Round Table: What Is Christianity?
What is Christianity? That seems to be a simple question. At least until you sit down and have to precisely and concisely answer it. Is Christianity a religion? A relationship? A worldview? A movement? An institution? A set of doctrinal beliefs? A series of philosophical arguments? All of these? None of these? Some of these?
This month, Conciliar Post has collected no fewer than fourteen answers to this important question of definitions. Ranging across a variety of denominations, not only does this Round Table demonstrate the variety of ways in which Christians think about their faith, but also indicates some of the different approaches to defining Christianity. What is Christianity? Read on to find out.
Round Table discussions are intended to demonstrate the unity and diversity among Christian perspectives. It is our hope that the viewpoints outlined below foster charitable and meaningful discussion about what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. These admittedly brief statements are intended as starting places. Won’t you join in our discussion?
Christianity is not a religion; it is the ultimate truth about reality, and the correct response to that truth. Christians believe the truth, but this belief transforms their lives in such a way that they cannot live as non-Christians do. The fact that they know and believe the truth changes not only what they do, but, more fundamentally, who they are. It brings them from death to life and from being citizens of this world to being citizens of a heavenly one. With that said, I believe the Nicene Creed most succinctly and thoroughly summarizes the necessary tenets of the Christian faith.
- In one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible
- And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
- In the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.
- In one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church
- One baptism for the remission of sins
- The resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
I do not think that the Creed alone is sufficient to summarize the whole of Christianity, because, as stated earlier, Christianity is not just the truth-it’s the correct response to the truth. As James 2:19 says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” So we see that belief alone cannot save- if it could, hell would have to surrender its demonic occupants, for their belief in God probably surpasses ours. Rather, it is the regenerating work of the truth in our hearts that makes us “Christians.” After we have our belief system in place, we must be “born again.” We must confess and repent of our sins, realizing our deep depravity and need for a Savior. We must trust in Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf to satisfy the wrath of God. And after so doing, the true Christian will be transformed, having become a “new creature” (1 Corinthians 5:17) and he will, as Jesus commanded, “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24, KJV).
Though the Nicene Creed gives us the framework for our Christian belief system, the process of conversion and an ongoing relationship with the Lord are the true essence of Christianity.
Christianity is a title given to a way of life by a world that recognizes many different ways of life. In truth, Christianity is the way and life is its destination. There are no plumbers or playboys or prostitutes, there are only human persons who are at different mile markers on the road (though, in some cases, these persons may be facing different directions). Within this framework all barriers disappear. God loves all, forgives all, and beckons all to himself—but not all travel towards him. Christianity is, in its essence, the journey towards true personhood; an ontic quest for true being. It is the fulfillment of this way the reveals all other ways to be false ways—counterfeit “options” promising fulfilment but leading, in fact, to the “undoing” of the human person.
The human person can only be actualized in the human person—the theanthropic Christ of the incarnation. And so, it becomes us to become gods through God, who made us in his image and likeness in order that his image and likeness in us might be realized in him who became one of us. It is this kenosis of the incarnation that enables us (created beings) to be grafted into the inner life of the Holy Trinity (the uncreated). And so by this means, we too become uncreated. The obvious example of this is, itself, incarnate in the lives of the saints.
But the Evil One is not without his attempts to re-create (pervert and twist) the image of God in man into an image of himself in man—the man who steals, kills, and destroys. The man of war and divisions, envy and malice, lust and greed; who, himself, twists the sacredness of love into the selfishness of self-love. A path which does not lead to the kenosis and overflowing, outpouring love of the Holy Trinity, but rather turns in on itself, poisoning its possessor by his possessiveness. It is with respect to this that our Lord tells us we must lose our life in order to gain it. And so, Christianity is, in effect, a kind of losing. But with this loss, a greater gain.
No one can defeat the power of love. Because love always gives of itself. Love always sacrifices. The false power of violence and persecution will never overcome the true power of the Cross. For the man of the cross willing descends to death out of love—defeating, in fact, the attempt of the persecutor to persecute, and turning his death into a victory of love. The violence of sinful men, however, is always self-serving. And this very aspect makes it impossible to exist within a community. For a community of individuals (self-serving men) will always crumble. And a community maintained by love and peace will always prevail.
The real question is how one travels this way. This is why I am in the Eastern Orthodox Christian. Because I believe Eastern Orthodoxy is Christianity, par excellence, if not Christianity proper. What we believe is important: how we practice what we believe, perhaps, even more important. The Orthodox Church practices the way it does because Christ is at the center. The entire aim is for us to reject our self in order to gain Christ. And so it is: Christianity.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Christianity is not a religion based solely on belief. In the end, love is what defines members of the Christian community: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). God’s love is fully expressed when, united by the Holy Spirit, we consume—and thus become—the Body of Christ.
Eucharistic communion was first performed by Christ and his disciples nearly two thousand years ago. Authority is necessary for this ritual to continue, uncorrupted, throughout time. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Christ gave this authority to his Apostles.
On earth, the group of communities who trace their lineage—together—through Apostolic Succession are the One, Holy, and Apostolic Church. This Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Without the Church, Christianity cannot be taught or passed on to future generations. The Church is where we learn to live the life of Christ. The Church marks the presence of God in history, through the communion of saints giving and receiving spiritual gifts. As St. Cyprian famously stated: “He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother” (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 6).
There is no room here to provide a complete exposition, so I will take this opportunity to point toward primary sources that substantiate the claims made above: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Church Is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic”; Lumen Gentium Chapters 1 and 7; Johann Adam Möhler, Unity in the Church; Orestes Brownson, “The Church and its Mission”; and Yves Congar, as quoted in this author.
Note: This doctrine is not a naive disparagement of non-Apostolic communities, or a censure against Christians who simply did not grow up Catholic or Orthodox. The Catholic Church affirms that “the children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection … All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3). Churches that are not in full communion with one another are, however, “wounds to unity,” and do not reflect the reality of Christ’s undivided Body.
“Ah! what a divine religion might be found out if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith” – Percy Bysshe Shelley (Poet, 1792-1822).
What if every Christian were like Jesus? Perhaps then Christianity would be defined by what it means to be a Christian rather than by the impact that a particular group of religious people has had on the world. Because faith in Jesus has so often been disconnected from love, the true nature of Christianity has been concealed behind a screen of institutionalism, denominationalism, and traditionalism that repulses those looking for the hope it was meant to convey.
In my own journey, I first encountered Christianity as a set of beliefs about the nature of reality and how I should live my life. My attempts to conform to these beliefs drove me to frustration and dissatisfaction, which inspired me to question whether Christianity as a philosophy had any legitimacy at all. Everyone has faith in something. What value did Christianity have as a way of explaining the nature of reality and how to best interact with it?
In my search for an answer, I discovered that the term Christian literally translated means one who is like Christ, or like Jesus. To find out what Jesus thought this meant, one need look no further than the story of Communion or the Last Supper found in John 13, where Jesus gives a demonstration and command of what it means to follow Him. He first washes the feet of those who followed him and then he gives them a command: “…Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Christianity is the incarnation of love. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). Jesus was a visible representation of the Father – whose nature is love (1 John 4:8). Those who will be his followers (Christians) pass through the waters of baptism as a demonstration of death to themselves and are drawn from the water into a new life by the Holy Spirit. The first fruit of beginning to walk by this Spirit is identified by Paul in Galatians 5:22-25 as love.
Thus, faith, hope, and love remain—these three, “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). In Christianity, faith is the choice to take the risk of submitting to the process of transformation, hope is what sustains the journey, and love transcends all. For those who partake in love take part in the very nature of God Himself.
What is Christianity? Off the top of my head, I imagine the dictionary definition to be something like “the body of beliefs and practices of followers of Jesus Christ, a first century Jewish teacher purported to have risen from the dead.” Checking some online dictionaries, I see they leave off the bit about the resurrection. Instead, they add that it’s a religion “based on the Bible.”
That’s a bit of a funny thing, isn’t it? A chicken-and-egg sort of conundrum. In the late A.D. 30s and early 40s, the only “Bible” Christians had were the Jewish scriptures. Many of Paul’s letters were yet to be written. The Gospels we have now were perhaps decades away. The first “canon” as we know it today was found in Athanasius’s Festal Letter from 367 A.D., more than three hundred years after the Crucifixion. The revisions of the Reformation a millennium later altered the content of the Bible for much of the West. Given that Christians predates written New Testament texts, the gradual formation of the canon, and the Bible’s historical fluidity, it seems to me that defining Christianity as being based on the Bible is a debateable point at best, perhaps illogical at worst.
However, the question “What is Christianity?” isn’t quite as interesting as “Can anyone truly define Christianity?” I see this often in discussions of Mormonism, a tradition that diverges so sharply on theological grounds from orthodox Christianity that it is closer to ancient heresies like Gnosticism and Manichaeism than the doctrines espoused by most churches throughout history. An interlocutor invariably responds to the objection that Mormonism isn’t Christianity with “You’ve committed the No True Scotsman fallacy.” I’ve seen it time and time again.
I believe this stems from confusion over the argument. To question a categorization is not automatically a fallacy; remember that a fallacy is an ad hoc attempt to prevent a separate claim from being proven untrue. It’s a smokescreen. However, it does not mean we are committing a fallacy if we argue over definitions. If challenging a categorization was always a fallacy, we’d run into a very serious problem of not being able to define anything at all. For example: Were I to claim I am a feminist who believes women should not work or receive an education, my credentials as a feminist would immediately be questioned. “He’s no true feminist,” they’d say. And rightly so, because while feminism as a movement is very broad it has a very specific and commonly understood meaning: it’s a movement of ensuring equal protections, rights, and dignity for women in law and society. I could try to claim that because I consider myself a feminist that no one has the right to disagree with my definition, but that would be madness. No one would take me seriously.
It must be understood that it is possible to exclude groups from a category without committing a fallacy. Indeed, it must be so, otherwise we would have no means to define any category at all. Any objection to a particular classification would be literal nonsense. So, while I don’t have my own definition of Christianity, I do firmly believe there is a valid line of reasoning to include some traditions and exclude others from the category. I leave it to the individual traditions to defend themselves.
Christianity is principally a divine call from on high—animated by Christ’s sacrificial, atoning death on the Cross—to love God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves. It is also the paradigmatic against-all-odds love story: that of the Perfect God of the universe—Existence Itself, Love Incarnate—penetrating and impregnating the void of nothingness with Man, unique in all Creation because he was created for his own sake; redeeming him by His own sacred Blood after he spurned his destiny at Eden; and graciously permitting him to one day spend Eternity contemplating the Beatific Vision. Finally, it is one of only two ethical systems, astutely explained by Ivanov in Darkness at Noon: Christianity is “humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units.” It reminds us that Man is not the measure of all things; we are broken and prone to evil; but that we are not unlovable, for Love, though He was sent to the grave by us, has risen for us. Alleluia!
As a religion major for my undergraduate degree, I took a course called “Approaches and Methods to the Study of Religion.” Essentially, the course was predicated on the professor’s argument that there is no such thing as “Religion,” and that whenever someone decides to give a definition of Religion they are doing it wrong. Religion can’t be a “system of beliefs,” for that privileges belief over practice, it can’t be a “system of symbols,” for that definition could be applied to other categories such as law, it can’t be “worship of spiritual beings,” for that doesn’t allow for the inclusion of non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, etc. The professor concluded that rather than rather than being able to give a definition to the term (for “Religion” does not exist), the word “Religion” is a useful term (“signifier”) to describe a number of societal phenomena (“signifieds”) such as worship of the transcendent, belief in spiritual beings, ritualized practices, canonical texts, etc.
So, What is “Christianity”? I think that, in the same way, there is no such thing as “Christianity” in the abstract. We cannot give a concise and sure definition, for it does not “exist.” Moreover, if we were to give a concise definition of the word, we will end up missing out on the fullness of the term. Rather, the term is a useful signifier to represent various signifieds that do exist in the world. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
- The grand past story of God’s relating to his people in creation, fall, redemption, and consummation
- The weekly gathering of the local church for worship, sacrament, prayer, and confession
- The life of a self-proclaimed church-goer marked by giving to the poor, evangelism to those perceived to be lost, and prayer to a God they believe is three in one
- The revering and reading of the Bible by those who believe it to be the word of God, true and practical for day to day living
Christianity the movement and institution committed to following Jesus Christ (the Messiah) and proclaiming him LORD of all that was, is, and is to come. Christian faith fulfills the hope of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, confessing that Jesus of Nazareth came to earth as fully God and fully man, died on a Roman cross, and defeated death and grave three days later through his resurrection. Christianity spreads the good news –that the Word has become flesh, dwelt among us, and conquered evil–throughout the world and eagerly awaits his return in glory. While waiting, Christians live out God’s love through faith in the Holy Triunity of God, proclamation of the good news of Christ, loving service to other human beings, faithful fellowship with other Christians, and stewardship of God’s creation. Christianity has been called many things. But true Christianity always centers on the person and work of God within our midst.
What is Christianity? At the outset, this question may seem impossible to answer. In our modern American context it almost seems more appropriate to speak of Christianities than of a single, cohesive Christian faith. Partly as a consequence of deep-seated American individualism, everyone appears to have a different take on what counts as Christianity. While many may agree that the Gospel forms the core of the Christian faith, the same conundrum arises when we try to delineate what is essential to the Gospel.
But historically, the church has not had such difficulty defining Christianity. For many centuries, creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed have identified the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. They are soaked with the language of history—not simply moral emulation of Jesus or some vague notion of the brotherhood of man—because Christianity is fundamentally a historic faith, based on real events at specific times in particular places.
And the key historic events of the Christian faith are the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14, our faith is useless if Christ has not truly been raised from the dead. Paul is not using a metaphor; he is speaking of an event in history, witnessed by many. The event is indeed supernatural, but we must not let enlightenment thinking move us to rule the supernatural outside the bounds of history. As much as Christianity is a historic faith, it is a supernatural faith as well.
Part of the supernatural reality of the Christian faith is the reality of sin and its consequences. Because God’s holiness is boundless, the smallest transgression of his law constitutes a sin of infinite severity. The only just punishment for such grave sin is death and damnation, a penalty we cannot pay while still hoping to enjoy fellowship with God. But in His mercy, God saw fit to pay that penalty on our behalf, offering salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. By believing in Christ and trusting in his work, we can become “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), united with fellow believers in our creeds and in communion.
This is Christianity: the historic, supernatural faith, united in creed and founded upon Christ, whereby men can receive salvation and be adopted into God’s family, sharing together in the communion feast of our Lord.
What is Christianity? As the question percolates through my mind, I drift back to a conversation from several years back. The neighborhood I lived in at the time had grouped mailboxes. You know, the giant box made up of smaller boxes, often part of an apartment complex set up. Going to pick up the mail one day, I bumped into the neighbor from across the street. I hadn’t actually talked with this neighbor before, just given the friendly introverted wave that allowed me to be nice without actually, you know, having to talk to someone. As we engaged in small talk, she mentioned something about her testimony and asked if I was interested in hearing more at some point. With nothing else on my schedule except for school assignments that I didn’t have the mental energy for anyway, I accepted her offer and soon we were seated on her porch with a couple cups of tea. As she told her story, I learned that she was a former atheist who became a Christian after having a severely broken leg healed through the prayer of a Catholic Priest. At the time of our conversation, her husband was serving as an assistant pastor for one of the local charismatic/pentecostal churches.1
At the surface, the answer to our question seems straightforward. Christianity is comprised of the Church, that is, those who believe that the God of the Bible is the creator and ruler of the world. After the creation, humanity rebelled against and rejected God’s rule (in a word, sinned). However, Christ sacrificed himself so that those who repent can be forgiven and continue to follow him as Lord and King. Done, right? It’s at this point that I travel back to the time when the conversation above took place. You see, my neighbor wasn’t the only person out sharing her faith. It turns out that Moses Lake, WA was a gathering spot for both The Church of Latter Day Saints (better known as Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both groups are quick to claim Christ’s name, but at the same time have completely redefined who Christ is. And so, we find that we need to define our terms to make sure we’re all coming from the same place.
Enter the creeds, points at which the Church systematically dealt with heresy. As a former professor of mine has observed, “A body of theologians tends to stay at rest until moved by an outside force.”2 Often, it has taken the emergence of differing views to force the Church to clarify its understanding of how Scripture addresses a given topic. When it comes to the questions raised by pseudo Christian groups, such as the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed both clarify what the Church has historically understood the Bible to teach regarding, among other things, the person of Jesus Christ.
So, in the end, in one sense defining Christianity is as straightforward as mentioned above. At the same time, it is worthwhile to double check and make sure that everyone is actually using the same dictionary. Merely invoking Christ’s name is not enough to prove that you truly know and faithfully serve Him. Which, brings me back to the conversation with my neighbor. As we talked, I listened to hear how she defined and related to Christ and where her ultimate source of Truth was located. Her understanding of Christ matched that of Scripture: Christ is God, Saviour, and King. Further, she was very clear that the Bible was her foundation for objective truth. At that point, even though her life story was nothing like mine, I saw no reason to believe that she was anything other than a member of Christ’s body who was also in the process of becoming more like Christ. Indeed, despite the theological differences I’m sure we held, Christ used the couple across the street to provide much needed rejuvenation and encouragement during the time we lived in the same neighborhood.Show Sources
- As I recall, it was a Four-Square Church. Admittedly, my understanding of the denomination is limited to a brief perusal of the church’s website back about the time of this conversation. As a recall though, it wasn’t a denomination I would normally consider attending, and the story of its founding left me wondering if further research would find that some of the denomination’s central teachings were based on a suspect understanding of the Scripture.
- Taken from my notes on lectures delivered by Michael Bauman to the Summit Semester Class of 2008.
Is there such a thing as mere Christianity, as Lewis describes it; or orthodoxy, in the language of Chesterton? Can all the fractured protestant denominations—as well as our Roman Catholic and Eastern brethren—agree on what the core of Christianity truly is? To say it is Jesus Christ and his teachings presupposes that we agree on why Jesus-the-Messiah came to earth, and what his teachings mean.
Rather than attempting to explain what all of Jesus’ teachings mean, I will sum up Christianity in the overarching framework of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. I am curious to know if other Christ-followers can agree with these basic, ‘core’ beliefs.
God began time and the world, forming and filling the earth. He made man (male and female) in his image and gave them rule and stewardship over the ground and all living things. Then, the man (man and woman) broke the one command God gave them, and sin entered the world, causing every person to be born under the curse and consequence of sin (sometimes called original sin). From the very moment that the curse fell upon mankind, God also promised a Saviour to come and put things to rights, to heal the broken world, and to redeem men and women from sin and its consequence, death.
Enter Jesus—literally the crux of Christianity and of history. At one time in history, God finally sent the the promised Saviour to set the curse on its head and to redeem all of creation. Christianity is based on this man, Jesus Christ, being both fully God and fully human. Christianity in fact affirms that God is Triune—one God in three persons: Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit. Being both God and man, Jesus is the link between God the Father and mankind. Through his sinless life, his sacrificial/willing death, and bodily resurrection from the dead, Jesus makes anyone who believes in him and confesses faith in him guiltless and righteous before God the Father.
Is there mere Christianity? I think so. Christians may disagree on how to interpret the Bible and the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist—but I believe we are united in our core beliefs: God creating the world (in one way or another); sin entering the world; every person being poisoned by sin and needing a Saviour/Redeemer; and Jesus—the incarnation of God, the second Person of the Trinity—being that Saviour.
To the extent one is,
One is Christian.
That one is Christ,
The only one who is,
And outside him
Nothing is that is.
In him we are,
And be, and
Have our being.
We are not were
And not will be,
For Christ always is.
To the extent one is
One is not.
I reflected on this question this past week at Mass. My version of Christianity is profoundly different than many of our other contributors: it involves kneeling, fasting, reciting centuries-old prayers, and partaking of the real and present Body of Christ. How can I say that this is Christianity, when my brothers and sisters disavow fasting and have never prayed the rosary? Of course, I firmly believe Catholicism is true Christianity, but I also believe that Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and so on are also part of our allegorical Noah’s Ark, the true Church militant.
The words to the Nicene Creed, which I recite from the depths of my memory each week at Mass and each time I pray the rosary, answer the question of what is Christianity. A creed is, after all, a profession of faith: credo, “I believe.” Christianity is the profound and earnest belief that God is the Father, the Creator, the Almighty; that Christ, His Son, became Incarnate in the womb of a Virgin, suffered and died upon a cross, conquered death and sin, and rose again to bring eternal life; that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets and guides us in our faith still today; and that Baptism releases us from the bondage of sin, so that we may with hope anticipate the resurrection of the dead in the new heaven and new earth. This, my brothers and sisters, is Christianity.
We have five layers of meaning to peel away from the onion of “Christianity” which align its definition with the conquering person of God’s Son:
- “Christianity” comes from an Old French word “crestienté,” meaning “the state of being a Christian.”
- “Christian” literally means “Christ-follower.”
- “Christ” is an alliteration of the Greek word Xristos which means “Anointed.”
- “Anointed” derives from Psalm 2:2 as the Psalm 2:6 King whom God has anointed, the Psalm 2:7 begotten Son of God, the Psalm 2:8-9 Destroyer of the authorities of this world, and the Psalm 2:12 Blesser of all who worship Him.
- King Jesus demanded that we obey Him (Jn 14:15), while His ambassadors told us to live as interdependent body-parts of the Anointed King (1Co 12:4-26).
“Christianity” has four additional layers of meaning which align its definition with the empowering person of the God’s Spirit:
- Isaiah 11:1-10 and Acts 10:38 state that God anointed King Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Therefore the word “Anointed” refers not only to King Jesus, but also to the Holy Spirit who is the Anointing of the Anointed.
- In Luke 4:18, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1, stating that He was anointed with the Holy Spirit for the purpose of liberating captives from bondage.
- 1John 2:27 calls the Holy Spirit the “Anointing” who indwells believers and teaches them. Therefore Christianity is not only the state of following the Anointed King, but also the state of being indwelt by and taught by the Holy Spirit.
- Scripture paints Christianity as the opposite of Adam-ianity (Jhn 3:6; Rom 5:12-21; 8:1-10; 1Cor 15:46-56; 2Cor 5:17) as those who receive the Holy Spirit gain a new spiritual nature so much more powerful than the Adamic nature into which they were first born, that the reception of the Holy Spirit is called a “second birth” and “new creation.”
Therefore Christianity is:
“The newly created state of those reborn as obeyers of God’s Anointed King and as interdependent body-parts of this King who is God’s Son and who destroys the authorities of this world, liberating and blessing all who worship Him through their being indwelt by and taught by the Holy Spirit with whom their King has Himself been anointed.”
What is Christianity? From a certain perspective it could be said that “Christianity,” as the word is used today, is a quite recent invention and an offshoot of our postmodern cultural trajectory. To illustrate this perspective we need only to point at the “Christian” section of any Barnes and Noble and ask our inquirer to compare the consistency of ideology expressed therein to the consistency of the ideology contained in the first 200 years or so of Christian writings that history has preserved for us. But this is, perhaps, more of a deflationary comment about our intellectual heritage and the formation of the postmodern worldview than it is a positive definition of the word “Christianity.” Nevertheless, before my own attempt at an answer, I do want to quickly note that the meaning of the question itself has changed dramatically over the past thousand years or so.
So what is Christianity? It is a broad enough question as to make me feel at least a little uneasy about attempting any brief answer, and certainly more so when such an answer is offered from one such as I, who have barely even begun to participate in the battle for my own soul. However, inasmuch as I am in a position to comment, perhaps I can at least try to wipe away some of the dust of familiarity from the term, and allow us to look at it afresh, with new eyes. I am by virtue of brevity limiting my scope purely to the intellectual aspects of the term, and must by virtue of my own very nascent spirituality leave the relational, mystical, and experiential aspects of the subject to men and women much more qualified than I.
Christianity is a mystery. At least, certainly, it is built upon the foundation of three great mysteries, and these are described in the respective dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection. Because these three great mysteries speak primarily of the Godhead, and “Christianity” seems to also involve human subjects (other than the Incarnate God-Man, our Lord), some basic anthropology is also required in order to understand what it means to talk of “Christianity.” We are told that in the beginning, humanity was created in the image of God, and in light of the Gospel message we know that this means humanity has been created in the image of the Holy Trinity. That is to say, as God exists in one Divine Nature but three Divine Persons, so too humanity exists in one created nature, but in many created persons. Therefore, metaphysically speaking, human beings are not only all connected, but literally all make up a single ontological entity, and we call this entity “humanity.” The only reason we experience ourselves as individuals at odds with one another, rather than as a perfectly cohesive unity of persons, is because of sin. This sin separates us not only from each other, but also from God.
But sin is not the only thing standing between us and the Divine. There exists, from the beginning, an infinite gap between the things which have been created and those which have not, precisely in virtue of this difference between created and uncreated entities. As Saint Paul has said, although God “is not far from each one of us,” (Acts 17:27)1 nevertheless He is also not “like gold or silver or stone” (Acts 17:29). God is not like anything that He has created, and because of this essential difference, no created thing can enter into an intimate relationship with Him, much less actual unity, or communion. Without need of recourse to any moral or ethical judgments concerning mankind’s legal status before the Divine,2 we are ontologically (that is, by virtue of our very existence) unable to approach Him. The gulf between that which is uncreated and that which has been created is too wide for created beings to cross; it is literally impossible. Rather, it was literally impossible.
The mystery of the Incarnation is that He who is uncreated took upon Himself a created nature, He who is more boundless than the heavens took physical location in space and time, He who knew no sin became “sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Christ healed our human nature by taking the whole of it upon Himself, and by bringing the created nature into direct contact, still more, into perfect unity with the Divine nature. Your nature is renewed and united to the eternal Godhead, the question that remains is: will your person accept this renewal? Will you accept the unity of all things in Christ, or will you seek to fulfill your individual desires at the expense of that unity?
The ultimate form of the separation caused by sin is death. Death is the last enemy. Not only is death referred to as the wages of sin,3 but sin itself is called the sting of death!4 So which causes which? Sin, death, separation, corruption, error, falsehood, decay, disease—these are all of the same substance. This is why the opposite of sin is love, that great unifying force of the universe and the summation of all the Law and the prophets, and it is also why it is not possible to know the truth without loving it first, as it is impossible to truly know a person without loving them. This is why the Resurrection is not merely an interesting historical fact, but the destruction of death itself. God is the source of life and immortality, and all things that exist do so only to the extent that they participate in the existence of God. So when the source of all life and existence came into contact with the ultimate separation and non-existence of death, death could nevertheless not separate life from life, and so death was broken! Just as light brought into a dark room scatters the darkness, so too does true life, when brought into contact with death, shatter it. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life! When God became a man, all things living were brought into unity with the Godhead—when Christ died, death died with Him, but Christ rose again, and brought all things that were dead into that very same unity. Your soul (that is, your existence) is not immortal because God gave it the attribute of “immortality” upon creating it, but because it is metaphysically united to the source of life and immortality. The content of that eternal existence relies upon what you do with so great a gift. For to whom much has been given, much is expected.
So what is Christianity? I would say only this: the story of Christianity is expressed in the affirmation that the Divine has become human, and we now have access to His divinity through His humanity. The only question which remains is one we cannot answer here: how do we participate in this cosmic dance of love? And truly, it is only in answering this final question that we will find a satisfactory answer to the firstView Sources
2. Although we could also make such statements, I think they are often overstated and unfortunately overpowering of the more metaphysical or existential elements.
3. Rom 6:23
4. 1 Cor 15:56
This simple question can bring up many different answers, leaving someone in quite a predicament if they have never thought deeply about their faith before. Is it a religion, relationship, or a belief? Christianity can be described with many words, all seeming to be somewhat true, but how can they all be true at the same time? Should it not be easier to describe the most important thing in our life without such difficulty? To make things a little easier for the time being, let’s sum up these words into one category: worldview. It is how we answer all of the big questions that life throws our way. How did we get here? What is our purpose? Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? People have different answers for all of these questions. Throughout history, the answers people have thought up give us all of our different worldviews, most of them being some sort of religion, making Christianity one of many. Though when you look close enough, our “religion” seems to be drastically different than any other religion out there. Christianity could be considered a faith as well, yet any real Christian knows that it isn’t just simply “faith”. So what is the problem here? How is it that we don’t have a reasonable explanation for what we claim to be the most important thing in our world?
I propose that we are finding ourselves in the “blind men and the elephant” metaphor, though for this argument I believe it to be true. We all have different ways to describe Christianity, but none of them truly come to par. Some of them are personal, some of them are partly true, and some of them are just plain wrong. Christianity is in some ways a faith, a religion, and a relationship, and sometimes even an antidote. All of these words only grasp a part of Christianity, and on their own, they do not stand as the full truth.
Christianity is the foundation of our world. It is not only an explanation of the world around us, but the final puzzle piece. It gives us all answers to all the biggest questions in life, hence giving it its worldview definition, and this worldview is something a person must believe in. It is the before, beginning, and future of this life. It is meaning, purpose, and hope, making it our faith. It is the air in our lungs and the love in our hearts. It is law and order, forgiveness, and guidance, all things that no other faith provides. It is our everything, for without it we are nothing more than hopeless animals wandering around a cruel world, trying to escape to a better life. Without Christianity, there is no good in this life. No purpose, no love. Trying to explain Christianity can be compared to trying to explain the sun in the Middle Ages. There is absolutely no way they would be able to explain or teach what the sun actually is. They had a better time explaining it by what it did. They simply knew it was their everything. The sun was their light in a dark world. It was their hope to keep them warm. It helped them see the world for what it really was. They knew that without it life would no longer be worth living. Without it, life would cease to exist.
So at the end of the day, if a stranger were to ask me what Christianity is, without getting into too much theology, I would simply reply that it is everything. It is the answer to life. Christianity, in its most pure form, is God’s response to a world gone rogue. It is his process of redemption. It is beautiful, and it is life. It is everything that is good, true, and beautiful in this world.
In order to address the question “What is Christianity?” I believe it is first necessary to answer the question “What is the Church?” The Christian faith is tied directly to the Church that God has established here on earth, and to take the title of ‘Christian’ is to claim membership in that one true and holy Church.
In the seventh article of the Lutheran’s Augsburg Confession, Phillip Melanchthon says “[T]he Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 249:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.”[i] Later in the eighth article, Melanchthon says even more concisely that “Strictly speaking, the Church is the congregation of saints and true believers.”[ii] Thus, according to the confessions of the Lutheran denomination, the Church is where believers gather to receive both the Scripture and the Sacraments. This is a broad definition, but it is one that ultimately points us to the fact that the Church is something established by God and not by human rites and ceremonies.
Martin Luther delves into an explanation of this congregation of saints in his exploration of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed in the Large Catechism. He writes: “For in the first place, the Spirit has His own congregation in the world, which is the mother that conceives and bears every Christian through God’s Word [Galatians 4:26]. Through the Word He reveals and preaches, He illumines and enkindles hearts, so that they understand, accept, cling to, and persevere in the Word [1 Corinthians 2:12].”[iii] This is to say that Church is established on this world through the Holy Spirit, and that it is through the Holy Spirit that every Christian is brought into the holy congregation of saints.
Christianity is the faith of the congregation of saints called and gathered by the Holy Spirit. It is the teaching and receiving of the Holy Scripture, and it is the administration and reception of the Holy Sacraments, i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is not a manmade concept, and it is not something that is reliant on mankind to uphold or preserve. It is a gift given and maintained by the Holy Spirit to grant forgiveness and salvation to all members of the Church.Show Sources
[i] McCain, Paul T., Edward A. Engelbrecht, Robert C. Baker, and Gene E. Veith, eds. “Augsburg Confession: Article VII, The Church,” Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd Ed. (2006): 34
[ii] McCain, Paul T., Edward A. Engelbrecht, Robert C. Baker, and Gene E. Veith, eds. “Augsburg Confession: Article VIII, What the Church Is,” Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd Ed. (2006): 34
[iii] McCain, Paul T., Edward A. Engelbrecht, Robert C. Baker, and Gene E. Veith, eds. “The Large Catechism: The Apostles Creed, Article III” Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd Ed. (2006): 403