by C.S. Lewis
Harper Collins, 2001
The armchair theologian has no clothes.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was a distinguished British author, educator, armchair theologian, and a former atheist. “Mere Christianity” (first published in 1952) was adapted from a series of talks given by Lewis on BBC radio between 1942 and 1944.
Many Evangelical authors and ministers refer to “Mere Christianity” with unqualified high praise. Christianity Today even names it as the absolute best religious book of the twentieth century. Well, after hearing all the hoopla for many years I finally got around to reading this “classic” and I must say I’m surprised by all the adulation. There’s no doubt Lewis is a wonderful writer and pleads the case for many of the basic tenets of Christianity in an enjoyable let’s-discuss-religion-over-a-few-pints-at-the-pub manner. But there are more than a few difficulties with Lewis’s lowest-common-denominator theology which should give all Evangelicals pause. All quotes below are from the Harper Collins 2001 edition which I borrowed from my local library.
* The author, an Anglo-Catholic, cuts the widest swath possible in his definition of Christianity. He is purposefully inclusive, identifying Christianity as a large hallway which has many doors to various denominational rooms (p. XV). Roman Catholicism, a hybrid of works salvation (sacramentalism, good deeds, and obedience to the law) and grace, is presented as a completely valid branch of Christianity. Chuck Colson cited Lewis as the inspiration for his ecumenical Evangelicals and Catholics Together alliance.
* Lewis is deliberately vague about how one actually becomes a Christian. He sets forth 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” (p. 61). While Lewis confesses that a Methodist friend would prefer more emphasis be given to belief than the two “sacraments” as the way to “Christ-life,” the author declines to do so. Anglicans believe the Holy Spirit is first received at baptism and that Christ is really present in the eucharist. Catholics believe that at their mass the priest brings Christ down from heaven to be sacrificed once again under the forms of bread and wine as an offering for the sins of the participants. However, God’s Word states that priestly sacrifice for sins ended with Jesus’s once-for-all-time sacrificial death at Calvary and that He is now seated at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3 & 10:12), not on Catholic altars as a broken victim.
* Lewis correctly states that at some point a person on their way to becoming a Christian will realize they cannot merit their way to God but must accept Christ’s completely free offer of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Him (p. 147). But how this reconciles with Lewis’s sacramentalism is unclear. Also, Rome unequivocally condemns the belief of unmerited salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone (see Council of Trent canons) yet Lewis cites Catholicism as a valid branch of Christianity. How does that work?
* Lewis affirms his unscriptural belief in purgatory. Putting words into Christ’s mouth, Lewis writes, “Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect…” (p. 202). Lest anyone believe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill in regards to this reference, Lewis greatly expounded on his belief in purgatory in other writings.
* Lewis is an unabashed Universalist: “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” (p. 209). Chapter and verse, Clive Staples? What about John 14:6? But Lewis is not the only Evangelical darling to preach Universalism. In a May 31, 1997 interview with ecumenical minister, Robert H. Schuller, Billy Graham stated, “God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world. They are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”
* Lewis dismisses the penal view of the atonement of Christ (p.182) and in other writings he doubts the inerrancy of Scripture. Lewis confessed his sins weekly to Anglican priest, Father Walter Adams, beginning in 1940. After Adams’ death in 1952 Lewis continued the practice of auricular confession with the priests of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Oxford.
C. S. Lewis’s deviation from Biblical orthodoxy on several important issues raises the question of why so many Evangelicals fall over each other to sing the praises of “Mere Christianity”? The fact that many Roman Catholics have adopted Lewis as one of their own and are convinced he was on the path to joining their religion says volumes. Lewis’s spiritual inspiration, ardent Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton, was certainly no friend of Evangelical Protestantism. My advice is don’t waste one second of your time with this wide-is-the-way “classic.” There are much more doctrinally sound books on the basics of the Christian faith from solid Evangelical authors (e.g., John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, Steve Lawson) that deserve your attention. I would neither recommend “Mere Christianity” to an unbeliever or to a Christian. I can only surmise that the undiscerning herd enthusiasm for this book among some Evangelicals is guided by the same spirit that persuaded Billy Graham to invite Catholic bishops and priests to participate in organizing his later crusades.