Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Who Decides What is True Christianity?

In a Springfield News-Leader "Voice of the Day" editorial Rev. Michael Haynes, Director of the Greene County Baptist Association criticized Rev. Dr. Roger Ray, the pastor of Community Christian Church (Feb 3, 2014).  Community Christian Church is a progressive Christian community (http://spfccc.org ).  Mr. Haynes said of Mr. Ray: "Ray is not a Christian"; Ray should "stop the charade and not call himself a Christian"; and Ray should "stop making Jesus into whomever he wants him to be."  What follows is a slightly longer version of my submission to the News-Leader on February 4, 2014, which has yet to be printed.

Dear Brother Haynes, it seems unfair of you to judge Brother Ray's Christianity, or lack thereof, by the Baptist Faith and Message Statement, a statement that likely represents what you conceive as "true Christianity."  Christianity has always been a "Big Tent" religion, encompassing very divergent views.  There never has been one true view of Christian faith—not even from the beginning.  What much later became the so-called "orthodox" view in the fourth century came about with the political assistance of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, aided by a self-appointed orthodoxy's aggressiveness, in stamping out their competition.

            There was no dominant view of Christianity until the fourth century and also no Christian Bible (Hebrew Scriptures plus New Testament) until the fourth century.  In short there were no agreed-upon standards that could be used to judge another's beliefs.  In the second century there were charismatic teachers with divergent views.  Paul, for example, had to argue his positions against those with whom he disagreed.  The early post-resurrection- belief followers of Jesus used only the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as their Scriptures.  The writing of the New Testament texts was yet years in the future—some were not written until the second century.  Not until the Fourth century did it become possible to cite New Testament texts and church creeds as authoritative proofs of what some regarded as true faith.  Before that, each group promoted its own version of faith as the true faith, as is still the case.

            In this early period before the Constantine-led suppression of the diversity of beliefs about Jesus there were numbers of ways of interpreting Jesus.  In the end-of-the-first-century canonical gospels clearly he was regarded as the divine Son of God.  But oddly those words, as such, are never found as an admission on Jesus' own lips; the title is bestowed on him by others.  And only once does Jesus accept the title messiah ("anointed" Mark 14:61-62).  In the passages parallel to Mark he avoids such an admission.  In Romans 1:3-4, a pre-Pauline confession or hymn, Jesus was not presented as divine, but he was by nature essentially a human being, appointed or adopted for a special purpose.  Others believed that Jesus was not human after all, but rather he was completely divine, and only seemed to be human (cf. Phil 2:9-11 and John 1:1-2, 14).  Jesus' humanity, including what he said and did, essentially disappears in the later ecclesiastical creeds.  Still other groups regarded Jesus as a human being who came to be inhabited at his baptism by a divine spirit—"the Christ," or believed that he was the natural born son of Mary and Joseph, a human being like the rest of us except that he was better.  Throughout the first and second centuries the historical man Jesus became an originating principle for a variety of ways of understanding him and his role in faith.

With such diversity in the early days how does anyone have the authority to rule that any of Jesus' followers is misguided when it appears that the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) turns out to be only a statement of one's personal belief?  On one occasion, Jesus' disciples censured a stranger for exorcizing demons in Jesus' name.  Jesus said they should let him alone…  "For he that is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38-41; compare John 10:16).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


bobinberea said...

Nice historical review, Charlie.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thank you Bob,
The newspaper only allows 500 words for a column, which requires a writer to choose words and content carefully. But that means I can never say everything I want or as well as I wish I could say it. In the blog I allow myself a few more words than that, and sometimes am forced to post a continuation blog. The trick is to have it long enough to retain the interest of the reader but not so long that the reader gets bored--I do not always succeed!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Rev. Haynes could stand to brush up on his ecclesiastical history. When the pagan critic Celsus noted the chaotic divergence within early Christian belief, the Church official Origen (who got around to rebutting Celsus about 70 years late) responded that those Christians known to Celsus, groups currently labeled "gnostic" by many academics, weren't the "true Christians." Origen anticipated the "no true Scotsman" fallacy by about 1700 years, and the tactic hasn't improved any since then even though it's been put to continuous polemic use.

As usual, Dr. Hedrick's response is historical, factual, and courteous.

Robert Conner

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Robert,
Thanks for bringing up Celsus. He (as you know) was one of a number of Pagan critics of Christianity in early antiquity. Readers can check our their keen criticism of Christianity in a book by John Granger Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco Roman Paganism (Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).