"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Unity and "Mere Christianity"

Not too long ago, I heard something like this:

You claim that we [you and I] aren't in unity, and you seem to base this claim on the fact that we differ over certain Catholic doctrines. I certainly hope that unity doesn't require that I believe exactly like everyone else. I think we can't be in [religious] unity if we don’t believe that faith in the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin; that Jesus is the Son of God; that He was born of a virgin; that He rose again and is interceding at the right hand of the Father; and that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit to guide us in our daily lives so that we might be more like Him. There probably are a few additional beliefs that would be helpful to hold in common if we expect to have unity within the church. And you undoubtedly share these core beliefs. But I don't see why we need anything beyond agreement regarding those core beliefs in order to have Christian unity.

This position is quite common, I think, especially among the Evangelical communities. It amounts to what we might call "mere Christianity". According to "mere Christianity", what is important are certain essential or core doctrines, and we need to agree on those essential doctrines. All other teachings or practices are matters about which we may disagree, without thereby having caused a schism or divided the Church.

There is a certain sense in which Catholics agree with "mere Christianity". There are points of doctrine about which the Catholic Church has made no determination. (Think of the debate between the Dominicans and the Jesuits in the sixteenth century regarding the nature of divine grace, for example.) On such points Catholics may disagree, without that disagreement being either schismatic or heretical, or diminishing our unity. And so in that sense, the Catholic Church grants that we don't all have to "believe exactly like everyone else" in the Church in order to be in full communion, i.e. in full unity with each other. And yet when a candidate or catechumen is received into the Catholic Church, he says the following sentence: "I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God." For a Catholic, therefore, "all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God" is essential to the faith, not optional.

So what are the problems with the "mere Christianity" position? Fr. Dwight Longenecker has addressed these in his book More Christianity. Here I want only briefly to address a few. For the first fifteen hundred years after Christ, if you had asked any Christian what are the fundamentals of the faith, he would have pointed to the Creed and the sacraments. But we find the sacraments only in the Church; and the Creed itself presents as an 'essential' of the faith that we believe in the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." In other words, from the point of the early Christians, there is no "mere Christianity" that sets aside the Church, or treats the Church as irrelevant or superfluous or non-essential to the Christian faith. That explains the early dictum of the fathers that "he cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother". So that historical fact should give pause to any contemporary advocating some kind of Church-transcending "mere Christianity".

Second, the idea of finding a lowest-common doctrinal denominator between all the various factions and schisms, and treating that lowest-common doctrinal denominator as the "essentials of the faith" ultimately leaves us with no doctrinal content for the "essentials of the faith", for in that case there is no ground for a principled distinction between schisms and heresies. (That is because insofar as "mere Christianity" says anything about "the Church", it treats the Church as an invisible entity, i.e. as merely the plurality of all genuine believers of the content of those "essentials of the faith". For the problem with that notion see my posts here and here.) Church-transcending "mere Christianity" is for that very reason strapped with an authority vacuum that does not provide a ground for distinguishing between schisms and heresies. For example, in "mere Christianity", apart from the authority of the Church, there is no ground for an authoritative determination that Arianism is a heresy. There is just one's own interpretation of Scripture versus that of the Arian. (And don't think that heretics didn't appeal to Scripture: see here and here.) And so to find a lowest-common denominator between oneself and the Arian means that something even like "Jesus is God" must be left out of the "essentials of the faith". In this way, the "mere Christianity" position provides no authoritative determination of what exactly are those "essentials of the faith". By default, then, each man decides for himself what are the essentials of the faith. And thus
for "mere Christianity" what is described as "the essentials of the faith" is a chimera, an abstraction treated theoretically as though it were a concrete particular which we all can self-evidently recognize. But the "essentials of the faith" are not self-evident. Protestants often disagree regarding which doctrines are true, let alone regarding which doctrines are essential. That is precisely why there are so many factions within Protestantism. In short, when each man decides for himself what are "the essential doctrines of the faith", the result is not unity, but disunity, because there is then no authoritative determination and delineation of what those essential doctrines of the faith are. Without the authority of the Church, "mere Christianity" is merely a feel-good fiction.

"Mere Christianity" moreover leaves no ground for an authoritative determination of how much unity Christ wants Christians to have. The person defending the "mere Christianity" position has no way of knowing whether he has exchanged the sublime and sacramental unity Christ wants His people to have for a cheap substitute involving agreement on a few propositions. For the same reason he has no way of knowing whether his proposed unity is too strong, and that perhaps merely holding hands and singing Kumbayah with all the members of the World Council of Churches is the unity Christ wants. Thus the same problem that faces the "mere Christianity" position regarding determining "the essentials of the faith" also applies to its notion of how much unity Christ wants Christians to have. In this way, the "mere Christianity" position is self-refuting, for it arbitrarily sets up a standard of unity (i.e. agreement on some indeterminate set of doctrinal propositions) that closes itself off to a broader "mere Christianity" involving a different form of unity (e.g. liturgical, practical, social). For this reason, "mere Christianity" necessarily collapses into individualism, for that is what it is in essence, precisely because of its [implicit] rejection of the Church and the Church's authority.

Pope Benedict XV (the previous
pope Benedict) said, "Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected". About forty years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote a book titled Your God is Too Small. Those persons advocating some form of "mere Christianity" need to see that their proposed Christian unity is likewise "too small". It falls short by orders of magnitude from the sacramental and ecclesial unity Christ calls us to in John 17 and St. Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 1:10. The 'unity' of "mere Christianity" is indistinguishable from utter fragmentation and disunity. For a helpful article on the subject of "mere Christianity" from a Catholic point of view, see Kenneth Whitehead's article titled 'Is there a "Mere Christianity"?'.


Eric Telfer said...


Your essay touches on some very important points to consider. I urge all Christians to sincerely, prayerfully, and authentically reflect on the importance of unity and the possibility of over-generalizing, ignoring, de-emphasizing or missing some of what Christ did, said, intended, wanted, desired, established, instituted, etc.

It strikes me that so many problems related to unity (or the lack thereof) have to do with denying historical roots or foundations, i.e., first things, or things that Christ said and did, as though we can pick and choose what we want from history, leave it foundationless and then create new mental systems and subsequent ways of life based on our reduced or abbreviated interpretations or renditions without adequately considering the deeper aspects of history.

Protestants and Mere Christians tend to ignore or deny the foundations and historical roots of the Bible, of the beliefs they hold (if that means going deeper than the Bible), and even Mary, who was, in a sense, foundational to Jesus and historically important to Jesus. But not only do we need an authoritative Church theoretically, we had one historically.

Sola Fide is the same sort of thing: Faith Alone is enough. We will (and cand and should try to)get by with Faith Alone, it is said. And so, the thinking goes, we really do not need the Church, or, for that matter, baptism or the Eucharist or other sorts of Church-like things. And, to the extent we do or might allow them for some other reason, they will only be allowed in some attenuated, reduced form, i.e., symbolic, invisible, conceptual, etc.- not on the terms of an authoritative Church, but on our own terms. This is a sleight of hand. It still appears to many Christians that they have the Church because there is some talk of it, but in fact they have denied the real, visible, historical, apostolic Church, replacing it with an abstraction, a collection, a unity based on essential ideas or theories about Christ, or an aggregate of believers in Christ, as opposed to a unity based on what Christ established, desired, wanted, said, did, and instituted.

Protestantism is really all about what can be done and what happens with Faith in Christ and the Bible Alone, without any authority. The Protestant acts as though he needs nothing but his Bible and his Faith in Christ, more or less, especially when on the defensive, though, typically Protestants become more robust when offensive or healthy or thriving, exampled by the fact that they start their own churches, their own creeds, their own church habits, their own traditions, their own doctrines, etc. The whole system or habit is based on picking and choosing what one likes, as though the individual is king, ignoring the foundations, historical roots, historical links, and some very important things that Christ and the Apostles said otherwise about the Church and about unity.

Indeed, the Church is the pillar and bullwark of truth. We know this from NT Scripture. The Church came before the NT. Christ did not just give us a NT. He gave us a real, extra-mental, visible, authoritative Church, which later canonized the Bible, i.e., told us what the Bible was and so what was inspired and what was not. We are not just asked to have a personal relationship with Christ, though that is important. We are also asked to be a member of the Body of Christ, the authoritative, visible, extra-mental Church. As Bryan points out in his essay, however, Mere Christianity is an attempt to transcend the authoritative Church, to have Christianity without the Church.

All of this reminds me of G.K. Chesterton, when he said that men have had a strong tendency to take one or two things from the authoritative Church and then to act as though they can get along just fine without the authoritative Church. And so it is with Christ as well, as when we focus on His Passion but ignore many of the other things He said and did.

There is the old spiritual song that speaks of a desire for 'that old time religion'. We should remember that that old time religion included an authoritative, visible, extra-mental Church that was started by Christ and that has continued down through the ages through apostolic succession. Belloc notes that for early Christians the commitment was not to a Creed or belief system or theory or an hypothesis about Christ or a collection of ideas about Christ alone. Rather, the commitment was to the visible, authoritative Church. The commitment was to something real, tangible and grounded. Early Christians testify to this. Contrast this with a Mere Christianity that basically ignores, de-emphasizes or reduces the Church to the side-lines. Lewis' _Mere Christianity_, as good as it was in so many respects, needed another chapter, a chapter on the authoritative, visible, extra-mental Church that indeed was present in that old-time religion.

For an additional look at Mere Christianity and the Church, see also:


Eric Telfer

Eric Telfer said...

Bryan and others,

I was thinking about this a bit more and wanted to add a few more things.

First, we should also note that C.S. Lewis himself was not advocating that one stick to 'Mere Christianity'. He thought that it was a useful tool by which he and others could find some common ground, but then he encouraged us to get out of the hallway and into the room. He was not trying to settle the issue of which room was authoritative. He was trying to introduce the topic without going so far, but he recognized that others would need to go farther. He even says 'I hope no reader will suppose that 'mere' Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions.' He did not think that Mere Christinaity should be a home, but the beginning of a journey to find Home. Lewis recommended that we search for the truth home, the true room, with truth in mind, and not 'by which pleases you best by its paint and paneling'. We have to find the True Door that leads to the True Home. Mere Christianity is a bit of common ground to help with that. It is not the Home, however. Lewis himself wanted to make this much clear. (For more here, read _C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church_ by Joseph Pearce, who I am relying on heavily.)

Second, we mentioned the picking and choosing that goes along with some ecclesial groups or communities today. Note that Lewis himself said this, which I take from Pearce's book: 'Left to onself, one could easily slide away from the "faith once given" into a phantom called "my religion"'. When x is revealed to us, we have to be careful to avoid making a do-it-yourself type religion out of x. We were given not just a canonized Bible at a point in history, but an authoritative, visible, extra-mental Church. Protestants have thrown out the Church, replacing it with non-authoritative ecclesial communities or groups. They think they can get by without the authority. The entire Protestant experiment is an experiment to see what happens when we take something given, including the authority, and try to make it whatever we wish it to be. It is an attempt to change the original faith, the original deposit, which included an authoritative Church first and foremost. It is an attempt to do as much as we can to love Christ without the Church that Christ gave us. After having thrown the Church out, the experiment is to pick and choose from what the Church had originally given us, as though we can tear apart the different elements, not just from the Church, but from each other, taking what we like and discarding what we do not like. Essentially, this alters the faith given. It alters the original deposit. It changes the religion from that which was revealed and given to that which 'I want to have without the rest.' We go from Christendom as given to Christ-ism or Christianity as I see it or think it should be. We go from the Apostle's terms to our own terms. We go from the Apostle's traditions to our own traditions. We go from the Apostle's doctrine to our own doctrine. We go from the Apostle's set of conclusions, i.e., conclusion network, to our own set of conclusions. This is what happens when we throw the authoritative, visible Church aside and attempt to get along by ourselves as Lone Ranger Christians. This is what happens when we try to have Christ while transcending the authoritative Church that Christ gave us. Mere Christianity, taken farther than what Lewis intended, is, an attempt at Christianity without the Church. It is an attempt to make a network of conclusions that lacks a foundation, that lacks a present day authority and that lacks a principle of unity. It is an attempt to transcend the Church, while holding onto other things that were given to us by the Church, if one so wishes. The problem is that there is no way to keep Mere Christianity, understood in this way, from becoming Mire Christianity, and then, nothing at all, as it goes out of existence or evolves into something else entirely, i.e., note modern liberalism's influence on, say, the Anglican ecclesial community, and other mainline historical Protestant ecclesial communities.