Friday, January 18, 2013

History or "picture truths"?

Invited by a friend, C.S. Lewis delivered "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" before the students of a theological school. He begins by confessing ignorance of the intricacies of biblical criticism but, nevertheless, the possible usefulness to potential pastors of his opinions: "I am a sheep, telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them. And now I begin my bleating." I first read the lecture in Christian Reflections, where it was first published. It has since been included in other collections of Lewis's work, usually titled "Fern-seed and Elephants." From the address:
.... A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia — which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes — if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church. In his crude, coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same. An experienced clergyman told me that the most liberal priests, faced with this problem, have recalled from its grave the late medieval conception of two truths: a picture-truth with can be preached to the people, and an esoteric truth for use among the clergy. I shouldn't think you will enjoy this conception much once you have put in into practice. I'm sure if I had to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with that seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn't exactly — only in some Pickwickian sense — believe them myself, I'd find my forehead getting red and damp and my collar getting tight. But that is your headache, not mine. You have, after all, a different sort of collar. I claim to belong to the second group of outsiders: educated, but not theologically educated. How one member of that group feels I must now try to tell you.

The undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism. The authority of experts in that discipline is the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass of beliefs shared in common by the early Church, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformers, and even the nineteenth century. I want to explain what it is that makes me skeptical about this authority. Ignorantly skeptical, as you will all too easily see. But the scepticism is the father of the ignorance. It is hard to persevere in a close study when you can work up no prima facie confidence in your teachers.

First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives. But that might be just the trouble. A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people's studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious thing about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spend on that Gospel. But I had better turn to examples. .... [more]
Thanks to the Mere C.S. Lewis blog for reminding me of this essay.

C.S. Lewis, "Fern-seed and Elephants"