The Subordination Of Jesus Christ To God The Father In C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves

Having recently had the chance to read C.S. Lewis’ short but excellent book The Four Loves for myself [1], I was particularly curious to examine how Lewis in this little-known but deeply intriguing work discusses the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father [2]. Admittedly, since the book was mainly focused on the love of people for other beings, whether God, other people, or animals, or even of nature and gardening, little of Lewis’ thought was directed specifically at the bond between Jesus Christ and God the Father. Even so, despite the fact that there is no sustained discussion in this book on Lewis on the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father, this relationship is discussed several times in worthwhile ways. Let us therefore provide some useful passages which illustrate, in passing, the submission of Jesus Christ to God the Father, and ways that we as human beings become closer to Jesus Christ through following the example of Jesus Christ, and then let us examine the grounds on which Lewis demonstrates this subordination in such a way that it does not provoke accusations of heresy.

Divine Life Operating Under Human Conditions

The first passage in which Lewis discusses the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the father comes early in the book, in the introduction, when Lewis is discussing the distinction between how we are near God in likeness and in relational approach: “Creatures are made in their varying ways images of God without their own collaboration or even consent. It is not so that they become sons of God. And the likeness they receive by sonship is not that of images or portraits. It is in one way more than likeness, for it is unison or unity with God in will; but this is consistent with all the differences we have been considering. Hence, as a better writer has said, our imitation of God in this life—that is, our willed imitation as distinct from any of the likenesses which He has impressed upon our natures or states—must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.

I must now explain why I have found this distinction necessary to any treatment of our loves. St. John’s saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougemont) that “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god”; which of course can be re-stated in the form “begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god”. This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God (11-12).”

But In Him Whose Marriage Is Most Like A Crucifixion

When discussing romantic love, specifically marriage, Lewis has the following chilling words to say about Christian headship in marriage: “And as we could easily take the natural mystery too seriously, so we might take the Christian mystery not seriously enough. Christian writers (notably Milton) have sometimes spoken of the husband’s headship with a complacency to make the blood run cold. We must go back to our Bibles. The husband is the head of the wife just in so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church. He is to love her as Christ loved the Church—read on—and gave his life for her (Eph. v, 25). This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion; whose wife receives most and gives least, is most unworthy of him, is—in her own mere nature—least lovable. For the Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her; he does not find, but makes her, lovely. The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in the sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in his unwearying (never paraded) care or his inexhaustible forgiveness: forgiveness, not acquiescence. As Christ sees in the flawed, proud, fanatical, or lukewarm Church on earth that Bride who will one day be without spot or wrinkle, and labours to produce the latter, so the husband whose headship is Christ-like (and he is allowed no other sort) never despairs. He is a King Cophetua who after twenty years still hopes that the beggar-girl will one day learn to speak the truth and wash behind her ears.

To say this is not to say that there is any virtue or wisdom in making a marriage that involves such misery. There is no wisdom or virtue in seeking unnecessary martyrdom or deliberately courting persecution; yet it is, none the less, the persecuted or martyred Christian in whom the pattern of the Master is most unambiguously realized. So, in these terrible marriages, once they have come about, the “headship” of the husband, if only he can sustain it, is most Christ-like (97-98).”

To Love At All Is To Be Vulnerable

The third place where Lewis talks about the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father comes in the context of a discussion on the vulnerability that comes with any genuine love: “I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic “apathy” or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he “loved”. St. Paul has a higher authority with us than St. Augustine—St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died. (Philippians II, 27).

Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggested. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell (111-112).”

The Author Of Both Is The Same

The fourth and final time that a discussion of Christ’s subordination to God and His will is in a discussion of how human life is redeemed: “One sees here at once a sort of echo or rhyme or corollary to the Incarnation itself. And this need not surprise us, for the Author of both is the same. As Christ is perfect God and perfect Man, the natural loves are called to become perfect Charity and also perfect natural loves. As God becomes Man “Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God”, so here; Charity does not dwindle into merely natural love but natural love is taken up into, made the tuned and obedient instrument of, Love Himself.

How this can happen, most Christians know. All the activities (sins only excepted) of the natural loves can in a favoured hour become works of the glad and shameless and grateful Need-love or of the selfless, unofficious Gift-love, which are both Charity. Nothing is either too trivial or too animal to be thus transformed. A game, a joke, a drink together, idle chat, a walk, the act of Venus—all these can be modes in which we forgive or accept forgiveness, in which we console or are reconciled, in which we “seek not our own”. Thus in our very instincts, appetites and recreations, Love has prepared for Himself “a body” (122).

Textual Analysis

Let us note first the grounds upon which Lewis claims that Jesus is subordinate in some way to our Heavenly Father. He makes a couple of references to the Gospel of John, but neither of them are a reference to the contentious verses earlier in the Gospel. Rather, the verses are about his willingness to be the sacrifice for our sins. The claim for subordination is made very gently and subtly, enough so that it does not draw a great deal of attention from the reader. What is most telling is that C.S. Lewis makes his points by referencing Kempis’ Imitation of Christ repeatedly in the course of his arguments, making the work seem at times like a commentary on Kempis’ work. The reference to a clearly mainstream mystic as opposed to Origen means that Lewis’ arguments do not have the air of heresy about them, but are rather considered to be within the mainstream of Christian mysticism relating to the subject of love, which is all the better for Lewis’ argument. Sometimes when it comes to making a case, it matters as much who one cites as an authority than what that authority actually says, and for Lewis, quoting Thomas a Kempis is a far safer move than quoting Origen even when both are making the same point, as is the case here.

Lewis’ argument is so subtle that it can easily be missed when one looks at his references to Jesus’ relationship with the Father. Specifically, Lewis points out that our model of God’s way of life is Jesus Christ, and that looks different than the divine life is apart from human conditions. Likewise, when Lewis points out the vulnerability that results from love, he alludes to the feeling of betrayal that Jesus felt as the Passover lamb bearing our sins when He said “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” in accordance with the psalmist David. Lewis’ point is further made when he speaks of Jesus Christ bringing mankind into unity with God by taking the manhood into God. This does not fully reveal the biblical view of the Family of God, but it is a reminder that the unity between God and Jesus Christ exists at least in part as a unity of will, where Jesus submits to the will of the Father, therefore acknowledging some sort of formal inequality in terms of authority, an inequality that we share with regards to both God the Father and Jesus Christ.

Given that C.S. Lewis references the apostle John in several ways, some of them explicit and some of them implicit, it appears that Lewis’ belief in subordination springs from the same ground that led Origen to deny the equality of Jesus Christ to God as it is often viewed. Even so, the lack of a direct reference allows Lewis’ thoughts, which are clearly framed within a conventional view of the nature of God, to avoid the same level of hostility as was directed to Origen. It also suggests that there is room to believe in Jesus Christ being subordinate to God so long as you are talking about a matter of wills and not essence, and so long as this subordination is done within a conventional framework of Christian mysticism involving the unity of believers with God through Christ and does not involve any views of the nature of God that are taken to be heretical. Although Lewis’ belief in subordination is unusual, it is still within the boundaries of what is considered orthodox, and so only a few writers [3] have noticed Lewis’ beliefs. Perhaps that is fortunate for Lewis, who is at all points intent on demonstrating his Orthodoxy, even to the point at criticizing Augustine for overly adopting Greek neoplatonic ways of thinking about the love of Christ, showing that he in no means wishes to be viewed as a heretic or even as an overly Hellenistic Christian.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/21/book-review-the-four-loves/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/c-s-lewis-an-acceptable-place-for-orthodox-subordinationism/

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

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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