C. S. Lewis: Romantic Rationalist

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis (eds. John Piper & David Mathis. Crossway, 2014)

full_the-romantic-rationalistThe Desiring God National Conference has produced eleven installments of conference books that flesh out the theological vision of John Piper through the lenses of sympathetic voices (the twelfth is no Benjamin, but John Piper’s tribute to the Bible through Romans 8). They present, as a completed corpus, a tour of topics both perennial and poignant for the time. Of the eleven, three focus on a historical voice rather than a theme: Jonathan Edwards (2004), John Calvin (2010), and now C. S. Lewis.

It may be a surprise that the triumvirate is rounded out with C. S. Lewis, an avowed amateur theologian and not known for a doctrine of divine sovereignty that would reach the heights of Calvin and Edwards (although see Wilson’s essay). But this text, as the subtitle indicates, exults in what makes Lewis the patron saint of evangelicalism—a vision of God that incorporates the best in human imagination.

This text is not a debate with Lewis, or an attempt to situate Lewis in his time and place. It explores the possibilities of Lewis for today from authors who deeply appreciate him. For the Lewis fan this volume provides fresh enjoyments, whether from relatively unknown sources (Ryken noting manuscript evidence (48), Wilson tackling the unwieldy named History of Sixteenth Century English Literature Excluding Drama), in fine-tuning a theological vision (Piper & Vanhoozer), or through a sermonic interpretation of the new heavens and new earth through Lewis’s writing (Alcorn).

As with other DGM conferences, four speakers are bookended with essays by John Piper. Randy Alcorn adds an appendix on the justice of hell according to Lewis, and the editors kindly included a transcript of the Q&A session.

John Piper appropriates Peter Kreeft’s description of Lewis as a “romantic rationalist.” The “Romantic,” according to Lewis as early as Pilgrim’s Regress, is a person who has tasted of “joy” in his special sense—the hinted at but unfulfilled knowledge that there is a type of joy just beyond the horizon of our experience. “Rationalist” indicates that Lewis is relentless in his pursuit of consistency and a simplicity that emerges on the far side of complexity. It is not an accident that in the Regress, Reason is a female knight who saves Lewis’s hero from captivity to giant Zeitgeist. These two features, and their combination, define Lewis’s contribution both to Christian evangelism and Christian life.

Philip Ryken discusses Lewis’s doctrine of Scripture. At first glance, this may be the chink in his armor for the evangelical, or at least the episode that must be omitted from this patron saint’s hagiography. Inspiration was not a qualitative term for Lewis, it would seem, but a quantitative term, something to be measured on a scale (42–43). In his constructive appropriation, Ryken lays out a minimalist positive account of Lewis’s view of Scripture—a belief in inerrancy without the name. Lewis (1) submitted doctrine to Scripture, (2) recognized the diversity of genres within Scripture, and (3) believed the biblical accounts of miracles. For Ryken, Lewis’s practice toward Scripture demonstrates a profound respect for and life under Scripture’s authority.

Douglas Wilson unabashedly claims Lewis for the Reformed tradition. Admittedly, the source texts are not all favorable, but Wilson reads carefully through accounts of saving faith and discerns divine sovereignty throughout. Lewis recognized that the Reformation largely concerned an Augustinian response to late-medieval semi-Pelagianism. Wilson’s use of the History of English Literature provides his strongest support and places Lewis firmly in historic Protestantism.

Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay uses Lewis’s thoughts about the imagination as a call for Christian discipleship. The imagery of staying awake opens doors into a great hall of Lewis’s fiction and the corresponding references in Scripture. This essay touches the main thrust of the book’s title. In Lewis, Christians have a powerful vision for how Christian thinking ought to be done both in its patient thoroughness and its playful (i.e., creative) imagination.

As conference publications go, this book is a joy. It has a unified vision inspired by Piper, the organizer. Its topic, Lewis, is engaging and fruitful. The personalities of the presenters comes through clearly as they each develop their own work. Besides the invaluable suggestions for lesser-known works by Lewis, especially in the Q&A chapter, this book provides a platform for creative thinking on the continued relevance of Lewis for American Christians today.

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