) to be rather the literary form of scientific description as it is seen in ancient scientific texts? Not that I can boast familiarity with any such texts - but even so, I’d dare to anticipate that the result of the comparison would be the same.

15

DH 10.08.09 at 3:06 pm

Tim, the answer is yes. With regard to drowning the Egyptians in 18 in of water. That is the point the water WAS deeper than the 18in and it is clearly possible that the Red Sea WAS the Red Sea. Archeologists have found Egyptian chariots at the bottom of the Red Sea around where the trek of the Israelites were. Just because some scholars say it was 18in, Reed Sea, etc. doesn’t mean they are actually correct. My dad used that response you quoted to a non-literal believer in Scripture Seminary professor and the whole class laughed when they realized the argument the scholar had was totally off.

You ask: “The question is, does God ’say’ everything that is in the Bible?” My answer: absolutely

With regard to the “doubts in your head” I refer to what Jesus said, “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.”

16

Tim Chesterton 10.08.09 at 4:27 pm

You ask: “The question is, does God ’say’ everything that is in the Bible?” My answer: absolutely

Including the words of Job’s comforters?

17

DH 10.08.09 at 5:01 pm

Okay Tim, however God had the words of Job’s comforters to be in the Bible as part of the literal story that happened and there IS part of God’s Word.

18

DH 10.08.09 at 5:02 pm

“therfore is” sorry for the typo.

19

Tim Chesterton 10.08.09 at 5:41 pm

So not everything in the Bible is said by God.

How about Psalm 137:8-9?

20

DH 10.08.09 at 6:56 pm

Tim, nothing I said goes against that everything mentioned in the Bible is God’s Word and is literal. I would say it is said by God through His people in a literal way. So if you want to get nitpicky like you are trying to be then I would say it is said by God. Whether it be Jesus Himself, God in an audible voice, a story dictated by Godly men in a literal way, etc. all of the Bible is said by God.

So to correct you. Everything in the Bible is said by God. It is a matter of how it is said. If we use as an example the tempation of Jesus, If the Bible says satan said to Jesus throw yourself down. Then God says satan said to Jesus throw yourself down being that the Bible is part of God’s Word.

21

DH 10.08.09 at 6:58 pm

“Whether it be at different times Jesus Himself, at different times God in an audible voice, at different times a literal story dictated by Godly men in a literal way, etc., etc., etc. all of the Bible is said by God.”

22

Tim Chesterton 10.08.09 at 7:05 pm

Tim, nothing I said goes against that everything mentioned in the Bible is God’s Word and is literal

The parables are literal?

So is God saying Psalm 137:8-9 or not?

23

dh 10.08.09 at 9:25 pm

Well God literally said the parable through the writer of the parable at the very least. Didn’t you read what I said previously? However, some of this passage seems to not be in its entirety a parable but something that was actually done aka killing of infants, being doomed to destruction, etc. those historically have been done in the past so we have no reason to think these things didn’t literally happen. Some of it was mentioned as a figure of speech but again that doesn’t contradict that God literally spoke thru the writer of the passage which is in God’s Word making it BE God saying Psalm 137:8-9.

24

Tim Chesterton 10.08.09 at 9:40 pm

So God thinks it’s a blessed thing to take a baby and bash its brains out against a rock?

25

dh 10.09.09 at 12:50 pm

Tim, no. You totally misunderstood the passage. God said through the writer of the passage that people were literally doing this terrible act and the passage goes on “said by God” through the writer that they will be punished, “repaid”. God never says through the writer in a literal way that it is okay for the babies to murdered. He in fact condemns them for it. He, if you understand the dash, says they are doomed to destruction for “seizing your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” How the destruction is repaid doesn’t mean that it is the exact same way. When a person murders and faces prosecution, the murderer is repaid by going to jail. The passage doesn’t state how they will be repaid only that the judgement will come to repay the people for doing this terrible act.

This is obvious and clear from the text as I have explained.

Tim, you are pretty sick and it is pretty sick

26

Tim Chesterton 10.09.09 at 1:43 pm

The passage says, in the NRSV:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

So the Edomites have done this to the babies of Israel, and in response the psalmist says that the person who takes revenge on the Edomites by doing the same to them will be a happy (or ‘blessed’, depending on the translation) person. God’s judgement on the Edomites will be that they will receive exactly the same outrage.

So in this psalm (which according to you is just as much the Word of God as is the Sermon on the Mount) it’s a good thing to take revenge on someone by killing their babies as they have killed yours. But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to love and forgive our enemies, and in Romans Paul tells us not to forgive evil for evil.

I’m sick? Hey, I’m not the one who spoke in defense of the murder of women and children in the fire bombing of Dresden!

27

Tim Chesterton 10.09.09 at 1:44 pm

Paul tells us not to forgive evil for evil.

I meant ‘render’ evil for evil, of course!

28

dh 10.09.09 at 2:48 pm

It also is a figure of speech that was literally stated by God through the writer of the passage. I don’t condone the murder of women and children. The fact remains that Hitler had military armament around places where women and children were. The murder Hitler is the one who was cowardly to use women and children as a covering for his actions.

Again nothing I said is a contradiction being that I originally said this a while back on this thread: “Some of it was mentioned as a figure of speech but again that doesn’t contradict that God literally spoke thru the writer of the passage which is in God’s Word making it BE God saying Psalm 137:8-9.”

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