The Arminian Theology of C.S. Lewis

, posted by Kevin Jackson

C.S. Lewis is one of the most widely read Christian writers of the last 100 years. Although he doesn’t seem to have ever directly referenced Arminius or Wesley in his writings, his theology is nonetheless generally consistent with Arminain thought. Below are some quotes from Lewis that indicate his Arminian leanings.

Lewis did not hold to “irresistible grace”. He believed that God limits his power and will not unilaterally change a person. From The Trouble with X, Lewis wrote:

God has made it a rule for Himself that He won’t alter people’s character by force. He can and will alter them – but only if the people will let Him. In that way He has really and truly limited His power. Sometimes we wonder why He has done so, or even wish that He hadn’t. But apparently He thinks it worth doing. He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn’t do anything else. The more we succeed in imagining what a world of perfect automatic beings would be like, the more, I think, we shall see His wisdom.

Lewis expanded on this in the Screwtape Letters, when the demon Screwtape comments on the character of God:

You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.

Lewis approached the problem of evil from an Arminian view – that evil came about by God giving freewill to creatures. Lewis also argued for the typically Arminian view of libertarian free will (A person can choose either A or B), rather than Calvinistic compatibility (A person always follows his strongest desire, and can’t do otherwise). And Lewis argued for an Arminian view of God that is a relationally based. Mere Christianity book 2, chapter 3:

Is this state of affairs [evil] in accordance with God’s will or not? If it is, He is a strange God, you will say: and if it is not, how can anything happen contrary to the will of a being with absolute power?

But anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another. It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.” Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.

It is probably the same in the universe. God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata-of creatures that worked like machines-would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

Lewis also had an Arminian understanding of the existence of hell. Some end up in hell because of their choice to reject God’s provision. In The Great Divorce, Lewis writes:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

Lewis also seemed to lean towards Arminian understanding of apostasy – that it is possible for a person who was formerly saved to cease being a Christian. In The Screwtape Letters he writes (again, from Screwtapes view):

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian…There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.

And again Mere Christianity, book 4, chapter 10:

The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand.

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For a nice detailed essay on the Arminianism of Lewis, check out C.S. Lewis: Calvinist or Classical Arminian? by Rev. Zach Dawes