The Great Tradition—the Essential Guidance System for the Church

on September 4, 2013

Before writing his famous book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis was told by many advisors that ordinary Christians would not be interested in theology, that “dry old stuff,” but rather in plain, practical religion. He countered that he really didn’t think such ordinary readers were so foolish.  He thought they would welcome the study of theology, which means “science of God.”   “Any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available.  You are not children: why should you be treated like children?”

He goes on to liken theology to a map.  Theology is not first-hand religious experience or direct reading of the Bible, both of which are very important.  Rather, Christian theology is a map based on the experiences and readings of thousands of intense and educated Christians throughout the centuries who really did experience God and read the Bible avidly.  Their thinking provides a clear outline of what key teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the Christian life are essential to biblical Christian faith and what ideas and claims are not, including those that are genuinely mistaken.  A map guides you in the proper direction and marks those departures that lead you astray from classic faith.

When he then proceeded to write Mere Christianity, Lewis did not just write any old—or new—theology.  He aimed with great success “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”  Further, he said, “I am not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion,’ but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”  In other words, he was trying to articulate the Great Tradition—those bedrock beliefs of the Bible, the early church, the creeds, the Reformers, and orthodox Christians throughout the ages.

Lewis was not oblivious to the many varieties of Christianity.  He likened them to small halls and abodes that branch off from the great hall in which all Christians gather to affirm their common faith.  The small halls and rooms are the places where Christians are nourished by the distinctive teachings and practices of their particular Christian tradition.  There are Baptist halls, Lutheran halls, Catholic halls, and many more.   But the distinctives that are celebrated in the small halls should not conflict with what is affirmed in the great hall of “mere” Christianity.  They are particular interpretations of the common faith, not substitutes or competing versions of it.  We are Christians first before we are Presbyterians or Methodists.

So the theological articulation of our common Christian faith—spiced with denominational distinctives—is what should provide the guidance system for our churches, whether or not those churches are shaped by hierarchical or congregational church orders.  Such an articulation provides the map that allows them to move in the right direction and avoid the pitfalls that have plagued the church throughout history.

We badly need such a guidance system in our time because the Christian church in America is facing more aggressive challenges to its core beliefs than we have experienced for a long time.  Two challenges are the most pressing and must be met with clear and firm guidance from the Great Tradition.

The first challenge disputes the orthodox teaching that Jesus Christ is only path to salvation, that Jesus and his work of redemption are unique and decisive for all the world.  This is sharply opposed by current cultural demands that any acceptable faith be inclusive, universal, and non-judgmental.  Any culturally accepted faith must affirm and include everyone as they are—the classic requirements of repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life are simply too demanding.  Further, Christians must drop their exclusive claims that Jesus is the only way and admit that all religions are simply different paths to the same goal.  Evangelism must be turned into dialogue.  Further, the old claim that there are two destinations for every soul—either heaven or hell—must be given up for the more palatable claim that all will be saved in the end.  Thus, Christians must be tolerant of all sorts of beliefs since they finally will not matter anyway.

Now this challenge is held not only by “New Age” people outside the church who are “spiritual” but not “religious.”  It is also held within churches by many theologians who are willing to compromise the teachings of the Great Tradition for those more compatible with a world that emphasizes diversity and tolerance.  But the Great Tradition allows for no such distortions—Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Once the church departs from that affirmation it will soon lose its special mission to convey the Gospel.  The decline of the missionary impulse in the mainline denominations is a case in point.   Their over-involvement in political agitation is another.

The second great challenge—even sharper and more intimidating than the first—is aimed at the churches’ teaching on marriage and sexual ethics.  The sexual liberation themes of the 60s have worked through the culture with relentless momentum and are now attempting to render classical Christian teachings outside the bounds of respectable public discourse.  A Supreme Court Justice has even suggested that holding to the traditional teachings is mean-spirited, bigoted, and irrational, no longer fit for consideration by people of good will.

Many activists and theologians within the mainline denominations have succumbed to the cultural trends and convinced themselves that their churches can marry gays and lesbians, as well as accept partnered homosexuals as pastors.  Homosexual conduct has been morally legitimized as a concession to the culture. These moves have been church-dividing because they are so obviously against the plain sense reading of the Bible as well as the long tradition of Christian sexual ethics.   The same denominations have accommodated their teachings of allow for pre-marital sex, co-habitation, and abortion.  Their slope is as slippery as the culture’s.

But the C.S. Lewis’ reading of the Great Tradition, of the Bible, of  “Mere” Christianity, does not allow for such sliding.  Neither do those of theologians who do theology on behalf of orthodox churches, be they Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or other sorts.  The Great Tradition simply doesn’t allow it.  Rather, it points to the sorts of teaching that are faithful to the apostolic faith that has been handed down to us from the beginning of the church in the New Testament.   That should be our guidance system.

A theological map in accordance with the Great Tradition is necessary as the guidance system of all orthodox churches.  Without it they will stray and experience real ship-wreck.

  1. Comment by Adrian Croft on September 4, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    I’m always amazed (and amused) at how liberals often cite Lewis as a favorite author, when in fact Lewis was against everything liberals stand for. In Diana Bass’s very slanted People’s History of Christianity, Lewis is the only person among her big names in 20th-century Christian that is even remotely evangelical, and I think Lewis would be horrified at being on her Friends list. No one was more suspicious of trendiness and shallowness than Lewis was, no one more attached to Christian dogma, even the doctrine of hell.

  2. Comment by D. Singh on September 5, 2013 at 12:05 pm


    Truly outstanding!

  3. Comment by Raul Alessandri on September 5, 2013 at 10:16 am

    I fully agree with the concept of a great hall with the great tradition of Christianity. It seems rather clear that the great hall that has kept the traditions intact,
    validating Jesus promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. This “Hall” has remained intact and does not seem to be splitting or dying, except for occasional movements, that following the words of Gmaliel, “if this plan or work is of men, it will be overthrown”… Remarkable that the main reason why some people fail to recognize this great hall, is its fidelity to traditions.

  4. Comment by D. Singh on September 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Mr Benne’s article is one of the best that I have had the pleasure of reading: short, concise, to the point: intellectual precision.

    If only Christianity had more soldiers like him.

  5. Comment by indipete on September 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Benne writes:

    “…the orthodox teaching that Jesus Christ is only path to salvation”

    I’ve heard it put this way before, and I find it quite annoying. Jesus Christ was a living being who had a life spanning 33 years. Referring to that life as a “path” – I don’t find that to be very helpful.I believe it would be much more helpful to say that “his teachings” are the path. Since this isn’t said, the implication seems to me to be that a belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God is the only “path.” If so, the path to salvation depends on whether or not a person accepts a particular contention as being historical fact. That strikes me as implausible, if not absurd.

    Referring to the path again, Benne also writes:

    “…the classic requirements of repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life…”

    I find this to be much more meaningful. At its bottom is a belief in the existence of sin and evil, good and evil, right and wrong. But I fail to see why such a belief would be synonymous with the belief that “Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation.”

  6. Comment by Cicero on September 5, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Sorry to see that you fail to comprehend the single key unique point of Jesus Christs’ purpose. He was the unblemished lamb who took all our sins. None of us can be sinless or perfect. Other religions and philosophies can strive and perhaps even provide direction on how to be better or kinder, but only Jesus gives us salvation by simply accepting and recognizing his gift.

  7. Comment by Travis on September 24, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Indipete, I think you’re right in saying it sounds absurd to have salvation hinge on knowledge or acceptance of some particular assertion of historical fact. To paraphrase “Cicero” a bit, it’s not just the teachings of Jesus that make him the only path to salvation, it’s also his death, which is seen as a sacrifice that effects a reconciliation between God and man. The individual believer avails himself of Christ’s (God’s) sacrifice. It is in that sense that salvation (which is fellowship with God) is through Christ.

    It might be helpful to know that C. S. Lewis said, “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ, we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” (MERE CHRISTIANITY, Book 2, Chapter 5)

  8. Comment by Ryan s on September 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm


  9. Comment by Tom V on September 5, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    I disagree with the characterization of Catholicism as merely another “small hall” that branches off from a “great hall” in which the Great Tradition resides. The Catholic Church is the “great hall,” and has been for more than 2000 years. All other Christian groups who teach something different have separated themselves either directly or indirectly from the Catholic Church established by Christ and, which, incidentally, affirmed the canonical contents of the Bible. The Great Tradition is the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

  10. Comment by Greg Paley on September 6, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Apparently Lewis didn’t find the Catholic hall all that “Great,” since he never left the C of E, despite his having RC friends. I don’t judge RCs for staying in the church they were born into, but, truly, I’m amazed that anyone would be attracted to this particular “hall” when there are so many others available. There will always be the type seduced by bells-n-smells worship and by “name brands.” You do not have to be an RC to be an “apostolic” Christian. Those who follow the New Testament are the true successors of the apostles, and nothing forbids us profiting from the writings of RCs, orthodox, or any other branch of the faith. I love Chesterton but can embrace him without embracing his RCness.

  11. Comment by Tom V on September 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Greg, I am a convert to the Catholic Church from protestantism. It wasn’t bells and smells that attracted me. I had plenty of that in the Episcopal Church. What brought me to the Catholic Church was truth and authority. As a protestant who belonged to a number of Christian groups, what drove me crazy was Pastor A telling me the opposite of what Pastor B taught me last year, which was different from what Pastor C taught before him.

  12. Comment by Don Westblade on September 6, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Tom V, your affirmations that “the Great Tradition is the Tradition of the Catholic Church” and that Catholicism is the “great hall” are true if we are giving the word Catholic its general and original meaning of “Universal.” But you appear to be applying that term to the Roman Catholic Church, which may well be larger than a “small hall” but can’t truly be called the “great hall,” since both Eastern Orthodox and Protestant believers (among others) would similarly lay claim to the universality of their convictions (as Chesterton argues in his wonderful book, Heretics they very well should).

    The Roman Church can’t really lay claim to all 2000 years of which you speak, since the creeds and practices and organizations that give definition to the particular formulation of truth and authority you reference can only be traced to councils initiated once a Christian emperor ruled the Roman Empire (many came even later than Constantine when Pope Leo effectively had to play the role of the absent emperor in Rome, or when Justinian began to erect churches). Prior to that, in what we might call a “Greater Tradition” of the universal church of which Rome was a growing part, the early church was characterized for several centuries by the very thing that drove you away from Protestantism: Bishop A taught contrary to Father B, which was different from Patriarch C (although they all sought to bring one another to a shared agreement about doctrine). Indeed that pluralism of thought in which a welter of honest disagreement strove together to arrive at a common understanding of truth continued for many centuries past Constantine and Leo and Justinian. One might even say that an authoritarian suppression of that conversation among disagreeing interpreters came to characterize the Roman wing of this “great hall” of the Greater Tradition and was ironically itself the departure from Catholicity or Universality. It is indeed that Greater Tradition of a widely held “Mere Christianity”—surrounded by an honest and corrigible pluralism in pursuit of truth concerning disputed particulars—which the Protestant Reformation aimed to recover. Therein, it seems to me, stands the Catholic Church that can lay claim to all 2000 years of time since the time of Christ and his Apostles.

    The reduction of that Greater Tradition to its Roman subset seems to me not in the spirit of genuine Catholicity.

  13. Comment by anglicanl on September 5, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    To indipete, I would suggest that there is no separation between “Jesus” and his “teachings”. The “path” referred to is the one you and I take, not Jesus’. As to the suggestion that the concept of a path of repentance, forgiveness and amendment of life being synonymous with belief that Jesus is the only path to salvation, it might be explained more clearly by saying that the first three lead to salvation. Finally, I am a little confused as to why you have trouble with the idea that believing that Jesus was the Son of God is the path to salvation: you must believe this if you are a Christian, full stop.
    To Tom V, I would suggest that his comments are like to be more divisive than unifying, an attitude that Lewis was keen to avoid. Lewis’ metaphor, like all metaphors, should be looked at for its truth value and clarifying value, and not for one person’s idea of its accuracy.

  14. Comment by Tom V on September 6, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    anglican1, thank you for your suggestion, but true unity cannot be had without truth. The Catholic Church has taught the same truth for two millenia. Can you say the same for Anglicanism?

  15. Comment by Chuck Braun on September 6, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Sadly, the Roman Catholic Church does believe that “those who seek and do what is right, even if they do not have biblical faith, will be saved.” Read their Catechism, get out of denial. In 1986, John Paul II had an interfaith worship service at the cathedral in Assisi, Italy. Prayers from Christians and non-Christians were offered together, and a Buddha statue was placed on the altar.

    While at least the Roman Catholic Church believes in the Virgin Birth, Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, unlike most of Mainline Protestantism. There are true Christians in the Roman Catholic Church who are being led astray. Even prayers to Mary, as the way to reach Christ, are a false doctrine.

    The Roman Catholic Church needs another Reformation, even more so than it did 500 years ago. Will Evangelicals and other Bible-believing Christians get their heads out of the sand and wake up to this?

    There’s nothing wrong with the crucifix, liturgies, the Real Presence, Baptismal regeneration, candles, Gregorian chant or incense. Kissing the altar and ringing a bell three times aren’t the problem. When a man usurps the Holy Spirit’s role as the Vicar of Christ, the Church suffers. Please, dear Jesus, turn the Roman Catholic Church back to the orthodoxy which they once were the champions. Can you even imagine the Pope having kissed the Qu’ran?

    Yes, I know the Roman Catholic Church is the most direct descendant of the Apostolic Church, but the Apostles would rend their clothes of they would see how false doctrines have invaded this church. Mary would be in tears, seeing people praying to jewel-festooned statues of her. Are there any Catholic priests who want to start a new Reformation? Oh, how I had hoped that Pope Benedict would have said, “Hey, folks, Luther was right!” Pray for the Roman Catholic Church. Engage her people. Lead them back to the only Way, Truth and Life, Jesus Christ. Kyrie eleison…

  16. Comment by Don Westblade on September 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    In many important respects, Benedict did say “Hey, folks, Luther was right!” Read his address to the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (9/23/11).

  17. Comment by charles childers on September 6, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    This is a very good writing for ever one to read. GOD has given to American a gift when our past president THURMAN told the world that our nation will honor ISRAEL AS A FREE NATION. The U.S. became the world leader military leader after honoring ISRAEL.

  18. Comment by Brian on September 6, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Of course Lewis held that Christianity was the “true” religion, but he also said many times that all religions had some part or vision of the truth. Paraphrasing, he said that he would be disturbed if 99 other religions taught things entirely different from Christianity–our religion, he said, is not founded on a crank.

  19. Comment by Baruch on September 8, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Robert – what you have written is right on, except that it is not only the Great Tradition (of Christianity) it is also the Great Tradition of Judaism which held onto the Torah. Held together these two Great Traditions will provide the best guidance for the Christian life, centered on Yeshua the Messiah.

  20. Comment by Raul Alessandri on September 8, 2013 at 11:05 am

    It is very unlikely that Mary was looking over the supplies at Cana. Most likely, some body brought to her attention the lack of wine, leading to her pleading to Jesus. That is what Catholics believe when they honor Mary in a special way (hyperdulia), as she is the easiest way to her Son. I would like to know a decen son who is not happy when his mother is honored.

  21. Comment by Dave Gingrich on September 9, 2013 at 7:26 am

    There are a lot of genuine Roman Catholic Christians. But to state that the Roman Catholic church is the “great hall” is to misunderstand history and Christianity.

  22. Comment by Chuck Braun on September 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    I read former Pope Benedict’s address and was encouraged by many things he said; sadly even were he to proclaim justification by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, he would doubtless be shot down by the College of Cardinals as a heretic. I continue to pray for a new Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church. With hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress” now in their hymnody, perhaps the light of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ would shine more clearly and exhort them to keep all the good doctrine they do have, rejecting the bad and thereby bringing more of their members to the Truth of Jesus Christ’s Gospel.

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