Wednesday, August 4, 2010

N.T. Wright on C.S. Lewis: De-Judaizing Jesus.

N.T. Wright has written a rather thoughtful piece on the late and very fellow Anglican lay-theologian C.S. Lewis, with particular emphasis on his well known Mere Christianity. You can read the entire article here:, with due credit given to Mike Bird for posting this on his blog.

Over the next few days I would like (God permitting) to post a few criticisms and general thoughts on the above essay. Tonight my thoughts will focus on Lewis' alleged De-Judaization of Jesus.

"Second, however, I find Lewis frustratingly fuzzy on heaven and immortality. He clearly believes in the bodily resurrection and the essential materiality of the ultimate future world, but—quite apart from the astonishing fact that in talking about Jesus he never in this book mentions his Resurrection—he persistently refers to “Heaven” in ways that go, to my mind, far too far towards Plato."

"I am well aware that some in our day, too, see the historical context of Jesus as part of what you teach Christians later on rather than part of how you explain the gospel to outsiders. I think this is simply mistaken. Every step towards a de-Judaized Jesus is a step away from Scripture, away from Christian wisdom, and out into the world of . . . yes, Plato and the rest, which is of course where Lewis partly lived. If you don’t put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted."

These two excerpts from Wright uncerscore-very lucidly- his concerns with Lewis' neglect of placing Jesus in a rightful Jewish context. Instead Lewis has given us a vista of Jesus that places us firmly in a Platonic context.

First of all, I cannot help but note a bit of irony in what Wright says. He treats Lewis here without giving enough heed to the wider context of what Lewis has said in his other writings. Take for instance the considerable attention rendered to Jewish context in the pages of Lewis' Reflections on the Psalms. Even the preface to this work opens up with a tantalizing contextualization of Jesus' attitudes along with those of the Desposyni: "I am sure the private life of the holy family was, in many senses, 'mild' and 'gentle', but perhaps hardly in the way some hymn writers have in mind. One may suspect, on proper occasions, a certain astringency; and all in what people at Jerusalem regarded as a rough north-country dialect." (Intro. iv)

Moving beyond the 10th chapter of this work where Lewis censures the sensational feats of allegorization rendered to the Psalter throughout the ages of the church, we land on his very sober treatment of "Second Meanings In The Psalms" in the 12th. The introduction begins thus:

"In a certain sense Our Lord's interpretation of the Psalms was common ground between Himself and His opponents. The question we mentioned a moment ago, how David can call Christ 'my Lord' (Mark 12:35-37), would lose its point unless it were addressed to those who took it for granted that the 'my Lord' referred to in Psalm 110 was the Messiah, the regal and anointed deliverer who woul subject the world to Israel. This method was accepted by all. The 'scriptures' all had a 'spiritual' or second sense. Even a Gentile 'God-fearer' like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27-38) knew that the sacred books of Israel could not be understood without a guide, trained in the Judaic tradition, who could open the hidden meanings. Probably all instructed Jews in the first century saw references to the Messiah in most of those passages where Our Lord saw them; what was controversial was His identification of the Messianic King with another Old Testament figure and of both with Himself."

It may well be that this entire passage is rife with Lewis' own naive attempts at historical conjecture, but what matters most to our present point is that Lewis is concerned enough to take a stab at historical conjecure. And on no smaller point than the Incarnation of Christ and its presence in the earlier Jewish writings! Thus it may be manifestly understood that Lewis places an under-appreciated weight upon the Jewishness of Jesus in the context of important theological questions.

Moving on to Plato, I think Lewis is correct to make full usage of hellenistic resources in his attempts to describe Our Lord. Why? Because God is not only a God of the Jews but equally of the Gentiles. Can it be anything other than ethnocentric hubris to insist that only Second-Temple Judaism and its milieu should have something important and lofty to say about the man from Nazareth? And if such is the case, then the author of the fourth gospel who "transposed events and put them in a strange light, drew up the discourses himself, and illustrated great thoughts by imaginary situations" (Harnack) and thus "can hardly make any claim to be considered an authority for Jesus' history; only little of what he says can be accepted, and that little with caution" should receive the greater bulk of Wright's condemnation, especially given his greater proximity to the real meal deal. But alas for both Wright's vituperations and Harnacks criticisms, the gospel of John is correctly received by the church as an infallible testimony to the life of Christ. And if the apostolic penmanship can take such liberties, so ought Lewis and so ought we.

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