All theology of the liberal type involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by His followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars. Now long before I became interested in theology I had met this kind of theory elsewhere. The tradition of Jowett still dominated the study of ancient philosophy when I was reading Greats. One was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato had been misunderstood by Aristotle and widely travestied by the neo-Platonists, only to be recovered by the moderns. When recovered, it turned out (most fortunately) that Plato had really all along been an English Hegelian, rather like T. H. Green. I have met it a third time in my own professional studies; every week a clever undergraduate, every quarter a dull American don, discovers for the first time what some Shakesperian play really meant. But in this third instance I am a privileged person. The revolution in thought and sentiment which has occurred in my own lifetime is so great that I belong, mentally, to Shakespeare’s world far more than to that of these recent interpreters. I see – I feel it in my bones – I know beyond argument – that most of their interpretations are merely impossible; they involve a way of looking at things which was not known in 1914, much less in the Jacobean period. This daily confirms my suspicion of the same approach to Plato or the New Testament. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.
Source: C. S. Lewis, ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,’ in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), ed. Walter Hooper, pp. 157-158.
I was pleased to read the above passage in Lewis’s essay on biblical scholarship, as the same thought occurred to me when I was first reading about the various historians of philosophy who thought Aristotle had gotten Plato wrong. How was I to believe modern scholars working on the basis of a limited set of texts over the one who was actually Plato’s pupil for many years? Likewise, how am I to hold (as some scholars maintain) that a single verse, Mark 10:18, shows that Jesus did not think of himself as God when St. Paul, who knew the disciples first-hand, clearly did not interpret Jesus’s teachings this way? In any case, Lewis’s essay is excellent throughout and, in my opinion, should be required reading for seminarians.