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.”