Biblical inerrancy, the goodness of God, and our capacity for truth

I came across this letter of C.S. Lewis’s on the blog Undeception:

Dear Mr. Beversluis,

Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God’s answer might be ‘What is that to thee?’ The passage may not be ‘addressed to our (your or my) condition’ at all.

I think we are v. much in agreement, aren’t we?

Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

I’ve noted before that while Lewis was very much a man of traditional and conservative disposition and views, he would be out of step with a lot of what passes for “conservative” Christianity today. A significant strain of contemporary evangelicalism–particularly Calvinist-influenced, has embraced precisely the doctrine of inerrancy and ethical voluntarism that Lewis is criticizing here.

Closer to home, however, a lot of mainline theology has absorbed the “postmodern” critique of reason, which denies that we can transcend our particular social and cultural situation enough to apprehend any “universal” truths. Lewis, though he recognizes our penchant for partiality and self-deception, would also disagree with this, at least in its extreme form. God has endowed us with the capacity to apprehend the Good and the True. It’s true that in our fallen state, we only apprehend it in a partial and fragmentary way, but we are capable of genuine knowledge. It’s also worth noting that “postmodern” anti-rationnalism doesn’t necessarily have more progressive implications than conservative biblicism. In fact, it may lead to a very similar form of authoritarianism: if “truth” is defined by my tribe, my social group, my church, my political fellow-travelers, etc., how is criticism of the group possible?

My personal view is that there is merit in the various critiques of “Enlightenment reason,” but at the same time, Christians should be wary of embracing a thorough-going anti-rationalism.

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4 thoughts on “Biblical inerrancy, the goodness of God, and our capacity for truth

  1. Ah, C S Lewis was such a clear thinker. I love this bit: “the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger.” And this bit: “Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good.” I am always saying both of those – and didn’t know that CS Lewis had also said them. Thank you.

    Regarding postmodernism, it neither says nor implies that the truth is that of one’s tribe or social group. It just says that objectivity cannot be obtained because we are always filtering things through our own ideas and experiences – hence Lewis’s point that we must work these things out with “fear and trembling”.

  2. Well, “postmodernism” isn’t a monolithic thing, obviously (that wouldn’t be very postmodern, would it?). And there are some strains of postmodern thinking that say just what you’re suggesting. Others, however, suggest that we are so enmeshed in our particular perspective that we can’t/shouldn’t aspire to universality in our thinking.

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