C.S. Lewis, the Psalms, and Modernism

What are traditional Catholics to make of C.S. Lewis? Is he to be enlisted in the defense of the faith as an ally, or is he an author that needs to be warned against? Everybody understands that C.S. Lewis was not Catholic, and consequently we do not expect to see Catholic truths taught and defended in his writings (1). But beyond this omission, where does Lewis fall on the problems of Modernism? Is he a staunch defender of traditional Christianity against the Modernist tide, or is he himself a promoter of Modernist ideas? Or perhaps, like much else about Lewis, is the answer somewhere in the middle, a dallying with “mere Modernism” without affirming the radical conclusions of the more extreme Modernists? In this article, we will examine one of C.S. Lewis’s lesser known works to demonstrate that the great apologist of Christian orthodoxy was himself not free from Modernist contagion.

The Orthodoxy of C.S. Lewis

Lewis has been held up as an intellectual giant on the side of Christian orthodoxy, particularly in the struggle to preserve the integrity of the Christian faith against progressive innovations. Lewis himself declared that he was “a dogmatic Christian untinged with Modernist reservations” (2). Thus Lewis positions himself as a great opponent of the “Modernist” trends of his own day.

Clyde S. Kilby, who published a book on Christianity in the thought of Lewis shortly after the latter’s death, also positioned Lewis as an uncompromising foe of “modernism.” Writing in 1965 when the legacy of C.S. Lewis was still in development, he stated:

Doctrinally, Lewis accepted the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles’ creeds. He was never failing in his opposition to theological ‘modernism.’ Some of his most acerose satire is employed against it in both his fiction and his expository works. It is as ridiculous, he declares, to believe that the earth is flat as to believe in the watered-down popular theology of modern England. In The Screwtape Letters a major employment of hell itself is in encouraging theologians to create a new ‘historical Jesus’ in each generation. (3)

Given that he was not Catholic, however, in what sense was Lewis “dogmatic?” And, while Lewis waged a war against what he perceived to be the theological modernism of his own day, since he fundamentally rejected the Catholic faith, was not the “mere Christian” creed he proclaimed ultimately incomplete? To what degree is it possible to wage war on Modernism while simultaneously rejecting the Catholic Church, the one institution capable of truly calling out and resisting Modernism? Is it possible that Lewis himself was tainted with Modernist errors in some of his thought?

Before we go any further, I should clarify that even though Lewis did espouse some modernist ideas (as we shall see), I do not place him in the same category as characters such as Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Teilhard de Chardin, or Karl Rahner (even though at one point to espouse Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian” theory). The good that C.S. Lewis accomplished much outweighs the bad, and while there are problematic kernels in his work, the majority remains sound, and Catholics contemporary with Lewis and since have found great nourishment from his writings. His “mere Christianity” approach blurs the line between fundamentals and reductionism, but then again, Lewis is not a Catholic, and we should not expect Catholicism from him. To expect more is to misunderstand what value can be gleaned from Lewis. Unlike the other heretical theologians mentioned above, Lewis lacked any obstinacy in his ideas, and as he was not Catholic, did not have a fixed bar against which to measure the orthodoxy of his thinking. In a way, this makes his omissions more forgivable than, say, those of Teilhard, who knew the truth and was censured many times by his ecclesiastical superiors. Therefore, this essay is not to disparage the truly good work that Lewis has done. It is merely to give us a more well-rounded view of the man.

Lewis’s Disparagement of the Psalter

Still, he is not without his problems. His aversion to Marian devotion is well known, but in this article we shall focus on another problem with his theology: his waffling attitude towards the inspiration of the Scriptures, as evidenced by the horrible things he says about the Psalms in his book, Reflections on the Psalms. In this work we see another side of Lewis, what could be termed the “Modernist” Lewis, looking with arrogant contempt on the Psalms, comparing them in judgment to his own opinions, and bandying about the idea that they are not as inspired as the Gospels as a way to soften the harsh things he says about them. We should also point out that since this book was published in 1958, only five years before Lewis’s death, it can be said to reflect his mature thought.

Among the Psalms, Lewis states up front that there are many “things I could not enjoy” in the Psalms (4). While he confesses an initial misunderstanding of the nature of the Psalms, even after his qualifications and corrections he still finds aspects of the Psalms to be  “vulgar,” “petty,” “self-righteous,” “contemptible” and even “devilish” (5). He seems to have a deep difficulty with passages in which the Psalmist asserts his innocence and pleads for justice from God upon his foes. He finds these aspects of the Psalms “repellent”, like “nasty things” on a plate of otherwise good food. (6)

This leads him to some very striking conclusions, for example, that the Psalmist is deluded by a “fatal confusion” about the nature of righteousness (7). His disgust for many of the Church’s most beloved Psalms is evident. Commenting on passages in Psalms 109, 139, 69 (“O God comes to my assistance; Lord make haste to help me”) and even 23 (“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” in the Vulgate), Lewis calls certain passages “childish”, says they demonstrate “pettiness and vulgarity”, are “hard to endure” and he even goes so far as to call them “diabolical” in certain places (8).

The Psalmist, he says, comes off as a “ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric man” (9). The Psalmist’s reaction to injury is “profoundly wrong” which leads him to refer to several Psalms as those “terrible (or dare we say?) contemptible Psalms” (10). Commenting on the Psalms in which the Psalmist asks for God’s vindication of his cause, Lewis wrote:

“It is monstrously simple-minded to read the cursings in the Psalms with no feeling except one of horror at the uncharity of the poets. They are indeed devilish” (11).

While understanding that there are various senses of Scripture—that Wisdom books and poetry are meant to be read differently than historical books and so on—all who reverence Scripture as the Word of God ought to take great umbrage at Lewis’s statements that certain Psalms are “devilish or “diabolical” and that certain Psalms elicit “no feeling except one of horror.”

If the Psalmist is such a barbaric, ferocious, self-pitying man whose concept of justice is a “fatal confusion”, one wonders in what sense Lewis can affirm they are the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit? Lewis himself foresees this critique and answers it in the same work. If the Psalms contain all these negative and even “devilish” elements, how are they to be understood as inspired? According to Lewis, we need the properly nuanced view of the inspiration of the Scriptures:

Yet there must be some Christian use to be made of them; if, at least, we still believe (as I do) that all Holy Scripture is in some sense—though not all parts of it in the same sense—the word of God.” (12)

The arrogance of Lewis towards the Scriptures should be evident here. If the Christian is to admit that the Psalms are inspired, we have to be able to find some use for them! And note how he only grudgingly admits that they could be inspired: they are inspired “in some sense”, though in his nuanced view, not all Scripture is inspired in the same manner. All Scripture is inspired “in some sense” but not all of it is God’s word “in the same sense.” No doubt in his mind, the Psalms fall into the lesser category.

Again, look at how Lewis sits in arrogant judgment over the Psalmist:

I make the Jewish conception of a civil judgment available for my Christian profit by picturing myself as a defendant, not the plaintiff. The writers of the Psalms do not do this. They look forward to judgement because they think they have been wronged and hope to see their wrongs righted” (13)

Lewis’s revulsion is so deep that he cannot even bring himself to enjoy them on a natural level. Indeed, he compares the Psalms to the mediocre poetry of Victorian poet Coventry Patmore (of which Lewis says they are hardly better), saying that like Patmore, the Psalmist sometimes “wrote better than he knew.” (14) Thus Lewis derides them even as literature.

This is how the great Christian apologist views the Psalter which is St. Benedict made the heart of Christian prayer for a thousand years! This is how Lewis feels about the prayers which the Catechism calls “the masterwork of prayer…in which the Word of God becomes man’s prayer” (15). This is how the defender of “mere Christianity” derides the prayers that have been the center of the Church’s spiritual and penitential life for untold centuries.

The Catholic Church’s View of the Psalms and Inspiration

At this point, we must stop and seriously question Lewis’ assertion that he is “a dogmatic Christian untinged with Modernist reservations.” Is not the arrogance and presumption which Lewis expresses the very hallmark of Modernism? Recall the words of St. Pius X in Pascendi:

Pride sits in Modernism as in its own house, finding sustenance everywhere in its doctrines and an occasion to flaunt itself in all its aspects. It is pride which fills Modernists with that confidence in themselves and leads them to hold themselves up as the rule for all, pride which puffs them up with that vainglory which allows them to regard themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge. (16)

Let us compare Lewis’s troubling reflections to the clear teaching of Pope Leo XIII, of happy memory:

In the second place, we have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning their literary studies; for the young, if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, are easily led to give up believing in it altogether. It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality. (17)

Is this not an apt description of Lewis’s approach to the Psalms, which Leo XIII predicates of those who “make evil use” of literary criticism? Later, Leo reminds us that Scripture is uniformly inspired in all its parts, contrary to Lewis’ assertion that all Scripture is inspired in “some sense” but not in the “same sense”:

For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church…

It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error. And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they laboured earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance – the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the “higher criticism;” for they were unanimous in laying it down, that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the inspiration [afflatus] of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true. (18)

In his rejection of Catholicism, Lewis was ultimately unshielded from the effects of Modernism. That he was surrounded by Catholic intellectual giants—and Lewis himself was no light-weight when it came to reasoning out the truths of Christianity—certainly helped Lewis to insulate himself more than others against the Modernist contagion. But without the teaching of the Church he was bound to go astray, at least in some points. Joseph Pearce, in examining how Lewis’ struggle with Catholicism led inevitably to an eclectic approach to faith, suggests that Lewis was ultimately guilty of—

making the ultimate mistake, according to his own criteria, of picking and choosing those doctrines he likes, much as a man in the supermarket selects products from the shelves…Is he concocting a do-it-yourself religion to suit his own preferences? If so, is he any different from the modernists he criticizes? It is indeed ironic that Lewis should write in Letters to Malcolm of the dangers of such picking and choosing to suit oneself: ‘Left to oneself, one could easily slide away from “the faith once given” into a phantom called “my religion”…Lewis kowtowed before the traditions of his [Puritan] family and its prejudices, no longer believing what they believed, but unwilling or unable to make the break from them. Ultimately this is the tragicomic reality behind Lewis merely Christian compromise. (19)

I am not disparaging C.S. Lewis. His works are wonderful, even profound. He is one of the few non-Catholic authors I can recommend to people to get acquainted with the Christian faith. But Lewis cannot be accepted uncritically. He is ultimately a Protestant—a Protestant who has some very profound things to say about many truths Catholics affirm, but still a Protestant, and one tinged by Modernism in his view of inspiration, despite his protestations to the contrary. So, let us continue to value Lewis for what he’s worth, but not be blind to the problems as well. 

(1) Although Lewis believed in some kind of Real Presence, went to confession, and affirmed, both in his fiction and prose, the existence of Purgatory.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (London: HarperCollins, Fount ed., 1981), 65
(3) Clyde S. Kilby, The Christian World of C.S. Lewis (Appleford, Abingdon, Berks, England: Marcham Manor Press, 1965), 157
(4) C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt, 1958), 2
(5) ibid., 21-25
(6) ibid., 6
(7) ibid., 16
(8) ibid., 18
(9) ibid., 20
(10) ibid., 18
(11) ibid., 22
(12) ibid., 19
(13) ibid., 16
(14) ibid., 61
(15) CCC 2585, 2588
(16) St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), 40
(17) Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus (1893), 18
(18) ibid., 21
[19] Joseph Pearce, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003) 146-147 

Phillip Campbell, “C.S. Lewis, the Psalms, and Modernism,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, October 3, 2014. Available online at: http//www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/c-s-lewis-the-psalms-and-modernism