For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re going to take a look back at this slightly-revised post that was first published on August 26, 2015.
Few books are as revered by evangelical Christians as “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Evangelical pastors across the country quote snippets of “Mere Christianity” to their congregations every Sunday. But Lewis’ wide-is-the-way, bottom-line, mere Christianity is problematic for Bible Christians. This post will undoubtedly upset some readers, but we should allow “Mere Christianity” to speak for itself.
By C.S. Lewis
Harper Collins, 2001, 256 pp.
Only 1-star because of the wide-is-the-way theology
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 pastors and para-church leaders refer to “Mere Christianity” with unqualified high praise. Christianity Today magazine 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 was a talented 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 conservative 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 propagator of salvation via sacramental grace and merit, is presented as a totally valid Christian entity. Chuck Colson cited “Mere Christianity” 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 of his would prefer more emphasis be given to belief than to the two “sacraments” as the way to “Christ-life,” the author declines to do so. High-church Anglicans generally believe the Holy Spirit is first received at infant 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 again and 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 gift of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Him as Savior alone (p. 147). But how Lewis reconciles this with his previous approval of 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. So which is it? Is salvation by grace or works? Lewis’ theological dissonance suggests to his readers that there are two gospels.
* 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 somewhat nebulous 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 outright dismisses the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ (p.182), not a minor triviality, 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 extremely important issues raises the question of why so many evangelical pastors stumble 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. Is intellectual snob appeal part of what fuels the attraction to the troubling writings of Oxford professor, Lewis? I’m guessing that’s some of the appeal.
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 that deserve your attention. I would neither recommend “Mere Christianity” to an unbeliever or to a Christian of many years. 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.