What is Christianity?
The precise definition of Christianity has always seemed a bit fluid. Even in the second century, the Gnostics and the orthodox had disagreements on what entailed “true Chrisitianity.” In the last hundred and fifty years or so, these kinds of debates have exploded.
Now a lot of us don’t like the idea that there’s such a thing as “true Chrisitianity,” because once you start being specific, then you start excluding people, and that seems intolerant. But really, there must be a minimal set of necessary conditions for something to qualify as Christian. Otherwise, we might as well call Wiccans Christians, and also call atheists Christians. There has to be something that makes a religion what it is and not something else.
Maybe there’s room for debate on whether some groups can legitimately be called Christians or not, but what I want to give is a bare bones minimum requirement for what counts as Christian. I already know that some of what I’m going to say will be controversial, because there are some people out there calling themselves Christians who don’t fit these criteria. But I am confident in claiming they are not Christian, because I’m quite sure about this minimum requirement I’m about to spell out.
First, and most obviously, there has to be a God. And God isn’t just a projection of the mind—a theological construct one superimposes on the universe. God is a real being who exists independently of human thought.
Second, Jesus is the Christ. I think this is just as obvious. I mean think of the word “Christian.” You can’t have Christianity without Christ. And Christ means something in its historical context. I’ll have to go into that in another blog another time.
Third, the early Jesus people, who were called Christians because they followed a Christ, had a message—a gospel—that they were spreading. This gospel defined what their movement was all about—what the Christian movement was all about. Paul spells out that gospel message in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that he received this gospel and passed it on to the Corinthians at the beginning. He reminds them of its contents in a formulaic way—apparently the way it had been preserved in oral tradition from the time Paul first received it. It goes like this:
that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures
and that he was buried
and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures
Now of course there’s much more to it than that, but this seems to be the bare bones minimum of what Christianity was all about. But a lot is entailed in it.
First, as I’ve said before, there’s “Christ,” which refers specifically to Jesus of Nazareth.
Second, Christ died for sins. A lot is entailed in that statement, too. A sin is basically a violation of God’s law, which is moral in nature. One can sin by failing to do what he ought to do, as James tells us. A person can also sin by doing what they ought not to do, as Paul tells us. But unless there is a moral law, there can be no violation of a moral law, so there can be no sin. If there’s no sin, then Christ didn’t die for sins. So this one statement implies that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, that people violate this law of right and wrong, and that Christ died for the sake of those violations. As this is spelled out in other places, Christ atoned for our sins.
Also, Christ would not have needed to atone for our sins if there were no accountability for them. So this also implies some sort of judgment. God is apparently holding us accountable for our behavior. (How wildly unpopular--a punitive God!)
Third, Christ was raised from the dead. This was not some symbolic way of expressing Christ’s continued presence in the heart of his disciples after his death. They actually believed he was raised from the dead. Paul goes on to quote appearance traditions, and having personally known those to whom he refers (as is evident in Galatians), it is highly doubtful that he had a big misunderstanding. The whole purpose of one of his visits to Jerusalem was to lay before them the gospel that he preaches to the Gentiles, and it is hard to imagine such a visit that didn’t discuss what Paul understood the gospel to be.
So to summarize, here is a basic list of things I take Christianity to entail:
1. There is a God—specifically the Jewish God, YHWH.
2. There is such a thing as right and wrong.
3. People disobey the moral law, and God holds them accountable.
4. Christ died to atone for our sins—our disobedience to the moral law.
5. Christ was raised from the dead.
I know more could be added to this list, but I am confident that if all five of these are true, then Christianity is true. If any one of these five are false, then Christianity is false.
This list excludes some people as being Christians. I’ll go ahead and be crass and tell you who I was thinking of when I wrote this. I was thinking specifically of John Shelby Spong (although there are several others). If you read his writings carefully, you’ll see that Spong doesn’t really even believe there’s any God in the objective sense. God, for him, is just an idea. The impression I get is that he’s creating a new religion altogether that bears so little resemblance to Christianity, that he might as well call it something else. If we go on letting “Christianity” be defined in any way Spong or whoever makes up, then the word will cease to have any meaning at all. A word that signifies everything signifies nothing.