There’s Nothing Mere About “Mere Christianity”

Last week I announced the theme for the coming year: “A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture.” I explained the rise of the post-denominational church and its negative effect on contemporary churchgoers’ understanding of the Christian faith. Today I want to explain what I mean by “mere Christianity” and why the church’s teaching must take into account the general post-Christian Culture.

I am sure that the term “mere Christianity” reminds many of you of the book by C.S. Lewis. In his preface, Lewis cites the Puritan pastor and theologian Richard Baxter (1615-91) as his source for the term “mere” Christianity. In Baxter’s Elizabethan English, “mere” meant pure, unadulterated or unmixed, whereas in modern English it has acquired the connotation of minimal or bare. In Mere Christianity, Lewis attempts to present the central teaching common to almost all denominations, Protestant and Roman Catholic. According to Lewis, nonbelievers ought to be given an opportunity to hear the basic Christian message rather than having to sift through all the fine points of denomination-specific teachings.

Perhaps Lewis wishes for his age what St. Vincent of Lérins (early 5th century), advocated for his, that is, that Christians ought to give special honor to “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Lewis discovered that it is not easy to articulate “mere” Christianity in a way satisfactory to everyone any more than the Vincentian rule can generate a list of teachings acceptable to everyone. Lewis’s first readers found matters with which to quibble and some later readers cite omissions and offenses. But Lewis’s work has stood the test of time. Seventy-years later it is the number one selling book in the category of theology and is read approvingly by Protestants of all denominations and Roman Catholics.

In this series, however, I will not attempt to imitate C.S. Lewis. His book was aimed at outsiders and was written before the post-denominational church gained the prominence it holds today. This series aims at insiders and takes our post-denominational consciousness into account. This is why I am referring to it as a catechism. Seventy-five years ago, during the Second World War, when Lewis first presented the material contained in Mere Christianity to a British radio audience, it would have been inaccurate to refer to England as a “post-Christian” culture. Not so today, for Great Britain or the United States. Lewis could presume that regular churchgoers have been taught the basics of the faith by their denominations. We can no longer make this presumption. Hence my title “a catechism of mere Christianity.”

Like Lewis and St. Vincent, I am convinced that there is a set of basic beliefs that defines the boundaries of Christianity and that the historic traditions (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) share this core. Perhaps the exact boundaries are fuzzy, and it would be difficult and perhaps impossible for these traditions to agree on a particular text articulating these basic beliefs. Nevertheless when I read the Seven Ecumenical Councils (or at least the Nicene Creed), the Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Roman Catholic Catechism, I am amazed at the consensus on these core beliefs. And I am also amazed at how extensive the list of consensus beliefs and practices is. There is nothing minimal about this “mere Christianity”!

Though the post-denominational culture in its evangelical form does not deny those historic beliefs and practices, it neglects to teach them in their fullness and focuses instead on experience. The language of worship includes references to God, Jesus and the Spirit. It directs worshipers to praise the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Sermons inspire and encourage individuals. But as far as I can tell, there is little instruction in doctrine. Such neglect fails on two counts. (1) It assumes either that Christians don’t need instruction in the material covered in the historic catechisms or that they already know it. My experience is that they do not know this material, and my conviction is that they really need to know it. (2) It assumes that churchgoers understand the few beliefs that are mentioned in worship and sermons. I do not believe this is true. Familiar religious language has a way of losing its cognitive content and becoming opaque unless it is explained continually. When this happens, Christian words or professions of faith cease to direct the mind and become mere expressions of religious emotions.

In this series I plan to remind you of what your church should be teaching all its members (catechism) about basic Christianity (mere Christianity). All along, we will keep in view Christian language’s loss of meaning for a post-Christian culture.

Most church catechisms follow the order of the creed or of that church’s confession of faith. That order corresponds also to the order of most systematic theologies: God, the Trinity, creation and providence, the fall and sin, Christ and salvation, the Church and the Spirit, the Christian life and eschatology. I shall begin at a different place, with the church. And next week I shall explain why I begin there.

Next Week: “Yes, The Church Really Is Our Mother.”

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3 thoughts on “There’s Nothing Mere About “Mere Christianity”

  1. Mark A. Henry

    Ron: I met you at Pepperdine a couple of years ago and appreciate your book on God, Freedom, and Dignity. Thank you for your insightful comments on this blog over the last year. I look forward to reading this year on the need for ‘insiders’ to be instructed in doctrine and basic biblical teaching.

    I retired from the US Army as a Chaplain after 22 years active duty (16 as a chaplain) and then served as the preacher in a local church for over 10 years. Now I teach History of Religions and World Religion for a secular community college in Texas as an adjunct instructor.

    As an example of biblical illiteracy, I have found that as I teach about the Hebrew Scriptures only about half of my classes can, even working together, come up with the Ten Commandments! They know nothing of the stories of the later part of Genesis (after chapter 11) or of Exodus and the rest of the Pentateuch, much less of the former prophets, and are completely ignorant of the stories and material found in the latter prophets and writings. Often as I teach the New Testament and tell such basic stories as the Good Samaritan or Prodigal Son I discover that is the very first time several have ever heard those parables. I am sadly amazed at the lack of understanding of very basic history and doctrines even though many of the students would consider themselves to be ‘Christian’ in religion (although most don’t attend a church of any kind). In addition, when I discuss ethics I cannot believe the ironically absolute level of total relativism that exists – students are unable to identify even one thing they think is wrong or right across cultures and time.

    We are in great need of basic biblical instruction not just in our culture, but as you indicate, in our churches as well. I am convinced we ought to be teaching at least an Old Testament 101, New Testament 101, Church and History 101, and Doctrine 101 class in every congregation.

    I traveled over 13,000 miles across the United States and Canada this summer and went to several different churches (mostly non-denominational independent community churches) over a 2 month period. One common denominator was the focus on experience in worship with an almost complete lack of biblical teaching. No wonder my students don’t know the Bible – they are not only missing it at home, they are not getting it at church either. Even more important than church classes, I believe the church needs to partner with the home to help parents lead their families in reading and understanding God’s word, but that just is not happening in most places as far as I can see.

    I look forward to reading your blog as it continues to demonstrate this need and how to address this issue! Thank you again for your work!

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Mark: I remember meeting you. Thank you for these comments. I find the same ignorance in the students that come into my classes. And the moral relativism! In order to deal with it I find that you have begin at the most basic level, with the vocabulary of right and wrong, just and unjust, etc. Even then the people are so saturated with agnosticism and a distorted view of moral judgment that they resist thinking of moral judgments and behaviors as being either right or wrong. They are compassionate or harsh or tolerant or intolerant. It is scary! The irony is that the only really bad people worthy of persecution are those who make moral judgments about the behavior of others and are willing to voice those judgments.

      Thank you for the confirmation of my sense about the state of churches in North America. I wish it were not true.

      Keep up the good work!

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      1. nokareon

        I listened to Ravi Zacharias speak of a three-tier pathway for the origin of values or a cultural narrative. First, it begins with a foundation in a rigorous, logical ethical framework. Second, it is illustrated by the arts through story, music, theater, and the visual arts. Third, it is put into practical application through each person’s personal experience.

        But in a post-modern culture that has done away with the first step entirely, art has become the forge from whence new cultural values and ethical systems are birthed. One thinks for example of the impact of Macklemore’s “Same Love” in the Same-Sex Marriage cultural movement of late. When society’s values speak straight out of tier 2, a vocal Christian’s ethical system based in tier 1 tend to end up speaking right past the culture, like ships passing in the night.

        We need to return culture to a point of being able to converse and dialogue from tier 1, but in the meantime, we need to be conversant and equipped in tier 2 as well. Christian impact in the realm of culture and the arts have been rather lackluster, and the severe consequences are beginning to show. I envision a generation of Christians equipped to think critically about the ways that media influences individuals and societies and engage culture on the same level.

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