Thursday, March 17, 2005

Dialogue: Definitions of "Christian" and "Christianity" (vs. Sogn Mill-Scout)

This exchange took place on an Internet list dominated by atheists and agnostics. Sogn - an online acquaintance of mine - describes himself as a Christian, though he is certainly not "orthodox" in some respects, by a Catholic criterion, or the one laid out below. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

My own opinion on this is that a "Christian" is one who subscribes to the Nicene Creed (see I will reproduce it here:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

All three major groups (Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox; and Anglican, if that is regarded as distinct) subscribe to this, excepting the "filioque" clause ("who proceeds from the Father and the Son"). Orthodox think that this lessens the status of the Holy Spirit and deny that He proceeds [basically a logical and relational procession, not a creation] from the Son as well as the Father. They don't have this in their Creed and argue that it was a doctrinal corruption, not a legitimate development.

This is trinitarianism, which is orthodox Christianity, and always has been. Excluded, therefore, from the definition of what Christianity in its mainstream has always been, are non-trinitarian heresies such as Arianism (Jesus was created: present-day Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, or the Way International), Sabellianism (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes, not three Persons: present-day United Pentecostal Church or "oneness pentecostals), Mormonism, Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity, so-called "apostolic churches," etc.

Groups such as Seventh-Day Adventists, who deny the doctrine of eternal hellfire and assert soul-sleep, can still conform to the above, because it doesn't specifically mention hell, let alone an eternal hell, though this doctrine is clearly taught in Scripture and has always been a teaching of orthodox Christianity as well. Many classify them as "aberrational Christians," as opposed to "cultic."

Theological liberals present a whole panorama of aberrational and heretical beliefs (judged by the criterion of historical orthodoxy). I say that if they deny the Trinity, or the bodily Resurrection of Christ, or the Incarnation, or the general resurrection, or heaven, that they are out of the fold, by definition. Christianity has a doctrinal, intellectual content. It is not a wax nose which can be twisted in any direction, by whim or fancy. Any sort of fool can call themselves a Christian, but so what? Individuals don't determine the definition; the Church as a whole does. Despite the divisions, there is still this basic agreement, seen in the Nicene Creed, which was formulated by the early Church in one of its Ecumenical Councils, and is therefore authoritative.

Even for those who would deny its formal authority and binding nature (many Protestants, who assert Scripture Alone as their formal authority), they would still agree with its contents; thus it can ably serve as a criterion or standard for determining what "Christians" believe, and what Christianity is.

I understand that a "Christian" can possibly be, and often is, defined as a person who is in fact (of course, how one determines that is a whole 'nother can of worms)saved, or regenerate, or born-again, or a true disciple of Jesus, or of the elect, or one who has a personal relationship with Jesus as their Lord and Savior, or who is indwelt with the Holy Spirit; all of which are what I call "metaphysical" or "spiritual" definitions. This has legitimacy and a certain place in the discussion as well, but I maintain that no one can know this for sure of another person (perhaps -- with some of the above concepts -- not even of themselves), and besides, one still needs an objective, doctrinal standard in order to have a sensible, rational discussion, able to be participated in by all parties, and one which is comprehensible to outsiders.

Baptism comes closest to being "objective" with regard to this latter way of defining "Christian," because, according to Catholics, Orthodox, (traditional) Anglicans and Methodists and Lutherans, as well as a few other groups, it confers regeneration and a host of spiritual gifts at its reception, as a sacrament, even to an infant. But there is controversy on this (Reformed, Baptists, and many other denominations vehemently deny baptismal regeneration), so it ultimately fails as a means to define all these groups and to establish a common-enough ground fit for broad, comprehensive definitional purposes. As a note of "trivia": if I remember correctly, Quakers and the Salvation Army don't baptize at all, which is an exceedingly strange and peculiar position in light of Scripture and Church history.

Hi Dave. I'd like to ask some follow-up questions if you don't mind. I can't recall the current Catholic view of heretics, but for much of history they were considered damned (assuming they died as heretics). Is this still true?

It never was true. What was always believed was that IF someone knew that Catholic doctrine was fully true and necessary for salvation, and fully UNDERSTOOD it and yet opted for a heretical alternative and rejected Catholicism, that they could not be saved. Note that this is a doctrinal, theoretical belief. The trouble is that no one can make this determination for the individual but God, so we don't know who is or is not damned.

That's why the Catholic Church has never stated that any particular individual is in fact, in hell. If you were right, every heretic would be said to be in hell. But of course, we don't do that. Furthermore, neither "anathema" nor "excommunication" means "damned" (as is often mistakenly supposed). They mean (in a nutshell) "accursed belief" and "separated from the Church and Holy Communion."

Whether heretics are damned or not, you seem to be defining them relative to the Nicene Creed.

That's because I was offering a broad definitional view which would apply to all Christians, not merely Catholics.

This raises the natural question of where you draw the line as to how much (if any) of the Nicene Creed one can deny before one crosses the threshold into heresy.

All "heresy" means is "selective belief" with regard to passed-down (or apostolic) Christian Tradition. It means, literally, "to choose." Non-Catholic Greek scholar Gerhard Kittel states about the Greek hairesis that there is a:

basic incompatibility of 'ekklesia' [church] and 'hairesis' (cf. Gal. 5:20; 1 Cor. 11:18-19) . . . a 'hairesis' creates a new society alongside the 'ekklesia' itself a 'hairesis' and not the comprehensive people of God. This is unacceptable.
{Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, tr. abridged in one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, 28}

I've counted 24 distinct clauses in the Nicene Creed - I suppose one could break it into a different number, but that's what made sense to me.


The Orthodox Church affirms only the original 23 items, rejecting [the filioque clause].

As I noted.

Is that sufficient to define Orthodox Christians as heretics by your definition?

No (if by that you mean "therefore not Christian"), because I think that unfortunate dispute is largely based on misunderstanding, linguistic and cultural, and that both sides, closely examined, essentially believe the same thing. And of course, the Catholic Church views them as Christian brothers, and quite close to us in belief and practice.

Can one be both a Christian and a heretic?

One can be a heretic in some tenets and remain a Christian. The former is more specific, where the latter term is very broad. I gave the example of the Seventh-day Adventists. This would also very much apply to Protestants.

I don't think you would admit that; I think they're supposed to be mutually exclusive categories.

No, as just explained. And I always speak for my Church, to the best of my knowledge. This post involves some things I may not be totally sure about, though, as it is quite specific.

But I also was under the impression from your writings on other lists that you accept both Orthodox and many Protestants as genuine fellow Christians.

Of course, as does my Church. Many of them, however (though -- thankfully -- a minority in each camp), do not grant the same "benefit" to us.

So that would imply that one can reject at least one clause of the Nicene Creed (Catholic version) and still remain a Christian rather than a heretic. So where do you draw the line, in terms of the Nicene Creed, between valid Christian belief and heresy?

One is "heretical" insofar as any of the standard Christian tenets are rejected. To cease being a Christian would involve, e.g., a renunciation of the Trinity or the Incarnation. Those things are utterly non-negotiable, being so central to Christianity.

Exactly how many of those 24 clauses do I have to assent to in order to qualify as a bona fide Christian? I suspect that you won't want to be tied to a very specific answer on this, but I think that once you insist on defining true Christianity in terms of a fairly detailed creed, you (at least implicitly) commit yourself to drawing a line of heresy somewhere among those tenets.

Well, I think they are all very important. Baptism is the most controversial. I have heard that the Salvation Army and Quakers don't baptize at all. Yet I think they are Christians in some sense. I'm not sure what the Catholic Church would say about that.

Although I sympathize with your desire to define Christianity in terms of specific beliefs (and more, of course: "the devils believe," yada yada), I take a more minimalist (and historically supportable) approach.

I figured as much.

I prefer to define a Christian as anyone who professes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ -- and I let the metaphysical chips fall where they may.

I think that will involve you in many absurdities; e.g., atheists have claimed (on the other list we were on) that Hitler claimed to be a Christian. Assuming he did, does that make him one, in your opinion? What if a guy like Charles Manson claimed to be a Christian disciple? All sorts of nutcases and evil people do this: people like Jim Jones. I don't see how you can possibly maintain this view in any coherent fashion, without running into such obvious anomalies and difficulties.

So when Marcus Borg (one of my favorite authors, whom I happen to be reading currently), for instance, tells me he's a Christian, I take him at his word, even though he dissents from many beliefs arguably held by most Christians in history. The reason I called this approach historically supportable is because this is how the term 'Christian' originated in the mid-first century: as a label for professing followers of the crucified (and allegedly resurrected) Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Those people obviously didn't adhere to the Nicene Creed, since that set of tenets wouldn't be hammered out for another three centuries!

Gnostics claimed to be Christians and disciples of Christ as well. So you include them?

Furthermore, since it's evident in the New Testament that even the two principal apostles, Peter and Paul, didn't agree on some significant beliefs,

I don't think it is evident at all.

defining Christianity in terms of metaphysical beliefs is a dubious procedure.

It is a sociological and historical fact that the main branches of Christianity have believed certain things throughout history. There is such a thing as a heresy. The concept was clearly present in the NT and thereafter among Christians. Paul presupposes it. So does Jesus.

It appears, Dave, that your prayers have gone unfulfilled: I remain quite distant from the Catholic Church. :-)

Am I supposed to be surprised? LOL

Whether I still meet your definition of a Christian is an interesting question.

I would have to see again what exactly you believe (you might be a fascinating "test-case" for my criteria!). I think some of your beliefs pertain to the very attributes of God. That's pretty serious business. There is a well-defined Christian God. If one believes in a God other than this one, then that is obviously pretty shakey ground, from an orthodox Christian perspective.


A related question has to do with what the gospel is; how it is defined, and its centrality to Christianity. On this question, even Christian groups which fully accept the Nicene Creed disagree, and, e.g., Catholics are too often defined out of Christianity by certain Protestant Christians, who wrongly believe that Catholicism preaches "another gospel."

I wish to examine the question as to what constitutes the gospel. I am operating under the premise that a group which accepts and believes in the gospel is rightfully deserving of the title Christian. Curiously, many Protestants want to define the gospel in the strict sense of "justification by faith alone." The Bible, however (which most Protestants adhere to as their ultimate authority in matters of Christian belief), is very explicit and clear that this is not the case at all.

For example, we know what the gospel is because we have a record of the apostles preaching it immediately after Pentecost. St. Peter's first sermon in the Upper Room (Acts 2:22-40) is certainly the gospel, since 3000 people became Christians upon hearing it (2:41). In this speech he utters not a word about "faith alone." He instructs the hearers, rather, to repent, and be baptized . . . so that your sins may be forgiven (2:38). So, immediately after the resurrection, at the very outset of the "Church Age," an apostle teaches sacramentalism and baptismal regeneration -– doctrines which are anathema to most evangelical Protestants.

St. Paul defines the gospel in Acts 13:16-41 as the resurrection of Jesus (verses 32-33), and in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 as His death, burial, and resurrection. When Paul converted, straightaway he also got baptized, in order to have his sins washed away (Acts 22:12-16). Biblical factors such as these caused people like Martin Luther and John Wesley and their denominations (Lutheranism and Methodism), and other communions such as the Anglicans and the Church of Christ, to retain this doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

Furthermore, when the rich young ruler asked Jesus how he could be saved (Luke 18:18-25), our Lord, accordingly, didn't say "just believe in Me with faith alone." Rather, He commanded him to perform a "work," to sell all that he had. Jesus also rewards and grants salvation at least partially according to works and acts of charity, rather than on the basis of faith alone (or, sola fide): (Matthew 16:27, 25:30-46 -- note conjunction for in 25:35).

Therefore, the explicit scriptural proclamations and definitions of the gospel strikingly exclude "faith alone," and other actions by Jesus and the apostles contradict it by force of example. From these facts we conclude that the gospel is -- as St. Paul teaches -- the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This is the "good news" (the literal meaning of gospel), not some technical theory of salvation (or, soteriology). Even common sense would dictate that this good news is comprised of Jesus' redemptive work for us -- the great historical drama of His incarnation and atonement, not forensic, "legal," imputed justification. And the Prophets foretold these events, not a fine-tuned theory of application of those events to the believer. How could a mere theological abstract reasonably be called "good news"?

This seems clear enough, yet many otherwise brilliant, learned Protestant scholars, radio preachers, prominent pastors, and so forth, falsely accuse ecumenical Protestants of "betraying the gospel" by their attempts to cooperate and have fellowship with Catholics as much as possible, and to find common theological ground (which is, of course, very considerable). For these reasons and many others, it is (once one presupposes biblical inspiration and authority) impossible to read Catholicism (as a set of doctrines and dogmas) out of the Christian faith, since both sides fully accept all the supernatural facts of Christ's divinity and man's fallenness and believe that salvation comes solely as a result of His atoning work on our behalf – always ultimately His work of grace, whether or not works enter into the equation.

The contrary is the heresy of Pelagianism (works-salvation, or “self-produced salvation”), which was (in all its various forms) condemned by the Catholic Church in A.D. 529 at the Second Council of Orange (following St. Augustine). The Council of Trent in the 16th century also condemned these false notions of how salvation is attained. Yet the myths stubbornly persist.

Also, both sides agree that good works ought to be present in every Christian's life, whether they are required for salvation (as the sign that saving grace and faith is truly present), or done in gratitude for salvation already accomplished. But if the devil wants to keep Christians divided, he has – sadly – had a very easy time doing it.

I was asked by a Protestant in the midst of an e-mail dialogue, "What is your hope of salvation?" I answered: “Jesus.” The universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its section #169, states that: "Salvation comes from God alone . . ." The Catechism goes on to speak of the role of the Church as "our teacher in the faith," but not "as if she were the author of our salvation.”

My friend continued, asking, "This is the question of the Gospel. Is your salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Or is it grace plus something, faith plus something and Christ plus...?" I replied: “It's not ‘grace +’ anything. Rather, it is the elementary, eminently biblical recognition that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26), and that we possess a ‘faith that works’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, Titus 1:15-16). All salvation and all good works whatever ultimately derive from God’s enabling and necessary grace alone.”

Catholics and Protestants both hold to the gospel, as biblically defined above. We differ on questions of justification, which is the application of salvation and the gospel and Jesus' work to the individual, not the gospel itself. Nor is TULIP (Calvinism: = Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) the gospel, strictly speaking. The key is the absolute primacy of grace and the utter condemnation of Pelagianism in both systems.

There are, of course, major differences between the two camps, but on the central tenets of Christianity (e.g., doctrine of God, the life and works of Jesus, centrality of grace, the Bible, the fallenness of man, the total inability of man to save himself, creation, judgment, heaven and hell, etc.) we are in agreement. Catholics regard anyone baptized with a trinitarian formula to be a Christian. We can "fight" vigorously (yet amiably and respectfully) over our many disagreements, but there should be no division over whether we are brothers in Christ, or concerning the nature of the gospel.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 15 September 2001.

1 comment:

cameron said...


I would say the absolute minimum to being called a "Christian" is belief in the Bible as inspired, the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Redemption.