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 Opinion: How To Define Christianity

Is it possible that our first theologian led us terribly astray?

By Howard Bess

Paul was Christianity’s first theologian. His writings make up about one half of the entire New Testament. He wrote before any of the four gospels were written. He set the standard for what is required to be a Christian. In the 10th chapter of his letter to the Romans he wrote these words. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Being a Christian was for Paul a matter of head and heart. By his standard there is no amount of good deeds that can bring salvation. It is a matter of belief and belief only. There is no ritual that can make a person truly whole and a part of the family of God.

The standard set by Paul has been challenged but never successfully.

The content of what must be believed has been discussed and debated, but Paul’s standard of head and heart remains. Christian salvation comes by what a person believes, not by what a person does. Paul could not state his conviction more clearly. Head and heart. Paul set the standard, and it has always been the standard of Christianity. ...

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Eventually the Church under Roman leadership was forced to define what a Christian was to believe. The content of what a Christian is to believe was made with finality in two creeds, The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. While history is littered with creeds and confessions of faith, these are the two that have been and are repeated over and over again in Christian worship.

The Apostles’ Creed, by tradition, has its roots in the 12 apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. However, there is no documented connection to first, second or third centuries CE. In the fourth century CE, the wording of the Apostles’ Creed was set and has remained unchanged to this day. The Nicene Creed comes to us out of the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea was a gathering of Church leaders that was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine. His charge to the Council was clear. They were to settle once for all what a person must believe to be saved and to be a full participant in the Kingdom of God. The key issue was the relationship between Jesus, the son, and God, the father.

Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed have the same structure. Even some of the wording is identical. Both of these early church creeds were born out of the same turmoil. Until the Council of Nicaea, Christianity was incredibly diverse. During all of the early arguments and discussions, the central issue was the content of the creed that was to be confessed. Paul’s insistence that Christianity was defined by head and heart was never seriously challenged.

The sixteenth century CE Protestant Reformation was a serious jolt to the world of Christianity. The necessity of the Reformation and the meaning of the Reformation are still being debated. My own understanding is that Martin Luther was convinced that the Roman Church in practice had strayed from the head and heart standard of the Apostle Paul. During the Reformation, the content of the long-established creeds was never in question. Luther believed that the Roman Church was compromising Paul’s formula for salvation. Luther is best known for his adamant defense of salvation by faith and faith alone.

The depth of Luther’s convictions that salvation was by faith alone was made plain by his questioning of the inclusion of the Book of James in the Christian New Testament. James raised the question “Can a person be saved by faith without works?” Luther’s response was to say the Book of James was unworthy to be included in the New Testament.

I am a Baptist. My own tradition is adamantly non-creedal. The Baptist tradition gives the right to interpret the Christian faith to individual believers. While Baptist history is full of confessions of faith written by local churches and associations of churches, they have been seen as collective expressions of belief that were never to be forced upon an individual believer. However, in the Baptist tradition an individual dare not question Paul’s understanding of salvation by head and heart without requirement of good works. In my Baptist tradition to believe a person can become acceptable to God by good works or charity is the most offensive heresy imaginable.

As far as we know Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived a very moral and ethical life. With our lips, we Christians confess that Jesus is Lord. Jesus called for peace and justice through love. There are over 2 billion Christians in the world. We have the power in numbers to bring peace, love, generosity and justice to the world. Collectively we have the resources to make the world a much better place.

How is it that our behavior is so out of step with the one we call “Lord?” With immunity of conscience, we fight and kill one another. We are motivated by greed and unbridled desire. Truth telling is not honored. Hoarding triumphs over generosity. Locks and high fences abound as though they can insure safety.

Next Sunday hundreds of Christians will recite in unison the Apostles’ Creed. Nothing new and positive will happen on Monday. Is it possible that our first theologian led us terribly astray?


The Rev. Howard Bess is an American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[29 October 2011]

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