I recently completed my first year of graduate theological studies at a major university. Before classes began, I figured I would need to say goodbye to C. S. Lewis as a literary voice in my life, considering his rather dubious reputation among academics. Everyone in the academy darts for cover when an intelligent man broadcasts his Christian beliefs, right? And meanwhile, you never know which theologian is feeling cranky about Lewis’s war ethic, for instance, or his spin on female clergy. So I entered divinity school assuming I would hear little about Lewis for the next several years.
Right away I plunged into my first semester in Church History. We began by studying the Patristics—the early church fathers of the second through fifth centuries. We read primary sources, from Justin Martyr to Cyril of Alexandria, and tracked the many councils and disputes over the nature of God and Christ (e.g., How could one God be three persons? Was Jesus divine? And no, we were not assigned The DaVinci Code).
Anyway, partway through our readings, we came upon a fourth-century church father named Athanasius. He was one of the key opponents against the heresy that Jesus was merely created, not fully divine. Athanasius’ treatise “On the Incarnation of the Word” argued that the Son—known in the Gospel of John as “the Word”—was not created: he was co-eternal with the Father, and therefore fully divine. Gripping material, I assure you.
Nicaea couldn’t seem further from Narnia, right?
Wrong. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the introduction to our assigned translation was written by none other than C. S. Lewis!(1)
This shouldn’t have surprised me, actually. Lewis received a first in “Greats” (that is, in classics, or ancient studies) at Oxford, along with firsts in philosophy and literature. So he no doubt studied the early church fathers, despite his atheist leanings, during his university years. Then, when he converted to Christianity, it most likely seemed natural to return to some of those writings as he tried to make sense of his new-found faith. Indeed, in Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius, he recommends that we read an old book for every new book on our shelves. For Lewis, those who went before us fought a good fight—and meanwhile we today might avoid teetering on the brink of heresy if we listened more closely to the ancients.
He said a great deal more besides. But what struck me wasn’t so much the content of the introduction, nor that Lewis had shown up unexpectedly within my first month of divinity school. It was a startling assertion on the part of Athanasius, tucked away at the end of his treatise, which went something like: “God became man so that men might become God.” Wait: did he mean that? Or rather, what did he mean by that? This was a spin on salvation that I had never wrestled with before. It wasn’t the usual televangelist line about Christ satisfying some debt we owe God by dying on the cross in our place. Indeed, it had to do with the very fact that God became human in the first place, and what effect that had on the rest of us. Smack in the middle of Church history class, I had stumbled upon the “deeper magic” of the early church’s understanding of salvation—and the more I explored it, the more I realized I had heard it before. From C. S. Lewis.
But let’s back up and unpack what Athanasius was saying. For starters, he agreed with the ancient Greek philosophers who believed that the material world was corrupt. He also generally agreed that the Divine (God) was both transcendent (outside the material world) and the highest principle of good. But he wouldn’t follow the heretical logic which concluded that God could not have created the material world, much less become human, without being sullied and corrupted in the process. The heretics believed that only a created being—a superb being, but created nonetheless—could have made the world, taken on human flesh, and died a human death. Otherwise the divine nature would’ve been corrupted forever. Hence the claim that Jesus was not divine, though he was a pretty nice guy. The heretics, bless their hearts, were trying to preserve God’s divine goodness.
But let’s back up even further. Goodness, as the ancients saw it, is more concrete than a vague sort of righteousness. It indicates soundness or wholeness; fullness; perfection, like a ripe piece of fruit. The opposite of good, in this sense, is rottenness, corruption. When a piece of fruit is going bad, it slowly disintegrates. Its ultimate end is decomposition, or a kind of “death.” And meanwhile, contact with rotten fruit can start the disintegration process in sound fruit—never the reverse. Metaphorically speaking, this is what the Greeks thought would happen if the perfectly good “fruit” of the divine nature came in contact with the rotten sinfulness of human nature: the rot would begin to corrupt the good. But Athanasius insisted that they had it all wrong.
For Athanasius, not only does the good fruit, upon coming in contact with the rotten, maintain its essential goodness, but it reverses the disintegration of the rotten fruit too. It infuses its goodness into the rest. It makes the rotten fruit sound and perfect again, as it was intended to be from the beginning. Instead of one bad apple rotting the whole barrel (as with Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23), one good apple restores the whole barrel once and for all.
If you’re hearing echoes of Lewis’s “Obstinate Toy Soldiers” from Mere Christianity, you’ve got it. We were the toy soldiers, made of tin. But along came one who was made of real flesh. He showed us what we were meant to be—“for the first time we saw a real man.” Even more, he started the real-making process in the rest of us, since we are not merely individuals, but part of a larger family connected to all the other toy soldiers:
Consequently, when Christ becomes man it is not really as if you could become one particular tin soldier. It is as if something which is always affecting the whole human mass begins, at one point, to affect that whole human mass in a new way. From that point the effect spreads to all mankind. It makes a difference to people who lived before Christ as well as to people who lived after him. It makes a difference to people who have never heard of Him. It is like dropping into a glass of water one drop of something which gives a new taste or a new colour to the whole lot.
Earlier Lewis uses this metaphor: “He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life he has—by what I call ‘good infection.’” So, whatever Christ has, it’s contagious.
Herein lies the “deeper magic” of the church’s understanding of salvation. The Son wasn’t dragged into our depths and thus unable to save us; rather, he volunteered to enter our depths in order to lift us up into his heights. Through his incarnation, death, and resurrection, the Son draws us up into participation in the divine life.(2)
As Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “The son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” Indeed, the very divine goodness that the heretics thought would render the incarnation impossible is the very thing that makes it possible for our salvation. This doesn’t discount the role of the cross (there must be a Stone Table in Narnia, after all). Nor does it discount the role each of us plays in appropriating that salvation. But, as Lewis says, “Humanity is already ‘saved’ in principle.”
Contest this theory if you will. If you don’t like it, choose another than works better for you, as Lewis wisely advised. But I say it was a happy discovery in my first semester of divinity school. Hardworking little toy soldier that I was, it was good news to hear that no one’s salvation depended on me and my slick theological explanations. Besides, I had found myself in a Lewis-Friendly Zone. (Although one professor snipped, “Lewis? Just a Platonist!”)
Meanwhile, my graduate studies with Lewis aren’t over. There’s a class this fall entitled “Learning Theology with C. S. Lewis.”
I’m already signed up.
Sarah Arthur is a consultant to the Northern Michigan C. S. Lewis Festival (www.cslewisfestival.org) and the author of numerous youth resources, including The God-Hungry Imagination: The Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry (Upper Room Books, 2007). She is presently completing graduate studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. She can be reached at www.saraharthur.com.
NOTES:(1) On the Incarnation: De Incarnatione Verbi Dei. St. Vladimir’s Press, revised edition 1996. For more on how Lewis came to write the introduction to that particular translation, see Dan Hamilton’s blog post: “Why Read Old Books: History and Its Relevance.” Incidentally, I had read Lewis’s introduction before entering Church History class, but as a stand-alone essay entitled “On the Reading of Old Books.” Somehow I had missed its connection to Athanasius (or, more likely, before taking the class I thought, “Atha-who?”).
(2) Yes, this is a radical claim that essentially deifies humanity. In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is known as thēosis, or divinization, and is a major theological thread running through the history of Eastern Christian thought. (See Norman Russell’s The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. Oxford, 2004.) Lewis never calls it by those terms, however—at least, not in Mere Christianity.