Lewis Got it Wrong

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of C.S. Lewis’ books.  I’m not overly enamored with his work, but his writing is thought-provoking and quite helpful in many areas.  In other areas, however, he’s not so helpful.  One of those areas is the doctrine of sin and depravity.  Here are some quotes from an otherwise decent book, The Problem of Pain.

“The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship (p. 29).”

“This chapter [on human wickedness] will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity.  I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature (p. 61).”

I think it is safe to say that Lewis did not rightly understand the doctrine of total depravity.  What he is reacting against is not total depravity, but absolute depravity.  While hyper-Calvinists may teach some form of absolute depravity, the Reformed creeds and confessions do not teach it.  Lewis mixed the two up.  Here’s how the Reformation tradition describes this aspect of total depravity:

“There remain…in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (Canons of Dort, III/IV. 3).

“[Through Adam’s sin man] has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof…” (Belgic Confession article 14).

In other words, the “total” of total depravity means that sin has spread to the entire person – mind, heart, body, soul.  “Total” doesn’t mean that we’re as sinful as we possibly could be.  Romans 1:18ff is important here.  Total depravity doesn’t mean everyone is absolutely depraved in such a way that they have absolutely no idea what is true and good; it doesn’t mean man has absolutely lost the image of God.  But it does mean that our “total” selves are infected with sin in such a way that we fight against the truth and goodness God has clearly shown us.

C.S. Lewis misunderstood this.  He got it wrong.  He wasn’t really a theologian – much less a Reformed theologian – so we can charitably disagree and use this occasion to remember the right definition of total depravity.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi

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8 comments on “Lewis Got it Wrong

  1. Glad to read this, and your explanation certainly points out the difference and one which is necessary to make. I’ve heard this same argument when talking with those who do not understand Reformed theology. And why is it that people think that Lewis was a theologian? I guess I’ve put him in that category in my mind as well.

  2. Steve Bloem says:

    Shane,
    Thank you for your comments. Your message on total depravity is simple to understand and I believe is biblically and theologically correct.

  3. Richard says:

    Lloyd Jones said this of Lewis: “C. S. Lewis was essentially a philosopher, his view of salvation was defective… Lewis was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal theory of the Atonement.”

  4. Adam says:

    This is “absolutely” absurd. The very first listed synonym for “total” is “absolute.” Lewis absolutely had it right and your attempt to criticize him is just sad. It seems as though it is the mission of so many reformed writers to just find and criticize as many popular Christians as they can. It’s really hard to call myself reformed sometimes…..

  5. Matt says:

    I’m tired of Christians quoting Lewis as a theologian. He had some great insights but he denied many an orthodox Christian doctrine. I wonder if he was even saved.

    http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=103

    This review by John Robbins will explain what I mean and it’s not very long.

  6. David Gray says:

    The whole Clarkian hyper-rationality school, embodied by Robbins, is arguably as problematic as Lewis. And Robbins whole concept of trying to assess Lewis’ salvation seems sub-scriptural.

  7. matt says:

    I understand what you’re saying, David. I’ve only read one Clark book myself but I have found some interesting insights from Robbins. I’ve ran into some of Clark’s devotees that are very extreme and a bit unbalanced. I’m aware that many Reformed people really have a problem with Clark and the whole Clark-Van Til debacle is quite intense.

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