The ScrewTape Letters by C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, part 9

Key Themes in The Screwtape Letters, or,
What we learn from Screwtape: part 5

          This is part 9 in a series of blog posts that is dedicated to The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. To see part 1, click here; to see part 2, click here; to see part 3, click here; to see part 4, click here; to see part 5, click here; to see part 6, click here; to see part 7, click here; to see part 8, click here. In part 1 we introduced the Screwtape Letters and provided a brief outline of the book. In parts 2-4 we provided an analysis of the literary sources that inspired the Screwtape Letters. We saw that the two most obvious literary sources for The Screwtape Letters are (1) the biblical teachings on angels, demons, and sin, and (2) John Milton’s Paradise Lost. We then looked at a number of other influences, and references to other literature, that can be seen in the ScrewTape Letters. In part 5 we began an exposition of the key themes that are brought up in the Screwtape Letters. Due to the nature of the Letters, it is important to understand that Lewis is not providing an indepth philosophical or theological analysis of each subject, but, rather, is providing what might be called a popular-level analysis.
 In part 5 we looked at some comments that Lewis makes concerning the Natural Sciences, Time and Change (which might be considered a sub-category of natural philosophy, or Metaphysics--depending on how the subject is approached), and Metaphysics. In part 6, we looked at some comments that Lewis makes concerning Theology Proper (the doctrine of God), and Christology. In part 7 we considered some comments that Lewis makes concerning Human Nature, Hamartiology (or the doctrine of sin), and Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). In part 8 we looked at sanctification, Heaven and Hell, some final comments on Angels and Demons, the moral law, and moral teachers throughout history. Now, in part 9, we will look at the very involved subject of Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will, as C. S. Lewis approaches the subject in the Screwtape Letters.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will

The question of the relationship between Divine sovereignty and human free-will is one of the most debated subjects within Christianity. There are many different theories, and the different answers have caused division in the church. Even in this small book C. S. Lewis is able to offer not only some interesting insights, but what amounts to a full response to the question. Is it a response that all Christians will agree with? Obviously not, but one cannot deny that it is a response, that, though briefly explained, it is a good response, and that it resembles the response to this question that has been given by some of the most important theologians of the church (such as Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas). Lewis addresses this question in two places, the 8th letter and the 27th chapter.

The problem of the divine sovereignty and foreknowledge in relation to human free-will is a problem that goes about as far back in human history as men have believed in divine influence in the created universe (thus, it is not a problem that is unique to Christianity). The problem is created by two seemingly contradictory claims: (1) God is sovereign over all the created universe and foreknows, without fail, all that will come to be. (2) Man has free-will. C. S. Lewis, in the Screwtape Letters, claims that both claims are true, when properly understood. He puts the problem as follows: “If you tried to explain to him [man] that men’s prayers today are one of the innumerable co-ordinates with which the Enemy harmonises the weather of tomorrow, he would reply that then the Enemy always knew men were going to make those prayers and, if so, they did not pray freely but were predestined to do so.”[1] Either God is not all-knowing and all-sovereign, or man is not free.

Lewis clearly affirms, at numerous places in this little book, that man has free-will.[2] He does not, however, go into just what is meant by free-will. He also claims that God is all-knowing and all sovereign, but, that God willingly does not remove human free-will, “You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistable and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve.”[3] The reason why God does not remove human free-will, as Lewis states in the above quotation, is that His desire is that humans freely chose to obey, serve and love Him.

How, then, are we to solve this problem of divine sovereignty and foreknowledge versus human free-will? Is it a one or the other dilemma? Lewis begins solving the problem by noting that part of the pseudo-problem is man’s false understanding of God’s relation to time. Man is temporal, says Lewis, but not God. The problem is created because “he [man] takes Time for an ultimate reality. He supposes that the Enemy [God], like himself [man], sees some things as present, remembers others as past, and anticipates others as future.”[4] The reality, says, Lewis, is quite the contrary. God is not a temporal Being, he is neither in time nor limited by time, so, the pseudo-problem of how divine foreknowledge and sovereignty could be compatible with human free-will is based upon a misunderstanding of the nature of God. “How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not forsee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him to it.”[5]

Problem solved, or, rather, pseudo-problem disposed of. This, at least, is Lewis’s summary answer to the question, as he briefly approaches it in The Screwtape Letters. Those who have already studied the great church theologians, such as Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, will recognize that Lewis is giving a response that is entirely in line with their responses. Lewis ties this response to Boethius,[6] but anybody who has read Aquinas will recognize that Aquinas gives the same basic answer. The problem, says Screwtape, the demon who can’t possibly understand why in the world God would want these filthy bipeds to love him, is not How it is possible for God to infallibly know all things (past, present, and future), and yet maintain human free-will. Rather, “Why the creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems.”[7] Demons seek forced submission, not freely given service.

Go to part 10.

[1]Ibid., 138.

[2]Ibid., 46, 139.

[3]Ibid., 46.

[4]Ibid., 138.

[5]Ibid., 139.



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