Richard Baxter and the Origin of “Mere Christianity”
by John G. West
“Mere Christianity” was the term C. S. Lewis employed to describe essential Christianity–those core Christian beliefs held through the ages by Catholics and Protestants alike. What most people don’t realize is that Lewis adapted this term from an author who wrote more than three hundred years ago. The author’s name was Richard Baxter, and his writings on the “essentials” of Christianity provide a useful background to the views articulated by Lewis.
A Protestant clergyman in England, Baxter lived from 1615 to 1691. Though all but forgotten today, Baxter was a popular and prolific author in his own day and for many decades following his death. He wrote more than 160 separate works–nearly 200, by some estimates. One Anglican Bishop said of Baxter that had he lived during the earliest years of Christianity, he would have been “one of the fathers of the church.” The famed Dr. Samuel Johnson, when asked by Boswell which books by Baxter he should read, replied: “Read any of them; they are all good.” In particular, Dr. Johnson thought that Baxter’s Reasons for the Christian Religion “contained the best collection of the evidences of the divinity of the Christian system.” Many years after Baxter’s death, famed English statesman William Wilberforce called Baxter’s writings on the spiritual life “a treasury of Christian wisdom.”
Those wishing more information about Richard Baxter and the relationship of his thought to C. S. Lewis should consult N. H. Keeble, “C.S. Lewis, Richard Baxter, and `Mere Christianity,'” in Christianity and Literature (Vol XXX, No. 3, Spring 1981), pp. 27-44.
Following are some selections from Baxter’s works that relate to the idea of “Mere Christianity”:
From Baxter’s Church-history of the Government of Bishops (1680):
“I am a CHRISTIAN, a MEER CHRISTIAN, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church, and hath been visible where ever the Christian Religion and Church hath been visible: But must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: But if any will call Meer Christians by the name of a Party, because they take up with Meer Chrisitanity, Creed, and Scripture, and will not be of any dividing or contentious Sect, I am of that Party which is so against Parties: If the Name CHRISTIAN be not enough, call me a CATHOLICK CHRISTIAN; not as that word signifieth an hereticating majority of Bishops, but as it signifieth one that hath no Religion, but that which by Christ and the Apostles was left to the Catholick Church, or the Body of Jesus Christ on Earth.”
From “To the Reader” in Baxter’s A Treatise of Conversion, Addressed to the Ignorant and Ungodly:
“I like to hear a man dwell much on the same essentials of Christianity. For we have but one God, one Christ, and one faith to preach; and I will not preach another gospel to please men with variety, as if our Saviour and our gospel were grown stale–For it is the essentials and common truths, as I have often said, that we daily live upon as our bread and drink. And we have incomparably more work before us, to know these better, and use them better, than to know more. The sea will afford us more water after we have taken out a thousands tuns, than an hundred of those wells and pits from whence we never yet brought any.”
From the Preface of Baxter’s Now or Never, or the Believer Justified and Directed and the Opposers and Neglecters of the Gospel Convinced.
“Whosoever holds all that is necessary to salvation, and is serious and diligent in living according thereunto, shall be saved, whatever error he holds with it. For if he be serious and diligent in the practice of all things necessary to salvation, he hath all that is necessary to salvation, viz. in belief and practice: and it must needs follow, that his errors and either not contradictory to the things necessary which he holds and practices, or that he holds not those errors practically but notionally, as an opinion, or ineffectual cogitation in a dream, which provokes not to action; and in such a case the error keeps no man from salvation.”
From the Preface of Baxter’s Now or Never, or the Believer Justified and Directed and the Opposers and Neglecters of the Gospel Convinced:
“The Christian faith is the believing an everlasting life of happiness to be offered by God, with the pardon of all sin, as procured by the sufferings and merits of Jesus Christ, to all that are sanctified by the Holy Ghost, persevere in love to God, and to each other, and in a holy and heavenly conversation. This is saving faith and Christianity, if we consent as well as assent. All that was necessary to salvation to be believed, was formerly thought to be contained in the creed, and that was the test or symbol of the Christian faith; and the Christian religion is the same, hath the same rule, test, and symbol in all ages. But since faction and tyranny, pride and covetousness, became the matters of the religion of too many, vice and selfish interest hath commanded them to change the rule of faith by their additions, and to make so much necessary to salvation, as is necessary to their affected universal dominion, and to their carnal ends. And since faction entered, and hath torn the church into many sects (the Greek, Roman, Armenian, Jacobites, Abassine, and many more) it seems meet to the more tyrannical sect to call these several religions, and to say that every man that differs from them in any of their opinions or additions, which they please to call articles of faith, is of another religion.
“If the word religion be taken in this sense, and if all that agree in one Christian religion, are said to be of as many religions, as different opinions, in points that some call necessary, then I answer the question thus: He is the true catholic Christian that hath but one, even the Christian religion: and this is the case of the Protestants, who, casting off the additions of popery, adhere to the primitive simplicity and unity: if Papists, or any others, corrupt this religion with human additions and innovations, the great danger of these corruptions is, lest they draw them from the sound belief and serious practice of that ancient Christianity which we are all agreed in: among Papists, or any other sect, where their corruptions do not thus corrupt their faith and practice in the true essentials, it is certain that those corruptions shall not damn them. For he that truly believes all things that are essential to Christianity, and lives accordingly with serious diligence, hath the promise of salvation: and it is certain, that whatever error that man holds, it is either not inconsistent with true Christianity, or not practically, but notionally held, and so not inconsistent as held by him: for how can that be inconsistent which actually doth consist with it?
“If a Papist or any other sectarian seriously love God, and his brother, and set his heart upon the life to come, give up himself to the merits and grace of Jesus Christ, and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, to be fitted for that glory, lives by faith above the world, mortifies the desires of the flesh, and lives wilfully in no known sin, but presses after further degrees of holiness, I doubt not of the salvation of that person; no more than of the life of him that hath taken poison but into his mouth and spit it out again, or let down so little as nature and antidotes do expel: but I will not therefore plead for poison, nor take it, because men may live that thus take it.”
From Part II of Baxter’s Now or Never, or the Believer Justified and Directed and the Opposers and Neglecters of the Gospel Convinced:
“Live as those that believe that you are to be members of the holy catholic church, and therein to hold the communion of saints. Then you will know that it is not as a member of any sect or party, but as a holy member of this holy church, that you must be saved; and that it is the name of a Christian which is more honourable than the name of any division or subdivision among Christians, whether Greek, or Papists, or Protestant, or Prelates, or Presbyterian, or Independent, or Baptist. It is easy to be of any one of these parties; but to be a Christian, which all pretend to, is not so easy. It is easy to have a burning zeal for any divided party or cause; but the zeal for the Christian religion is not so easy to be kindled or kept alive; but requires as much diligence to maintain it, as dividing zeal requires to quench it. It is easy to love a party as a party: but to keep up catholic charity to all Christians, and to live in that holy love and converse which is requisite to a communion of saints, it is not so easy. Satan and corrupted nature befriend the love and zeal of faction, which is confined to a party on a controverted cause; but they are enemies to the love of saints, to the zeal for holiness, and to the catholic charity which is from the spirit of Christ. You see I call you not to division, nor to side with sects; but to live as members of a holy catholic church, which consists of all that are holy in the world; and to live as those that believe the communion of saints.”
From Baxter’s Directions to Weak Christians for their Establishment, Growth, and Perseverance:
“Direct. XIII. Subdue your passions, and abhor all uncharitable principles anmd practices, and live in love; maintiaing peace in your families and with your neighbors, but especially in the church of God.
“Especially be most tender of the union of true Christians, and of the church’s peace: when you hear the men of several sects representing one another as odious, understand that it is the language of the devil to draw you from love, into hatred and divisions: and when you must speak odiously of men’s sin, speak charitably of their persons, and be as ready to speak of the good that is in them, as of the evil. Believe not that dividing, ungrounded doctrine, which tells you that you cannot sufficiently disown the errors of any party in doctrine, worship, and discipline, without a separation of withdrawing from their communion; which tells you that you are guilty of the ministerial faults of every pastor that you join with, or of the faults of all that worship which you are present at, which would first separate you from every worshipping society and person upon earth, and then lead you to give over the worshipping of God yourselves. You must love Christians as Christians, though they have errors and faults repgunant to the right order and manner of worship: so be it you join not in that worship which is substantially evil, and such as God doth utterly diown; or that you commit no actual sin yourselves, of that you approve not of the errors and faults of the worshippers, and justify not their smallest evil; or that you prefer not defective, faulty worship before that which is more pure and agreeable to the will of God. For while all the worshippers are faulty and imperfect, all their worship will be too: and if your actual sin, when you pray or preach effectively yourselves, doth not signify that you approve your faultiness; much less will your presence prove that you allow of the faultiness of others. The business that you come upon is to join with a Christian congregation in the use of those ordinances which God hath appointed, supposing that the ministers and worshippers will all be sinfully defective, in method, order, words, or circumstances: and to bear with that which God doth bear with, and not to refuse that which is God’s for the adherent faults of men, no more than you will refuse every dish of meat which is unhandsomely cooked, as long as there is no poison in it, and you prefer it not before better.”
From Baxter’s The Character of a Sound Confirmed Christian as also of a Weak and Seeming Christian:
“LII. A Christian indeed is one who greatly esteems the unity of the church, and is greatly averse to all divisions among believers. As there is in the natural body an abhorring of dismembering or separating any part from the whole; so there is in the mystical body of Christ. The members that have life, cannot but feel the smart of any distempering attempt: for abscission is destruction. The members die that are separated from the body. And if there be but any obstruction or hinderance of communion, they will be painful or useless: he feels in himself the reason of all those strict commans, and earnest exhortations. `Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.If there be any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies; fulfil ye my joy, that ye be like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind, let each esteem other better than themselves.Look not every man on his ohn things, but every man also on the things of others.I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you, that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, on faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the gift of Christ.’ He looks at uncharitableness and divisions, with more abhorrence than weak Christians do at drunkenness or whoredom, or such other heinous sins. He fears such dreadful warnings as Acts xx.29,30. `For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, of your ownselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them;’ and he cannot slight such a vehement exhortation as Rom. xvi. 17, 18. `Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.’ Therefore he is so far from being a divider himself, that when he sees any one making divisions among Christians, he looks on him as on one that is mangling the body of his dearest friend, or as one that is setting fire to his house, and therefore doth all that he can to quench it; as knowing the confusion and calamity to which it tends. He is a christian, and therefore of a truly catholic spirit; that is, he makes not himself a member of a divided party, or a sect; he regards the interest and welfare of the body, the universal church, above the interest or presperity of any party whatsoever; and he will do nothing for a party which is injurious to the whole, or to the Christian cause. The very names of sects and parties are displeasing to him; and he could wish that there were no name but that of Christians among us, save only the necessary names of the criminal, such as that of the Nicolaitans, by which those that are to be avoided by Christians must be known.
“Christianity is confined to so narrow a compass in the world, that he is unwilling to contract it yet into a narrower. The greatest party of divided Christians, whether it be the Greeks or Papists, is too small a body for him to take for the catholic (or universal) church. He grieves at the blindness and cruelty of faction, that can make men damn all the rest of the church for the interest of their proper sect; and take all those as non-Christians that are better Christians than themselves The confirmed Christian can distinguish between the strong and weak, the sound and unsound members of the church, without dismembering any, and without unwarrantable separations from any. He will worship God in the purest manner he can, and locally join with those assemblies, where, all things considered, he may most honour God, and receive most edification; and will not sin for communion with any. He will sufficiently distinguish between a holy, orderly assembly, and a corrupt, disordered one; and between an able, faithful pastor, and an ignorant or worldly hireling. He desires that the pastors of the church may make that due separation by the holy discipline of Christ, which may prevent the people’s disorderly separation. But for all this, he will not deny his presence upon just occasion, to any Christian congregation that worships God in truth, though with many modal imperfections, so be it they impose no sin upon him as necessary to his communion with them. Nor will he deny the spiritual communion of faith and love to those that he holds not local communion with: he knows that all our worshp of God is sinfully imperfect, and that it is a dividing principle to hold, that we may join with none that worship God in a faulty manner; for then we must join in the worship of none on earth
“While men who are all imperfect and corrupt, are the worshippers, the manner of their worship will be such as they, in some degree, imperfect and corrupt. The solid Christian hath an eye upon all the churches in the world, in the determining of such questions; he considers what worship is offered to God in the churches of the several parties of Christians, the Greeks, Armenians, Abassines, Lutherans, as well as what is done in the country where he lives; and he considers whether God disown and reject the worship of almost all the churches in the world, or not; for he dares no further reject them than God rejects them. Nor will he voluntarily separate from those assemblies where the presence of Christ, in his spirit and acceptance yet remains. His fuller acquaintance with the gracious nature, office, and tenderness of Christ, together with greater love to his brethren, causes him in this to judge more gently than young censorious Christians do. And his humble acquaintance with his own infirmities, makes him the more compassionate to others. If he should think that God would reject all that order not, and word not their prayers aright, he would be afraid of being rejected himself, who is still conscious of greater faultiness in his own prayers, than a mere defect in words and order; even of a great defectiveness in that faith, desire, love, zeal, and reverence which should be manifested in prayer. Though he be more apprehensive than others, of the excellency and necessity of the holiness and spirituality of the soul in worship; yet withal he is more judicious and charitable than the peevish and passionate infant Christians, who think that God doth judge as they do, and sees no grace where they see none; and takes all to be superstitious of fanatical, that differ from their opinions or manner of worship; or that he is as ready to call every error in the method or the words of prayer, idolatry or will-worship, as those are that speak not what they know, but what they have heard some teachers, whom they reverence, say before them. `He that dwelleth in love, dwells in God, and God in him:’ and he that dwells with God, is likelier to be best acquainted with his mind, concerning his children and his worship, than he that dwells in wrath, pride, and partiality.
“LIII. 1. A Christian indeed is not only zealous for the unity and concord of believers, but he seeks it on the right terms, and in the way that is fittest to attain it. Unity, peace and concord, are like piety and honesty, things so unquestionably good, that there are scarcely any men of reason and common sobriety, that ever were heard to oppose them directly and for themselves: therefore all that are enemies to them, are yet pretenders to them and oppose them 1. In their causes only. 2. Or covertly and under some other name…
“The judicious, faithful Christian knows, that there are three degrees or sorts of Christian communion, which have their several terms. 1. The universal church communion which all Christians, as such, must hold among themselves…
“[T]he terms of [this] catholic communion, he knows, are such as these: 1. They must be such as were the terms of church communion in the days of the apostles. 2. They must be such as are plainly and certainly expressed in the holy scriptures. 3. And such as the universal church has in some ages since been actually agreed in. 4. And those points are likeliest to be such, which all the differing parties of Christians are agreed in as necessary to communion to this day (so we call not those Christians that deny the essentials of Christianity.) 5. Every man in the former ages of the church was admitted to this catholic church communion, who in the baptismal vow or covenant gave up himself to God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as his Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, his Owner, Governor and Father, renouncing the flesh, the world and the devil.”