No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

C. S. Lewis on the Authority of Scripture vs. Authority of Tradition

This past summer, I spent a few days at the University of North Carolina looking at books from C. S. Lewis’s library, making notes about his annotations.  One book that I spent some time with was Lewis’s copy of The Apology of Syr Thomas More, Knyght, edited by Arthur Irving Taft (London: OUP, 1930).

Often in a book that he’s reading closely, Lewis will write a one-sentence summary of the page’s content across the top of the page.  This is a very good study technique, and it allows one quickly to review the book’s contents.  Lewis doesn’t include any evaluative comments in these summaries; such comments come lower in the page.  Often he creates his own footnotes as a way of recording criticisms, or connections to other works, or questions.  In translated books, he sometimes includes notes referencing the original language.  Often he underlines things, or puts vertical lines in the margins next to particular passages.  Sometimes he creates an index to a book inside the back covers.  He’s a very systematic annotator.

In the case of this particular volume, Lewis has written a summary of every page, all the way through the book. He has done very little additional annotating.  He doesn’t seem to have been reading the book with the intention of criticizing or debating Thomas More so much as understanding him, which makes sense given that More is a figure in Lewis’s OHEL volume on literature in the 16th century.  But there is one place where he breaks out into criticism.

On page 27 of this edition, Lewis summarizes the contents of the page this way: “You must take the Church’s word for the doctrine that Scripture is the written Word: why not also for the doctrine that there still is (as admittedly there once was) an Unwritten Word.”  The context of course is More’s anti-Lutheran polemic, with the claim both that Church is the source of Scripture’s authority and that Church tradition is also authoritative in itself.  At the bottom of the page, Lewis adds this customized footnote:

“Is it irrational to accept the testimony of A “that B is the authority” and then regard B as completely superseding A, despite the fact that we shd. never have trusted B. unless we began by trusting A?  We certainly do so when we put ourselves in the hands of a teacher – or a physician (B) at the advice of well informed friends (A) – or, more pertinently, when we turn to the Church (B) at the instigation of our parents and nurses (A).  Surely such a process (Mother>Church>Scriptures>Christ) with each authority superseding the previous one (on wh. nevertheless it is in a sense based) is perfectly rational.”

I know that many Catholic readers of Lewis want to believe that he was really a Catholic in his heart, or that if only he had lived a little longer he would have made the transition to Roman Catholicism.  I’ve never found those arguments convincing, and this little aside in the midst of Thomas More’s Apology strikes me as an insight into the essentially Protestant nature of Lewis’s faith.  After all, he was a Protestant boy from Belfast.  It’s not all that surprising that there are Protestant impulses rooted very deeply in his psyche.

When I was working at the Wade Center this last summer, Charlie Starr showed me a passage in one of Lewis’s notebooks (MS-199) in which he makes the same argument.

The fact that we accept the Bible on the authority of the Church does not make the authority of the Church the higher of the two. It need not even make it equal to that of the Bible. Nothing is commoner in life than to accept a higher authority on the strength of a lower. I tell my pupil “The authoritative work on this subject is x.” He accepts x on my authority: but once he has accepted it it has higher authority than mine and he will (with my approval) check my statements by it. The child, being baptized and sent to Sunday School, is accepting the Church on the authority of its parents; but the Church has more authority than they. By accepting the canon, he accepts the Bible on on [sic] the authority of the Church: but its authority is higher than hers. By believing the gospels he accepts Christ (in a certain rudimentary sense) on the authority of Scripture; but Christ has more authority than it. If higher authorities were not accepted on the strength of lower ones, to learn anything would be almost impossible. We should have to begin classics, not even with great scholars and paleographers, but with the original MSS. Actually we begin with a grammar.

The distinction between the authority of the Bible and the authority of Christ Himself is certainly interesting in this excerpt and merits further study and thought.  One trusts that Lewis isn’t giving evidence of Barthian influence here….