One of the more brilliant things C. S. Lewis does in the Chronicles of Narnia series is to take a famous line from the first book he wrote in the series and show how it can be misused in the final book of the series. To take a proverb and parody it as a parable within the greater narrative is surely a bit of theological artistic genius.
The line I’m talking about is this: ‘He’s not a tame lion.’ It’s used of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to show that his goodness does not preclude a kind of wildness.
But in The Last Battle, when Aslan’s absence has been prolonged, the phrase begins to be misused. In the first chapter, Jewel the unicorn uses the phrase as a basis for suggesting that maybe the stars and their ominous warning are wrong about the present situation. Though Aslan never acts without the stars sending signs, maybe he is acting in a new way, breaking with the past. After all, Aslan made the stars, Jewel says. And he is not a tame lion.
A few chapters later, Shift— the ape who conned a donkey into acting like Aslan so that the ape could rule the land— rebukes Narnians who find the order of slavery as out of Aslan’s character. Here he tells them they don’t really know what freedom is, and that the bottom line is that they ought not question Aslan since, after all, he is not a tame lion.
Reading it to my son last night, both misuses of the ‘tame lion’ phrase struck me as rebuke to two tendencies in our own day— though I suspect there were versions of it in Lewis’s day as well.
The first suggests that God’s wildness is a grounds for justifying a break with God’s ways. God is ‘free’ and therefore does not have to act the way He has always acted. This is very near the argument used by “progressive Christians” when they want to move beyond the moral vision of the New Testament. “Oh, yes that’s what the Bible says about sexuality, but the Spirit blows where it pleases. God has moved on.” No doubt you’ve heard some version of this.
The second misuse of the phrase emphasizes God’s sovereignty to be so absolute that even our definitions will be different. Freedom is not what we think freedom is. Good is not what we think good is. Of course, there is some truth here, but the danger comes in absolutizing the ‘otherness’ of God to the effect of erasing any point of reference. Language itself becomes meaningless. God is beyond our control and therefore can act in ways that is out of character in our eyes. This resembles some versions of hyper-Calvinism I’ve heard, where God is so far removed from us that He may think cancer or some horrible thing is ‘good’ even when we don’t. God can do things that are out of character because we don’t really understand His character anyway.
Both are misapplications— and therefore abuses— of the notion of God’s God-ness. One stresses God’s freedom; the other God’s otherness. One allows God to break from His ways in the past; the other from God’s character as we know it. Both undermine the self-revelation of God. True: God cannot be fully known by humans, but if knowledge of God is not possible, then God’s attempt of revealing Himself is in vain. Surely the condescension of God— in revelation and incarnation— helps us actually know God. No, He is not ’tame’, but His wildness does not mean we cannot know Him through His ways. The Old Testament is particularly clear in showing that God reveals who He is by what He does (Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 is but one example). And God’s wildness does not mean that we do not know the essence of His character. This why John could write with confidence that God is Love. This is why Paul could work out a coherent theology of grace to stitch old and new covenants together, and show how Jews and Gentiles belong to one another, yet still warn of the judgment that comes from rejecting this grace.
In short, God’s wildness cannot be used against Him. He is still good. And He has shown us what goodness looks like.