Carl Trueman, C. S. Lewis, and the 'Devil Ransom Theory'

William B. Evans

For this my inaugural post as a Ref21 blogger, I want first of all to thank Derek Thomas and Jeremy Smith for their gracious invitation to join this august group.  Although I'm sure I won't be able to match either the verve or the volume of our friend Carl Trueman and his various alter egos, I hope I can offer something of value to the Ref21 audience. 


Carl's January 18, 2011 post entitled "Bonhoeffer and Anonymous Evangelicals" caught my eye.  I too have puzzled over Evangelical attempts to appropriate figures such as Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis--efforts that bespeak, I suspect, both a fuzziness about the identity of Evangelicalism and an insecurity that compels some to claim noted figures of the past for "our side." 


I agree with Carl that Bonhoeffer was no "evangelical."  To be sure, he is a compelling figure on many levels--his opposition to the Nazi regime was nothing short of heroic, and he was a theological thinker of considerable substance.  On the other hand, I have enjoyed watching my students puzzle over those enigmatic suggestions about "religionless Christianity" on pp. 279-281 of the Letters and Papers from Prison.  I don't know what Bonhoeffer meant either, but it seems to me that the "secular theologians" of the 1960s can legitimately look to Bonhoeffer as an antecedent for their concerns. 


Likewise, unless the term "evangelical" has become the proverbial nose of wax (which is, unfortunately, a distinct possibility in the current context) C. S Lewis was no "evangelical" either.   As a high-church Anglican he certainly does not fit David Bebbington's influential definition of Evangelicalism as presented in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain.  This may explain why the Billy Graham Center and the Marion E. Wade Center (devoted to the study of Lewis and the other "Inklings") are located on opposite ends of the Wheaton College campus.  Like matter and anti-matter, such dissimilar impulses are best kept separate. 


What I'm not so sure about is Carl's contention that Lewis was a devotee of the "Devil ransom theory of the atonement."  Of course, Lewis does present that memorable depiction of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, a narrative that recalls the church fathers and their conception of the death of Christ as a ransom paid to the devil.  This ransom to the devil theory takes a variety of forms in the patristic literature.  According to Gregory of Nyssa the deity of Christ is the "hook" hidden within the "bait" of his humanity, and like a fish the devil finds himself overcome.  According to Augustine's more sophisticated version, the devil abused his power in killing the sinless Jesus and so forfeited his power over Christ and those united with him.  Of course, the thrust of this "ransom" or "classic theory" of the atonement is to emphasize that the cross of Christ more than just a satisfaction of the penalty of sin; it is a mighty victory over the power of sin, death, and the devil--something that many of us confessional Protestants could emphasize a bit more.  That is to say, the cross is just as much about our sanctification as it is about our justification.  And although Gustaf Aulén clearly overstated his argument regarding Luther in his Christus Victor, the fact that Luther does utilize this theme suggests that the evangelical pedigree is more substantial here than some would allow. 


What I find interesting about Lewis, however, is that when he deals with this issue theologically in his Mere Christianity, he goes in a rather different (and frankly more disappointing) direction.   In a chapter entitled "The Perfect Penitent," after telling us that the key truth is the fact that "Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start," Lewis opines that "theories as to how it did this are another matter."  Then, after describing the substitutionary atonement view  as "a very silly theory," Lewis suggests that what we really need is true repentance, and he presents the death of Christ in terms of a sort of vicarious repentance theory reminiscent, perhaps, of the deposed nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian John McLeod Campbell.  In other words, it seems that ol' Clive Staples was not one to let theological precision get in the way of a good story, and that his actual view of the atonement may in fact be more problematic than some have realized.  But all that will not stop me in the least from continuing to read and to enjoy C. S. Lewis!