Preaching and Apologetics: The Wisdom of C.S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis did not consider himself a preacher even though he delivered sermons from time to time. As a layman who had to endure many a bad sermon, however, he had helpful and instructive insights into how preaching could be more beneficial for those who sit in the pews. He had strong views about improving the apologetic elements to sermons which he expressed in a variety of articles and books, even when discussing some other subject.
In an address to priests and youth leaders of the Church in Wales in 1945, Lewis declared that the task of apologetics was to defend the Christian faith as historically understood by ‘the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers.’[i] Apologetics does not involve the defence of personal opinion, the latest religious fads, or innovations. In apologetics, Lewis avoided defending the peculiarities of his own denomination when they differed from other Christian denominations. His apologetics focused on what he came to call “mere Christianity,” what the Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and all stripes of Protestants believe in common. Preaching on a denomination’s understanding of ecclesiology or liturgy has its place within the particular community, but not as apologetics.
Apologetics tends to address those questions which people have which a Christian might also find obscure, difficult, confusing, and even repulsive or disagreeable. For instance, Lewis wrote an entire book about the ‘hard’ psalms. Lewis observed that the expert may have had issues with certain psalms long ago but has since forgotten those problems and replaced them with the kind of difficulties only experts notice. Lewis saw himself as a non-expert talking about the problems that an ordinary person, without any special knowledge, tends to find when reading the Psalms.[ii] Here we might add, or any other book of the Bible. It might be worth noting, that Lewis said that Reflections on the Psalms was not an apologetic work, because he was not ‘trying to convince unbelievers that Christianity is true.’[iii] Yet, what he does in this book also has an apologetic dimension. The perceived problems with a book of the Bible, which lies at the heart of preaching, is the point at which apologetics and Christian discipleship intersect. Often, the believer has the same questions as the unbeliever. Often, the problem has a fairly simple solution that a preacher learned during theological studies. For instance, some people wonder why the words of Jesus vary from one synoptic Gospel to another in the same episode. The first thing that comes to mind for the person unfamiliar with the Bible is that these are mistakes or errors. What they do not appreciate is that the original texts of the Gospels are translations from what Jesus said in Aramaic to what the evangelists wrote in Greek.
Biblical apologetics might take another approach which has value as discipleship as well as apologetics. It involves something Lewis did in his BBC radio broadcasts. After presenting his moral argument for the existence of God in his first series of broadcasts, he turned to a clarification of Christian beliefs and practice in his second, third and fourth series. In an age in which few Christians have a sound grounding in doctrine and practice, we can safely assume that fewer non-Christian understand what faith in Christ means or involves. A sermon series from time to time which explores a particular doctrine to explain it is simple terms for the non-expert would be an approach to apologetics ideally suited to the pulpit which has great value of removing stumbling blocks to faith for the confused or ill informed.
Apologetics necessarily involves understanding the questions that non-believers ask. Atheists tend to focus on certain issues, such as the problem of suffering and how a good, all-powerful God can allow suffering. Agnostics tend to focus on other sorts of issues, such as what kind of evidence might settle the question and what kind of real, hard evidence do we have that God exists. The vast majority of the unconverted who do not belong to another religion, however, tend to be the sort which allows that some kind of something bigger than ourselves is out there somewhere, but what is it? These different kinds of questions suggest that different kinds of apologetic issues lend themselves to treatment in different contexts. Lewis recognized that some apologetic issues can best be addressed in a lecture, like his radio broadcasts that were later published as Mere Christianity, while specific questions related to biblical faith can be addressed effectively in a sermon. In fact, Lewis teamed up with Stephen Olford after World War II for meetings in which Lewis handled the philosophical questions and Olford the Bible.
Even though some philosophical questions lend themselves to discussions outside the church, like Lewis’s weekly Socratic Club meetings with students in Oxford, such questions can still be incorporated into sermons when translated into language of common experience rather than the specialised jargon of philosophers and theologians. After he was severely criticized by Dr. Norman Pittenger, a professor of apologetics at Union Seminary in New York City, for being essentially unsophisticated in his theological pronouncements. Lewis responded that his task was ‘that of a translator – one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.’[iv] In fact, Lewis concluded his response to Pittenger by declaring that ‘if the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.’[v]
In another place, Lewis suggested that this business of translation involved presenting ‘that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age.’[vi] The challenge is similar to the missiological challenge of understanding the language and thought patterns of a distant culture that has no knowledge of Christ or the Bible. The apologetic task of the preacher in the twenty-first century is one that Lewis recognized in 1945. We must understand how the people of our own culture think and what values they hold. We must understand their idioms and how they use language. In our own culture, it means understanding that no single way of thinking and talking abides across generational groups. This means that different age groups will have different questions that demand an answer.
The business of translation usually involves what Lewis called seeing things the other way around. He used a variation of this phrase on a number of occasions and it appears to be a normal aspect of his scholarship as well as his pastoral letters. The most obvious example of this kind of thinking occurs in his writing of The Screwtape Letters, but he also used this approach at the very outset of The Problem of Pain where he turned the burning question on its head. He explained that one reason he had for writing Reflections on the Psalms was that he had considered the problems he intended to address ‘from both sides of the net.’[vii] Sometimes, our answers to question are ineffective or miss the mark, because we answer the question from the perspective of our assumptions and presuppositions. Lewis tried to understand the point of view of the other person which would necessarily be different from his own if the other person were not a Christian.
The methodology which Jesus commanded his disciples to use is the one which has fallen into disuse if not disrepute since the second half of the twentieth century, but it is one of which Lewis made great use. He joined a cloud of witnesses in using it. It is the testimony of a Christian in which they give, as Peter said, ‘an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15). Lewis’s first bit of apologetic writing was The Pilgrim’s Regress, the testimony of his conversion as in allegory in imitation of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. If one reads Lewis’s Collected Letters from the 1920s alongside the first two sections of Mere Christianity, it will soon become apparent that Lewis did not construct an argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Jesus as Lord through a purely intellectual exercise. Instead, Lewis presents in orderly fashion the questions and problems he had with the idea of God and with Jesus in particular. Though Mere Christianity is written in the third person, it is about Lewis’s journey through all the thorny questions about God which a committed atheist might throw at a believer. The re-incorporation of words of testimony into the worship service might prove powerfully edifying. After all, Luke tells us that the telling of testimonies was how his Gospel came to be written.
Even though Lewis did not present his broadcast talks in a form that states when he came to believe the things he talks about, as he would do when he wrote the story of his conversion in Surprised by Joy, he regularly includes direct comments about his life before he became a Christian. He began The Problem of Pain with a testimony of his own questioning of God: ‘Not many years ago when I was an atheist . . . .’[viii] In Miracles, Lewis tells about his education under W. T. Kirkpatrick and how his instruction in atheism eventually led him out of atheism.[ix] We begin to realize that the ideas he expounds in Miracles relate to steps along his own conversion as he changed his mind about one thing after another. Testimony, then, is a powerful apologetic precisely because it is not an argument or a debate which results in a victor and a loser. It is a story of how someone found answers to their own deep questions.
[i] C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock, ed. by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 90.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), 1-2.
[iii] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 3.
[iv] C. S. Lewis, “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger,” God in the Dock, ed. by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 183.
[v] C. S. Lewis, “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger,” 183.
[vi] C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” 93.
[vii] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 1.
[viii] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: The Centenary Press, 1940), 1
[ix] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947), 84-85.
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