Saturday 29 September 2012

Defining a Christian

I'm having a bit of a ponder on this, Michael Servetus's birthday - as well as the feast of the archangel for whom presumably he was named.

I start from Servetus himself. As well-put here, he was not a martyr for science. He was executed (by the Calvinists, just to prove they could do some pretty good persecution themselves when they put their minds to it) for heresy. In short, going beyond the Protestant heresy (as Catholics saw it), he denied the doctrine of the Trinity.

He's not the only one, of course, to have denied this doctrine during history. Yewtree gives us the example of the Unitarians, in her interesting post "What is a Christian?"

And in a similar, yet more contemporary and maybe more nuanced example than Servertus, we have the case of Youcef Nadarkhani. Complex and ironic, because so many people prayed for him when he was a Christian suffering for the name of Christ, and yet he suddenly became a Oneness Pentecostal who denies the Trinity when he was freed.

I think evangelicals are in an interesting place here. I can understand a Catholic (Roman or Anglo) or member of the Orthodox Church saying that somebody is not a Christian because they deny the Trinity. After all, the Trinity was defined in Ecumenical Council, by the whole Church (apart from the ones who disagreed, and they were wrong, by definition). But can an evangelical do the same thing? The evangelical tradition holds that tradition is not a basis of faith: it is only Scripture that defines these things.  But Scripture nowhere mentions the Trinity. Even the parts of the Bible that most clearly seemed to refer to the Trinity turned out not to be part of the Bible at all. Unless you're Drayton Parslow, in which case they still are.

So it seems to me that, read back through Church tradition, the Trinity is clearly in the Scripture - the Three Strangers at Mamre, the Gospel of John, the voice and action at the Baptism of Jesus; "before Abraham was, I am". But if you started from the Bible ab initio, accepting that the Bible was the literal word that God composed, and read it in isolation from the Church - you might not find the Trinity there. Which is why after the Reformation, when people started reading the Bible and trying to understand it for themselves, they came up with all sorts of ideas which were at variance with the "orthodoxy" of their time.

But can we give Servetus, the Unitarians, Nadarkhani Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses the name Christians?

To go to Yewtree's comment - that Christianity does not imply the Trinitarian doctrine, but "the name "Christian" does encapsulate a doctrine: it expresses the view that Jesus was Christ." She goes on to examine what it means to be "Christ" - and whether there are many Christs.

Being the thoroughgoing Trinitarian Wesleyan magpie that I am, clearly there is one definitive Christ - Jesus of that ilk. Albeit "Christ" is not a surname, it's a job description. But the concept of theosis (so much nicer than the Latin equivalent word) would say that Christ did indeed come to make more Christs - that God became human, that we might be made divine - heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ.

But back to the question - can we call them Christians? Not Trinitarian ones, not Nicene ones - but Christians?

The name "Christians", we are told, was first used in Antioch, by other people, to refer to this strange group who claimed that Jesus "Christ" had risen from the dead, and was the fulfilment of the promises God had made. My assumption is that the young Church had decided that Jesus was "Lord", and that the resurrection proved he was God. They knew that the Holy Spirit was a new experience of God. But the concepts of perichoresis, the single or double procession of the Holy Spirit, the dual nature of Christ - these may have been dimly anticipated, but they hadn't sat down and had a full-blown Oecumenical Council about it yet. They were still too busy discussing whether they really needed to agree to that happening with a flint blade, and wondering whether black pudding was an acceptable food.

In fact, I reckon if you gave St Paul a copy of the Nicene Creed and asked him to affirm it, his response might have been "why"? Most of the Church's doctrinal differences of 300 years later would have seemed fairly unimportant, compared to the more serious issues of preaching a Gospel they were still working out and worshipping God in Jesus. These people were Christians, and they hadn't got round to defining what "Trinitarian" meant. But they were prepared to go to the cross for it.

Which brings me back to Servetus, and to Pastor Nadarkhani. Christians? Yeah, I reckon so. If that is the word they would use of themselves. Of orthodox theology? Nah. But then, half the people sitting in the pews of England tomorrow morning, should you question them closely, are probably more implicitly docetic, or Arian, or Unitarian, than the more orthodox pastors might like to think.

So to answer that great Evangelical question "are they saved"? I dunno. And I reckon there's only one who does. Personally, I'm just glad that One is merciful.


  1. You can call yourself what you like - eventually it will be obvious whether you are Christian or not.

    The people who baffle me aren't the ones who are sure they're saved, and want to know if I am too. It's the non-Christians who expect me to police the entire religion according to their views - well, if you don't agree with X, and X is a Christian and so are you, why don't you at least shut X up and stop him/her from making such damaging statements? It makes you all look bad!

    Well, OK, I have to stick with what I said first about finding out who is Christian later - after death - but I can't help suspect someone who thinks Chrisitianity is some kind of monolithic movement whose members (aside from X) agree on everything probably isn't a practicing Christian. Although he or she may well have been baptised, and you never REALLY know how someone's life is going to end.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. oops,somehow managed to post the same comment twice - have now removed the spare one.

  3. Interesting post.

    Servetus died calling on "Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal God". If he had moved the word "eternal" to before the word "Son", he would not have been burnt, probably.

    Some Unitarians identify as Christian, some don't. The ones that do generally don't believe in the Atonement.

    In the Orthodox Church, "are they saved" is a non question, as they believe it's up to God to decide. They also tend towards Christus Victor theology rather than penal substitution.

    1. Hmm … interesting point about the placement of the word "eternal".

      The Te Deum, addressing Christ, says "Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius" - which (as any fule kno) means "You are the eternal Son of the Father."

      The illiterate translation of the Roman Office has, however, required all Roman clerics in this country* since 1974 to address Christ as "Son of the eternal Father".
      * i.e. England and Wales; the U.S. edition manages to get it right.

      If Servetus was burnt because he attached the epithet "eternal" to the wrong Person … well, all my Roman colleagues had better be thankful that we live in gentler times!

    2. Thank you, Francis.

      I know that the Book of Common Prayer has it right. Perhaps that part of the "Anglican Patrimony" would be useful if your new formerly Anglican recruits happen to use it?

  4. Interesting -- I explored the same question from a slightly different angle some time ago, here:

    So to answer that great Evangelical question "are they saved"? I dunno.

    My hope is that the answer is "Yes" or possibly "Yes, eventually".


Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl