“Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” – Proverbs 22:28 (KJV)
In the latest row between conservative and liberal theologians over LGBT issues, conservative Anglican leaders said that “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.”
C. S. Lewis wrestled with liberalism in the Anglican Church in his day. In his essay, “Christian Apologetics,” originally given as a speech “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,” 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, his thoughts are just as appropriate for modern America, where the church and Christian higher education are facing a similar, if not worse, cultural disconnect.
Lewis unleashed a scathing rebuke of liberalism, criticizing the clergy for its reluctance to “fix the bounding lines” against modern doctrines that had crept into the church. He added that if the clergy insisted on ignoring these bounding lines, they should change their profession. Maybe the same could be said about professors in Christian institutions who have similarly ignored the bounding lines of sound, biblical doctrine.
Scripture and doctrine have a reciprocal relationship. Scripture interprets doctrine, and then doctrine provides a hermeneutical basis for the further interpretation of scripture. Luther called this sola scriptura—the position that the Bible is the sole criterion for its own interpretation. It is from here that sound, biblical doctrine is to inform the culture, not the other way around. To invert this epistemology is to allow for all types of heresy and the resulting moral confusion we see on college campuses. If the church and the leaders of Christian colleges and universities are confused on these fundamental issues of biblical interpretation, can we blame the students?
Lewis defined Christianity as “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 from the writings of learned men 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 what men say 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 that 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. He wrote 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 Peter 1:16, NIV).
As a chemistry professor at a Christ-first university, Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA), I found Lewis’s connection between Christian apologetics and science especially helpful:
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 are uncomfortable or go 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, even theological—but evangelical. As a former atheist turned Christian, he was most concerned with reaching people with the Gospel. He noted the cultural sea change that had left his generation bereft of a general knowledge of the Bible, which had complicated the work of the clergy. It was no longer their task to simply “edify those who had been brought up in the faith,” but instead to “convert and instruct 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:
1. The common person had come to doubt the truth of the biblical narratives because they were written around two thousand years earlier.
2. There was a universal distrust of the accuracy of the Bible due to an ignorance of textual criticism.
3. There was a total lack of awareness of sin.
4. A general ignorance of Bible vocabulary meant that learning the language of the audience is paramount in conveying the truths of Christianity.
“You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular,” Lewis wrote, an exercise he said was important for 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 colleges and universities. Not every student has a firm faith foundation. Many lack an awareness of sin. Some do not know Christ at all and are in school for the wrong reasons—in my case, either to play on an NCAA Division II sports team or to enjoy the south Florida beaches.
Last year I surveyed 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 this is encouraging, especially in light of the challenges Gen Z faces from the cultural dysphoria, I am most concerned for those who indicated that they are agnostics or atheists, that they don’t have a regular devotional time and would like some guidance, or that they are looking for a church. These are the prodigals (Luke 15: 11–32), or the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–7), who, when they came to their senses or were rescued, resulted in much rejoicing in heaven.
Lewis’s closing remarks are especially insightful and encouraging for those of us who stand in front of our 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).
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