Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"The what..., not the how"

Ariel James Vanderhorst, in the current Touchstone [subscribe here], notes some controversy about what C.S. Lewis thought about the Atonement. [If you are a Lewis admirer, you will want to read it all.] I've quoted a few paragraphs below, beginning with Lewis from Mere Christianity:
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.
Doggedly, Lewis emphasized the what of the Cross, not the how. ....

In The Way into Narnia, Peter Schakel writes that “as he constructed the episode of Aslan’s death, Lewis inevitably found himself dealing with the question, ‘Why did Aslan die?’” In every way, Aslan’s death and return to life is the climax of the story. When the great lion appears, joyous and alive, the gruesome stone table breaks in half, and Lucy and Susan ask Aslan what it all means:
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
The poetic beauty of this scene has caused tears to flow from thousands of Evangelical eyes, and rightly so: The death and shocking resurrection of Christ is pictured with a clarity and originality that defies convention. But as Jacobs queries in The Narnian, “Really, what sort of explanation is that? Why should things be this way? How does the death of the ‘willing victim’ take the traitor from the clutches of the Witch? And how can the magic that frees the traitor be older than the magic that condemns him?” Instead of questioning Aslan’s explanation, Lucy and Susan immerse themselves in his presence. And Jacobs notes, this is because “it is not the explanation that matters: it is the sacrifice itself—and the new life it brings.” ....

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may be the sterling example of Lewis’s distinctive Atonement position. Not content to define Christianity with theories or to subscribe to any one of them, Lewis attempted to tap the “mythic” qualities he found in the true story of Christ. ....

Lewis himself saw “theories,” as such, as dispensable; he did not subscribe to penal substitution as it is set forth in Evangelical circles today. However, if the name-calling and precipitate adoption of Lewis into various theological circles is any indication, he succeeded in his central purpose: to display a romping Aslan, a mythic dying God who really returned to life—and to make the image stick.

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