C.S. Lewis: An Acceptable Place For Orthodox Subordinationism?

Recently, I was reading a book about C.S. Lewis [1] and came across a remarkable passage in it in the chapter on Luna, the planetary spirit that governs Lewis’ Narnia novel The Silver Chair according to scholar Michael Ward. Although the passage is somewhat difficult to understand, as a reader already looking for information on the heresy of subordinationism, it was startling and deserves to be quoted in full:

“This helps explain why Aslan’s image on the flag at Cair Paravel is ‘golden’, also why Aslan himself is three times described as ‘golden’: he has a golden voice, a golden back, and looks to Jill at one point like ‘a speck of bright gold.’ Lewis has not forgotten the donegality [2] of the book and suddenly decided to depict him under the rubric of Sol; rather, under the rubric of Luna, he is saying something important about Christ’s submission to the Father, which was one of his favorite Christological themes. Lewis accepted the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds with their insistence on co-eternity of the Son with the Father, but believed that the essential equality of divine being among the Persons of the Trinity was not incompatible with an ordering, even a kind of hierarchy, therein. Obviously, Christ was subject to the Father as man; but Lewis also thought he was subject to the Father as God. This position is distinguishable from the heresy of subordinationism; its locus classicus is 1 Corinthians 15:27-28. Within the Godhead, the Father has a primacy, He is the First Person of the Trinity. The Father is (so to speak) golden, as the Son, the Second Person, is silver. Lewis thought that ‘we do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold’ and that, in any case ‘comparative evaluations of essentially different excellences are…senseless.’ (This is not to imply that Lewis thought the Son and the Father were not of the same divine essence; it is to imply that the begetting Father, qua begetter, enacts divinity in a manner essentially opposite from and reciprocal to that of the begotten Son.) Nevertheless, because the Son is perfectly silver he is also, within the mystery of Trinity, perfectly golden because he is utterly receptive to that higher (but no more divine) light coming forth from the First Person, ‘the Father “with rayes direct” shining full on the Son,’ as Lewis quotes Milton in his Preface [to Milton’s Paradise Lost]. The Son, unlike the witch, does not deny what is above him, but accepts it fully, with eternal filial submissiveness [3].”

The reader is not to be blamed if this passage is seen as more than a little bit mysterious and confusing. Setting aside the question as to the nature of God at this time, for it will be addressed at considerable length, especially to discuss the problems that Trinitarian views have in understanding and accommodating the future destiny of believers as part of the Family of God and partakers in His divine nature, let us content ourselves at present to discuss what this passage says about C.S. Lewis’ beliefs on the filial submission of Jesus Christ to the Father within the Godhead. These views are fully endorsed by scripture, specifically in the Gospel of John where Jesus Christ frequently points out that He is ‘one’ with His Father in the same sense that brethren are united together, but at the same time is perfectly obedient to the will of His father, to the point of the horrible death of crucifixion. It is intriguing that the author is at pains to separate Lewis’ clear claims of Jesus’ eternal submission to the Father with the heresy of subordinationism that Origen is accused of. The reasons for this are clear, in that C.S. Lewis is viewed as the most able popular apologist of the 20th century, while Origen was a brilliant ante-Nicene church father who was never canonized because his beliefs on the nature of God ran afoul with the religious authorities in the Hellenistic Church. Having a well-known and respected layman of Anglican Church tarred as a heretic for a religious heresy involving the Godhead would be a particularly unfortunate occurrence for those who wish to defend ‘Orthodox’ belief.

Having no personal stake in such denominational politics, it is nevertheless worthwhile to question whether C.S. Lewis’ belief in the ‘filial submissiveness’ of Jesus Christ to God not only as man but also as God, a position I also hold, can be distinguished from the purported heresy of subordinationism which Origen is accused of [4]. Given the impeccable Orthodox bona fides of C.S. Lewis, we may call him as a surprise witness to the stand in defense of the long-maligned Origen. We may do this because Lewis’ clearly expressed belief, expressed in his late book The Four Loves as well as his collection of college talks titled The Discarded Image, that Jesus Christ was subordinate to God the Father, is considered to be acceptable by the establishment of the Anglican church, of which Michael Ward is a part. It should be noted, because it is of great relevance, that Michael Ward is not only a priest of the Church of England, of which C.S. Lewis was so devoted a layman, but is also the co-editor of the book Heresies and How to Avoid Them. We are clearly not dealing with someone who is merely defending a beloved author, but someone who is an apt student of heresies and their boundaries. Even if we are likely to disagree with his views, he must concede that he is knowledgeable and sensitive about such matters. While this adds some complexity to the task of defending Origen, it also adds the understanding of what is considered to be ‘within bounds’ by self-professed Orthodox Christians, and not only by the biblical standard. In order to call C.S. Lewis as a witness for the defense for Origen concerning accusations of heresy, though, it will be necessary to examine what in fact Lewis said about the subordinate nature in those two late books. To that task we will now turn.

Before we do that, though, let us comment on Ward’s comment about the origin of Lewis’ beliefs in the subordination of Jesus Christ to God, in 1 Corinthians 15:26-27, which read as follows: “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says that “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that HE who put all things under Him is excepted.” This passage is a fairly typical Pauline close analysis of a text, in this case from Psalm 8:6, which points out that God has put all things under man’s feet, but obviously God has not submitted Himself under man’s authority, because mankind is only a viceroy to God, and thus, in whatever form, still under His ultimate authority. Ward appears to be arguing that Jesus Christ, as a man, and also as the Lord at the right hand of God (see, for example, Psalm 110:1), is likewise also still under the Father who gave Him rule over all nations just as mankind is under the God who made us the rulers over creation as discussed in Psalm 8. This is at least one of the places where the Bible speaks of the supremacy of the Father to the Son, to be sure, but it is far from the most straightforward of such references, nor is it by any means the only one. Having at least partly explained the startling statement as to C.S. Lewis’ own beliefs in the submission and obedience of Jesus Christ to God the Father from the writings of Michael Ward, let us turn to what C.S. Lewis himself believed about these matters, as we have evidence of in his writings.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/book-review-planet-narnia/

[2] Donegality is a term coined by the author, about which he says: “’Donegality’ then will serve very aptly as a technical term. By donegality we mean to denote the spiritual essence or quiddity of a work of art as intended by the artist and inhabited unconsciously by the reader. The donegality of a story is its peculiar and deliberated atmosphere or quality; its pervasive and purposed integral tone or flavor; its tutelary but tacit spirit, a spirit that the author consciously sought to conjure, but which was designed to remain implicit in the matter of the text, despite being also concentrated and consummated in a Christologically representative character, the more influentially to inform the work and so affect the reader.

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 75.

[3] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 135-136.

[4] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/book-review-core-christianity/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/the-fractured-fairy-tale-of-israels-departure-from-egypt/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/some-preliminary-notes-for-a-defense-of-origen-on-the-biblical-doctrine-of-subordinationism/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to C.S. Lewis: An Acceptable Place For Orthodox Subordinationism?

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