C.S. Lewis, ‘A Very Poor Thomist’?

The Oxford Don on the ‘Dumb Ox’

I remember reading Norman Geisler’s book Thomas Aquinas in graduate school at Yale while I was taking a course from George Lindbeck by the same title. Geisler seemed rather certain that C. S. Lewis was something of a Thomist. But, having read Lewis very widely as an undergraduate, that just didn’t seem right to me.

I lodged it away in my memory. Then, several years later, reading about Lesslie Newbigin’s dislike of Thomas’s thought—particularly his epistemology (theory of knowledge)—I came across a riveting quotation from C. S. Lewis about Aquinas that I shared with some friends:

In dealing with the Middle Ages we are often tricked by our imagination. We think of plate armour and Aristotelianism. But the end of the Middle Ages is already in sight when these attractive things appear. And just as the lobster shell of steel gave to the warrior, along with the security, something of the inertia, of the crustacean, so it is possible, without disrespect to the great philosophical panoply in which Dante and Aquinas walked complete, to hint that those who wore it necessarily lost some of the grace and freedom of their forebears. The recovery of Aristotle’s text dates from the second half of the twelfth century: the dominance of his doctrine soon followed. Aristotle is, before all, the philosopher of divisions. His effect on his greatest disciple [Aquinas], as M. Gilson has traced it, was to dig new chasms between God and the world, between human knowledge and reality, between faith and reason. Heaven began, under this dispensation, to seem farther off. The danger of Pantheism grew less: the danger of mechanical Deism came a step nearer. It is almost as if the first, faint shadow of Descartes, or even of ‘our present discontents’ had fallen across the scene.1

I haven’t been able to get this quote off my mind. It comes to the forefront every time I hear or read someone casually repeating (without citing any evidence) that Lewis was heavily indebted to Thomas and Thomism. Statements like the one above (admittedly, this is the strongest one in Lewis that I’ve come across) have led Lewis scholars such as S. Steve Park to believe that Lewis was “disturbed by the Thomistic tendency to dichotomize nature and grace or reason and faith.”2

Authors such as Park and Stewart Goetz believe that Lewis is really more of an Augustinian in most of his views.3 More particularly, he was influenced most heavily by Boethius, the sixth century Christian philosopher whom Henry Chadwick said was reflective of “high Augustinianism.”4 In asking why Lewis did not become a Roman Catholic, Goetz says that because Lewis “did not follow schools [of thought], he did not follow the school of Thomas Aquinas. In Lewis’ mind, however, to have become a Roman Catholic would have meant that he would have had to follow the school of Thomas.”5

Goetz explains that Lewis’s letters show the disquiet he had for the fact that Thomas had been given special status in the Roman Catholic Church in the early twentieth century. In one letter to the Roman Catholic Adam Bede Griffiths, Lewis averred, “It was a great shock to learn that Thomism is now de fide [a matter of faith] for your Church—if that is what you mean. But is that really so? I should welcome a letter clearing the matter up.”6

In making his argument, Goetz talks about the many views of Lewis that he “knew were in conflict with those of Thomas Aquinas.”7 This is probably because, as the philosopher Richard Purtill stated, Lewis had “misgivings about scholastic philosophy.”8 Purtill notes that, in particular, Lewis held the cosmological argument for the existence of God—an important Thomistic tenet—in low esteem. Lewis said, “The cosmological argument is, for some people at some times, ineffective. It has always been for me.”9

Christopher Derrick argues that Oxford University, where Lewis studied, was a hotbed of the “vigorous revival of scholastic and Thomist thought among Catholics,” especially tied to the establishment of a Thomist college, Blackfriars. Lewis “revolted instinctively” against it.10 But Goetz believes that Derrick emphasizes too much Lewis’s opposition to the scholastic “method and mentality” of Thomism. On the contrary, it was “the content of Aquinas’s views” that bothered Lewis.11

Lewis’s friend and biographer Chad Walsh said that Lewis told him that he used Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae as a convenient reference work but was not “greatly influenced by him in general.”12 “As a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature, he had been deeply impressed by certain characteristics of the Medieval period. Aquinas represented for him a theological synthesis characteristic of the age. However, Lewis did not follow Thomistic theology as a pattern for his own theological reasoning. Aquinas remained an important source of informative learning rather than a source of incorporative or internalized learning.”13

At one point, Lewis addressed the fact that some people mistakenly saw him as being influenced by Thomism. “You will find some people,” he said, “who say I am much influenced by Thomism. I do (now) use the Summa a good deal, mainly as a sort of dictionary of medieval belief.” But Lewis went on to say that there was only an “appearance of influence,” which probably stemmed from the fact, when considering ethics, he drew heavily from Aristotle’s Ethics, which Aquinas also did.14

This is also an interesting question in considering whether Lewis was more Augustinian or Thomistic. Augustine is usually thought of as having been more influenced by Plato, Aquinas by Aristotle. However, Lewis’s use of Platonic and Aristotelian concepts is remarkably balanced, as with any great Christian thinker. Walsh was right when he said, “I doubt that one can label Lewis either an Aristotelian or a Platonist. His neat way of thought perhaps suggests Aristotle, but the role that ‘universals’ play in his thinking brings him close to Plato.”15

Another reason some authors might think they see glimpses of Thomism in Lewis is because of his discussion of what he calls the “Tao” or natural order of things. But Lewis’s view of natural law is a much more chastened version than the Thomistic type—much more like typical conservative Protestant thinkers of his day. He clearly stated that he did not wish “to reintroduce in its full Stoical or medieval rigour the doctrine of Natural Law.”16 Thus, as Justin Dyer and Micah Watson note, “Lewis drew attention to the natural law primarily as preparation for the work of the gospel.”17

Adam Bede Griffiths once said that Lewis was “most unsympathetic to the revival of Thomism. . . . I don’t think that he found Saint Thomas himself very attractive.”18 This is probably why Lewis described himself as a “very poor Thomist,”19  and why, according to Walter Hooper, when he downsized after his retirement from Cambridge and sold many of his books, “amongst those he parted with were St Thomas’ Summa Theologica.”20

In short, as Stewart Goetz argues, the evidence for C. S. Lewis’s reliance on Thomas Aquinas and Thomistic thought is “hard to come by.”21 I think Goetz is right, and I think the quick tendency of evangelical Thomists to classify Lewis as a Thomist is off the mark. At the very least, it’s something that needs to be studied more carefully before putting such a freighted label on such an important Christian thinker.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

  1. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in the Medieval Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 110. By “present discontents,” Lewis means the skeptics of his own age.
  2. S. Steve Park, Journey Towards Home: The Christian Life According to C. S. Lewis (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 17.
  3. Stewart Goetz, A Philosophical Walking Tour with C. S. Lewis: Why It Did Not Include Rome (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).
  4. Henry Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), quoted in Park, 18.
  5. Goetz, 172 n. 67.
  6. Ibid., 173.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Richard Purtill, C. S. Lewis and the Case for Christian Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 33.
  9. Quoted in Purtill, 33. This reminds me of Leroy Forlines’s reaction when I sent him a paper I had written as an undergraduate defending the cosmological argument. For an account of his response, see F. Leroy Forlines and J. Matthew Pinson, The Apologetics of Leroy Forlines (Gallatin, Tenn.: Welch College Press, 2019).
  10. Christopher Derrick, C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome: A Study in Proto-Ecumenism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1981), quoted in Goetz, 176.
  11. Goetz, 174.
  12. Chad Walsh, C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 138.
  13. Park, 16-17.
  14. Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 118 n. 47.
  15. Walsh, 138-39. Walsh goes on to mention that Boethius was the ancient thinker that had the most direct influence on Lewis.
  16. Quoted in Dyer and Watson, 37.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Adam Bede Griffiths, “The Adventure of Faith,” in Remembering C. S. Lewis: Reflections of Those Who Knew Him, ed. James T. Como (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 90.
  19. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 20. The quotation comes from a consideration of the Christian’s attitude to literature in Lewis’s essay “Christianity and Culture”: “In Thomas Aquinas I could not find anything directly bearing on my problem. But I am a very poor Thomist and shall be grateful for correction at this point.”
  20. Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, quoted in Goetz, 176.
  21. Goetz, 176.

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J. Matthew Pinson

J. Matthew Pinson has served as president and professor of theology at Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee, for more than twenty years. Prior to that he served as a pastor in Alabama, Connecticut, and Georgia. His primary interests are historical theology, the intersection of ecclesiology and cultural studies, higher education, and leadership. He holds a master's degree from Yale and a doctorate from Vanderbilt and is author or editor of ten books and numerous articles. He lives with his wife, Melinda, in Gallatin, Tennessee, and they have two grown children, Anna and Matthew.