Lewis the Translator of Christian Truth

C. S. Lewis’s writings have been credited with leading many to the Christian faith and with strengthening the faith of countless others. He assumed the mantle of apologist and evangelist primarily because he saw a decided lack of intelligent explainers of Christian truths.

Yet he was criticized by some. Oxford colleagues were miffed that he was stepping out of his academic field to write about Christianity, which is one reason why he was denied promotion during his tenure there.

Another critic, who surfaced in 1958, was Norman Pittenger, an American Anglican priest and theologican, who wrote that Lewis was too simplistic in his presentation of Christian faith. At the time he criticized Lewis, Pittenger was Chairman of the Theological Commission of the World Council of Churches.

The critique appeared in the theologically liberal magazine The Christian Century. Due to Pittenger’s prominence, Lewis felt he had to pen a defense of his reason for being an apologist and of his particular approach in presenting what Christianity was all about—a defense that The Christian Century published and which now appears in the essay collection God in the Dock and titled “A Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger.”

Why did Lewis undertake the work of apologist/evangelist?

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither.

My task was therefore simply 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.

First and foremost, Lewis wanted people to be drawn to the truth; for that to happen, they had to grasp it and why it was important. The Pittenger approach, he argued, was so rich in “ambiguities” that it was “worse than useless.” It was so nuanced, so “sitting on the fence,” that people would suspect they were being tricked.

Lewis, in genuine humility, was willing to concede he might not be perfect in his own explanations and style:

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn.

Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city?

Lewis undoubtedly suspected that Pittenger wasn’t truly engaged in trying to interact with those types of people at all. And what of the “gospel” of Pittenger? He became one of the first “Christian” leaders who argued for the acceptance of homosexual relations among Christians. Later, he admitted to his own homosexuality.

This is a defender of the faith?

Lewis concludes his rejoinder to Pittenger with these pointed words:

One thing at least is sure. 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.

But because they did lose touch, Lewis stepped into the gap. Many thousands are eternally grateful that he did.

If True, This Is of Infinite Importance

“Apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it.” So wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1946 letter. Yet a good many of us are grateful that he took the time and effort to add his part to all the apologetics offered throughout the Christian era.

I can understand his sentiment in that letter. When you have to labor to help people understand the basics of how the universe functions, who is behind it all, the problem of sin and the remedy for it—well, it can be, at times, a wearying task.

Shortly before Lewis wrote that letter, he wrote an essay called, simply, “Christian Apologetics.” In it, he sought to help readers come to grips with the obstacles we face when we try to explain and demonstrate to people that there is a Truth out there. “One of the great difficulties,” Lewis opined, “is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth.” He continued,

They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue “True—or False” into stuff about a good society, or morals . . . or anything whatever.

The apologist’s job, he says, is “to keep forcing them back . . . to the real point.” The goal is to help lead them out of a phony idea that while “religion” may be useful, “one mustn’t carry it too far.” He then provides a wonderfully insightful quote that many have used ever since:

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.

Lewis argues similarly in another essay written at about the same time, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” In this one, he notes, “Man is becoming as narrowly ‘practical’ as the irrational animals.” People don’t seem interested in objective truth.

They only want to know if it will be comforting, or “inspiring,” or socially useful. . . . When an Englishman says he “believes in” or “does not believe in” Christianity, he may not be thinking about truth at all. Very often he is only telling us whether he approves or disapproves of the Church as a social institution.

The mass of mankind doesn’t desire to find truth. After all, if they had to come face to face with the truth of the Gospel, they would have to acknowledge their sins, repent of them, humbly lay down all pretensions to their own goodness, and learn to be a disciple of Christ, setting aside all of their selfishness, pettiness, and pride.

That’s not appealing. Therefore, they run away from the truth.

Closely connected with this unhuman Practicality is an indifference to, and contempt of, dogma. The popular point of view is unconsciously syncretistic: it is widely believed that “all religions really mean the same thing.”

Such a statement defies all logic and rational thought. How can Christianity and Hinduism both be correct when they disagree on all pertinent points? How can one really equate the god of Islam with Christianity? A bland monotheism by itself in no way equates with what Christianity says. Neither is the character of Islam’s Allah the character we see in the God of the Bible. That’s why Lewis also poignantly declares,

I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.

It all makes so much sense. But then, is our society interested in “sense”? Is it interested in truth? Not if it points the finger at them and says that dreadful word “repent.”

Yet we must not falter in explaining the faith and in praying that God’s Holy Spirit will awaken hearts and minds to His truth.

In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. I Peter 3:15

C.S. Lewis: The Question of Truth

Lewis took on the role of an apologist for the Christian faith. In an essay entitled “Christian Apologetics,” he honed in on one of the big problems Christians have when trying to explain the truth of Christianity. It’s not a problem with the message itself, but with the hearers of the message:

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue “True—or False” into stuff about a good society, or morals . . . or anything whatever.

You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point. Only thus will you be able to undermine . . . their belief that a certain amount of “religion” is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.