What is a Christian?

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A little over a year ago, I sat in a room with a group of clergy and lay people from around our region of Pennsylvania, not from my congregation. We were talking about theology–specifically the difficult issues that often divide Christians from one another even in the context of a single denomination or communion.

During the course of the conversation, a minister informed us that mainline Presbyterianism had settled the issue a long time ago: “thinking people need not be required to believe [the five fundamentals],” and so our conversations about matters of disagreement were, in a sense, pointless since we had agreed to disagree a hundred years ago.

I did not say so publicly, but at the time I wholeheartedly agreed with the old man’s statement although in a way different than he intended it.

It is quite clearly the case, at least in my mind, that “thinking people” ought not to be required to believe anything whatsoever much less the five distinctly Christian fundamentals.

In my experience the quality of being a “thinking person” is not so much determined by the conclusions reached as by the method employed. In a sense it is better to be orthodox and a dullard than a quick wit and a heretic.

Of course, my conversation partner mean what he said. He meant, “Thinking Presbyterians (or ministers) should not be required to believe the five fundamentals.” That is quite another matter, although here still my conversation partner and I are still in agreement of the very slimmest sort–I believe both that such persons shouldn’t be compelled to believe or to be called “Christian,” much less “presbyterian.”

In referring to the “five fundamentals” he was referring to the early twentieth century clash of “modernism” and “fundamentalism.” The five fundamentals being, quite obviously, the central points of assent for the fundamentalists to which they lend their name.

These central doctrines included:

  1. The virgin birth of Christ
  2. The veracity of the miracle accounts in Scripture
  3. The penal-substitutionary view of the atonement
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ
  5. The inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture

Whether or not the fundamentalist believe these things is hardly the point.

The real question is whether and to what extent the earliest Christians believed these things. Put another way: are the five fundamentals an accurate restatement of the ecumenical consensus that existed prior to the Great Schism of 1054? 

Here again my conversation partner and I would likely agree, at least in part.

As far as I can make out the earliest Christians would have recognized the claims of fundamentals 1, 2, 4, and possibly (at a stretch) 3, yet have been puzzled by 5. So, lest I be called a fundamentalist, I find it prudent to require subscription to a belief alone where the earliest church required it–at least in the sense of being Christian.

The real question here relates not to “thinking people,” but to the definition of words like “Christian” or “Presbyterian.” There comes a point when a word loses its power to contribute to the meaningful exchange of ideas. We have reached this point in the mainline churches. Little to no objective referent lays behind a word like “Christian.”

We live in a day and age where “self-identification” reigns supreme. We see it every time an essayist writes, “I identify as a white, heterosexual protestant.” Presumably he does so because he actually is a white, heterosexual protestant. Let us exise the phrase, “I identify as” from our parlance–it’s less than helpful.

C. S. Lewis points out the problem with taking a word like “Christian” and making it serve a function it was never intended to perform:

“Far deeper objections may be felt–and have been expressed–against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?” 0r “May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the Spirit of Christ, than some who do?” Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every amiable quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want to use it…. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise [as is “Christian” in the case above], it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. …it speedily becomes a useless word.” 9-10

Three of the five fundamentals correspond to the sensus fidelium of the church prior to its division into the Eastern and Western branches. Three of the five fundamentals are therefore representative not simply of “fundamentalism,” of Christianity as a whole.

If a person cannot or will not affirm: that the virgin-born man Jesus is the Son of God, that God may and did supersede the laws of nature at points in history, that the virgin-born man Jesus died and then became once more alive physically, then that person is not meaningfully Christian.

He may be an amazing thinker. She may be the kindest person in the world. Whatever she is, however, she is not a Christian objectively.

As Lewis notes, “We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christianwas first given at Antioch to ‘the disciples,’ to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles…. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’ than the less than satisfactory disciples….It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said” (11).