Thursday, January 19, 2006

C. S. Lewis, the Gospel of John, and Boswell's Johnson

Ed Babinski wrote a rather lengthy reply on matters related to the trilemma on the comments line. In fact, it went for 15 pages when I downloaded it onto Word.

Let me begin with his discussion of Lewis's comparison of the Gospel of John with Boswell's Johnson. On the one hand, I am prepared to agree with Babinski that the Boswell comparison is not especially helpful. I think what is right about it is this: A commentator on John had called John a "spiritual romance," which prompted Lewis to ask, famously "How many romances has that man read." He then said that it either had to be the case that the whole thing was reportage on the order of Boswell's Johnson or it someone in the Second Century had to to have invented the modern realistic novel, which was unknown in those times. He was trying to claim that the Gospel is realistic rather than fictional in form, and I think that is correct.

In my own field of philosophy we have an example that I like a lot better, the dialogues of Plato. Now I don't know what Lewis thought in the area of Plato scholarship, but I'm inclined to think that the earliest dialogues represent the historical Socrates, since in these Socrates is mainly asking questions and is not pontificating detailed theories. As we go along, we find more theorizing, and the interlocutors start dropping out of the picture, often saying little more than "Yes, Socrates." When this starts happening, I think Plato has taken over. But even in these cases, there is a historical core. In the Republic, for example, there is a lot of interesting exchange with Thrasymachus and Plato's brothers, and then you get a lot of theorizing.

I think it's a lot easier to defend the claim that there is a historical core in John which has gets expanded than to defend the claim that the whole thing is accurate reportage. (Of course you can believe by faith that it's inerrant, but that's another matter).

What I suspect, however, is that Ed is trying to discredit Lewis because of this inapt comparison, that it goes to show that Lewis really didn't grow up intellectually, etc. And if this is really what is going on here, then I find it simply tiresome. I think Lewis was on the right track in most of what he wrote, I have never denied that he sometimes misfires, and I said "Great thinkers are always the ones that make us think harder for ourselves, not thinkers that do our thinking for us." (CSLDI p. 14).

A lot of people attempt to discredit Lewis by finding something that he said that seems silly to them and harping on it. This is a procedure that I have little patience for. If I were asking people to accept claims on Lewis's authority (Jack said it, I believe it, that settles it) that would be one thing, but I can't see how anybody can think that who has read my writings at all carefully.


Jason Pratt said...

Hey, Vic;

sorry to be leaving you to the wolves for so long. {g} Pain's been very strong the past few weeks, and doesn't look likely to get much better anytime soon. (And 'work' work has to be done when I'm lucid enough to write without spikes being driven through my head. {grimace})

To your reply, I would only add: any claim about Lewis which relies for its strength on completely ignoring his virulent atheism (and consequent reading habits) during his adolescence and young adult-hood (including during his service in the trenches of WWI), pretty much shows the claimer to be out of court from the beginning.

A lot more could be said along that line. e.g., in the essay you quoted, as elsewhere, Lewis demonstrates that he's entirely comfortable accepting scripture being in essence religious _fiction_, and saying so in public; therefore, his acceptance of GosJohn's historicity, in the face of much of the scholarly opinion of his day--which opinion he would have been not only familiar with but in strenuous agreement with, earlier in his life--should _NOT_ be read as being due to mere reverence for the text, or for 'tradition', on his part, much less to mere ignorance about the non-historical arguments.

But I don't really feel up to saying lots more on it right now. {s}

(Fwiw, I liked Craig Blomberg's meticulous survey and analysis of the text, in his _The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel_. He's pretty good about not going beyond what can be legitimately inferred; and he certainly isn't ignorant of oppositional claims, either.)

Edwardtbabinski said...

Vic, you wrote, " historical core." And, "Lewis was on the right track in most of what he wrote."

I suppose next you'll be saying that "most" of the Bible is "inspired." Or it's "core" is inspired.

Certainly not even Paul believed everything he wrote about was equally inspired as he admits in one letter: "Not the Lord by I say..."

Neither did Lewis believe that every verse was equally inerrant/inspired in everything it said about "God's" acts-commands, and preferred the option of errors existing in the Bible than to accepting as truthful any Biblical passages in which God was depicted as commanding egregious actions such as "Joshua's treacheries" {Lewis' term) or "Peter's striking dead a husband and wife" in Acts.

In the end Vic, you're gerrymandering truth and juggling verses. Which isn't bad. In fact it's damn liberal of you. So welcome to the club of doubt. And thanks for helping edit the canon of "inspired" texts. Bout time, since they could use some editing instead of leaving all sorts of nuclear waste lying right next to precious gems.

May your mind continue to be stretched by new data such that it does not return fully to its original dimensions.

In fact I'm only telling you what Lewis's lifelong friend (who converted about the time as Lewis) was telling him in letters they exchanged right up till Lewis's death. I'm speaking of Dom Bede Griffiths. Look up his life and work sometime. (Note: I've read all the Inklings, Chesterton, MacDonald, and Dom too.)

Have you read the New York Review of Books this week (Feb. 9, 2006 issue)? Alison Lurie's article, "The Passion of C. S. Lewis" features some insightful remarks. I'm not saying hateful, just insightful.

Anonymous said...

If Plato made up stuff about Socrates, are you aware of any ancient writers living around the time of Plato who pointed out that Plato strayed from the historical truth?

I'm asking, because one very common response to claims that there are historical mistakes in the New Testament is that there couldn't have been such mistakes because people living back then would have known about them and pointed them out. For example, how could Luke have made up a world wide census, everyone living back in the first century would have known he was lying.

I can't recall any ancient writer pointing out the historical mistakes in Plato's fabrications of Socrates.

Thanks for the heads up on the NYRoB article. It is available for reading online at their website.

Victor Reppert said...

Does inspiration require literal inerrancy? Lewis thought otherwise. I suppose a fundy would say that that means Lewis was comfortable with God as a liar. And for some reason, anti-Christian writers, who wouldn't normally give a nickel for what fundies have to say, are prepared to use the same argument.

Steven Carr said...

Some quotes from Victor's blog :-

' If I were asking people to accept claims on Lewis's authority (Jack said it, I believe it, that settles it) that would be one thing, but I can't see how anybody can think that who has read my writings at all carefully.'

' Why believe that there are these things? We believe it on authority: Christ has told us that this is so.

We believe lots and lots of things on authority; evolution, the solar system, the Norman Conquest, and the Defeat of the Spanish Armada.'

Do I need to comment?

Victor Reppert said...

Yes Steven, you do need to say more. Lewis presents arguments from his claims, and tells you not to believe in Christianity if you best reason tells you the weight of the evidence is against it. He does not ask you to accept his claims because he says so. He is not Jesus Christ, and he does not claim inspiration for his own writings.

Steven Carr said...

All I can do is quote Lewis
' Why believe that there are these things? We believe it on authority: Christ has told us that this is so.'

And a quote from the page you linked to on Ed's site 'To defend orthodoxy, Lewis challenges the authority of New Testament experts, “the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass” of age-old beliefs Lewis is “sceptical about this authority”'

Anonymous said...

"Does inspiration require literal inerrancy? Lewis thought otherwise. I suppose a fundy would say that that means Lewis was comfortable with God as a liar. And for some reason, anti-Christian writers, who wouldn't normally give a nickel for what fundies have to say, are prepared to use the same argument."

This is a very interesting point. Is it legitimate for a non-believer to use the arguments from someone - like an inerrantist - with whom they basically disagree?

I would say yes. Here's why:

1. It would be ad hominem to completely reject any arguments an inerrantist makes simply because he is an inerrantist.

2. There is an element to the inerrantist's position that makes it very attractive: it is a coherent and reasonable philosophical positon. If you posutalet that an all- powerful, all-knowing God wanted to provide a guide book for His believer, He would make sure it was accurate or true.

3. The problem is that, though coherent and reasonable, when applied to the actual book in question, the Bible, it looks quite fallacious. That is because the Bible is rife with error. It also advocates some moral positions which many people find repugnant nowadays: such as the command to kill off every man, woman, child and beast when taking over their land. Or that it is good to bash in the heads of your enemies' babies.

4. It is because of these obvious 'imperfections' in the bible, that many evangelicals have been forced to abandon the inerrantist position. Surely, they would not have done so otherwise!

5.. The problem is that they have taken a philosophical position that looks incoherent and unreasonable to many non-believers: that God wanted to use the bible to impart the truth leading unto salvation, but for some reason He didn't mind if there were a lot of historically and scientifically false statements in that book. Not to mention all the errors that have been documented in the transmission of the text!

Jason Pratt said...

One hopes certain people would remember all this, the next time they feel inclined to write off Lewis' acceptance of GosJohn as historical, on the basis of his (supposed) ignorance of what other people were saying about it and/or his merely religious preference for accepting traditional views. It would be nice to not have to slog through another round of amnesiac Jack-bashing again on this topic, if it ever comes up again, especially from people who claim to be familiar with his texts.

Jason Pratt said...


"Rife with error" and "a lot of historically false statements", is too strong.

K. A. Kitchen, for instance, is hardly a mouth-breathing fundy, but he's quite capable of cross-analyzing OT historical claims with wide-ranging archaelogical and documentary evidence elsewhere, and arriving at a fairly strong and appreciative conclusion of its accuracy. (On grounds perfectly safe for atheistic and/or naturalistic acceptance, too: if I was a religious sceptic, I'd be entirely comfortable using the book to argue _against_ various claims of the miraculous in the texts.)

Colin Hemer (though himself certainly a Christian) has done much the same thing for Acts and the Pauline Epistles (where they make or imply historical claims), in _The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History_: a book which is practically an archetype of careful methodological analysis of documents in conjunction with other data sources (and in communion with scholarly work across the board, regardless of their religious persuasion or lack thereof.) No one who's read that book could seriously claim he reaches his conclusions via religious bias. (Nor Blomberg's _Historical Reliability of John's Gospel_, though his religious beliefs are more evident there.)

It certainly isn't necessary to make overreaching claims about historical inaccuracies, in order to oppose a particular use of inerrancy theory. The actual philosophical claim being opposed here is gnosticism: the notion that salvation depends on getting certain knowledge exactly right. Yes, one would suppose that if salvation actually worked that way, then an omnipotent God Who was interested in 'saving' people would provide something different from what we actually find in the Judeo-Christian canon--_whether or not_ the material is completely accurate as to its historical claims. (e.g., Jesus would be reported as going around teaching people the Athanasian Creed, or whatever--which He obviously isn't doing.)

Aside from opposing Christian gnosticism--which I agree should be opposed--the only other religiously relevant point to affirming or denying the basic accuracy of the texts, has to do with the miracle claims.

On the pro side, one could argue that if the writers demonstrated (where we _can_ check them) that they were interested in reporting history as accurately as possible, and (again where we _can_ check them) we find that they succeed on a regular basis; then it becomes more difficult to dismiss their claims of the miraculous. On the con side, if they were being merely credulous, sloppy, or outright fabricating their data (as an explanation of their inclusion of supernatural incidents), then we'd expect these habits to be reflected in more mundane matters as well. Thus, if we find them doing the same thing in mundane matters, we can more safely dismiss their claims of the miraculous, too.

This kind of tension, and philosophical use of historical claims, generates problems for both sides in disputes.

If I believed such things were impossible, I'd still have a high appreciation of the historical reliability of the texts (in comparison with other ancient texts). I just wouldn't know what to do about the miraculous parts in some cases. (Though other cases would be pretty obvious, cf Kitchen.) But I do believe such things are possible, and I have an idea (entirely independent of scriptural authority) of what I would be expecting God to be doing in history at some time. When I look around, I find these stories (and not others) match my philosophical expectations; and I find, on historical grounds, that they have respectable bona fides against being mere religious fiction. If that opinion changed tomorrow--and it would have to be done against what I _do_ know about the data, though I suppose technically it isn't impossible--I'd still be left with the full philosophical beliefs, and expectations; including expecting a particular kind of story to be enacted in history.

So I'm coming at the topic from a somewhat different direction than the typical route of 'look how accurate they are in these things--so the miracles must therefore be real, too.' Not that there isn't some strength in going the usual route (whether pro, or even potentially con), but I find the temptation to fudge to be greater along that line (con or pro).

Edwardtbabinski said...


Besides missing the point that the ability of someone to tell a convincing sounding legend or story does not make that story true, Lewis fails to notice that “the spiritual gospel” contradicts the Synoptics in numerous ways:

(1) Jesus does not tell a single parable in the entire Gospel of John. But according to the earlier three Gospels Jesus spoke to the people in parable upon parable. Also compare the earlier Gospel of Luke that mentions a parable about “Lazarus, a poor begger” who dies and goes to Abraham’s bosom and a rich man suffering in Hades begs that Lazarus be raised from the death and sent back to warn others but this Lazarus is not allowed to go because “they won’t believe even if someone is raised from the dead.” Compare that parable about a begger named Lazarus who does not return from the dead with the later version in the Gospel of John about a real person named “Lazarus,” who is not a begger this time, but himself a wealthy man who IS raised from the dead in a spectacular miracle at the end of Gospel of John that is found nowhere in the previous Gospels. The author of the Gospel of John even moves the “turning-of-the-tables-in-the-Temple” episode to the beginning of his new Gospel, to make room for his new story about the “raising of Lazarus” at its end, and to suggest that it was this new miracle that made the Pharisees determined to get rid of Jesus instead of the “turning of tables” episode as told in the earlier three Gospels.—E.T.B.

(2) Whereas the account of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9 (cf. 1:4 and 10:18) leaves open the suspicion that John was greater than Jesus and that Jesus was sinful, John 1:29-34 and 3:26 eliminate these suspicions.

(3) Matthew 11:2-6 and Luke 7:18-23 agree that John the Baptist wavers in faith in Jesus as Messiah; but according to the Fourth Gospel (1:16, 29-34 and 3:27-30) John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as Messiah from first to last--even calling him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

(4) According to the Synoptics, Jesus began his ministry only after John the Baptist had been imprisoned (Matthew 4:12, Mark 1:14, Luke 3:18-20), whereas according to the Fourth Gospel their ministries overlapped (3:22-30; 4:1-2), John the Baptist was not yet in prison when Jesus’ ministry began.

(5) According to Matthew 11:14, 17:13, and Mark 9:13, John the Baptist is Elijah, whereas John 1:21 denies this identification.

(6) In the Synoptics, Jesus visits Jerusalem only once, for a week, at the end of his life (Matthew 21-27, Mark 11-15, Luke 19-23), whereas in John Jesus makes four visits to Jerusalem (2:13, 5:1, 7114, 12:12), the last one being a stay of some six months up to his crucifixion. Thus in the Synoptics the main scene of Jesus’ ministry is in Galilee, whereas in John the main scene is in Judea and Jerusalem, with only occasional withdrawals to Galilee (John 2:1-12, 4:35-5:1, 6:1-7:14).

(7) According to Matthew (15:21-29, 16:13-20) and Mark (7:24-31, 8:27-30) Jesus makes two journeys to the North (Tyre and Sidon, and Caesarea-Philippi), whereas in Luke and John he makes no northern excursions.

(8) In the Synoptics there is only one Passover (Matthew 26:1; Mark 14:1; Luke 22:1), giving Jesus a ministry of about one year, whereas in John there are three, possibly four, Passovers (2:13; 5:17; 6:4; 11:55), giving Jesus a two-or- three-year ministry or more.

(9) In the Synoptics, Jesus cleanses the temple at the close of his ministry (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48), in John, at the beginning (2:13-22). And according to Matthew 21, Jesus cleanses the temple on Palm Sunday, according to Mark 11, on Palm Monday.

(10) In Mark 11:18 (and possibly Luke 19:47) Jesus’ cleansing of the temple motivates the Jewish authorities to kill Jesus, whereas in John 11:53 the motivation stems from Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, and the cleansing of the temple in John 2:13-22 has nothing to do with the final plot of the Jews.

(11) The Synoptics date Jesus’ crucifixion on the day of the Passover (Matthew 26:171 Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7), whereas John places it on the day before the Passover, and at a different hour of the day (John 13:1,29; 18:28; 19:14,31,42). [Biblical scholars suspect that the reason for changing the day and hour of Jesus’ death in the last written Gospel was to suit the theological notion of its author that Jesus was “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” a notion the author preached early in his Gospel, putting it into the mouth of John the Baptist--and bringing it up again at the moment of Jesus’ death. Therefore he altered Jesus’ day and hour of execution so it would coincide with the day and hour the Passover lambs were being slain. Unfortunately, having altered the day (and hour) to try and make a theological point, the Johnnine author never concerned himself with the fact that Passover lambs were not slain for “sin.” The animal in the Hebrew Bible that did have the “sins of the people” placed on it was not a lamb at all, but a goat--neither was the goat slain but kept alive in order to carry away the sins of the people into the wilderness, i.e., the “scape goat.” I guess for the author of the Fourth Gospel, the lamb illustration was “close enough.”—E.T.B.]

(12) The Jesus of the Synoptics is a charismatic healer-exorcist and end-time Suffering Servant who suspects or perhaps believes himself destined to return as the Son of Man to inaugurate the supernatural kingdom of God (especially Matthew 10:23; Mark 10:18), whereas in the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the Son-of-Man-Logos incarnate on earth, the God-Man who exorcises no demons but who proclaims a sacramental, mystical, physical, churchly, eschatological doctrine of redemption. It’s “sacramental” because baptism and the Lord’s Supper produce “the new birth;” it’s “mystical” because these sacraments produce “union” with God and Christ (“we shall be one”); it’s “physical” because these sacraments are physical means that produce a physical effect, the glorification of the flesh to make the flesh capable of resurrection; it’s “churchly” because these sacraments must be administered by the church, for only in the church can the Spirit unite with the elements to produce salvation; and it’s “eschatological” because these sacraments produce the resurrection of the flesh.

(13) The necessity of being “born again” is something found only in the last written Gospel, John, and portrayed as a teaching delivered “at night” to a single person in John chapter 3, while everyone who doubts it is “damned already.” [sic]

Whereas according to the Synoptic Gospels Jesus spoke openly during the day to whomever asked him “how to inherit eternal life,” and placed obedience to inter-personal commandments, such as honoring one’s parents, and not stealing from other people, first and foremost on the list of “how to inherit eternal life,” i.e., rather than saying “ye must be born again.” Jesus also repeated as another Hebrew teacher had before him, that the whole of the law and the prophets could be summed up as “love God and your neighbor as yourself.” The Synoptic Gospel even agree that Jesus taught people to pray to God for direct forgiveness as in the “Our Father,” and that Jesus stressed the necessity of works above all, that being the basis of the separation of the “sheep and the goats” in the “final judgment” parable in Luke, and the basis of the teachings in the “Sermon on the Mount” as well. —E.T.B.

(14) In the Synoptics, especially in Mark (1:11, 25, 34, 441 9:9, etc.), Jesus keeps his Messiahship a secret so that as late as his entry into Jerusalem the multitudes hail him as a prophet (Matthew 21:10), whereas in the Fouth Gospel Jesus proclaims himself and is proclaimed and recognized as Messiah right from the first (1:16,29-34,41,45,49,51; 2:11,18; 3:13-30; 4:25-26,42; 5:18-47; 6:25-69; 7:28-29; 9:37; 10:25-26,30-36). [And only in the Fourth Gospel is John the Baptist portrayed declaring Jesus to be “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” right from the first.—E.T.B.]

(15) Jesus’ concern for Israel as depicted in Matthew 10:5-6 and 15:24 is unknown to the Johannine Christ (John 5:45-471 8:31-47). Instead, more than sixty times the word(s) “Jews” and/or “The Jews,” are used to depict Jesus’ enemies, even by Jesus himself. [Since Jesus himself was a “Jew” the repeated use of such an eminently broad term makes greater sense if it was not spoken by the historical Jesus, but was a phrase that began coming up more often only after Jesus’ death, at a time when a rift continued to grow between Christian communities and “The Jews.”—E.T.B.]

(16) During the Lukan Pentecost (Luke 24:491 Acts 2:1-4) the Spirit comes directly upon the disciples without their having to be baptized, whereas in the Johannine Pentecost (John 20:19-23) the Spirit does not communicate himself directly but only as the second stage of Jesus’ baptism of the apostles--The foot-washing of the apostles by Jesus (John 13) being the first stage.

(17) In the Synoptics Jesus administers the elements at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26 29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-26), whereas in John the Spirit comes only after the Ascension (John 7:31-39; 16:7) and therefore Jesus cannot distribute the elements, for the purposes of the elements is to convey the Spirit.

(18) In the Synoptics Jesus is under the Law (Matthew 5:17-20) and observes the Passover Meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), whereas Jesus in John is not under the Law and therefore does not partake in the Passover Meal (John 13:1). Accordingly, John’s Jesus refers to “your Law” (John 8:17; 10:34; cf. 7:19; 18:31) and “their Law” (15:25).

(19) According to Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Jesus during his lifetime gives the apostles authority to bind and loose (= forgive sins). Whereas in John 20:23 the authority to forgive sins can be conferred upon them only after they have been properly enlightened by the Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection.

(20) Dr. Bart Ehrman points out that the Jews in Jesus's day and age spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and in Aramaic the word translated "born again" in John chapter 3 would NOT have had a double meaning and Nicodemus would not have been puzzled and had to ask "how can a man reenter his mother's womb?" That raises questions as to the authenticity of that entire late dialogue in that last written Gospel.


Whether or not New Testament scholars lack “literary judgment,” the fact remains that they have succeeded brilliantly in delineating the differences and contradictions between John and the Synoptics. We can readily see how devastating this criticism is to “Christian orthodoxy” when we recall that orthodoxy’s picture of Christ is based largely on the Fourth Gospel.