Nuts and Bolts 013: Mere Christianity

nuts and bolts Theology / Biblical Studies

I started the “Nuts and Bolts” series as a way of explaining some of the basic / common concepts in philosophy as well as theology at a fairly introductory level. Sometimes this is prompted by the realisation that online, often people refer to those concepts – even criticising or commending them – without actually having a firm grasp on them. It was an example like this that prompted me to start the series.

This instalment, on “Mere Christianity,” was prompted in a similar way. John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity doesn’t think much of the notion of “Mere Christianity.” In fact he really doesn’t think there is such a thing. Here’s John’s evidence that “Mere Christianity” doesn’t exist at all:

There has never been a unified view of Christianity. All we need to do is read the New Testament itself with eyes wide open. Just read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. He tried to set them straight in the first letter. Their response was to claim he was not an apostle. Then Paul wrote a second letter to tell them he really was one because of his sufferings, his visions and his so-called miracles. Do you think they all accepted his second letter? There was Paul versus Peter, James versus Paul, along with one failed end time prophecy after another. There was Gnosticism, Proto-orthodoxy (which later became Catholicism), and the “Judaizers,” who all initially vied with each other for dominance.

Christianity was widely diverse in the first two centuries.

There has never been a unified view of which books were considered Scripture.

Christians spilled a great deal of blood over correct doctrine.

There has never been a unified view of how to interpret the Bible.

There has never been a unified Christian theology.

There has never been a unified view of Christian ethics.

There has never been a unified view of Biblical authority.

Christianity split in two in the 11th century.

And splintered into various Protestant denominations beginning in 1517.

Christians spilled a great deal of blood over correct doctrine.

New faces of Christianity are being born in the Global South.

I logged in using my Google account and typed my reply to John’s comments. You can see from this pic that I was logged in as Glenn Peoples (and you can see my Google avatar pic). But lo and behold, the blog rejected my comment, as you can see.

I’m sure it was a genuine glitch, as John assures me. But I’m also a believer in providence, so I’ll take that as a sign that I should be writing on the issue here, at the blog where even the most fearsome detractor is welcome to comment. :)

This is the comment that would have appeared at DC:

I think it’s crystal clear, John, that you yourself really have no handle on what the term “mere Christianity” refers to. That you can cite the split between East and West in the 11th century as proof against the existence of mere Christianity – or the fact that theological diversity exists, or that there are multiple Protestant groups – none of this has even the slightest relevance. Indeed, the very concept of “mere Christianity” exists exactly because of all of these divisions.

Now why would I say this? Put simply: Because there is such a thing as Mere Christianity, and none of the observations (whether accurate observations or not) make any difference in this regard. These observations actually illustrate why the concept of Mere Christianity exists. I know that others have made similar comments too – there are dozens, even hundreds of Christianities, all equally worthy of the name. There’s therefore no such thing as “mere” Christianity.

The phrase “Mere Christianity” was coined by C. S. Lewis to refer to the bare bones of the Christian faith; what is essential to any such faith regardless of the variety it might take, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lollard, Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox and so on. Not everyone uses the term “Mere Christianity.” Alvin Plantinga, for example, uses the term “Classical Christianity,” but it’s clear that he is using this term in the same way that others use “Mere Christianity”:

When I speak here of Christian belief, I mean what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church, what unites Calvin and Aquinas, Luther and Augustine, Menno Simons and Karl Barth, Mother Teresa and St. Maximus the Confessor, Billy Graham and St. Gregory Palamas — classical Christian belief, as we might call it.

From the preface to Warranted Christian Belief

The concept is a useful one precisely because Christianity is such a diverse group. We call the Eastern Orthodox “Christians” and we call Southern Baptists “Christians,” but obviously Eastern Orthodox believers are not Southern Baptists. So what are we saying when we use the same term for each group? We are attributing Mere Christianity to them – in addition to their own distinctives that make them Eastern Orthodox or Southern Baptist (or Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or whatever the case may be). We are saying that although there are differences between individuals and groups, there is still such a thing as Christianity that such diverse individuals and groups can have in common. Their further distinctives are what makes them many. Mere Christianity is what makes them one.

This explains why the list that Loftus provides as evidence that Classical Christianity doesn’t exist is really a display of confusion. Take a few examples: “Christianity split in two in the 11th century,” “And splintered into various Protestant denominations beginning in 1517” and “New faces of Christianity are being born in the Global South.” The 11th Century split referred to here is of course the great schism of Roman Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy, fuelled partly by the Roman alteration of the Nicene Creed. Is it really fair to insinuate that there is nothing in common between all the groups involved in these observations? Hardly! Obvious examples include the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the deity of Christ, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the necessity of Christ’s death to deal with the problem of human sin, the future return of Christ, the gift of eternal life, and the inspiration of Scripture, broadly construed. But these are just the sorts of thing that make up Mere Christianity. These beliefs provide creedal unity between all the apparently disparate groups that fall under the banner of the Christian faith. Of course, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Lutherans (for example) are going to disagree over the respective roles of the Bible and church tradition, but you’ll never hear them disagreeing over whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead. The very fact that Loftus (or anyone) can meaningfully say that “Christianity split in two,” and that the result was two different forms of “Christianity,” betrays the fact that they really do acknowledge this point. It reveals a recognition that in spite of two groups not being the same group, they are nonetheless still Christian because of some key ingredients that they have in common. That ingredient is Mere Christianity.

Mere Christianity is the thread of fundamental beliefs that make a movement Christian. For this reason Mere Christianity as a concept does not just include, it also excludes. It says, in effect, “while there are many things over which people can disagree and still be said to have Christian belief, if they reject Mere Christianity, then they have something else.” This is why, even though religions like Islam and Ba’hai have some degree of respect for Jesus, they could never be considered Christian. It is what separates second century gnostic movements from orthodox Christianity. It is the reason that, while there is room for a number of denominations, there are genuine limits on what counts as a Christian denomination. A range of fairly new 20th Century pentecostal denominations might make the cut, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses simply do not. The concept of Mere Christianity may thus prove somewhat inconvenient to some sceptics, as it prevents them from saying, in effect, “there’s a massive variety of belief systems that are Christian – look at the gnostics, for example! Their beliefs and Scriptures are just as legitimately Christian as yours.” But it’s a rather long leap from something being inconvenient for rhetorical purpose and something not existing at all.

Not only, then, is “Mere Christianity” a real and useful concept, but it is one that resolves exactly the type of argument that some have used against the Christian faith, namely an argument from the diversity of Christianity (as quoted above). Nobody denies that there is diversity on a whole range of issues, but unity on Mere Christianity is what counts. The concept also makes Christianity a clearly identifiable target. This should come as good new to sceptics. You don’t have to show that every belief that Christians of all walks have counted in their own creed is false. All you’ve got to do is show that Mere Christianity is false.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Brandon Barr October 16, 2011, 2:19 am

    Well said :)

  • Garren October 16, 2011, 2:22 am

    You touched on it a bit at the end, but I wanted to emphasize that Loftus’ quote repeatedly implies there is a common, identifiable “Christianity” any time he talks about differences within it. And how could his books refute “Christianity” if it’s a just an unhelpful label for a bunch of separate religions?

  • Eugene October 16, 2011, 4:20 am

    “It is as if a man said, ‘Camels in various places are totally diverse; some have six legs, some have none, some have scales, some have feathers, some have horns, some have wings, some are green, some are triangular. There is no point which they have in common.’ The ordinary man of sense would reply, ‘Then what makes you call them all camels?’”

    G. K. Chesterton

  • Eugene October 16, 2011, 4:24 am

    Woo! Southern Baptists got a “shout out”!

  • Joe Alva October 16, 2011, 6:42 am

    What divides us as believers in Christ Jesus is not nearly as important as what unites us. Great blog Glenn, loved it.

  • Roy October 17, 2011, 7:03 pm

    Great timing Glenn! A friend of mine just asked the question ‘What is a Christian?’ precisely in the face of so many variations!

  • Jared October 18, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Years ago I got into an argument on-line with a very strident, abrasively outspoken Atheist about what it means to be “Christian.” The argument started when he was trying to tell the other forum members that Hitler was a Christian. At the time I was still fairly bull-headed with an overly simplistic concept of faith, and although I had no idea how to engage in an argument like this, I took it head-on and basically got run over. We ended up in a long, fruitless discussion of the meaning of the term “Christian.” In his mind, Christianity was not defined by a core “Mere Christianity” concept, but rather someone claiming the name “Christian” and placing Jesus in the central role of a religious system. Therefore–in his view–Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are “Christian” because they claim to be. According to this line of thinking: What right does anyone have to claim that their “brand” of “Christian” (even if that “brand” is “Mere Christianity”) is more “Christian” than any other. Since–according to the Atheist–the whole thing is a made-up fairy tale, any group that claims to be the real-deal is as good as any other. Christian belief is seen more as something like a folk tale that has been handed down and modified in the telling for generations within oral tradition (like a meme): who has the right, for example, to assert that their version of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk is the “correct” one? Sure, a sizable group may assert a certain version is the “correct” one, but since the referent ideas in the system are untrue anyway, how can any of them be thought of as “correct?” Who has the authority to adjudicate which group has the right to make the claim?

    I think I fell for this because I had grown up in churches that have an even more narrow definition of Christianity than even “Mere Christianity.” A couple years later, this conversation with the Atheist was probably still in my subconscious mind when I had a major crisis of faith that changed my life and caused me to completely revise my view of EVERYTHING after I had recovered my faith. During the crisis, one of the points that really bothered me was the fact I had been taught that Christians were supposed to have something akin to special revelation via the Holy Spirit; not the gift of prophecy as in the Charismatic understanding, but rather the idea that if you were sincerely seeking after God, you would be guided supernaturally to correct theological understanding. Therefore, you just couldn’t go wrong and there is therefore no room for legitimate disagreement among believers–where there were disagreements, at least one of the disagreers is wrong because of some conscious or unconscious sinful motive (with the possible exception of people so new in the faith that they are truly ignorant–in which case they just need to be “educated”). This, however, was in direct conflict with reality in which, as you described, there are Pentecostals, and Southern Baptists, and Amish, and Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, and Greek Orthodox, and Anglicans, Calvinists and Arminians, Charismatics and Cessationists, Young Earth Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, and Theistic Evolutionists, etc., etc., who seem to all share core theological beliefs and are at least ostensibly genuine Christians as well. This had set up a cognitive dissonance in my mind that–among many other factors–contributed to the overall crisis I was facing. Some churches and create a lot of confusion by placing more criteria on what it means to be truly Christian than does the “Mere Christianity” concept. Their desire for “purity” and “theological separation” ends up muddling the thinking of many people within the movement (and throw in some consipiracy-theory tendencies within the congregant’s minds, and you’ve got a really dangerous mix).

    Anyway, in hindsight, when I got into that argument with the Atheist, I now realize I should have entirely sidestepped the whole semantic discussion of the term “Christian.” There was no convincing that guy (and other non-believers, such as Loftus) that the term has a limited range of meaning. In his mind, the term “Christian” is meaningless in any objective sense, so any group which claims it may appropriate it in any way they see fit as long as it somehow involves Jesus having an important part in religious ideas. A better strategy would have been to simply say something like this: “I don’t really care whether or not someone else likes to use the term ‘Christian’ to identify themselves, I for one have faith in the historical Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God and the sacrifice for my sins. Regardless of how anyone else wants to use labels or play semantic games.” But I know more now than I did then.

  • Eugene October 19, 2011, 5:36 am

    Jared, if you ever find yourself arguing whether Hitler was a Christian, a quick quotation might be more helpful than a subtle argument.

    “The Fuhrer is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian. He views Christianity as a symptom of decay.”

    Joseph Goebbels, quoted in Robert N. Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton University Press: 1999) pg. 136

  • Jared October 20, 2011, 2:02 am

    Thanks, Eugene, this is good information. I appreciate this because I probably wouldn’t have found this on my own, and its a good thing to have reliable and clearly identifiable sources. I’ll make a mental note of this and try to remember this.

    I do have a feeling, though, that someone who is making such an outlandish claim would probably come up with some kind of conspiracy-theory-related reason to reject this testimony. After all, if someone is going to contort their thinking sufficiently to argue that Hitler was a Christian, its not too far of a stretch to see them making contortions in other ways, too. However, pointing out this quote would probably be helpful to others observing the debate, though, even if it doesn’t convince the opponent.

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