Part 3: Christianity Defined
It has been nearly two millennia since Christ walked the Earth, and shockingly there is still much debate over what constitutes the true doctrines of the religion He established. Over the centuries, literally hundreds of Christian denominations have been formed, with each having produced various Creeds, Catechisms and Confessions all in attempts to cement what should be considered the “true measure” of Christian teaching. Despite the present existence of division in [mostly minor] points of doctrine and Biblical interpretation, much of which can be considered adiaphora, it should nonetheless still be possible to establish a definition that Biblically reflects the most fundamental beliefs that must be held by those who confess to, and should rightfully be referred to as, being a “Christian.”
As recorded in Acts 11:26, the Greek word “Christianous” (Χριστιανούς), which literally translates to “follower of Christ,” was first used in reference to the “disciples in Antioch.” Most modern dictionaries similarly define the word Christian as identifying “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.” For the sake of preserving historical context, the dictionaries of the Colonial and Founding Eras should again be reviewed. However, these sources provide definitions for the term that are nearly just as general. Noah Webster wrote that a Christian is “a believer in the religion of Christ; a professor of his belief in the religion of Christ”and Samuel Johnson, Nathan Bailey and Edward Phillips all gave almost identical definitions.
Understandably, it should be suspected that neither the majority of Christians nor of secularists would be satisfied with such general definitions because none of them explicitly describe what constitutes the “teachings of Jesus Christ.” The first place most would look to for a summary of these teachings would be the various Creeds, Catechisms and Confessions of the several denominations within Christianity. I will disclaim that I personally believe that the three Ecumenical Creeds are pure confessions of the main doctrines of Christianity. However, I should also make some clarifications in regards to both the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds.
Each of these three creeds builds upon the previous with a noticeable increase in technicality and detail. For example, the oldest creed, the Apostles Creed, built off of the earlier Old Roman Creed, which can arguably be considered an extension of the confession made by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. The Apostles Creed is the most simplistic of the three and while the doctrine of the Trinity is quite implicit, the teaching is not explicit in a strict reading of the text. In the next oldest creed, the Nicene Creed, an affirmation of the co-essential divinity of the Son (Jesus) is quite evident.
The Athanasian Creed was established to defend against Arianism and hence explicitly speaks of the Trinity. While I agree that all theological and Christological teaching contained within it is correct doctrine of “the catholic [Christian] faith,” I fear that it reaches too far in several of its so-called “damnation clauses.” The Creed holds that if a man does not “keep whole and undefiled” the Christian faith “without doubt he shall perish everlastingly,” that unless he “thinks of the Trinity ” and believes “faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he would therefore not “believe faithfully and fully” the Christian faith and thus “cannot be saved.” The closing line of the last full section eerily sounds like works righteousness in stating that “they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.”
While I believe that the Athanasian Creed speaks very correctly about the nature of the Trinity and that such confession is supported by Scripture, I cannot consider its declaration that (paraphrasing) “the Trinity must be believed to be saved” as being explicitly confirmed by the Bible. If the Creed claims to contain nothing but what the faith of Christianity teaches, then such a damnatory statement would have to be undeniably spoken of in Scripture. But the problem with this, as will be explained soon, is that nowhere in the Bible does it say that one must believe in the Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead to receive salvation. Thus, while I acknowledge the usefulness of all three of these Creeds for the purpose of teaching the true Christian Faith, in this series I will not reference them as measures of salvation, but rather as measures of Christian orthodoxy.
In his essay, The Reasonableness of Christianity, John Locke gives what I believe to be the simplest, yet purest and Biblically supported definition of what makes somebody a Christian. As Locke writes in the beginning of his piece, “believing on the Son, is the believing that Jesus was the Messiah… This was the great proposition that was then controverted concerning Jesus of Nazareth, whether He was the Messiah or no? and the assent to that, was that which distinguished the believers from the unbelievers.” Locke evidences this by pointing to the statement of faith made by the Apostle Simon Peter (recorded in Matthew 16:16-18) who, when asked by Jesus, declared Him to be “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” the confession divinely revealed to him by God upon which “Our Savior said He would build His Church.” He continues citing several instances recorded in Scripture of individuals who made this confession of faith. For example, he quotes John 11:26 when Jesus declares that “Whosoever believeth in me shall never die” and Martha’s confession of belief, then asserts that “this answer of hers sheweth what it is to believe in Jesus, so as to have eternal life, viz. to believe that he is the Messiah the Son of God, whose coming was foretold by the prophets.”
At a quick glance, Scripture appears to simply teach that all which is absolutely necessary for Salvation is the confession that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Locke cites the later part of a section of well-known verses from John’s Gospel when Jesus declares “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life.” Locke points out that “this was the only Gospel article of faith which was preached to them” and thus were required to believe because as Paul asks in Romans 10:14,”How shall they believe what whereof they have not heard?” In anticipation of a challenging reference to James 2:19, Locke explains that “though the devils [demons] believed, yet they could not be saved by the covenant of grace because they performed not the other condition required in it altogether as necessary to be performed as this of believing: and that is repentance.” As Locke concludes, there is a more to the “covenant of grace” than simply confessing who Jesus is, because together with faith, “repentance is as absolute a condition.”
Throughout his essay, Locke touches on many other points of historical Christian doctrine including [his reasonable understanding of] Original Sin and the Virgin birth, both of which Locke firmly believed. Moreover, Locke devotes substantial time towards discussing Christ’s miracles and most importantly His Resurrection, repeatedly stating that these were things that a Christian must believe. But when he says “must,” Locke does not always use the word as in the manner of saying that “one must believe Jesus is the Messiah to be saved,” but at times in a manner of saying that “the evidence is so great and reasonable that one must surely believe it”or “you must be joking.” It is absolutely necessary to recognize this differentiation in order to understand the final points which Locke makes to close his essay.
As Locke discusses the purpose of the Epistles, he again anticipates a challenge to his arguments:
“If the belief of Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah, together with those concomitant articles of His Resurrection, rule and coming again to judge the world be all the faith required as necessary to justification… if the belief of those many doctrines contained in [the Epistles] be not also necessary to salvation… [could] a Christian…disbelieve, and yet nevertheless be a member of Christ’s Church and one of the faithful?”
In simpler words, could a person really be considered a Christian if they do not believe in every truthful doctrine (such as Christ’s Divinity, all of His miracles, the Trinity, Original Sin, the Virgin birth etc.) contained within Christianity, in particular ones that are discussed in the Epistles without explicit mention in the Gospels? Could ignorance or even disbelief of certain Biblical truths result in a person not receiving salvation? Locke’s response is deeply profound and spans several pages. The following is his conclusion, quoted at length but condensed:
“There may be truths in the Bible which a good Christian may be wholly ignorant of and so not believe, which, perhaps, some lay great stress on and call fundamental articles… These holy writers, inspired from above, writ nothing but truth and in most places very weighty truths to us now, for the expounding, clearing and confirming of the Christian doctrine… But every sentence of theirs must not be taken up and looked on as a fundamental article to salvation, without an explicit belief whereof nobody could be a member of Christ’s Church here nor be admitted into His eternal kingdom hereafter… God alone can appoint what shall be necessarily believed by every one whom He will justify… But yet a great many of the truths revealed in the Gospel, everyone does and must confess, a man may be ignorant of, nay disbelieve, without danger to his salvation… Though all divine revelation requires the obedience of faith, yet every truth of inspired Scripture is not one of those that by the law of faith is required to be explicitly believed [for] justification. What those [truths] are [that are required for justification], we have seen by what Our Savior and His Apostles proposed to and required in those whom they converted to the faith. Those are fundamentals which…everyone is required actually to assent to them. But any other proposition contained in the Scripture, which God has not thus made a necessary part of the law of faith, a man may be ignorant of without hazarding his salvation by a defect in his faith.“
The following summarizes the “fundamentals” that Locke determined are explicitly declared in Scripture, which exhibit the most basic and purest essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Belief in these “necessary fundamentals” is what makes a person a Christian and guarantees their salvation:
“[God] promised a deliverer whom in His good time He sent; and then declared to all mankind that whoever would believe in Him to be the Saviour promised and take Him now raised from the dead and constituted the Lord and Judge of all men, to be their King and Ruler, should be saved. This is a plain, intelligible proposition…these are articles that the labouring and illiterate man may comprehend… Had God intended that none but the learned scribe, the disputer or wise of this world should be Christians or be saved, thus religion should have been prepared for them… but men of that expectation… the apostle tells us (1 Cor. 1) are rather shut out from the simplicity of the Gospel to make way for those poor, ignorant, illiterate who heard and believed the promises of a deliverer, and believed Jesus to be Him; who could conceive a man dead and made alive again and believe that He should, at the end of the world, come again and pass sentence on all men according to their deeds.”
It is this confession of faith, that 1.) Jesus is the Messiah who 2.) was crucified for mans redemption who 3.) rose from the dead and 4.) would return to judge the world and gather His believers unto eternal salvation, by which each of the Founders analyzed in this series will be measured. Should a Founder be proven to meet this standard of belief and be considered a Christian, the three Ecumenical Creeds will then be used to measure the level to which their beliefs aligned with historic, Biblical Christian orthodoxy.
Finally, it should be remembered that while the goal of this investigation is to classify the Founders on the basis of their professions of faith, by no means should any conclusions presented here be taken as affirmations or condemnations of the state of any individual’s salvation. As men, we can only judge our neighbor by his words and actions. It is God alone, the only one Lawgiver and Judge (Js 4:12), who sees the hearts of men (Jer 17:10, 1 Sam 16:7) and who determines eternal judgement (Ps 75:7).
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- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2013); Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus (Cambridge University Press, 2013); Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster Inc., 2014); Random House Dictionary (Random House, Inc. 2013)
- Noah Webster,American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) online; Samuel Johnson and John Walker, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: William Pickering, Chauncey Lane; George Cowie & Co. Poultry, 1775) p.190 online; Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1726) p.222, online; Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words (London: 1720) p. 210, online
- “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (ESV) online
- John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, edited by I.T. Ramsey (California: Stanford University Press, 1958) p. 32
- Ibid. p.33
- John 3:26 (ESV), Also see verses 16-19 online
- The Reasonableness of Christianity, p.44
- Ibid. See 1 John 1:9, Luke 13:3, Acts 3:19, Acts 2:38
- Quoting Scripture, Locke argues that by Adam’s Fall (the “original sin”), death entered the world and that “by reason of his [Adam’s] transgression, all men are mortal and come to die.”[1 Corinthians 15:22, Romans 5:12] This was the “stain of sin”, the result of the Fall, that all men would be born in a state of mortality, and that “everyone’s sin is charged upon himself only.” [Deuteronomy 24:16, Galatians 6:5] Ibid. pp.25-31
- “God nevertheless, out of His infinite mercy, willing to bestow eternal life on mortal mend, sends Jesus Christ into the world; who being conceived in the womb of a virgin (that had not known man) by the immediate power of God, was properly the Son of God.” Ibid. p.45
- “To convince men of this, He did His miracles and their assent to, or not assenting to this made them to be, or not to be, of His Church; believers or not believers.”Ibid. p.33; “The evidence of Our Saviour’s mission from Heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles He did before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God.” Ibid. p.57; “He was sent by God; His miracles shew it and the authority of God in His precepts cannot be questioned.” Ibid. pp.63-64
- “And therefore those who believed Him to be the Messiah must believe that He was risen from the dead; And those who believed Him to be risen from the dead could not doubt His being the Messiah.” Ibid. p. 34
- Ibid. p.71
- Ibid. pp.71-77
- Ibid. p.75