Essential Christianity


Over a half century ago, the Oxford professor and writer, C.S. Lewis, wrote a small book with the title "Mere Christianity". Recovering from a prolonged adolescent bout with atheism, Lewis sought to explain his regained belief in Jesus and his return to Christianity in language that almost any member of any church, or anyone open to belief, might be able to understand.

The problem with Lewis's generic version of traditional Christianity, however at least as I see it is that it was, even back then, largely out of touch with the really serious biblical scholarship that had been going on for at least a century before his time. The result is that while Lewis's fine book may be fairly convincing to those who long to turn back to an imagined era of an undivided Christianity, much of it remains problematic for those who are aware of the real historical background of how the gospels came to be or how the traditional creeds were formed.

For example, today serious biblical scholarship recognizes at least three distinct layers or stages of tradition that can be found within the four gospels. The first layer consisted of collected including many miracle stories -- about what Jesus said and did. The second layer, sometimes called the apostolic "kerygma", is a summary announcement of the meaning of life and death and resurrection of Jesus as they apply to us. The third layer, the one that accounts for the existence of four separate gospels, consists of differing theological and other thematic interpretations designed to address the concerns of different audiences for example, in Matthew's gospel, the need of converts from Judaism to understand how Jesus fulfilled the promises found in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, most of the fourth gospel, that attributed to the Apostle John, seems to be made up of this third level of theologizing, presented (despite the sharp contrast in language with the other three gospels) as if Jesus said all these words himself. So too, it almost goes without saying the rest of the New Testament, especially the epistles or letters to the various churches, belong to these last two layers of the tradition. Paul, for example, has next to nothing to say about the words or deeds of Jesus, but instead seems almost entirely absorbed in disciplinary and leadership issues and in theological arguments, such as the relative importance of faith as distinguished from "works".


With all due respect to Lewis, I do not think that the future of Christianity lies is trying to reach a doctrinal consensus that Lewis, despite surface differences, believed somehow exists. Instead, I think that only a radical reassessment of who Jesus really was, and what he actually taught and did, can serve as a sound basis for a renewed and vital Christianity that will be essential for the well-being, even for the survival, of the world. What we need to do then, is engage in serious study and debate, disentangling and sorting out the different layers of tradition and various and sometimes conflicting themes found within the scriptures to rediscover the historic Jesus who inspired the Christian faith.

But first, for this effort to bear fruit, we must most of all pray, perhaps more than ever before. If nearly two thousand years of Christian history proves anything, it is that doctrine or dogma divides. It is only prayer and sacraments if we don't get into arguments about how many there really are that unite.


R W Kropf 8/18/06 Essxpty.doc 06-08-19.html