What Kind of Church Would C.S. Lewis Plant?

Ah, church planting… what an incomparable venture. If you want to be criticized by anyone and everyone, try launching something new. Coram Deo has been attacked by traditionalists for being too conformed to the culture. It has been lambasted by progressives for being too structured and historic. A missional church committed to engaging the culture, yet reciting the Apostle’s Creed and preaching about Chalcedonian Christology… it seems we don’t fit nicely in anyone’s pre-existing boxes.

In some of my preparatory reading for our recent sermons on the Incarnation, I was reading one of the most important books in the history of the church on the topic: De Incarnatione Verbi Dei by Saint Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373. The copy I own contains a prelude by C.S. Lewis that I have chosen to quote at length below. Lewis’ renowned wit and wisdom in this little introduction is second to none, and yet many of you would never have access to it (because you’re probably not reading Athanasius in your spare time). Lewis’ incomparable literary flair and tongue-in-cheek humor deserve the broadest audience; and his musings are directly applicable to our church-planting situation. Specifically, for those who are put off by our use of creeds and confessions and church history, Lewis has a thoughtful rejoinder:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to the light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said… The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can only be acquired from the old books.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books… Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

(About how “mere Christianity” unifies the church despite denominationalism): …We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age… Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth.

[The current author might insert: you will be thought to be an Emergent-church defender when you are actually quoting Augustine, a postmodernist when you are teaching Van Til, and so forth…]

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