Sunday, November 30, 2008

C. S. Lewis on Modern Biblical Criticism

I was delighted recently to be assigned an essay by C. S. Lewis for my class on Scripture and its interpretation. The essay was originally called "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," although now it seems that it inexplicably goes under the title "Fern-Seed and Elephants." It's an essay that I've read before, yet it certainly bears re-reading. It even merited a mention by Card. Ratzinger in his famous 1988 Erasmus lecture entitled "Biblical Interpretation in Conflict." the whole text is available on google books here.

In the essay, Lewis makes four points against the (still) prevailing methods of historical-criticism:

1. "They seem to me to lack literary judgment... If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel."

2. "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."

3. "I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur... Now I do not here want to discuss whether the miraculous is possible. I only want to point out that this is a purely philosophical question. Scholars, as scholars, speak on it with no more authority than anyone else."

4. "All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences - the whole Sitz im Leben of the text... My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses [made by reviewers in regard to Lewis's own writings] has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong."


Unknown said...

Dear Philip,
I am very interstes on a reading the entire article of Lewis: Modern theology and Biblical Cristicism". Do you know where can I find it in internet? Thank you very much

Boniface said...


It was not easy to find, but I finally ran across the entire article at the link below. I'll post it on the sidebar as well.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

= link now clickable!

CSL is at least as indispensable against our contemporary errors as Origen or Tertullian.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

The essay is of course a gloss in §17 of Providentissimus Deus.