Is Christianity Mere?

As the successful recent curriculum at Camp All Saints, based on ‘the Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ will attest, the ideas of C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don turned apologist, continue to have power and appeal.  I want to think together about another of his influential ideas, that of ‘mere Christianity,’ found in the book by that name. It was actually a set of radio broadcasts to wartime England which aimed to make the faith comprehensible to moderns in that traumatized moment. In particular, Lewis aimed to defend the fundaments of the faith, the core that different traditions share, ‘mere’ Christianity without the doctrinal accretions of denominations. (It should be added that this is, ironically, a congenial idea for Anglicans, who often suppose that they in particular have ridden lightest on special doctrines). This idea of ‘mere Christianity’ has often distinguished between, on the one hand, credal matters, and on the other ‘adiaphora,’ a Greek word meaning ‘things indifferent.’ (In reply to such, the famous Anglican turned Roman Catholic theologian John Henry Newman noted that even the smallest nick on your body, should it sever your carotid artery, could kill you!). Still, we would all agree, for example,  that the details of liturgical practice readily falls in the ‘adiaphora’ bucket.

There is indeed much to commend this idea of ‘mereness.’ At every baptism or confirmation we begin with the words of Ephesians 4, that we are have ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.’  Insofar as the modern Church has sought to rediscover the centrality of baptism, it has heard anew this clarion ecumenical call. Likewise Cranmer at the outset of Prayer Book worship sought to balance the doctrinal heart (found in the 39 Articles) with the need to adapt our praying over time (as he states in the first introduction to the BCP). in evangelizing we hope the hearers will by grace become Christians, though they happen along the way to become Episcopalians (or at least we should keep things in this order)

A century and a half ago, a bit more flesh was put on the mereness bones with the Lambeth Quadrilateral, a contribution to the nascent ecumenical movement which said that any Church would need to recognize the Scriptures, the Creeds as they classic interpretive guides, the  sacraments established by our Lord,  Eucharist and Baptism, and ‘the historical episcopate, locally adapted.’ You can readily see how the plot thickens with the fourth entry, since Anglicans themselves from the sixteenth century have debated why the episcopate was essential, and how ‘adapted’ it can be. (More recent ecumenical agreements have seen it has a goal to be sought amidst reunion). 

But I want to direct our attention elsewhere, to the most seemingly unproblematic of the Big Four, the authority of Scripture, by which we come to know or have use for, the other three. Nothing could be more ‘mere’ than that, no matter the tradition!  But wait a minute- if the Scriptures are authoritative, we need to read them to adjudicate all other questions, doctrinal, ethical, or practical. And once we do this, disagreements over interpretation will emerge. Scriptural authority isn’t simply something we assent to, but something under which we make decisions and judgments, and there’s the rub.

My point in this blog is not to deconstruct the idea of ‘mere Christianity’- on the contrary. But rather I want to offer some aids from the history of doctrine which can help to make it coherent.  The first is what the Reformers called ‘perspicuity.’ By this they meant that the Bible is clearest about the things most central. That Jesus died for our sins, that we are saved by grace and not works, that the kingdom will come in His time- these are evidently so to any fair-minded and attentive reader. Perspicuity is very much consistent with the idea of ‘mereness.’ Secondly the Bible is ‘interpres sui,’ ‘its own interpreter.’ This means that how we understand one part requires that we bring that notion into contact with everything else it says. It is in intricate web or chain of insights, and you cannot extract (or ignore) one or two passages.  (Entailed in this point is what the 39 Articles call ‘repugnance,’ which means that one passage cannot be interpreted in contradiction to the plain sense of another). We need to read the Scriptures together, and also with past generations of believers.  Here we see that we require one another, as well as patience and humility, not least to grasp something as seemingly simple as ‘mereness.’

Why this rehearsal of the history when there is a plethora of actual resolutions before our General Convention? I will have a good deal more to say about the specifics of the Convention’s decisions beginning next week. Such a gathering reminds us of the calling of lay people as well as clerics to take their place in the councils of the Church. It requires us to deliberate over issues of concern in our Church and our society.  It calls us to pray together as one Church in all our diversity. These are all worthwhile.

But on such an occasion I want to call to mind more generally the rock on which we stand. For one thing, some of the resolutions of Convention will be outliers indeed, and ‘mereness’ lets us take them with a grain of salt, which in the Bible is a symbol for wisdom! At this point we also need to add our third guideline, reception.  The central teachings of the Church were tested for centuries, and across continents.  The faithful of one culture responded to what their colleagues from another had heard, as they tested and questioned it. The faith of Nicaea was only settled after generations, though that faith itself was already embedded in the New Testament. In other words, a new doctrine is actually the new way to hear an aspect of the same Gospel. And this takes the whole Church and a long time.  In the meantime we need to preserve space for the maintenance of the ‘rule of faith,’ the inherited standard.  General Convention 2024 is not Nicaea- even Nicaea was not Nicaea, if by that we mean a single body at one point in time and space empowered to change doctrine! Deliberation about teaching therefore requires patience and space for the tradition, both of which are challenging for us post-moderns. Such patience is aided by an appreciation of ‘mereness,’ which means, finally, keeping the main things as the main things, as well as remembering we are part of a ‘great multitude’ (Revelation 7:9).  For all these reasons, and mostly because our names are written, no thanks to us, in the book of life, we do not lose heart!



Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.