By Laurence B. Brown
Who Are the Christians?
If the term Jewish is difficult to define, the term Christian is even more fraught with problems.
One stumbling block is that early Christians considered themselves Jews, as acknowledged in the following:
“The Christians did not initially think of themselves as separate from the Jewish people, though Jesus had had severe things to say about Pharisees. (But then, so has the Talmud.)”
Initially, the Jews clashed over acceptance of Jesus Christ as a prophet. Subsequently, a steady flow of doctrinal evolution eroded a giant crevasse between the entrenched Jews and the new sect of Christian-Jews.
Did Jesus Establish Christianity?
Yet both groups considered themselves Jewish. Notably, Jesus never identified himself as a Christian and never claimed to have established Christianity on Earth.
In fact, while the word Christian is encountered three times in the Bible (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; Peter 4:16), none of these verses use the label Christian in a context which bears the authority of Jesus or of God.
Most significantly, there is no record of the word Christian ever issuing from the lips of Jesus. We read in Acts 11:26 that
“the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch”—which means the term Christian was first applied to the disciples by non-believers around 43 CE.
It was not a polite term.
Contrary to popular belief, the term Christian appears to have been conceived in contempt. Christian is what disbelievers called the followers of Christ—a distasteful name to believers who knew themselves as Jews, following the latest in the line of Jewish prophets.
And yet, that very label is now worn with pride, despite the fact that, “It is not the usual designation of the NT, which more commonly uses such terms as brethren (Acts 1.16), believers (Acts 2.44), saints (Acts 9.32), and disciples (Acts 11.26).”
Furthermore, with regard to the term Christian, “It appears to have been more widely used by pagans, and according to Tacitus it was in common use by the time of the Neronian persecution (Annals, 15.44).”
In other words, the term Christian was a derogatory label imposed upon believers by their enemies.
And yet, the term stuck and with typical Christian humility, was eventually accepted.
The second difficulty with the word Christian is that of definition. If we apply the term to those who affirm the prophethood of Jesus Christ, then Muslims demand inclusion, for the Islamic religion requires belief in Jesus Christ as an article of faith.
Granted, the Islamic understanding of Jesus differs from that of the Trinitarian majority of those who would identify themselves as Christian.
However, many Islamic beliefs are remarkably consistent with those of classic Unitarian Christianity. If we apply the label Christian to those who follow the teachings of Jesus, we face a similar difficulty, for Muslims claim to follow the teachings of Jesus more faithfully than Christians.
That claim hurls a hefty gauntlet in the face of Christianity, but is made with sincerity and commitment, and deserves examination.
Christianity and Original Sin
Should we associate the label of Christianity with the doctrines of original sin, the Deity of Jesus, the Trinity, crucifixion, and atonement?
Makes sense, but here’s the problem: Although these doctrines define creedal differences between Trinitarian Christianity and Islam, they also define creedal differences between various sects of Christianity.
Do All Christians Accept the Trinity?
Not all Christians accept the Trinity, and many deny Jesus’ alleged divinity. Not even the doctrines of original sin, the crucifixion, and atonement achieve universal acceptance within the fractured world of Christianity.
Subgroups of Christianity have canonized widely variant creeds, but no single definition has ever gained unanimous acceptance.
Hence, the world of Christianity has been divided since the time of Jesus. History chronicles an initial two hundred years, during which the disciples and their followers split from Paul and his divergent theology.
This early period is crucial to an understanding of Christianity, for one can reasonably expect the purity of Christology (doctrines of Christ) and Christian creed to have been best represented among those closest to the teachings of Jesus.
However, our knowledge of this period is vague, with disappointingly little verifiable information surviving to the present day.
What is clear is that opinions differed wildly. Some early Christians believed God manifested His message on Earth through inspiration, others through incarnation.
Some believed the message was conveyed through direct transmission and interpretation by the prophet himself, others spoke of spiritual enlightenment, as claimed by Paul.
Some followed the Old Testament Law taught by Jesus; others negated the laws in favor of Paul’s “Justification by Faith.” Some (such as the disciples) believed God’s law was to be interpreted literally.
Others (such as Paul) felt the law was to be interpreted allegorically.
Whether the apostles ever agreed upon a creed is unclear. What is commonly known as the Apostles’ Creed is not, in fact, the creed of the apostles, but rather a baptismal formula that evolved over an indefinite period.
Encyclopaedia Britannica states that the Apostles’ Creed “did not achieve its present form until quite late; just how late is a matter of controversy.”
So how late is “quite late”?
According to Ehrman, the Apostles’ Creed was derived from creedal formulas conceived in the fourth century.
That dates its origin, at the very earliest, three hundred years from the time of the apostles, and many would say considerably later. Just as different understandings of Christology evolved over centuries, so too has the creed of Christianity remained in debate to the present day.
Some seek answers in the New Testament and early Christian documents; others question the integrity of the New Testament in the first place—a discussion deferred to the final chapters of this book.
From these murky origins, the third century saw the many and varied Unitarian schools thrown into conflict with the newly conceived Trinitarian formula.
This came to a head when Emperor Constantine sought to unify his empire under one Christian theology, and imperially summoned the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council, in 325 CE.
Unitarian Theology of Arius
A further thirteen councils (considered ecumenical by the Roman Catholic Church, but not by the Orthodox) followed, the most recent being the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65, to make a total of twenty-one. And yet, debate continues to rage over issues which have failed to achieve unanimous acceptance.
Hence, Trinitarian theology has not only been at odds with Unitarian theology for the past two millennia, but has roused contentious debate among its own constituents.
Historically, the greatest upheavals came in the form of gnostic theosophy, the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and, later still, the eruption of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
From the metaphysical seeds planted by Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Anabaptists and the Anglican reformers, myriad theologies grew, persisting to the present day in such a plethora of sects as to require religious encyclopedias to catalog the variants.
How Should the Term Christianity Be Defined?
With such tremendous diversity, how should the term Christianity be defined? If used to identify those who claim to adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ, then Muslims deserve inclusion.
If used to define any specific system of beliefs to ideologically separate Christianity from Islam, these same tenets of faith divide the world of Christianity itself.
Hence, any attempt to define a term of such uncertain origin and meaning, and one that has defied definition by billions of people over two thousand years, would seem futile at this point. Consequently, for the purposes of this book, the term Christian is applied in the colloquial sense of the word, to all who identify with the label, whatever the beliefs of their particular Christian sect may be.
Source: The article is taken from the authors’ MisGod’ed: A Roadmap of Guidance and Misguidance Within the Abrahamic Religions.