C.S. Lewis on the Danger of Apologetics

In 1945, C. S. Lewis was invited to address a gathering of Welsh Anglican priests and youth workers on the subject of Christian apologetics. His talk is filled with wise exhortation and counsel on a number of topics such as how those engaged in defending the faith should select and prioritize what they read, the necessity of knowing one’s audience and how to translate Christian truths into understandable language, and the difficulty and importance of keeping one’s hearers mindful that he/she is commending and defending the faith because of an earnest conviction that it is really true to the way things are and not because one has a fondness for it or believes it’s of instrumental value for creating a certain kind of society.

While there is much of great value throughout his talk (though I disagree with his suggestion of inclusivism), it is his concluding paragraph that I find myself thinking about more than any other. In it, Lewis issued a sober caution that anyone engaged in apologetics should take to heart: “One last word. I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist.” You might expect him to have explicitly identified the reason for such peril as demonic forces of opposition. While I doubt he’d deny that this figures in, that’s not what he concentrated on. Instead, he offered the following explanation:

No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as the one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result when you go away from the debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands….

“Spectral” is a word we don’t use very much today; it’s derived from “specter” which refers to a ghost or phantom. It’s noteworthy that even when he thought he had made a good case for a particular Christian truth, Lewis often left feeling like it was airy, lacking substance. This wasn’t because the doctrine itself was weak but because it seemed to temporarily depend upon whatever argument he offered in its defense. And even the best of our arguments fall far short of the truths to which they point.

Lewis expressed the same ideas poetically in his “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”:

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

Lewis knew, as should we, that the ultimate ground of Christian faith is not our arguments but God Himself. Thus, he concluded that apologists

can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the reality—from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself. That also is why we need one another’s continual help—oremus pro invicem. (Let us pray for each other.)

As we pray for our own apologetic efforts and those of others, let us pray not only that the Lord will make our labor fruitful. Mindful of the hazards Lewis marked out, let us also pray that we will open the Scriptures not first and foremost with the desire of adding to our apologetic arsenal but to feed upon Jesus, the reality to whom they bear witness.

Keith Plummer (@XianMind) is a member of the School of Divinity faculty at Cairn University in Langhorne, PA. He previously served in pastoral ministry. 

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Keith Plummer

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