Tag Archives: creeds

How do you define a christian: Concluding remarks

This has been a brief overview of some of my thinking as to how we may define a christian. I’ve looked as self-definition, creeds & confessions, the sacraments as boundaries and a cocktail of beliefs.

Hopefully, if you’ve had the patience to read it all, you will have realised that I don’t have a definitive version of what defines a christian and what doesn’t. All I have done is looked at some of the ways in which christians have been defined and shown how they fall short of making a clear demarcation. What that leaves us with is a grey area, and quite a large one at that. Does that mean that there isn’t a definition? No; I don’t think so.

Lurking in the background to all this is of course, the No True Scotsman fallacy. For those unfamiliar with it, please follow the link above. To my mind, there is a difference between there not being a definition and for me as an individual being honest enough to say “I don’t know.”

The way I think of it is like this: The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is quite narrow, but we can perceive multiple colours within that narrow range. We might very clearly say that an atheist is a radio wave or a Muslim may be an X-ray, they clearly aren’t in the visible light spectrum. When we look at ourselves, we are more inclined to say those in our own nearby vicinity are christians, and perceive those as being far away as being at least questionable. So you might say that I sit at the orange end and am happy to worship alongside the reds and yellows, but I’m not so sure about the purple lot. Meanwhile, those that I perceive as being merely purple are having a fight over whether they’re indigo or violet, whilst viewing me as being a long way from their beliefs and practices. Simply because there is a spectrum of belief within christianity doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “true christian,” just as you can’t really uphold the idea that there’s no such thing as “visible light.”

Most importantly, I don’t think it is the job of any individual or any organisation to make a determination of who is and who isn’t a christian. The writer to the Hebrews said “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is also able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.” (Hebrews 4: 12,13). I’d rather let God decide. It’s a far better judge than I am. Each of the factors discussed in the parts of this series is, I think, a strong indicator, but any one of them alone is not sufficient to be able to tell apart who is a christian and who isn’t. Throughout this, I tried where possible (and probably failed) to distinguish between being discerning and being judgemental.

We are called to be discerning, but warned against judging others; it’s a fine line to tread and I know I get it wrong on plenty of occasions, just as I see others around me do the same (and yes, I will confess to judging people because they judge others).

I think I probably ought to call a halt to it there. So that’s an outline of my muddled thinking. Do you try and define who is and who isn’t a christian? Is it too thorny an issue? Do you think I’m a heretic that should be burned at the stake?

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How do you define a christian? Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

Link to part 1.

One of the major developments in the history of christianity was the development of the various creeds. Probably the most famous of these in the Nicene Creed, which came out of the first council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. There are various other creeds such the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasean Creed, the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession. These have been used over the years as a statement of faith to affirm what various christians believe. i.e. a christian might be defined as someone who agrees with one or more of these statements of faith. However, I have some reservations about them:

Firstly, they are often taken as foundational, when in fact they are really conclusions. I recently had someone “throw” the Nicene creed at me during a discussion as their way of stating what I believed. I found it quite ironic as the discussion had been started by an atheist who was tired of being told what he believed, and I pointed out that christians were also often “told” what they believed. I think the irony was, unfortunately, lost on my accuser. However, it showed the perception that such creeds have outside of christianity, as being the basis on which on all else rests. As I shall demonstrate later in this post, there are some conclusions in them that I have not yet reached.

If you were to define a christian as someone who believes one or more of the creeds, then what about someone like me who has some reservations about a few points? It strikes me as a little too dogmatic.

Second, there is a dilemma over how long or short they should be. Generally, the shorter they are, the more inclusive they are, and the level of inclusiveness will decrease the more detail is included. I will deal with inclusion/exclusion in a little more detail in the next part. For now, I am not convinced that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that:

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”(1 Cor 1:10, NKJV)

that he had in mind a kind of “Stepford church” where everyone absolutely thought the same thing. After all, the same letter has chapter 12 in it (I won’t copy it all here) where he talks about us all being different, yet united in Christ. So it seems to me more reasonable to suppose that in chapter 1, what he had in mind was that all should agree on “the basics.” Of course, here is where we hit the nub of the problem – how do agree a) what the topics that should be foundational are and, b) what the content of those statements should be.

I have had many disagreements over the years with people over what issues are foundational. Admittedly, most of those have been with creationists who argue along the lines that if you don’t believe the literalist interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, then how can you claim to believe any of the bible.

The more interesting debates are on b) where people’s own theologies and prejudices really come to the fore, my own included, though I shan’t delve into them here. I’m sure a browse through this blog (especially anything tagged “apologetics” will reveal something of my worldview)

The third objection I have about creeds is their formalistic structure. The bible is not a book of systematic theology. Nor is it simply a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” To restrict the books of bible to a short list of normative statements has two effects:

1) It strips the bible of its richness. There is much that is nuanced in the composition of the bible, with the same topics being approached from different viewpoints by different writers, addressed to different audiences.

2) It sets in stone what may already be misunderstood and creates further room for misunderstanding. I would liken this to the codifying of the American constitution, where the supreme court judges have it as their job to interpret the constitution and where, it seems to me, their interpretations can be quite far removed from the intentions of the original authors. It is a case of a text being ripped from its context as a pretext.

Of course, in all this, I have not (yet) denied the actual content of the creeds themselves. I will only state my reservations about one (the Apostles’ Creed), for fear of boring you even further, and of repeating myself. You can then decide whether to burn me at the stake or not.

1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
10. The forgiveness of sins:
1l. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

In point 3, I am not convinced of the historicity of the virgin birth. Firstly, the eyewitness evidence “from the beginning” was from the start of Jesus’ ministry as an adult, so I am quite sceptical about the source from which Matthew and Luke obtained the nativity narrative. There is also the potential that Matthew in particular was not originally a Greek composition, and that the word that was translated as virgin (gk: parthenos) may have originally meant “young girl.” This latter theory seems to be falsified though by verse 18 of the first chapter “Now of Iesous Messiah the birth thus was: being betrothed for the mother of Him, Mariam, to Ioseph, before joining of them, she was found in womb, pregnant by Spirit Holy.” (Green’s literal translation).

In point 4, there is a statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” The canonical gospels make no mentioned of where Jesus went (if anywhere at all) during the time of his death. To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I am mistaken), the idea of Jesus going to hell was a comparatively late idea, and the earliest writings to contain the idea was in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. The earliest date for this work is the mid-second century, though it was more likely written towards the end of that century. In it, there is “a voice out of the heavens crying, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep [i.e. the dead]?” and from the [talking] cross was heard the answer, “Yes.””

The point that really sticks in my craw is point 9: “I believe in a holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” At the time it was composed, nothing resembling the modern Roman Catholic church had been established. The first use of the term “pope” (I am here using the Anglicisation, if you will forgive both the linguistic sloppiness and the denominational pun!) was used as a descriptive for Damasus the first, some half a century after the first council of Nicaea. The term catholic, therefore, had the contemporary meaning of “worldwide” with none of the connotations that we would associate with Roman Catholicism today. My point here is not so much with the actual statement of this section of the creed, but rather with the wording as used, which I think is misleading to the modern reader. Readers who are likely to misinterpret the term “catholic” are also likely to misunderstand the term “saints” where this is actually a general term for believers, rather than any special subset of holy folk who have been beatified.

So far, I’ve been quite negative, and you have probably tsk’d and tutted your way through this with various disagreements along the way. To try and give some balance to this, I’m not wholly opposed to them. I think they can be a great guide to study where we can ask “how were these conclusions reached?” and “why are these considered the important points?” However, I believer in the idea that christianity is not restricting, it is freeing. And I will choose to exercise my free thought to believe what I think is true, and not to be dictated by some conclusions that others have made for me.

To my understanding, one of the key features of their development was less about asserting what christians believed to those outside the church, but rather to defend against heresies that had developed within the church. So for example, some of the items included in the Athanasian creed were included for the specific purpose of countering Arianism. By this, there was an attempt to make a distinction between who “truly” was a christian and who merely professed to be such. This leads to the sociological problem of “the other” and how that may be used to define a group identity, which I shall look at in the next part.

How do you define a christian? Part 1: Intro & self-definition

Introduction

The question “how do you define a christian” is one that has been bugging me for a little while. It sometimes crops up in conversations I have with non-christians who are keen to try and put me in a box. The question often comes in some variation of “what kind of christian are you?” At this point there’s usually an involuntary rolling of the eyes, but I do my best to be helpful. Afterwards, I often question myself as to whether it’s the best approach to pander to someone’s expectations or whether it would be more kind to let forth an exegesis on what christianity means to me. Erring on the side of caution, and not wanting to come across as a “bible-basher” my current thinking is that the gentler answer is the more productive.

It’s not a question I actually can give a definitive answer on. Here, I am just exploring some ideas, and would welcome other views and input on the matter. To my way of thinking, there are 4 routes we can head down, and I will sketch each of these in turn. There is some overlap between them, but I’ve tried to segregate them as reasonably as possible. These are:

-Self-definition
-Following a creed
-Sacraments as boundary markers
-Denominations, cults & heretics

I also acknowledge that my articulation is somewhat lacking to be able to discuss this without resorting to the occasional tautology, but I have felt they needed to be included, or else I’d be driven down a reductionist road of infinite regress, which never leads anywhere meaningful. I will also be quite frank, which may cause some offence, though that is not my intent.

As the writing of this particular piece has gone on, it just started to get longer and longer. So I have decided to split it up into several separate parts in order to make it more readable.

Self-defining?

One of the first and most obvious definitions of a christian is for someone to simply self-define. i.e. a christian is whoever says they are a christian. At first glance, this is quite appealing, as it is the free choice of any given individual to be whatever they want to be. However, you quickly come across difficulties. I have come across a group before who called themselves “christian atheists,” who are a very interesting bunch; they don’t believe in God, but do think that Jesus was a great moralistic teacher. So, as followers of Jesus, how many other christians would affiliate themselves with this group? I think not many.

More recently, we had the example of Anders Breivik, who murdered 76 people in Norway recently. He described himself as a christian on his Facebook profile, though again, I don’t think that many christians would recognise his right-wing extremism in the gospels.

The short answer to this dilemma is that if I am free to say that I am a christian, anyone else is free to make the same claim, yet we can believe completely different things and consequently display different attitudes and have different relationships. To simply state that one is a christian is completely meaningless without some other definition of christianity that various parties can agree upon. It’s a little like two people who call themselves vegetarian, one of whom is fine with eating fish and another who is not. Who is then to determine which is vegetarian or not? Are they both vegetarian, given the difference in their viewpoints?

The obvious step is then to then to define some set of parameters which can be agreed upon. In the case of christianity, this has come about the form of a doctrinal basis, statement of belief or creed, which I will look at in the next part.

When randomness takes over

This is just a very quick post. Those of you know who know me, know that I’ve been working quite hard of late. This has left me rather tired, sleep deprived and writing posts of even less sense than usual (just see below for examples). One other effect this has had is to introduce a wide variety of fairly random thoughts into my head.

For example, I was recently overcome by a sudden desire to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. This hasn’t been on tv for years, and I think it’s high time it made a comeback on BBC2. Of course, the Q episodes were always the best.

I was also thinking about the nature of revolution. This was partly triggered by watching Che at the weekend, and comparing Che to Jesus. While vastly different in their methodologies, both were revolutionaries in their time, killed while relatively young and were motivated by love. I think love is what distinguishes between a revolutionary and a terrorist, a theme on many people’s minds at the moment.

The other thought I had was on the word “confession,” particularly in terms of liturgical creeds. Now I have never been a fan of liturgy, I still regard it as a poor substitute for thinking. But the nature of having a creed labelled as a confession implies to me that someone is “owning up” and admitting something to be true which hurts their pride. In our modern setting, the word has acquired a legalistic meaning relating to guilt, but this is not what the Christian confessions are about. They are about humility. Nomatter how much we may like to set ourselves up in loco deus, we are children of God. In what is dubbed “Peter’s confession of Christ,” Peter was not making a declaration of something new; he was speaking something true that was already known, but which he had not had the guts to admit out loud before.