Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What is a Christian Redux:

Eric Alan Isaacson leaves a very compelling comment on the proper definition of Christianity, one with which I admittidly struggle. Though not an atheist, I don't consider myself a "Christian," (even though I am Catholic by baptism) but have noted were I to join a Church it would probably be the Quakers, Unitarian-Universalists, or some kind of liberal Christian denomination like the Episcopalians (i.e., the ones that recognize same-sex marriages). His comment deals with what belief system merits the label "Christian," and he argues for a broad, liberal understanding of the term. My understanding is fairly strict, but not as strict as some would have it. For instance, I don't think one needs to be "born-again" to be a "real Christian"; nor do I think one needs to be a member of any particular Church, i.e., the Roman Catholic Church.

Rather, I argue you need to assent to particular traditional orthodox creeds (i.e., the Nicene and Apostle's). Indeed, one can be socially and theologically liberal on certain matters, for instance politics or social morality, and still be a "Christian" as long as one's Christology is orthodox. That means that the Pope, Andrew Sullivan, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Carter and Garry Wills are all "Christians," but Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and those who are so theologically liberal that they deny the Virgin Birth, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection are not. (Even though Sullivan and Wills are pro-gay social liberals -- Sullivan in a same-sex marriage himself -- they all nonetheless are orthodox in their beliefs on Christ).

Who knows, one day I might become a theologically liberal Christian who at once embraces the label "Christian," but also denies Jesus' Godhood as well as other parts of Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, one reason why Dr. Gregg Frazer refuses to term Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, et al. "Christians" is because, as an evangelical, he defines the term strictly. For instance, to evangelicals and Catholics, Christians believe in a Triune God. If you don't then you aren't a Christian regardless of what you call yourself. I think that looking at the traditional creeds to which evangelicals, Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Church all assent certainly is one legitimate way to understand what is a "real Christian." Isaacson argues for the other. If America's key Founders really were "Christians" and if America was founded on "Christian principles," it would be in the broad, theologically liberal sense for which Isaacson argues. These "Christian principles," it should be noted, evangelicals and Catholics consider "heresy." Indeed one of my readers in the past aptly asked, "was America founded on a Christian heresy?" Arguably yes.

Hi Jonathan,

I’m troubled by those who insist that only people who believe in one way can be “true Christians.” If Mormons consider themselves followers of Jesus, that’s good enough for me to regard them as Christians. If Trinitarian Evangelicals regard themselves as followers of Jesus, I’ll consider them Christians too — even though, so far as I can tell, Jesus never claimed to be God.

If someone like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley honored Jesus and endeavored to follow his teachings, they should not be denied the name “Christian” merely because others who claim that name have embraced any number of extra-biblical doctrines.

I’ve heard Catholics occasionally say that theirs is the only “true church,” suggesting perhaps that Protestants are not truly Christians. I’ve heard Protestant preachers denounce the Pope as the Anti-Christ, insisting that Catholics can’t be true Christians because they follow the Pope rather than Christ.

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

And yet, I find you, an open-minded and liberal chap, adopting the same stance, and suggesting that Unitarians and Mormons can’t be Christians.

I am reminded, quite frankly, of how New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 1868 the Dover, New Hampshire, First Unitarian Society of Christians’ chosen minister — the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot — was insufficiently “Christian” to serve the Congregation that had called him. Justice Jonathan Everett Sargent’s opinion for the court quoted passages from Abbot’s sermons, to show that the minister was too open-minded to serve his congregation.

The Rev. Abbot, after all, had once preached:

"Whoever has been so fired in his own spirit by the overwhelming thought of the Divine Being as to kindle the flames in the hearts of his fellow men, whether Confucius, or Zoroaster, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, has proved himself to be a prophet of the living God; and thus every great historic religion dates from a genuine inspiration by the Eternal Spirit."

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

"America is every whit as sacred as Judea. God is as near to you and to me, as ever he was to Moses, to Jesus, or to Paul. Wherever a human soul is born into the love of truth and high virtue, there is the 'Holy Land.' Wherever a human soul has uttered its sincere and brave faith in the Divine, and thus bequeathed to us the legacy of inspired words, there is the 'Holy Bible.'"

“If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,” Justice Sargent opined for New Hampshire’s highest court, “it would of course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire called ‘that outrageous blasphemer,’ that ‘infamous blasphemer,’ ‘that miscreant Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ Plumer had read ‘with unqualified disapprobation of its tone and temper, its course vulgarity, and its unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his readers.’”

Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 9, 16 Am. Rep. 82, 1868 N.H. LEXIS 47 (1868). See Charles B. Kinney, Jr., Church & State: The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630-1900 113 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1955) (“One of the more celebrated cases in New Hampshire jurisprudence is that of Hale versus Everett.”); Carl H. Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 1385, 1534 n.541 (“As late as 1868, the state supreme court decided that a Unitarian minister would not be allowed to use the town meeting house because of his heterodoxy, and in spite of being called and settled by a majority of the community.”).

You might suppose that being run out of the pulpit would sour the Rev. Abbot in his attitudes toward those who thought themselves more orthodox than he was. You would be wrong. Abbot went on to edit The Index, and on his retirement from that position in 1880 addressed those who gathered in his honor: “I know we are here Unitarians and Non-Unitarians, and I rejoice to stand with Christians, with Catholic and Protestant Christians alike, for justice and purity; and I will always do so. These things are more important than our little differences of theological opinion.” Farewell Dinner to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, on Retiring from the Editorship of “The Index” 14 (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1880) (remarks of Rev. Abbot, June 24, 1880).

It may be noted that Frederick Douglass praised Rev. Abbot for doing “much to break the fetters of religious superstition, for which he is entitled to gratitude.” Farewell Dinner, supra, at p. 48 (letter of June 15, 1880, from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. M.J. Savage).

I think it a tremendous mistake, Jonathan, for you to side with the likes of Justice Sargent, who think they are entitled to determine who can, and who cannot, be called a true “Christian.” In truth, Justice Sargent may have been somewhat more liberal in his attitudes than you are – for he and the New Hampshire Supreme Court at least accepted the notion that one can be a genuine Unitarian Christian, even as they ruled that Rev. Abbot was far too unorthodox even to preach in a Unitarian church.

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

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