IS THERE SUCH A THING AS ‘MERE CHRISTIANITY’? A Trialogue With C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther & Thomas Aquinas 

A Trialogue With C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther & Thomas Aquinas

By Peter Kreeft

In July-August 1994, Peter Kreeft was Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and a Contributing Editor of the New Oxford Review. His two most recent books were The Shadow-Lands of C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind the Movie and (with Ronald K. Tacelli) Handbook of Christian Apologetics. 

Ed. Note: Throughout 2017, in commemoration of our 40th year of publication, we are featuring one article per issue from the NOR’s past. This article originally appeared in our July-August 1994 issue (volume LXI, number 6) and is presented here unabridged.

The scene: C.S. Lewis is sitting alone late at night at his big oak desk at The Kilns, Oxford, writing Mere Christianity, his little masterpiece that is destined to enlighten millions of minds and help convert countless souls. He has written everything except the Introduc­tion. (Good authors usually delay their Introductions for the same reason good matchmakers do: They first have to get to know what they are to introduce.)

Lewis suddenly sits up with a start. He seems to see two visitors in his room. He rubs his eyes, but the two visitors do not disappear. One is a very large, very fat Dominican friar, white-robed and tonsured, appar­ently in a fit of absent-minded abstraction. The other is a black-robed Augustinian monk, only a little less for­midably fat, who is fanning his fanny with his robe. He has apparently just passed wind. He mutters: “When I fart in Wittenberg, the Pope smells it in Rome.”

Lewis’s first thought is that there are four possi­bilities: These two creatures must come from Heaven or Hell or Purgatory or Central Casting. Then he thinks a fifth possibility more likely: They come from his own imagination. He will never settle this ques­tion in his mind with certainty, though he will enjoy conversation with them that is so lively that it makes the fifth possibility unlikely.

They speak English, but with accents. Lewis can’t help associating the Dominican’s accent with the Mafia and the Augustinian’s with the Gestapo. By an effort of will and charity he exorcises these thoughts, and he is rewarded by divine providence in that the two figures do not disappear, but speak.

Luther: What are you writing there, Brother Jack?

Lewis: Are you…Brother Martin?

Luther: That habit you have of answering a ques­tion with another question — are you a rabbi or a psychiatrist?

Lewis (laughing): Neither. Only a writer. I’m just finishing up some talks I gave on the BBC for publication. Or I think I am, anyway. Seeing the two of you, I’m not so sure what’s real anymore.

Aquinas: We are real, I assure you. And we are privi­leged to meet you. For you labor at the same honorable task as we did.

Luther: We are here to help you finish your book: the title and the Introduction. And to reassure you that this little book will be a mighty weapon in the Spirit’s hands.

Lewis: I am honored. And intrigued.

Aquinas: We are also here to ask you some ques­tions.

Luther: About this book of yours. Especially the title. You are thinking of borrowing Baxter’s phrase “mere Christianity.” Now what do you mean by that?

Lewis: If you know so much of my mind, you must know that.

Aquinas: We only know what God lets us know of your mind. But even if we knew all that is in your mind, you do not. Not yet. We are sent to question you so that you may know it better, just as God sent His angel to Job with questions, not answers, for the same reason: God is Socratic.

Luther: To speak plainly, is this “mere Christianity” of yours some kind of alternative to Protestant­ism or Catholicism? Is it a way to avoid that choice? Is it an anonymous Anglicanism? A via media?

Aquinas: We know, Brother Jack, that Roman Ca­tholicism is the one subject you do not discuss, even with your friends. Why?

Lewis: So many hard questions! Brothers, as God knows, the main reason I have — or honestly think I have — for not discussing this rift between the Churches is shame. I am ashamed of this rift, as of a dirty family scandal. It is a public wound in the Body of Christ, and an ugly one, not a sanctified and glorious one like the wounds of the martyrs, or the wound Doubting Thomas was invited to touch. I pray daily for its healing. Also, I have not spoken or written of this publicly because I think our Lord does not want me to. I think he deliberately placed me here at the “mere” center of the battle line where the need for defense is the greatest, but the defenders are few. He may have sent others on advanced theological sorties to conquer new territories, but he sent me to defend the fundamentals. That is why I broadcast these radio talks and wrote this book.

Aquinas: Your motives are honest and holy. But do you not perhaps also fear to face the choice, and to face the uncompromising claims of the Church in an uncompromising way, as you did face the uncompromising claims of Christ? You defended well the old argument about Him: He was “ei­ther God or a bad man,” but not just a good man. What about the parallel argument about the claims of the Catholic Church? She claims uniqueness and infallibility, as no other Church does. She is either right or wrong in this. If she is right, she is very right, and it is your duty to bow to her, enter her, and serve her as Christ’s visible body on earth.

Luther: And if she is wrong, she is very wrong, in­tolerably arrogant, even blasphemous; and it is your duty to expose her and oppose her with all your heart for the same reason: out of love for the Lord.

Lewis: I do not know how to answer.

Aquinas: By remaining outside the Catholic Church you have already answered it.

Lewis: My reason is moved by the Catholic argu­ments, but also by some of the anti-Catholic ones. But my feelings and instincts are those of a son of Ulster. Surely you two can tell me the whole truth? Which of you was wrong? Surely you are not reluctant to admit your errors now?

Luther: We are not permitted to tell you things that only the blessed in Heaven know, Brother Jack.

Aquinas: We were sent to teach you, not to tell you. Perhaps we can help you find the truth for your­self.

Lewis: I am grateful for any help you will give me. How?

Luther: We will argue for our respective creeds as we did on earth, without correcting any of our errors. If Brother Thomas is now a Protestant, or even a Lutheran, he will conceal it; and if I am a Roman Catholic now, or even a Thomist, I will conceal that. Now gird up the loins of your mind, Brother Jack.

Lewis: If all you will tell me is what you said on earth, which I already know, how do I even know you are not my own unconscious?

Luther: That also you shall not know.

Lewis: But in the name of Truth itself, brothers, I declare to you that my desire to know the truth about the claims of the Churches is no idle curi­osity. My heart beats wildly to know this truth so that my pen can serve it. Will God not honor that motive?

Aquinas: He will. But in His time and in His way.

Luther: You see, in His providence He knows that you could not fulfill His battle plan for you as well if you knew these things. You could not have written this book, for one thing. It would have been a different book, written only to part of Christendom.

Lewis: I see.

Luther: Tell me, is this “mere Christianity” of yours an alternative creed to Augsburg or Trent?

Lewis: No. It is the Apostles’ Creed, the foundation of both. My hope is that returning to the com­mon foundation may help heal the hurt and solve the split.

Aquinas: Good. But then how is “mere Christian­ity” related to the Churches?

Lewis: As a hallway is related to the rooms that open off it. A hallway is not for living in. All the food and fire, bed and board, are in the rooms. It is an entering place, not a stopping place.

Luther: Good. Put that thought in your book. Make that clear in your Introduction, so you do not further split the Church by helping to found an­other denomination, “Mere-ism.” For otherwise, your readers will be tempted to deal with their doubts by remaining in the hall.

Lewis: Oh, I don’t think many people would be that foolish.

Luther: You are mistaken. There will be a great will temptation to do just that. It will even be a kind of good temptation.

Lewis: I don’t understand.

Luther: I am allowed to tell you this much of the future. Soon, Christians will desperately need to stand together against a common enemy. This need will be so great that there will be a tempta­tion to “Mere-ism.” When the Devil knocks at your door, there is no time for family squabbles.

Lewis: Why will the need be so great? How will the Devil knock at the door?

Luther: Before your century is over, the world will sink so spectacularly into decadence that blas­phemy and pornography the likes of which you have not imagined will be protected by law, and the most innocent and inoffensive public pieties will be forbidden, such as prayer in public school. The Ten Commandments will be torn down from all public places and in their place will be put homoerotic and sado-masochistic art more bla­tant than your darkest youth conceived. Gov­ernment will fund the display of Christ in a jar of the artist’s urine (I cannot even speak the blas­phemous title of this abomination of desolation). Millions of mothers will be persuaded to slaugh­ter their unborn sons and daughters every year. One-third of all babies conceived will be aborted. The law will remove all protection from these holy innocents, and the media will cooperate by censoring and lying. The most dreaded sexually transmitted disease will be children. Half of all marriages will fail. In the large cities, most children will be illegitimate. Parents will lose con­trol of their children in slow, insidious incre­ments. Virginity will become a stigma and a rar­ity, fornication the norm. Public schools will confiscate Bibles and distribute condoms. Pro­paganda for masturbation, fornication, contra­ception, abortion, and sodomy will be disguised as “sex education” and forced upon pre-pubes­cent children….

Lewis (eyes getting wider at each detail): This is incredible, even to a Puddleglum like me. Do you mean these awful things will happen in Russia?

Luther: No. Three-quarters of a century of prayers for Russia will be answered. The demon Com­munism will die in the Kremlin. Russian public schools will beg for Bibles, even as American schools forbid them.

Lewis: This is incredible — far beyond my wildest fears. Why do you tell me this?

Luther: So that you may understand why your book will help. Christians of all Churches be forged together by fire like the broken shards of a sword. Catholics and Protestants will be thrown in jail together by the thousands for protesting the ho­locaust of babies to Moloch. Hence the “good temptation” I spoke of, the temptation to aban­don the rooms for the hall. Make sure you alert them to that danger.

Lewis: Thank you, Brother Martin. I will.

Aquinas: I have another question about “mere Chris­tianity,” Brother Jack. If it is the Apostles’ Creed, as you say, is it merely 12 propositions? Is it abstracted from the fuller creeds of all Churches as a kind of creedal lowest common denomi­nator? Is it a universal abstracted from its par­ticulars? In that case it would be a theological hall instead of a room. On the other hand, if it is concrete rather than abstract, would that not make it another Church, a rival room to the Catholic one and the Protestant ones?

Lewis: That is a terrible dilemma, but I think I can escape between the horns. It is neither; it is the Gospel. That is concrete, not abstract: something solid and substantial. What Protestants and Catholics share is concrete. It is Christ Himself and faith in Him. Surely, whether Christ is di­vine and rose from the dead is more important than whether the pope is infallible. Surely whether Christ is our Lord is more important than whether Mary was immaculately conceived.

Aquinas: Yes, but to say that one thing is greater than another is not to say that the other is not great. Angels are greater than men; love is greater than knowledge; and Christ is greater than His saints. Yet these second things are all very great.

Lewis: True, Brother Thomas. But I must know just how great or important the distinctively Catholic doctrines are. All the Catholic doctrines that Brother Martin rejected because he could not find them clearly in Scripture — are these essentials or accidentals? If they are accidental, then “mere Christianity” is the only essential, and amounts to Protestantism. If they are essentials, then “mere Christianity” is a mere abstraction.

Aquinas: And now I escape from the horns of your dilemma. There are three possibilities, not two: the essence, a mere accident, or an essential prop­erty (or proper accident). Our Lord’s divinity and resurrection are essential. If one denies them, he is simply not a Christian. Latin in the liturgy and fasting on Friday are changeable accidents. But the authority of the one visible Church and our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist are not ac­cidents but properties of the essence. They flow from the essence, though they are not the es­sence. So the dispute is neither about the essence nor the accidents, but the properties.

No Christian would disagree with Augustine’s great formula, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” But we disputed among ourselves about the properties of the “essentials.” That is why we did not have unity.

Luther: I say the same about sola scriptura and sola fide and sola gratia as you say about the Church. These are essential properties.

Lewis: That makes the notion of “mere Christian­ity” problematic then. For a Catholic would not say that Catholicism is “mere Christianity” plus the Church, and a Lutheran would not say that Lutheranism is “mere Christianity” plus justifi­cation by faith alone. For these are not accidents but essential properties, and one of you, it seems, must be in error about these essential proper­ties. These are very serious mistakes indeed.

Aquinas: Your “mere Christianity” cannot be another “Christianity-plus,” nor a “Christianity-minus.” You must neither add nor subtract, lest you cre­ate “another Gospel,” a new Christianity, which would be the opposite of mere Christianity.

Lewis: But brothers, one of you must have done just that. Either Brother Martin subtracted Catholi­cism from Christianity or the Catholic Church added to it. So the dispute is about what “mere Christianity” is. So to avoid this dispute in my book, I must take an agreed upon set of proposi­tions — essentially the Apostles’ Creed — as a lowest common denominator, it seems.

Aquinas: But that is an abstraction. As I have writ­ten, the primary object of faith is not proposi­tions, but Christ. Propositions define the faith, but they are not its primary object.

Luther: Make sure your book is centered on Christ. The purpose of each syllable you write must be the same as the purpose of each stone in each church building, and each penny in each collec­tion plate: to save lost souls for Christ.

Aquinas: And to sanctify them.

Luther: And not to turn them to disputes about the relationship between justification and sanctifi­cation, nor to Catholic Christianity, nor to Lutheran Christianity, nor to “mere Christian­ity” as an abstraction, but to the concrete per­son of Christ.

Lewis: Indeed, I shall endeavor to be ubiquitously Christocentric. But do you say creeds count but little?

Luther: Surely not. But the creed is for the deed.

Lewis: What a strange thing for you to say! Do you mean faith is for works?

Luther: No, I mean that you must turn your readers’ minds to Christ so they will their hearts to Him. I speak of the deed of faith.

Aquinas: Is your purpose clear now, Brother Jack?

Lewis: It is. Thank you. But I can’t let myself miss this opportunity to try to clarify those properties you disputed about. You two clearly have the same religion but different theologies. If you will not tell me directly what is true and what is false theo­logically, will you teach me in some other way?

Luther: We will. That is part of our task here. And for that, we argue as we did on earth.

Aquinas: We will have something like a Scholastic Disputation, a short and formal and logical de­bate. So, let the play begin. We will play our­selves, as we were. Brother Martin, as the pro­tester, will begin. We will be controversial but friendly, even playful, as we play old parts, now totally free from the old feelings of hate and fear. We will engage in polemics, but in a nonpolemical way, as playing a part — a serious part, but one we can distinguish ourselves from, as polemicists of the past could not.

Luther: I begin, then, by questioning the very no­tion of a “mere Christianity” common to both churches. Granted, Christ is common to both of us, for we come from Heaven, not from Hell. But there is no common foundation to our two Churches. Catholics must say that the Protes­tant Churches are heretical or schismatic; and I say the Roman Catholic Church is apostate, for it preaches a different Scripture, a different sal­vation, and a different sovereignty. A different Scripture because it has added the traditions of men to the Word of God. A different salvation because it replaces salvation by faith with salva­tion by works. And a different sovereignty, the sovereignty of man’s so-called free will rather than the sovereignty of God and His grace.

My three formulas are shields against these three deadly darts of error: sola scriptura against the claim of the Church to add a second Scrip­ture; sola fideagainst the claims of good works to add a second salvation; and sold gratia against the claims of the human will to add a second sovereignty to the sovereignty of God.

First, sola scriptura. All differences be­gin here, in epistemology. The reason I reject all the Catholic doctrines I reject is that I do not find them in Scripture. Sola scriptura is my skel­eton key. Whatever doctrinal doors this key opens, I will enter; whatever door it does not open, I will not enter. Now, Brother Jack, if you too confine yourself to the teachings found in Scripture in your book, then “mere Christian­ity” is simply another word for Protestantism.

Second, sola fide. The Catholic Church preaches a different Gospel. For the books of Romans and Galatians clearly teach that a man is justified by faith alone, without the works of the law. Here Catholics not only add to Scrip­ture, they contradict it — and on the single most important question in the world: What must I do to be saved? Catholics simply do not know how to get to Heaven! They have a wrong road map. If some of them get to Heaven, as you did, Brother Thomas, it is not because of their maps but in spite of them.

Our Lord said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” We can see the miserable and mea­ger fruits of the Catholic tree and judge whether this is the Tree of Life or not when we ask the scribe who is writing down this trialogue, who is a professor in one of the largest, best, and most famous Catholic colleges of his day, in Boston, how many of his students even men­tion the name of Christ when he asks them, on tests or questionnaires, what they will say to God when they die and He asks them why He should let them into Heaven. He will tell you that only one in 50 mentions Christ. How could this be Christ’s Church if it does not even know Christ as its Savior?

Third, sola gratia. Catholic theology is half Christian and half pagan, or humanist, for it gives to man the role of allowing or not allowing God’s grace to work — the role of freely cooperating in his own salvation. The sale of indulgences was only one spectacular example of this deeper principle. The principle is that of paganism: dealing with the deity. It is the pagan gods we can make contracts with; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is sovereign. It is pagan man who proudly thinks of his own will as sovereign and free; Chris­tian man knows his will is in bondage; for he is a sinner, and every sinner is a slave of sin, and can be saved only by God’s grace.

It is your turn now, Brother Thomas, to ob­fuscate my simple scriptural statements with your scholastic subtleties and sophistries.

Aquinas: I shall try to answer all your arguments as clearly and directly as you put them, and in an equally short time.

Luther: If I were a betting man, I would bet half my fortune that you will not do it. You will not even meet my time. You are slow and fat, and I run much faster than you do.

Aquinas: Only to the privy, not to the paper. My style was more condensed than yours, Brother Mar­tin.

Luther: If you’re scurrilously implying a condition of intellectual diarrhea on my part, I answer that to the constipated, the normal looks diarrheic.

Aquinas: Are we disputing who is the most ana­lytic, or are we disputing ad rem?

Luther: I am merely betting that you can’t beat my time. You Italians never did believe in time. Only one man ever made your trains run on time — Mussolini — and that was hailed as a miracle.

Aquinas: And were it not for this Italian ineptitude with clocks, your fellow countryman, a certain Adolf Hitler, who had Mussolini as his ally, would not have had to delay his Russian campaign until he had rescued Mussolini’s farcically failed in­vasion of Yugoslavia, and would have won Mos­cow, Stalingrad, and Leningrad, thus Russia, thus the war, and thus the world. So the world was saved by Italian ineptitude with time!

Luther: What is the point of this new theory of his­tory, Brother Thomas? Who is failing to argue ad rem now?

Aquinas: The point is simply that I can condense my arguments much more than you can, Brother Martin.

Luther: Really? How many pages did your little Summary of Theology run to? You said in the Introduction that it was for “beginners.” About 6,000 pages, wasn’t it? And you didn’t even fin­ish it!

Aquinas: I couldn’t. In light of the vision I had, all I said was only straw.

Luther: Well, you got that right, anyway.

Aquinas: Wasn’t that exactly what you called the Epistle of James? I would rather call my own words straw than another’s, and certainly rather call man’s words straw than God’s!

As Luther is about to pick up an inkwell to throw at Aquinas (playfully for, after all, they come from Heaven, where play was invented), Lewis inter­rupts:

Lewis: Brothers, is this the sort of Scholastic Dis­putation practiced in the University of Heaven? Please fight only with an ink well shaped into words.

Luther: Aha! Brother Jack is a punster after my own heart — so unlike your heavy-handed literalism, Brother Thomas.

Aquinas: Literalism? Moi? Have you never heard of my doctrine of analogy? Even the word “being” is a pun in my philosophy.

Lewis: I am amused but not instructed, gentlemen. Brother Thomas, are you stalling for time or can you answer Brother Martin’s three charges?

Aquinas: I am happy to answer.

First, most of our theological differences are indeed rooted in the epistemology of sola scriptura. I do not say all of them, for some are rooted in our metaphysics. Your nominalism is the root of your “federal” theory of justification, for instance.

I deny sola scriptura because it is self-con­tradictory. Scripture alone does not teach “scrip­ture alone.” Sola scriptura is a human theology — yours — added to Scripture.

Second, Scripture gives the label of “the pillar and ground of the truth” not to itself but to the Church.

Third, you misunderstand Catholic claims for the Church. She is not a second, separate, rival source of Truth, a second book, a second datum. She teaches, interprets, protects, and defends her original datum, “the deposit of faith,” which is virtually identical with Scripture. She is one (and only one) living teacher with one (and only one) living book.

Fourth, the inevitable consequences in his­tory of sola scriptura have been endless fissiparation and denominationalism — the very thing Scripture itself frequently warns against and our Lord prayed against in His high priestly prayer before His passion (Jn. 17). By Brother Jack’s day now, there are already 20,000 different non-Catho­lic denominations! Surely St. Paul was right to be utterly aghast at even the three or four denomi­nations he saw arising in Corinth, and mercilessly to put that evil cancer to death before it could metastasize.

Sola scriptura without one authoritative Church to interpret Scripture means that each pupil interprets the teacher’s textbook in his own way, not the teacher’s way, thus rendering the teacher superfluous. Eventually, there will be as many interpretations as pupils, in effect as many textbooks as pupils. Thus, sola scripturaunder­mines the authority of the very Scripture it ex­alts. The logical conclusion of private interpretation is private churches — eventually as many Protestantisms as Protestants.

Fifth, there is the causal argument. A fal­lible cause cannot produce an infallible effect. But the Church is the efficient cause of Scripture. She wrote it. She is also its formal cause: She defined its canon. Thus, if the Church is only fallible, Scripture is only fallible. So again your sola scriptura doctrine demeans the authority of the very Scripture you want to exalt.

Sixth, the undermining of scriptural author­ity by skeptical, naturalistic, and modernist hermeneutics has in fact plunged half the Prot­estant world into what even you would call her­esy. Though many individual Catholic Scripture scholars are also modernists, the Church has never been and never will be. So again, your de­nial of Church authority has undermined scrip­tural authority.

On your second major point, sola fide, I wonder whether our apparent contradiction about justification by faith masks a real agree­ment. For I agree that faith alone can justify, as St. Paul clearly says; and I think you agree that good works are the inevitable fruit of real, saving faith. You further agree that intellectual faith alone does not justify (for “the devils also believe, and tremble”), and that the greatest of the three “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and charity is not faith but charity, as this same Apostle says. And I agree that man cannot buy his way into Heaven with good works (for “all our righteous­ness is as filthy rags”). And you do not say that it doesn’t matter what we do once we believe. Do you see, Brother — how we are misunderstood and caricatured by each other’s apologists?

I also agree that the fruits of faith are often missing among Catholics. But they are also of­ten missing among Protestants. Does this dis­prove Protestant theology? A man named Chesterton, who wrote the best book there is about me, said that the one great argument against Christianity is Christians.

But doctrinal truth cannot be proved by taking the spiritual temperature of its adherents. Heretics can be very moral and very sincere, and truth-speaking authorities wicked. The Borgia popes were libertines, murderers, and hypocrites, yet they sat in Moses’ seat.

By the way, none of those wicked popes ever changed the Church’s teachings, even when they scorned them. Why would a man not shatter the mirror that shows his faults, unless this mirror is divinely protected? So I use the very data you bring against the Church — her corruption — to prove her providential and miraculous pro­tection and survival.

Finally, sola gratia. I agree with sola gratia, and so does the Council of Trent. But like Au­gustine (whom you also claim as your teacher), I also believe in free will. For, like Augustine, I embrace both sides of the paradox at the heart of all the mysteries of the Faith, from the Trinity through the Incarnation to the physical-yet-spiri­tual nature of man.

Augustine says all men have free will (liberum arbitrium) by nature, but only the re­deemed have liberty, or freedom will from sin (libertas), by grace. You deny free will because you see it as pagan humanism. It is not. It is God’s image in us. And it is wholly dependent on grace, both for being created and for being redeemed. Our very free cooperation with grace is also due to grace, as I said in my “little” Summa, if you had only read it.

I do not hold that half our life, or half our salvation, comes from us and half from God. It all comes from God, and that is why it all comes from us. It is like the relation between an author and his characters. Odysseus’s choices are all free, and all his, also all predestined and Homer’s. For God, our sovereign Author, decrees us to be free. God is your Homer. He is your Father, not your godfather; he does not make you an offer you can’t refuse.

Luther: Are you finished?

Aquinas: I am.

Luther: Well, then, let us tie things up. We promised to examine Brother Jack’s concept of “mere Chris­tianity.” But we seem to differ so radically about what Christianity is that the very notion of some common concept seems now in jeopardy.

Aquinas: Not so, Brother Martin.

Luther: How so, Brother Thomas, if you deny and I affirm all three of my solas?

Aquinas: I affirm them all in their proper sense. But we need the care and patience of a philosopher to define their proper sense. The formula sola scriptura is correct materially but not formally. The raw material, the content, the data of faith, are all in Scripture. But the Church defines it, formalizes it, in her creeds.

Luther: If the data for all Catholic teachings have to be in Scripture, then you had better abandon your Marian dogmas, for they are not there.

Aquinas: Their datum is. She is.

Luther: But Scripture is nearly silent about her. A few scant verses. You have erected an enormous building on a tiny foundation that cannot bear its weight.

Aquinas: Can an acorn bear the weight of an oak tree? The immense edifice of Trinitarian dogma as defined by the ecumenical councils of the first six centuries, which you hold as well as I, also rests on a relatively small textual foundation in Scripture. And a mysterious one — look how easily many heretics misunderstood the data in many different ways. The metaphor of the tree is apt: The Church gradually grows her dogmas from within, as a tree grows, not as a building grows, from without. So my biological analogy is more apt than your technological one.

Luther: Then let me try a third image. The Catholic has two horses pulling his chariot — Church and Scripture — while the Protestant has one. There is an obvious contradiction here between us.

Aquinas: There is only one horse, but it needs one rider. There is only one divine book, but it needs one divine interpreter.

Luther: Your analogy is not apt….

Aquinas: The horses were your analogy, Brother Martin, not mine.

Luther: You supplied the rider, Brother; I only sup­plied the horse. Your rider is the master of the horse, but the Church is not the master of Scrip­tures, but its servant.

Aquinas: I agree! As the interpreter is the servant of her textbook.

Luther: But anyone can see that this interpreter is no longer the humble servant of her textbook but the author of a second textbook. It is not diffi­cult to see. Anyone can compare the dogmas of the Church with Scripture and see that the Church is adding, not just interpreting. I will make my point with still another image. What I did was to reform the Church, not re-found it. It was like scraping barnacles off a ship, off the Ark of the Church. I restored it to its God-designed form, which had become deformed by being en­crusted with the barnacles of human additions.

Aquinas: So you believe that our Lord created a Prot­estant Church and we Catholicized it, or Romanized it, while we believe that our Lord created a Catholic Church and you Protestantized it, you trimmed the Ark down to a sailboat.

Luther: Plainly put, that is our essential difference about Church history.

Aquinas: Good. Then the issue is empirically test­able. Historical research will show one position or the other. And I claim it will show the conti­nuity of Catholic dogma, and its roots in the earliest writings of the Church Fathers. Many a Catholic convert has trod this path to Rome, the historical path — for instance, Cardinal Newman. All distinctively Catholic doctrines are to be found there very early in Church his­tory, though some more clearly than others. And none of the distinctively Protestant denials of Catholic doctrines is there, except in those writ­ers who were identified by the universal Church as heretics.

Luther: So you claim. But I claim the same for Scrip­ture as you claim for the Church Fathers: that an empirical, factual investigation will reveal that the Church Christ founded was Protestant, not Catholic. You claim to prove Catholicism by find­ing it in the Fathers; I claim to prove Protes­tantism by finding it in Scripture. And just as you claim not to find any distinctively Protes­tant doctrines in the Fathers, I claim not to find any distinctively Catholic doctrines in Scripture.

Aquinas: Then we must compare Catholic doctrine with Scripture, and Protestant doctrine with the Fathers, and see which claim is proved wrong by the facts. And remember, the argument from silence proves nothing. You must prove that Scripture contradicts Catholic doctrine, and I must prove that from the beginning the teach­ing of the Church, as shown in the writings of the Fathers, contradictsProtestant doctrine. Now, how do you propose we begin this investi­gation?

Luther: Brother Thomas, you must be in one of your famous fits of absent-mindedness again. We do not have the time for such an investigation here, for we are on earth, not in Heaven, and we are here for Brother Jack, who is under time con­straints. He is mortal, unlike us. He lacks un­limited leisure.

Aquinas: How unfortunate!

Luther: I suggest we confine our argument to Scrip­ture.

Aquinas: Such a procedure assumes your sola scriptura, at least in practice. But that is the very question under dispute. So you seem to beg the question.

Luther: No. I want to move to sola fide, the most crucial sola because it is about what I must do to be saved. And since we both accept the au­thority of Scripture, I can argue from it that Romans and Galatians clearly teach sola fide, whether sola scriptura is true or not.

Aquinas: But I accept sola fide too in the proper sense, just as I accept sola scriptura in the proper sense, as I said before. I accept sold gratia too, since that too is in Scripture.

Luther: But you do not accept these three principles. Your “proper sense” is an improper sense. You do not accept them as they are meant.

Aquinas: Not as you mean them, no. But as Scrip­ture and Church mean them, yes. You are not my authority, after all; Scripture and Church are.

Luther: You do not accept them as Scripture teaches them. You contradict Scripture.

Aquinas: You think I do. And I think you do. Nei­ther of us can be the judge of the both of us. You see? That is why we need the authority of the Church to decide between us.

Luther: No, we need the authority of Scripture to decide between us.

Aquinas: But we both accept that authority, and yet we disagree. Therefore that authority alone — Scripture alone — cannot in fact resolve dis­agreements. What we see happening here is the history of the Church in miniature. And in this little laboratory we see how private interpreta­tion alone inevitably leads to error.

Luther: It does not. The Spirit will keep us one and keep us from error if only we submit to His lead­ing.

Aquinas: But I think I can prove to you that private interpretation leads to error, if you let me ask you a few questions in the Socratic style.

Luther: Ask away.

Aquinas: Do you think my Catholicism is from God or from me? Is it the Holy Spirit who leads me to submit to the Catholic Church and the pope, and to believe all those teachings you reject, or is it my private human spirit?

Luther: Your human spirit, of course.

Aquinas: So I have fallen into error this way, you say.

Luther: Indeed you have.

Aquinas: Then private interpretation leads to error.

Luther: This is sophistry!

Aquinas: No, it is logic. One of two contradictories must be false. Do you dispute that?

Luther: No….

Aquinas: And our two positions are contradictory, you say?

Luther: Yes. Wait — suppose I say no?

Aquinas: Then I welcome you with open arms to union and reconciliation with Rome!

Luther: And if I say we are contradictory?

Aquinas: Then one of the two of us has been led into error.

Luther: That is so.

Aquinas: Then private interpretation has led into error.

Luther: No, Roman interpretation has led into er­ror. My private interpretation, guided by Scrip­ture and the Spirit, unlike yours, has led me into the truth.

Aquinas: Is all “Roman interpretation” error? Are the popes an infallible Magisterium of error?

Luther: I suppose not. Not even the ACLU can be wrong all the time.

Aquinas: And is all private interpretation true? Are each of the 20,000 Protestant denominations right even though they contradict each other?

Luther: Of course not. But this is still sophistry, Brother Thomas. You could simply deny the clear meaning of any text in Scripture and from that prove that private interpretation leads into er­ror, and that the Church must step in to inter­pret the Bible authoritatively. Scripture is clear if only our approach is clear. The pure in heart shall see God truly. If your will is to do the will of the Father, you will understand the teaching.

Aquinas: If Scripture is clear, why have there been so many heresies? All heretics have claimed Scrip­ture, believed Scripture, appealed to Scripture.

Luther: But they have not submitted to the Spirit. The Spirit never leads astray.

Aquinas: Indeed not, but how can we know which human teachers have the Spirit, thus have the Truth, and which ones only claim to have Him, but do not, and do not have the Truth — unless we have the Church to tell us publicly? Private witnesses contradict; a public witness must ad­judicate.

Luther: The public witness is Scripture. Scripture interprets itself.

Aquinas: What do you mean, “Scripture interprets itself”?

Luther: That no one who honestly seeks to know the truth from its pages will be led astray.

Aquinas: It seems, then, that you must believe that there has never been an honest heretic.

Luther: And it seems you must believe that God gave Scripture as a puzzle for popes to unravel rather than as a light for laymen to travel by — a riddle for theologians rather than a map for all Christians.

Aquinas: I do not believe that, any more than you believe there has never been an honest heretic. Even the best of teachers is often misunderstood when he speaks of high mysteries of the King­dom — as was our Lord Himself, on many occa­sions, by His friends as well as His enemies.

Luther: So you would have the Church improve on our Lord’s teachings, eh?

Aquinas: No; to obey His commission to explain, explore, and apply them faithfully.

Lewis (interrupting again): Gentlemen, I am im­pressed by both your arguments, but I have heard most of them before, and I am no closer to cer­tainty now. I did not mention any of these argu­ments in my books because I did not want to set Scripture against Church, or Protestant against Catholic, for I have a high view of all four.

Aquinas: A high view of both Scripture and Church sounds more Catholic than Protestant.

Luther: But Brother Jack includes only Protestant — that is, scriptural — teachings in his book Mere Christianity. So “mere Christianity” is just another name for Protestant Christianity.

Lewis: I do not agree with either of you there. “Mere Christianity” is not more Catholic than Protes­tant, nor is it more Protestant than Catholic. It is the common core.

Luther: The common core of Christianity?

Lewis: Yes.

Luther: And Christianity tells us essentially about our sin and Christ’s salvation, does it not?

Lewis: Yes.

Luther: Then “mere Christianity” tells us what we must do to be saved?

Lewis: Yes.

Luther: So if Protestants and Catholics disagree on how to be saved, there is no common core, no common “mere Christianity.”

Lewis: That seems to follow.

Aquinas: It seems we now come to the heart of our question about “mere Christianity.”

Luther: Indeed we have, and the question before us is only the single most momentous question a man can ask in this world: “What must I do to be saved?” And the clear and simple answer of Scripture is: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.”

Aquinas: And I accept that. Do you also accept that good works are a necessary fruit of faith?

Luther: I do.

Aquinas: Then we agree on two essential points.

Luther: But I do not agree that these good works contribute one iota to our salvation. It is faith alone that saves us.

Aquinas: But you admit that the good works are at least an index of faith, like a grade in a course, do you not?

Luther: But the grade is not the cause of passing the course. It is only the effect.

Aquinas: That is so. But it is a part of the whole process of education. The fruit is part of the whole process of a plant’s growth, and so good works are a part of the whole process of salva­tion.

Luther: Not salvation. Not justification. Only sanc­tification.

Aquinas: You admit, then, at least, that though a man can be justified by faith alone, he is not sanctified by faith alone, but by works as well?

Luther: He is sanctified by his faith too.

Aquinas: Is this a faith that works? Does not this faith lead to good works as surely as the seed leads to the flower, if it is truly alive?

Luther: That is true.

Aquinas: So faith works. We both agree about that. I think we disagree about how it works. But that is theology. That it works is religion. We have the same religion, even if different theologies.

Luther: I am not sure I accept your analysis of our differences. Let me try to understand. How do you see our deepest differences in theology?

Aquinas: In two places. First, the link between faith and salvation. Second, the link between faith and works. You taught a “federal theology”: that the link between faith and salvation was God’s legal decree. I taught that there is an ontological link, that faith and baptism actually let God’s very life into our souls, as turning a faucet lets water flow.

Luther: That is correct. I was a Nominalist, and sus­picious of such metaphysics.

Aquinas: And the second link, between faith and good works, was for you our gratitude for being saved. But for me it is ontological again: The same supernatural life we let in by faith, we let out by good works.

Luther: Metaphysics again!

Aquinas: But surely the objective reality of the life and grace of God is a surer basis for a connec­tion than the subjective feeling and response of man? That sounds more like humanism than Christianity!

Luther: That is no more humanistic than your be­lief that our faith causes Christ’s life to enter us. I say it is rather the reverse: the object of our faith, Christ, is the cause of our act of faith.

Aquinas: I affirm that too. That is why I agree with your sola gratia. Our very free will and its choice to accept God’s grace is itself grace: both cre­ated by grace and healed and inspired by grace. One of the Church’s greatest saints said with her dying breath: “Everything is grace.” It is God’s grace that gives us Christ. It is Christ who gives us the Spirit. It is the Spirit who gives us super­natural life in our souls. It is this life that pro­duces our faith. Finally, this faith creates its own good works as a good tree bears good fruit. It is all one divine chain, with six golden links, laden end to end with love. Love begins it, as the mo­tive for grace. And the works of love end it. When we do the works of love, that is God doing them in us through this golden chain. “God is love, and he who lives in love, lives in God and God in him” — thatconcrete reality is “mere Christian­ity.” But….

At this point the conversation was suddenly in­terrupted. All three men were beginning to smile when two things happened simultaneously. First, a radio announced an apocalyptic event from America: The Boston Red Sox had won the World Series. Second, at this announcement the sky rolled apart like a scroll and all three men were raptured to Heaven. As they ascended, they heard a Charlton Heston-like voice muttering something about “the clearest apocalyptic sign I ever gave them.”

Perhaps we should get on with our work and com­plete the discussion they began, before it’s too late.

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One comment on “IS THERE SUCH A THING AS ‘MERE CHRISTIANITY’? A Trialogue With C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther & Thomas Aquinas 

  1. Vin Lewis: “CS is the name of the gas Janet Reno used to kill all those people in Waco.”

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