The great Christian thinker and writer C. S. Lewis died the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated—November 22, 1963. Due to the broad coverage of the assassination, Christians in America didn’t learn of Lewis’s death immediately. In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death I’d like to briefly outline one of the ideas he wrote about that has strongly influenced me in my own Christian thinking and pilgrimage.
The Idea of Mere Christianity
In the preface of his book Mere Christianity, Lewis introduces the engaging idea that there are essential doctrinal truths (such as the Trinity, incarnation, atonement, etc.) that all branches of Christendom, including all theologically conservative denominations within Protestantism, accept. This “agreed, or common, or central”1 Christianity does not encompass everything that Christ’s followers need to believe and affirm to appropriately live out their faith. There are a number of doctrines that one or another of the branches of Christendom deem essential that are not universally affirmed. For example, Protestants insist upon saying something about the final authority of Scripture and justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Yet, while the idea of “mere Christianity” doesn’t address all of Christendom’s important theologically debated issues, the substantial theological common ground shared by the churches gives them an important connection and a place to carry on further dialogue. For example, theologically conservative Protestants have weighty differences with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox concerning the exact relationship between faith and works in salvation—but the profound shared doctrinal commonalities serve to connect the churches. In turn, this common ground sets them apart from the clearly nonChristian religions of the world (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.).
But within, Protestantism’s deep differences often distinguish one denomination from another. Some would argue that the differences between the Reformed (Calvinistic) and Wesleyan (Arminian) theological traditions over questions of sin, grace, predestination, and human freewill are as strong as the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Yet again the mere Christianity (as reflected in the Apostles’s Creed) that these two theological rivals share serves to connect the bodies and to encourage respectful dialogue.
In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis offers some powerfully important advice to Christendom as a whole as well as to individual Christians when it comes to divisions and differences among believers.2 First, he urges believers to refrain from discussing their theological differences except in the presence of other believers. Second, he implores believers to be kind to other Christians with whom they may have doctrinal differences. In other words, Lewis reminds believers of the vital importance of Christian unity and charity.
A clear sign that C. S. Lewis’s writings are a continuing gift to the church today is found in the fact that even if you only read the preface of the amazing book Mere Christianity you will discover important Christian truth.
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 8.
2. Ibid., 6.