Was C.S. Lewis A Calvinist?

Philosophy, Religion, The Gospel, Worldviews — By on November 14, 2012 at 7:00 am

In a previous post, I mentioned in passing that J.R.R. Tolkien, though a devout Roman Catholic, filled his works with a distinctly Reformed or Calvinistic attitude toward fate and free will.  If you ask the direct question, “Was J.R.R. Tolkien a Calvinist?” the answer is obviously no.  But I believe that while Tolkien clearly rejected a bad cariacture of Calvinism (human beings are mere puppets on divine strings, etc), his deeper appreciation of acient northern culture lead him to hold divine providence and human freedom in a constant tension, with neither ever overwhelming the other, but with the greater emphasis always upon providence.  Without getting into the specifics of works and meriting salvation, this basic view is no less than the classic Reformed understanding of Philippians 2:12-13.

Along those same lines, Doug Wilson was recently asked if he believed that C.S. Lewis was a Calvinist.  His answer is measured, quite interesting, and the evidence he brings to bear  is definitely worth considering.  His response is also sure to be controversial.   Lewis is one of those rare figures of recent history that nearly every tradition or denomination within Christendom tries to claim as their own.

What do you think about Wilson’s response?  Let’s get a lively (and civil) discussion going in the comments!


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  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I really disagree that someone who holds that divine providence and free will coexist is, by necessity, a Calvinist. I find it utterly absurd that in a discussion of Lewis’ stance on free will and predestination, he doesn’t address The Great Divorce at all. In fact, he outright ignores it and attributes to Lewis thoughts and motivations that are exactly refuted in The Great Divorce. To say that Lewis holds providence and freedom in tension is accurate: To say that he is then Calvinist is utterly false.

    “If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lends through which ye see–small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope–something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all.

    “That thing is Freedom: The gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves part of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Hold on, accidentally hit “post” before i was ready.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    I have some thoughts of my own, but just to help clarify the discussion, here is the first statement of chapter 9 of the Westminster Confession “On Free Will”:

    1. God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.

    The point that Wilson seems to want to make here is that Reformed theology doesn’t deny the existence of genuine human freedom, and the interaction between that freedom and Divine freedom is ultimately a mystery to us (not unlike the dual natures of Christ).

    I look forward to everyone’s comments!

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I get that. But any school of Calvinism is forced to acknowledge that at the end of the day, divine predestination wins out over free will: One must always have precedence, as you note with Tolkien.

    Lewis, on the other hand, blatantly puts Freedom over and against predestination. The Great Divorce explicitly makes human agency the deciding factor in whether an individual is predestined to heaven or hell. When it comes to predestination vs. human agency, Lewis cannot be called Calvinist. The “greater truth” against predestination is “the eternal reality of [the soul's] choice.”

    Just because someone acknowledges that providence exists, and interacts with free will in a mysterious way, doesn’t mean they are Calvinist, especially when precedence goes to Freedom.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    All very good points. I do still wonder, though, what we are to make of some of the things that Pastor Wilson mentions, such as the part in Paralandra where Ransom sees that freedom and necessity are the same thing. Or the fact that the 39 Articles explicitly endorse a Calvinist view of Predestination. And when Lewis says that free will is the “deeper truth” behind Predestination, does that mean he must be rejecting the Calvinist view wholesale, or merely that he is rejecting a particular (and perhaps more modern) understanding of Calvinism? All very interesting questions. I for one am not yet convinced either way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Also, just a quick point about Westminster and free will. It’s true that post-fall man cannot of his own power do any “spiritual good” that leads to salvation. But it doesn’t follow that the elect are just puppets of grace. Rather, with the divine energies working in the regenerated heart, man *freely* does good (this is Philippians 2:12-13). So in one sense a Calvinist can affirm that man freely chooses salvation, but only after the divine initiative has begun and God is working within him (another point that Lewis would seem to affirm, though, again, not necessarily in the Calvinist sense).

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    The passage in Perelandra follows an extended internal thought-monologue in which Ransom realizes that he does, indeed, possess a real choice–a choice with real, even eternal, consequences.

    “The fate of a world really depended on how [Ransom and the Lady] behaved in the next few hours.

    The thing was irreducibly, nakedly real. They could, if they chose, decline to save the innocence of this new race, and if they declined its innocence would not be saved. It rested with no other creature in all time or all space. This he saw clearly, though as yet he had no inkling of what he could do.

    The voluble self protested, wildly, swiftly, like the propeller of a ship racing when it is out of the water. The imprudence, the unfairness, the absurdity of it! Did Maleldil want to lose worlds? What was the sense of so arranging things that anything really important should finally and absolutely depend on such a man of straw as himself? And at that moment, far away; on Earth, as he now could not help remembering, men were at war, and white-faced subalterns and freckled corporals who had but lately begun to shave, stood in horrible gaps or crawled forward in deadly darkness, awaking, like him, to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions; and far away in time Horatius stood on the bridge, and Constantine settled in his mind whether he would or would not embrace the new religion, and Eve herself stood looking upon the forbidden fruit and the Heaven of Heavens waited for her decision. He writhed and ground his teeth, but could not help seeing. Thus, and not otherwise, the world was made.

    Either something or nothing must depend on individual choices. And if something, who could set bounds to it? A stone may determine the course of a river. He was that stone at this horrible moment which had become the centre of the whole universe. The eldila of all worlds, the sinless organisms of everlasting, light, were silent in Deep Heaven to see what Elwin Ransom of Cambridge would do.

    ….As the Lady had said, the same wave never came twice. When Eve fell, God was not Man. He had not yet made men members of His body: since then He had, and through them henceforward He would save and suffer. One of the purposes for which He had done all this was to save Perelandra not through Himself but through Himself in Ransom.If Ransom refused, the plan, so far, miscarried.

    … He had long known that great issues hung on his choice; but as he now realised the true width of the frightful freedom that was being put into his hands – a width to which all merely spatial infinity seemed narrow – he felt like a man brought out under naked heaven, on the edge of a precipice, into the teeth of a wind that came howling from the role. He had pictured himself, till now, standing before the Lord, like Peter. But it was worse. He sat before Him like Pilate. It lay with him to save or to spill. His hands had been reddened, as all men’s hands have been, in the slaying before the foundation of the world; now, if he chose, he would dip them again in the same blood. “Mercy,” he groaned; and then, “Lord, why not me?” But there was no answer.”

    C. S. Lewis, Perelandra

    To look at this and say that it demonstrates a Calvinist view of Predestination trumping free will seems, at the very least, to contain a ridiculous amount of special pleading. In The Great Divorce, men decide their eternal destiny: In Perelandra, the fate of worlds and men the universe over is put in Ransom’s hands, and he has a real choice.

    And if by “rejecting the Calvinist view wholesale,” you mean “rejecting the very idea of Predestination, then no: Lewis makes clear that Predestination, to a point, accurately describe the universe. But Freedom–real freedom, freedom to choose death and life, freedom to make an eternal choice with eternal consequences–that is the deeper truth.

    Calvin said many admirable things, and I’m sure Lewis recognized that. But to Calvin, God is in charge of every individual person’s salvation. To Lewis, God has voluntarily relinquished that control and gave us Freedom to choose heaven or hell.

    As for the fact that the church Lewis was a member of specifically endorses Calvinism, Lewis possessed many unorthodox beliefs. He believed in the possibility at least, of God using evolution to create man (seen in Perelandra). He believed, to some extent, in Purgatory. He believed (apparently) in the possibility of salvation after death. The reason so many churches claim Lewis as their own is that he held certain beliefs in common with so many churches.

    The only support for a Calvinist/Predestination theology is Lewis’ mentions of Predestination. However, he specifically states that Freedom–freedom for everyone– is the deeper truth. Predestination is the lesser truth. Free will has precedence, because it is in free will that humanity, even fallen humanity, most resembles God. And I don’t know any Calvinist that would agree to that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Well again, Predestination does not “trump” freedom in the sense of making freedom an illusion. Human freedom is absolutely real. And this passage from Paralandra is a marvelous literary description of what Adam might have felt if he we were told all that depended on his choice in the garden. And it all really did depend on his choice, not on some phantom puppet work of God. That’s probably what Wilson was getting at when he said that a “Biblicist” will sometimes sound like an Arminian.

    I would still like to see the passage that Wilson is making reference to from Paralandra. Do you have a page number? Because this passage that you’ve quoted here could actually be consistent with Calvinism, as I just mentioned. Human freedom is real and the Fall really did happen because of Adam’s choice. But that’s also not the “whole story” in a sense, because God is also Providentially in control of things. So I would just like to see what Lewis specifically says about necessity.

    But anyway, at the end of the day I do agree that Lewis was not really a Calvinsit, even if a lot of his “Arminian” sounding passages are perfectly consistent with Calvinism. Maybe the best way to put it is that while he obviously believes in some kind of Predestination, it’s not at all clear that he believes in Unconditional Election.

    The bulk of Wilson’s case seems to reduce to “Lewis really loved the early Puritans.” That doesn’t seem to be enough to show that he agreed with all of their theology.

  • Tony

    In the “last battle” chronical of narnia series one of the children is missing because she stopped believing. This makes it obvious to me that lewis didn’t hold to unconditional eternal security!

  • David Nilsen

    Excellent point, Tony. Keep in mind, though, that fiction is not always so easy to interpret. Also, it would be easy for a Calvinist to interpret this as being in line with John’s first epistle, where he says that those who “went out” showed that they were never truly among the elect.

  • BoB/335

    I agree that man freely chooses salvation ONLY after the divine initiative has begun. I will use this line. I disagree that a Calvinist would ever confirm this!!!

  • Will

    The spectre of a few Calvinists attempting to ‘claim’ Lewis as one of their own, is both transparently petty and quite obviously absurd. To anybody who has read the works of C.S Lewis, they will know that he clearly and repeatedly stated that all individuals are capable of rejecting the offer of salvation that God offers. However tragic that may be. God and the beauty of His grace is therefore ‘resistible’ by the ‘limited free-will’ that all people possess . Further to this, Lewis also clearly demonstrated in each of ‘screwtape letters’ ‘mere Christianity’ and ‘the great divorce’ that individuals can lose their faith and their salvation. Finally, Lewis, if people bothered to research faithfully, would know that whether he was right or wrong he believed in unlimited atonement and a forgiveness offered to all, By Christ’s sacrifice, if only they would accept.

    If Wilson and the rest of the Calvinist intelligentsia are taking ‘one point Calvinists’ as fully fledged Calvinists these days, then yes, C.S Lewis was indeed a Calvinist!

    If we view from a motivation of power and influence point of view, I can understand how Wilson wants to kid himself and others that Lewis was a Calvinist, thereby making it acceptable to read and quote the great authors work. Especially in light of the reality that many Calvinist churches & seminaries, ‘Passion 2014′ like festivals, and authors such as Piper will only recommend like minded authors/theologians and historical figures to revere and be inspired by. Non-Calvinists are viewed as just barely Christian, and saved by the skin of their teeth. When considering C.S. Lewis this is clearly a problem given the integrity, wisdom, and truth, the man lived by.

    It’s depressingly sad and frustrating that Doug Wilson’s preposterous claims, that are so clearly meant to divide and deceive, will go uncontested by many Calvinists. What’s even more sad is that even more will agree with Doug Wilson.

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