Reflections on Mere Christianity

I’m looking back through Mere Christianity these days, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. Some miscellaneous thoughts:

1) Lewis’ appeal to mere Christianity was not tantamount to doctrinal minimalism, as some people have suggested. His metaphor for a hall (Christian orthodoxy) with many rooms (Christian denominations) on it at the end of the preface makes it clear that he focuses on the broad essentials of Christianity because he is introducing his listeners (and now readers) to the Christian faith, not because he thinks the broad essentials are all people need to subsequently accept. He is trying to get them into the hallway, not show them which room is theirs; but it does not follow that he thinks the rooms are unimportant. In fact he stresses the importance of people not remaining in the hallway, but choosing a room.

Nor is Mere Christianity is a “theology lite” kind of book. Despite its plain and non-technical language, I am struck by how much theological learnedness stands behind and informs Lewis’ writing. His response to the problem of evil is the classic Augustinian free-will one. His presentation of the atonement is Anselmian. His argument that God is outside time draws from Boethius. Even his discussion of the role of the sacraments betrays a high degree of familiarity with Reformation discussions about, for example, the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. All of this theological under-girding is sometimes lost to readers, I think, because of the clear and popular-level writing, which in my opinion is the glory of the book – its ability to abstract from massive reading and translate it into succinct and accessible prose for the uninitiated lay person. But the popular presentation has a solid theological structure beneath it.

This is why I cannot fully sympathize with people who say, as I have often heard, “I like Lewis’ fiction, but his non-fiction is hit or miss – after all, he was not a trained theologian.” To some extent, I can understand that, and I do not always agree with Lewis’ theology. But I think its a mistake to view Lewis’ theological awareness as sub-standard or hodgepodge. He was quite aware of the issues he was addressing, and their historical context.

2) The second of the book’s four sections, “What Christians Believe,” is my favorite. The first section is basically the moral argument for God’s existence, serving to prepare his listeners/readers for his presentation of Christianity. The third section is on Christian virtues. The fourth is more difficult to categorize and seems less logically crisp, but it seems to basically amount to an analysis of the doctrine of the Trinity, and then a case that salvation consists of being drawn into that Triune life. The second section lays out a basic overview of the Christian faith: it affirms Christian theism and distinguishes it from Pantheism (chapter 1) and Dualism (chapter 2); responds to the problem of evil and offers a brief history of the Christian view of revelation, terminating in Christ and his Divine identity (chapter 3); presents Christ’s atoning death and resurrection as the center piece of Christ’s work (chapter 4); and finally calls for a response to the Christian message (chapter 5).

Many conservative evangelicals quibble with aspects Lewis’ presentation of Christian doctrine – I have some quibbles of my own. But its worth noting that this presentation, in rough form, is identical to, say, Greg Gilbert’s outline in his recent book What is the Gospel? You have God (chapters 1-2), sin (chapter 3), Christ (chapters 3-4), and response (chapter 5). He even distinguishes gospel obedience from non-gospel obedience (chapter 5, 7th paragraph), in a Tim Keller fashion. Lewis is presenting the same gospel that conservative evangelicals love, even if he does so in his own unique way.

3) My own quibbles with this section of the book – and they are minor in comparison to my love of it – are three-fold. First, I agree with the Roman Catholic critic Lewis mentions in the preface who felt that Lewis downplayed the importance of atonement theory in chapter 4 and in the book’s preface. I agree with Lewis that Christianity does not hang on one particular picture or theory of the atonement, but I’m not sure its helpful to go to the opposite extreme and say (as he does at the end of the chapter, and also at the end of 4.6), drop the picture if it doesn’t help you. What if the picture has value, and should be struggled with, not discarded? I get the sense Lewis really struggled with a rigorous penal-substitutionary view, especially before he was converted, and so he’s trying to take the whole question off the table so that his audience won’t be hindered by it. I can appreciate his motives, but I wonder if readers may have benefited more from Lewis defending the broad strokes of an orthodox view of the atonement, rather than taking such a latitudinarian attitude on it. I also don’t sense Lewis’ wrestling with the New Testament very much in this section.

Secondly, I also agree with the Methodist reviewer Lewis mentions in the preface that Lewis downplayed the importance of faith in chapter 5. He basically equates the sacraments to faith in their role in communicating God’s grace and life to us, as the 3 primary means of this (faith + baptism + the Lord’s Supper). I would prefer to prioritize faith over the sacraments as that which introduces us into God’s grace and favor, and then the sacraments (along with things like prayer, fellowship, and worship) in a subordinate role, sustaining and growing our spiritual life. I think I have a high view of the sacraments, but I’m not sure they should be emphasized so highly as means of growing in Christ’s life, especially in an apologetics book with a largely unbelieving audience.

Third, I remain a non-dogmatic exclusivist, so I’m uneasy with Lewis’ inclusivism, mentioned briefly in chapter 5: “we do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” I fully understand the appeal of this position, and if I get to heaven and find out its right, I will rejoice that more people are there than I expected. (That’s why I say non-dogmatic, in addition to the fact that I don’t think the Bible is as clear on this as it is on other issues closer to the heart of orthodoxy.) But from the best that I can see things now, the whole urgency of missions woven into Paul’s reasoning in a passage like Romans 10:13-15 makes it seem like everything hangs on people hearing about Christ. Maybe Lewis’ view has an answer to this that I am not aware of, and I want to have a humble attitude about such a serious matter as whether the untold millions who have never heard the gospel are consigned to hell. But even more I want to sit under the New Testament witness on this issue, and I honestly don’t see the biblical texts directing us towards an inclusivist hope.

Still, a classic read. My favorite chapter is probably 4.2, “The Three-Personal God” – worth its weight in gold. This is a book I’ll go back to again and again.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you, Gavin. I’ve made that criticism about Lewis’ theology! I’ll stop saying it. Can you post about what you like in particular about the chapter on the Three-Personed God? Pretty please?

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  2. Well, in this chapter and the previous one, he explains the relationships in the Godhead (especially the Father begetting the Son) in a way that is understandable and practical. I honestly never really got the Trinity very clearly until I read this section of the book. It was always something I just accepted, but found weird. He has such a way of making things clear: he helps me see how the Trinity makes sense, since it can explain how God is truly more than personal (something Eastern religions claim but often really mean less than personal) – and how it is practical because salvation consists of getting caught into that triune life and energy. His analogy of dimensions to explain how God is supra-personal is also really helping and interesting.

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  3. You know, the analogy with Eastern conceptions of the deity is interesting. Isn’t there a theme in Hinduism that the Godhead has to be multiple, or it has to be nothing? I.e., not allowing for a simple/monolithic theism? I may be getting that wrong.
    Thank you for the heads-up; I will read it!

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  4. Interesting, I hadn’t heard that before about Hinduism.

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  5. Thanks for your thoughts Gavin. Mere Christianity is the only book that I’ve read three times. The reason I continue to go back to it is because I think it has so much to offer in terms of clearly communicating heady theological truths without the bulky language. It is true that we should read the denser stuff, but it is refreshing to hear Lewis’ simple, yet profound interpretation of it all.

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