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Kenny and Lewis

No, not that Kenny.

Anthony Kenny’s review of Alister McGrath’s recent biography of C. S. Lewis is a tad embarrassing — or, I should say, Kenny ought to be embarrassed at having failed to do some elementary homework before writing. Setting aside the several errors of fact — for example, Kenny’s odd belief that Lewis died from prostate cancer — I’ll focus on two more substantive issues.

Here’s the first one:

Lewis’s principal apologetic arguments have not worn well. One line of argument he made popular went like this. Jesus said that he was God. Jesus was neither a deceiver nor deceived. Therefore Jesus was indeed God. Mocking the idea that Christ was simply a great moral teacher, Lewis wrote that a man that said the sort of things Jesus said “would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell”. Yet even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity, so that the argument fails to get started.

Obviously Kenny knows absolutely nothing about what “conservative biblical scholars” believe and has no interest in finding out. Now, Lewis’s trilemma argument does indeed have a serious weakness, and Kenny gropes towards it: Lewis’s argument depends on the assumption that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s words, but if you doubt the reliability of the Gospel accounts, then you can easily believe that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” who had certain words put in his mouth by later disciples. This is the assumption that underlies most skeptical redactions of the Gospels, from the Jefferson Bible to the work of the Jesus Seminar. But the great majority of biblical scholars today, as throughout the history of the Church, do indeed believe that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s teachings, which puts the trilemma into play.

(Incidentally, an excellent recent defense of the reliability of the Gospel presentation of the words and deeds of Jesus is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.)

Here’s another problem with Kenny’s review:

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, God is incarnate in the lion Aslan, who dies to atone for a human sin, and rises again. According to many Christians, including St Thomas Aquinas, it would be impossible for God to be incarnate in an irrational animal. One might respond – whether or not Lewis would agree – that his Aslan is not in fact a genuine lion, but simply a human being disguised in fur.

As anyone who has read the Narnia books knows, Aslan is neither “an irrational animal” nor “a human being disguised in fur”: he is a Talking Beast, that is, a rational creature made in the image of God. There is nothing intrinsic to the physical conformation of Homo sapiens sapiens that makes us fit recipients of the imago Dei — the lion-ness of Aslan is (among other things) a repudiation of naïve anthropomorphism.

As I’ve said before in relation to Tolkien, there are many aspects of the lives and thought of the Inklings that can legitimately be criticized; the problem comes when people offer what they believe to be powerful critiques without having taken the trouble to pay close attention to what they’re critiquing. I have a larger post coming on this general point (eventually), but for now let me just state its thesis: it’s perfectly fine to dismiss certain ideas or thinkers without giving them serious consideration first — we all do it, and indeed have to do it, on regular basis — but it’s not okay to give the impression that your rejection is based on serious consideration when nothing of the kind of true.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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