by George Brahm
Once described as “the best case for the essentials of orthodox Christianity in print”, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity has gone from being a set of wartime radio talks to arguably the most influential Christian book of the 20th century.
Two Conceptions of ‘Mere Christianity’
The impact of the book starts with the phrase that serves as its title. In the preface to the book, Lewis defines ‘mere’ Christianity as consisting of those beliefs that have been “common to all Christians at all times.” Many have since used ‘mere Christianity’ to describe a position they hold to or an approach they take. Allow me to elucidate two such conceptions.
As a lack of denominational affiliation/credal adherence
During a promotional interview for his then-upcoming book, a prominent Christian author was asked about his denominational background and theological views.
“I’m what C.S. Lewis would call a ʽMere Christianʼ,” he responded, before pointing out that this was also reflected in his books, as he preferred not to discuss those various and sundry matters over which denominations differ.
He is perhaps one of the more prominent examples of those who take such a position. I too had the opportunity to chat with one such individual who was particularly curious about my recent conversion to Calvinism.
“And you are an Arminian, I presume?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” he said, “My wife and I are ‘mere’ Christians. You know, like C.S. Lewis was?”
I was then subjected to a diatribe that went over how various doctrinal differences had caused nothing but division throughout church history, and described how Lewis’ Mere Christianity had shown him a ‘new and peaceful way forward’.
This appears to be a rather attractive position to take. For one, the tag of ‘mere’ Christian gives you the perfect vantage point to snipe at everybody else’s distinctive doctrines, while having none of your own to defend. To the non-confrontational sort, it grants a terrific veneer of ecumenism– for one can now say things like, “I have nothing against praying to the saints or the doctrine of double predestination, as I’m a ‘mere’ Christian.” And it also gives one the perfect response to the non-believer who asks, perhaps in a pejorative way, about which of the innumerable ‘sects’ of Christianity one belongs to. “None of them,” one can say with a smile, “While I am part of a Baptist congregation, I prefer to call myself a ‘mere’ Christian in the Lewisian mold.”
As an apologetic/evangelistic approach
Perhaps you haven’t met too many people of the sort I just described. But anyone slightly familiar with the discipline of Christian apologetics will have heard of a different conception of ‘Mere Christianity’– those who use it to describe their apologetic/evangelistic methodology.
The most well-known example of this is the Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig. While making it clear that he personally holds to several doctrinal positions that might not be universally-affirmed among Christians, he says, “I have made it my goal to be a spokesman for what C. S. Lewis called ‘mere’ Christianity, that is to say, the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith affirmed by all the great Christian confessions, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Coptic.” In other words, he dedicates his apologetic ministry to defending those doctrines that one considers non-negotiable to the Christian faith (such as the existence of God and the deity of Christ, as well as His death and Resurrection) in an attempt to win the non-believer over to Christianity before introducing him/her to the various ‘in-house debates’ about issues like soteriology or ecclesiology.
Most apologists of the classical and evidential schools adopt a similar ‘mere’ Christianity approach. And while their points of emphasis might differ from Dr. Craig’s, they share advantages in common. For instance, the ‘mere’ Christianity approach aims to present only those elements of the Christian faith that are essential for salvation, and since every evangelist/apologist hopes to see the non-believer saved at the end of their Gospel presentation, ‘mere’ Christianity seems to be a suitable approach towards that end. It also seems to be simpler to win the non-believer into ‘mere’ Christianity first, before introducing them to the more complex doctrinal distinctives that you hold to be true.
What Would Lewis Think?
An interesting question is, what would Lewis think of those who call themselves ‘mere’ Christians, often invoking his name, as opposed to adhering to the creeds and doctrinal distinctives of a particular denomination? And what would Lewis think of those who use ‘mere’ Christianity as an apologetic/evangelistic methodology?
Fortunately for those of us who ask these questions, Lewis does give us the answers in, wait for it, his book Mere Christianity.
On ‘Mere’ Christianity as a methodology
Addressing the second question is easier, because this seems to be exactly what Lewis intends to do via his book. As he writes in his preface-
“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….I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed [doctrinal] points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold….Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.” (pp. viii-ix)
He goes on to describe an additional motive for writing the book-
“I got the impression that far more, and more talented, authors were already engaged in such controversial [doctrinal] matters than in the defense of what [Richard] Baxter calls ‘mere’ Christianity. That part of the line where I thought I could serve best was also the part that seemed to be thinnest. And to it I naturally went.” (p. ix)
So it turns out that Lewis’ project is very similar to, if not identical with, that of the classical and evidential schools of apologetics we spoke of earlier. If he were alive today, Lewis would probably applaud them for taking the methodology that he presented in his book and putting it to practical use.
On ‘Mere’ Christianity as a lack of denominational affiliation/credal adherence
Let’s now turn to the first question, namely that of what Lewis thinks about those who describe themselves as ‘mere’ Christians as a substitute for having to adhere to the creeds and doctrinal distinctives of a particular denomination. And he does give us a rather clear response, and one that I suspect these ‘mere’ Christians might not enjoy very much. He writes-
“I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions– as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.” (p. xv, emphasis mine)
Does reading that make you wonder whether these self-styled ‘mere’ Christians have actually read Lewis’ book? Or whether they just decided to skip the preface? (I’ll be charitable and assume the latter.) For by his own admission, Lewis never meant for ‘mere’ Christianity to be an excuse for Christians to take a position of neutrality on doctrine. In fact, he goes on to give a remarkably visual illustration to reiterate what he means by ‘mere’ Christianity, and I cannot conceive of how can continue to invoke Lewis’ name in calling oneself a ‘mere’ Christian after reading it. He says-
“[Mere Christianity] is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.” (p. xv)
In other words, Lewis thinks that picking the worst ‘room’ or branch of Christianity is better than pitching one’s tent in the hall of ‘mere’ Christianity for the rest of one’s Christian life. And to someone who is waiting in the hall, unsure of which room to pick, Lewis says-
“You must keep praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all, you must be asking which door is the true one; not which one pleases you best by its paint and panelling….The question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service, but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?'” (p. xvi)
But by no means, Lewis says, must one turn one’s “waiting” into “camping”.
If he were alive today, I suspect Lewis would be greatly displeased to see many Christians invoke his name to call themselves ‘mere’ Christians, reveling in their lack of dedication to the doctrines and traditions of any particular denomination, either because they consider themselves above the need to subscribe to any such thing or because they wish to present themselves as inhumanly neutral and unbiased towards all denominations. To him, such a man would be akin to an imbecile who enters a vast house with many warm rooms that are stocked with the choicest of food and drink, only to reject all of that in favour of starving himself for the rest of his life on the cold floor of the foyer– a ‘Christian’ who knows of all the spiritual riches there are to gain but opts to die a pauper.
To such man, I ask as I expect Lewis would’ve asked: Is your strained assumption of neutrality really worth it?
All quotations taken from-
Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity. 2nd ed. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1980.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.
[Kindly note that the above elucidation of Lewis’ apologetic methodology does not consist of an endorsement of the same on my part. Despite preferring a classical approach, I do take issue with some aspects of a ‘mere’ Christianity approach. In addition, I hope my reader does not take this article as a ringing endorsement of all of what Lewis says in his book– I do have severe disagreements with some of Lewis’ theology within his explication of ‘mere’ Christianity, for instance, his belief that there are non-Christians within other religions who “belong to Christ without knowing it” and can get to heaven without an explicit confession of faith in Christ’s atonement. Lewis’ views on the atonement itself are different from mine, but that is a topic for another day.]