CS Lewis and George MacDonald on Theological (un)Certainty

This image was on a Facebook meme, so I am not sure of the source of the quotes. The one from Lewis is in keeping with various other analogies which he has made in The Problem of Pain. [Others have pointed out that the quote above is from his Reflections on the Psalms.] There is a passage in his chapter “Divine Goodness” (pp. 32-33) that also provides an analogy with dogs that speaks to this relationship between human and God.

Its [the biblical analogy of God as shepherd and humans as “the sheep of his pasture”] great merit lies in the fact that the association of (say) man and dog is primarily for the man’s sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it. Yet at the same time, the dog’s interests are not sacrificed to the man’s. The one end (that he may love it) cannot be fully attained unless it also, in its fashion, loves him, nor can it serve him unless he, in a different fashion, serves it. Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the “best” of irrational creatures, and a proper object for a man to love—of course, with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations—man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature.

CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 32.

I do not know MacDonald’s work so well, but he articulates the view that I have long held; systematic theology is just too neat and convenient and rarely reflects experience. Wikiquote provides a citation and a fuller context that is further to the point.

I firmly believe people have hitherto been a great deal too much taken up about doctrine and far too little about practice. The word doctrine, as used in the Bible, means teaching of duty, not theory. I preached a sermon about this. We are far too anxious to be definite and to have finished, well-polished, sharp-edged systems – forgetting that the more perfect a theory about the infinite, the surer it is to be wrong, the more impossible it is to be right.

George MacDonald, From a letter to his father, quoted in George MacDonald and His Wife (1924).

What has long drawn me to the biblical accounts, particularly in the Old Testament, is how very real they are. Life is messy and disorganized, often showing little pattern aside from the broadest paths of time’s grinding progress. Efforts to try and fit the diversity of the biblical testimony into a strict structure inevitably fail to take into account other elements of contrasting evidence from the biblical account and our lived experience.

That is not to suggest that the Bible (or our life) offer contradictory evidence, but simply that our knowledge is incomplete and we need to have the humility to admit that. There are certainties that the Bible presents to us (e.g., Rom. 8:38-39), reassuring and encouraging us as we go through this life. But how it all works together? That is mystery in the deepest sense of the word; it is truth that is known through revelation.

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