Lewis and the Moral Law

Theologians who now write on natural law often begin by first acknowledging the long dry spell during the twentieth century. They cite that Reformed-minded scholars were either distrustful or even hostile to the theory that there was a knowable system of right and wrong held in common by all human beings—which was derived from nature. This century-long gap is somewhat surprising when one considers that natural law was never a divisive subject for someone like John Calvin. Even the Westminster divines commonly recognized what they called the light of nature. Fortunately, there has been a recent resurgence of natural law scholarship by Reformed theologians who seek to retrieve a classical Reformed view of apologetics.[1]

Natural law theorists often apply their thinking to civil society—to questions of positive law and public policy. However, this post and those that follow will seek to examine the specific notion of “moral law” in C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Lewis’ use of the moral law can be placed within a broader framework of covenant theology, specifically the post-fall imago Dei that still reverberates from the covenant of works made with Adam. Furthermore, Lewis’ approach to revealing the divine Lawgiver as presented in Book I, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” provides a number of important insights for modern apologetics.

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In his biography on Lewis, Alister McGrath describes the situation leading up to the publication of Mere Christianity in 1952.[2] At the onset of World War II, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) realized its central role in providing morale for England. While church attendance dropped among the British during the twentieth century, religion was still considered to be an important aspect of national life. The BBC already possessed numerous “voices” on a variety of topics (gardening, medicine, etc.,) but it lacked a “voice of faith.” Lewis was chosen as that voice, having already received some notoriety for The Problem of Pain. The BBC’s administrators sensed a trans-denominational tone in Lewis’ book, a layman’s perspective that could clearly articulate the essence of Christianity.

The original broadcasts were intended to be apologetic in nature, not evangelistic. Lewis wanted to convince his listeners there was such a thing as “moral law” derived from a divine Lawgiver and that we fail to live up to that law. An earlier title of “Inside Information” was eventually changed to “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe?” The first set of broadcasts were generally well received. A BBC producer, a Presbyterian named Eric Fenn, encouraged Lewis to continue the series addressing the subjects of Christian belief and behavior. By the end of the broadcasts, Lewis had become a notable figure—though not everyone responded positively. It’s an old story, Lewis remarked to Fenn; they either love it or hate it.[3]

One must also remember that Mere Christianity must be understood in the larger context of what was worrying other Christian thinkers at the time. As Alan Jacobs documents in The Year of Our Lord 1943, Christian humanists were concerned with how ideological and technological shifts within the culture threatened to vanquish the established Christian ethos that had so long endured. An underlying concern in the face of Hitler was whether democracy was sufficient in itself to resist various forms of totalitarianism. Nazism came about, in part, because Germany had a generation of youth, not unlike the rest of Europe, that possessed diminished religious commitments. Intellectuals like Lewis, Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil, saw the need for a comprehensive educational effort “to restore Christianity to a central, if not the dominant, role in the shaping of Western societies.”[4]

While this was largely a rational task, Lewis and other humanists also recognized the importance of the imagination.[5] For Lewis, imagination was an important consideration in how he approached his audience. One is well-advised, therefore, to pay attention to not only what Lewis says in Mere Christianity, but also how he says it.

In the first book, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” Lewis sets out to establish the reality of what he calls “the law of human nature.” This phrase is synonymous with “the law of nature,” “the moral law,” “natural law,” or if one prefers Lewis’ term in The Abolition of Man, the Tao. Lewis says the law of nature is the “foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”[6] One primary metaphor and a series of secondary metaphors are used to reveal to his audience the law of human nature, which includes a conversation between two quarrelling people (primary), following the rules of a football game, playing a piano, following the rules of the road, applying math to solve problems, the clothes we wear, and listening to the conversation of an architect (secondary).

When two people quarrel, it almost always involves showing the other person is wrong. To suggest the other person is wrong means both of them are assuming there is such a thing as getting it wrong, as with the rules in a football game. Lewis anticipates the objection that different societies have different rules, but counters this objection by pointing out that all societies operate by rules, or notions of right and wrong, which are actually more similar to each other than different. The odd thing about all human beings, no matter where they might live on earth, is that while they believe they should behave a certain way, they do not behave that way. They know the law of nature; they even might try to obey it, but then they always end up breaking it. 

The law of nature is also like playing a piano. We look at a piece of sheet music and strike the appropriate keys to bring forth a tune. Lewis uses this metaphor to explain how we often do right even when it goes against a competing desire to protect ourselves (what he calls our “instincts”). Yet there are people who jump into the water to save someone from drowning even when they know they might end up drowning themselves. Lewis says obeying the little voice to rescue a drowning swimmer is like playing the right notes on the sheet music. We could choose not to jump into the water, thus, playing cords unrelated to the sheet music, but then we would not be “in tune” with the piece in front of us.

The law of nature is also like following the rules of the road while driving. Lewis uses this metaphor to again point out that the law of nature is not merely social convention. While some countries have rules that insist on driving on the right side of the road and other countries have rules that insist on driving on the left side of the road, they all insist that you drive on one side of the road so as to not kill someone. Likewise, while some youngsters learn their multiplication tables in school, others may have never seen a multiplication table. Nevertheless, they might end up inventing a multiplication table on their own, showing that the rules of math are universal and knowable. Similarly, clothes may differ for different periods of time, places of dwelling, and social status, but this does not change the fact that we all wear clothes.

Lewis says when you consider these “clues” about right and wrong it becomes increasingly obvious that there is somebody or something from beyond the material universe that is trying to get at us. There are two bits of evidence, he says, which give us cause to be uneasy. The first bit of evidence is that the universe appears to be made, which would imply that this somebody is a great artist—for the world is a beautiful place. Lewis conjectures that if a person walked into a room and saw a large, beautiful painting it would be logical to assume someone painted the picture and put it there; it did not get there by itself.

However, there is another piece of evidence, not unrelated to the first, that Lewis says is even stronger.[7] He calls this second bit of evidence “inside information.” While looking at a house tells us something the its designer, we actually get better inside information by listening to the conversation of the person who built it. Lewis says, “Now, from this second bit of evidence we conclude that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness.”[8] This ease-dropping metaphor is connected with the voice of conscience, which Lewis postulates as a prime witness to not only the existence of God, but also to the fact that we are running away from him. This last metaphor brings the reader full circle to the first metaphor of the quarreling people. The point is clear: if one makes an argument that your line is crooked, then he must have some conception of a straight line.

Several additional observations should be made regarding how Lewis goes about establishing the law of human nature in the first section of Mere Christianity. First, as others have pointed out, Lewis does not begin with any Christian presuppositions to prove the existence of God.[9] Rather, “he begins from human experience, and shows how everything seems to fit around core ideas, such as the idea of a divine Lawgiver, which can then be connected with the Christian faith.”[10] Second, he does not employ deductive arguments for the existence of God. Rather, as Austin Farrer has written, Lewis makes us think we are listening to some kind of argument when in reality he is presenting us with a vision that “appeals to the human longing for truth, beauty, and goodness . . .” [showing] “that what we observe and experience fits in with the idea of God.”[11] Thus, his approach is not deductive, but inferential. Lewis assumes for his audience the Augustinian prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Lewis uses what might be called “a rhetoric of desire” that locates our restlessness in a kind of echo of longing for a lost homeland. The implication would be “that the Christian faith interprets this longing as a clue to the true goal of human nature.”[12] Third, Lewis attempts to pull the reader in when he uses the notion “clues.” McGrath says, “Lewis is noting that the world is emblazoned with such ‘clues,’ none of which individually proves anything, but which taken together give a cumulative case for believing in God.”[13] Finally, Lewis’ use of metaphor shows that he is fully aware that language, if properly employed, has the ability to evoke the imagination. As many have noted, for Lewis, the imagination was the antecedent of perceiving truth.[14]

We will return to these four observations and make some additional comments on how they might be applied to apologetics. However, it first must be noted how these apologetic appeals are justified within the framework of Reformed theology and its understanding of the covenant of works. This we will address in our next post.  

Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee in Martin. He is the author of The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Crossway, 2003) and Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-made Environments (Pickwick, 2013). Hunt and his wife are members of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jackson, TN.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reforming Apologetics"

"Literary Theological Imagination" by Leland Ryken

"Covenantal Apologetics," review by Stephen Myers

"Reforming Apologetics," review by Ryan McGraw

C.S. Lewis: Apologetics for a Postmodern World by Andrew Hoffecker

The Messiah Comes To Middle Earth by Philip Ryken


[1] Most notable are J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019) and David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), which he follows with Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014). While R. C. Sproul’s Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003) is more of an introduction and defense of classical apologetics, a significant portion of the book is devoted to natural law theory.

[2] See Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2013), 205-13.

[3] Ibid., paraphrased, 213.

[4] Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), xv.

[5] The restoration was not only to be a theological and philosophical task, but also a humanistic endeavor, one akin to a new Renaissance that leaned on literature and the arts.

[6]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952, repr., New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 8.

[7] Lewis’ preference for the second bit of evidence would lead one to believe that he sees moral law arguments for God as more reliable than arguments of intelligent design.

[8] Ibid., 29-30.

[9] The first three of these points are made by McGrath in C. S. Lewis, 222-25. The last point has been well established by those who have analyzed Lewis’ understanding of language from a sacramental point of view.

[10] Ibid., 222.

[11] From Austin Farrer’s The Problem of Pain as quoted in ibid.

[12] See ibid., 224.

[13] Ibid., 222-23.

[14] See for example, James Como, Branches to Heaven: The Geniuses of C. S. Lewis (Dallas: Spence, 1998), 169. Lewis is very explicit about the use of metaphor as an agent to provoke the imagination and as the antecedent to opening the mind to truth. He says in his essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” that if there is not a psycho-physical parallelism in the universe between language and reality then all our thinking is nonsensical.

Author's Note: A version of this essay was submitted in a partial fulfillment to the course Reformed Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Global, on December 26, 2020, Ligon Ducan, lecturing professor, Guy Waters, professor of record, under the title, “The Moral Law in C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity as Related to the Covenant of Works in Reformed Theology and Its Remaining Effects Upon the Imago Dei: Insights for Apologetics.”