I'm working on the first of four chapters on C. S. Lewis's apologetics. First I want to establish how they inter-relate. Let me know what you think of this introduction. Is it helpful?
Clive Staple Lewis represents, by many accounts, the most effective apologist in the twentieth century. If then, I describe Lewis as an apologist—which he was, and a very effective one at that—we may have to begin with the common definition, “someone who makes a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. ” This definition derives from the Greek word apologia, which signified a defense in a law court. The Greek word apologia appears in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you…”
When Lewis was asked by Ashley Sampson in 1939 to write a book on how to defend belief in Christianity in light of the existence of pain, Lewis felt obligated to lay out the groundwork for how a person comes to believe in God: first there is the sense of the “Numinous,” something beyond our material world, then a sense of morality, an “ought”; followed by an identification of the Numinous with this moral obligation; then finally a Jewish man who claimed to be one with this giver of the moral law. Two years later, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s commissioning editor James Welch, asked Lewis to deliver a series of radio talks on Christianity, which later appeared as Mere Christianity. In that latter presentation, steps two and three were compressed, so that morality and God became the introduction to his talks, and Lewis later presented a preliminary consideration that filled his book Miracles on how naturalism is self-defeating. These arguments fill his famous apologetic writings from the 1940s. Each responds in some way to crises Lewis had to work through—in fact, attacks he once made against Christian belief—and thus ones that his readers experience. As I was chatting about this book with an editor of a prominent book company, he quipped, “Lewis makes it easy for conservative Christians. He does their thinking for them.” It’s partly true, but not quite that simple. Nevertheless, the fact remains that what Lewis worked out remains a substantial edifice for theological defenses of faith.
Therefore it’s worth summarizing. If one were to compile these major apologetic arguments systematically—building on his original scaffolding in The Problem of Pain—it would be four steps as follows:
1. First, what Lewis added to The Problem of Pain: In order even to begin steps toward belief, we have to see that there is more to the world than just material stuff. He argues that naturalism or materialism (that there is just brute matter) is self-defeating because rational thinking is impossible if we are pure materialists. Miracles centrally presents this apologetic, but it is scattered throughout his writings, especially in the ‘40s with the papers he presented at the Oxford Socratic Society such as “Is Theology Poetry?”
2. Having established that there is more than nature, Lewis proceeded to something more personal, or existential (by which I mean ideas that relate to our existence). Human beings seek something that this world cannot satisfy, which points to a God beyond this world. This argument appears in The Problem of Pain and in “The Weight of Glory.” It establishes what he early called the Numinous and later identified with his own quest for Joy.
3. Having established that there is something more, he moved toward the argument that, like the laws of nature, there exists a Law or Rule about Right and Wrong (or the Law of Nature, or even natural law). It is perceived in the conscience of all human beings and points to the God created that law within us. Lewis developed this apologetic in his opening Broadcast Talks for BBC, which became the first section or “book” of Mere Christianity, as well as in his 1943 Riddell Lectures at the University of Durham that were published as The Abolition of Man. This is a crucial move because it establishes a particular character to what our sense of Joy points us. Or put another way, Joy or beauty are tied to morality.
4. Finally, his argument becomes specifically Christian: Jesus Christ is fulfillment of human myths. In addition, he is either liar, Lord, or lunatic. The only reasonable answer is that he is Lord. This appears principally in Mere Christianity.
These arguments can be separated, but they also inter-relate. In one sense then, Lewis provided four main masterful defenses of the Christian. This makes him an apologist. But there is more to the history of apologetics as a discipline, and certainly this characterization of apologist is inadequate for how Lewis practiced the craft. Here I add the more subtle definition presented by Earl Palmer, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, whose love for Lewis kindled mine and whose lectures from the early ‘80s: “someone who presents the Christian faith fully aware of the arguments that are presented against it.” Palmer also added that an apologist must have two fluencies: a fluency in the Gospel, knowing what’s central and what’s peripheral and a fluency in culture, knowing the cultural norms and language into which this message is presented. Lewis was masterful at both, and I think Palmer’s description helps us see that Lewis was always seeking to persuade even when he was simply presenting the Christian faith (perhaps always trying to root out the atheism that still clung to him from his teens and twenties). This double fluency made Lewis a master apologist who resolved the crises of atheism for many readers and was thereby dubbed by Chad Walsh as “apostle to skeptics.”