Minimal christianity (A Personal Catechism #2)

Link to #1

Q: How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?

A: Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.


My first reaction to this was one of “that’s a great question to ask” followed up with “I really don’t know how to answer it”. What it drives at is the idea that christianity need not be complicated.

There may be much that we don’t know and don’t really understand about the faith that we hold, but not understanding something is a basis for exploration, not abandonment. I’ve received challenges in the past (one just a few weeks ago) from a friend who asked me to explain the nature of the Trinity. I can’t. I can come up with expressions of how I think it might work, but I can’t claim that I have a firm grasp of it. Upon my failure to come up with a neat, 30 second answer which would satisfy the curiosity of my friend, the idea was dismissed on the grounds that if I didn’t understand fully what I believed, then my whole faith was groundless.

We agree to disagree, and here I won’t further attempt to look at the Trinity. The point I’d like to make is that it is not necessary to understand everything in order to be a christian. It isn’t a case that we have all the answers, I know I certainly don’t. Anyone coming either to this blog or just to this series hoping to have an authoritative sermon delivered to them will be sorely disappointed. I’m just poking around, looking into things for myself and you might be peering over my shoulder as I do so. If I inspire/provoke/prompt you into doing a bit of poking around, then that may be all for the good.

I do think there is some importance to be placed on ‘being right’ and to that end I do try my reasonable best to battle ignorance and come to some detailed and nuanced views. But that is not primarily what christianity is about, I don’t think. That does not mean, however, that christianity is a total free for all; this is something I looked at some time ago, asking how you define a christian. But trying to come to some kind of ‘essence’ of christianity is hard.

One might be tempted to answer the question from the catechism by giving the two great commandments: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Yet this would then prompt the inevitable question, “what do you mean by ‘God’?” and then lead to the sort of infinite regress that I hoped to avoid.

From the point of view of this project, there is a slight methodological problem which this brings up. Question 2 contains within in it a reference to question 1. So in my response, ought I really to take the catechism’s answer to question 1 or my alternative take? If I choose the former, then my answers may not seem to hang together, as I answer a later question on the basis of a premise I have already differed from. If I choose the latter, then I will likely diverge and my answers would bear no resemblance to the question, or else I might have to say “not applicable” – which would not be terribly informative. If I tried to do both, it would be like putting one foot on one skateboard and the other foot on a different skateboard; if they’re not parallel then any attempt at going forwards will quickly lead to be falling on my arse! Though it may not be satisfactory to all, I will choose to answer the question as it is asked, to the best of my ability.

It is interesting how the question ends: “mayest live and die happily” – I’m not convinced that that is the aim of the christian life. But then, what is? It would be a better person that I who can  concisely give an “aim”. Though I’ve alluded to the 2 great commandments above, are they really an aim or are they guidelines to meet an aim? In other words, though I would fully affirm that we need to love God and love other people, is that the end in and of itself? I would posit that it isn’t.

That, however, should not diminish the response given in the catechism. The 3 points raised are very good. Perhaps, though, instead of saying “how great my sins and miseries are”, I would drop the ‘miseries’ and the ‘great’. It seems odd that a question phrased as it is, to be happy, entails an answer which references self-awareness of misery. Instead, I think it would be better simply to have an awareness of sin. But then, what is sin?

It’s too big a topic to deal with adequately here, but I hope the following attempt at a synopsis of my understanding is not so brief as to be misleading.

As I view it, sin is a state of being. It is the state of being separated from God. It is a state which describes, as a whole, the human race. Therefore to be described as a “sinner” is not a pejorative statement, though I generally refrain from using it as it is often perceived as such. It certainly should not be used (though it frequently is) as an antithesis to the term saint.

However, the word ‘sin’ may also be used as verb, as in ‘to commit a sin’. Again, the cultural accumulation of connotations makes this an awkward phrase to use without being pejorative. Other, words with common similar meanings may include “transgress” or “trespass” though these carry with them connotations of legalism. I view the matter not in terms of legalism, but in terms of identity. Therefore if I use the term sin as a verb the primary meaning I have in mind is an action which embodies that state of separation.

In terms of causality, I sin because I am sinner (i.e. I act in such a way that I exemplify a state of separation which I am already in) not that I am a sinner because I sin (i.e. that my actions result in a state of separation).

Moving onto the second clause of the answer, this is a very brief summary of the doctrine of salvation. It is feature of christianity since the reformation that salvation has been considered vitally important to christianity. To some, the notion of ‘gospel’ is synonymous with the story of salvation. I would not want to downplay the idea of personal salvation though I would stop short of saying that that is the whole gospel. Or maybe ‘stop short’ is the wrong phrase. It would be better to go further. The gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) is about restoration or recreation. Salvation for an individual is an important part of that, but the whole gospel is far grander and more wide-ranging than that. Though personal responsibility is a part, the whole of creation is involved.

To know this, though, I think would need, as an intrinsic part of it, to know the means by which it came about. That is, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. More will come of this later in the project.

The final part is an interesting one, and I must admit I’m not sure if I’d keep in it my own personal catechism. It is essentially a summary of worship. While I would certainly say that worship is part of a healthy christian life, I wonder if it is so foundational as to warrant mention in this “minimal christianity”. I’ve thought about this for about the last day or so and I don’t think it is necessary. To my way of thinking, I draw a parallel with life. We must eat, drink and breathe in order to live. These are essential. If you give up one, you will die before long. What about sleep, though? Sleep is certainly healthy and I don’t think a person can live, but is something that will naturally come. i.e. you cannot choose to give it up as you might with food or drink. I know this is not a perfect analogy, but I hope the point is not wilfully misunderstood. Worship is something will naturally come from a christian life. It may take many different forms and we can delight in the variety of worship that people of different cultures and personalities, but it should not be prescribed as a particular format.  To do so is stifling and ultimately regressive. So while worship is, I would say, a healthy part of christian living, it is a natural outflowing and need not be part of a “minimal christianity”.

With the answer given by the catechism largely dealt with, then, is there anything missing? I think there is. It is not necessarily part of the picture, but the frame in which it is held, which I think needs to be mentioned early on lest it get ignored or downplayed. Grace. In some ways it might be considered to be part of the second clause of the original answer, but I would rather make it a little more explicit.

So then, how might we draw all this together in summary? What follows as my ‘alternative answer’ is what I would say are the ingredients to make a basic understanding of christianity. Of course, there are some words there that I haven’t defined precisely and which open up further questions. But that’s OK. It’s just a sketch outline at this stage, so it should be recognisable and the details can be filled in later.

Alternative answer

The aim of the christian life is not to be free from misery; it is a more complex tapestry than that. But even a tapestry has elements to it which are essential. The starting point is the centre of christianity, the foundation of the church is Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus said to Peter, the rock on which the church is built is the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. That is the centre. But to get to the middle we must then look back to the past. What was this Messiah? The Messiah is one through whom creation is restored and renewed from a state of sin (that is, separation from God) which has come about through humans. The restoration, though, was not achieved merely through the being of a single person, but through the twin actions he was subjected to: his death by crucifixion and his resurrection 2 days later. The substitutionary sacrifice of death and the subsequent victory over that death are the two sides of a coin that pay the ultimate debt. This supreme act of love is not only unmerited but flies in the face of normal reasoning. This gift of grace to all of humanity is freely given and may be freely accepted.

3 responses to “Minimal christianity (A Personal Catechism #2)

  1. Thanks for blogging your way through this catechism. Good reflections.

    I think there is an inherent problem in trying to define the minimum you need to believe to be a Christian, which – as you say – is the problem of which words you use and infinite regression. You can’t just say “repentance” without assuming some knowledge of what that word means. Also, I think for any believer you would never encourage them to stay at the minimum! Discipleship involves continual learning.

    I can see where you’re coming from on the worship thing, although I would include it: I think a changed life *is* necessary for being a Christian in the sense that it evidences what has changed internally. If someone didn’t change at all I would question the reality of their conversion. c.f. James 2.

    Also, I am probably wrong on this, but I think “happily” as it is used in the original catechism is actually an archaic usage. I have a feeling that it could be used not as we use it today but more like ‘well’, or perhaps ‘joyfully’ in the Biblical sense. I’m sure this usage is in a couple of old hymns I’ve seen, but can’t think which ones right now.

    • Re: your last paragraph – with words such as happily, joyfully or enjoy, the modern vernacular may well have slipped from the meaning intended by the catechism’s authors. This was something that I considered recently, hoping to avoid such linguistic difficulties.

      One of the other statements of faith I considered was the Westminster Catechism, though one of my reasons for not choosing that was the first Q&A, where the term ‘enjoy’ is so open to being misunderstood, it didn’t seem worthwhile trying to translate English from one age to English in this.

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