C. S. Lewis wrestled with liberalism in the Anglican Church in his day in the same way orthodox Anglicans still wrestle with Anglican liberalism.1 In his essay, “Christian Apologetics,” originally given as a speech, “read to an assembly of Anglican priests and youth leaders at the Carmarthen Conference for Youth Leaders and Junior Clergy of the Church in Wales at Carmarthen during Easter, 1945,”2 he explained the importance of apologetics as a necessary defense of the Christian faith. Although delivered almost a century ago to an audience on another continent, the thoughts expressed are hardly anachronistic and just as appropriate for this century where both the church and Christian universities are facing a similar if not a worse cultural disconnect.
Lewis started by unleashing a scathing rebuke of liberalism, criticizing the clergy for a lack of conviction to “fix the bounding lines” against “liberal” or “modern” heresies that had crept into the church. He added that the clergy should change their profession if they insisted on failing to establish these bounding lines. Maybe the same could be said about college professors in Christian higher education who have similarly transgressed the bounding lines of sound, biblical doctrine.
Lewis observed astutely that unorthodox boundary breakers tend to think of themselves as martyrs for the cause of truth and are willing to endure public reproach. The problem that Lewis notes though is the same as the problem for unorthodox Christian professors, “We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing your ministry after you have come to hold them.” In other words, integrity is not staying within a tradition or institution to whose doctrine you no longer consent. It is leaving.
Lewis defined the boundaries of Christianity using “the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, and expounded by the Fathers.” He took great care to distinguish this historical tradition from the opinions that learned men had formed that “seemed to be opinions consistent with the faith” and were thought to be “true and important” about God and man. But these were “my religion” as he put it, and he cited 1 Corinthians 7:25 as a reminder that Christian opinions and what Scripture says must be distinguished clearly.
In Lewis’s warnings against “watering down” Christianity, of denying the supernatural and the miraculous, he emphasized the historicity of the Gospels, writing they were “certainly not legends.” As a professional literary critic, he was qualified to explain that the literary genre of the New Testament narratives was historic and journalistic, based on a level of detail not found in realistic prose fiction until the eighteenth century.
Lewis’s historic-narrative characterization of the Scriptures echoed the words of the Apostle Peter who emphasized the trustworthiness of the Gospel narratives, writing in his second letter: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).
As a chemistry professor at a Christ-first university, what I find especially helpful in Lewis’s essay is the connection he drew between Christian apologetics and science:
A clearly maintained distinction between what the faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied to the results of the experiments; you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them to realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact—and not gas about ideals and points of view.
Lest we are tempted to criticize Lewis as an ivory tower, self-proclaimed prophet, preaching down to the hoi polloi, his message is both personal and reflective, adding a devotional dimension to his critique of liberalism: “The scrupulous care to preserve the Christian message as something distinct from one’s own ideas, forces the apologist to examine his own life, to face up to those elements in Christianity which he finds personally repulsive.”
Scripture should constantly challenge the Christian to become more like Christ. This is the process of sanctification and when we discover new truths that Lewis says we did not know, we must not run from them because they may seem to be uncomfortable or something which goes against the Zeitgeist. “Christianity must be kept clear in our minds and it is against that standard that we must test all contemporary thought. In fact, we must at all costs not move with the times.”
Lewis’s ultimate motivation for a sound, biblical hermeneutic was not academic or perhaps not even theological but evangelical. As a former atheist turned Christian, he was most concerned with reaching people with the Gospel. He noted the sea change in the culture that had left his generation bereft of a general knowledge of the Bible which had complicated the task of the clergy. It now was no longer their task to simply “edify those who had been brought up in the faith,” but instead had become “a ministry of convert[ing] and instruct[ing] the infidels.”
Preaching Christianity had to be a missionary outreach that involved “learning the language and mental habits of the unbelieving fellow countrymen as if in a foreign country.” In order to effectively reach people with the Gospel Lewis recognized four cultural shifts that had to be addressed:
- The common person had come to doubt the truth of the biblical narratives because they were written two thousand years earlier.
- There was a universal distrust of the accuracy of the Bible due to ignorance of the science of textual criticism.
- There was a total lack of a sense of sin.
- A general ignorance of Bible vocabulary necessitated learning the language of the audience as paramount in conveying the truths of Christianity.
Thus, he insisted to his audience, “You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular,” an exercise he said was important to both the listener and the apologist. “Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.”
All four of Lewis’s points are relevant today, even for those of us who teach at Christian universities. Not every student has a firm faith foundation. Many are lacking a sense of sin. Some have no faith relationship to Christ at all and are there for the wrong reasons—in my case, either to play on an NCAA Division 2 sports team or because of the South Florida climate and our proximity to the beach.
Last year I took a survey of all my chemistry students from both semesters. What I learned is that a slim majority read their Bibles and pray (57%), attend a local, Bible-believing church (54%), and believe God led them to PBA (55%). While these findings are encouraging, especially in light of the challenges GenZ faces from the cultural dysphoria, amplified by social media and peer pressure they have to deal with, I am most concerned for those who indicated they are agnostics, atheists, don’t have a regular devotional time and would like some guidance, or are looking for a church. These are the prodigals, (Luke 15: 11-32), or the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7) that when coming to their senses or were rescued, resulted in much rejoicing in heaven.
Lewis’s closing remarks are especially insightful as well as encouraging to those of us who stand in front of these students in classrooms and lecture halls, ever mindful of the great accountability we have. His words remind us on whom we must ultimately depend and that we are in it together:
…[W]e apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters into the reality—from Christian apologists into Christ Himself. That also is why we need one another’s continual help—oremus pro invicem (Let us pray for each other).
- In the latest row between conservative and liberal theologians over LGBT issues, conservative Anglican leaders said, “they could no longer recognize England’s archbishop of Canterbury as first among equals and called for an overhaul of how the global denomination is led. Francis X. Rocca, “Conservative Anglicans Call for Break with Archbishop of Canterbury Over Same-Sex Blessings,” The Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2023.
- C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 89-103. (All other citations in this essay are taken from the same work).