C. S. Lewis on Anders Nygren: “He has shaken me up extremely” by Dr Jason Lepojärvi, St Benet’s Hall, Oxford
Many will find it surprising to learn of the connection between C. S. Lewis and Anders Nygren.
In his recent book on Lewis, Alister McGrath notes that Lewis “disconnected” himself from modern theological debates. Lewis may have failed to engage with many recent theological works, but Nygren’s famous Agape and Eros (1932–36) is not one of them.
Not only did he read Nygren, he read him attentively: “I wonder if he [Nygren] is not trying to force on the conception of love an antithesis which it is the precise nature of love, in all its forms, to overcome… However, I must tackle him again. He has shaken me up extremely.” (Letter to Janet Spens, January 8, 1935)
Lewis was immediately conscious of the complexity of Nygren’s thesis. He at once noticed that the contrast between “self-seeking eros” and “selfless agape” was not the only contrast drawn. There were others.
Theologically the most important was perhaps the contrast between a “wholly active God” and a “wholly passive man.” Lewis quickly homed in on Nygren’s predestinarianism.
What is even more surprising is that in formulating his own theological vision of love much later, above all in Surprised by Joy (1955) and The Four Loves (1960), Lewis almost avoids the problem of “Nygren-dependency” that has beset many commentators.
For instance, as part of a deliberate apologetic strategy, Lewis avoids mentioning Nygren by name and using the words eros and agape in the Nygrenian sense. Rather, he creates his own terminology. Lewis’s vocabulary of love is arguably more nuanced than Nygren’s.
Many readers have found a parallel between Nygren’s eros/agape distinction and Lewis’s need-love/gift-love distinction. This essay finds the parallel to be simplistic and in need of greater nuance.
The essay evaluates the possibility that it is actually Lewis’s concept of spiritual longing, not need-love, that best captures the multi-dimensionality of Nygren’s eros. The eros Nygren highly distrusted and the “Joy” that ultimately enticed Lewis to conversion surprisingly have much in common.
The full paper, published in the Harvard Theological Review, “Praeparatio Evangelica—or Daemonica? C. S. Lewis and Anders Nygren on Spiritual Longing“ by Jason Lepojärvi can be viewed here free of charge until 31st August 2016.
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