Friday, January 25, 2013

Standards For Determining "Christianity" & the Christian Nation Thesis

So I noted recently Bill Fortenberry and Chris Pinto's argument over the Christian Nation thesis. Both (apparently?) share an evangelical-fundamentalist approach to Christianity and use their personal understanding (which they would argue is "God's understanding," strictly derived from the Bible) for determining "Christianity" as it relates to the "Christian Nation" thesis.

Dr. Gregg Frazer likewise shares a similar personal understanding of "Christianity" (which he likewise understands as "God's understanding," etc.).  Yet for the thesis of his book, he uses a late 18th Century American consensus understanding.  It is a 10 point test that forms a lowest common denominator among the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  In short, the sects affiliated with the vast majority of the population of late 18th Cen. America.  It is not quite "the Nicene Creed" simpliciter.  But it (as I see it) in some meaningful way resembles the orthodox minimum, "mere Christianity" approach -- an understanding that stretches from St. Athanasius to C.S. Lewis.

There are some differences.  For instance, the capital O Orthodox Church (of the Eastern bent) do not (as far as I understand) accept the doctrine of original sin, which is part of Dr. Frazer's 10 point test.  Yet, they are included in the Nicene minimum.  They aren't included in Dr. Frazer's minimum because (surprise) they had virtually no (or no) presence in late 18th Century America.

Dr. Frazer's personal test for "Christianity" is arguably stricter than his late 18th Century American test.  One has to believe not just Jesus as 2nd Person in the Trinity, but be "born again" and accept "Christ only."  With this, it's still hard to grasp fully how conservative evangelicals view who is or is not a "real Christian" as they themselves disagree.  They split, for instance, on whether Roman Catholics are "real Christians."  (When Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa were still alive, I once observed Pat Robertson, nicely enough, say both of them were going to Heaven.)

As far as Anglicans are concerned, a good deal of them in the late 18th Century could qualify as "real Christians" according to evangelical standards.  Some not.  Some, like Thomas Jefferson, were deistic or unitarian and didn't accept orthodoxy.  Others, though orthodox, didn't consider themselves "born again" but worshipped the Trinity through the Anglican liturgy (39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer).

I don't think, for instance, George Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.  But were he, it was, as my friend Mary V. Thompson of Mt. Vernon argues, through quietly worshipping Anglican liturgy.  In short, even if he were orthodox, George Washington still was not a "born again, evangelical Christian."

I write this because Bill Fortenberry takes issue with Gregg Frazer's test for late 18th Century American Christianity.  Rather, Fortenberry thinks what he understands as God's definition taught from the pages of the Bible alone should prevail.  Yet, even though he believes the Bible teaches the Virgin Birth, Trinity, an orthodox understanding of the atonement, he doesn't accept belief in these as non-negotiables for determining who is a "Christian."   (He explains his position in more detail here in this comment forum.)

Gregg Frazer responded to me in an email which he gave me permission to publish.  Though he did note, time may forbid him from getting "sucked in" to an extended discussion in the comments:
WSForten has clearly not read – or paid attention to – pages 17 and 18 of my book and phrases such as “For the purposes of this study” and “all of the individuals identified as theistic rationalists in this study were affiliated with one or more of these denominations, as were forty-seven of the fifty-five members of the Constitutional Convention” and “the definition is designed to identify who was not a Christian or who would not be considered Christian by any of the denominations” and “These definitions are designed more to identify who was not a deist or Christian than to identify who was.”

WSForten’s beef is with the 18th-century American Christians, not me. He does suffer from the problem ably demonstrated by OFT – taking individual verses out of context. For example, what does it mean to believe that Jesus is the Christ? That carries a lot of meaning and “baggage” (good baggage) with it and any contemporary reader of John’s epistle would know that in a way that an average contemporary American reader (or 17th-century English reader) would not. For example:

WSForten’s notion that for His atoning sacrifice to be satisfactory, Jesus need not be God, but “only” sinless ignores several critical points – especially #7:

1) The sacrifice must be righteous, not merely innocent (Rom. 5:18-19) – righteousness is the result of obedience (Rom. 6:16); mere innocence (not having yet fallen) is not sufficient

2) An infinite/eternal sacrifice was required to affect all men & all time; only an eternal being could make such a sacrifice (Heb. 9:13-14) – i.e. for those both before & after His incarnation

3) Jesus is the heir to glory, so only He could make us fellow heirs/sons (Gal. 3:16, 29; 4:5-7)

4) His unique intercessory position – as the Son, His proper place is at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:33-34; Heb. 8:1 [Christ “has taken His seat”]; Heb. 7:25)

5) God’s expression of His great love for us in sacrificing His own Son (John 3:16; I John 4:10)

6) The sacrifice must be voluntary; there is no justice in condemning the innocent without his volition (Rom. 5:6-7; John 10:17-18)

7) The One Who makes a will must die to release the inheritance/promises (Heb. 9:16-17) – Christ’s death satisfied both covenants because He is God and made both covenants (Jer. 31:31-33; Heb. 8:8). 
No single verse contains all that is necessary to be believed in order to be saved. Individual verses make individual points/claims to particular individuals or in particular contexts. Rom. 10:9-10, for example, doesn't mention belief in the Messiah -- it mentions belief in the resurrection and in the lordship of Jesus. Paul says in I Cor. 15:16-17 that faith is worthless without the resurrection. Earlier in I Cor. 15, he lays out the gospel as he preached it and "by which you are saved" (what one must believe) including the atonement ("Christ died for our sins"), the resurrection, and the need for grace. There he does not mention belief in the Messiah. 
Re the idea that any sinless man could be the sacrifice: later I Cor. 15:45-49 explains that the second Adam/sacrifice/Messiah had to be "a life-giving spirit," "from heaven," and "heavenly" by nature -- no mere man who hadn't yet sinned could fulfill that requirement. There is also the matter of original sin and the fact that no mere man COULD be without sin. 
Re WSForten's notion that some things are actions, not beliefs: one can not or will not do some actions unless one believes something. OFT mentions "repentance" -- a persistent theme in the teaching of Jesus and John the Baptist. One cannot take the action of repenting in the biblical sense without believing that one is a sinner and in need of a savior -- these are other necessary beliefs beyond simple belief that Jesus is the Messiah. 
Re the virgin birth: even Locke's standard requires belief in the virgin birth and the deity of the Christ (although he doesn't recognize it). Locke's rule is that you must believe God's Word/promises. This is where knowing the whole concept/meaning behind "Messiah" is important. Part of God's promise concerning the Messiah was that He would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14) and that He would be God (Isa. 9:6). You cannot believe in the biblical Messiah -- God's promised One -- without believing in these elements. You can't make up your own concept of a Messiah and then say that you believe in God's concept of a Messiah. 
Re John 20:30-31: as OFT pointed out, John is specifically speaking about the signs that Jesus did and that he reported. In addition, John does NOT say that you ONLY have to believe that Jesus is the Christ. He simply says that he wrote the record he did so that a reader would believe that Jesus is the Messiah AND that He is the Son of God -- i.e. God. In the verses immediately preceding 30-31 (John 20:24-29), for example, Thomas does not believe in the RESURRECTION/that Jesus defeated death -- that is what he comes to believe. He doesn't mention that Jesus is the Messiah -- but he does affirm that Jesus is God! That is the object of his belief. 
One final point: Satan and his demons believe that Jesus is the Messiah -- are they saved/Christians? They know the facts of Who Jesus is (Matt. 8:29; Luke 8:28; James 2:19). Jesus being the Messiah is simply a matter of fact. What requires faith -- saving faith -- is all that goes with that fact. 
Clarification: re #7 in the reasons that Jesus (specifically) and only Jesus had to be the sacrifice, the Greek word translated "covenant" is the word for "will" (as in last will & testament).


jimmiraybob said...

I was recently asked at a Catholic hospital, prior to an out-patient screening procedure, what my religious preference was and I replied none. The nurse rather insistently asked Christian? I replied, sure, why not. That seemed to satisfy her. Go figure.

Now, if I go on to become famous and someone someday combs the records they might conclude that I was a Catholic Christian (perhaps even devout if they really wanted to spin it up), which would be an interesting contrast to my current regular everyday agnostic, generally considered an unbeliever, position. As you point out, some would also consider the Catholic affiliation problematic.

Some make hay over Oscar Wilde's deathbed conversion to Catholicism, where a priest was called in to do the honors at the last minute - within hours of Wilde's death from cerebral meningitis, a debilitating disease that can cause extreme distress, confusion and even delirium in advanced stages. No word on if anyone retroactively baptized him.

In short, some people will do almost anything to make new "Christians" for the record.

I also have a friend that declares herself a non-denominational, personal Christian.

I stand with the idea that there should be a minimum individual effort - some bar - in order for it to be meaningful in real time. But, it is obvious - or, to put an 18th century founder/framer spin on it - self evident that that minimum has a wide range and for others to decide, not me.

Historically, these things generally boiled down to the flame and the sword in order to gain clarification and order. As tedious as it may be, at least now it can be hashed out at the blog level.

Danged modernity.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Famous Disciples of Christ Members

Jesse Moren Bader, evangelist
Steve Beshear, Governor of Kentucky, December 2007 - current
Edgar Cayce, psychic and healer
Fred Craddock, professor and preacher
Russell Errett, former Congressman (R) from Pennsylvania's 22nd Congressional District.
J. William Fulbright, U.S. Senator from Arkansas

James Garfield, 20th President of the United States. He was an ordained minister; having received his ordination, while serving as president of Hiram College. During the period he preached almost every Sunday in congregations around the Western Reserve
David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who delivered open air sermons on temperance

Ben Hogan, professional golfer, tied for fourth all-time with nine career professional major championships.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, who taught Sunday School as a young man and regularly attended National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle in Washington, D.C. during his time as President (his wife Lady Bird Johnson was a devoted Episcopalian. The President's grandfather Samuel Ealy Johnson, Sr. was raised as a Baptist. Subsequently, in his early manhood, he became a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In his later years he became a Christadelphian.[65] According to Lady Bird Johnson, President Johnson's father also joined the Christadelphian Church toward the end of his life.[66])

Ken Lucas, former Congressman (D) candidate for Kentucky's 4th Congressional District.
Frances McDormand, Oscar-winning actress
James Clark McReynolds, United States Supreme Court Justice (1914–1941)

Betsy Price, Mayor of Fort Worth, Texas (2011-present), the 16th most populous city in the United States.

Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States (baptized into the Disciples as a youth, and graduated from the Disciples' Eureka College, but a member of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in his later years. He was married to Nancy at The Little Brown Church, Studio City, CA, a Disciples Church.

Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken
Tim Warner, former Independent Fundamental Bible Church leader turned Christian Church leader, founder of Pristine Faith Restoration Society and a strong voice for historic premillennialism.

Tom Selleck, actor

John Ben Shepperd, Texas attorney general (1953–1957)

Ike Skelton, congressman from Missouri's 4th Congressional District

John Stamos, actor

John Tanner, congressman from Tennessee's 8th Congressional District

Roger Williams (U.S. politician), Congressman representing Texas' 25th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Former Secretary of State of Texas (2004-2007).

John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach, raised in a Disciple Church in Martinsville, Indiana.

Bruce Zager, Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.

I mean Tom Selleck, man. Tom Selleck. Tom Selleck's not a Christian? Who's going to tell him?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Fortenberry thinks what he understands as God's definition taught from the pages of the Bible alone should prevail. Yet, even though he believes the Bible teaches the Virgin Birth, Trinity, an orthodox understanding of the atonement, he doesn't accept belief in these as non-negotiables for determining who is a "Christian."

It's the same as John Locke's argument, as well as the non-creedal Stone-Campbell "Restorationist" Movement of the Second Great awakening.

"Restorationist" denominations include:

The Christadelphians,
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),
Churches of Christ,
The Community of Christ,
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS),
Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ,
International Churches of Christ,
Jehovah's Witnesses,
Seventh-day Adventists,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons)

But dig--they're not "Christian."

Most interesting [beyond the Mormon controversy, which again, historians have no standing in] is the Stone-Campbell Disciples of Christ. Pardon our Wiki:

"For modern Disciples the one essential is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and obedience to him in baptism.[43] There is no requirement to give assent to any other statement of belief or creed. Nor is there any "official" interpretation of the Bible. Hierarchical doctrine was traditionally rejected by Disciples as human-made and divisive, and subsequently, freedom of belief and scriptural interpretation allows many Disciples to question or even deny beliefs common in doctrinal churches such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Atonement. Beyond the essential commitment to follow Jesus there is a tremendous freedom of belief and interpretation."

Bold face mine. Now whatever standing a socio-historian has the standing to question the Christian bona fides of a church that included James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, I do not know. This is the province of theology, not historical scholarship.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I can certainly understand Mr. Frazer not desiring to get "sucked in" to a lengthy discussion. I'm currently writing a response to his book, and don't have much time left at the end of the day either. I have, however, just finished writing about the segment of his book dealing with this very topic, and I have shared that portion of my book on my website at: