I just finished reading an engaging essay that Robert Stein recommends in his hermeneutics textbook and lectures: C. S. Lewis, “Fern-Seed and Elephants,” [warning: the linked article is filled with typos] in Fern-Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity (ed. Walter Hooper; London: Fontana, 1975), 104-25. Lewis originally titled the essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” which he read at Westcott House, Cambridge, on 11 May 1959. What follows is a brief summary.
Context: Many “Christian” leaders (esp. within the Church of England) had embraced modern (i.e., higher, liberal, non-evangelical) biblical criticism. Lewis, a lay person, addresses those leaders in this essay. “I am a sheep, telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them. And now I begin my bleating” (105).
C. S. Lewis’s four bleats
- “These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight” (111).
- “All theology of the liberal type involves at some point—and often involves throughout—the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars. . . . I see—I feel it in my bones—I know beyond argument—that most of their interpretations are merely impossible . . . . The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous” (111-12).
- “I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur. Thus any statement put into our Lord’s mouth by the old texts, which, if he had really made it, would constitute a prediction of the future, is taken to have been put in after the occurrence which it seemed to predict. This is very sensible if we start by knowing that inspired prediction can never occur. Similarly in general, the rejection as unhistorical of all passages which narrate miracles is sensible if we start by knowing that the miraculous in general never occurs” (113).
- “All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences—the whole Sitz im Leben of the text. This is done with immense erudition and great ingenuity. . . . Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense” (113-14). “The superiority in judgement and diligence which you are going to attribute to the Biblical critics will have to be almost superhuman if it is to offset the fact that they are everywhere faced with customs, language, race-characteristics, class-characteristics, a religious background, habits of composition, and basic assumptions, which no scholarship will ever enable any man now alive to know as surely and intimately and instinctively as the reviewer can know mine. And for the very same reason, remember, the Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never be crudely proved wrong” (117-18). “I could not describe the history even of my own thought as confidently as these men describe the history of the early Church’s mind” (122).
Conclusion: “Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to Modern Theology. It is right that you should hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the vicar; now he tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short” (125).