As the debate over Calvinism and Arminianism wages on, and I suspect it always will until one day the truth is known, I thought it would be fun to go back through the writings of C.S. Lewis and see what he thought on the issue. Lewis is one of my personal favorites when it comes to Christian Apologetics, and I had always heard he was a classical Arminian so I wanted to investigate for myself.
Turns out that my final evaluation is Lewis is neither, and his conclusions fall on both sides not because he is confused, but because he thinks that it is mostly a non-issue.
According to Lewis God exists beyond space and time. This is a fact that neither Calvinists nor Arminians will dispute and neither would I. Lewis poses the argument then that if God created time then time has no effect outside of our existence, and the two views are based on time, therefore they are meaningless in the big picture.
Furthermore, we can’t discuss God within the confines of time. God would not have foreknowledge or past knowledge of an event, he would just have knowledge of it period. So our discussions of God’s omnipotence and omniscience can’t be done in a linear fashion. God is everywhere and knows everything and the topic ends there, we can’t qualify it with words by saying God knows everything that is going to happen, because to God there is not a future linear time.
This leads Lewis to write in a letter that was later put into a book called Yours, Jack, “When we carry it up to relations between God and Man, has the distinction perhaps become nonsensical? After all, when we are most free, it is only with a freedom God has given us: and when our will is most influenced by Grace, it is still our will. And if what our will does is not ‘voluntary’, and if ‘voluntary’ does not mean ‘free’, what are we talking about? I’d leave it all alone.”
In another letter Lewis states, “”Of course reality must be self-consistent; but till (if ever) we can see the consistency it is better to hold two inconsistent views than to ignore one side of the evidence . . . It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.”1 Lewis is referring to the Pauline Doctrine of predestination that is being discussed in the letter, and to that point Lewis believes in predestination, but believes in free will at the same time. He says that it is better to hold these views even if they seem inconsistent to us at times, rather then the alternative which is to ignore facts.
The Bible teaches predestination, that is a fact, and we have the freedom to make choices that is also a fact that we know to be true. What the Calvinist says in response to this is the same thing Lewis said and would agree with, and that is God does not contradict because if he did then he would not be God. What I have not read from Lewis and I do read from Calvin is that if we think there is a contradiction like this it is us that do not understand and we need to dig deeper for the meaning. Unfortunately I hear Calvinists sometimes dismissing teachings of free will, and Arminians dismissing predestination, or trying to make them fit a specific presupposition we have. Lewis does not shy away from either as we see in the Chronicles of Narnia when Jill wanted to come to the water; she mentioned that she had called to Aslan. But Aslan said she would not have called him unless she had been called by him. Lewis understood the doctrine of Grace, but he also understood free will and he did not choose to put them in places where they contradicted.
One interesting part of Lewis’s fiction where he does bring the two together is when Ransom discovers on Perelandra that freedom and necessity are the same thing. This might be confusing on its face, but John Calvin wrote about this same thing in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will. Calvin says,
And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined. (John Calvin, BLW pp 69, 70).
Calvin is essentially saying the same thing that Lewis is leading to in his science fiction novel Perelandra. Calvin says that we have the freedom to act as far as our fallen nature allows us to. If left to ourselves we will choose evil out of necessity because we are in bondage to it. If God did not condescend to us by his grace then we would be doomed to choose evil. This means that the only reason we would ever choose anything good is God’s grace, which Lewis seems to articulate very clearly in his writings. Lewis explains his idea of necessity and freedom when talking about his conversion in Surprised by Joy. Lewis says that a man is what he does and pontificates on whether or not the act of “waking” is done out of freedom or necessity. Even though Lewis does not go down the same road as Calvin with this line of though, I think it is interesting that they would come to the same conclusion on the matter.
In the end I would say that Lewis had both Arminian and Calvinist beliefs and if alive today would probably not commit to either. The biggest contribution Lewis gives us is his understandable insight on both issues without getting caught up in the defense of either. That being said I think that in the younger Lewis we saw more Arminian ideas, and in the older more mature Lewis we saw this shift to an overall Calvanist ideology that did not deny free will but simply accepted it with the idea that his free will was not all that important.
I glean this from his final interview where Lewis was asked if he felt he made a decision at the time of his conversion. Lewis stated that his decision was not important, and that he was the object and not the subject of his conversion. He went on to say that he did choose, but it was not possible to for him to choose the opposite, and that the most deeply compelled action is also the freest. This explains freedom and necessity the best in my opinion.
It is clear that God’s decision for us is the important thing, and even though we are given free will it is God’s grace that does so and without grace our free will would condemn us. So I would agree with Lewis that our decision is not ultimately important, and it is God’s decision for us that makes the difference. One day when we stand before God he might ask us why we fought so much over this issue since ultimately it was not important. I just think that in doing so it will be the Arminian he scolds.