by Tom Van Dyke
Jonathan Rowe cross-posts the below at his other groupblog, Positive Liberty, and gets a worthy reply from one Chris Smith:
As a practicing historian of Christianity, I must say that the “broad” definition of Christianity is the most widely accepted one in the field. A major reason for this is that from the very beginning, the followers of Jesus were an extraordinarily diverse group, and many of them were not at all what we would call “orthodox”. I think that in today’s post-modern academy, where historic orthodoxy’s “will to power” is viewed as somewhat less than legitimate, recognizing heretics as “Christians” is a political statement.
A very weighty proposition, but I'd offer that "today’s post-modern academy" prefers to exploit the doctrinal differences between Christians in an attempt to eject the word [and concept] of "Christian" from the discussion entirely.
Not all such folks are from the "post-modern academy," of course: some are evangelicals [Gregg Frazer] or even Catholics [Robert Kraynak]. So when Mr. Rowe asks,
"...why did Oxford University Press publish [evangelical] Dr. Gary Scott Smith’s book “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush” which explicitly relies on Dr. Frazer’s thesis and concludes the key American Founders were neither “Deists” nor “Christians” but “theistic rationalists,”
if the academy is hostile to any role for Christianity in the Founding [I believe it is, and I'm not alone on this], it would stand to reason that the academy would push such views to the forefront, put the torch to the "theologians who eat up David Barton's work," and completely exclude the middle.
Still, Mr. Smith does illustrate the problem of hammering people into boxes, definitions and terms, because in doing so, we create new problems:
If you’re not going to classify Arians as “Christian” then you either have to come up with some classification that makes more sense or avoid classifying them altogether. Given that Jesus was no less central to their faith than to that of the orthodox, “Christian” seems a perfectly natural designation for them...You’d frankly have to be immersed in the special definitions and special pleading of evangelical culture to define them any other way.
The use of language---terms, definitions, etc.---is ideally a way to clarify our thinking, but it is only a shorthand for the actual concepts. Often, terms and definitions become the enemy of clarity, and conceal more than they reveal. Sophists exploit them; the philosophically-minded, the seekers of truth, seek to overcome their limitations.
Although there are legitimate differences as to what it means, the concept of "Christian" has a unique and irreplaceable role in the Founding, and to quibble it away to annihilation and euphemism does a murderous disservice to the search for truth.