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 these 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 – the claim 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.