In his most recent web column, Timothy George refers to the famous book by C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, and reminds us the phrase is not original to Lewis:
"'Mere Christianity' is actually a phrase Lewis borrowed from the 17th-century Puritan divine Richard Baxter. Baxter lived in Restoration England when various Protestant groups were beginning to develop a keen sense of denominational consciousness and competition. He did not like the labels Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist or the like. He preferred to be called a mere Christian or, as he also referred to himself, a mere Catholic. He understood the importance of Christian unity for the renewal of the church in his day.
"'Do not your hearts bleed to look upon the state of England,' he asked, 'and to think how few towns or cities there be (where is any forwardness in religion) that are not cut into shreds, and crumbled as to dust by separations and divisions?' Baxter did not call for the abolition of denominations as such, but he wanted to relativize them in light of an undergirding core commitment to Christian essentials.
"But Baxter’s mere Christianity was not mere Christianity in the weak, attenuated sense of the word mere. Lewis and Baxter used the word mere in what is today—regrettably—an obsolete sense, meaning 'nothing less than,' 'absolute,' 'sure,' 'unqualified,' as opposed to today’s weakened sense of 'only this,' 'nothing more than,' or 'such and no more.' Our contemporary meaning of the word mere corresponds to the Latin vix, 'barely,' 'hardly,' 'scarcely,' while the classical, Baxterian usage corresponds to the Latin vere, 'truly,' 'really,' 'indeed.'
"Baxter had no use for a substanceless, colorless homogeneity bought at the expense of the true catholic faith. Indeed, he had his own list of non-negotiable fundamentals, including belief in one triune God; in one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, God incarnate; in the Holy Spirit; in the gifts of God present to his covenanted people in baptism and Holy Communion; and in a life of obedience, holiness and growth in Christ." (Read more.)
As we preach and teach to 21st-century congregations, let’s call them to the kind of robust, vital mere Christianity, which Baxter envisioned. That is a faith with the ability to stand strong in the face of the cultural and political pressures that inevitably will come our way in the years ahead.