Lewis on “crystallization” in the Old Testament

I was going to post this as a comment on the thread for my first “creation vs creationism” post from the other day, but decided instead to make it a full post, as I’d be interested to get a wider range of responses.

The discussion of “myth” versus “history” called to mind C.S. Lewis’ concept of “crystallization”, which he describes in a footnote in his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study. This is Lewis’ proposal that the Old Testament moves gradually (and unevenly) from “myth” to “history”. As Lewis writes (quoted here):

My present view – which is tentative and liable to any amount of correction – would be that just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History.

This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history … nor diabolical illusion … nor priestly lying … but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology: but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology – the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truth, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical.

Whether we can say with certainty where, in this process of crystallization, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter. I take it that the memoirs of David’s court come at one end of the scale and are scarcely less historical than St. Mark or Acts; and that the Book of Jonah is at the opposite end.

This has probably had more of an influence on me over the years than I sometimes consciously realise. A couple of thoughts arising from Lewis’ statement:

  1. Lewis did not share the general discomfort of modern westerners towards “myth”, which we tend to equate with “untruth”. We like our truth to come in linear and literal form, and we then read that expectation back into the Bible. (Think, for example, of how belief in “inerrancy” is strongly correlated with a preference for “literal” interpretation. There is no inherent reason why this should be the case: it arises from our preconceptions about what constitutes “truth” and “error”.)
  2. I like Lewis’ point that, even if elements of the OT are mythical in nature (or have mythical elements), then these are still “God’s chosen myths” – the myths which God has inspired to communicate his truth to us.

This still leaves us with the question of how these OT texts are cited by Jesus, the apostles and the New Testament authors. However, even those who disagree with Lewis would have to acknowledge he has an acute ear for literary genre, which should not be dismissed lightly.

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5 Responses to Lewis on “crystallization” in the Old Testament

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    I’ve been deeply influenced by Lewis on this point, too. The conversation I remember is the one recounted by Humphrey Carpenter in The Inklings that led to Lewis’s conversion. He had regarded some of the stories as myths, but though they delighted in them, he found them untrue. He said to Tolkien that myths were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.” Tolkien responded by saying they were not lies (The Inklings, page 46). Their conversation continued to the question of man as a myth-maker, and how man was created by God to be such. I find Tolkien’s anthropology here to be quite a challenge, in any number of directions. (How often do theologians try to render all sorts of Biblical genres into flat, propositional prose. Some of it doesn’t ‘need’ translation. But some of it is twisted when translated so.) Perhaps we have missed a fact about ourselves when we forget about this side of humanity.

    Lewis explored this deeply in Till We Have Faces, where a Queen who had been educated by a rationalistic Greek goes on a quest to find out the truth about her sister, only to find her sister has been living a myth. She comes upon a priest who tells the myth, and seems at some point to interrupt his “true account” of her sister with an account of the seasons and the vestments he changes into. The contrast of mindsets is just brilliant. But Lewis was also clear that he thought that in the Resurrection, we had a myth that had become fact. I think he offers a more nuanced spectrum of possibilities along this line than any other writer I’ve read.

  2. Peter O says:

    I’ve also been influenced by Lewis on this. I think the crucial issue is that identified above, whether the usage of the earliest portions of Genesis as “myth” is undermined by the way that Jesus and Paul refer to the Pentateuch. However, if one assumes that they and others around them would have had an approach to myth that understood such stories to be about articulating theological truth then there is little problem with this.

    I think what is misunderstood about this approach is that it is not a denial of the literalness of the opening chapters of Genesis, it is more a statement that what is fundamentally important about sections like the Fall narrative is what it teaches us theologically about the state of mankind. Indeed, one can hold such a position and *and* also veer towards a literal understanding of the text.

  3. John H says:

    Peter: yes, I find the argument that says “Jesus referred to [x], therefore [x] must be ‘literally’ true” to be rather weak. It is an accepted idiom today to refer to literary characters or events without constantly reminding one’s audience that King Lear or Macbeth or whoever is “fictional” (or, in the case of Macbeth, “fictionalised”).

    Interesting that at one point Jesus specifically refers to three OT figures – Noah, Job and Daniel – all of whom are subject to doubts as to their historicity. That could mean Jesus is endorsing their historicity in the face of doubters, or it could just as easily mean that he is endorsing their value on a “mythical” level quite apart from their historicity. Or it could mean neither, because that wasn’t the question at issue!

    I think you’re right, too, that even those who hold to a more “literal”, 6 x 24 etc. view of the early chapters of Genesis should spend more time on what creation means rather than arguing for the literal interpretation itself. See my first post in this series.

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think that the bare argument “Jesus referred to [x], therefore [x] must be ‘literally’ true” is rather weak by itself. I think the question in each passage is what kind of conclusion Jesus drew from [x]. Would the conclusion follow if [x] were not historically true? And I find this question often difficult to answer. We can appeal to our accepted idioms. But to know the ones from another time and place is a challenge. So I find these arguments probabilistic. Some strike me as more plausible than others. I know each is probably subject to revision. Someone might show me that the historical implications I’ve drawn from one passage are not necessary. Someone else might show me how another passage cannot be made unhistorical or a New Testament argument won’t work, perhaps one I’ve overlooked. Whatever else is true, I’m a little leery of treating all the cases the same. Both conservatives and liberals can fall into that trap.

  5. John H says:

    Rick: no argument from me on that.

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