C. S. Lewis on Revisionism

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.


11 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on Revisionism

    • georgiosscholarios May 30, 2017 / 10:46 pm

      I am familiar with the work of Hurtado, though not Fletcher-Louis. Does he diverge at all from Hurtado’s conclusions?

      Liked by 1 person

      • gregorystackpole May 31, 2017 / 12:01 am

        Well, we’re in opposite boats, then. Hurtado looks to be roughly symmetrical, but Fletcher-Louis leans heavily into precursors in 2nd Temple Jewish mystical sources, which Hurtado certainly mentions in what I’ve seen by him, but doesn’t seem to lean into as much. Are you familiar with the Marquette site? Lots of Fletcher-Louis’ stuff can be found there.


      • gregorystackpole May 31, 2017 / 12:02 am

        Also, what did you make of Hurtado?

        Also, I feel like your website skin is designed for a baby shower. 😐


        • georgiosscholarios May 31, 2017 / 1:19 am

          Yes, you’re pretty much right! The theme I was using was “Babylog” (meant to document a child’s growth over time through pictures). I obviously didn’t mean to use it for that, but it was the only one I could find with a layout similar to blogger blogs. I don’t care much for a lot of the WordPress themes that make everything large.
          I’ve been thinking about how much I dislike how Babylog renders blockquotes and your comment has moved me to change it! This is the best one I could find (do you like it?).

          Concerning Hurtado, I haven’t read him in a while but I remember liking his interpretation of the Philippians hymn. I think he establishes that there is a very high Christology in St. Paul’s writings.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Brandon Watson May 31, 2017 / 10:46 am

    Yes, this is quite good. It’s one thing to argue that there is perhaps some drift in meaning, so that, say, Aristotle may be on this or that particular point a little off; it’s another thing entirely to put forward the position that the very intelligent person who had more and better evidence than you do was completely off base.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gregorystackpole June 1, 2017 / 5:40 am

      The consensus that I’ve always heard is that Aristotle wasn’t _trying_ simply to reduplicate Plato, but to revise him on points of disagreement…


  2. CZ June 3, 2017 / 7:52 pm

    Reading this essay by Lewis was a sort of revelation for me when I was in in a biblical studies program (I left it for greener pastures). For a lot of “mainstream” positions to work, early Christians would have to been just plain ignorant or dishonest, which doesn’t make sense when you take into account that they had access to much more sources than we have (both oral and written).


      • CZ June 3, 2017 / 9:08 pm

        I just meant non-academia (biblical studies is a shrinking field). Specifically, I work in the private sector doing linguistics. A lot of my problems had to do with academic culture in general, but the hyper-skepticism and speculation disguised as actual historical knowledge that I encountered in biblical studies frustrated me as well.

        Liked by 1 person

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