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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

This paper examines Lewis's doctrine of transposition, referred to by him as a contribution to the philosophy of the Incarnation. We show how it is rooted in Lewis's Platonism, in his reading of the works of Henry More and Bishop Berkeley, and how it discloses his understanding of scripture, revelation and reason. In taking the analysis beyond the limited number of theologians who have attempted to unravel what Lewis's proto-doctrine was in this field, we describe Lewis's view of revelation as supra-theological. Our conclusion is that the doctrine of transposition is key to all of Lewis's work (literary, apologetic and philosophical) – or, more exactly, a ‘flawed’ doctrine of transposition, itself transposed platonically. Lewis's doctrine is designed to explain how revelation works, how it is communicated – and, paradoxically, why revelation can never be fully imparted. We trace this back to the communicatio idiomatum, Trinitarian ontology, and human epistemic limitations.


INTRODUCTION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

A trained philosopher, a literatus, and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C.S. Lewis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by the University of St. Andrews in 1946 in recognition of his work in theology and apologetics. Although he had no formal training in theology, his intellect was confirmed in that he received, within four years of study, two BA Hons degrees from the University of Oxford, having passed all three required public examinations with first class honours. These degrees were in Greats (Greek and Roman Literature and Classical Philosophy) and in English. Lewis's training in Classical Philosophy was similar to, and as an apologist places him with, Justin Martyr. Though often classified as such, Lewis was no amateur, yet he had, in effect, erected an elaborate smoke screen to separate himself from a clerical elite in the Church of England of his day. Why? – because his self-claimed opponents were ‘modern’ and/or theologically ‘liberal’, as he saw them.1 It is important to remember that Lewis was not a systematic theologian in the sense Karl Barth or Paul Tillich were; however, their work was incomplete upon their deaths. It is perhaps the case that no theologian or philosopher has managed to pin down and produce a coherent and complete summa, integrated and flawless. Perhaps Lewis realized this was not possible, that all theology is in effect reactionary and contextual – hence his work in apologetics and the comparison with Justin Martyr. However, there is one area where his work was as insightful and reflective as, or even surpassed, the average academic theologian: his philosophical theology. The aim of this paper is to examine Lewis's doctrine of transposition, which he referred to as his contribution to the philosophy of the Incarnation.2 In so doing we will examine not only what he proposed and how it is rooted in Platonism, but consider Lewis's understanding of scripture, revelation and reason. Our conclusion will be that a doctrine of transposition is actually the key to all of Lewis's work.

PLATONIC IDEALISM

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

What was Lewis's background as a philosopher? Lewis's understanding of revelation is informed by his philosophical idealism, specifically the Cambridge Platonism of the seventeenth century and in Lewis's deeply held respect for the Idealism of Bishop George Berkeley. Lewis as a philosopher and logician valued reason, he saw it as the organ of truth; further, that Christianity was inherently rational, that truth was real, objective and available for us to perceive and understand.3 The depth, sharpness and piercing logic of Lewis's intellect were primarily the result of ‘The Great Knock’– William T. Kirkpatrick, who tutored the teenage Lewis in preparation for Oxford. Kirkpatrick, though a self-confessed atheist, had a passionate love of truth. Lewis's education and development as a philosopher at Oxford in the early 1920s did not take place in isolation; he may have been something of a loner, but his philosophical development mirrored that of the establishment at Oxford and Cambridge. In the years immediately after the First World War Oxbridge was still dominated by the English Idealism of T.H. Green, rooted arguably in continental Hegelianism; however, positivism was in the ascendant. This climate affected Lewis and accounts for his realist period, characterized by his self-asserted atheism and his repudiation of anything spiritual. Thus far, as Lewis returned from the trenches to take up undergraduate study, he was in many ways a product of the post-war spirit of the age: a brutal logicality, a positivism based on what was immediately perceivable to the senses that was derived from the concept of a closed universe, itself seen as an accident of evolution and not of a creator God. As he started teaching at Oxford, however, Lewis, the promising young positivistic realist that Oxford philosophers had begun to respect, started to become religious: Lewis first became a theist, then a Christian. For Lewis it was important, however, to avoid the vague indeterminate spiritualism that in the 1920s appeared to be the only alternative to this brutal realistic positivism: according to Lewis's understanding of his peers, Christianity was by and large repudiated by academics in favour of a variety of intellectual religious cults, which were considered superior and more advanced than the ancient religions. This was in part the chronological-intellectual proposition that Lewis talks about escaping from as he developed towards becoming a Christian: ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited’.4 Lewis's chronological-intellectual proposition (snobbery, in Lewis's terminology) was expressed thus: if one argues that A implies B, and if A implying B is an old argument from the times when people also believed C, then A implying B is false because C was found to be untrue. This is, arguably, flawed logic built on the assumption that humanity progresses from crude ignorance, year on year, and today we are superior to all that has gone before. Identifying the arrogance of this flawed ‘modernist’ argument helped Lewis extract himself from a plethora of philosophies and belief systems in the 1920s. But it was the inverse of this chronological-intellectual argument that provided a ground to his Christian apologetics: anything ‘modern’ was to be mistrusted because it was contemporary and must first be measured against the former, the old. Lewis mistrusted ‘modern’ philosophy and theology, and through his training in Classical Philosophy he drew from Plato, essentially avoiding the continental Cartesian and Kantian schools and their derivative thought systems. Parallel to his development towards becoming a Christian, therefore, was this development in Idealism (essentially a pre–‘modern’ Idealism) as a philosophical basis, along with his understanding of and the value accorded to reason. Idealism was, for Lewis, contrary to the closed-universe positivistic realism that dominated Oxford by the mid 1920s.

The seventeenth century English philosopher Henry More, a leading Cambridge Platonist, gave Lewis the subject for his doctoral research. More also contrasted with the continental Cartesian school, which thereby assisted Lewis in his own intellectual development. James Patrick writes, ‘What Lewis found in More was an anti-Cartesian rationalist, someone who understood reason not as an abstract, analytic faculty presiding over an indeterminate field of extension, but as the consubstantial light joining the intellect to reality.’5 Unlike Karl Barth who spent his carer as a theologian trying to work within a Kantian framework, Lewis simply went back before ‘modern’ philosophy, starting with Henry More, and working back to Plato; once he was a Christian this extended to the Patristic theologians and neo-Platonists, then also Medieval Scholasticism and seventeenth century Protestants and Reformed Scholastics: ‘More's thought … pointed beyond the merely rational and merely material, and in him Lewis found an idealist who believed in God, in reason as a living principle, in nature as alive with Logos.’6 Patrick, again commenting here, shows how Lewis the philosopher was brought to maturity by his study of More and the seventeenth-century Platonists, and how this philosophical framework remained constant during the rest of his life, his work and his academic career. In addition, Patrick shows how Lewis's philosophical method extended often to the use of reductio ad absurdum: Lewis the philosophical apologist often attempted to defeat his opponents by exposing the irrationality of their arguments through the existence of basic, as he saw them, logically self-evident truths. This relates closely to Lewis's respect for the objectivity of truth, that there is no simultaneity to truth and falsehood; we are forced to weigh up the options and decide – hence Lewis's trilemma.7

Lewis's graduate studies exposed him to the Irish philosopher George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, and to a lesser extent Hegel (which is probably the only continental ‘modern’– as such a muted influence), but this is all rooted in Plato. Hence Lewis's foundational respect for the forms, his assertion as a Christian Platonist that the real, the truly real, lay beyond what we take for reality in these shadowlands (Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's term). He borrowed from Berkeley his use of a theory of immaterialism, or subjective idealism, encapsulated in the dictum, esse est percipi; the young Lewis drank in the theory that we only know sensations or ideas of objects, we cannot know abstractions. Of equal importance as he began to become, first a theist, then a confessing Christian, was Alexander's Space Time and Deity, where he discovered the proposition that we cannot simultaneously experience and contemplate an object.8

REASON AND IMAGINATION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

For Lewis the world was imbued with the good and the true and hence beauty; these transcendentals were real and not merely subjective. Reason without imagination was without meaning, however, because it is through the imagination that we discern meaning. Revelation is therefore the intuiting of absolute truth, in varying degrees, from eternity, from ultimate or absolute reality: imagination and reason operate, to a degree, symbiotically. All truth comes from this spiritual realm; it translates into our world. There may appear to be a sharp divide between this world and eternity, but there are intimations and, yes, for Lewis, a breaking-in by God for to us to be drawn out. Lewis's emphasis is Platonic in that he sees the ideal eternal world as the real world, and that it is through reason and imagination that we get glimpses and intimations that begin to draw us out through Christ's Holy Spirit. If God is incarnated in Christ, if He descends to raise us up, then all true or valid intimations of this eternal realm are from Christ, who reconciles and imparts understanding and knowledge both when on earth and as the universal Christ. Lewis is at his most reliant upon the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley when he espouses a cautious denial of a realistic account of matter, because ideas and the imagination give us a clearer account. What is important is that we perceive the world, objects, not because of any correlation between the perceptions of our senses, but because God wills it to be so; hence Berkeley's argument that we can only know sensations and ideas of objects. Andrew Walker notes how,

Lewis in Prayer: Letters to Malcolm, says ‘Matter enters our experience only by becoming sensation (when we perceive it) or conception (when we understand it)’ this could have been lifted out of Berkeley's A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. In Berkeley's philosophy humankind could perceive reality directly from the mind of God, and indeed was sustained by it.9

The framework for this was established in the young Lewis in his twenties at Oxford; the synthesis of his beliefs came for the mature apologetic Lewis, however, from Augustine's doctrine of illumination. The faculties of reason and imagination symbiotically give rise to understanding through illumination by the divine light; we cannot perceive and derive truth from our senses alone.10 For Lewis, therefore, God reveals of God's-self and God's purposes for humanity in many subtle ways that are revealings – like the planting of seeds – through sensations and ideas in our minds, sourced through the divine light, which we reflect on, and thereby come to understand something of what was given. All these hints and intimations though disparate and diverse, general and incomplete, and seemingly contradictory to our human minds, work together towards the one concrete and particular perfect self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

To understand what Lewis proposed was happening in God's revealedness, we first need to examine how he understood scripture. Scripture, for Lewis, bears witness to revelation, but in ways that separate it from revelation; scripture is divinely inspired but humanely generated, and thus complements revelation. Scripture, or more pertinently Lewis's proto-doctrine of scripture, illustrates his understanding of revelation, and thereby how transposition works. The belief in the objectivity of reason and truth was central to his understanding of scripture. From an acknowledgement of God's infallibility Lewis could see that if creation was to be, it could then exist only in freedom. The writers of scripture were divinely inspired, but each was a fallen and fallible human, characterized by a degree of free will. Biblical inspiration can therefore be described as the dove whispering into the ear, the illumination of the Holy Spirit imparting intimations to the human mind, though the mind is free to make of these intimations what it will: this is the divine presence behind the Bible. This is where Lewis's understanding of the humanity of scripture comes into play. In the context of the Book of the Psalms, for example, Lewis speaks of the human qualities – naivety, error, contradiction, cursing and wickedness – which are not excluded:11

The total result is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that Word from it not by using it as an encyclopaedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.12

The humanity of scripture presents us with a Bible which is – as Lewis termed it – an untidy and leaky vehicle; we no doubt would have preferred absolute truth systematically presented, unrefracted illuminating light which we could have contained and quantified in an encyclopaedic fashion.13 However, this is not what has been given. Lewis does not approach the Bible with the fundamentalist mindset characteristic of certain Evangelicals. The humanity that shines through the Old Testament, and indeed Paul's Epistles, is there also in the sayings of Jesus. Lewis notes how Jesus preached rather than lectured in an academically impartial manner; his responses to questions and the demands placed on him are couched in paradox and proverb, exaggeration, parable and irony: scripture is steeped in humanness. Lewis comments, ‘Yet it is, perhaps, idle to speak here of spirit and letter. There is almost no ‘letter’ in the words of Jesus. Taken by a literalist, he will always prove the most elusive of teachers. Systems cannot keep up with that darting illumination. No net less wide than a man's whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish.14

Lewis shared a proposition relating to the inspiration and authorship of scripture with Tolkien, that God creates in freedom enabling the world and humanity to be sub-creators: creation creates, it brings forth. A baptized imagination (Lewis and Tolkien's term) in the mind of a faithful writer would seek to be as true to the revelation as possible, though here Lewis's Platonism wields in: any revelation from on high given to fallen humanity in these shadowlands will be a diminution, will be in effect watered-down, changed: this we will see is at the heart of transposition. For Lewis, therefore, the writer of scripture is inspired to write; the content is given and constructed through the faculty of imagination and reflected on through reason. As a consequence, the human element filters, because the human is egotistical, flawed and fallen. There is something of a dialectic in Lewis's understanding of scripture between the God-given freedom to make of the inspiration what the writer will, and the emphasis he places on the importance of a baptized imagination: we are created in freedom, yet the Holy Spirit presses on us, influences our decisions.

As a lecturer in literature Lewis knew genre in ways that New Testament scholars did not; this led to one of his severest criticisms of the mid-twentieth century Bultmannian demythologizing trend in the academy.15 If through the humanity of scripture grace inspires and illumines rather than dictates, then the resulting work will have importance and authority, but there will be inconsistencies – usually on extraneous details. If the books and chapters of the Bible are not all of the same type of genre, then contradictions over the historicity of details in the books of the Old Testament, or even between the Gospels, do not necessarily undermine the veracity of the overarching claims of the New Testament. For example, Lewis regarded the Book of Jonah as sacred fiction, but gave a greater respect to its mythical qualities than many would. Michael J. Christensen, quoting from Lewis's, The Problem of Pain, comments:

The Adam and Eve tale, for instance, may express poetically the reality of man's fall from perfection better than any strictly historical account possibly could. Was the forbidden fruit symbolic, then? ‘For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit,’ says Lewis, ‘but the question is of no consequence.’ Clyde S. Kilby, an acknowledged authority on C. S. Lewis, states that ‘Lewis's frequent discussions of the Garden of Eden make it apparent that it means a hundred times more to him as myth than it does to most Christians as history.’16

The story of the fall meant more to Lewis as the truth about humanity's predicament, its fall from perfection, presented as myth than if it were argued as historical and scientific fact. On the relation of the historicity of scripture to revelation, Andrew Walker comments that:

What we can say with some certainty about Lewis is that he did not subscribe to the view – still widely held in the American bible-belt – that scripture is itself God's revelation to humankind. I know of nowhere that Lewis denies that the Bible in some sense reveals something of God's intentions for the world, but neither do I know of anywhere where he talks of revelation in terms of propositional truth, or of isomorphic pairings between biblical words and God's utterances.17

If Lewis refused to subscribe to a fundamentalist view of scripture that ignored the contradictions and inconsistencies self-evident in the books of the Bible, the philosopher Lewis could see that there was no direct isomorphic coupling, no one-to-one correspondence, between God's speech-act and what is written down by humanity.

Michael J. Christensen, writing on Lewis's understanding of scripture, notes how many people press the Bible to give more of itself than there is: Lewis did not demand an infallible authority, universal and absolute, eternal yet manifest.18 We err if we desire to replace the aseity of God with a book. This also raises questions about the dangers of a doctrine of scripture, if such a doctrine attempts to tie-up all systematically in neatly defined propositions: ‘To demand this of scripture is to fail to recognize that God's infinite wisdom exceeds man's ability to conceptualize it … the divine light is obscured by the medium through which it shines.19 The key term for Lewis and Tolkien here was refracted. We make demands on the historicity of scripture that it will not sustain, precisely because it is not the product of an ordinary academic discipline: it is both human and divine in origin. Lewis commented that some of his critics argued that he was a fundamentalist for not dismissing, per se, the miraculous and the historic in the Old Testament; others criticized him if he did not accept every event recorded, every sentence in the Hebrew Bible, as historic and scientific truth: ‘The reason why I can accept as historical a story in which a miracle occurs is that I have never found any philosophical grounds for the universal negative proposition that miracles do not happen.20 For Lewis, the Book of Job appears unhistorical simply because the events recorded do not fit in with the historical tradition of ancient Israel. Lewis classifies the material in the Old Testament as chronicle, poetry, moral and political diatribe, romances and myths, and some material which is unclassifiable to our contemporary conceptions of types of literature.21 He explains that the poet who wrote the Song of Songs did not in all probability conceive the work for anything other than what he terms a secular purpose. The problem is compounded when a passage is taken in isolation; any contradictions are then ignored: we cannot assume that if one event written in the Bible is true, then all accounts are without flaw –‘that the numbers of Old Testament armies (which in view of the size of the country, if true, involves continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct.22

THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

Lewis makes a distinction between the Word of God (the universal Christ of all eternity incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth) and the word of God (scripture). There is therefore God-given space between divine inspiration on the one hand and our reception and transmission of the content of revelation through words on a page. For Lewis, however, the graceful inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the reader will elevate their value and meaning; as these words are read the text is imbued with an authority above mere common books and words. For Lewis the act of reading is in itself revelatory, but the knowledge of God given in scripture is partial and incomplete; there is as much withheld as there is revealed of God, but it does have a perfection to it within the confines of this reality. Andrew Walker notes how there is no evidence that Lewis subscribed to the doctrine of sola scriptura.23 In some ways this relativizes the Bible, though it is still, through its status, an inspired sacred text. Lewis asserted that the Holy Spirit may also be behind the inspiration of many other works – including myths and works of great literature from a variety of cultures and civilizations.24 In the context of the effect North European pagan myths have on us Lewis regarded them as perlocutionary, in the sense that reading (or hearing, as in an oral tradition) about Christ's atoning sacrifice through a pagan myth changed us, moved us closer to God's salvific actions:25 this is even more so with scripture. In the context of the letter from Clyde Kilby, his comment, quoting James 1:17 is pertinent: ‘If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.26 The Bible, however, is ordered to God's revelation to humankind in Jesus Christ: it is Christ who is the Word of God, as the prologue to John's Gospel puts it. The Word became flesh; it did not become a book: Christ is the Word of God, not the Bible. Lewis, writing to a Mrs. Johnson in 1952 commented:

It is Christ himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is myth (but of course myth specially chosen by God from among countless myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopaedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read with attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.27

Writing to a Mr. Lee Turner in 1958 on the question of inspiration in relation to genre, Lewis went to the heart of the matter by asserting that the main problem is what exactly we mean by saying that something is inspired. He notes how many people in the past believed that ‘the Holy Spirit either just replaced the minds of the authors (like the supposed ‘control’ in automatic writing) or at least dictated to them as to secretaries.28 In this context Lewis cites Paul's comments that, ‘Scripture itself refutes these ideas. St Paul distinguishes between what ‘the Lord’ says and what he says ‘of himself’yet both are ‘scripture’ (1 Corinthians 7:8–10). In addition, much that is now scripture was not written with the sort of audience in mind which it is now exposed to: ‘… in scripture, a mass of human legend, history, moral teaching etc., are taken up and made the vehicle of God's Word. Errors of minor fact are permitted to remain. (Was our Lord himself incapable, qua man, of such errors? Would it be a real human Incarnation if He was?).29

MODES OF REVELATION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

The Bible is, for Lewis, revelatory, though it is not the primary form of God's revelation. This does not deny or repudiate the Bible, or the importance of scripture as inspired and revealed; the Bible has a unique place in the world, especially in relation to human affairs. This sets the priorities, however: the revelation of God is a person, a unique act in history – the Incarnation; this therefore has universal and cosmic implications. As words written, scripture recognises and bears witness to the Incarnation. Scripture becomes the Word through inspired reading; it is essentially self-referential.

It will help us to consider the views of two theologians on how to understand Lewis's categorization of revelation. To this purpose Michael J. Christensen identified six modes of revelation.30 Andrew Walker goes a step further by separating them into two groups: five that are general and incomplete, partial and relative; and a sixth, which is particular and perfect. A fundamental principle to Lewis's understanding of revelation is that there are different modes of God's revealedness, different ways in which God communicates to humankind. Such communication is possible because of the relationship between our reality and the supernatural realm – eternity. The ordering here is taken from Michael J. Christensen's work, C.S. Lewis and Scripture.31

First, the experience of the numinous, God's Holiness: the human capacity to experience awe or fear; but it is also more than these intimations. The numinous is a brush with the holiness of God as Lord, that instils in us a right understanding, a right relationship. It can be argued that there is nothing specifically Christian in such mystical intimations, that they are not restricted to self-confessed Christians. This is precisely the point: they emanate from the universal Christ; they are part of the work of Christ and should not be thought of solely in terms of human religiosity, or denominational/religious boundaries.

Second, the universal ought, or moral responsibility: conscience is a precursor and manifestation of the revelation of God, a universal given. Some people may deny their conscience, smother it and create their own morality – history is replete with individuals who raze whole cities, slaughter millions, and then sleep soundly at night – but there are universal moral laws that can be known by our minds. The universal is defended by Lewis in that, however different morals and ethics are in different cultures and civilizations, ‘they all have a moral sense that we ought to do some things rather than others.32

Third, Sehnsucht: the fleeting, piercing, conscience-troubling stab, that after his conversion Lewis saw had been prompted by the Holy Spirit, an encounter with the divine will, an unnamed desire, that longing for heaven which only God can satisfy. Lewis's conception of Sehnsucht was as a God-given revelation of longing, an unrequited love, a non-rational yearning for ultimate reality, that disappeared as soon as it had stabbed and had disabled him.

Fourth, election, Israel and the Law: God reveals of God's self and simultaneously God's desire and will for humanity, through a chosen people, Israel, and through covenant and law (though Lewis is reticent to talk in terms of election). For Lewis this process of revealing to a chosen group of people is not an end in itself, however; it lays the groundwork, it prepares for a concrete, particular and perfect revelation.

Fifth, good dreams, pagan premonitions of Christ: outside of Israel humanity is not bereft of revelation. Lewis makes much in his theological apologetics and in his analogical-symbolic narratives (Narnia, The Space Trilogy, etc) of premonitions and intimations of Christ to pagan people.33 This of course reflects a deep love Lewis had all his life of such myths – especially those North European in origin. Lewis balances, almost dialectically, the rules and election of the Jews with the pictures infused into the minds of the pagans. Both are modes of imperfect revelation, general and incomplete. Pagan premonitions of Christ's Incarnation and Resurrection relate to the numinous and also to Sehnsucht, but they contain pictures given to the imagination that have generated words/stories/myths, and hence give meaning and direction, whereas Sehnsucht is more an instantaneous encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Sixth, Incarnation, the Word of God revealed: the fullest revelation possible for humanity to comprehend comes with the Incarnation of the universal Christ in human form: Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Man. The revelation of the Incarnation is concrete and real, no nebulous intimation, no law giver – except for the law of love and forgiveness. In a comment that reflects Lewis's understanding of the concrete reality of the Incarnation, Andrew Walker comments that ‘the veil of myth is parted and God steps into the full glare of historical reality, and yet, being God, remains forever veiled and mysterious – always unknown, even in his revealedness.34

A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

Andrew Walker correctly separates the mode of revelation that is the Incarnation as belonging to a different realm – as particular and perfect – from the partial, incomplete and general nature of Lewis's other modes of revelation. These modes exclude scripture, however, and Lewis's respect for the way the natural world reveals God's beauty. We must consider the natural world as part of the general and incomplete modes, but we must invoke a third category for scripture. So:

The Particular and Perfect:

 Christ Incarnate

The General and Particular:

 Scripture

The General and Incomplete:

 Israel, pagan premonitions, ethics, the numinous, Sehnsucht, and the natural world, etc.

In addition there is an implied hierarchy – the general-incomplete is superseded by the particular and perfect. That is, Lewis was wise enough not to deny the ongoing validity of the revelation to and election of the Jews, even if he seldom mentions it. If we are to integrate scripture into these modes and look at them hierarchically, therefore, we must elevate the Incarnation and place it as the final and fullest revelation. Scripture is ambiguous, because on the one hand it is a human product; it is divinely inspired, however; it lays witness to revelation, but is not the Word of God (Christ). Yet for Lewis it becomes the Word of God when read by a baptized imagination: Christ is in and with the reader. We must therefore take Lewis's understanding of revelation beyond what Christensen and Walker have identified, and acknowledge – from Lewis's writings – three levels, three hierarchies, of revelation in Lewis's theology and apologetics. Primarily there is the full self-revelation of God in Christ Incarnate, remembering that the second (scripture, the general and particular) and third (general and incomplete intimations) issue from and bear witness to Christ, whether explicitly or implicitly.

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Why elevate scripture above the general modes of revelation, but hierarchically below the Incarnation? As Lewis asserted when writing to Mrs Johnson in 1952 ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to him.35 Writing to Clyde Kilby in 1959, Lewis, commenting on whether or not a passage of scripture was historical or not, asserted that ‘it would still act on me as the word of God if it weren’t, so far as I can see. All holy scripture is written for our learning.36 In this context Lewis sees scripture as subjective and relative to the action of the comforter, the advocate of truth (John 14:16–17 and 26). Hence the comparative position of the general and particular (scripture) just below the particular and perfect (Christ) – in the table above.

Within the five modes of general and incomplete revelation, we must add a sixth – the natural world, creation itself, which for Lewis imparts knowledge that there is a creator God; but more than that, the sense of the numinous and Sehnsucht is often related to and triggered by the beauty inherent in creation that sings of the glory of God. Of these six modes of general and incomplete revelation, we must surely rank them in relation to the Incarnation (as in the table above, the left column). Therefore, we must rank first (A) the election of Israel and the revelation to the Jews as superior to the other general modes – simply because they were the preparation for the Incarnation, and Jesus the Jew was from the chosen people of God. We may rank next (B) the pagan premonitions of Christ's Incarnation, cross and resurrection because, though not concrete and particular, these intimations communicate, to a degree, what is at the heart of revelation, even though many of these visions–myths were misinterpreted. The next three are in the form of general religious modes that impart little in the way of explicit knowledge directly related to the Incarnation, but have the ability to move the creature towards God: (Ci), the sense of a universal moral impulse; (Cii), the experience of the numinous, and (Ciii) Sehnsucht. These are then followed by (D) the natural world, because the sense of the numinous and Sehnsucht is prior to the perception of God as creator; indeed without the numinous and Sehnsucht it is possible to conclude that creation is an accident, that there is no God: the natural world can lead to atheism as much as theism. These general and incomplete modes may convince people that there is a God, that there are demands on them, and these modes are important in moving people towards the love of Christ; but equally they may not. They are relatively minor modes of revelation compared to the others.

MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

How do these modes of revelation come together for Lewis? In Mere Christianity, he comments about humanity's perception of such intimations as were available though the numinous or Sehnsucht, but also of humanity's failure to turn to God:

And what did God do? First of all he left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong: and all through history there have been people trying (some of them very hard) to obey it. None of them ever quite succeeded. Secondly, he sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men. Thirdly, he selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God he was – that there was only one of him and that he cared about right conduct. Those people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process. Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if he was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says he has always existed. He says he is coming to judge the world at the end of time.37

According to traditional theological categorization some of the modes listed above would not be regarded as revelation. Not so. According to Lewis some may be stronger, more temporal and actual, than others, but they are still revealings from God (the sense of the numinous is less concrete than the Incarnation but has its place in God's plan of salvation, and through the numinous God reveals intimations, engendering fear and awe in the presence of holiness). Lewis's understanding of revelation is not confined to conventional ‘modern’ theological categories: his understanding is in effect supra-theological – that is, supra-theological modes grounded in God's unknowable aseity. Most professional theologians will argue that Lewis did not have a systematic doctrine of revelation. It can be argued that no theologian has ever managed to produce a fully worked out and tightly contained doctrine of revelation – for if they did, it would exclude God's freedom to act in the world and towards humanity as God saw fit. For Lewis these modes of revelation are not comprehensive or exclusive. In effect, the general and incomplete modes are all related to and manifestations of the particular and perfect, because they all emanate from God in Christ: the, to our perceptions, nebulous becomes the concrete and particular. Therefore all revelation perceivable by humanity comes from Christ. If we exclude the numinous, Sehnsucht, pagan dreams/myths, we exclude the work of God in Christ speaking in a hidden mode, through a veil, to humanity.

A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

Lewis shares an understanding that the Christian faith was essentially supernatural or preternatural with many, but not all, ‘modern’ theologians and philosophers, but where he departs from them is in the relation between these two realities: for Lewis we are not closed-off from eternity. Lewis's teleologically conceived Christology is clearly framed in such terms, for Christ is not Christ because of a value we accord him, he is not the product of human status. Christ is fully human but equally more than human: ontologically he is of the Trinity and therefore God incarnate – God descending, entering into our reality in human form to raise us up. Therefore revelation proceeds eschatologically, from eternity and into our reality; this is primarily in the form of the Incarnation, but secondarily in the modes of general and incomplete revelation. Reality, for Lewis, was simply a veil through which we might glimpse the source of this greater reality: eternity, heaven. But this is on God's terms and proceeds from eternity, drawing our gaze back to eternity. Eternity initiates, the grace of God initiates, always: the fall means we can initiate none of this for ourselves, we cannot (in the Augustinian anti-Pelagian sense for Lewis) pull ourselves up by our boot laces. And that greater reality will affect us, press on us, and influence us: grace draws us up. This other reality is at the heart of Lewis's Platonic Idealism. But how does he see the two realities relating? And where is scripture in this?

Lewis is at his most philosophically theological in invoking the concept of transposition to explain how revelation operates, how God communicates and mediates truth and God's salvific intentions to us through these various modes – from the general and incomplete to the particular and perfect. A doctrine of transposition is set out in a paper given initially at Mansfield College, Oxford, and first published in 1949.38 Transposition is inevitably framed in Platonic terms. Lewis, like Berkeley and other Idealists and Platonists, saw that we can only understand the world around us through its relationship to a higher spiritual reality. The key words here are higher, superior, and richer; but this is not to denigrate the inherent biblically-asserted goodness of creation. Intimations of the higher realm – eternity – will inevitably be translated, transposed – hence Lewis's term. But transposed revelation is more than a mere dilution, more than a watered-down version of the real thing. Revelation will give us intimations; the imagination then will conjure up images that help explain and draw us up to where we should be: eternity. The Bible, particularly the New Testament and specifically the parables of Jesus, are therefore couched in allegorical, symbolic – transpositional – language; more pertinently they are for Lewis analogical. There is no one-to-one correlation because this is simply not possible, in the same way that lines drawn on paper are a diminution of a solid object because they cannot be the real thing: they represent for us a fluid three-dimensional reality in an artificial two-dimensionality. Lewis cites many examples in his essay entitled ‘Transposition’ to explain this. He gives us the idea of a drawing, also the complexity of a composition for full orchestra in the form of musical notation (especially a piece for full orchestra rescored on paper for a piano alone). In The Last Battle, in The Chronicles of Narnia, he waxed Platonic and Berkeleyian. After the apocalyptically-charged end of the world in Narnia, Digory, having died and been raised in eternity, comments that:

‘Of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.’ His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath ‘It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!’, the older ones laughed.39

In the same book Lewis explains further by using an image, a picture, –

You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a mirror. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different – deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.40

These two realities are intimately connected and inform each other; but our reality will be drawn up into the spiritual, eternal, realm, and will be subsumed. Lewis establishes two principles for the relationship between the higher realm and the lower: first, that the lower can only be understood in terms of the higher (a proposition essentially from Berkeley); second, that the word symbolism is inadequate to explain the relationship between the higher and lower realms, the transposition of the higher into the lower. Analogy is a better term.

The problem that Lewis identifies is that we are forced to resort to images and concepts from this world to explain the world to come, the truly real world: in the case of the drawing analogy, Lewis comments that all images of this world, which are three-dimensional, solid, ever shifting, are offered as two-dimensional shapes recognisable as belonging to a drawn world. Sceptics could therefore doubt the existence of a three-dimensional world in much the same way that flat-earthers refused to believe the world was round: ‘your vaunted other world, so far from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements from this one’, writes Lewis.41 This is the problem with transposition when applied to revelation. In The Silver Chair, in The Chronicles of Narnia, he presents such scepticism in analogical-symbolic narrative. Jill and Eustace are trapped deep underground amongst people who have always lived there, people who have never seen the sun or the sky. A witch has ensnared them along with Prince Rilian whom they have come to rescue. The witch beguiles them with sweet music, perfume and charms in an attempt to convince them that the world above, with the sky and the sun, does not exist. Prince Rilian, fighting off the soporific effects of the magic, tries to explain that the sun is real; he likens it to a lamp, only greater, much greater, that it hangs in the sky. The witch answers:

‘Hangeth from what, my lord?’ asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: ‘You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children's story.’42

When Jill and Eustace try to explain who Aslan is, her argument and logic is the same – they say he is like a cat because he is just a large cat in their imaginations –

The Witch shook her head. ‘I see,’ she said, ‘that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it's to be called a lion. Well, ‘tis a pretty make believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world.’43

They are almost beguiled by the witch's arguments because she is inverting all that they know to conform to her own personal kingdom, which is her own personal hell. This is reminiscent of the arguments of sceptics who turn around the images that have been transposed by the will of God from eternity, transposed into our minds, the sceptics then claim they are imaginings from below (i.e. of human generation), not from above (from God).

There will inevitably be a diminution. This is why Lewis invokes the term transposition. Can we see an example of this independent of Lewis? If scripture by witnessing to revelation is more than revelation, what do we find? In the Acts of the Apostles Peter has a vision of something like a large sheet being lowered by its four corners; in it were all kinds of creatures, reptiles and birds. Peter is commanded to get up, kill and eat. This happens three times. Only when Peter receives a visit from three men whom the Spirit commands him to go with does the vision make sense. Peter had been on the roof, famished, dozing off. His vision is in the imagery of this world, affected by his hunger. The vision was really a reassurance and a command to go with the men and convert the gentile Centurion who had sent the men. Peter therefore exclaims –

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all (Acts 10:34b–36)

The image Peter has in his vision is therefore a transposition, a translated diminution, effected by his fatigue and his hunger; only in the context of the visit of the Centurion's men shortly after the vision does it make sense: preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, baptize them, not only the Jews. As intimations of Christ such prophetic dream visions relate to the numinous and to Sehnsucht, and are to be seen as part of the general and incomplete modes of revelation. Such transposed visions have occurred throughout history, and continue to occur today, but they may not always be part of a divine commissioning. They may instead be part of the dynamics of the eschatological relationship between the two realities, the persistent and consistent consubstantial illumination.

INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

Transposition does not only occur as revelation between eternity and the human mind; Lewis is not a Gnostic dualist, he does not believe the world of matter is evil and to be repudiated; no, transposition occurs between spirit and nature, and, importantly for our salvation, between God and humanity. Here the mediation of Christ is essential.

I am not going to maintain that what I call Transposition is the only possible mode whereby a poorer medium can respond to a richer: but I claim that it is very hard to imagine any other. It is therefore, at the very least, not improbable that Transposition occurs whenever the higher reproduces itself in the lower.44

The lower, because of its diminution, can therefore exist with meaning only in relation to the higher. But what is this meaning? It is sacramental. Lewis explains how the sun and sunlight in a picture only make sense as signs because the real sun shines on them; in the context of the real sun the picture makes sense:

It is a sign, but also something more than a sign: and only a sign because it is also more than a sign, because in it the thing signified is really in a certain mode present. If I had to name the relation I should call it not symbolical but sacramental.45

So through transposition the spiritual can be known within the natural world as sacrament. Symbolism and allegory may help, but they are subject to the problem cited above – symbols and allegory borrow their elements from this world. By contrast, a sacrament as a thing of mysterious or sacred significance is on one level a religious symbol; the symbol or sign is sacramental because it is the real participation between the two realms, the higher and lower, but emanating from the higher to draw up the lower. On another level it is the reflection in the shadows of eternity. As signs, they are sacramental because they are in reality the coinherence, the participation, of the natural and supra-natural realms: this participation makes of them something more than signs or symbols. The revelation is changed, transposed, within the sacrament: there is something in the here and now which was not in the here and now before. If grace is the action of God imparting a mysterious communion with God though Christ, the signs/images intimated through this general revelation are the mode whereby grace draws us up. These revelatory signs are as sacramental as Baptism and the Eucharist, because they are an outward sign from Christ conveying an inward grace imparting salvific knowledge, though Lewis probably would have placed them hierarchically. Lewis held to a high doctrine of the Eucharist, that it is also experiential: it is the highest form of this spiritual drawing-up, the transformation of the material into the eternal. Therefore he subscribed to a doctrine of transubstantiation, which we can see influenced his doctrine of transposition; however, he was also critical of traditional Thomist transubstantiation because it made what was happening too concrete and too objective within this reality. Transposition must be viewed with a degree of apophatic space between the two realms. For Lewis the material world is too insubstantial; it is a diminution of the spiritual world but is not thereby debased or repudiated dualistically. What is more, eternity is not thin and ethereal, wisp-like: rather it is more real, tangible, supra-real, as in the Book of Revelation. Through Christ's Incarnation, this reality is drawn up into eternity, or begins to be drawn up following Christ's Resurrection. This is at the heart of the Incarnation: the spiritual in the form of Christ, the Logos, descends to rise again, to draw humanity into eternity, a humanity rendered insubstantial through sin. Transposition is therefore at its most profound, at its most complete and highest in the Incarnation. Andrew Walker comments, ‘Transposition of nature into higher reality works not by bringing the higher down to earth, as it were, but by allowing spiritual life to draw nature into itself.46 Walker goes on to note how Lewis invokes the Athanasian Creed whereby the Incarnation worked not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God. Athanasius in his treatise on the Incarnation, echoing Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, states this explicitly, that God became man so we might become God:

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He himself was unhurt by this, for he is impassable and incorruptible; but by his own impassability he kept and healed the suffering men on whose account he thus endured.47

Lewis also notes this:

I venture to suggest, though with great doubt and in the most provisional way, that the concept of Transposition may have some contribution to make to the theology – or at least to the philosophy – of the Incarnation. For we are told in one of the creeds that the Incarnation worked not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God. And it seems to me that there is a real analogy between this and what I have called Transposition: that humanity, still remaining itself, is not merely counted as, but veritably drawn into, Deity.48

As God is incorruptible and immortal, the Incarnation is therefore essential for atonement, a uniting of God with humanity whereby we are drawn into God through God's graceful action in Christ. The Incarnation is the most concrete and complete, the most particular form of God's self-revelation. In relation to Lewis's doctrine of transposition we may ask, Is the Incarnation a transpositional diminution? Well, cautiously, we must answer yes, for three reasons:

First, because of the communicatio idiomatum: within an attempt to account for the relationship between the divine and human natures in the one person, Christ Jesus, how do the properties of the Word of God and the human nature coexist? That God is love, further that God is Trinitarian, transcendent, eternal, uncreated, omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent is given us, to a degree, through revelation, that when we see Jesus we see God; but is God more than Jesus because God is triune? What is revealed is therefore mediated through Jesus Christ – but not everything of God is communicated in Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation we have a transposition into human flesh of the second person of the Trinity: God divested God's-self of some of his attributes. Jesus of Nazareth was not all-powerful, all-knowing or simultaneously everywhere because he was human. This was a diminution, but was voluntarily enacted by God out of love for humanity, not out of any need or weakness in God. Jesus was the humble servant, lowly, submitting himself to his destiny: therefore the communication of attributes is characterised by restraint and self-denial by God (we see this in particular in the figure of the Aslan-Christ). In terms of the communicatio idiomatum there is a self-emptying, a restraint of the divine attributes, for the sake of the Incarnation (Philippians 2:5–8); this restraint leads to a degree of transposition.

Second, veiling-unveiling, the knowability of God: all revealings are in some form a veiling. Many writers including Andrew Walker note this in Lewis's work. Colin Gunton summarizes this well from Karl Barth's work:

The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God. God the Father represents the limits of this. The Holy Spirit imparts this to human beings: veiling–unveiling, knowability-unknowability, revelation-hiddenness. God is revealed but at the same time he is a hidden God. Even as he reveals himself he is hidden … as he reveals himself he is hidden. After all, when you see Jesus Christ it is a hidden God, it is not obviously God is it, it's just a man wandering around teaching. God is hidden and unless the Spirit reveals him then he remains hidden. God is revealed but also remains in himself unknowable. In the end you have only got paradox. For example, Irenaeus says that the impassable becomes passable, the eternal becomes temporal.49

This is so even within relations between people: however long we live with and know someone there will always be something of them we don't know, and how that person chooses to reveal themselves to us is personal and subjective, and our perception of them may vary. There will always be something unknown; we can never fully ‘know’ another person; we can never fully know eternity even in its transposed diminution.

Third, human fallibility: a misreading of the transposition. All ideas transposed from eternity will inevitably be framed in concepts, imaginings, and reasonings from our experience. How is it possible to explain frost, ice and snow to children living in equatorial Africa? It is not really possible without transposing the idea into language and concepts the children will be familiar with. In science fiction films and programmes (which Lewis would surely have enjoyed), aliens which are supposed to be beyond our imagining and different from any thing we perceive of reality in our world are always presented in terms of reference from what we perceive of reality in our world: therefore they are not truly alien, for they are only imaginings constructed from what we perceive. But are they intimations of the possibility of the truly alien, of the wonders of creation? They should be.

Applied to revelation this merely confirms our human epistemic limitation. For example, in the essay ‘Transposition’ Lewis uses a picture, a story, to explain our flawed perception of transposition. He imagines a woman incarcerated in a dungeon who gives birth to a son; she raises this child as best she can, but the son can never see the outside world. The mother draws pictures – pencil lines on paper – good pictures, artistic representations, to try to explain the real world outside to her son. However, there comes a point where the transposition of the real countryside, sky, sun, and world, fails, because of the limits in the son's perception and the concepts he uses in his mind. The son appears to be getting on well with his education until he says something that causes his mother to realize she has failed:

Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception.

‘But’, she gasps, ‘you didn't think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?’

‘What?’ says the boy, ‘No pencil-marks there?’

And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it. He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition – the waving tree-tops, the light dancing on the weir, the coloured three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shapes at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve.50

In Lewis's story the child is convinced that the outside world is therefore less than the visible world of the prison cell in which they are incarcerated. The real world is without ‘lines’ because it is more visible, more real, but the child, like all of us humans, falls for the realism of the pictures, the drawn lines, and takes it for all there is (which in psychological terms is idolatrous, if we try to root our ideas about God utterly in this world).

The passable and finite, the temporality of the Incarnation with all the suffering involved, is in a sense a diminution, yes, voluntarily taken on by God, but it is nonetheless a transposition: primarily on the Cross, but then in the work of the Holy Spirit drawing us upwards and onwards through intimations transposed. At his most profound and Platonic Lewis commented in a sermon given in St Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford on Sunday 8th June 1941,

We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.51

The New Testament specifically, the Bible generally, becomes revelation when we read it, though a baptized imagination is paramount here; thereby the New Testament becomes sacramental in revelatory terms when we read it. The divine light illuminates: there are intimations, transpositions, from eternity in our perception of the freshness and purity of morning, we perceive but cannot fully be with the splendours we perceive. The New Testament is crucial here and is therefore superior to the general revelation, the numinous, Sehnsucht, et al, for within its pages there is the rumour, as Lewis terms it, more pertinently the promise, that we shall get in, we will be fully drawn into eternity.

THE KEY

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

What value is there to a doctrine of transposition? Transposition lies at the heart of Lewis's understanding of revelation and is the key to his theology and apologetics: it permeates all of his work, theological, philosophical, literary and apologetic, even the analogical-symbolic narratives. Whether conceiving of revelation in transpositional modes, or in being inspired to write analogically on the Christ, Lewis's work is like the Bible, an untidy and leaky vehicle, perhaps intentionally unsystematic, the object of fragmented, refracted consubstantial light. Lewis saw his role as reasserting a mere orthodox core, developed through the Patristic era. There was therefore a core of belief and faith that existed outside of human perception; doctrine was not humanely created – truth was revealed and given. This is to evoke a Platonic otherness: eternally created truth that we can perceive, truth we can realize the veracity of with the human faculty of reason and whose meaning we can intimate through the imagination. This is Lewis's Idealism: ideas are truer than the reality of the shadowlands. Transposition allows us to glean intimations of eternity and God's loving purposes for us, but we will invariably get it wrong: we will misconstrue what is being revealed. Our human sinful desires and needs will get in the way. Peter's hunger affected the vision of the vocation to extend the Gospel to Gentiles; the boy in Lewis' story wants to hold on to the idea of drawn lines rather than use his imagination to intimate what the real world is like. It is always possible to regard these revelatory intimations as nothing more than something of this world, because they are transposed in the language and concepts of this world. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in The Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace is in conversation with a resting star, who in appearance has the verisimilitude of a human being; he foolishly gets into conversation about what a star is in our reality:

‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’

‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’52

Therefore what lies behind all reality is more than we perceive of reality. What we perceive is a transposition; reductionalist, nominalistic, scientific concepts will only tell us what things are made of, not what they are. What is important, therefore, is what Jesus Christ is, not only what we take him to be: Lewis's Christology is rooted in ontology, not status.

A doctrine of transposition, transposed eternal truth, will inevitably be an inadequate doctrine of how revelation is mediated/communicated to humanity: if we truly understand what Lewis is asserting then the doctrine itself will be inadequate because the idea of the doctrine comes from eternity and is transposed for our understanding, but will inevitably be incomplete, a diminution, a translation. It is not incomplete in eternity but it is in our perception. Lewis's understanding was profound; he knew that our knowledge and understanding would be incomplete this side of eternity. A doctrine of transposition asserts this to be so, even as the doctrine of transposition itself is flawed and incomplete, inadequate and partial: our heavenward gaze must in humility be characterized by a degree of apophatic agnosticism with regard to the human ability to know; but neither is it impossible for us to know, to accept something of God's revealedness.

A ‘flawed’ doctrine of transposition therefore applies to Lewis's understanding of scripture. This is why there are no hard-and-fast systematic propositional truths in every passage of scripture. The Bible was for Lewis, as we saw, an untidy and leaky vehicle; transpositional diminution meant we do not have the absolute truth systematically presented from an unrefracted light which we could contain or quantify in an encyclopaedic fashion. In a late work, Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis notes how there is nothing self-evident; our hold on revelation is precarious, as through the Incarnation we are drawn into God's eternity:

Because the lower nature, in being taken up and loaded with a new burden and advanced to a new privilege remains, and is not annihilated, it will always be possible to ignore the up-grading and see nothing but the lower. Thus men can read the life of Our Lord (because it is a human life) as nothing but a human life. Many, perhaps most, modern philosophies read human life merely as an animal life of unusual complexity. The Cartesians read animal life as mechanism. Just in the same way scripture can be read as merely human literature. No new discovery, no new method, will ever give a final victory to either interpretation.53

What scripture gives us, albeit dimmed through transposition, is a certain insight, how to get the focus right. We can ignore that focus, that insight; we can concentrate only on the lower level. Peter could have interpreted his vision in Acts as a license to hold a feast, a party, for the other disciples and apostles, with no dietary laws or limitations. But he did not, and was not meant to. Lewis asserts therefore that the Old Testament as literature is taken up to be the medium of something more than the merely human; can we set any limit beforehand to the multiplicity or gravity of meaning that is laid upon it by God?

CONCLUSION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PLATONIC IDEALISM
  5. REASON AND IMAGINATION
  6. A PROTO DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
  7. THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF GOD
  8. MODES OF REVELATION
  9. A HIERARCHY OF REVELATION
  10. MODES OF REVELATION AS SUPRA-THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
  11. A DOCTRINE OF TRANSPOSITION
  12. INCARNATIONAL TRANSPOSITION
  13. THE KEY
  14. CONCLUSION

An intentionally ‘flawed’ doctrine of transposition, itself platonically transposed, is formulated to explain how revelation works, how revelation is communicated, and, paradoxically, how revelation is never fully imparted; this we conclude relates to the communicatio idiomatum, Trinitarian ontology, and human epistemic limitation. This transpositional key applies to how God is revealed, how revelation is modalistic, but it also illustrates how Lewis's mind was illuminated and inspired to write, to construct his apologetics and his stories. It could be argued that there is an element of circularity of argument here: that claiming the flaw at the heart of transposition simply covers a badly worked out philosophy. Not so. There is also the ‘virtuous’ circle of consistency, and the deeper criterion of completeness or adequacy to the data. We are the object, not the subject; God is the verb. God initiates, God is the source and origin, the author of all revelation, and thus sets the terms; Moses knew it was impossible to approach God face to face in this world because of our fallen nature. The triune consubstantial light, though refracted through the shadows of this world, allows us to perceive reality along with the supra-real; it is inevitable that revelation will be communicated in diminuted, translated, transposed modes. Reason is at the heart of this doctrine for Lewis, but he knows its limits: reason is not simply an abstract faculty presiding over an indeterminate field, analyzing at its will. We are not God; nor is our kingdom of reason God.

We may surmise there is a greater degree of transposition in the general and incomplete modes of revelation than in the concrete and complete, but diminution and transposition there will be, and there will be a multiplicity of interpretations by humanity because of the freedom given to creation. There will therefore be a translation more than a dilution. Ironically the more concrete revelation is (i.e. the Incarnation), the greater the risk of misinterpretation; but this is balanced by the perfection of the incarnate Christ as the fullest self-revelation. The balance that Lewis held to between the freedom of God to inspire yet allow creation to be, whilst intimating to humanity the truth of eternity as our final home, built on and from the mediation of Christ, is what lies at the heart of his doctrine of transposition, which in turn makes sense of his understanding of scripture, revelation and reason: this balance between aseity and creation moves all the modes of revelation in Lewis's work teleologically towards the final and full revelation in the Incarnation, and eventually in the parousia. This movement is dialectical, but a supplementary dialectic, because creation will be subsumed into eternity. In conclusion, what value is there to Lewis's doctrine of transposition? Does it cohere with his understanding of scripture and revelation? Yes, but if it is deemed inadequate and flawed, this is because only in eternity will we know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13).

Footnotes
  1. 1 The word modern is often confusing in its multiple meanings and uses; the word liberal may often be seen as contentious or problematic, often it appears to generate an emotional response, may be considered pejorative and may also be invoked in an equally subjective manner. Lewis's disillusionment with ‘modernism’ and theological ‘liberalism’ was similar in many ways to that of the young Karl Barth. All subsequent uses of ‘modern’ and ‘liberal’ will be in inverted commas to signify Lewis's use.

  2. 2 C.S. Lewis, ‘Transposition’, an essay first given as a sermon in Mansfield College, Oxford, on Whit-Sunday – no year is recorded – then published in, Transposition and other Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949), pp. 9–20. A second, expanded, edition was published in, C.S. Lewis, They asked for a Paper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), pp. 166–182. All subsequent references are to this second edition.

  3. 3 For Lewis's comments on scepticism and the objectivity of truth see, C.S. Lewis, ‘De Futilitae’, in, Christian Reflections (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1967), pp. 57–71, specifically pp. 60–63. Also see, C.S. Lewis, ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’, in, Christian Reflections (1967), pp. 72–81.

  4. 4 See, C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1955), Chp. 13, specifically pp. 206–208, quotation, p. 207. Along with Owen Barfield and J.R.R Tolkien Lewis would then raise the question of why did a particular thought system cease to be fashionable, and whether it was ever refuted, and if so, how. See also, C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), Chp. 7; also, the first volume of the space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (London: Bodley Head, 1938), where the anti-heroes, Devine and Weston, assume all ideas that have gone before are inferior and flawed, even in relation to alien species on another planet.

  5. 5 James Patrick, ‘C.S. Lewis and Idealism’, in, Rumours of Heaven: Essays in Celebration of C.S. Lewis (Guildford: Eagle Press, 1998), pp. 156–173, quotation, p. 160.

  6. 6 James Patrick, ‘C.S. Lewis and Idealism’ (1998), p. 161.

  7. 7 That Jesus was either mad, bad or who he said he was, who he revealed himself to be: God incarnate. See, C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), see Bk. 2 Chp. 3. This is sometimes referred to as Lewis's triumvirate, that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar or Lord.

  8. 8 Samuel Alexander, Space, Time and Deity – The Gifford Lectures 1910–1918 Volumes I and II (London : Macmillan, 1920). Lewis makes much of this theory in Surprised by Joy (1955), how it was something of a watershed, a eureka moment, which allowed him to see how he had taken intimations from the Holy Spirit as objects in themselves, therefore responding idolatrously.

  9. 9 Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, revelation and Platonism in C.S. Lewis’, in, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 55.1 (February 2002), pp. 19–35. See specifically, p. 27.

  10. 10 Saint Augustine' Confessions (trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World's Classics; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). See, Bk. IV.xv (25), pp. 67–68; Bk. V.vi (10), pp. 77–78; Bk. X.ii (2), p. 179; Bk. X.xl (65), pp. 217–218; Bk. XII.xxv (35), p. 265.

  11. 11 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1958), p. 96.

  12. 12 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), p. 96.

  13. 13 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), pp. 97 & 100.

  14. 14 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), p. 102–103.

  15. 15 See: C.S. Lewis, ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism’, paper read at Westcott House, Cambridge, 11th May 1959; in Christian Reflections (ed. Walter Hooper; London: Geoffrey Bles, 1967), pp. 152–166. (N.b. in later volumes of essays the title of this paper is changed to ‘Fern-Seed & Elephants’.)

  16. 16 Michael J. Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980), pp. 34–35. Christensen is quoting from C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Centenary Press, 1940), p.68; and Clyde S. Kilby, The Christian World of C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. William B. Eerdmans, 1964), p.153.

  17. 17 Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, revelation and Platonism in C.S. Lewis’ (2002), pp 19.

  18. 18 Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture (1980), pp. 94–95.

  19. 19 Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture (1980), p. 94.

  20. 20 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), pp. 94–95.

  21. 21 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), p. 96.

  22. 22 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis to Clyde S. Kilby 7th May 1959’, in, C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Vol. III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950–1963 (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 2007), pp. 1046.

  23. 23 Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, revelation and Platonism in C.S. Lewis’ (2002), pp 23.

  24. 24 I have dealt with the question of Lewis's profound respect for Pagan myths as revelation in depth elsewhere: see P.H. Brazier, ‘C.S. Lewis & Christological Prefigurement’, in The Heythrop Journal, vol. 48 no. 5, (September 2007), pp. 742–775, which in many ways complements this article.

  25. 25 P.H. Brazier, ‘C.S. Lewis & Christological Prefigurement’ (2007), pp. 761 and 770.

  26. 26 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis to Clyde S. Kilby 7th May 1959’, in, Collected Letters, Vol. III (2007), p. 1045.

  27. 27 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis to Mrs Johnson 8th November 1952’, in, Collected Letters, Vol. III (2007), pp. 245–248, quotation, p. 246.

  28. 28 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis to Lee Turner 19 July 1958’, in, Collected Letters, Vol. III (2007), p. 960.

  29. 29 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis to Lee Turner 19 July 1958’, in, Collected Letters, Vol. III (2007), pp. 960–961.

  30. 30 See: Michael J. Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture (1980); and Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, revelation and Platonism in C.S. Lewis’ (2002).

  31. 31 Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture (1980), pp. 68–77.

  32. 32 Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, revelation and Platonism in C.S. Lewis’ (2002), p. 31, referring to C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940), pp. 4–13, specifically p. 10; and C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), Bk. 1, Chp. 1, pp. 3–9.

  33. 33 P.H. Brazier, ‘C.S. Lewis & Christological Prefigurement’ (2007), pp. 745–52.

  34. 34 Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, revelation and Platonism in C.S. Lewis’ (2002), p. 30.

  35. 35 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis to Mrs Johnson 8th November 1952’, in, Collected Letters, Vol. III (2007), pp. 245–248, quotation, p. 246.

  36. 36 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis to Clyde S. Kilby 7th May 1959’Collected Letters, Vol. III (2007), pp. 1044–1045.

  37. 37 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), Bk. 2, Chp. 3, pp. 50–51.

  38. 38 C.S. Lewis, ‘Transposition’ (1962), pp. 166–182.

  39. 39 C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956), p159–160.

  40. 40 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (1956), p160.

  41. 41 C.S. Lewis, ‘Transposition’ (1962), p. 172.

  42. 42 C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953), p142–143.

  43. 43 C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (1953), p142–143.

  44. 44 C.S. Lewis, ‘Transposition’ (1962), p. 173.

  45. 45 C.S. Lewis, ‘Transposition’ (1962), p. 173.

  46. 46 Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, Revelation and Platonism in C.S. Lewis’ (2002), p. 29.

  47. 47 St. Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word. Being the Treatise of St Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (trans. Sr Penelope CSMV, intro. C.S. Lewis; London: Geoffrey Bles, The Centenary Press, 1944), Chp. 8, §. 54, p. 93.

  48. 48 C.S. Lewis, ‘Transposition’ (1962), p. 178.

  49. 49 Colin Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited, P. H. Brazier; foreword Christoph Schwöbel, introduction Stephen R. Holmes; London: T&T Clark, Continuum, 2007), p. 80.

  50. 50 C.S. Lewis, ‘Transposition’ (1962), p. 180.

  51. 51 C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’, first published in, Transposition and other Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949), pp. 21–33. Republished in They Asked for a Paper (1962), pp. 208–209, and subsequent volumes.

  52. 52 C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1952), p. 159.

  53. 53 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), p. 100.