Concerning C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist (not theologian)

The mistake showed up in news reports so often that it almost became normal, which is the worst possible thing that can happen with a mistake. Over and over, journalists kept pinning the “theologian” label on the Rev. Martin Marty of the School of Divinity at the University of Chicago.

The problem, of course, is that Marty is one of the world’s best known church historians. In the world of elite academia, which is certainly Marty’s territory, calling a church historian a theologian is something like calling a quarterback a wide receiver, or calling a surgeon a dentist, or calling a drummer a guitarist.

Why do this? And, once the mistake is made, why not correct the error? Marty once told me that, no matter how many times he tried to explain this error to journalists, it just kept happening. The mistake lived on and on.

This brings me to a very interesting story that ran in The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, who died the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Speaking of which, is there a story on the Lewis anniversary in your local newspaper today? If so, please leave the URL for us in the comments pages.)

Lewis, of course, was a man of many academic and literary talents. The Times story sought to capture that right up top:

LONDON – C. S. Lewis was a noted polymath: philosopher, theologian, professor, novelist, children’s writer, literary critic, lecturer. But he was not much of a poet.

Still, 50 years to the day after his death, Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends and family as Jack, will be among the more than 100 people commemorated in some fashion in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, alongside figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, John Milton and Ted Hughes.

Lewis, who died at a week before his 65th birthday, on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — will receive the honor of a memorial stone in the floor in the Poets’ Corner, a portion of the abbey’s south transept that contains graves, memorial stones and a memorial window.

Sigh. Once again, that “theologian” label is so easy to abuse. Lewis wrote a wide variety of books, but he never produced a single work of systematic theology or anything resembling work in that disciple. There is a good reason for this: Lewis was a skilled literary critic and professor of literature. He was not a theologian and, to my knowledge, never claimed that label. His Oxford colleagues would have loved taking shots at him for that.

Now wait a minute, some GetReligion readers will respond. Isn’t it right to call him a “popular theologian,” in that he wrote books that for general readers — as opposed to academic readers — served as works of “popular” level theology?

That may be true, if one accepts that people have redefined the word “theologian” and are using it in a way that would be quite offensive to theologians. I am not aware of Lewis ever accepting that label, either.

It is also confusing to see that error in the Times lede, since the an accurate label is later used in the story when talking about some of this more popular books, such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain.”

See if you can spot the accurate label:

The anniversary of Lewis’s death and the commemoration at Westminster has prompted renewed interest in him. The memorial stone’s unveiling will cap a two-day conference, with lectures on his Christian apologetics and his literary work, choral evensong, a panel discussion and, on Friday, a service of Thanksgiving preached by the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the signing of a newly commissioned anthem with the words of his poem, “Love’s as Warm as Tears.”

The accurate label for this side of Lewis and his work is “apologist.” Here is a basic definition:

apol·o·gist, noun …

: a person who defends or supports something (such as a religion, cause, or organization) that is being criticized or attacked by other people.

You can see the term used accurately at the top of this Religion News Service story:

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy on Friday (Nov. 22), many Christians will also pause to recall the death of C.S. Lewis, who died the same day, just one week short of his 65th birthday.

The British author, described by many as perhaps the 20th century’s most influential Christian intellectual and apologist, is said to have greater influence in the United States than in his own country. Yet on Friday, a memorial stone for Lewis will be added to the storied Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, alongside Shakespeare, John Milton and the Bronte sisters.

Then, right after that, the story — once again — puts that “theologian” label into the list of his disciples.

Many Christians are first introduced to Lewis, a philosopher, theologian, professor and author, at an early age with “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a place where it is “always winter, but never Christmas.” For adults, his most influential work was “Mere Christianity,” where he argued that Jesus was either a lunatic, liar or Lord.

Toward the end of the report, a scholar — an academic leader — creates a similar list to describe Lewis and his accomplishments.

“The great appeal that Lewis has today is that he has an extraordinary range of a diversity of genre in communicating truth,” said James Houston, one of the founders of the respected Christian institution Regent College in Vancouver, who ran in Lewis’ circles while they were both at Oxford.

“He used fairy tales, mythology, poetry, science fiction, children’s stories, scholarly essays. He used the whole gamut to communicate the depths of truth.”

Indeed, Lewis did write scholarly essays linked to his chosen discipline — literature. But not theology, as a discipline.

Am I being too picky? Well, is it possible to be too picky when writing about a man who was, notoriously, as picky as Lewis when it came to matters of logic and language?

Why call Lewis a popular-level theologian, whatever that is? He was a Christian apologist, publishing works in almost every form of writing except formal theology. Logic! Bless me, what do they teach at those journalism schools?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • wlinden

    He received an honorary D.D. from St. Andrews, so presumably they thought they were honoring work in theology.

  • Tyler

    The Star Tribune and Pioneer Press reprinted this guest comment, originally published in The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg VA. It’s personal and apologetic. http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/232923431.html?page=all&prepage=1&c=y#continue

  • John Nix
  • Zero G

    Is Terry Mattingly a “journalist” or a “journalism apologist”?
    I’m confused.

    • tmatt

      I’m not sure that I understand the question, if this is a question that was asked seeking an answer.

  • momesansnom

    Are you being too picky? Indeed, I believe you are. The terms “theology” and “theologian” are not the exclusive property of “elite academia” and as an Orthodox Christian, surely you know that these terms were in use long before the existence of any university, college or faculty of divinity. Academia is a poor place to go to have this matter settled. After all, academia tends to divide itself into ever-smaller fields of specialization in which the specialists become ever more defensive about incursions into their turf by non-specialists. Journalists (I am one), in their otherwise praiseworthy quest to attribute information to properly qualified sources, play so easily into this academic neurosis. Journalists (especially copy editors — I am one) have an ugly tendency to want — via style rules and other means — to reduce the scope of many words until they serve as little more than technical terms. That’s what I think you are doing here with the term “theologian.” You’re trying to tell us that we should understand that one can only call someone a theologian if that person has been trained in the academic discipline of theology and writes works of “systematic theology.” Since when did this become the standard?

    You suggest that theologians (presumably those in academia) are “offended” by seeing someone not in their academic field being called a theologian, even a “popular theologian.” But why, oh why, should the academic theologians or their sensitivities get to be the determining factors here? You also tell us that C.S. Lewis eschewed the label of theologian. Perhaps this was in deference to his fellow academics, but even this does not determine the matter. He would not be the first in Christian history to avoid claiming recognition for any theological achievement but to be later recognized by others as having made great achievements in theological discourse. You can read so many writers who are, indisputably, theologians in your limited sense of the word, who are Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, and so many of them quote C.S. Lewis to help make a point. He has clearly influenced theological discourse in the English-speaking world. To deny him the title of theologian is, frankly, just plain school-marmishly persnickety. In the end, I wonder if any significant percentage of academic theologians would actually be offended by hearing C.S. Lewis referred to as a theologian. I tend to think it’s more likely that a larger percentage of academic philosophers would be offended by the New York Times’ reference to Lewis as a philosopher up in that lede. But still, even they know that not every worthy philosopher was an academic and some literary figures did some darn interesting philosophy in their work.

    You wrote: “In the world of elite academia, … calling a church historian a theologian is something like calling a quarterback a wide receiver, or calling a surgeon a dentist, or calling a drummer a guitarist.” Again, why does elite academia get to decide these matters? But beyond that, is it inconceivable that a drummer might not be a pretty good guitarist as well, even if he chooses to stick with calling himself a drummer because that’s what he plays in the band? In any case, the analogy breaks down. Some, like myself, might consider Christian apologetics to be a subcategory of theology in the final analysis.

    • tmatt

      Lewis did not teach theology or write works in the discipline of theology, unless the word loses all formal meaning — something that does happen in media all too often.

      Of course a guitarist can also play the drums. That’s beside the point. Lewis wrote in many different styles, but not formal theology. He was an apologist working in the public square. There is a perfectly good word that accurately describes what he did, in those works.

      • momesansnom

        Writing a decent work of Christian apologetics necessarily involves handling theological topics. Its effectiveness involves being at least somewhat versed in theology and treating subjects that can’t but fall under the heading of theology. Without a doubt, whatever else Lewis was doing, he was doing some theology in the midst of it. That makes him, at least on some level, a theologian. This falls under my assertion that Christian apologetics is perhaps a subcategory of theology. In fact, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (AP’s go-to dictionary, as you know) defines “apologetics” as “the branch of theology having to do with the defense and proofs of Christianity.”

        The term “theologian” does not lose all formal meaning if it is allowed to include those who have not held teaching positions in theology or who do not write easily categorizable works of a certain academic tenor. The Apostle Paul was certainly a theologian, but if you were to judge him by his writings only, you’d have to call him simply a letter writer. St. Justin Martyr and others, including, often, St. Irenaeus, are called the first Christian apologists, but nobody would dispute that they were also theologians. We could go all the way through history to find other examples.

        Certainly, the term “theologian” cannot be so broad as to include anyone who has something to say about God, but certainly it is not so narrow as to be limited to the credentialed academic who writes in systematic fashion. Perhaps this lack of perfect delineation makes some journalists uncomfortable. As I tried to indicate above, academia does not get to decide these things.

        As for the drummer-guitarist example, perhaps that was just beside the point. It wasn’t central to my contentions anyway. In any case, your original example was the comparing of a church historian to a theologian. Those two do seem fairly distinct, as one can write on church history without any commitment to any theological opinion. I don’t think you can do the same as an apologist. Calling an apologist a theologian is more akin to calling a guitarist a musician. Maybe it could be more precise, but it isn’t wrong.

  • Carlh

    Salt Lake City’s Deseret News had this article on its webpage today (noting the 50th anniversary of the deaths of JFK, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley) but I don’t think it was in the print edition that landed in my driveway this morning:

    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865591037/50-years-ago-Kennedy-Huxley-and-Lewis-followed-different-paths-to-the-grave.html

    The Salt Lake Tribune didn’t have an article today, but had published (on October 28) the Trevor Grundy article from Religion News Service that noted the approaching 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death (which George Conger critiqued at Get Religion on November 3):

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/57053012-80/lewis-oxford-british-christianity.html.csp

  • Urthman

    In what category would you put _The Four Loves_, _The Problem of Pain_ and _The Abolition of Man_? I wouldn’t describe any of these as primarily works of apologetics. I’d say they contain at least as much ethics, devotional writing, philosophy, and–yes–theology.

    • tmatt

      Nope. All are works of apologetics, not systematic theology.

      • Urthman

        Then I think you have an idiosyncratically wide definition of apologetics and narrow definition of theology (systematic theology is hardly the only kind of theology). In particular, I really can’t see what in _The Four Loves_ you’re thinking would be best described as apologetics.

  • http://elizaphanian.blogspot.com/ Sam Charles Norton

    Evagrius taught that the one who prays is a theologian, and that is a much more ancient understanding of the term than the academic one. Lewis qualifies; it distorts the meaning of the word ‘theologian’ to say that he doesn’t. Although, having said that, I do think that ‘apologist’ is a *better* description of his work – for apologetics is a form of theology.

  • Jeremiah Oehlerich

    Ok, I’m thoroughly confused. What is the exact definition of the word “theologian” that we are dealing with here. I ask because I actually agree that “apologist” is the right word for Lewis, but found myself confused about the classification of Marty. I realize that the bulk of Marty’s recognized word comes from his studies in American religious history – hence his preferred “historian” label – but unlike Lewis, Marty did spend 10 years serving as a pastor and has published works on topics such as Baptism, the use of the Law, etc. I know also that scholars and theologians within Marty’s former church body – the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod – consider him a theologian as well.

    So how does one define who is a theologian?

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/filmchat Peter T Chattaway

    I must admit, I’m not really sure why you nitpicked the multiple references to Lewis as a “theologian” and not the multiple references to Lewis as a “philosopher”. In a professional, academic sense, he was neither of those things, but he certainly wrote on both subjects as a self-admitted amateur.

  • bob

    In around 1982 I spoke with an Episcopalian cleric who worked with Lambeth Palace and the Orthodox on ecumenical matters. He had no problem calling Lewis the last theologian the Anglicans had.

    • Ken Bockman

      John Stott? J. I. Packer?


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