Is There Such a Thing as "Mere Christianity"?
July-August 2001 By Thomas Storck
Thomas Storck is a Contributing Editor of the NOR and author, most recently, of Christendom and the West: Essays on Culture, Society and History.
The great Anglican apologist and scholar C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) championed a concept he called “mere Christianity.” Although the term itself seems to have been coined by the Puritan divine, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), in Lewis’s mind it meant what he regarded as those central truths which were held by all Christians:This quotation comes from Mere Christianity, the chief book in which Lewis undertook to justify and expound those elements of the Christian faith which he supposed were common to all Christians. The concept of “mere Christianity” is popular among many Christians, even Catholics, and sometimes seems to function as a kind of ecumenism for conservative Christians.The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian “denominations.” You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical)…. Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.
In this article I will argue that the notion of “mere Christianity” is one that an orthodox Catholic cannot entertain, because implicit in it is a denial of the supreme importance of the Catholic faith as the complete revelation of God, together with a corresponding tendency to consider the Catholic Church as simply one among the many “denominations” of Christianity. And as we will see, there are many other conceptual and factual problems with the idea of “mere Christianity.”
First let us look at Lewis’s explanation of this concept. He undertakes to explain and defend “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” How does he know what this belief is? By consulting the members, living and deceased, of Christian churches, or rather their “great doctors” and recognized teachers. But how does he know which churches can be considered Christian churches and which members of those churches hold Christian beliefs? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unitarian Universalist Association — all these in some way flow out of the Christian tradition, and the first two would certainly claim to be Christian. And what of certain members of churches that are undoubtedly Christian? Both Arius and Nestorius were members of the Catholic Church — as was Martin Luther. Who is to determine which doctrines of these three men are part of “mere Christianity”? Supporters of “mere Christianity” might reply that in the cases of Arius and Nestorius their views were condemned by ecumenical councils that were accepted by all of Chnistendom. But this is not really true, for after the First Council of Nicea many who called themselves Christian continued to champion some form of Arianism, and even today there exist followers of Nestorius who would assert their claim to be Christians. Moreover, the teachings of Martin Luther were also condemned by an ecumenical council. How can Lewis distinguish between First Nicea. and Ephesus on the one hand, and Trent on the other?
Basically Lewis has no way of determining the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy. In the end, Lewis himself decides what the basic and defining Christian doctrines are: Our Lord’s virginal conception and birth, but not the perpetual virginity of Our Lady; the existence of Heaven and Hell, but not of Purgatory; sacraments, but not whether there are two or three or seven. But by what authority does Lewis decide these things? If he should reply that it is not he, but “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times” that has decided them, then he is begging the question. For he is defining “mere Christianity” by the Christians he considers to be “mere Christians.”
In a controversy that occurred in 1958 between Lewis and Norman Pittenger, an American Episcopalian theologian, Lewis criticized Pittenger, who had said that his authority in matters of faith was “the total consentient witness of all Christians from the Apostles’ time.” About this Lewis wrote: “The ‘total consentient witnesses would be grand if we had it. But of course the overwhelming majority of Christians…have died, and are dying while I write, without recording their ‘witness.’ How does Dr Pittenger consult his authority?”
Lewis’s point, of course, is true, but though his own sources of witness, councils, theologians, and so on are obviously more easily consulted, this is true only if one knows beforehand which councils and which theologians are witnesses to the genuine Christian faith. And if Lewis or his supporters should reply that it is those councils and theologians that the majority of Christians adhere to, then Trent and Vatican I are as much sources for “mere Christianity” as Nicea or Ephesus.
Moreover, the vast majority of Christians, who have held to the “mere Christian” beliefs that Lewis promotes, have also held to many other doctrines, and it is far from clear that they would have been willing to divide their beliefs into essential doctrines on the one hand and unessential doctrines on the other. No Catholic, for example, could admit that the divine establishment of the papacy was any less a revealed dogma than the Incarnation. The latter is more fundamental, yes, but both doctrines are integral and important parts of the Christian revelation, and ultimately the latter is not safe without the former.
Moreover, “mere Christianity” is not as unified as it might seem to be even in those doctrines that appear to be held by all who call themselves Christian. For the contents of those beliefs are in reality often very different. Take Baptism. Other than the mere name and the fact that Christ commanded it and it has something to do with water, there is little about it that a Catholic and an evangelical Protestant would agree on. Is it simply a sign that someone has submitted to Christ, “accepted Christ as his personal Savior,” a mere external rite, not in itself necessary to salvation, or is it a sign that accomplishes what it signifies, namely the spiritual regeneration of the person baptized? Must it be administered by immersion or may it be properly done by pouring the water? Who are its proper subjects: any person or only those old enough to make a profession of kith in Christ? There is certainly no “mere Christian” doctrine of Baptism. And this, of course, is to leave out many, such as the Quakers, the Berean Baptists, the Salvation Army, and others who reject Baptism altogether or regard it as optional.
What has been said of Baptism could be said of any of the sacraments, notably Holy Communion. Here obviously the teachings of various Christian bodies differ radically, as their outward practices indicate. In some Protestant bodies Communion is administered once a month or four times a year or even less. And most, with the exception of Lutherans and some Anglicans, do not hold that Christ intended for there to be any change whatsoever in the elements of Communion, but that they remain bread and wine (or grape juice).
Although some Protestants have ceremonies of Confirmation, and most have some kind of Ordination, they are, contrary to Catholicism, not intended to be the conferral of a sacramental character and sacramental grace, but simply outward rites that indicate a particular ecclesiastical status.
And the same could be said of many other things: even of faith itself. Is faith a blind trust in God (what is sometimes called fiduciary faith) or is it primarily “the virtue by which we firmly believe all the truths God has revealed” (Baltimore Catechism) — that is, is it an act of blind trust in God which is located primarily in our wills or an act mainly of the intellect in which we accept certain truths as having been revealed by God?
Even the whole scheme of redemption, beginning with the sin of Adam, is understood in different ways by Catholics and Protestants. Did the Fall of man result in “the total corruption of our whole human nature” (Luther) so that good works “done before the grace of Christ, and the inspiration of his Spirit are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ…but they have the nature of sin” (Anglican Articles of Religion)? Or, in contrast, as the Baltimore Catechism teaches, is man’s nature “not evil in itself; it can perform some good actions in the natural order without the aid of grace”? And these two different understandings lead to different doctrines on the relation of grace and nature, including different views of the use of material objects in worship, and even different cultural and social expressions of Christianity.
There are many other articles of the Christian faith that are understood very differently by Protestants and Catholics. What is predestination? Did God predestine some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation because of the secret counsels of His will, regardless of their beliefs or behavior? And did Christ thus die only for the predestined? Do our actions have anything to do with gaining eternal life, or, once we put our trust in Jesus Christ, is that all that we need to do? Lewis’s own discussion of this point in Mere Chnstianity seeks to avoid either position, and what he actually says does not address the question at all. He begins his discussion in this way:
Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.
Then, after presenting a parody of the extreme form of each of these two ways of attaining salvation, Lewis says:
The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” — which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, “For it is God who worketh in you” — which looks as if God did everything and we nothing.
But this verse really does not address the question of faith and good works at all, but rather a different question, namely, our own efforts in relation to God’s. “For it is God who worketh in you” obviously refers to the working out of our salvation which is mentioned in the first part of the verse. That is, we are to persevere in obeying God and His law “with fear and trembling,” all the while knowing that it is God’s grace that is really sustaining us. This verse has nothing to do with faith versus good works. This is even clearer when the rest of the verse, which Lewis omitted, is quoted, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). St. Paul is discussing whether avoiding sin and doing good works is the result of our own efforts or of God’s actions, not at all addressing the question of faith versus good works.
Thus, to maintain that there is a common Christian doctrine on the subject of salvation is not true. The typically evangelical Protestant doctrine of “eternal security” is clearly opposed to the Catholic (and biblical) teaching that we may fall from grace, but that grace can also thereafter be regained.
One of the biggest points that Lewis omits from his “mere Christianity” is any doctrine of the Church. What is the Church? Is it an invisible fellowship composed of only the saved or is it a visible body to which belong both good and not-so-good? Considering how large the Church looms in the epistles of St Paul, one would think that this would be one of the chief topics of anything claiming to express the belief of all Christians. When Catholics speak of the Church they mean something definite and concrete. A Catholic can speak of “the teaching of the Church” and mean something definite by that phrase. But a Protestant cannot do so, and thus appeals most often to biblical teaching or biblical standards, since for him “the church” is not really something definite and concrete, except in reference to his local congregation. When a Protestant asks, “Are you involved in your church?” he means, “Do you teach Sunday school?” or “Are you a member of the Board of Deacons?” or an usher or what have you. The notion of the Church as one body of the faithful throughout the world with the same faith and sacramental life is foreign to his thinking.
The Apostles, in proclaiming the Gospel, never separated adherence to the doctrines they taught from membership in the Church. They proclaimed the Resurrection and our redemption by Jesus Christ, and immediately invited their hearers to be baptized and become members of the Church, afterwards to receive the very Body and Blood of the Lord. Membership in the Church was the gateway to all the rest of Christianity. One could not even know what to believe unless one had the Church as his teacher; one could not partake of any form of Christian life unless one had the Church as his mother. Nor did the Apostles write the New Testament as an independent source of doctrine which one could weigh against the claims and teaching of the Church. The New Testament was written by the Church, in the Church, and for the Church, and no one can understand it correctly unless he is receptive to the Church’s voice.
The question of the Church is connected to the question of authority in Christianity, and it is perhaps here that Lewis’s “mere Christianity” most clearly shows its defects. For surely the question of authority is the chief, or one of the chief, questions for a Christian. In fact, it is nearly useless to argue with another Christian about doctrine unless you have first determined that the two of you agree about what or who is the standard for resolving such questions. But Lewis avoids this question, for he surely must have known that his “mere Christianity” would immediately sink on this rock. What is the authority for a Christian? Is it the teaching Church with its college of bishops, whose infallible head is the Bishop of Rome; or is it the body of bishops by themselves assembled in council; or is it Scripture interpreted by each man; or is it simply the inspiration of the Holy Spirit individually intuited by each believer? Historic Christianity, as it existed in the early Church, gives absolutely no credence to the last two principles of interpretation, nor to the second, for not only the role of bishops, but the special role of the Bishop of Rome, has loomed large in the Church since New Testament days. Who decided that this was really an inessential part of the Christian faith, not part of “mere Christianity”?
I have been speaking about the doctrines of Christian faith, but I should say a word about Christian morality too, for there also Lewis is inconsistent. He (rightly) condemns usury, even though Calvin had accepted it and after him many other Protestants, but he refuses to take a stand on whether gambling is ever permissible or on contraception, although it was a mere dozen years before he wrote that Protestants first began approving of unnatural birth prevention. He says that “it is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers.” Yet here is a moral teaching that is certainly not common to all who profess themselves Christian. Perhaps since Lewis did not live in the U.S. he may be excused a bit, but among North American Christians there is surely no consensus on drinking alcohol — rather much the opposite. Lewis seems to take his moral attitudes from his Anglicanism, throwing in those patristic or medieval doctrines that happen to appeal to him, such as the condemnation of usury. But there is certainly no consistent authority behind what he says.
I recognize, of course, that Lewis held as a private opinion other doctrines in addition to those he sets out as part of “mere Christianity.” For example, he believed in some kind of Purgatory or purification after death, and he thought some form of the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion probable. But these personal opinions of his cannot be used to resolve the dilemmas that are raised by his advocacy of “mere Christianity,” as he himself would have acknowledged, for he makes a clear distinction between, on the one hand, his own beliefs and, on the other, the alleged beliefs of “mere Christianity.”
I will end with the same quote with which I began. Perhaps my readers also reacted with a smile to that quote at the beginning of this article, when Lewis said:Of course, his alphabetical device is not as simple as he pretends. Because whether we are to appear in his list as Catholics or as Roman Catholics depends a great deal on whether we are seen as the universal Church or simply as a portion of the church. As used by many non-Catholics, Roman is meant not as a mark of loyalty to the Apostolic See, but rather to undermine the Catholic Church’s claim to catholicity. (When I was an Episcopalian I took pains never to refer to the Catholic Church except as the Roman Catholic Church, meaning thereby to deny her universality.) But the Catholic Church is not just a denomination, whether she is placed in the R’s or the C’s. She is the Church over which St. Peter was Vicar, the Church that St. Paul wrote of, that Church that is the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ Her doctrines are indeed shared in part by other Christians, but those doctrines belong to her. There is not a common core of doctrine among Christian groups to which each adds or subtracts a bit of this or that.The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian “denominations.” You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical).
Rather there is the fullness of Christian truth found only in the Catholic Church, from which other Christian bodies take bits and pieces. Christianity is not “like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms,” which represent different “churches,” as Lewis wrote, but one magnificent palace, around which some have pitched tents and survive on what they get from the palace. No, to be hilly [sic] Christian is to be Catholic, united visibly to Jesus Christ in His Mystical Body, nourished by His sacraments, ruled by His vicar on earth. If there is any such thing as “mere Christianity” this is it.
- Posts : 2247
Reputation : 2419
Join date : 2010-12-18
I would take it then that Lewis believed the Anglican church was the true church.
- Posts : 979
Reputation : 1068
Join date : 2010-12-18
Location : Ireland