Saturday, April 11, 2009

Who Were the Real Christians of the Founding Era?

An overwhelming number of posts in this blog deal with the topic of which Founders were actually "Christian" in an orthodox or evangelical sense. The challenge in determining this is evident.

First, we do not all agree what constitutes a "Christian." The definition of that word, particularly when one throws in adjectives like "evangelical," "orthodox," and "born again," is often a moving target.

Second, we can't directly ask or interview the Founders, so we must rely on the historical record (including their writings and speeches) to deduce a conclusion. The problem here is that opinions tend to change over time. We see this in the slavery issue, for example. George Washington was a typical, indifferent, racist slave owner at the beginning of his life. By the end of his life, his views on race and slavery were far different - and much more respectable.

I would like to propose (for the sake of some degree of agreement) that we establish a BROAD definition of "Christian." Since I don't see myself as qualified to define the term, I'll turn to the apostle Paul for some help.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote that the resurrection of Jesus was central to the Christian faith. Indeed, according to Paul, "if Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain" (see I Corinthians 15).

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul wrote: "If you will confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved" (Romans 10:9).

And the first time we see the word "Christian" (the book of Acts), it is used to describe followers of Jesus, who held him to be their "Lord," who had risen from the dead. That was the message they were preaching.

So....I propose that we define the term "Christian" NOT according to the Nicene Creed or any other orthodox creed in the centuries since the Bible, but instead stick to Paul's requirement of what it takes to be "saved" and the ORIGINAL historical understanding of the word "Christian."

For our purposes, then, we will consider any Founding Father to be a "Christian" who:

1) Believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the "Lord" and the divine Son of God.
2) Believed Jesus to have died for the sins of the world
3) Believed that Jesus rose from the dead

If a person sincerely embraced the above three points, then it's safe (in my opinion) to consider him or her a "Christian" in at least a basic sense. We need not concern ourselves with the specifics of their views on baptism, the Trinity, Nicene Creed, Calvinism, "universal salvation," etc.

Did they see Jesus as the divine and risen Lord?

Some of my Christian friends are likely to point out that the Bible requires repentance for salvation (very true) and others are likely to argue for baptism (not true, in my understanding of Scripture). But we need to leave these things aside for now, because we can't know the hearts of people, and only God can determine in the end who goes to heaven or doesn't.

For historical inquiry, all we can determine is whether the Founders saw themselves as "Christian" and whether their understanding of that term lines up, at least in a basic sense, with what the Bible teaches - in this case, Paul specifically.

As always, I welcome your feedback and comments.

**For more on defining Christianity, read "What do Christians Believe?" and "What is a Christian?"

19 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Brian,

What do you think of the Arian heresy where Jesus is viewed as divine but created by and subordinate to the Father, almost like a super-Angelic being. He would be higher than the top Angel but lower than God the Father.

Brian Tubbs said...

I'm familiar with Arianism, and I indeed categorize it as heretical.

The Bible teaches that the Son of God (Jesus) was/is eternally co-existent with the Father.

Having said that, not everyone who prays to accept Christ as his or her Savior understands Arianism or any other '-ism.'

Most people are not theologians. Think of the number of children who embrace Jesus as Lord and ask Jesus to come into their hearts.

Becoming a Christian starts with a simple decision - the same one made by the thief on the cross next to Jesus who called him "Lord" and simply (but humbly) asked for Jesus to "remember" him.

It's that simple, basic, starting point decision that I'm referring to in my original post.

By that simple, basic, starting point decision, I think we can categorize the large majority of Founders as Christians.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well, here's the biggest problem I think that the unitarian heresies face; and because modern UUs tend to be so liberal and tolerant, you have to go back to either OLD unitarians or MODERN "biblical" unitarians (like the Jehovah's Witnesses; yes they are "biblical unitarians") to address this issue.

If Jesus is not fully God (whether of the Arian or Socinian bent) then H/he doesn't deserve worship as God. Worshipping H/him as God breaks the First Commandment. On the other hand if He IS God, and indeed the voice of God, then it is just, right, and necessary to worship H/him as God.

Naum said...

You make it all sound cut & dry but I can open up my ESV study bible at the end their is a section devoted to "cults" — that include Christian Science, Mormonism, etc. — those identifying as "Christian" but not accepted as "Christian" by many "Christians".

Founders believing in a human Jesus and not subscribing to the trinity would immediately cast them as nonChristian in the eyes of most Christians today.

You just drew a line yourself based on your interpretation of what constitutes a "Christian".

Becoming a Christian starts with a simple decision - the same one made by the thief on the cross next to Jesus who called him "Lord" and simply (but humbly) asked for Jesus to "remember" him.

It's that simple, basic, starting point decision that I'm referring to in my original post.

By that simple, basic, starting point decision, I think we can categorize the large majority of Founders as Christians.

Brian Tubbs said...

Naum,

Someone who sees Jesus as merely human would no be considered a "Chrsitian" in the historical sense and certainly not in a Pauline sense.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon writes:

"If Jesus is not fully God (whether of the Arian or Socinian bent) then H/he doesn't deserve worship as God. Worshipping H/him as God breaks the First Commandment. On the other hand if He IS God, and indeed the voice of God, then it is just, right, and necessary to worship H/him as God."

I agree.

You get no argument from me over the theological dilemmas and contradictions posed by Arianism, Modalism, Unitarianism, etc.

My point is simply a practical one....

When definining "Christian" in the historical sense (NOT in terms of theological correctness or one's eternal soul), the focus must be on Jesus, since the term begins with him.

So, for example....

Thomas Jefferson rejected the deity of Jesus. He didn't accept Jesus' miracles or his resurrection. Thus, he's not a "Christian" in any kind of biblical or historical sense.

George Washington, on the other hand, is less clear. He didn't take Communion (at least not regularly), but he did seem to accept the divinity of Christ. He may not have been a fully orthodox Anglican/Episcopalian, but did he believe Jesus was God and that Jesus rose from the dead? If so, then we can call GW a "Christian."

Brad Hart said...

I don't think we'll ever be able to come to an agreement on what a "Christian" is, even if we invoke your references to Paul. I do, however, agree that we have been essentially arguing over semantics on this blog, but I doubt we'll ever be able to gain an "acceptable" definition of "Christianity."

Case in point: Jon mentions the Arian controversy, which I personally see as acceptable for a Christian to consider. My personal faith teaches me that God (the Father) and Jesus are separate individuals, and that Jesus, while an equal with God The Father in terms of honor, goodness, etc., is second to the Father (John 14:28).

Now, I know that OFT is gonna blast me for this. After all, only HIS interpretation of scripture is the RIGHT interpretation. Simply put, I have no interest in a theological debate. I simply offer this as an example of how we are never going to get a generally acceptable definition for Christianity. Somebody will always find fault with it.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Naum:

Would you be interested in joining our blog? I don't have your email, so this is the only place I know to extend the invitation. You'd be a nice balance to the discussions we have! Let me know: lindseyshuman@gmail.com

Brian Tubbs said...

If arriving at an acceptable definition of "Christian" is impossible for this blog (not sure I agree that it is, though it certainly is contentious and problematic), then perhaps....

We can have some posts that (instead of relying too much on labels like "born again" and "orthodox") can ask questions like...

How many of the Founders saw Jesus as God?

How many of the Founders believed in Jesus' resurrection?

How many of the Founders believed in the Trinity?

How many of the Founders were members of churches that subscribed to the Nicene Creed?

And so forth.

I think Jon has done a good job with many of his posts in trying to delve into some of these things.

I also think TVD understands the nuances of different people's faiths, and has called people on being too broad and categorical in saying these Founders were "Christian" and these over here were not.

I hate to sound like Bill Clinton's infamous "It depends on what your meaning of the word 'is' is," but...

When it comes to people saying things like "America is a Christian nation" and/or "Most of our Founding Fathers were Christian," it all comes down to HOW we define the terms.

Jared Farley said...

Brian and all,
This might be a really elementary comment, but there is another really sticky problem with trying to define who was a Christian based upon Brian's three criteria: Divinity of Jesus, salvation and resurrection. John has already done a great job of describing the problems with the Christology so I won't get into that. In addition to that, there is also the problem of "u/Unitarians" starting to use alternative definition of what salvation and resurrection meant. There is a metaphysical doctrine of salvation but then some u/Unitarian started using the term to mean following Jesus' moral teachings to save them from hell on earth. There is the physical resurrection of Jesus, but then there is also the spiritual resurrection, which I think many Unitarians embraced around the founding period. Someone else might know more than me about when all of these alternative definitions started to be utilized by the u/Unitarian community, but it certainly poses a problem because one person's use of the word "salvation" or speaking about Jesus as their "savior" might mean something very different from another person's use of the terms.

This goes back to what I said the other day about u/Unitarians attempted to keep orthodox/traditional phrases and terms so as to appear as "mainstream" (my word) as possible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

it certainly poses a problem because one person's use of the word "salvation" or speaking about Jesus as their "savior" might mean something very different from another person's use of the terms.

A good point, Jared, although it would be necessary to actually look at the Founders' use of such terms instead of abstracting them in a fell swoop.

If "Christian" means Jerry Falwell or Calvinism, the Founders weren't. If we take that as "orthodoxy," we need cut only a few branches from the top of the tree and say it's not "Christian."

If we build from the roots up, it's a different story. Did God talk to man through the Bible? Send Jesus as humanity's first "perfect man" with a unique divine authority to speak His Word? At some point, the "tree" is recognizably Christian."

Moreover, is the Founding recognizably "Christian?" Even if the private beliefs of some didn't go all the way to the Nicene Creed, did that make any difference?

And of course, we must never lose sight of federalism---the US Constitution left religion to the states. There certainly were "Nicene" states.

Jim47 said...

Out of curiosity, how would you refer to your definition of Christianity?

The term Pauline Christianity already exists, but is generally used to refer to the strands of early Christianity that coalesced into the established church out of the miasmic plenitude of combinations of creeds within the early church, and tends to be used to distinguish what becomes mainline Christianity (and its more closely related offshoot heterodoxies) from the various "gnostic" strands within early Christianity.

Accordingly, the term traditionally has far more defining substance than the set of simple broad criteria you give, since there were theologies within the continuum of the early Christian tradition that would fit your criteria, but which seem strange and foreign to modern Christianity, and which therefore are not within the bounds of Pauline Christianity.

So while the Pauline tradition is clearly the bottleneck from which all recognizably modern Christianity emerges, and thus might be seen as an attractive candidate for a broad definition of Christianity, I fear that in the very different context of the 18th century, that the criteria traditionally used to define Pauline Christianity are likely to map onto your discussion in strange and unexpected ways.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jim,

Once you use the word "Christianity" (as opposed to "Christian"), you're no longer identifying a person or group of persons, you're labeling a movement or belief system. And that does get more contentious, as you point out.

If you're going to press me for a label, then I would use the term "Romans 10:9 Christian" (even though, I'm aware, the word "Christian" doesn't appear in Romans 10:9).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jim, I don't like terms so much, and neither am I theological ideologue. Like Benjamin Franklin, there's a lot of doctrine-dogma I don't trouble myself much with one way or the other. What is a "Christian?" My friend Jon Rowe says I prefer it as an adjective rather than a noun---What is Christian?

From a historical-philosophical perspective, what I tried to say here is that there are roots and there is a trunk that can be called recognizably and uniquely "Christian," as opposed to any other religious or philosophical tradition. Even "theism," a belief in a "personal" God, is Christian or Judeo-Christian in my view.

Also acknowledging that in the 1200s, Thomas Aquinas grabbed any wisdom or truth that had withstood the roadtest of time and experience and "Christianized" it.

Then the Protestant thinkers picked up the baton and made their own invaluable contributions to what we call The Founding.

Whether God's going to send the unitarians of the Founding era to hell for not believing Jesus is God---along with many of us gathered here, apparently, anyone who's not a Nicene Christian---well, that's beyond my poor power to add or detract, or to know. But I hope not, if that counts for anything. And like Ben Franklin said, I suppose I'll find out soon enough.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And like Ben Franklin said, I suppose I'll find out soon enough.

Well hopefully not that soon. Franklin was, I do believe, months away from death when he wrote that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, bro. From your fingers to God's inbox...

JimM47 said...

Tom,

I largely concur with your points, but would note that when religion is studied in the academy with a methodology similar to your historical-philosophical perspective, scholars do still end up formulating and using terms (often employing the very trick you mention of using adjectives rather than nouns).

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm OK with that approach, Jim---the descriptive over the definitive---because otherwise we give up all attempts at meaning and become nihilists.

That the Founders were "culturally Christian" is much less controversial than saying they were "cultural Christians," if you follow me here.

Our Founding Truth said...
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