CS Lewis, John Calvin and Michael Servetus

Collage of Calvin and Servetus
Collage of Calvin and Servetus

While the debate about Calvin’s culpability in connection with the death of the 16th century heretic Servetus continues to stir emotions, everyone is agreed that, heretic or not, he didn’t deserve to die.

Inevitably, those who affirm Calvin’s theological views express sympathy with his unenviable position, while those who dislike his doctrines seem almost eager to retell the story as compelling evidence to reject his teachings once and for all.

CS Lewis was not at all comfortable with what he called Calvin’s ‘dark answers’ in connection with predestination but he was at least an objective historian.

As he outlines some of the changes in belief that influenced the literature, he also discusses some of the consequences for departing from the accepted views – often persecution, even execution. The modern reader is appalled, but Lewis helps us understand the context of such brutality.

‘We must…take care not to assume that a sixteenth-century man who lived through these changes had necessarily felt himself, at any stage, confronted with the clear issue which would face a modern in the same circumstances.

A modern, ordered to profess or recant a religious belief under pain of death, knows that he is being tempted and that the government which so tempts him is a government of villains. But this background was lacking when the period of religious revolution began. No man claimed for himself or allowed to another the right of believing as he chose. All parties inherited from the Middle Ages the assumption that Christian man could live only in a theocratic polity which had both the right and the duty of enforcing true religion by persecution.

Those who resisted its authority did so not because they thought it had no right to impose doctrines but because they thought it was imposing the wrong ones. Those who were burned as heretics were often (and, on their premises, logically) eager to burn others on the same charge. When Calvin led the attack on Servetus which ended in his being burnt at Geneva, he was acting on accepted medieval principles.’[i]

More next time…

For the first post in this series on CS Lewis and his observations of 16th Century Christianity click here

©2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1954), p.39

C.S. Lewis, John Calvin and Christian Joy

C.S. Lewis, John Calvin and Christian Joy

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

We’ve been dipping into CS Lewis’s wonderful work, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (excluding drama) and have discovered some fascinating insights on the Protestant believers of the 16th Century and the Puritans that followed them in the 17th.

Lewis was never one to hold back his opinion and therefore readers of a variety of theological persuasion will find his views both illuminating and challenging. He has argued that our view of the early Protestant believers and our understanding of the Puritans needs some revision if we’re to understand what really drove their thinking forward:

C.S. Lewis on Protestant Joy: Too glad to be true!
‘It follows that nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; not did their enemies bring any such charge against them. On the contrary, Harpsfield (in his Life of More) describes their doctrines as ‘easie, short, pleasant lessons’ which lulled the unwary victim in ‘so sweete a sleepe as he was euer after loth to wake from it’. For More, a Protestant was one ‘dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte’ (Dialogue, III.ii)…Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad to be true.’[i]

Calvin’s freedom to enjoy God’s creation
‘Even when we pass on from the first Protestants to Calvin himself we shall find an explicit rejection of ‘that vnciuile [uncivil] and forward philosophy’ which ‘alloweth vs in no vse of the creatures saue that which is needful, and going about (as it were in enuie [envy]) to take from vs the lawful enjoyment of God’s blessings, yet can neuer speede vnless it should stoppe vp all a man’s senses and make him a verie block’.’[ii]

Lewis commends Calvin
‘When God created food, ‘He intended not only the supplying of our necessities but delight and merriment (hilaritas)’.

Clothes serve not only for need but also for ‘comelinesse and honesty’; herbs, trees, and fruits, ‘beside their manifold commodity’, for ‘goodlinesse, brauery, and sweete smelling sauour’.

The right mistake: Protestantism too earth-bound, enjoyable, ‘sensual’
A comparison of the whole passage (Institutio, III.x.2) with, say, the sermons of Fisher, will correct many misapprehensions. When Newman in his Letter to X Y professed an ‘abstract belief in the latent sensuality of Protestantism’, he was, in my opinion, dreadfully mistaken; but at least, like More and Harpsfield, he was making the right mistake, the mistake that is worth discussing. The popular modern view of the matter does not reach that level.’[iii]

CS Lewis on the freedom of the Protestants
‘To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called ‘puritanical’; they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is Puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together. So far as there was any difference about sexual morality, the Old Religion was the more austere. The exaltation of virginity is a Roman, that of marriage, a Protestant, trait.’[iv]

To read the next post in this series (CSL on 16th Century persecution, including the Calvin and Servetus controversy) click here

To read the first post in this series on CS Lewis click here

©2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1954), p.34

[ii] ibid p.35

[iii] ibid p.35

[iv] ibid p.35

CS Lewis on Predestination

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama by CS Lewis
English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama by CS Lewis 

CS Lewis does not take a hostile view of predestination. He merely refuses to engage with what he calls its ‘darker’ side, and is skeptical of those who assert it apparently without feeling.

As you’ll see at the end of this post, he is far more comfortable declaring its pastoral strength to the believer and leave it there. I note also that both here and in his letters he uses Luther’s pastoral advice to provides assurance rather than allow a believer to sink into gloom.

Reformed Doctrine marked by joy and hope rather than heaviness
He writes, ‘It must be clearly understood that they [i.e. Protestant doctrines] were at first doctrines not of terror but of joy and hope: indeed, more than hope, fruition, for as Tyndale says, the converted man is already tasting eternal life.’

CS Lewis on Predestination
The doctrine of predestination, says the XVIIth Article[i], is ‘full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons’.

But what of ungodly persons? Inside the original experience no such question arises. There are no generalizations. We are not building a system. When we begin to do so, very troublesome problems and very dark solutions will appear.

But these horrors, so familiar to the modern reader (and especially to the modern reader of fiction), are only by-products of the new theology. They are astonishingly absent from the thought of the first Protestants.

Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes. In a single sentence of the Tischreden[ii] Luther tosses the question aside for ever. Do you doubt whether you are elected to salvation? Then say your prayers, man, and you may conclude that you are. It is as easy as that.’[iii]

It is certainly true that modern novelists have written from a perspective of absolute abandonment, but is it true that the first Protestants didn’t wrestle with the apparent downside of the idea of predestination?

Your thoughts?

To read the next post in this series (regarding Lewis on Calvin and Joy) click here

For the first post from Lewis’s thoughts on Reformed Doctrine and the Puritans from English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama click here

©2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] Lewis is referring to The 39 Articles of Religion (1563), the doctrinal statement of the Church of England.

[ii] I.e., Table Talk – a collection of anecdotes, quotes and humourous sayings of Martin Luther recorded by some of his students

[iii] CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1954), pp 33-34

CS Lewis and the Puritans

CS Lewis at his desk
CS Lewis at his desk

What did CS Lewis think of the Puritans?
It is sometimes implied that Lewis leant as equally towards Catholic as Protestant doctrine. Some might wrongly assume that his views on hell and the afterlife (for those outside of the Christian faith) meant that he wasn’t familiar with Reformed teaching or the works of the Puritans.

But even a superficial reading of his masterpiece of literary criticism, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (excluding drama), plunges us straight into his well-formed opinions of the major influences on that century and the centuries that followed it.

His discussion of puritan and reformed thinking is not only easy to grasp but thoroughly enjoyable. Typical of Lewis.

Here are a few gems to whet your appetite…

A correct understanding of the goal of puritanism
‘The puritans were so called because they claimed to be purists or purifiers in ecclesiastical polity: not because they laid more emphasis than other Christians on ‘purity’ in the sense of chastity.’

A correct understanding of the nature of ‘puritan’ experience
‘We want, above all, to know what it felt like to be an early Protestant.

One thing is certain. It felt very unlike being a ‘puritan’ such as we meet in nineteenth-century fiction. Dickens’s Mrs. Clennam, trying to expiate her early sin by a long life of voluntary gloom, was doing exactly what the first Protestants would have forbidden her to do. They would have thought her whole conception of expiation papistical. On the Protestant view one could not, and by God’s mercy, need not, expiate one’s sins.’

Luther understood Paul correctly, according to CS Lewis
Luther understood Paul correctly, according to CS Lewis

Tyndale and Luther properly understood Paul’s doctrine of Justification by Faith and not by works
‘In the mind of a Tyndale or Luther, as in the mind of St. Paul himself, this theology was by no means an intellectual construction made in the interests of speculative thought. It springs directly out of a highly specialized religious experience; and all its affirmations, when separated from that context, become meaningless or else mean the opposite of what was intended…’

‘Catastrophic Conversion’ essential to the experience of joy and bliss
‘The experience is that of catastrophic conversion.

The man who has passed through it feels like one who has waked from a nightmare into ecstasy.

Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything, to deserve such astonishing happiness. Never again can he ‘crow from the dunghill of desert’.

All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free, unbounded grace.

His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place.

Fortunately they need not. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned.

‘Works’ have no ‘merit’, though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once.

He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved.

It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang.

To read the next post (CS Lewis on Predestination) click here

To read a review of AN Wilson’s biography on Lewis click here

© 2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

C.S. Lewis ‘humbled’ by A.N. Wilson – a book review

Lewis cover

A review of Wilson’s biography.

Wilson claims, ‘There are those readers who are so uplifted by the sublimity of Lewis at his best as a writer that they assume that he was himself a sublime being, devoid of blemishes.’

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

In this review I examine some of Wilson’s claims and comments as well as including fascinating material about Lewis’s ‘reluctant convert’ comment, the animosity between Lewis and John Betjeman, the conversations with J.R.R. Tolkien which finally led to his conversion and his resistance to the modern poets including T.S. Eliot.

If you’ve not read anything about Lewis’s life the review also serves as an introduction to one of the most inspiring Christian writers of the 20th century.

To read the review click here

© 2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog