Dr. Jim is understandably upset about some recent events regarding a new SBL program unit and shares some concerns he has with SBL sections that privilege religious presuppositions. I think he makes some good points.
Tag Archives: Religion
A discussion has been taking place on a number of blogs regarding the criteria that should be met in order to qualify for Christian fellowship. Brian LePort starts things off with the thesis that the Apostle’s Creed is the minimum. Nick Norelli ups the ante, asserting the Ecumenical Creeds are necessary. Diglot is a “doctrinal minimalist” who states that belief in the resurrection of Christ is all he should need. Rod of Alexandria argues it is the canon that forms the foundation of Christian community. Joel Watts sees no other requirement in scripture but humility and the recognition of Christ crucified. I’d like to comment briefly on fellowship and at more length on what makes a Christian.
Latter-day Saints don’t use the word “fellowship” in the same sense it’s being used in the above posts. We think of fellowship as an inner-congregational concept rather than inter-congregational. We don’t really occupy a consistent place in Evangelical Christian fellowship, and there are a few reasons. First, Latter-day Saints view the communion (we call it sacrament) as an ordinance that renews baptismal covenants and has to be administered by a specific authority, which means they’re not going to feel they’ve renewed those covenants if they’re not participating consistently in LDS sacrament meetings. This isn’t to say Latter-day Saints feel they shouldn’t visit other churches—many of them regularly attend the services of other denominations and religions. They just have limited time. I’m always happy to go visit other groups (when I have the time, which I haven’t lately), and I always learn something from them about Christ. This brings up the next impediment to fellowship: many Evangelical groups reject Latter-day Saint participation in the Christian fellowship. If I go to a Protestant meetings the odds are pretty good I’ll find most people trying to convince me that my faith is a fraud.
Now, regarding the identification of Christians, there are a few different methods for such an identification, with some having more value than others. From an etymological point of view, a “Christian” is a “servant of Christ.” In that sense, anyone who believes they serve Christ can call themselves a Christian. When the term was first coined, it was no doubt employed in this general sense, irrespective of a person’s alignment with particular doctrines, but its usage has changed over the years as a result of the development of orthodoxy. Quickly it became a crime to be a Christian, and the method of identifying a Christian was (1) ask them if they are Christian, and if they say no, (2) demand they offer a sacrifice or incense to the gods or the throne (the authorities had been assured that this was something no Christian would do). Persecution contributed Christian self understanding, and the boundaries of Christianity began to crystallize at this point around orthopraxic considerations. Fundamentally, a Christian was someone who served (followed) Christ and refused to serve any others (see Mark 9:38–41).
Orthopraxy gave way to orthodoxy in the second century CE because of an assimilation of Greek philosophical worldviews. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? When the “Jerusalem” gospel needed to be legitimized for the “Athenian” intelligentsia it required a re-couching of the Semitic gospel in the vernacular of the philosophers. Justin Martyr is one of the first clear examples of this vision of Christianity, which was beginning to be described according to its similarities with, and differences from, Greco-Roman ideologies. They asserted their opposition to Greek ideologies, but they were forced to adopt Greek intellectual methodologies to do so, and they inevitably adopted some ideologies, even as they decried and belittled others. Note, for instance, Origen’s reason for rejecting belief in a corporeal deity (from the Homilies on Genesis):
The Jews indeed, but also some of our people, supposed that God should be understood as a man, that is, adorned with human members and human appearance. But the philosophers despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the likeness of poetic fictions.
When the battleground became one of concepts and ideologies, the opponents became those who disagree, irrespective of their fidelity to Christ or to Christian orthopraxy. This throws up entirely new boundaries and gives birth to sectarianism. With sectarianism, the boundaries are usually defined according to who you want to keep out, not what fundamentally defines your belief. It seems to me that the more criteria one stacks up for identifying Christians, Jews, Muslims, or any other group, the more their definition is designed to keep specific people out. To use the metaphor of the body of Christ, this is one hand telling the other it has no need of it.
The vast majority of scholars who deal with religious identity agree that the first criterion that merits consideration is self-identification. If a person self-identifies as Christian, that ought to carry the most weight. This isn’t to say that it is a trump card, but if a person sincerely identifies as a Christian, some serious mitigating circumstances should have to be marshaled to undermine that. I would agree with early Christians and their opponents that Christians ought to be identified as people who follow, or serve, Christ. Since everyone has a different idea of Christ’s exact attributes, the notion that some groups follow a “different Christ” (mystically described in the exact same verses of the exact same texts) is simply ludicrous. People may also follow Christ in different ways, but all people who serve Christ do so because he’s their savior. Christ’s eternity or his relationship with the Father are really peripheral concerns that only became significant because they were the defining concepts in early Christianity’s battle for orthodoxy.
Based on these considerations, I would have to side with the “doctrinal minimalists” regarding identifying Christians. No first century Christians accepted the Creeds (they didn’t exist), and few, if any, would have done so if they could have seen into the future. Christ said that no one who offers a cup of water in his name will lose his reward, whether or not they follow the apostles. Extending the Christian umbrella to all who do so only creates problems for me if I’m worried about keeping others in line, and that’s ultimately not my job. I think the following lines penned by Edwin Markham are apropos:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
Christian fellowship is a different, derivative, discussion that I will leave it to others to decide ultimately. I’m used to not being invited to that party.
Charles Halton commented on my previous post on the divine dead and pointed me to what looks to be a great resource. It’s a free download of Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond. The volume brings together essays from a variety of experts on a variety of cultures. It evaluates divine kingship in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the ancient Near East more broadly, China, Africa, and even Mesoamerica. It looks like a great read.
A new op-ed piece on CNN.com discusses the role of religion in war and peace. Specifically, the author highlights the peaceful mission of St. Francis of Assisi to Sultan al-Kamil as an example to be heeded by modern Christendom in an era when war is promoted, it seems, most fervently by religious groups. President Obama is brought up as an example of a modern leader who seems to have the same spirit as, but could still learn from, St. Francis.
In my opinion, the author makes an important point about the role of religion in promoting peace. This has long been ignored by commentators. Many have long thought of religion as a catalyst for war more than peace. Monotheism, especially, seems to be blamed by humanists for wars all across the world (see, for instance, Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain). This is specious argumentation on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that it is naive post hoc ergo proctor hoc reasoning. Nationalism and the need to maintain or increase political power are the reasons for the vast majority of the wars ostensibly fought in the name of religion, and the non-monotheistic empires of the pre-Christian era were far more violent and war-hungry.
People like St. Francis of Assisi and the other religious leaders mentioned in the CNN article also have an advantage that people like Obama will never have in the promotion of peace and eschewing of war: they’re not leaders of large nations. While St. Francis was able to go subjugate himself to the authority of the Egyptian sultan, the Roman emperor at the time could have done no such thing while honoring his office or serving his nation. Nor could Obama offer to exclusively serve the personal interests of the president of Iran while trying to ideologically convert his retinue. To recognize this fact is not to disbelieve Jesus when he said to love the enemy. While peace is a priority for Christianity, circumstances sometimes preclude it (see Matt 10:34). Certain stations in government can give more frequent rise to those circumstances in a person’s life.
The author concludes: “For those who want to be guided by what Jesus would do, Francis of Assisi is a good place to start.” This is good advice for those without responsibilities like those of Barack Obama, but for someone in charge of the peace and security of an ideologically diverse nation of over 300 million people, it’s not always going to be expedient. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism do not promote war. Zealous factions within each ideology sometimes do, but they neither represent their traditions nor find their motivation exclusively (or even primarily) within the tenets of their traditions. The absence of religion will no more solve the problem of war any more than communism solved the problem of poverty. We need more St. Francises to promulgate the principles of peace, but we also need to recognize the need for world leaders to balance of the promotion of peace with the defense and security of their citizens, their cultures, and their ideologies.