Thursday, August 11, 2011

What are the Boundaries of Christianity?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about what makes a religion Christian:

Q:  What are the beliefs that define what a Christian is?  What is the least a person could believe and still be considered a Christian?

There is a short statement which appears a few times in the New Testament, which answers this question in three words.   “Jesus is Lord.”  A Christian is a person who acknowledges that Jesus is Lord.

As simple as that seems, these three words mean a lot more than it seems at first glance.  They aren’t a phrase that each person can infuse with their own meaning or interpretation, but they actually make a very radical statement. 

Jesus – a certain Jewish man, born in Nazareth just over 2000 years ago, who lived approximately 33 years, whose cause of death was crucifixion carried out by Roman soldiers, and who rose to life on the third day following His crucifixion and death. 

Is – means exactly what it says.  Not “represents,” “symbolizes,” “displays qualities of,” “appeared to be,” or any similar elaboration.  If it were a math equation, you would use the equals sign.  This makes “Jesus” and “Lord” equivalent terms—they are interchangeable. 

Lord – This is the word that carries all the weight.  While the word does have a meaning of “Master” or “Ruler,” this is rarely the meaning that it carries in the New Testament.  Instead, it means something far more significant the majority of the times it is used in the Bible. 

In the Old Testament, God’s name as He revealed it was equivalent to the English letters YHWH.  In some Bibles, whenever you see the word Lord spelled in capital letters in the Old Testament, it means this word was used.  Because the Second Commandment warned against misusing the God’s name, it eventually became common practice not to use God’s name at all.  Instead, they would substitute other words, such as HaShem (which translates as “the Name”) or Adonai (which translates to “Lord/Master”), and when they read out loud, they would say these words instead of YHWH. 

When the New Testament authors wanted to use God’s name, they used the Greek word Kurios, which was equivalent to “Adonai/Lord/Master.”  So, in the New Testament, the majority of the times one sees the English word “Lord,” it is a translation of a translation of a word that was the substitute for God’s proper name. 

So, to say “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Jesus is God, Jesus is YHWH, God became man, God was born, God died, God rose from the dead, God paid the penalty even though we committed the sins which angered Him, God ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead in the same body in which He performed all of the previously mentioned acts, and in which He awaits the last day when He will come again. 

Over the years which followed the death of Jesus’ Apostles, different ideas frequently arose which challenged this teaching about who Jesus was as taught by the Apostles and recorded in the New Testament.  In response to these new teachings, the Church compiled statements called creeds, which clarified which of these teachings were in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and which were contrary.  Today, we call these the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. 

While there are numerous religious movements which consider themselves Christian, the definitions of God and the understandings about Jesus within them are sometimes so different that independent scholars of comparative religion can no longer consider them segments of the same religion. 

When these scholars classify religious movements, it is two primary doctrines, as expressed in the previously-mentioned creeds, which they take into account.  The first of these is the Trinity—that God is three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), yet one God, and the second is that Jesus is both fully God and fully Human, yet one person.  They classify any religious movement that holds these two doctrines as Christian.  Any movement that teaches differently they classified separately.  

Of course, it is impossible for us to know for sure what another person truly believes, so when discussing these questions, it is not the individual faith of a person which is in question, but the written teachings of the movement or denomination, since individual beliefs often differ either knowingly or unknowingly from those of the religious organization to which they belong. 

In the end, however, the question is not  “How much can I disagree and still be considered a Christian?” but rather “What is True?” 

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