Monday, November 17, 2008

Carter's Definition of Christianity is Defensible

Joe Carter is taking heat for a post [with a follow up here] that examines Barack Obama's theological views and determines they are not "Christian" (even though Obama calls them "Christian").

If you tell me that you’re a "Christian" I take that to mean that you subscribe to a common set of doctrines outlined in either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Both of these creeds are ecumenical Christian statements of faith accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and almost all branches of Protestantism. They outline what it means to be a "mere" Christian.


Carter then examines why Obama's views flunk the test (see the rest of his original post).

Carter's definition of Christianity is rightly disputed but entirely defensible on historical grounds. It's the very same definition I use when I conclude the key Founding Fathers were not "Christian." And indeed Carter notes John Adams flunked the same standard that Obama flunked. He also notes that Obama's status as a true believer is ultimately irrelevant in terms of ability to be a good President:

But all of this misses the true underlying question: Does it really matter if Obama is an orthodox Christian? If we are talking about the state of his eternal soul, I would answer "yes." If we are talking about his effectiveness as a President, the answer is obviously "no." After all, John Adams was theologically unorthodox and yet a great President while Jimmy Carter was a horrible President while being a completely orthodox believer.


Lest we should be seen as giving Obama a special "in" with the theology of the Founding Fathers, I would note from what I observed, McCain to me didn't appear to be any more orthodox than Obama. Indeed, this nominal Christianity that believes in a Providential God but either rejects or downplays orthodox Trinitarian doctrine arguably fits better with the American Presidency than orthodox Trinitarian Christianity which is too exclusive for not just today's pluralistic society but the one America's Founders established. Indeed it's doubtful that we had an orthodox Trinitarian Christian President until Andrew Jackson.

Finally in this comment, Carter gives a list of historic Churches that define Christianity accordingly:


–The Roman Catholic Church
–The Eastern Orthodox Church
–The Assyrian Church of the East
–The Oriental Orthodox churches
–The Lutheran Church
–The Anglican Communion
–All Presbyterian Churches
–The Methodist Church
–Almost all Reformed churches


This is very similar to a chart that Dr. Gregg Frazer constructs on page 10 of his PhD thesis where he shows ALL of the established Founding Era churches defined Christianity the same way, except one...the Quakers. More on that later, but I would contend that the Founding Fathers' "theistic rationalism" was in a sense like Quakerism without the anti-war teachings.

23 comments:

Kristo Miettinen said...

Based on my read of the full Obama interview linked by Carter, I'd definitely not vote for Obama as pastor or elder in my church (and, for the record, I doubt I would elect McCain to those positions either, though I have seen no equivalent interview for him).

That said, I find no evidence either that Obama is, or is not, Christian, even by the relaxed historical standards that I employ elsewhere. Many questions give him opportunities to nail it down one way or another, but he colors his answers on both sides of the divide.

Very political. Let each side read their hope into his responses.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Obama & McCain seemed close enough for rock'n'roll, in fact more than some of the Founders---


SADDLEBACK FORUM
August 16, 2008

Warren: The first one is Christianity. Now, you’ve made no doubts about your faith in Jesus Christ. What does that mean to you? What does it mean to you to trust in Christ? And what does that mean to you on a daily basis? What does that really look like?

OBAMA: As a starting point, it means I believe in — that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. Yes, I know that I don’t walk alone. And I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those sins that I have on a fairly regular basis, hopefully will be washed away.

_________________________


Warren: First, you’ve made no doubt about the fact that you are a Christian. You publicly say you’re a follower of Christ. What does that mean to you and how does faith work out in your life on a daily basis? What does it mean to you?

MCCAIN: It means I’m saved and forgiven. We’re talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States of America but the world.

Pinky said...

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I pay close attention to this site where expert participants provide articles that teach us about America's creation. We find much to enlighten us about our identity as a people.
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Now, America has just completed an amazing experiment in democracy. We have chosen our next president-to-be. The winner, Barrack Obama, claims to be of the Joshua Generation and says he "stands on the shoulders of giants."
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We have much more about which to be concerned than to fuss over his orthodoxy as a believer.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

"Joshua Generation." Hadn't heard of that until now. Interesting, Phil. All I can say is that if the religious right used such religious imagery, the left would have raised high holy hell.

Neither am I particularly comfortable with any president who promises to lead us into a promised land. Too utopian and historicist for me. It fit Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, but not so much a political figure. Politics is not the ultimate solution to the permanent problems of man.

Obama: "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we've got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him your job is done. You'll see it. You'll be at the mountain top and you can see what I've promised. What I've promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. You will see that I've fulfilled that promise but you won't go there. We're going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens. There are still battles that need to be fought; some rivers that need to be crossed. Like Moses, the task was passed on to those who might not have been as deserving, might not have been as courageous, find themselves in front of the risks that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had taken. That doesn't mean that they don't still have a burden to shoulder, that they don't have some responsibilities. The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there. We still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side. So the question, I guess, that I have today is what's called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfill that legacy; to fulfill the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today?"

Pinky said...

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Well, I guess that's the audacity of hope, Tom.
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Your comments tell the common person to give up their hopes.
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Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Carter's thesis rests on the premise that one must subscribe to the Nicene Creed to be considered a Christian. On his own blog he claims that this has been the definition for 2000 years. I'm sure that he's exaggerating here because the Council of Nicea wasn't held until 325 and the creed linked to it wasn't written until the Council of Constantinople at the end of the 4th century.

But more importantly, he is using a non-biblical test of fellowship as point of judgment. For those of us who are part of non-creedal churches (Disciples, Church of Christ, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, many Baptists) this is a bit awkward to have our faith defined for us in this way.

Ours is what John Locke called a simple but reasonable faith. It rests on the Good Confession made by Peter (Mt. 16). No where in Scripture do I see anyone required to affirm the aforementioned creeds.

Pinky said...

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I think Bob's post raises a point of importance about this site.
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I'm not exactly sure about how this should be worded to convey what I mean.
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There is a tendency here that some believe the Founding created an America that not only has not changed; but, more to the point, that it must never be allowed to change--that we must stay in some Platonic stasis about reality.
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That idea presents us with a view of history in which events bring about change by jerks of happenstance once or twice in every age of man and not by some evolving process in which change is always ongoing on a moment by moment basis.
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There is some Scripture that makes the point that human salvation is something that is worked out over time. Why shouldn't the definition that makes a person a Christian change over time?
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How weird is that among an enlightened group of intellectuals each of whom is considering such important matters?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

There is a tendency here that some believe the Founding created an America that not only has not changed; but, more to the point, that it must never be allowed to change...

False.

--that we must stay in some Platonic stasis about reality.

True, in a way, although it's not that Plato is 100% correct about everything. But the alternative to the classical Greek approach is that truth is mutable by circumstance, or worse, subject to the will. Joshua blew his horn at Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. For those of us who think America is an OK place, tearing our walls down for some nebulous radical utopian "hope" is not a good thing.

Brad Hart said...

Ok, sorry for my absence from the blog. I started a new job this week.

As for what defines a person as a "Christian," I think the Carter litmus test is questionable at best. Defining a person's "Christian" faith is a lot like judging a person's patriotism. What is it exactly that makes a person a patriot? Unwavering loyalty? Constant criticism for one's elected officials? In the same way it is problematic to judge a person's "Christianity." As Jon frequently points out, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. are often labeled as being non-Christian, yet these denominations consider themselves to be the epitome of true Christianity.

It's all in the eyes of the beholder.

Pinky said...

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I don't know what you mean when you say, "False", Tom. Do you?
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But, it doesn't take a PhD in communications theory to read between the lines in your attempt to spin our president-elect as though he were a foreign agent out to do America in.That old my-country-right-or-wrong trick went out of style in the sixties, Tom. Why don't you try something new and exciting?
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Pinky said...

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"It's all in the eyes of the beholder."
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Or,
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In the mind of the believer?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

I was just having some fun, Phil, taking the metaphor of "Joshua Generation" to its logical end. I wouldn't have brought it up if you hadn't, along with the equally brainless slogan that helped get him elected.

As for false, what you wrote, that "some [here] believe the Founding created an America that...must never be allowed to change" is false. That is moronic, and a lie.

The best part was my rebuttal to the historicism you constantly slip in, that the alternative to the Platonic approach is "that truth is mutable by circumstance, or worse, subject to the will."

That's the part you should chew on.

Pinky said...

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Tom Writes, "'that truth is mutable by circumstance, or worse, subject to the will'"
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I know that on at least two or three occasions I have suggested a blog on how American Creation is viewed in light of Straussian philosophy--or something to that effect.
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Now, you bring up the very Straussian area of concern in which we could talk about "The Triumph of The Will". These are all very interesting and appropriate ideas to put on the table as we discuss in retrospect, the Founding of this great nation among all the nations of history.
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The idea that there is some basic and "seed value" from which all values and truths sprout seems to do away with the relative value of what it is that America truly stands for in its Founding.
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This whole area of concern combines our desire to gain a comprehensive understanding of what the Founding was all about.
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It's an area all unto itself. I do intend to get it together in my mind; but, I cannot do that in some isolation chamber. So, I will convey myself on others and be sorry for any inconveniences they may experience.
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I think this is one of the best foundational grounds I have yet found on the 'Net. And, I do appreciate every one's input in spite of the fact that it may appear that I am acting the gadfly.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

That's cool, Phil. Comments sections only permit bread crumb trails, as something like Strauss and the totality of the human experience certainly cannot fit into a single book or even volumes of them.

You may enjoy this battle of two "Straussians" [there really is no such thing as a "Straussian" in a definitive sense, as you'll see], Allan Bloom and Thomas G. West. Lotsa stuff on the Founding, too. I may crib some of it meself:

http://www.bayarea.net/~kins/AboutMe/Bloom/review_of__A_Bloom.html

Brian Tubbs said...

It is indeed awkward to define what "Christianity" is and who qualifies as being a "Christian." I think the SAFEST way to go is to define the terms according to their original HISTORICAL usage. That would NOT be the Nicene Creed, but rather the book of Acts.

bpabbott said...

Brian,

You've peaked my interest. Can you give me a brief summation of how the book of Acts defines a Christian?

Dave2 said...

Brad Hart wrote:
It's all in the eyes of the beholder.

Surely you don't mean this.

It is a plain matter of fact that Ayatollah Khomeini was not a Christian, that Chairman Mao was not a Christian, that Richard Dawkins is not a Christian, that Baron D'Holbach was not a Christian, that Maimonides was not a Christian, and (I hope this one is really obvious) that Julius Caesar was not a Christian.

Similarly: Cardinal Newman, Robert Boyle, John Calvin, Martin Luther, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Paul were all Christians.

Even if the standards for counting as a Christian are vague, they aren't non-existent.

Brian Tubbs said...

I agree with Brad. Let's not get too relativistic here. There may be dispute over the meaning of "Christian," but the term DOES have meaning.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ben, I'll have to come back later, as I'm short on time right now, but the references to "Christian" in Acts are...

Acts 11:26 and Acts 26:28

Pinky said...

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Baptist preachers are famous for providing expository sermons.
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They start out with some biblical verse such as Acts 11:26 and Acts 26:28 and then they give their exposition.
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It's sort of the reverse process of decontextualization.
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Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

As for how Acts defines what it means to be a Christian -- look at Acts 2:38. In answer to what one must do to be saved, Peter states: repent, be baptized, and you shall receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now we don't know the full content of Peter's sermon, but I don't think you'll find in it a full blown exposition of the Nicene Creed.

Brian Tubbs said...

Pinky, language has meaning and that meaning is best determined by the AUTHOR and the CONTEXT in which the author wrote. Any other methodology of determining meaning smacks of post-modern vacuous relativism.

Anyone tempted to go down that aimless, worthless abyss should read "Truth Decay" by Douglas Groothius.

Pinky said...

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Hi, Brian. I'm glad to see you are up and about and taking nourishment so soon since the recent election.
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Yes, language has meaning. I guess calling up the "reverse process of decontextualization" would definitely make that point.
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The idea of post-modern relativism doesn't upset me the way it seems to rattle you. In fact, as you probably guess, much of it makes a lot of sense to me. I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to be seeing some good old fashioned humanism being put to work here in the near future. What do you think?
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