“Mere Christianity” and “Mere Ecclesiology”

I recently saw one of the pastors of my wife’s Lutheran parish carrying around a copy of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. Five minutes later both he and I were in conversation with a non-Christian of Muslim background who was asking about what the Christians believed about free will and predestination. Well. Those two questions instantly divided “mere Christianity” into at least three radically different camps…

Pastor Mark has a post on this topic over at Glosses from an Old Manse (“Heretics, Sectarians and ‘The Lutheran Difference'”). He writes:

As I have stated in these glosses before, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “basic Christianity”, in the sense of some pre-theological, non-doctrinal, supposedly pure version of Christianity that we could discover if we could just somehow jump over 2000 years of church history. People who advocate “basic Christianity” are either naïve, confused, ignorant, duplicitous and/or probably about to start a new sect. We might wish it were so, but what we actually have in this world, whether we like it or not, are several exclusive versions of Christianity that happily share a good deal of orthodox doctrine inherited from the early church, but who also each hold exclusive articles of faith which are deemed important enough for the faith and life of their adherents to warrant ecclesiastical separation from those who teach otherwise. This separation is deemed necessary to preserve the doctrinal purity of the body. Unless a church body has completely relativised all doctrine, it holds to some form of this position, because it understands that doctrine and life are intimately related. Even liberal churches enforce doctrinal standards!

For the most part, I agree with him – although I don’t think I would have called C.S. Lewis “naïve, confused, ignorant, [or] duplicitous”; perhaps he was a little over hopeful, and you can’t blame a convinced Christian for being that. However, the interesting part of Pastor Mark’s description is his belief that those who advocate a “mere Christianity” are “probably about to start a new sect”. At this point, his comments take a decidedly ecclesiological turn:

This has always made perfect sense to me, even when I was a “seeker” and then a neophyte. It seemed to me then that a church body which did not care enough about what it believed to delineate itself in some way from other, differing church bodies probably didn’t believe in much to begin with and wasn’t worth exploring (in actual fact there are “post-Christian” churches like this, but that is a subject for another post). …And so, in spite of all I hold in common with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, namely the creeds of the early church and the heritage of the Fathers, I could not in good conscience join in worship which included prayers to Mary and the saints. Apart from the lack of scriptural warrant for such prayers, I suspect that at heart this practice reflects a different understanding of the Gospel. Similarly, as much as I share a passion for justification by grace through faith alone with the Reformed, I couldn’t commune at a Lord’s Supper with a congregation which does not confess that the bread and wine are the true body of Christ given into death for us and the real blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of our sins. To do so would be, to my mind and conscience, a denial of the Gospel (the sacrament is the Gospel…for me).

At first glance it might appear that the major issue for Pastor Mark is doctrine, ie. what kind of Christianity (if not “mere Christianity”) is espoused by these different groups. But in fact, there is a deeper question, which is “To what degree can I call any of these groups “church”?” He goes on to say:

It is not that I am questioning the salvation of Catholics or Orthodox or Presbyterians. They certainly have enough of the Gospel to be saved, it’s just that they don’t have enough of the Gospel for me to recognise them as church in an unqualified sense. Their doctrine needs to be informed and reformed by the Gospel before I could acknowledge them as such. I write in the first person, but it should be said that such is the position held by all confessional Lutherans. In holding this view we are following the Augsburg Confession, which states that “[t]he Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacraments are administered rightly.” [my emphasis]

When Pastor Mark refers to recognising other groups of Christians as “church in an unqualified sense”, I hear echoes of Dominus Iesus which spoke of “Churches in the proper sense”. Despite Protestant protest against the Catholic Church using such an idea, unless one is to resort to a kind of “mere ecclesiology” to match one’s “mere Christianity”, there has to be a sense in which one defines what “a true Church” (or “the true Church”) is, and thus be able to judge whether or not a particular group of people IS a “Church” in either a qualified or unqualified sense.

Lutherans work with a clear definition of “the Church”. As Pastor Mark quoted from the Augsburg Confession, it is the “congregation…in which the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacraments are administered rightly.” Well and good, only that definition requires other definitions: ie. what is the “pure teaching” of the Gospel and how does one administer the Sacraments “rightly”? Who is to judge? It cannot be “the Church” that judges, since “the Church” which we are trying to define here. I mean suppose I were to establish a Network of Right Thinkers. In the constitution I put: “The Network of Right Thinkers shall be an association of all those who think rightly”; and then I go on to say “Right Thinking shall be determined by the Network of Right Thinkers”. You would immediately see the problem there, wouldn’t you? Of course, a Lutheran will reply that it is not the Church, but the Scriptures, which determines “pure teaching” and “right administration”, but that merely shifts the definition of “Church” to the “congregation which interprets the scriptures correctly” and you can see that that has exactly the same problems as my constitution for the Network of Right Thinkers.

The problem with a definition of “the Church” (or “a Church”) along these lines is that it is remarkably susceptible to just the kind of thing that Pastor Mark is warning us against, namely, sectarianism. Take for instance his statement above, that he “could not in good conscience join in worship which included prayers to Mary and the saints.” Why not? Until the 16th Century, the intercession and invocation of Mary and the saints was a standard and universal feature of Christianity, both East and West. But then someone suggested a “mere Christianity” which not only did not include this ancient and universal practice, but actually forbade it. The next thing is that those who forbade this practice – suspecting “that at heart this practice reflects a different understanding of the Gospel” from their own “mere Christianity” – began “a new sect”. Their “exclusive articles of faith” were “deemed important enough for the faith and life of their adherents to warrant ecclesiastical separation from those who teach otherwise” – ie. the rest of Christendom as it existed in their day.

I know there were other issues than just the intercession and invocation of the saints that led to the separation of the “evangelicals” from communion with the Bishop of Rome, but, keeping this separation in mind, and keeping in mind that it came about because of what this particular group believed to be “pure Christianity”, listen now to what Pastor Mark says next:

But the blame for [this division] lies…with the teachers of outright false doctrine who have led others – sometimes millions – astray (the heretics), and with those who have separated from their mother church without due reason (the sectarians). It is the promotion of false doctrine that is deplorable, because, at the least, it renders the proclamation of the Gospel in a particular church impure; and, at its worst, it undermines and overthrows the Gospel completely. Sectarianism, on the other hand, which is almost as deplorable as false teaching and heresy, is a sin against love and tears the outward body of Christ apart for no valid reason.

Umm. I agree entirely with what Pastor Mark is saying about “mere Christianity”, but I am surprised that – although he himself clearly describes the problem – he doesn’t see how this leads directly to “mere ecclesiology”, ie. sectarianism. Nor does Pastor Mark seem to appreciate that the community to which he belongs actually originated in just this manner, that is, first by teaching a version of “mere Christianity” (the “Gospel purely taught”) and then by separating from “their Mother Church”. (Although I hasten to add, as Vatican II does, that “men on both sides were to blame”, and that we cannot blame the division on those who belong to these communities today).

It seems to me that

1) if we are not all to be subsumed into a “mere ecclesiology” to match our personally chosen version of “mere Christianity”, we need some other grounds for determining what “a Church in the proper sense” is.

2) that that body which is truly “Church” – and which thus exercises the teaching authority which Christ gave to his Church – is the body which can rightly claim to teach the Gospel purely and to administer the sacraments purely.

Of course, you can see where this is leading. We Catholics hold that

1) Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him; [and that]

2) The Churches which [even if] not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. (Dominus Iesus §17)

Whatever else may be said of these definitions (and it is noteworthy that in “Light of the World”, Pope Benedict stresses that full communion with the Bishop of Rome is not regarded by the Catholic Church as “of the essence” of a “true particular Church”), it may at least be said that it is an objective definition which is not susceptible to alteration by anyone claiming to know what “mere Christianity” is. Any group of Christians who have a bishop who has not broken from the ancient succession, and thus a valid priesthood and Eucharist, is a “true particular Church”. This is a strong and robust ecclesiology which ensures that the faith that is taught is cannot become a “mere Christianity” of the lowest common denominator, a Christianity which is “naïve, confused, ignorant, duplicitous and/or probably about to start a new sect”, a Church in which the Gospel is “taught purely” and the Sacraments “administered rightly”.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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9 Responses to “Mere Christianity” and “Mere Ecclesiology”

  1. Stephen K says:

    David, just two things. Firstly, I think I was with you until what I thought was a slight logical leap in the last paragraph, where you state that the strong Catholic ecclesiology ensures the faith that is taught will not be the minimalism of what Pastor Mark referred to as ‘mere’ Christianity. I don’t think that is quite correct, as a matter of logic: all that the strong Catholic ecclesiology ensures – by the terms you set out – is that a ‘true Church’ will have a bishop in the line of succession and a valid Eucharist. You could have finished with your second last sentence. The way I see it and follow your line of thinking, the problem you rightly identify as confronting any ecclesiology, like Pastor Mark’s, which is founded on a benchmark of an interpretation of what constitutes doctrinal purity and sacramental integrity also besets the Catholic position, which depends similarly on an interpretation of what constitutes structural and functional integrity (i.e. bishops) and sacramental effectiveness (‘valid’ Eucharist). Thus, though I grant you that a pedigreed episcopacy and a particular form of Eucharist are more objective criteria, Catholic ecclesiology is essentially no stronger, and no more capable, it seems to me, than various Protestant ones in guaranteeing truth or faith. It is my experience that Catholics ordinarily use the consistent teachings of the Popes (and Councils) as the criterion of orthodoxy, but, especially given the views of the Orthodox on the authority of the Pope and the identity of Councils, this is really the equivalent of Scripture for Protestants, no matter how inclusively Vatican II attempted to express it.
    Secondly, I’m not sure I agree that there is not a basic Christianity, or that the idea of it should be dismissed so pejoratively as a ‘lowest common denominator’ idea. Part of the problem as I see it is that everyone probably comes to Christianity through a community of some sort, even of it is that to which one’s parents belong or talk about, or which one encounters. Accordingly, there is always a particular view of Christian faith that comes complete with demarcating differences. But there is a slippery slope to Christian understanding and faith it seems to me: it is surely possible that there are people who assert no more than that Jesus was an incarnation of God for human salvation and reconciliation with the Father, died for us and rose in some way and modelled an ethic that must govern our relationships. Would you, say, deny the name “Christian” to such people? A little further on, weren’t the Marcionites and the Arians “Christians” too? (And I’m not unconscious of the irony that some Protestants and some Catholics alike have sometimes considered, at least colloquially, Catholics not to be “Christians”.) I don’t assert that such a minimalist ‘faith’ is ‘pure’ or correct, but, hearkening back to my first comments above, how can anyone provide an indisputable, incontrovertible proof guaranteeing their ‘correctness’?
    An interesting and stimulating blog article, as usual, David.

    • Schütz says:

      Thanks, Stephen, for this comment and your comments on the last post too. Both very perceptive. I’m a bit busy this morning and will get back to your critique above. Your point about the last sentence may be valid. I think I did do a bit of a logical leap in order to bring a long post to a quick end. I will try to spell it out a little bit more when I get the time. I just want to flag for now that your criticism in this respect is just.

    • Schütz says:

      a slight logical leap in the last paragraph, where you state that the strong Catholic ecclesiology ensures the faith that is taught will not be the minimalism of what Pastor Mark referred to as ‘mere’ Christianity

      To fill out the logic a little:

      1) the “strong” ecclesiology of the Catholic Church is based on an objective “communion” of persons, which is necessary if the bishop is to be in apostolic succession and the eucharist he celebrates is to be valid. The “weak” ecclesiology of “mere Christianity” is based upon the assertion that the “true Church” is defined by those who share a subjectively determined definition of “the Gospel purely taught”.

      2) The objective communion of persons implied in the practice of apostolic succession also implies a maintenance of a Tradition in communion with other bishops. While not an entirely water-tight defence against purity of teaching and sacramental integrity, the requirement to maintain apostolic succession does make schism in matters of faith more difficult (though not impossible, as we know from the three ancient Christian communions that have maintained the succession to this day: the Catholics, the Orthodox and the Orientals). Furthermore, when schism does take place, the continuance of apostolic succession of bishops remains a powerful incentive to seek ways in which the schism can be healed (and thus the primary ecumenical endeavour of the Catholic Church today is with those “true particular churches” which are separated from us).

      You also say that are uncertain that Pastor Mark and I are correct in rejecting the notion of a basic Christianity. I can understand the uncertainty. Given the fact that when Christians of any stripe get together, they find (in the words of Cardinal Kasper) “what we have in common is much greater than what we disagree on”, it would seem logical that we ought simply to be able to “agree on” that large commonality. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work this way. What Christian A takes to be “basic” to his Christianity, Christian B will reject as an authentic part of hers. What Christians C & D might agree on as being “basic” Christianity, Christians E & F will reject. And yet, Christians A, B and F might all agree on something that is basic to their Christianity which Christians C, D and E reject as belonging to theirs. Do you see the problem? The subset of “basic” beliefs differs broadly.

      A good example is the sacraments. Surely, one would say, we can agree that Baptism and Eucharist are fundamental to the Christian faith and praxis? (N.T. Wright does a good job in his “New Testament and the People of God” of showing that the practice of these two sacraments actually defines the Christian community in the 1st Century). And yet we have Christian groups who completely reject both the practice of baptism AND the practice of the Eucharist.

      • Stephen K says:

        Yes, (1) and (2) make it clearer. I understand, thanks, David.

        Interestingly, my point about basic Christianity is to some extent borne out by your comment that “some Christians” don’t even accept baptism or Eucharist. So, unless you use the term “Christian” here as only a kind of short-hand for something more unwieldy, this suggests that there’s something – which you intuitively recognise or accept – that makes a person Christian beyond, short of or outside Wright’s basic two Sacraments. I wonder what that would be, but it may be so elemental as a decision to live by an understanding of Christ as God. Of course, to understand Jesus as incarnate God implies some judgments about why this might be the case, so the state of being Christian cannot be limited to a single idea about Christ, but you get my point: once one starts excluding people who attempt to love Christ as God from the broad family of “Christians” on the grounds their faith is incomplete or deficient, there’s no stopping in theory, and in practice the result is division and various manifestations of un-Christian unlove. I would like to suggest that the ability to take joy in commonalities – however imperfect – that characterises many ecumenical occasions is in fact born from a deeply intuitive aspiration for the oneness Jesus spoke about – which may be a oneness of hearts more than of ratiocinations. It seems to me that there is so much scope for cross-fertilization in the sharing or meditation of the different theological traditions and insights, and my guess is that you, who clearly understand both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic perspectives, would appreciate that more than, regrettably the case, many of those who remain within one tradition all their life, or never consider whether there is more or less to what they are accustomed to.

        I agree that a sound ecclesiology is important, because it seems to underpin one’s understanding of religious truths and one’s moral practice insofar as the appropriate attitudes or actions with regard to one’s neighbour are concerned, in accordance with the two great commandments. For this reason, it seems to me that the narrower the ecclesiology, the harder it is to avoid straying from the clear centrality of inclusive love into the thickets of mutual exclusions.

        • Schütz says:

          Just to clarify a little further, I do in fact work with an idea of what, at the very least, a body of Christians should publically teach/practice if they are to be recognised as Christians:

          1) The doctrine of the Trinity taught in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
          2) The two natures of Christ taught by the Council of Ephesus
          3) Baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit with water

          But this is a sort of “boundary of definition” rather than a “mere Christianity” that anyone could take as a basic creed.

  2. Hi David,

    It’s good to know you are still reading my blog, and interacting with it thoughtfully.
    I’m amazed that we find ourselve sin so much agreement! :0)
    I’m also stimulated by what Stephen has to say.
    I should also add that all this was not a formal expression of ecclesiology but a plug for a book written especially for lay Lutherans – just to put it in context.

    As you know, this is a busy time of year for us Lutheran pastors, so a fuller resposne will have to wait, d.v..

    And yes, I would regard C.S. Lewis as somewhat optimistic – his mere Christianity is really his own version of the “Anglicanism as a bridge uniting the church” ecclesiology. We can all now see clearly how futile that was.

    A blessed Advent!

  3. Nathan says:

    Schutz,

    A stimulating article – thanks. I look forward to getting time to read the comments. This topic is of great interest to me as well, as you can see by checking out what I’ve written on my blog:

    http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2009/10/29/babies-in-church-part-vii-the-%E2%80%9Cchurch-speak%E2%80%9D-that-we-need/

    As you will see, I’m not so keen to jump to the “invisible church” stuff right away…

    Its interesting to note that Melanchton said that even if the Pope had his position by divine rite (stg I still actually consider), he would have still had to be resisted (I think, ultimately, because of this: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/a-child-of-the-reformation/). Also, I don’t recall all prayers to saints being absolutely condemned in the Lutheran Confessions at least…. am I wrong?

    -Nathan from Minneapolis

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