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Defining ‘Christian’ Propositionally

Under discussion here:  http://www.sntjohnny.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?t=2223

Two quotes to start this off with.  First, from atheist Bertrand Russell, answering a question in an essay by the same title, “Why I am not a Christian”:  “I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian.  The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant.  You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.  Nowadays it is not quite like that.”

Mr. Russell is about right about this.  It’s sad and a little indicative of things that he chose not to use this definition in his assault, but rather the watered down versions circulating around him.  Worse, he, being an atheist, didn’t have a problem deciding for himself which definition of ‘Christianity’ he was going to shoot down.  In logic circles, we call that setting up a strawman.  Still, he is dead center right on in this quote.  Here comes the next quote.

This one comes from a weekly email newsletter that I get answering questions that people have about Christianity.  The question being answered was “Can a Christian lose his salvation?”  Here was the answer:

“Before this question is answered, the term ‘Christian’ must be defined. A ‘Christian’ is not a person who has said a prayer, or walked down an aisle, or been raised in a Christian family. While each of these things can be a part of the Christian experience, they are not what ‘makes’ a Christian. A Christian is a person who has, by faith, received and fully trusted in Jesus Christ as the only Savior (John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Ephesians 2:8-9).”

The rest of the email proceeds along these lines, and of course, by that definition, talking about an unsaved Christian is a contradiction in terms.  The only problem is that this definition sucks.  It sucks in much the same way that Russell’s move away from the historically understood definition sucks.  And the reason why it sucks, is because it is not measurable in any concrete way.  You can’t look at a person and tell by looking that they are ‘saved,’ for the simple reason that they could be faking it.

You can’t use Russell’s approach and figure that since common usage has gone to pot, you get to throw your own views out there, too.  In his case, the effect is the same- you can never look at someone and say “there is a Christian” because each person apparently can define it however they like.

Please consider carefully the ramifications of this defining ‘Christian’ according to one’s salvation status.  If that is the definition, one cannot actually be sure one has ever met a Christian!

Now, there are a great many important terms that have become bastardized over time, not only in regards to Christianity, but mostly in Christianity. The name of Jesus is used as profanity… “Jesus Christ” but you never hear anyone using Mohamed in that way.  But the reason why this has happened is mainly because the church has let it happen.  After centuries of having control over everything and anything, when the church was put into a situation where it had no power to torture, kill, or threaten people into abiding by their view and instead would have to win on ideas, the church missed the memo.

Thus, we live in a society where there is no external force to make anyone use a word in a certain way and understand it only that way.  No one can stop the Mormons, for example, who have a great many different notions than the historical Christian church, refer to themselves as Christians. And yet, by focusing on unmeasurables like “A Christian is a person saved… etc” rather than the historically propositional nature of the term, and pointing it out frequently and firmly, we’ve created the situation where anyone can use the term and get away with it.  (Moreover, many Mormons probably are saved, so by the definition quoted above they would be Christians…)

Now, before I bring this post to a head, let me raise an objection that perhaps the Mormons might say.  They might say, “But historic Christianity got it wrong. The true meaning of Christ is….”  But this would be irrelevant.  Because in order to distinguish between where it went right or wrong, you have to be able to line up the various propositions.  The term is what it is, and if someone wanted to say that the Christian church got it wrong, the solution would not be to co-opt the term ‘Christian,’ but rather do what reasonable people do in just about any other scenario- coin your own word and fill it with the content that you think better corresponds to reality.

My argument is that we ought to return to a consistent propositional understanding of what makes someone a Christian.  In short, as Russell points out, what was meant by a ‘Christian’ referred specifically to someone who accepted a handful of creedal statements.  Now, those creed haven’t gone away.  At this point, some 1.5 billion people still hold to what are called the Ecumenical creeds, the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian creed.  When the Lutherans disagreed with the Catholics, they called themselves something different (because their propositions in some cases varied) but they could still both be called “Christians” because both groups abided by the Ecumenical creeds.

Now, it is true that the Christians in my second quote are now going to have a problem.  If you are defining your term propositionally, you are reduced to measuring a ‘Christian’ by whether or not they profess to believe those propositions.  It’s true, you could point to actions as being in contrast to those propositions, but in fact you could never say in any case whether the person is saved or not or whether or not they really believe what they say they believe.  But you couldn’t do that before, either!  At least by defining things propositionally we can actually examine positions for what they are, instead of being concerned that the positions are ever shifting underneath the label.

For future reference, when I personally use the word ‘Christian’ I always think of it in propositional terms.

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