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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

C. S. Lewis and the Test of Coherence

In Miracles (the book that gets my vote as the best generally overlooked book by C. S. Lewis), Lewis makes a point about the plausibility of the Incarnation that I want today to use in service of a related point, namely, an important way in which we can test theological and ethical interpretations of Scripture:

Let us suppose we possess parts of a novel or a symphony. Someone now brings us a newly discovered piece of manuscript and says, “This is the missing part of the work. This is the chapter on which the whole plot of the novel really turned. This is the main theme of the symphony.” Our business would be to see whether the new passage, if admitted to the central place which the discoverer claimed for it, did actually eliminate all the parts we had already seen and “pull them together.” Nor should we be likely to go very far wrong. The new passage, if spurious, however attractive it had looked at the first glance, would become harder and harder to reconcile with the rest of the work the longer we considered the matter. But if it were genuine then at every fresh hearing of the music or every fresh reading of the book, we should find it settling down, making itself more at home and eliciting significance from all sorts of details in the whole work which we have hitherto neglected. Even though the new central chapter or main theme contains great difficulties in itself, we should still think it genuine provided that continually removes difficulties elsewhere.

In my book on gender, Finally Feminist, this is one of the tests I commended to people concerned to come fully to terms with the whole Bible’s teaching: Does the model I propose do a better job than the competing alternatives in illuminating the whole counsel of God, connecting all the relevant materials in a mutually reinforcing pattern?

As we consider various understandings of hell and the Last Judgment, or sexuality and sexual ethics, or the particularity of the gospel in a welter of religious alternatives, Lewis’s illustration helps us test our views. Are we opting for Interpretation A because it initially makes us feel better and connects with what we view to be the key themes of the Bible…but we haven’t yet pressed it into the smaller, less familiar places of Scripture to see if it truly coheres with, and illuminates, the full Bible we have as God’s Word? Might we instead elect Interpretation B that, however much it might conflict with our preferences or expectations and our favourite passages on the subject, actually settles into place as a view that solves a variety of problems to which we hadn’t paid enough attention and in fact now makes sense of what previously seemed inconveniently puzzling or even contradictory?

You will have noted, of course, that this test requires of us two things. First, it requires firm belief in the Bible as Holy Scripture, everywhere “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” rather than as an old sacred book that validates my central spiritual and moral intuitions and to which I therefore need to pay only superficial attention. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” can be parroted by theological and ethical liberals just as easily as by conservatives.

Second, this test requires of us hard work: hard, exegetical and hermeneutical work, yes, and the hard spiritual and moral work of humbling ourselves to the place that we are willing actually to be converted by what Scripture says. Without that hard work, we are just playing with the Bible or, worse, just exploiting it in our program of propaganda for a cause that we believe to be righteous on other grounds than Biblical teaching.

I worry that too many Christian (or pseudo-Christian) leaders today are commending ideas to us on quite important issues on the basis of their ingratiating “wonderings” and “questions” and “authentic doubts” and “hopes and dreams” and “visions for a new future” and “heart convictions” and “deep compassion” and pretty much every thought process and sentiment imaginable other than the sheer hard work of reverent, submissive Bible study.

Of course intuition matters. Of course we want to study the Bible with our hearts as well as our heads. Of course we pay attention to what God is saying through all the means God uses to communicate to us. Okay. Therefore, of course we should expect whatever we believe to be a true teaching from God to cohere thoroughly with the elaborate literary revelation he took such pains to give us.

So let’s see. That’s all I’m asking. Let’s take the time to truly see.


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