I am an avid reader and an occasional contributor to the magazine Touchstone, a periodical that describes itself as “a journal of mere Christianity.” Touchstone provides a forum where Christians of various backgrounds—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—can speak candidly with one another on the basis of a shared commitment to the Great Tradition of Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the classic creeds of the early church.
The term “mere Christianity,” of course, was made famous by C. S. Lewis, whose book of that title is among the most influential religious volumes of the past one hundred years. Since 2001, more than 3.5 million copies of Mere Christianity have been sold in English alone, with many more translated into most of the world’s languages, including Chinese. We think of C. S. Lewis as an apologist, but he was also an evangelist. Many skeptics and unbelievers have come to faith in Jesus Christ by reading C. S. Lewis. One of these was the late Charles W. Colson. “I opened Mere Christianity,” Colson said, “and found myself face-to-face with an intellect so disciplined, so lucid, so relentlessly logical that I was glad I never had to face him in a court of law. . . . As I read, I could feel a flush coming to my face and a curious burning sensation. . . . Lewis’s words seemed to pound straight at me.”
Yet, despite such persuasiveness, Lewis and his “mere Christianity” have been criticized across the spectrum. Some conservative evangelicals have found Lewis wobbly on certain doctrines (like biblical inerrancy)—not to mention that he smoked a pipe and imbibed a few pints at his favorite pub. For their part, some Catholics have lamented the fact that, despite his Anglo-Catholic proclivities, Lewis preferred to sail on the Thames rather than the Tiber. What is needed, these critics say, is “more” not “mere” Christianity. What did Lewis mean by “mere” Christianity, and is it still a useful term today?
Mere Christianity” is actually a phrase Lewis borrowed from the seventeenth-century Puritan divine Richard Baxter. Baxter lived in Restoration England when various Protestant groups were beginning to develop a keen sense of denominational consciousness and competition. He did not like the labels Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, or the like. He preferred to be called a mere Christian or, as he also referred to himself, a mere Catholic. He understood the importance of Christian unity for the renewal of the church in his day. “Do not your hearts bleed to look upon the state of England,” he asked, “and to think how few towns or cities there be (where is any forwardness in religion) that are not cut into shreds, and crumbled as to dust by separations and divisions?” Baxter did not call for the abolition of denominations as such, but he wanted to relativize them in light of an undergirding core commitment to Christian essentials.
But Baxter’s “mere Christianity” was not “mere” Christianity in the weak, attenuated sense of the word mere. Both Lewis and Baxter used the word mere in what is today—regrettably—an obsolete sense, meaning “nothing less than,” “absolute,” “sure,” “unqualified,” as opposed to today’s weakened sense of “only this,” “nothing more than,” or “such and no more.” Our contemporary meaning of the word mere corresponds to the Latin vix, “barely,” “hardly,” “scarcely,” while the classical, Baxterian usage corresponds to the Latin vere, “truly,” “really,” “indeed.”
Baxter had no use for a substance-less, colorless homogeneity bought at the expense of the true catholic faith. Indeed, he had his own list of non-negotiable fundamentals, including belief in one triune God; in one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, God incarnate; in the Holy Spirit; in the gifts of God present to his covenanted people in baptism and Holy Communion; and in a life of obedience, holiness, and growth in Christ.
We are indebted to Baxter for coining the phrase picked up by C. S. Lewis (and the editors of Touchstone). We also have him to thank for conveying to us that oft-quoted maxim used by, among others, Pope John XXIII in his first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram (1959): “In things essential, unity; in things secondary, liberty; and in all things, charity” (In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas). St. Augustine is often cited as the source for this statement, but it cannot be found in the Augustinian corpus. It was in fact Baxter who gave currency to this expression, which he had found in the writings of an obscure Lutheran theologian, Rupertus Meldenius. (This famous line has also been attributed to Marco Antonio de Dominis, an equally obscure and renegade Croatian prelate.)
Meldenius lived at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War in the age of the great confessional struggles between the Lutheran and Reformed churches. As a good Lutheran, he himself strongly supported the Formula of Concord (1577). He did not advocate a formal union between the churches of his confession and those of the Reformed tradition. He admitted that there were occasions when—because truth is at stake—theological controversy is necessary. But, when such conflicts do occur, they should be conducted not with rancor, but with humility and respect. He would have agreed, I think, with Karl Barth, that one cannot have dogmatics without polemics, but he would have likely added that the other side of polemics is irenics.
In keeping with Meldenius, what Baxter and Lewis called for, and what Touchstone exhibits, is a thicker kind of mere—not mere as minimal but mere as central, essential; mere as vere, not vix. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “Measured against the ages, ‘mere Christianity’ turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.” Whether Lewis’s own theology was as “thick” as his concept of mere Christianity required is a matter for debate. In an appreciative but critical review of Lewis’s famous book, N. T. Wright points out some of its weaknesses as well as its great strength.
But the ecumenical usefulness of Lewis’s construal depends on something else. This is how he put it: “It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to each other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”
James M. Kushiner, the executive editor of Touchstone, describes what is at the heart of such a non-minimalist kind of mere Christianity: “That ‘Someone’ is key; the Voice is that of the Good Shepherd. We recognize, despite our differences, a love for the Lord that draws us together.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. For a further elaboration of this theme, see the essays on “Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain” in the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone.