Within church history, it seems some Christian traditions or denominations like to emphasize those beliefs that make their particular group distinctive. These unique features or beliefs often reflect an attempt to answer or resolve a challenging or paradoxical aspect of Christian theology (such as God’s sovereignty versus human freedom, views of the sacraments or ordinances such as baptism, perspectives on end times issues like the millennium, or the debate over the appropriate day of worship in terms of Sabbath, Saturday, versus the Lord’s Day, Sunday). It is understandable that churches or denominations would promote what makes them stand out from the rest of Christendom. After all, people are often attracted by these distinctive doctrinal elements.
I may be constituted somewhat differently than your average Christian, but I am personally attracted to what some would call “common” or “basic” Christianity. I like the unity and universality (known as catholicity) of those beliefs that all of historic Christendom holds in common. The ancient ecumenical creeds focus on these central and essential doctrinal truths. In fact, one of my very favorite parts of the liturgical service at my church is when the congregation recites in unison one of the ecumenical creeds of Christendom (the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, or Athanasian Creed). But it isn’t just traditional Christian churches who utilize a formal liturgy that affirm these creedal beliefs. Virtually all Christian churches, even those without official denominational connections, have a statement of faith that covers these basic doctrinal beliefs even if they don’t call it a creed.
C.S. Lewis’s book by the same name, introduces his idea of “mere Christianity.” This term refers to a group of essential and “agreed, or common, or central”1 Christian doctrines (such as creation, the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, the ascension, and Jesus Christ’s Second Coming) that all branches of historic Christendom and the various Protestant denominations affirm. The doctrinal elements of Lewis’s mere Christianity equates to the creedal Christianity described above. However, Lewis recognized that mere or common Christianity doesn’t cover everything that Christians think are important from a theological point of view. For example, none of the creeds discuss such controversial issues as the authority of Scripture in contrast to church tradition. Nor do the creeds address the hotly debated topic of the exact relationship of grace, faith, and works in salvation. So common or mere Christianity doesn’t resolve all of the theological debates and differences that are present among the three branches of Christendom: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Nor does it settle the doctrinal differences that exist among Protestants themselves. As Christians study theology they will be challenged to consider how best to resolve the controversial and much-debated areas of biblical doctrine that remain unresolved within Christendom.
But even with the important doctrinal differences and tensions within Christendom, I find a deep sense of satisfaction in helping to bring Christians of diverse theological traditions together by finding a place of genuine and honorable common ground in basic or common Christianity. I respect and appreciate the need for polemics even in the debates within Christendom, but I prefer dialogue. So while my personal theological convictions are that of an Augustinian Protestant (Reformed Anglican), I like to think of myself as being ecumenical in the best sense of the term; for the elements of common Christianity have a deep and abiding appeal among all Christ’s diverse followers.
Reflections: Your Turn
What is appealing about common Christianity? Are the theological differences among Christians a detriment or a learning experience? Comment below with your response.
- To think through areas of doctrinal agreement and disagreement among Christians and consider its significance, see my five-part series “The Problem of Christian Disunity.”
- For an introduction to the ecumenical creeds of Christendom and to the particular doctrinal elements of common Christianity, see “A Soldier’s Creed,” chapter 6 in A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 8.