C.S. Lewis and the “Purely Practical” Purpose of Scripture

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen C.S. Lewis mentioned a great deal. He is my favorite Christian thinker, philosopher, apologist and theologian (though I bet he’d argue he isn’t really a trained theologian). I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but he says things with such clarity and conviction, I can’t help but want his thoughts on various topics. The purpose of Scripture is another one of those topics.

If you were brought up in the church, you’ve no doubt heard a lot about the Bible. You’ve probably heard sermons and lectures on the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture (words meaning “without error” and “unable to fail” respectively). Your pastors have probably have some systematic theology in their personal library. (I’m not a pastor and have three systematic theologies, and I’ve even given two away over the years!) Those things are not bad things. But, I’ve begun wondering whether they are slightly missing the point. What is the Bible?

Well, first, it is a book, or collection of books, written by people who by God’s choosing wrote stories, poems, histories, etc. These various literary pieces provide the narrative (or, story) of God’s interaction with the world. In other words, the Bible is not a systematic theology. The Bible doesn’t systematize various ideas into neat, well defined sections. The Bible tells a story. Like other stories, it naturally begins at the beginning. God spoke the universe into existence, and by his word all things “live, move and have their being” (part of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17). Well, humanity makes a royal hash of things. Thankfully, the story does not end there. God does something about it. And, while God does something about it through the ages, God calls people to write what they see, hear, do, etc. And, over the course of many centuries, we have the Bible.

So, what’s the purpose of the Bible? C.S. Lewis offers a wonderful description of the Bible’s purpose. In his essay “Dogma and the Universe” he says, “…revelation [the Bible] appears to me to be purely practical, to be addressed to the particular animal, Fallen Man, for the relief of his urgent necessities – not to the spirit of inquiry in man for the gratification of his liberal curiosity.” Said only like Lewis can. The purpose of Scripture is “purely practical.” What does that mean? Well, it means it is not a theological textbook (like Bavinck’s four volume Reformed Dogmatics). It doesn’t answer every theological question man has asked. Nor is it a science textbook. Despite what many people believe, I strongly believe Genesis 1 and 2 are not actual, factual accounts of the process of God’s creation. I believe those chapters are not describing how the universe came into being, but why (thanks to John Walton). The Bible’s purpose is to relieve man’s “urgent necessities.” What is man’s urgent necessity? Sin and alienation from God. That’s it.

See, the Bible tells the story of how man has been alienated from God, his creator. Being alienated from the creator isn’t just a break in relationship (which is rather bad since humanity desperately wants real, authentic relationship), but also a loss of sense of purpose, destiny, and morality. In other words, the sense in our bones that tell us “there must be something more” is there because we are alienated from God. The reason we get a new, wonderful job and find ourselves wondering if there is yet another new, wonderful job out there for us is because we’ve been severed from our creator, by our own choice sadly. The Bible tells us what’s wrong with the world. But, if we are being honest, we might not need the Bible for that. I mean, look at the news. Does the news look like the world is all right? I think not. I forgot who said this, but there is a statement that says, “the depravity of man is at one time the most demonstrable of all facts, and at the same time the hardest to accept.” If we are honest with ourselves, something is deeply wrong with the world.

Thankfully, the Bible does not stop there. The Bible not only tells us of our urgent problem, but tells us also of the ever-ready solution. God sent Jesus so that Jesus might reconcile all things to himself through his death and resurrection. Here is an extended excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:15-23, italics and underline added):

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Lewis was right. The Bible is “purely practical.” I need to hear this, because when I left seminary I wanted to master the Bible (not that I don’t now). But, the goal for mastery was quite different. Rather than letting the text master me and lead my steps, guide my thoughts, and encourage my soul, I wanted to know the book. I wanted chapter and verse for argumentative purposes. I wanted to argue down detractors to reformed theology. It became a weapon, not medicine. See? The Bible is good news because it doesn’t stop with the problem, but proclaims the solution. Hallelujah!

Over my years in the classroom I have always had wonderful feedback. Students have loved my class. I’ve kept up with some of my students, and still today I have the privilege being involved in their lives. I’m thankful for these encouragements. But, there is another group of students who couldn’t stand my class because of my perceived attitude of superiority. They felt I “knew it all” and wanted to show it off. They felt I used the Bible to show them how little they knew the Bible…and they were/are right. I’m guilty.

I love the Bible. I love the story of redemption flooding its pages. But, I have been using poorly. Rather than a practical book to alleviate man’s “urgent necessities” I have undoubtedly used the book “for the gratification of [my] liberal curiosity.” I’ve speculated far too often in class about abstract theological/philosophical ideas. By and large, people don’t need that. Where I would chase every theological rabbit trail, the “urgent necessities” of my students, namely their alienation from the loving Creator who lovingly is drawing them to himself through Jesus as revealed in Scripture. Ouch. Yet again, Lewis has been a teacher.

The Bible is God’s revelation of himself through time and space how He has been seeking to redeem his creation which has alienated itself from life, meaning and wholeness. The Bible boldly proclaims our malady, but ever-so lovingly proclaims the provision in Jesus Christ. May we Christians be careful to remember how Scripture is not a text for our intellectual curiosity, but the means by which the “urgent necessities” of humanity are cured.

 

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