C S Lewis: You can, and must, teach a new church old books


C S Lewis and an Old Book

C S Lewis and an Old Book

These days I’m posting from the Tradition chapter of “Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.” The past couple of days have been dedicated to Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). This post begins to look at what he proposed to do about this syndrome of amnesia.

Lewis’s solution to the detachment from tradition in modern society

In his Cambridge lecture (“De Descriptione Temporum”), Lewis insisted that we needn’t think of history as nostalgia or slavish following of past wisdom. He reminded his listeners of the freeing effect experienced by those in therapy who surface and deal with forgotten elements from their individual pasts. Similarly, he argued, “I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually without knowing it enslaved to a very recent past.”

“Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past . . . because we . . . need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods. . . . A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.. . . .”[1]

His essay on old books

As Christians and citizens we must, Lewis insisted, acquaint ourselves with the “old books.” This is so because, sadly, just in this area of theology where the importance of understanding the testimony handed down through the ages is so vital, people are most disinclined to read in the tradition. “Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity,” Lewis observed, “you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.”[2]

This, says Lewis, is backwards. The older books are flat out more valuable. “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. . . . The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard [which I would say is very close to the early Church’s “rule of faith”] can be acquired only from the old books.” (4)

Our modern biases, on the other hand, create a sort of blindness, which is only fed and increased if we read nothing but modern books. We must, said Lewis, “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” (5)

And what does one discover about the Great Tradition of Christianity that one discovers as one reads old Christian books (among them St. Athanasius on the Incarnation)? One crucial correction offered by acquaintance with our own Christian tradition is that Christianity doesn’t mean everything and nothing at all. The faith handed down through the centuries was “no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.”

Then Lewis turns to Athanasius himself, and he finds in Athanasius’s role as staunch defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy (of, that is, The Tradition) a positive tonic for modern heresies: “He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended to-day and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.” (9) Lewis certainly practiced the sensitivity to tradition that he preached: he read every page of Sister Penelope’s translation at least twice, after he wrote the book’s introduction, and at the top of every page he summarized the main points.

Lewis valued Athanasius’s De Incarnatione as the work of a uniquely courageous and solid Christian, living in a better time. “We cannot,” he admitted, “appropriate all [Athanasius’s] confidence to-day. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.” (9)

Athanasius and the Arian controversy that defined his life work stand at the crux of perhaps one of the best cases that can be made for tradition today: Most Christians assume the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and assume it is plainly present in the Bible. But it is not. There is plenty of Bible evidence that points in other directions. The Gospel of Mark, for example, seems to show a very human Jesus who is a servant of the Father but in no way equal to him. Most early Christians therefore held to some form of a loose “subordinationism”: Jesus is divine, certainly, but not “as divine” as the Father. It took over a century, both before and after the Council of Nicea in 325, and (as we’ve said) the courage of Athanasius, who was exiled five times for his troubles, to straighten out the record and reflect the full scriptural witness in a robust doctrine of the Trinity. Without the tradition protected and handed down, sometimes under extreme duress, by teachers such as Athanasius, we would be living not by the message of the Gospel, but by a potpourri of heterodox opinions.


[1] Confirm source: “Learning in War-time”? 28-29.

[2] (St. Athanasius on the Incarnation [Sister Penelope ], London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd, Rev. Ed, 1953 [orig. pub. 1944], “Introduction,” CSL, 3)

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