C. S. Lewis & the Doctrine of Theosis
by W. E. Knickerbocker, Jr.
In speaking with others about the Christian faith, issues of moral theology often come up. Quite predictably, especially on a university campus, the conversation will turn into disagreement over issues of morality such as abortion, sexuality, hedonism, discrimination, greed, consumerism, or religious nationalism.
But behind the disagreements about moral theology lie disagreements about soteriology and dogmatic theology, and behind these disagreements, at the deepest level, there is a fundamental clash of two incompatible mythologies. In this clash, the criticisms leveled against traditional Christian moral theology, soteriology, and dogma arise from a rejection of what C. S. Lewis called the Christian Myth in favor of a contemporary Western myth that Lewis dubbed the Myth of Developmentalism.
This new myth has permeated Western culture and many have absorbed it unconsciously into their hearts and minds. While it is important to recognize the nature of this new myth and its incompatibility with Christianity, it is critical to understand that the power of the Christian Myth lies ultimately in its affirmation of theosis, the participation of man in the life of God, a belief reflected in the writings of C. S. Lewis. In his presentation of the traditional Christian Myth, Lewis offers readers an important and accessible vision of man’s salvation, one that is uniquely capable of satisfying man’s deepest aspirations and longings, unlike the new myth.
The Two Myths
C. S. Lewis understood that myths are common to all cultures and that all myths give rise to numerous theological propositions that concern metaphysics, epistemology, and moral philosophy. The Christian Myth, the myth of Jesus Christ, differs from other myths by being both myth and fact. Lewis teaches that other myths can be unfocused gleams of God’s prevenient grace upon the imaginations of all people. In the Christian Myth, God’s grace is focused in Jesus Christ, the incarnation of myth in history; Myth has become fact.1
The center of the Christian Myth is Jesus Christ, i.e., his Incarnation, Life, Atoning Death, Resurrection, Ascension, High Priesthood, and Second Coming. But the Christian Myth actually begins with a myth of origins, both the origin of all creation and mankind and the origin of supernatural evil and sin. It continues with a myth of redemption, which is spread through the Old Testament, and, after the center of the myth, the coming of Jesus Christ, continues with the incarnation of Christ in the Church, his Mystical Body, and the incarnation of the Church in culture. It concludes with a myth of consummation, the restoration and redemption of all creation.
In contrast, according to Lewis, since the end of the Enlightenment, the Western mind has been characterized by its gradual acceptance of a new myth, which people usually do not recognize as a myth. As he writes, “The central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call ‘Evolution’ or ‘Development’ or ‘Emergence.’”2 He says that the finest expression of the myth in English is in Keats’s Hyperion, which was written nearly forty years before Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Lewis concludes that in the making of this myth, imagination runs ahead of scientific evidence. Other writers, such as Shaw, Wells, and, on the Continent, Wagner, are mythmakers who contributed to this Western myth.3
For contemporary Western people, says Lewis, Developmentalism is “the key principle of reality.” To us “it seems simply natural that an ordered cosmos should emerge from chaos, that life should come out of the inanimate, reason out of instinct, civilization out of savagery, virtue out of animalism. . . . The modern mind accepts as a formula for the universe in general the principle ‘almost nothing may be expected to turn into almost everything.’”
This Myth of Developmentalism gives rise to what Lewis calls the “pseudo-philosophy” of “Historicism.” This is “the belief that the scanty haphazard selection of facts we know about History contains an almost mystical revelation of reality, and that to grasp the Worden and go wherever it is going is our prime duty.”
As Lewis points out, this Myth of Developmentalism “is wholly inimical to Christianity, for it denies both creation and the Fall. Where, for Christianity, the Best creates the good and the good is corrupted by sin, for Developmentalism the very standard of good is itself in a state of flux.”4 The Christian Myth is a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation myth, while the contemporary Western myth is a Creation-Fulfillment myth, which is manifested in many variant expressions, from Social Darwinism to Marxism, imperialism, racism, materialism, and the cult of self-fulfillment.
Theosis, Sin & Satan
Yet it is not this contemporary Western myth that yields the dogmas and soteriology we really need. Rather, it is the Christian Myth that yields the dogmas of Christology and the Trinity and the soteriology of theosis, and in doing so gives us what we have longed for since the Fall. And what we long for, as Lewis explains, is theosis, the patristic teaching that “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.”5 As Lewis writes, “The whole purpose for which we exist is to be thus taken into the life of God.”6
This is the patristic interpretation of such passages as John 17:21, where Jesus prays for his followers “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us” (cf. Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:17). This participation in the life of God is not being “absorbed” into God and losing our individual identities. Rather, it is “being caught up into the higher kind of life . . . being pulled into God by God” while still remaining ourselves.7 Screwtape knows this when he says that God “wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”8
This patristic doctrine is stated by Gregory Nazianzen, who writes that the Son of God “comes down to join his fellow-servants and assumes a form which is not his own, taking upon himself me and what belongs to me, so that in himself he may consume the evil . . . and that I may share in what belongs to him, by reason of this commixture.”9 Or again, “He takes upon himself the poverty of my flesh so that I may receive the riches of his divinity.”10 And again, “I must be buried with Christ, raised from the dead with Christ; I must be co-heir with Christ, and become a son of God, even myself deified.”11
The background for understanding this Christian teaching of theosis is the Christian teaching on sin and Satan. As Lewis says, when we are born, we are already “in Adam.” We are already participating in the sin and death of mankind. Each of us is born into a corrupt community, the human race, and we have all sinned “in Adam.” Our sin is described by Lewis in Augtustinian terms as “spoiled goodness.” The goodness, the “Image of God,” must be there first. As Lewis writes, “every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us. . . . We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint.”12 Each of us inherits a caricature and then contributes to it.
We are born in Adam’s sin and death because of the Fall. Lewis interprets the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 as a myth in the “Socratic” sense, i.e., “a not unlikely tale.”13 Lewis cites Augustine to the effect that original sin is the result of pride, “of the movement whereby a creature (that is, an essentially dependent being whose principle of existence lies not in itself but in another) tries to set up on its own, to exist for itself.”14
Lewis offers his own picture of the myth of the Fall, developing it against the background of Richard Hooker’s conception of law, i.e., the idea that if your proper law is disobeyed, you find that you are obeying one of God’s lower laws. When Adam sinned, “This condition was transmitted by heredity to all later generations.”15 Unfortunately, our contemporary Western emphasis on the separateness of individuals has impaired our ability to understand what the Apostle Paul means when he speaks of us all dying in Adam and living in Christ (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:22).
While we have no choice about being born in Adam, we do have a choice, according to Lewis, about whether or not we will be possessed by or participate in Satan.16 In Perelandra, the physicist Weston has allowed himself to be possessed by Satan, who has beguiled him with the myth of emergent evolution.17 In That Hideous Strength, Frost and Wither, who are already possessed by Satan, are seeking to possess Mark Studdock. As Wither says, “I desire the closest possible bond. I would welcome an interpenetration of personalities so close, so irrevocable, that it almost transcends individuality. . . . I would open my arms to receive—to absorb—to assimilate this young man.”18 But Mark has a choice, and at the last minute refuses to consent.19 And, as Screwtape says, “Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself.”20
A Manhood Too Small
Our participation in the life of God is possible only because God takes the initiative to make it so. Lewis himself began to experience at an early age what he later came to understand as the initiative of God in his own life. In Surprised by Joy, he writes of these experiences, which he calls “arrows shot from heaven,” i.e., the prevenient grace of God calling him to himself.21
Even before Lewis returned to Christianity, he began to write in the language of theosis. In Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poems he published shortly after his service in the infantry in World War I, in a poem called “Dungeon Grates,” he writes:
When of some beauty we are grown a part
Till from its very glory’s midmost heart
Out leaps a sudden beam of larger light
Into our souls. . . . The miracle is done
And for one little moment we are one
With the eternal stream of loveliness. . . .
One moment was enough
We know we are not made of mortal stuff. . . .
For we have seen the Glory—we have seen.22
In his Christian writings, whatever the literary genre, Lewis’s understanding of soteriology is cast in the language of theosis. And when Lewis writes about theosis, we see clearly his understanding that soteriology is inseparable from the great dogmas of Christology, the Trinity, and the Church, which dogmas themselves are yielded by the Christian Myth.
As Lewis reminds us, the Incarnation took place “not by the conversion of the godhead into flesh but by the taking of (the) manhood into God.”23 Again, this is patristic teaching succinctly stated by Gregory of Nyssa when he says, “We assert that the body in which he accepted suffering, being mingled with the divine nature, became through that intermixture identical with the nature which assumed it. . . . we believe that whatever in our lowly nature was assumed in the fulfillment of his divine plan of love for man was also transformed to what is divine and immortal.”24 When the Second Person of the Trinity entered human life, human life was too small to hold him, so he took human life into himself and in so doing perfected it.
Life in the Son & the Trinity
When we participate in the human nature of Christ, we are participating in the life of the Second Adam, an Adam without sin who is hypostatically united in One Person with the Divine Son. Moreover, because of the “communication of properties” we are also participating in the life of the Son of God who is of the same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit and, therefore, are participating in the life of the Holy Trinity.
The virginal conception of Jesus is required because God had to begin humanity over again. The story of the birth of Jesus helps us understand our own experience of theosis, of the new humanity. Our experience of theosis confirms the truth of the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation, which show us the power that is causing this mighty change in us.
This change in us means dying and rising with Christ in his death and resurrection. Salvation involves repentance, both for the original sin through which we initially participate “in Adam” and for the sin that we ourselves commit and which confirms and deepens our participation “in Adam.” In theosis we participate in Christ’s perfect humility even unto death.25 But when we participate in him, it also means being resurrected with him. Because of his Resurrection and Ascension, he can be both alive with us and at the right hand of the Father. He can “inject” his resurrected life, his very self, into us. As Lewis writes, “we begin to see what it is the New Testament is always talking about. It talks about Christians ‘being born again’; it talks about ‘putting on Christ’; about Christ ‘being formed in us’; about our coming to ‘have the mind of Christ.’”26
However, our humanity is too small to hold Christ, and the humanity of each of us is drawn into the life of the Son of God and with him into the life of the Trinity. Theosis in Lewis’s theology begins with Christology and ends in the doctrine of the Trinity. Lewis entitles the last section of Mere Christianity “Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity.” He sometimes uses the image of the dance or drama to speak of theosis. “The whole dance or drama or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.”27
Lewis writes that when we say that God is love, we Christians are proclaiming the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father is always loving the Son and the Son the Father. “What grows out of the joint life of the Father and the Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.” He is the Holy Spirit. “If you think of the Father as something ‘out there,’ in front of you, and of the Son as someone standing at your side, helping you to pray, trying to turn you into another son, then you have to think of the third Person as something inside you, or behind you. . . . God is love, and that love works through men—especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son.”28 Thus, Lewis understands the Trinity, at least with regard to soteriology, in an Augustinian manner as this is reflected in the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed.
A Compelling & Universal Vision
For Lewis, the doctrine of theosis means the unity of God and all God’s creation. People are brought into that unity through Christ, who comes to us through the Church, which is his Body. But Christ came to save the whole creation, not just the Church. As Lewis says, Christ came to save “human nature; but, associated with it, all nature, the new universe.”29 Or, to put it another way, when all people are participating in God as new creatures in Christ, the distinction between Church and creation will not be evident. There is no Church on Malacandra, that unfallen planet.30 There is no Church in Narnia. People, animals, and trees are alive there in a way they are not alive in our world.31 And in this new life in Christ, and through him, in the Church, his Body, and through him in the Trinity, people will be perfectly united to God and to each other, while still being their unique selves. “Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body—different from one another and contributing what no other could.”32
The Christian truth of theosis, this participation in the life of the Holy Trinity and in the Body of Christ, the Church, which forms us into our unique individual selves, is that for which we all long and is that truth proclaimed in the Christian Myth. The contemporary Western myth, with its emphasis on personal fulfillment, the triumph of one group over other groups, or both, does not proclaim the truth of theosis for which we long.
It is helpful to remember that whenever a Christian in our contemporary Western culture engages a person who is not a Christian in conversation, if disagreement occurs over issues of morality, soteriology, or dogma, at the deepest level it is a clash of two mythologies that are not compatible. C. S. Lewis understood this clash and marshaled all the resources of his Christian intellect, conscience, and imagination to paint in words a vision of the Christian Myth and the dogmas and soteriology yielded by that myth, a vision that remains compelling because of the unity of truth and beauty in his written words.
1. See “Myth Became Fact” and “The Grand Miracle” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 63–67, 80–88; Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1955), p. 236; The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 170–172; They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914–1963), ed. Walter Hooper, (New York: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 427–428; “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980), pp. 74–92; Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: Fontana Books, 1960), pp. 137–138n; Walter Hooper, Past Watchful Dragons (London: Collier Macmillan, 1979), pp. 16–17.
2. “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967), p. 83.
3. Ibid., pp. 83–84.
4. “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), pp. 63–64.
5. Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1972), p. 154.
6. Ibid., p. 141.
7. Ibid., p. 143.
8. The Screwtape Letters, with Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 38.
9. Oration 30.5,6 in Henry Bettenson (ed.), The Later Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Cyril of Jerusalem to St. Leo the Great (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 104.
10. Oration 38.13, ibid., p. 106.
11. Oration 7.23. ibid., p. 127.
12. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), p. 69.
13. The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1976), p. 77.
14. Ibid., p. 75. See Augustine, The City of God, 14:13.
15. Ibid., pp. 82–83.
16. Mere Christianity, p. 51.
17. Perelandra (New York: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 93–96.
18. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 243.
19. Ibid., p. 270.
20. Screwtape, p. 38.
21. Surprised by Joy, pp. 7, 16–18, 72–73, 152, 179–181; cf. The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 8.
22. “Dungeon Grates,” Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics, with a Preface by Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), pp. 25–26.
23. Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958), p. 116.
24. Against Eunomius, 5.5, in Bettenson, op.cit ., p. 137.
25. Mere Christianity, pp. 56–61.
26. Ibid ., pp. 163–164.
27. Ibid ., p. 153.
28. Ibid ., p. 152.
29. “The Grand Miracle,” God in the Dock, p. 82.
30. Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1975).
31. See any of the various editions of the seven Chronicles of Narnia.
32. Mere Christianity, p. 153.
W. E. Knickerbocker, Jr., Ph.D., a Roman Catholic, is Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. This article is adapted from a paper he presented at the annual Christianity in the Academy conference in the spring of 1998 at the University of Memphis.
W. E. Knickerbocker, Jr. taught Church History and Spiritual Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary for 32 years. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision in 2009 and now serves at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Junction, Texas. An earlier version of this article was presented at the "Christianity in the Academy Conference" in Memphis in March 2013.
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