Is There Such a Thing as “Mere Christianity”?

And a Reply. By What Authority Does C.S. Lewis Pontificate?

By Thomas Storck | New Oxford Review.

Thomas Storck is a Contributing Editor of the New Oxford Review.

The great Anglican apologist and scholar C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) championed a concept he called “mere Christianity.” Although the term itself seems to have been coined by the Puritan divine, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), in Lewis’s mind it meant what he regarded as those central truths which were held by all Christians:

“The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian “denominations.” You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical)…. Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

This quotation comes from Mere Christianity, the chief book in which Lewis undertook to justify and expound those elements of the Christian faith which he supposed were common to all Christians. The concept of “mere Christianity” is popular among many Christians, even Catholics, and sometimes seems to function as a kind of ecumenism for conservative Christians.

In this article I will argue that the notion of “mere Christianity” is one that an orthodox Catholic cannot entertain, because implicit in it is a denial of the supreme importance of the Catholic faith as the complete revelation of God, together with a corresponding tendency to consider the Catholic Church as simply one among the many “denominations” of Christianity. And as we will see, there are many other conceptual and factual problems with the idea of “mere Christianity.”

First let us look at Lewis’s explanation of this concept. He undertakes to explain and defend “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” How does he know what this belief is? By consulting the members, living and deceased, of Christian churches, or rather their “great doctors” and recognized teachers. But how does he know which churches can be considered Christian churches and which members of those churches hold Christian beliefs? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unitarian Universalist Association — all these in some way flow out of the Christian tradition, and the first two would certainly claim to be Christian. And what of certain members of churches that are undoubtedly Christian?

Both Arius and Nestorius were members of the Catholic Church — as was Martin Luther. Who is to determine which doctrines of these three men are part of “mere Christianity”? Supporters of “mere Christianity” might reply that in the cases of Arius and Nestorius their views were condemned by ecumenical councils that were accepted by all of Chnistendom. But this is not really true, for after the First Council of Nicea many who called themselves Christian continued to champion some form of Arianism, and even today there exist followers of Nestorius who would assert their claim to be Christians. Moreover, the teachings of Martin Luther were also condemned by an ecumenical council. How can Lewis distinguish between First Nicea. and Ephesus on the one hand, and Trent on the other?

Basically Lewis has no way of determining the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy. In the end, Lewis himself decides what the basic and defining Christian doctrines are: Our Lord’s virginal conception and birth, but not the perpetual virginity of Our Lady; the existence of Heaven and Hell, but not of Purgatory; sacraments, but not whether there are two or three or seven. But by what authority does Lewis decide these things? If he should reply that it is not he, but “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times” that has decided them, then he is begging the question. For he is defining “mere Christianity” by the Christians he considers to be “mere Christians.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis

In a controversy that occurred in 1958 between Lewis and Norman Pittenger, an American Episcopalian theologian, Lewis criticized Pittenger, who had said that his authority in matters of faith was “the total consentient witness of all Christians from the Apostles’ time.” About this Lewis wrote: “The ‘total consentient witnesses would be grand if we had it. But of course the overwhelming majority of Christians…have died, and are dying while I write, without recording their ‘witness.’ How does Dr Pittenger consult his authority?”

Lewis’s point, of course, is true, but though his own sources of witness, councils, theologians, and so on are obviously more easily consulted, this is true only if one knows beforehand which councils and which theologians are witnesses to the genuine Christian faith. And if Lewis or his supporters should reply that it is those councils and theologians that the majority of Christians adhere to, then Trent and Vatican I are as much sources for “mere Christianity” as Nicea or Ephesus.

Moreover, the vast majority of Christians, who have held to the “mere Christian” beliefs that Lewis promotes, have also held to many other doctrines, and it is far from clear that they would have been willing to divide their beliefs into essential doctrines on the one hand and unessential doctrines on the other. No Catholic, for example, could admit that the divine establishment of the papacy was any less a revealed dogma than the Incarnation. The latter is more fundamental, yes, but both doctrines are integral and important parts of the Christian revelation, and ultimately the latter is not safe without the former.

Moreover, “mere Christianity” is not as unified as it might seem to be even in those doctrines that appear to be held by all who call themselves Christian. For the contents of those beliefs are in reality often very different. Take Baptism. Other than the mere name and the fact that Christ commanded it and it has something to do with water, there is little about it that a Catholic and an evangelical Protestant would agree on. Is it simply a sign that someone has submitted to Christ, “accepted Christ as his personal Savior,” a mere external rite, not in itself necessary to salvation, or is it a sign that accomplishes what it signifies, namely the spiritual regeneration of the person baptized? Must it be administered by immersion or may it be properly done by pouring the water? Who are its proper subjects: any person or only those old enough to make a profession of kith in Christ? There is certainly no “mere Christian” doctrine of Baptism. And this, of course, is to leave out many, such as the Quakers, the Berean Baptists, the Salvation Army, and others who reject Baptism altogether or regard it as optional.

What has been said of Baptism could be said of any of the sacraments, notably Holy Communion. Here obviously the teachings of various Christian bodies differ radically, as their outward practices indicate. In some Protestant bodies Communion is administered once a month or four times a year or even less. And most, with the exception of Lutherans and some Anglicans, do not hold that Christ intended for there to be any change whatsoever in the elements of Communion, but that they remain bread and wine (or grape juice).

Although some Protestants have ceremonies of Confirmation, and most have some kind of Ordination, they are, contrary to Catholicism, not intended to be the conferral of a sacramental character and sacramental grace, but simply outward rites that indicate a particular ecclesiastical status.

And the same could be said of many other things: even of faith itself. Is faith a blind trust in God (what is sometimes called fiduciary faith) or is it primarily “the virtue by which we firmly believe all the truths God has revealed” (Baltimore Catechism) — that is, is it an act of blind trust in God which is located primarily in our wills or an act mainly of the intellect in which we accept certain truths as having been revealed by God?

Even the whole scheme of redemption, beginning with the sin of Adam, is understood in different ways by Catholics and Protestants. Did the Fall of man result in “the total corruption of our whole human nature” (Luther) so that good works “done before the grace of Christ, and the inspiration of his Spirit are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ…but they have the nature of sin” (Anglican Articles of Religion)? Or, in contrast, as the Baltimore Catechism teaches, is man’s nature “not evil in itself; it can perform some good actions in the natural order without the aid of grace”? And these two different understandings lead to different doctrines on the relation of grace and nature, including different views of the use of material objects in worship, and even different cultural and social expressions of Christianity.

There are many other articles of the Christian faith that are understood very differently by Protestants and Catholics. What is predestination? Did God predestine some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation because of the secret counsels of His will, regardless of their beliefs or behavior? And did Christ thus die only for the predestined? Do our actions have anything to do with gaining eternal life, or, once we put our trust in Jesus Christ, is that all that we need to do? Lewis’s own discussion of this point in Mere Chnstianity seeks to avoid either position, and what he actually says does not address the question at all. He begins his discussion in this way:

Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.

Then, after presenting a parody of the extreme form of each of these two ways of attaining salvation, Lewis says:

The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” — which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, “For it is God who worketh in you” — which looks as if God did everything and we nothing.

But this verse really does not address the question of faith and good works at all, but rather a different question, namely, our own efforts in relation to God’s. “For it is God who worketh in you” obviously refers to the working out of our salvation which is mentioned in the first part of the verse. That is, we are to persevere in obeying God and His law “with fear and trembling,” all the while knowing that it is God’s grace that is really sustaining us. This verse has nothing to do with faith versus good works. This is even clearer when the rest of the verse, which Lewis omitted, is quoted, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). St. Paul is discussing whether avoiding sin and doing good works is the result of our own efforts or of God’s actions, not at all addressing the question of faith versus good works.

Thus, to maintain that there is a common Christian doctrine on the subject of salvation is not true. The typically evangelical Protestant doctrine of “eternal security” is clearly opposed to the Catholic (and biblicabpteaching that we may fall from grace, but that grace can also thereafter be regained.

One of the biggest points that Lewis omits from his “mere Christianity” is any doctrine of the Church. What is the Church? Is it an invisible fellowship composed of only the saved or is it a visible body to which belong both good and not-so-good? Considering how large the Church looms in the epistles of St Paul, one would think that this would be one of the chief topics of anything claiming to express the belief of all Christians. When Catholics speak of the Church they mean something definite and concrete. A Catholic can speak of “the teaching of the Church” and mean something definite by that phrase. But a Protestant cannot do so, and thus appeals most often to biblical teaching or biblical standards, since for him “the church” is not really something definite and concrete, except in reference to his local congregation. When a Protestant asks, “Are you involved in your church?” he means, “Do you teach Sunday school?” or “Are you a member of the Board of Deacons?” or an usher or what have you. The notion of the Church as one body of the faithful throughout the world with the same faith and sacramental life is foreign to his thinking.

The Apostles, in proclaiming the Gospel, never separated adherence to the doctrines they taught from membership in the Church. They proclaimed the Resurrection and our redemption by Jesus Christ, and immediately invited their hearers to be baptized and become members of the Church, afterwards to receive the very Body and Blood of the Lord. Membership in the Church was the gateway to all the rest of Christianity. One could not even know what to believe unless one had the Church as his teacher; one could not partake of any form of Christian life unless one had the Church as his mother. Nor did the Apostles write the New Testament as an independent source of doctrine which one could weigh against the claims and teaching of the Church. The New Testament was written by the Church, in the Church, and for the Church, and no one can understand it correctly unless he is receptive to the Church’s voice.

The question of the Church is connected to the question of authority in Christianity, and it is perhaps here that Lewis’s “mere Christianity” most clearly shows its defects. For surely the question of authority is the chief, or one of the chief, questions for a Christian. In fact, it is nearly useless to argue with another Christian about doctrine unless you have first determined that the two of you agree about what or who is the standard for resolving such questions. But Lewis avoids this question, for he surely must have known that his “mere Christianity” would immediately sink on this rock. What is the authority for a Christian? Is it the teaching Church with its college of bishops, whose infallible head is the Bishop of Rome; or is it the body of bishops by themselves assembled in council; or is it Scripture interpreted by each man; or is it simply the inspiration of the Holy Spirit individually intuited by each believer? Historic Christianity, as it existed in the early Church, gives absolutely no credence to the last two principles of interpretation, nor to the second, for not only the role of bishops, but the special role of the Bishop of Rome, has loomed large in the Church since New Testament days. Who decided that this was really an inessential part of the Christian faith, not part of “mere Christianity”?

I have been speaking about the doctrines of Christian faith, but I should say a word about Christian morality too, for there also Lewis is inconsistent. He (rightly) condemns usury, even though Calvin had accepted it and after him many other Protestants, but he refuses to take a stand on whether gambling is ever permissible or on contraception, although it was a mere dozen years before he wrote that Protestants first began approving of unnatural birth prevention. He says that “it is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers.” Yet here is a moral teaching that is certainly not common to all who profess themselves Christian. Perhaps since Lewis did not live in the U.S. he may be excused a bit, but among North American Christians there is surely no consensus on drinking alcohol — rather much the opposite. Lewis seems to take his moral attitudes from his Anglicanism, throwing in those patristic or medieval doctrines that happen to appeal to him, such as the condemnation of usury. But there is certainly no consistent authority behind what he says.

I recognize, of course, that Lewis held as a private opinion other doctrines in addition to those he sets out as part of “mere Christianity.” For example, he believed in some kind of Purgatory or purification after death, and he thought some form of the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion probable. But these personal opinions of his cannot be used to resolve the dilemmas that are raised by his advocacy of “mere Christianity,” as he himself would have acknowledged, for he makes a clear distinction between, on the one hand, his own beliefs and, on the other, the alleged beliefs of “mere Christianity.”

I will end with the same quote with which I began. Perhaps my readers also reacted with a smile to that quote at the beginning of this article, when Lewis said:

The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian “denominations.” You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical)

Thomas Storck, courtesy EWTN

Of course, his alphabetical device is not as simple as he pretends. Because whether we are to appear in his list as Catholics or as Roman Catholics depends a great deal on whether we are seen as the universal Church or simply as a portion of the church. As used by many non-Catholics, Roman is meant not as a mark of loyalty to the Apostolic See, but rather to undermine the Catholic Church’s claim to catholicity. (When I was an Episcopalian I took pains never to refer to the Catholic Church except as the Roman Catholic Church, meaning thereby to deny her universality.) But the Catholic Church is not just a denomination, whether she is placed in the R’s or the C’s. She is the Church over which St. Peter was Vicar, the Church that St. Paul wrote of, that Church that is the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ Her doctrines are indeed shared in part by other Christians, but those doctrines belong to her. There is not a common core of doctrine among Christian groups to which each adds or subtracts a bit of this or that.

Rather there is the fullness of Christian truth found only in the Catholic Church, from which other Christian bodies take bits and pieces. Christianity is not “like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms,” which represent different “churches,” as Lewis wrote, but one magnificent palace, around which some have pitched tents and survive on what they get from the palace. No, to be hilly Christian is to be Catholic, united visibly to Jesus Christ in His Mystical Body, nourished by His sacraments, ruled by His vicar on earth. If there is any such thing as “mere Christianity” this is it.

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‘Mere Christianity’ as Merely Protestant. A Response to Thomas Storck.

By S.M. Hutchens | January 2002

S.M. Hutchens is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.

In the July-August 2001 NEW OXFORD REVIEW, Thomas Storck casts the gauntlet before C.S. Lewis’s concept of “mere Christianity” and any Catholic inclined to resonate with it. (Storck’s article is titled “Is There Such a Thing as ‘Mere Christianity’?” and is subtitled “By What Authority Does C.S. Lewis Pontificate?”) One might expect an editor of Touchstone, a magazine subtitled A Journal of Mere Christianity, which includes a good many Catholics on its editorial staff, to take it up. I do so here on my own, as a Protestant, proposing to speak for, without speaking the minds of, my Catholic colleagues. Not all of them are great devotees of Lewis. (James Hitchcock wrote a rather notorious article for Crisis several years ago in which he wondered out loud what all the fuss over Lewis was about.) All of them have, however, chosen not to take offense at the subtitle of the journal for which they write. There are Catholic reasons for their collaboration in what a Protestant may call mere Christianity, and which the Catholic Church recognizes as fellowship in the Gospel. This is not to say that I regard Storck’s thesis — that “mere Christianity” as Lewis defines it is a non-Catholic idea — to be incorrect, but the manner in which he states it calls for comment.

Storck argues that the concept of mere Christianity, expounded by Lewis as evidenced by faith and morals common to all Christians, “is one that an orthodox Catholic cannot entertain, because implicit in it is a denial of the supreme importance of the Catholic faith as the complete revelation of God, together with a corresponding tendency to consider the Catholic Church as simply one among the many ‘denominations’ of Christianity.”

The principal difficulties he finds are those of authority and certitude. How does one know what those common beliefs are? How does one decide which are the competent doctors and councils? Says Storck: “Lewis has no way of determining the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy. In the end, Lewis himself decides what the basic and defining doctrines are….” Along with this tendency to define what doctrines are essential goes the highly un-Catholic tendency to identify those which are not, for while a Catholic may regard one doctrine as more fundamental than another, he understands revealed truth to be a whole, and thus every doctrine as an indispensable part of Christian revelation.

Nor is mere Christianity as unifying a principle as it might superficially appear. As critical as the doctrines of Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Ordination, Original Sin, nature and grace, for example, are, there is radical divergence between the Catholic understanding of these and the various Protestant proposals. There is no doctrine of salvation common to all professing Christians.

Most especially, Storck notes, there is no common doctrine of the Church — a critical subject that Lewis practically ignores in his exposition of mere Christianity. (I would say, on the contrary, that the Church is Lewis’s subject here.) Says Storck: “A Catholic can speak of ‘the teaching of the Church’ and mean something definite by that phrase. But a Protestant cannot do so, and thus appeals most often to biblical teaching or biblical standards, since for him ‘the church’ is not really something definite and concrete, except in reference to his local congregation.” However, says Storck, for the apostles membership in the Church was the “gateway” to Christianity. Christian doctrine could not be known apart from the Church, nor could one receive teaching except from its hand. (I must interject once again. No orthodox-minded Protestant would deny these last two statements. The fundamental disagreement is on the identity of the Church.)

The greatest defect of Lewis’s mere Christianity, Storck says, concerns authority. It is a question he says Lewis avoids, surely because Lewis intuited that his merely-Christian ship would sink upon this rock. Storck again: “What is the authority for a Christian? Is it the teaching Church with its college of bishops, whose infallible head is the Bishop of Rome; or is it the body of bishops by themselves assembled in council; or is it Scripture interpreted by each man; or is it simply the inspiration of the Holy Spirit individually intuited by each believer? Historic Christianity, as it existed in the early Church, gives absolutely no credence to the last two principles of interpretation….” (Of course, only the most sectarian of Protestants, joining Catholic dissidents on the point, would disagree.)

At both the beginning and end of his article, Storck demonstrates Lewis’s prejudice against the Catholic Church where Storck tells his readers that Lewis will not, in his exposition of mere Christianity, help them to decide between Christian denominations. Storck quotes Lewis: “You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional….” Lewis has clearly consigned the Catholic Church to the status of one among other denominations. This prolegomena to mere Christianity, Storck insists, is necessarily Protestant, and necessarily wrong. No Catholic can hold to it. Says Storck: “Christianity is not ‘like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms’…but one magnificent palace, around which some have pitched tents and survive on what they get from the palace.”

I have long agreed with Storck that the concept of mere Christianity as expounded by Lewis is non- (and indeed, I will say “Roman”) Catholic, and for, in general, the reasons Storck gives. Once a man has discovered the Archimedian point from which he can move the ecclesiastical earth, much of the confusion and indecision that were his lot when things weren’t so clear vanishes. The Protestant, however, at least the knowledgeable Protestant such as Lewis, has chosen, full in the face of Catholic certitude — the principle gift of that Church to the intellectual convert — to remain on the problematic soil upon which the Catholic, even with the best will and most genial of dispositions, must regard him as something of a squatter.

For this kind of Protestant there are some things that simply cannot be gotten over, and he thinks it honorable to remain outside with his eyes open rather than close them and walk through the gates into the brawl of dissent and questionable teaching (so typical of his own church) he would meet once he ventures beyond that most formidable Catholic façade. From outside he can give more honor to the Catholic Church as a church than he could if he were constrained to regard her as the one true Christian congregation.

However much he may agree with Rome, even against typical Protestant opinion, his conscience will not allow him to give the full obedience the Catholic Church requires. He understands that the will to dissent on even a single point of doctrine for what he regards as truth’s sake is enough to keep him out of the palace. No matter how close he may approach the gate, he may not enter without destroying in himself that very faculty that allows him to discern Christianity in the Catholic. Rejecting the Roman Church’s claims of universality and infallibility, he also rejects similar claims within Protestantism (this describes Lewis very well) and he explains the state of affairs as best he can under the circumstances.

The idea of mere Christianity is a Protestant attempt to describe the signs of the Church in its wounded state, a state that gives rise to a great many difficulties and ambiguities that could be far better confined and dealt with if the schisms between East and West and between Roman Catholic and Protestant had not occurred. The open eye, Lewis believes, sees true and full believers on every side of the denominational divides he mentions. If — as we must all believe — a person cannot be a Christian unless he is a member of the one true Church, how are those credibly professing Christians who are not members of my own division to be understood?

There are, it appears, three possibilities. Either they are not real believers at all — the answer of the rigorists of every denomination — or they are in some way connected as tributaries, bound to die away or advance to full communion with the true Church — the answer of Catholic magisterial teaching — or the difference between one church confessing Christ as Savior and Lord and another can only be judged by us partially, often with difficulty, and with full call for fine discernment, and then as a difference in degree of faithfulness rather than of species. (This eliminates from consideration the churches that have confirmed themselves in apostasy, that no longer appear to confess Christ at all.) This latter way of proceeding is far more difficult, far more problematic, and far more dependent on eschatological vindication than the other two ways of approach, but Protestants such as Lewis think it answers to their best assessment of reality.

This last point, according to Storck and a great many others who believe themselves to be on much firmer ground, is just the problem. They never fail to assail the Protestant with the taunt (yes, that is just what it sounds like) that they must depend on private judgment to determine what “the best assessment of reality” is, whereas the Catholic has the inestimable advantage of depending entirely upon something far greater, far older, and with a plenitude of authority. But the Protestant has no reason to flinch under this attack, leveled at full blast on him by such eloquent and convincing Catholic apologists as Newman and Knox. In my view, the principal reasons for the weakness of the charge lie in the existing division of the Church prior to the Reformation and the inevitability of personal judgment.

There is not one, but (at least) two credible claimants to this venerable authority, to the status of the one true Church — Rome and Orthodoxy. Their claims in this regard are mutually exclusive, each with full plausibility depending on how one conceptualizes the Church. Whoever has decided he must have the kind of authority both churches offer must consider them both — to be properly informed he must consider both — and decide between them.

Not only must he use his own judgment in this decision, but in every decision to enter and abide in any church. One cannot get around the necessity for a personal decision (we shall not say “private judgment,” for strictly speaking there is no such thing) arising from the hidden depths of one’s own mind and will. This is not only what brings one into a church, but daily sustains his life in it — for the spirit is free to withdraw from it at any time, as the great mass of Catholic dissent amply demonstrates.

To enter a church is not simply to give one’s personal judgment over to a greater authority, but is a synthetic act (as in marriage, or the virginal conception of our Lord) in which one actively and continually submits to the greater authority whose communion he has entered. The point here is that the Catholic, while he might firmly and for many good reasons, believe the Protestant’s personal judgment in this matter to be wrong, cannot reproach him for the use of it with respect to his relation to the Church, for it is something he, to be a good Catholic, must himself use every day. He could not be a Catholic without it.

This is one of the reasons why so many serious and sympathetic Protestants halt, fixed before the gates of the Roman Church, held firmly there, as Newman knew they would be after the final nail was driven into the infallibility structure by the First Vatican Council’s Pastor Aeternus, suspicious more than ever, along with the Orthodox, that however great a hand the Catholic Church has been dealt, it has been disastrously overplayed, more than ever prone to believe that (to paraphrase Article XIX of the Anglican Articles of Religion) “as the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome have erred, so also others have erred and may err, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.”

With the Articles of Religion, he is by no means willing to say that the Church of Rome is no Church at all, but in order to extend the proper grace to her, he must explain just how it is that she is a church, thus how he is related to her, and she to him. Out of this arise ideas like mere Christianity and the real difficulties it entails, difficulties that involve hard and perennially questionable judgments, for example, on how far one can define and enjoy fellowship with those who profess to be Christians, but who are deficient or erroneous in belief and practice.

This is a burden the well-disposed Protestant takes upon himself that allows him to identify the Roman Church and indeed his own church, both prone to err, as Christian, whereas if he were compelled to make his estimate of Rome entirely on her own terms, as some hostile Protestants have insisted on doing, he could hardly recognize her as Christian at all. It is no secret to those familiar with Protestant history (or, indeed, with recent papal visits to the Orthodox East) that identification of the Roman Church as an imperial sect with the Antichrist as its head has always been a live option for the non-Roman Christian — a judgment that, by the way, arises from the plausibility of Catholic claims — for what must one call a church that claims to be exclusively and in itself the one true Church, and presents itself in so many ways as such, but falls short? It is generosity of spirit, not hostility, which allows that the Catholic Church is Christian, but likely “wrong on this point,” as other churches are wrong on other points, and makes room, as Lewis does, for Catholics in the Christian mansion. This is not the bent of fundamentalism or the Westminster Confession.

This brings us to Catholics — such as many of my fellow editors of Touchstone who will work with mere-Christianity Protestants — who are my principal concern in writing this piece. I do not wish Storck’s accurate analysis of Lewis’s concept of the Church as Protestant to obscure the teaching of Storck’s own church, which justifies, in fact requires, the Catholic’s collaboration with believers they are compelled by the logic of their system to estimate as less fully Christian than themselves. I don’t intend to correct so much as to add something I think needs to be said in the forum in which Storck said it. The grace extended to the Catholic by the sympathetic Protestant in the idea of mere Christianity has not, strictly speaking, an analogy, but an equally gracious and on many points similar answer on the other side of the Catholic-Protestant divide. The fundamental teaching is elaborated in Section 15 of Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution of the Church:

The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and of action, and who show true religious zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, Son of God and Savior. They are consecrated by baptism, through which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and receive other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities…. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them also He gives His gifts and graces, and is thereby operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this goal. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope, and work, that they may gain this blessing. She exhorts her sons to purify and renew themselves so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church.

It is from this Constitution that the ecumenical imperatives of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint take their rise:

Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialogue. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels; pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message.

Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant. This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself.

Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: “Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.”

In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved.

This is not, to be sure, a manifestation of Lewis’s mere Christianity, for Lewis was, quite clearly, and by his own profession, firmly and reflexively Protestant in his understanding of that most divisive of all controverted points, the nature and identity of the Church, as vague and unsatisfactory as this may seem to the Catholic. A necessary part of his own catholicity, and that of Protestants who are like him, was remaining non-Roman Catholic, denying catholic finality to any Christian “denomination,” as Storck has indicated.

Lewis, Billy Graham, Tolkien

Nor do the Pope’s words reflect a Protestant concept of mere Christianity translated into Catholic dialect, for the signs of the Church that Rome seeks in other Christians are necessarily the signs of the Roman Church. Rather, they provide encouragement for Catholics to labor together in common witness to a commonly believed Gospel, secure in the belief that those non-Catholic Christians with whom they work will be led through this exposure to the truth of the Catholic Church, gently implying that this work is also, for them, the work of evangelism.

At Touchstone, terminology for what we are about has always been a problem. We began subtitling ourselves A Journal of Ecumenical Orthodoxy. That was eventually rejected mostly because the word “ecumenical” bore freight we didn’t like, particularly the notion that we were Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox naïve enough to think we were going to work out our differences by the usual “ecumenical” means. That was never in view. Here we don’t work toward a common faith, but from it. (This is not the whole of the Catholic ecumenical vision described by the Pope, but it is part of it — and the best we can do under the circumstances.) At length we went over to calling ourselves A Journal of Mere Christianity, aware of the very problem about which Storck writes, but also believing that the bare terminology, apart from Lewis’s Protestant definition, can carry Catholic meaning too, if it is allowed. In one sense, Storck has found us out, but in another, it doesn’t matter very much.

The Editor Replies:

We appreciate your honest Protestant appraisal of Storck’s article. Indeed, we note with favor that you basically agree with what Storck said about Lewis and Mere Christianity.

Your most challenging point pertains to what you call “the inevitability of personal judgment.” Yes, converts to Catholicism had to exercise their personal judgment before entering the Catholic Church. Those who seriously studied ecclesiastical history before entering also speak of the “inevitability of personal judgment,” but in a different sense. They speak of the inevitability of entering the Catholic Church, for, to quote Newman, “the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this…. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Yes, that also leaves Orthodoxy, which some have chosen, but the point is that conscientious personal judgment of the historical sort does not usually yield random results; rather, it has a way of narrowing the basic options down to two.

It must also be pointed out that entering the Catholic Church is fundamentally different from entering a conventional Protestant denomination. Anyone who enters the Catholic Church out of conviction (not convenience) knows that personal judgment on doctrinal matters must thereafter come to an end. Yes, there are recent converts to Catholicism who have — or discover — difficulties with one or another Catholic doctrine. But we rarely see them publicly asserting that the Church is wrong. Rather, in accord with Church norms, they study the matter further, all the while praying for the light to see the truth of what the Church teaches.

Not so the public dissenters in the Church, who typically are cradle Catholics who reject Church authority, are Protestants at heart, and wish to Protestantize the Church.

And not so the Protestant with his sola Scriptura and his right to individual interpretation. And apparently not you, Mr. Hutchens, with your endorsement of personal judgment (however “synthetic”). Thus we cannot help but be struck by your reference to those Christians “who are deficient or erroneous in belief and practice” and to those churches that have “confirmed themselves in apostasy.” An orthodox Catholic would want to know by what authority you make such statements. (No, this is not a “taunt”; it’s a theological question of the highest magnitude.) Is it your reading of Scripture? But other Protestants read Scripture differently. (Who’s right? And who’s to say?) Is it a “synthetic” judgment involving some reference to your denomination’s beliefs? But there are so many other denominations. (Again: Who’s right? And who’s to say?) Or is it your understanding of what Mere Christianity requires? But Mere Christianity is a minimalistic concept and a dated one (Lewis’s Mere Christianity doesn’t deal with the ordination of women, for example). Besides, with what authority did C.S. Lewis articulate the concept in 1943, and with what derivative authority can any of his heterogeneous disciples render a judgment that another Christian’s beliefs and practices are deficient or erroneous, or that certain churches are apostate?

The point is that when it comes to making assertions about apostasy, doctrinal error, and such, the issue of authority looms large.

Now, you do acknowledge that Rome and Orthodoxy represent the major “credible claimants to…venerable authority.” You also say that “whoever has decided he must have [this] kind of authority” must choose between Rome and Orthodoxy, making it sound as if you think there are certain people who happen to have so-called authoritarian personalities who crave authority to the max. Perhaps there are such people, but surely you wouldn’t say that about your Catholic colleagues at Touchstone, specifically your fellow Senior Editor, David Mills, who recently quit Anglicanism for Rome.

So there must be another way of looking at it, namely, that venerable authority has a way of ultimately compelling assent, especially when lesser authorities reveal their nakedness (as in the case of Mills’s Anglicanism). Think of the way Newman argued and agonized his way into the Catholic Church. Why, in her 1986 book The Desolate City, Anne Roche Muggeridge used those very words — “argued and agonized” — to describe the NEW OXFORD REVIEW’s trek to Catholicism (we finally arrived in 1983). Indeed, we know of converts who have entered the Catholic Church kicking and screaming, who entered only because venerable authority could no longer be resisted.

Now, you winsomely acknowledge that your position is “problematic” (twice!), that it has “real difficulties” and is a “burden.” We can’t really fault you for being faithful to your conscience, which appears to be principled rather than slothful or haphazard or self-serving, but we can urge you to resolve those “difficulties” by seeking a better-informed conscience. And we do see hope. You acknowledge that in joining a church, a Protestant gives an unspecified amount of his personal judgment “over to a greater authority.” If it’s O.K. to do that, then surely it’s O.K. — even symmetrical — to give more, even all, of one’s personal judgment over to a venerable authority.

Newman aptly said that “some authority there must be if there is a revelation given.” You lean on the Anglican Articles of Religion, but without saying if you regard them as authoritative. You mention the Westminster Confession, but with disapproval. Of course there are numerous other Protestant confessional statements, both major and minor, not to mention the stance of Orthodoxy. And then there is the authority our Lord gave to St. Peter. The question is: Which claimant to authority is most credible? To decide against Peter is, as Thomas Howard said before he became a Catholic, to “have the colossal securus judicat orbis terrarum [an obvious allusion to the words of St. Augustine] looking passionlessly at me. ‘The calm judgement of the whole world’ is against me. The Roman Church has, as it were, nothing to prove. Everyone else has to do the sleeve-plucking and arm-pawing to validate their cases.”

Finally, we wish to assure you that Storck’s article was not directed against the Catholics at Touchstone or against Touchstone itself, and that we have a high regard for Touchstone. Regardless of the problems involved with the concept of Mere Christianity, there is a kind of “orthodoxy” deposited to a greater or lesser degree in almost all Christian churches and denominations. As we understand it, the purpose of Touchstone is to mine this rich vein. Indeed, the NOR does likewise from time to time, for we often find that we have more in common with, say, orthodox Lutherans and Southern Baptists than with many dissenting Catholics.

If what you are doing at Touchstone is, as you charmingly say, “the best we can do under the circumstances,” you are nonetheless doing quite well, certainly much better than what we often see from Commonweal or America.

© 2021 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in the summer of 2001.

Peter Kreeft on C.S. Lewis

Theology: Mythos or Logos?: A Dialogue on Faith, Reason, and History by John Médaille and Thomas Storck