Saturday, 2 October 2010

The "Christian Line"

My relative and fellow blogger Luke recently floated the idea of an "Abraham line" - anything in Genesis before Abraham could be seen as mythical, anything after essentially historical.  Intense discussion followed.

I've been thinking about a different kind of line.  In my late teens we had a guest speaker at our youth group on the subject of "cults". By this term, he meant those minority Christian sects who believe things outside Christian orthodoxy - Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists and so on.  At one point in the discussion he made a distinction - one of these (I forget which) he regarded as Christian, the others not. 

Various books on "cults" were doing the rounds and each of them had a different definition of a cult, and a different list.  Some included the Catholic Church, put in the non-Christian pile because it doesn't teach salvation by grace alone, and because it teaches idolatory in various forms.

All these discussions implied, although they weren't always up front about it, the existence of a "Christian line".  One one side of the line are groups that are Christian, even if they hold some views you disagree with.  On the other side of the line are those who are not Christian.  They may use Christ's name, but their teaching is so far from the truth that the label is a misuse of that name.

Why does this matter to so many people?  Well, the essence of Protestantism lies in two things - its teaching that we are saved by faith alone, not through our own works, and its insistence on the Bible as the sole authoritative source of Christian teaching.  So, if you are saved by faith, what are you saved by faith in?  The simple answer is Christ, but delve a little deeper.  What precisely about Christ are you putting your faith in?  And what sort of faith are we talking about there?

This is where the "Christian line" comes in.  Everyone defines it differently, but there are some common elements.  The idea is that you need to believe that Jesus is God, and that he died to save us.  Hence, versions of Christianity that suggest Jesus is something less than God are not Christian.  On the faith side the answer is more complex.  Often the answer here is that you need to have a classic "conversion experience" - understand that you're a sinner, that you can't save yourself, go to God and ask his forgiveness on the basis of Jesus' death for you.  But there's a lot of variety here - what form of repentence is necessary?  Is it OK to skip one of the steps?  Then on top of this is all the other stuff.  The inerrancy of the Bible.  The existence of hell and the devil.  Rejection of idolatry.  Add or subtract to your taste.

So, my personal view.  What we do through all this is invent a new doctrine of salvation by works, except we are substituting intellectual works for moral ones.  To be regarded as a "Christian" it is essential that you know and assent to certain things and all of them are highly complex - God becoming a man, that God/man's death bringing us forgiveness, the nature of evil, our own moral responsibility.  Each of these concepts are incredibly difficult.  The intellectual work required of us, the worldview changes that are asked, are huge.

Of course, we could simply say that God offers his pardon freely to all.  But to do that we would have to accept that there is no "outside".  We would have to abandon the psychology of belonging, the safety of the in-group.  We would have to give up on millennia of using fear to induce faith, and rely on love alone. 

It's like the joke about the man or woman who goes to heaven and gets the orientation tour from St Peter.  During the tour they come to a huge wall, "so high you can't get over it, so low you can't get under it, so wide you can't get round it".  Peter explains. "That's for the (insert your denomination here).  They like to think they're the only ones here."

Or if you prefer, as Peter Gabriel sings.

How can we be in
When there is no outside?

You may look like we do,
Talk like we do
But you know how it is
You're not one of us!


Luke said...

A fair bit there to think about Jon, you didn't mention though that generally from the defeat of Arianism onwards, denial of the Trinity has been the key distinction between Christians and various heretical groups such as the Mormons or the JWs.

Jon said...

Yes, the divinity of Christ, but I guess that also includes the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit. It's precisely what I'm talking about. The difference between Arius and Athanasius was extremely complex and technical, but you have to understand that and decide between them to be a "true Christian"? Or is it just about willingness to accept an authoritative determination on the question?

Frank Huxtable said...

I'm doing a study of John's gospel @ moment (with an unbeliever - yes, the 3 Persons of the Godhead is VERY important). Still trying to fill in the background with him but a key principle with salvation is our **responsbility** to our Creator. We do have to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God to be saved - a decision MUST be made, love draws us to that decision but God is happy to use a big stick to make us realise He loves us (eternal damnation for those who rebel in unbelief). Of course the "age of responsibility" dovetails with this (an infant who dies is saved re. 2Sa 12:23 etc.)

Jon said...

@ Frank
"God is happy to use a big stick to make us realise He loves us (eternal damnation for those who rebel in unbelief)"

I'm not sure if you realise how bizarre that sounds. "Just to prove I love you, I'm going to beat you to death." You would never do that to your children, why would God do something so much worse to his?

Frank Huxtable said...

Hi again Jon,
The point is they are my children - by natural birth, we are not God's children though. Those who receive Christ ~ believe on His name are given the right/privilege to become the children of God (born again, adopted). So as His child, the Father chastens me (and of course doesn't beat me to death). But if I die in my sins, neglecting the Light of life that lights every person bron into this sad world then I'd get my just deserts at the hands of the righteous, sin-hating God of the Bible. His love constrains Him to stridently warn us of the consequences of rejecting His free, unspeakable gift.
In Christ, Frank H

Frank Huxtable said...

...and as my wife has just highlighted to me (thanks Kath!), "big stick" was not an appropriate term for me to use in the first place - I was thinking of it in the corporate contractual context where it amounts to a big threat/warning (I was naive to the domestic application of the term). I'll endeavour to steer clear of emothive secular terms and stick to Biblical terms in future.

Jon said...

So Frank, this suggests that God loves those who love him and hates the rest. This doesn't sound loving to me, it just sounds tribal. It also sounds suspicously like salvation by works which is my original point - the concept of works is just trasferred from the moral sphere to the intellectual and emotional - you intellectually assent to certain things, and then give your emotional commitment to them. Only if you do this will God love you. That's not the God I know.

Luke said...

The difference between Arius and Athanasius was extremely complex and technical, but you have to understand that and decide between them to be a "true Christian"?

I don't think Jon that it's a valid argument to say everything is complex therefore nothing is clear.

(I see what your trying to say with the post overall, but it needs qualification because the logic of the argument doesn't work.)

Jon said...

Luke I think there are two things which shouldn't be confused. One is - which is correct? The orthodox position is that Atahnasius was right and Arius not, although this argument was won militarily as much as theologically. The other is, is accepting this truth a test of true Christianity? This is where I have an issue and where the complexity comes into it. If this is a complex question which requires considerable theological/philosophical education to understand, how can we make it a test of faith for people of varying levels of education? Only by making it actually about acceptance of authority - the very thing the Protestant church rejects.

Luke said...

Good point they are two separate questions.

But this is where I think Sola Scriptura is of such benefit, although Scripture is final authority we can only interpret from a particular tradition. Current Roman Catholic practice is to conflate Scripture's authority with the current Vatican. Ignorant protestants (and I mean that pejoratively think Sola Scriptura means Solo Scriptura.) You can see this with the Reformers they said to the Roman Catholics of the time, the church is co-equal in authority only Scripture has authority but tradition stretching back to Scripture is our interpretative base.

I think the brilliance of this position is that it side steps both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in a powerful way.

Jon said...

That certainly is a strong and nuanced position and very practical as it meant the reformers didn't have to start from scratch. As far as I understand it, the Catholic response to this is along the lines that Protestants only accept the authority of tradition when it suits us, and this actually means we don't accept it at all. Basically we're happy to learn from tradition but are also happy to reject it. I think they're right to say this but wrong to think it's a problem - it's exactly what Jesus and Paul did.

Where that leaves the subject of this post, though, is - who's to say exactly which traditions should be kept and which should be rejected? The doctrine of the Trinity is a classic example because while it does make sense in the light of scripture other possible explanations do as well. Arius obviously thought his did and many agreed with him. The trinitarian doctrine itself is a philosophical attempt to make sense of the various passages that talk about the three persons.

Anonymous said...

Seems that comments get confused and misconstrued.

Why don't you use Scriptural backing for your arguments guys?

Nathan said...

Getting a working definition of Christianity is pretty important for distancing yourself from the loopies when it comes to apologetics too. Especially with the Scottish spectre hovering around waiting to rear its ugly head if you dismiss alternate views as "non-Christian"... when it comes to accepting people who want to serve in ministry roles in the church the line is normally based on whether or not they display fruit of the Spirit and have a sound approach to doctrinal issues... I reckon a functional way of drawing the line is just to refer to the word "Christian" and point out that the suffix means "like, belonging to, from" - and then ask people to measure somebody's avowed intent, and behaviour, against the standard of Jesus (no one will get there, but if there's no likeness, then there's probably no relationship).

Theological issues as points of distinction don't excite me all that much - you can subscribe to sola scriptura and still be an Arminian. And still be a Christian. We find way too much to divide over.