Lewis on the Trinity - First Steps

This is the latest installment of our Reading of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity over at www.challies.com. Our reading for this week was Sections 1-6 in Book 4: Beyond Personality: or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity. My intention was to look at all 6 sections in one post, but as I re-read the material it became clear to my detail-oriented (hope that doesn't translate 'nit-picky') self that there’s way too much I’d like to discuss for that. So, like last week I’ll be breaking it up into two or three parts.

In this section, Lewis openly delves into theology. I say “openly” because here he clearly states that is what he’s doing, though I would argue that he’s been doing it all along without realizing it. I will agree that he’s now getting into what is “formally” known as theology. This is an area in which he admits to being without expertise, and for that I will give him much credit – and leeway. I’ve found in this section some of my favorite, and least favorite expressions of Lewis. Here he is at his strongest and weakest.

1. Making and Begetting

He begins by defending his decision to discuss these matters rather than sticking to “plain practical religion”. He describes a man who is content to have “felt” God one lonely night in the desert, and explains why that man’s experience is inadequate:

Doctrines are not God; they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God –
experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are
likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused.”

“…if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what
happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly
exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere”.

I like his response, but were it up to me – as a married person, I would add to it: To know God, one must listen to what He has to say. A wife who really loves her husband would never be satisfied to spend one night with him, “experiencing” him speechlessly only to say, well, that was lovely, now go on and be quiet unless I feel like having that experience again. No, if she truly loves him, she will be eager to know what he thinks, what he likes, what he wants. If she has no interest, it’s not likely her husband would believe that she cares for him at all.

He then goes on to explain how Theology is more practical than we think:

“Theology is practical: especially now…Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones – bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which
are trotted out as novelties today, are simply the ones which real Theologians
tried centuries ago and rejected.”

He then describes the popular religion of his day, which is which is gaining momentum in our day: “…that Jesus Christ was a great moral teacher and that if only we took his advice we might be able to establish a better social order…”

To which Lewis responds well:

“If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years….But as soon as you look at any real Christian writings, you find that they are talking about something quite different from this popular religion.”

And, says Lewis, real Christianity is very different, and at points difficult and shocking. For example he offers the begotten-ness of the Son of God:

"One of the creeds says that Christ is the Son of God ‘begotten, not created’; and it adds ‘begotten by his Father before all the worlds.’ Will you please get it quite clear that …We are not now thinking about the Virgin Birth. We are thinking about something that happened before Nature was created at all, before time began…. What God begets is God;just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the same sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God….But what man, in his natural condition, has not got, is Spiritual life – the higher and different sort of life that exists in God….The Spiritual life which is in God from all eternity, and which made the whole natural universe, is Zoe. Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to Zoe; but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and a place, or a statue and a man. A man who changed from having Bios to having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.”

I’ll conclude this section with Lewis’ own last words, not so much for their
content as for their panache:

“And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.”

2) The Three-Personal God

Having illustrated in the previous section that God, the Father, begot the Son, “something of the same kind as Himself” something “like a human father begetting a human son. But not quite like it,” he feels some more explanation is in order.

Here is where I found myself in washing, so to speak, with murky water, sloshing around, rubbing here and there, but finishing up dissatisfied with the result. To be fair, it is the Trinity Lewis is taking on here – an amorphous Subject if there ever was one. I’ll try to remember to keep that in mind as we proceed.

He begins by disagreeing with the notion that many folks have of God as an impersonal being:

“…the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like. All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal; that is, as something less than personal…that after this life…human souls will be ‘absorbed’ into God…like a drop of water slipping into the sea. But of course that is the end of the drop. If that is what happens to us, then being absorbed is the same as ceasing to exist. It is only the Christians who have any idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves – in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before.”

He goes on to arrange metaphors which attempt to illustrate how it could be that when “taken into the life of God” man could become more than before, rather than ceasing to exist. He uses the illustration of dimensions, ie.: 1,2, and 3 dimensional figures.

“…as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways – ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.” This can be somewhat helpful in thinking of man – perhaps even glorified man, in the resurrection. But he’s, extending it to understanding the Godhead; and there it gets a bit more dicey. “In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that…but we can get a sort of a faint notion of it.”

Lewis is stretching us here, trying to open up for us new categories of thinking. I appreciate that. I also appreciate that he recognizes exactly where the metaphor falls short (that we are still not speaking of distinct persons, just different aspects of a single individual) and moves to improve upon it.

“On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimension in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it.”

Now, remembering that his goal at the moment is merely to help folk who hold to a notion of an impersonal god to think outside of that box, I think this is as good a metaphor as any – so long as you don’t go building a whole theology on it – which does not seem to be Lewis’ aim here. Now, knowing that even this illustration is going to leave some dry and wondering what the point is in talking about a Being too difficult to comprehend – he takes a strange tack. He tells them not to bother talking about Him then, but to be drawn into “that three-personal life…any time – tonight, if you like.” And what does he mean? Prayer. He describes an ordinary Christian man at prayer; and it is an immensely profound (strangely placed and surprisingly Calvinistic) description of the work of the Trinity in prayer:

“…if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying – the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kind of life – what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.”

So, in one masterful maneuver he’s not only described the personal actions of the Trinity in the life of a man, but invited - nearly dared - his listeners to pray to this God.

He moves on to comment on the nature of the “science” of Theology in general – how it is like other sciences in some ways and in other ways not at all. To study rocks, you go to the rocks. It’s entirely one-sided. To study animals is much the same, but if you’re careful, they may come to you. To study humans requires a bit more initiative on the part of the subject. They may refuse you entirely. It is a two-way street. But to study God is a different story. And here we come to some very ambiguous passages, with almost every line open to multiple interpretations ranging from beautiful to helpful to just plain wrong. (This, by the way, is what I mean when I describe Lewis’ theology as muddled at times. I detest ambiguity in doctrinal matters because of misunderstandings that inevitably result.)

“When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others – not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as a clean one...the instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred – like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope. That is why horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens.”
“You can put this another way by saying that while in other sciences the instruments you use are things external to yourself (things like microscopes and telescopes), the instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred – like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope. That is why horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens.

“God can show Himself as He really is only to real men. And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another.”

I’m certain, first off, that Lewis knew exactly what he meant when he uttered these words. He was not trying to be unclear or ambiguous. It also seems fairly clear that didn’t have much interaction with folks of the Reformed persuasion who might ask him to clarify his positions. That said, I’ll put my own questions and objections to his statements. The first statement is excellent! I couldn’t agree more. The initiative is all of God! It is also true that as Creator, it is entirely His prerogative to reveal Himself if and how He chooses. But in saying, “nothing you can do will enable you to find Him” he implies that man really wants to find this God, which Scripture flatly denies stating contrarily that man already knows this God and suppresses that knowledge (Rom.1). When he says, “it is impossible for Him” I bristle. Nothing is impossible for God but to sin. God can and will show himself to such people, dreadfully, on Judgement Day. But perhaps Lewis means something else. When he says that God shows Himself more to some than to others I disagree, in the sense that all humans do receive the basic Romans 1 type knowledge which all suppress; but I would agree in the sense of the Parable of the Talents (with the buried talent representing the suppressed Romans 1 knowledge of God). The problem is, it's not clear in which manner he is speaking. His explanation of some men being “clean and bright” and some dusty, begs the question of how one gets to be clean and bright, and who’s initiative it takes to do the cleaning and shining – and how one gets to be a “real man”. One could come away from this bit thinking that one can clean one’s own self up so that God can reveal Himself. If, however, he is speaking purely of the process of sanctification, which I can’t tell, then it’s a lovely illustration of how increasing sanctification and leads to increasing light from God – right through to our ultimate glorification. In the last bit, he brings the corporate body of Christ into play in a lovely way, with which I agree wholeheartedly. Oh, and there’s one statement I would like to rearrange entirely. I would say that “horrible nations have horrible religions because they have not been looking to God at all, but have exchange Him for idols.” (Again, Romans 1)

I'll leave off there, in hopes of posting the rest tomorrow.


Anonymous said…
I thought you avoided controversy and here you are bringing on the whole free-will verses predestination debate : )

“it is impossible for Him” I have heard people say the reason we need Jesus is that light can’t mix with dark - it’s the same problem - of course God can do whatever he wants, just as he relates to Satan in Job. I think the implication is that God won’t, out of choice.

“…one can clean one’s own self up so that God can reveal Himself.” OK here’s another hard one, if we have free will we accept Jesus, choose to pray, try to avoid sin and repent when we do sin, so in a sense we are cleaning ourselves up so that we can see God more clearly. On the other hand, if we have no part in our salvation our choices being dictated we still do the same things so from a human perspective we appear to clean ourselves up.

I think the whole free-will verses predestination debate comes out of our inability to understand that God exists outside of what we call time, so he already knows our response (he can remember the future) before he reveals himself. It’s all very mind blowing and I’m thankful that all I have to do is confess and believe

Romans 10:9 (ESV)
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

God bless,
Laurie M. said…
"It’s all very mind blowing and I’m thankful that all I have to do is confess and believe"

Amen to that.
Laurie M. said…
Oh, and as to whole free-will/predestination being controversial - it's an odd debate, in that it is one I will enter into from time to time, mainly because it abounds with misunderstandings; and because there is so much Scripture referring to it, that I believe it's not entirely incomprehensible or intended to go un-discussed. In case you're interested (since I'm not going to write a thesis here on my blog), my persective on predestination and free will is in line with that of Jonathan Edwards (who had a huge impact on me), John Frame, A.W. Pink and Gordon Clark, as opposed to that of Lewis and most of mainstream Christianity.
haithabu said…
“horrible nations have horrible religions...."

makes sense because religion is by definition manmade. But it does remind me of John 3:20,21:

For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.

Jesus does seem to say that a pre-existing condition in a person can predispose them to either accept or turn away from the gospel. (Practicing evil vs "doing" the truth.) Perhaps this might apply to nations as well? (Remember the sheep and the goats.)
Laurie M. said…
Well, Phil, since nations are made up of people, you probably have a point. That little quote is quite wonderful, but it's like one of those funny 3D holograph-looking pictures that looks like different things depending upon the angle you hold it. Sometimes it sounds just right to me, and sometimes not. Lewis has an interesting way of saying things like that.

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