CS Lewis on the Bible, history and myth

CS Lewis was one of the most influential christian writers of the past century. His view of the Bible comes from his expert knowledge of ancient literature, history, language and culture.

I think he points us to a better and more faithful understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that can help us all understand difficult aspects and explain them to others.

God reveals himself gradually

“If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels (those aren’t necessarily the ones that come first in the Book as now arranged) was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”

Letter 14 May 1955

History and myth

“The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named roman magistrate, and with whom the society that he founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other [he is talking of pagan religions]. It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine. This gradual focussing goes on even inside the Christian tradition itself. The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical — hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical. From things like Noah’s ark or the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the new Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate.”

(From Is Theology Poetry? – an all time favourite CS Lewis talk – you can read it all online.)

“My own position is not Fundamentalist, if Fundamentalism means accepting as a point of faith at the outset the proposition ‘Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal, historical sense’. That would break down at once on the parables. All the same commonsense and general understanding of literary kinds which would forbid anyone to take the parables as historical statements, carried a very little further, would force us to distinguish between (1.) Books like Acts or the account of David’s reign, which are everywhere dovetailed into a known history, geography, and genealogies, (2.) Books like Esther, or Jonah or Job which deal with otherwise unknown characters living in unspecified periods, and pretty well proclaim themselves to be sacred fiction.

Such distinctions are not new. Calvin left the historicity of Job an open question and from earlier, St. Jerome said that the whole Mosaic account of creation was done ‘after the method of a popular poet’. Of course I believe the composition, presentation, and selection for inclusion in the Bible, of all books to have been guided by the Holy Ghost. But I think he meant us to have sacred myth and sacred fiction as well as sacred history.

Mind you, I never think a story unhistorical because it is miraculous. I accept miracles. It’s almost the manner that distinguishes the fictions from the history. Compare the ‘Once upon a time’ opening of Job with the accounts of David, St. Paul, or Our Lord Himself. The basis of our Faith is not the Bible taken by itself but the agreed affirmation of all Christendom: to which we owe the Bible itself.”

Letter October 5th 1955

Knowing truth

“To me the curious thing is that neither in my own Bible reading nor in my religious life as a whole does the question in fact ever assume that importance which it always gets in theological controversy. The difference between reading the story of Ruth and that of Antigone – both first class as literature – is to me unmistakable and even overwhelming. But the question ‘Is Ruth historical?’ (I’ve not reason to suppose it is not) doesn’t really seem to arise until afterwards. It would still act on me as the Word of God if it weren’t, so far as I can see. All Holy Scripture is written for our learning. But learning of what? I should have thought the value of some things (eg. the Resurrection) depended on whether they really happened: but the value of others (e.g. the fate of Lot’s wife) hardly at all. And the ones whose historicity matters are, as God’s will, those where it is plain.”

Letter May 7th 1959

“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.”

Letter November 8th 1952

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  1. I don’t think many people noticed. Four of those quotes were from letters and one from a paper at the Socratic Society at Oxford, so few probably knew until he died and the letters were published. That’s when I first knew.

  2. Thank you so much for this! I’ve sent a link of this to many of my friends! It is so encouraging to see how one of the most popular Christian authors and thinkers of the 20th century understood that the Bible can be understood as poetry and sometimes even as “sacred fiction”, but still maintain it’s spiritual significance and communicate important truths. Thank you so much for putting this all together, it’s honestly incredible encouraging for me to read all these quotes!

  3. Hi Travis, I’m so glad you found this helpful. Thanks for taking the trouble to tell me. And I’m glad that someone studying theology and ministry (as I see from your blog) has found this part of Lewis’ understanding, for I think christians need to hear it.
    Our western scientific culture leads us to make assumptions about the Bible that the original authors wouldn’t have made. We need not be afraid to see things more through their eyes.
    All the best to you in your studies and ministry.

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