Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What is a Christian? Councils, Creeds, and 25 Doctrines

Yesterday I shared a great sermon from a friend about the humanity of Jesus, and why this is critical for us to understand as Christians. In this sermon, he talks about the hypostasis of Jesus—that is, the human and divine natures combine into a single essence, one Person, indivisible as it were.

Failure to understand this is, as Josh mentioned, one of the fundamental ways that people have gotten wrong ideas about who Jesus is in the past. And he well described the result to our Christology if we have a God-only Jesus; I’m certain we all agree that a human-only Jesus is equally un-Christian.

Now as you probably know, I happen to be one of those Christians who think it important that all of us at least understand a bit of our history. Neither God, nor His church, is defined by the boundaries of time. We are a universal body of Christ—both spread across time and space; so that a second-century Egyptian Christian is every bit as much a part of the body of Christ as a modern Indian or American Christian. We are all part of the kingdom, playing different roles at the times and places where God has placed us.

It is sad to me, then, that the majority of even well-educated modern Christians are completely clueless about our history, where our theology comes from, and why we believe what we believe. No, the situation is worse than that: most Christians today are not even sure what being a Christian means. This is a common argument between different Christian groups—how do you define a Christian? Is the (seemingly) repentant Catholic convert Newt Gingrich equally Christian as the (seemingly) highly moral Mitt Romney? How do you define a Christian? Is it anyone who claims the name? People who act like Christ? (If so, we will have a small church indeed!)

If you begin looking at the history of the church

and her early councils and creeds, I think that a few things become clear. First, nothing major divided the church prior to the council of Ephesus in 431. So the findings of the two key councils before then—Jerusalem and Nicaea—can be taken to be certainly agreed upon by all of those who call themselves Christians. Furthermore, so many who adhere to these early creeds—both now and historically—hold theologies incompatible with the Lateran and post-Lateran councils; so I think we must reject those as not necessary to be a Christian. So the real question comes with the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in 431 and 451, which split off the Assyrian and Oriental Orthodox churches. Are these required to be Christians?

I hesitate to say so, but I think that we must answer in the affirmative. The overwhelming weight of scholarship throughout history, the overwhelming weight of Scripture (at least as I can understand it), and the overwhelming weight of theology seems to agree in the full dual nature of Christ, and thus we must take this too as a prerequisite of our faith.

Therefore, I say that we may confidently create a litmus for someone claiming to be a Christian. The theologies set forth by the four most critical early councils—Jerusalem (50), Nicaea (325), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451)—seem to be the foundational, shared beliefs that define the boundaries of our faith.

CS Lewis once referred to Christianity as a house with many rooms—an Anglican room, a Catholic room, a Baptist room, and so on. I think that is an apt description. And if so, then let me say that these four councils mentioned above are the covenants, if you will, that define membership into the club. Belief in these is what gets you into the house, within which you can interpret Scripture and tradition and choose the room you believe to be most appropriate.

So combining the findings of these four councils, I make the following list of the bare essentials to believe in Christianity. These are the formal dogmatic statements which provide the minimum requirements to rightly call oneself a Christian:

1. We believe that all people can be followers of Christ.
2. We believe that Gentiles are not bound by the Mosaic Law.
3. We believe in one God, the Father Almighty.
4. We believe that God created all things that are visible or invisible.
5. We believe Jesus Christ, the Lord, is the only Son of God.
6. We believe Jesus was not made by God but begotten by Him.
7. We believe Jesus Christ is God just as the Father is God.
8. We believe Jesus is made of both the same substance of God and the same substance of Man.
9. We believe Jesus was truly fully man and truly fully God simultaneously, possessing a soul and a physical body.
10. We believe the two natures of Jesus were inseparably combined in the same person, not parted or divided, nor was nature one superior to the other.
11. We believe that all things made by the Father were made through the Christ.
12. We believe that Jesus was made incarnate in human flesh and became a man.
13. We believe that Jesus was born to Mary, a Virgin.
14. We believe that Mary was the Theotokos, and truly bore God in her womb.
15. We believe that Jesus became man in order to bring us our salvation.
16. We believe that Jesus lived a life like us in all ways except that He did so without committing sin.
17. We believe that Jesus suffered and was crucified at the hands of Pontius Pilate.
18. We believe that Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the grave on the third day.
19. We believe that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
20. We believe that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead and establish an everlasting kingdom.
21. We believe in the Holy Ghost who speaks through the prophets.
22. We believe that the Holy Ghost is the Lord and is rightly worshipped with the Father and the Son.
23. We believe in a holy, universal Church.
24. We believe in one baptism for the remission of sins.
25. We believe in a resurrection of the dead, and eternal life.


These twenty-five statements reflect the theology that was considered sufficient for most Christians from the death of Christ until the rise of the political State-Church of the medieval period. As such, I take these twenty-five statements to be the basic definition of a Christian—they are essentially the combination of the creeds of Jerusalem, Nicaea/Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon for the first 500 years of Christian history.

Who’s In, and Who’s Out?

So what does that mean? Is the person next to you a Christian?

Let us start by saying this – just because the person next to you is what I will here call a Christian does not necessarily mean that they have professed loyalty to Christ, and received the Holy Spirit in their hearts as a believer. The term Christian has become so broad as to be nearly meaningless; I prefer to refer to those loyal to Christ as Christ-followers, or disciples. So when I say "Christian", what I mean is: do the beliefs of their denomination fall within the boundaries of Christian doctrine? So I am not saying that just because such-and-such denomination teaches a Christian doctrine, that every member is a Christ-follower! Rather, I am evaluating whether the following churches all teach some form of acceptable, Chalcedonian Christianity.

All of the following churches teach the above doctrines; thus, even despite their massive differences, all are “within the house” of true Christianity: Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Presbyterians/Calvinists, all other Reformed churches, Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals, and most Charismatic churches.

On the other hand, religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Christian Science, and Unitarianism are rejected as heretical or non-Christian religions, incompatible with these basic Christian doctrines.

Furthermore, you may use these basic fundamental thoughts in regard to any number of debatable positions within Christianity. Notice that you can believe the earth is a few thousand years old or several billion years old, and still be well within Christian boundaries. You can be a Calvinist or an Arminian and still be equally Christian. You may only read the King James Version or you may read the Message, and still be a Christian.

But the lines that you cannot cross—the things which leave you outside the faith—are simple: the creeds prior to, and including, the Chalcedonian Creed well define what is a Christian.

How sad that few Christians know it.

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