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Mere Christianity: Compelling, Flawed, and Dated

Mere Christianity: 3 Views: Important, Useless, or Scary?
Mere Christianity is an introduction to Christian faith. by the popular writer of Narnia and the Screwtape Letters. It is still well-known.

Mere Christianity is an important book. It was one of the 28 books we looked at in our blog on the most IMPORTANT BOOKS OF CHRISTIAN LITERATURE.

We were not alone in evaluating its importance. Christianity Today voted it the best book of the 20th century and WIKIPEDIA says it made C.S.Lewis “The Apostle to the Skeptics,” and was instrumental in Watergate figure Charles Colson’s conversion as well as those of many well-known people, including FRANCIS COLLINS, JONATHAN AITKEN, JOSH CATERER, and the PHILOSOPHER C. E. M. JOAD.

Mere Christianity has also been one of the most popular Christian books, selling almost a million copies in the 20th century and now over 3 million in the 21st. It is highly regarded by young people too. In 2016 The Wall Street Journal wrote:

During March Madness several years ago, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Emerging Scholars Network ran “The Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament.”
Beginning with 64 entries, participants voted on a series of paired competitors through elimination rounds.
C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” a first seed, easily made the Elite Eight, where it handily defeated St. Augustine’s “City of God.”
In the Final Four it beat Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship,” but in the finals it was edged out by Augustine’s “Confessions.”

That’s good company and tough competition as well. But Mere Christianity is well-written, with memorable quotes like this one about the divinity of Jesus that you have probably already heard:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.
He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

This is the work not only of a thinking Christian but also of a great writer.

Mere Christianity has a famous author.

C.S. Lewis 1898-1962 was a scholar of English literature and a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Born and raised in a Christian home in Northern Ireland, Lewis lost his faith and became an atheist at 15. He returned to saving faith in 1931 and joined the Anglican church. He writes about his conversion in Surprised by Joy, 1955.

During this same time, he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, which made him world famous. All of this information is critical to understanding that Lewis is primarily a writer, not a minister or theologian.

Mere Christianity has a unique and interesting history

Lewis was asked to do some radio broadcasts from 1941-1944 on the BBC to comfort the frightened citizens of Britain when England was being bombed by Germany and fear of death was a daily concern. The first of these was about the meaning of the universe, and the second was about Christian beliefs. These broadcasts were published as individual books after the success of the Screwtape Letters in 1942. They were published together as Mere Christianity in 1952, the broadcast titles making up the divisions in the book

Book 1. Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of The Universe
Book 2. What Christians Believe
Book 3. Christian Behaviour
Book 4. Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of The Trinity

You can find the whole book here in PDF FORMAT or read an excellent summary and guide to the book at DESIRING GOD.

Mere Christianity: What does the “Mere” mean?

Lewis himself explains:

For I am not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion’, but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.
So far as I can judge from reviews and from the numerous letters written to me, the book, however faulty in other respects, did at least succeed in presenting an agreed, or common, or central, or ‘mere’ Christianity.

It is his personal presentation of how he was saved and what he believes, not as a theologian but as simply a member of one of the “rooms in the hall,” that room being the Church of England in the 1940s.

This metaphor of a large hall representing Christianity as a whole filled with a number of rooms representing the various denominations is a powerful and effective way of presenting his case, a stroke of genius. Read his account:

It 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.

But to move from the hall to one of the rooms, one must be familiar with the creeds and catechisms or beliefs of that room. Lewis does not go there, but he does tell us plainly that he is a member of the Anglican church and subscribes to its beliefs and doctrines. We can deduce from this that that means what the Anglican Church subscribed to in 1955, in other words, “Mere” Christianity is reflective of the time it is assessed.

Mere Christianity: Richard Baxter

An earlier assessment of “mere” Christianity was made by writer Richard Baxter (1616-1691), a highly regarded Puritan author, theologian and scholar. He tackled the same task Lewis did some 250 years earlier.

Here is his definition of “mere:”

I am a CHRISTIAN, a MEER CHRISTIAN, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church, and hath been visible where ever the Christian Religion and Church hath been visible: But must you know what Sect or Party I am of?
I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: But if any will call Meer Christians by the name of a Party, because they take up with Meer Christianity, Creed, and Scripture, and will not be of any dividing or contentious Sect, I am of that Party which is so against Parties:
If the Name CHRISTIAN be not enough, call me a CATHOLICK CHRISTIAN; not as that word signifieth an hereticating majority of Bishops, but as it signifieth one that hath no Religion, but that which by Christ and the Apostles was left to the Catholick Church, or the Body of Jesus Christ on Earth.” Baxter’s Church-history of the Government of Bishops (1680):

But Baxter’s “mere” is narrower than Lewis’s, particularly in regard to the church of Rome:

He is the true catholic Christian that hath but one, even the Christian religion: and this is the case of the Protestants, who, casting off the additions of popery, adhere to the primitive simplicity and unity:
if Papists, or any others, corrupt this religion with human additions and innovations, the great danger of these corruptions is, lest they draw them from the sound belief and serious practice of that ancient Christianity which we are all agreed in:
among Papists, or any other sect, where their corruptions do not thus corrupt their faith and practice in the true essentials, it is certain that those corruptions shall not damn them.

With the perspective that Baxter gives us, I think we can see that “mere” Christianity is conditioned by the time it is defined. Had “mere” Christianity been written in 1500 would it have excluded those the Inquisition defined as heretics, i.e., outside the “hall”? This brings us to our next question.

Mere Christianity: Is it Dated?

At the time it was written, all of the rooms in the “Hall” would have acknowledged that the Scriptures, i.e., the Bible, was the Word of God, but that would not be true today for many of them. At the time Lewis wrote Mere Christianity and gave us the metaphor of the big hall with many rooms, each of those rooms would have accepted these tenets of the faith:

  1. Jesus Christ is the one and the only way to salvation,

  2. Jesus rose bodily from the dead,

  3. That we are called to preach the Gospel to save people from sin and death and Hell, and

  4. That Bible is the Word of God, authoritative and true in every way.

Already in Lewis’s day rooms were being split by what we know as “modernism,” so there are now “conservative” and “liberal” divisions in almost all of the rooms. Lewis himself has written (in 1958) in his Reflections on the Psalms,

The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history.
It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.

This assertion alone would remove Lewis from those who identify as Evangelical Christians. The word “Evangelical” has a long history, but basically means those who believe the Bible is God’s Word and therefore without error. But its linkage with Christianity as in “Evangelical Christian” is a 20th-century development meant to distinguish what was one “mere” Christianity from the modernism that took hold of mainline denominations in the 1920s and 1930s.

Mere Christianity: Do changing morals invalidate its standards?

In a 2016 review, PATRICK REARDON makes this observation:

He writes that “the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ ”
While I affirm the need for faithfulness in marriage, I cannot agree that, outside of marriage, total abstinence is the only choice.

In 2021 governments have changed the definition of marriage. Does this new definition make things different?

The way many see the role of women has also changed. Must the Christian commandments be set aside?

He writes that “Christian wives promise to obey their husbands.
In Christian marriage, the man is said to be the ‘head,’ ” and then goes on to argue that this is only logical. I can’t agree.
Indeed, I see the recognition of the need for equality in marriage as one of the great breakthroughs during my lifetime in the way humans see the world.

Clearly, Mr. Reardon thinks we have outgrown the standards of Mere Christianity. His last sentence identifies the key to this thinking: “the way humans see the world.” Is that, perhaps, what Lewis’s problem is, putting humans in God’s place?

Mere Christianity: It IS Scary

If the “updates” Mr. Reardon would like are applied, we no longer have what Lewis defines as Mere Christianity. But do we have Christianity at all?

A Reformed pastor points out 2 DANGERS:

The first caution to raise concerns Lewis’ view of the atonement.
Lewis believed Jesus died on the cross for sin, but he didn’t think it was important to understand the particulars of what Christ accomplished on the cross.

Now I would be hard-pressed to spell out the “particulars” of what Christ accomplished on the cross.

I stand with the hymn writer in this regard:

I need no other argument, I need no other plea, it is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me. E. E. HEWITT, 1851-1920

Lewis agrees with this but offends when he calls reformed theology “not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to. I am not alone in taking offense. Pastor DeYoung speaks for many when he says:

This impatience of careful thinking about the atonement is bad enough, but then Lewis goes on to make clear that he rejects the understanding of the atonement evangelicals (and the Bible I would say) find most central and most glorious.

But this shortcoming is not the most serious flaw in Mere Christianity.

More dangerous is Mere Christianity’s inclusion of modernists and those who reject the bodily Resurrection and miracles in general. Because such people identify themselves as Christians, many are led astray. I think of those who call themselves “higher critics,” believers in “the historical Jesus,” and those who deny that Jesus is the only way to salvation. As the pastor says,

…. people may be saved through Christ without putting explicit faith in Christ.

In Lewis’s words:

There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their RELIGION which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.
For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points.

Mere Christianity Takeaways

It is a wonderful testimony of Lewis’s personal faith and a powerfully persuasive book for people interested in Christianity and its central tenets.

I have no doubt that Lewis was a Christian, but I am less certain he knew Jesus. I hope I am wrong.

A wonderful storyteller himself, Lewis makes no references to the Bible, its stories or characters, and no doubt this is intentional, perhaps to keep things on an intellectual plane.

Mere Christianity is important, dated, and scary, and despite all of this, there is value in reading a concise presentation of our faith to give ourselves a better understanding of it and to also test the text and our own understanding to be sure it is in line with the Bible, the Word of God.

And as we read, admire, and evaluate, let us remember Richard Baxter’s warning;

the great danger of these corruptions is, lest they draw them from the sound belief and serious practice of that ancient Christianity which we are all agreed in:

The Bible is always our authority, inspiration, and guide:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. St. Paul in Philippians 4:8

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