Is “Mere Christianity” Barely Christianity?

CS-Lewis-onReligionMere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

“A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.”

I first read Mere Christianity in college and decided it was time to give it another go. This book has been very influential and almost 70 years after its original publication is still quite popular. The question I had for myself was, what would I take from it now, 30 years more knowledgeable and mature in my faith, than I did on my initial reading of it? So here are some of my observations – both positive and negative.

Mere Christianity was originally broadcasted on a radio program in three parts: Parts One and Two,“The Case for Christianity” and “Christian Behavior” in 1943, and Part Three, “Beyond Personality” in 1945. Lewis’s purpose for Mere Christianity is not to discuss or explain specific points of Biblical doctrine. It’s important to keep in mind that C. S. Lewis’s education was in the areas of literature and philosophy, not theology. When reading Lewis, it is clear he is not a theologian, and he admits it himself:

The thing I am going to try to explain in this chapter (entitled “Faith”) may be ahead of me. I may be thinking I have got there when I have not. I can only ask instructed Christians to watch very carefully, and tell me when I go wrong; and others to take what I say with a grain of salt—as something offered, because it may be a help, not because I am certain that I am right.

According to his own words in the Preface, which was written ten years after the original, Lewis held the opinion that,

the questions which divide Christians from one another often involve points of high Theology or even of ecclesiastical history which ought never to be treated except by real experts. I should have been out of my depth in such waters: more in need of help myself than able to help others.

Here I think Lewis reveals that he doesn’t consider himself a theologian, but it also sounds as if he doesn’t think the “study of God” (which is what the term theology means) is for the everyday Christian, but should be reserved for “experts.” On this point I have to disagree. It seems to me that every Christian should have a desire and make an effort to study and know God better, and to be a student of God’s Word. J. I. Packer addresses this in his book, Knowing God. In my opinion, saying that studying and understanding the doctrines of the Bible is only for intellectuals or for those who are ministers or missionaries is a cop-out. I think one of the reasons Christianity is so weak and has so little impact in society is because people don’t know what they believe or why. After all, how can I live as a Christian if I don’t know what the defining distinctions of a Christian are?

So Mere Christianity is not a work of theology but of apologetics, directed primarily to the non-Christian, not to the Christian. Whereas Lewis feels that points of doctrine should be limited to “in-house” debates, his book addresses topics that are broader in scope, such as human nature, the existence of God, and the definition of morality, especially in the first half of the book. And that brings us to another point – why Lewis uses the term “mere” in reference to the Christianity he is discussing. He isn’t setting out to persuade his readers towards a specific doctrinal stance or belief system within Christianity, but to win them over to Christianity in general. His Christianity is very ecumenical; proof of this is the fact that he asked for feedback on his book from four different clergymen: an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Roman Catholic (hey, no Baptist? 🙂 ), and except for a couple of minor comments, they were all in agreement on Lewis’s views.

Lewis does in fact discuss some theological topics, such as the deity of Christ, the atonement, the fall and depravity of man, faith and repentance, and the process of sanctification. Again, since the book is written more for non-Christians and even non-religious people, he doesn’t use theological terminology or site any scripture because (I suppose) he is trying to make Christianity understandable and accessible to them. But it’s where he explains doctrine without using God’s Word that I was most uncomfortable with Lewis and found problems with what he says. He just tries too hard to be original and creative in his use of metaphors and illustrations that it became tiresome to me. After reading some of his examples, I’d find myself scratching my head and saying, “Huh? What are you talking about?” and I’ve come across many others who’ve had the same reaction.

Before getting to the bad news, here are a few of the better statements Lewis makes:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good; a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right… Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either…

No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptations know how strong it is…We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means…

If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not.

Probably the most famous of Lewis’ statements is the following about who Jesus is:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Clearly Lewis’s clever way of putting things actually works at times, as long as they are orthodox, but sometimes they aren’t. In a 2005 article entitled “C.S. Lewis Superstar,” Christianity Today wrote, “Though he shared basic Christian beliefs with evangelicals, he didn’t subscribe to biblical inerrancy or penal substitution. He believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration.” Then there’s his view of baptism and communion:

There are three things that spread the Christ life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names—Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper…

Let me make it quite clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being “in Christ” or of Christ being “in them,” this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts – that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body. And perhaps that explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution – a biological or super-biological fact.

These comments provide some insight into Lewis’s beliefs regarding salvation:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. 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.

And this:

The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it…And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass.

But wait, there’s more:

You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarrelling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.

Am I the only one that has trouble with these statements? And how’s this for a description of God’s work in the salvation of depraved sinners?:

What He is watching and waiting and working for is something that is not easy even for God, because, from the nature of the case, even He cannot produce it by a mere act of power. He is waiting and watching for it both in Miss Bates and in Dick Firkin. It is something they can freely give Him or freely refuse to Him. Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfil the only purpose for which they were created? Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God?

He can help it to do so. He cannot force it. He cannot, so to speak, put out His own hand and pull it into the right position, for then it would not be free will any more. Will it point North? That is the question on which all hangs. Will Miss Bates and Dick offer their natures to God? The question whether the natures they offer or withhold are, at that moment, nice or nasty ones, is of secondary importance. God can see to that part of the problem.

Yet the Scriptures clearly tell us that, “there are none who seek after God” (Rom. 3). Lewis does not paint a picture of a sovereign God, but a weak, impotent god who is just sitting by waiting and hoping that some of the individuals he sent his son to die for will decide to offer themselves to him.

Photo by Norman Parkinson/Corbis. Illustration by Dave Stevenson

Lewis may be considered one of the most original Christian writers of the 20th century, but I think his creativity serves him better in his fictional works: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Space Trilogy and even The Great Divorce. While his theology creeps into these stories, it’s more subtle and can readily be overlooked since they aren’t meant to be taken literally. So do I recommend Mere Christianity? Well, since so many Christians praise it and consider it a valuable resource, I guess it might be a good idea to read it just to be familiar with it. True, Mere Christianity emphasizes the importance of living out the Christian life, but there are much better books out that address that issue – too many to even list here, but consider The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges for starters, or even A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law. While Mere Christianity has some value, I believe its problems outweigh its merits and that again, there are better apologetic works available to share with your non-religious friends. Here are a few that should prove to be more theologically sound than Lewis:

Have you read Mere Christianity? What do you think? Share your favorite book or quote by Lewis!

8 thoughts on “Is “Mere Christianity” Barely Christianity?

  1. Wow good post though I imagine some Christians might not be as happy to read this; I need to look more into his particular theory of the atonement, it’s sad to read this

    1. Yeah, I was thinking this might ruffle some feathers because Lewis is so highly praised in evangelical circles, and his books are often included in Christian high school and college curriculum. One reviewer said, we should “eat the watermelon and spit out the seeds” when reading Lewis, but at what point are there just too many seeds that it’s just not worth the effort to eat the watermelon at all? I would just advise Christians to use discernment when reading ANY work, especially if it’s written for instruction. My real concern is for brand new believers who are handed books like this and don’t have enough knowledge of Scripture to do that.

      1. Oh the 2 out of five books was referring to the books you recommended…If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists? by Dr. R. C. Sproul and More Than a Carpenter and others by Josh McDowell.

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