by Joel D. Heck
Why does Lewis so vehemently reject the view that treats Jesus as a historical rather than a divine figure? Why does he find the notion of some who regard Jesus merely as a great moral teacher to be absurd? Why does he assert that “If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance”? (p. 157).
In 1906, Albert Schweitzer’s book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, was published, appearing in English in 1910. His approach was based on Form Criticism, which understands the New Testament Gospels as a second-century A.D. product of the church rather than first-century eyewitness accounts of apostles. Schweitzer assumed that scholars needed to sift through the books of the New Testament, discarding what was unhistorical and retaining what was historical. Lewis opposed that approach, something best seen in his essay, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” Such an approach does not take the Gospels for the kind of literature they purport to be, nor does it take the person of Jesus in the way in which he is portrayed in the Gospels.
In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape commended the Jesus quest to his nephew Wormwood for four reasons. First, the quest directs readers to someone who does not really exist, i.e. the quest for the historical Jesus is really a reconstruction of an unhistorical Jesus, the very opposite of its alleged intent. Second, the quest results in Jesus the moral Teacher rather than Jesus the Savior, the incarnate God who was capable of performing miracles and rising from the dead. This is echoed in “The Shocking Alternative,” a chapter in Mere Christianity. Third, the quest destroys the devotional life of the Christian, since it directs the Christian to someone other than the Jesus of Scripture. Fourth, the quest bypasses the issue of faith, looking at Jesus from a merely biographical point of view. Screwtape’s four reasons for urging Wormwood to use the quest in his strategy of temptation are Lewis’ four major criticisms of the quest of the historical Jesus.
A second issue related to the deity of Jesus Christ that Lewis took up was the claim that Jesus was simply a great moral teacher. The person and work of Jesus Christ is usually the place that a false teacher will begin, and setting up Jesus as a great moral teacher is to bring Him down. C. S. Lewis fully understood this fact. The Principal of Manchester College, Nicol Cross, a Unitarian, didn’t like Lewis’ logic in a BBC address that later formed a part of Mere Christianity. Cross said at the Socratic Club on November 11, 1946 that “he must allude to the ‘vulgar nonsense’ that ‘a man who said the things that Jesus said, and was not God would be either a lunatic or a devil.’ ” He was quoting Lewis’ BBC address, entitled “The Shocking Alternative,” first delivered on Feb. 1, 1942, an address that later became a part of Mere Christianity. Better was the conclusion of Justin Phillips, who believed that this was the talk that “established Lewis’ reputation as a Christian apologist of the first rank.”
One of Lewis’ most compelling arguments for the deity of Jesus is that fact that Jesus forgave sins. And He forgave sins, not those sins committed against Him, but those done against others, as though He were the chief one offended. Lewis writes, “He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.”
On a third note, one that similarly tries to reduce Christianity, and not merely Jesus of Nazareth, to the ordinary, Lewis also writes, “If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance.” We have lots of good advice from the many world religions. Lewis documented this in the Appendix to The Abolition of Man. Lewis goes on to say, “There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference.”