Minimalist Christianity is not only tactically and pastorally wise as well as charitable, but it’s also biblical.
Now for me to sell this claim, which may take a bit more work! I’m not sure how to categorise what follows. It’s not (really) theology. It’s not philosophy either. Maybe it’s somewhat “pastoral” in nature (but I’m no pastor). Take it as advice (and as advice that happens to be true, I might add). Some time ago I spoke up in defence of Bill Craig. Somebody had written him a particularly snarky letter attacking the Christian faith, and he responded to it via his Q and A feature over at Reasonable Faith. One of the attacks that this person made was against the doctrine of original sin, formulated in such a way that the actual sin of Adam is “transmuted” (his choice of words) to all human beings. Bill offered two responses: First he pointed out that this isn’t something that all Christians believe, and you could be a Christian without accepting this, so it’s not grounds for dismissing the Christian faith. Second, Bill offered a brief explanation of how a representative theory might make sense of the issue of original sin (and of Christ’s saving work as well).
Based on the hostile reaction of some evangelical bloggers, you’d think Bill had just denied the resurrection of the dead! He was accused of selling out, of surrendering, of treating the Bible as optional, and one commenter angrily wrote about how much he hates something called “minimalist Christianity.” As I explained at the time, I think Bill was right, his critics were spectacularly wrong – both in theory and in conduct at times – and in contrast to what others said, I don’t “hate” minimalist Christianity. I embrace it, and you should too.
So what is it? First let me dispel one possible misunderstanding. Minimalist Christianity (or Christian minimalism, either one works) does not mean just believing a few Christian teachings but rejecting most of them. I suppose a person like that would be a minimalist Christian of sorts, but you certainly don’t have to do that to be a minimalist Christian. When I talk about minimalist Christianity, I’m not talking about everything that you yourself personally believe. Instead, I’m talking about that which is necessary to the Christian faith. In other words, it’s the set of essential beliefs that is required in order for a worldview to be properly Christian, so that if you took even one of them away, you would no longer have a Christian outlook. It’s the minimum standard.
It’s very unlikely that there’s anyone whose set of theological convictions contains exactly and only the bare minimum required by the Christian faith. He or she is bound to believe plenty more besides. We’re curious beings, we think about a whole range of issues, and someone with serious Christian commitments is going to think about how her faith in Christ interacts with many of these interests. But what the minimalist Christian says – and rightly so – is that you do not have to believe all the things that I believe in order to have a set of beliefs that properly summarises the Christian faith. The Christian faith – that which is necessary to it – can be summarised in something – to put it mildly – much shorter than the Westminster confession of faith, that lumbering thirty-three chapter creed. Christian leaders of the first few centuries agreed. The Apostles Creed, for example, was a mere paragraph (and the version recited in Churches now, which is not much longer, was gradually added to over several centuries). The Nicene Creed, formulated by a Council for the specific purpose of offering a clear and concise summary of the Christian faith, fits easily on one side of an A5 sheet of paper. That’s minimalist Christianity.
Minimalist Christianity is both tactically and pastorally wise. It’s tactically wise if you are someone who wants to defend the Christian faith against objections, or to commend it to non-believers as something true that they should accept. Say you are known as a Christian. You affirm – and defend – the Christian faith. And now suppose that someone decides they’re going to rattle your cage. They’re going to come up with a great knock-down. So they say: “So – you believe in predestination! Well that hardly seems fair now, does it?” Or maybe they say “Speaking in tongues? What a load of nonsense, linguistic experts have analysed that and found that it’s not even language!” Or maybe their approach is to say, “Transubstantiation, eh? How convenient, you say that it’s a miracle of bread turning into Jesus’ body and blood, but somehow it’s invisible and untestable!” Maybe you believe in predestination, or speaking in tongues, or transubstantiation (although the odds of you being a Calvinist, Pentecostal Roman Catholic are pretty slim!). You’ve got options as to how you respond. What do you do? You could launch into a complicated defence of a very unpopular metaphysical outlook (a particular take on Aristotelianism), you could try to convince this fellow that your experience and that of other Pentecostals brings you closer to God whether you understand it or not, or you could crack open a philosophical discussion on free will (quoting from the late great Jonathan Edwards) and try to show that predestination’s not really so bad… and let the whole “So, here’s why you should be a Christian” issue slip past entirely like the one that got away. OR, you could simply point out the obvious: Those are fascinating issues in their own right, but you can be a Christian without believing in any of them (and you could add “even though I think it’s true” if you really must). So rejecting that belief is not the same as rejecting Christianity. That belief might be false, and Christianity might still be true! So let’s talk about whether or not Christianity is true, and after we’ve dealt with that and I’ve shown you that there are good reasons to be a Christian, then you can browse through those finer points over which Christians disagree.
It’s tactically wise to insist on minimalist Christianity, then, because it may avoid simply wasting time beating around the bush with peripheral objections to things that plenty of Christians disagree over, when really people need to get right to the heart of the matter: What is Christianity, and is it true? That’s why minimalist Christianity is the right approach to take when engaging in apologetics.
Minimalist Christianity is also pastorally wise within a Christian context. Think of a Christian college, for example. You’ve got a large number of people there who are there for the express purpose of learning, gaining knowledge, thinking critically and challenging ideas – even ideas that they themselves hold. How is it wise to say “but no matter what, you have to keep believing this really long statement of belief, and if you decide that any of these detailed theological convictions is not true, we won’t let you graduate”? Seriously? Or what if one of your faculty members decides that he believes in evolution? He still teaches the best Hebrew class in the world and is a great spiritual mentor, but he thinks evolution is true. Would you want him to be fired? Or think of the local church. The local church is supposed to be a group of Christians. No real surprises there. But they are supposed to define themselves as Christians. When they produce a written statement of faith, they’re saying “this is what we say Christians should believe.” But extend that sentence a little more: “This is what Christians should believe in order to….” To what? To be Christians? Because if that’s what they mean, a lot of the statements of faith I’ve seen are frankly ridiculous. If this is what such statements are intended for, then apparently in order to be a Christian you have to believe in the rapture, a future millennium of Christ’s reign on earth (although in an act of confusion a number of churches refer to this as Christ’s “premillennial reign” or “premillennial kingdom,” when actually they mean that they believe in Christ’s premillennial return and his millennial reign, but I digress), substance dualism as a view of human nature, speaking in tongues, not speaking in tongues, and so on. Now I understand that Christians, like other people, are likely to group together with like-minded people. Fair enough, but what do you do when somebody in your congregation decides that one of the many things she is required to believe isn’t true? What if she looks at the Bible and is persuaded that in spite of all that you’ve said to her, she just can’t believe that the Bible supports the view that we are made of three parts, a body and a soul and a spirit? Or maybe she decides that one of the New Testament writers incorrectly attributed a quote to the wrong author in the Old Testament (I think this actually happened). A pastor who is a minimalist Christian isn’t going to sweat over things like this – even if he thinks this member of the church is wrong on either of these issues. They can still be regarded as just as good and sincere a Christian who is just as committed to the essentials of the faith as he is. Of course, someone who is gung-ho in favour of “biblical maximalism” (I seem to recall that term being used for a type of Christianity that specifies in detail just what a Christian has to believe on a whole range of complex subjects), and he therefore insists that all really trustworthy Christians will reach all the same conclusions he does, is going to have an issue here. Perhaps he will need to calla meeting of the elders to discuss this mini crisis. Maybe he will need to consider whether or not this parishioner should be allowed to continue taking communion. What an unnecessary and non-constructive mess, the minimalist Christian will say.
Lastly, beyond minimalist Christianity being practically and pastorally wise – and here I appeal to the evangelical sensibilities of many of my readers (sensibilities I share with you) – it’s biblical as well. A number of times the Apostle Paul warned first century Christians about getting into foolish controversies over doctrine. This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t believe what they find most convincing about a whole range of things, but they were taking it further, making those things points of contention that threatened to divide the church. When writing to Timothy, a young church leader, Paul urged him no fewer than five times to stay away from – and to urge others to stay away from – unproductive quarrels over such things. But this is what really grabbed my attention recently, prompting this blog post: When Paul was in Athens preaching the Gospel, a number of philosophers asked him to come and speak to them because, here it comes, they wanted to know what the Christian faith was. They were accustomed to examining different worldviews but they had not yet heard of Christianity, so they said to Paul, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean” (Acts 17:19-20). Every evangelist and apologist reading this passage should be on the edge of their seat: They are about to get a bona fide New Testament example of what it actually looks like to sum up the Christian faith. And what does Paul say? I assume that Luke’s record is not intended to be verbatim, and only sums up what he thought was important (which in a way helps me to make the point even clearer). Here’s the whole talk as recorded in Acts 17
Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
It’s possible that if he was asked on the spot if these were all the essentials, Paul might have added more. We can’t say one way or the other without speculation. What we can say for sure is that this is what was recorded as a summary of what was said. Here, Paul was asked to tell people what the Christian faith consisted of – at least in terms of doctrine (that’s the sort of thing these philosophers would have naturally been interested in). And what does he include? These things:
- God exists, and created the world and everything in it (v. 24)
- God is not part of creation, and cannot be contained by it (v. 24)
- God is complete in himself, and does not need anything from us for his own sake (v. 25)
- God is the one who ultimately gives life to all creatures (v. 25)
- God is sovereign over all peoples and nations of the earth (even determining where thy should live and for how long) (v. 26)
- God wants all people to use their natural reason (this is my reading of it) to seek God out and find him (v. 27)
- And yet, God really is not far away. In fact, we are all, in a sense, God’s children. Given that we are his children, God must be greater than us, so certainly couldn’t be like some dumb idol. (vv. 27-29)
- God calls all people to repent of their sins (v. 30).
- God is going to judge the world in accordance with his standards of righteousness(v. 31)
- Specifically, there is a man who God has chosen through whom God will judge the world (v. 31)
- The uniqueness of this man is demonstrated through his resurrection from the dead (v. 31)
- The thing that died and was raised back to life was indeed the man who will judge the world (a nice pre-emptive strike against Gnosticism)
- It’s worth noting that Luke treats this last point as inclusive of a more general reference to “the resurrection of the dead” (v. 32).
And there it is. Whatever else it may be, one thing is certain: It’s very minimalistic! On one occasion when I pointed this out, I was immediately met with (what seemed to me to be) somewhat defensive replies about how much this leaves out, how many essential Christian doctrines are not mentioned here, how this puts “Paul against Paul,” alleging that elsewhere he’s no minimalist at all (something that I think is not apparent at all). Now I’m happy to add caveats here to stress that I am not claiming that this is a verbatim record (something that was actually pointed out to me as though it undermined the general observation), nor is it out of the question that Paul might have later spoken to these people again in an event that Luke conveniently never recorded, where Paul mentions the other basics that he forgot to include here. I can’t say with certainty that this didn’t happen (although there’s no reason to think it did). But what immediately strikes me about these responses is that they are essentially arguments that you just shouldn’t present the Christian faith as Paul did here in Acts 17. I do not claim, of course, that Paul was impeccable or even infallible (one need not believe those things in order to accept that his letters to the churches are somehow inspired by God and true). This is just a record of what Paul did, and Paul was only human (although, I think, a human doing his darnedest, with no small amount of God’s help, to live in obedience to God). But I think it’s pretty clear that this, like all of Paul’s missionary endeavours in the book of Acts, is presented by Luke in a very favourable light. There’s not even a whiff of disapproval.
Is the presentation in Acts 17 absolutely exhaustive of those ideas that are Christian essentials? Perhaps not. Maybe some things slipped his mind, or maybe Luke forgot some of the things Paul said. But that is no reason to think that Paul’s entire approach is mistaken on account of a couple of oversights, or that Luke really didn’t get the gist right at all. We should at least assume that Paul said very nearly what he would likely have said if he could have reflected on the scene, gone back and said it all again, and we should assume that Luke’s record is in the main part inclusive of what took place that matters, and that he wouldn’t want to overhaul and re-write it had he been able to rewind and view the scene a few more times. Also worth noting is that Paul says nothing here about what is to be avoided in terms of religious belief. That just wasn’t his interest on this occasion; his was to tell people what Christians do affirm, not what they ought not affirm. For that reason it wouldn’t do any good believing in, say, forgiveness of sins on the basis of physically punishing oneself, and saying “well, Paul doesn’t speak against it when he spells out the bare essentials of the faith!” If Christian belief were represented using a diagram where all the things that are essential to it are in the circle, Paul’s interest here is in telling people what’s inside that circle, not what’s outside (for example, you might think that denying the Trinity drags a person outside of that circle, but that affirming the Trinity is not inside that circle, so you would allow the Apostle Matthew (a non-Trinitarian) to be saved but not, say, William Branham, an anti-Trinitarian). So even if the presentation in Acts 17 is not a perfect explanation of what the Christian essentials are, it is surely at least exemplary.
You might be one of those people who think that a very quick reference to a doctrine in summary really implies a fully fledged, well-developed and highly specified version of that doctrine. For example Paul in his Acts 17 talk referred to the need to repent before God. I think that we can extrapolate from this the notion that God forgives sins (what else would be the point of repenting?). But there are limits on such extrapolation. For example, Paul said that God is going to judge the world. I think at minimum that involves a distinction between people who pass that judgement and people who do not. But perhaps you think that we can extrapolate all the way to a fully fledged doctrine of the eternal torments of the lost in hell. If you do, you’re flatly wrong. The reference to judgement does not imply any such thing. Granted, there may be legitimacy in asking how a term of concept is likely to be understood in its historical context, and entertaining the possibility that the speaker is alluding to a wider concept that would clearly have been assumed by his audience. But even here, you won’t get to your doctrine of hell by asking these sorts of questions. In the first place, if you try to understand Paul’s reference as strictly defined by previously existing Jewish concepts (since he was a Jew) you run into three problems: Firstly, we already know that this doesn’t always work. For example “the resurrection of the dead” was a previously existing Jewish concept, but they would never have thought in terms of a saviour who rose from the dead before everyone else did. Secondly and more importantly however, there was no “Jewish view” of divine judgement. There were actually many Jewish views, from eternal torment in hell to annihilation to universal salvation. Thirdly, Paul would not have been speaking in strictly Jewish sounding terms here anyway, since his audience – Greek philosophers in Athens – could not have been assumed to instinctively think of highly specified Jewish doctrines just because Paul said that God will judge the world. So claiming that Paul should be assumed to be recalling all the detail of the Jewish view with this brief reference fails for three reasons. In the second place you can’t assume that Paul was using terms that his Athenian audience of philosophers would have understood as a reference to eternal torment either, for the simple reason that Athens was such a melting pot of varied ideas on the subject. In fact this very passage tells us that some of his audience were Epicureans who would never have believed in the torments of the damned in hell because they simply didn’t believe in an afterlife.
You might try to apply this same principle – that a brief reference can really be assumed to imply the whole complex doctrine that you associate with that reference – to Paul’s reference to God. Some Christians seem to think that the doctrine of the Trinity is the most important thing a Christian can believe. You might think something along the lines of “God is a Trinity. Paul referred to God, so he must have had the Trinity in mind.” Wrong again. Sure, I believe God is a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And yes, the being that Paul was referring to is indeed a Trinity, but it certainly doesn’t follow that Paul had the Trinity in mind. Anyone with much interest in historical theology knows only too well that the idea of the Trinity is a synthesis of the biblical teaching, something that was pieced together over time as the best way of harmonising what the biblical writers – including Paul – affirmed. But the chances that any of the biblical writers believed (or had even thought of) the doctrine of the Trinity are pretty close to zero. Of course, they didn’t deny the Trinity either, again, simply because they would not have recognised the concept, which was developed after their time. If – as the absurdly precise Athanasian Creed insists – you have to believe all the right things about the nature of the Trinity (to say nothing of the relationship between human and divine natures in Christ) in order to be saved, then sorry St Paul, you’re out on your ear on judgement day! I’ve heard people go even further – by saying that any deviation from Presbyterianism and its view on infant baptism (I kid you not) involves worshipping a different God (i.e. a God who views the children of believing parents differently), so by commanding people to worship no other Gods, we can extrapolate all the way down to the view that Baptists are heretics and idolaters! Crazy, yes, but only more crazy by degree than the view that by making a simple reference to judgement, Paul is affirming the doctrine of the eternal torments of hell as an essential of the Christian faith.
Combined with the other references to quarrels over theological details, this example in Acts 17 gives us good grounds for calling minimalist Christianity a biblical concept. Now, did Paul believe more than was contained in his talk in Acts 17? Of course! We read about it in his letters later in the New Testament. But remember – minimalist Christianity does not require believing only a few things. It means elevating only a few things to the level of absolute essentials. So ironically, those who insist on discarding minimalist Christianity in favour of what they deem “biblical maximalism” are really doing so in defiance of the type of Christianity set out in the Bible they claim to be, well, maximalising!
Every time I have made this observation, I have been met with almost immediate misunderstanding, so let me labour the point: Nothing that I have said here implies that Christians should believe as few things as possible – or even that it’s a good thing to only believe the bare essentials. I think holding a lot of bad theology is bad for you. It has “knock on” effects into other things you believe and do. When I talk about theology at the blog and podcast, hopefully I make it obvious that I do care about what I believe – and what others believe too – beyond the bare essentials (just as a dietician cares about what you eat beyond the bare necessities needed to keep you alive). There is much growth, intellectually, spiritually and practically, in moving beyond the bare essentials of Christian thought and into the riches of biblical theology. But I have become convinced of this: The acceptance of the Christian faith does not require that anyone shares your convictions (however important they might be to you) on everything you believe that you have found among those riches.
PS The picture I used for this blog post is somewhat misleading, and I just chose it for humour value. The fact is, you can be dogmatic (i.e. uncompromising, stubborn) about believing that you’re right about all sorts of things without going the extra step of saying “AND it’s essential that you believe those things too, or you’re out!”
- Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!
- “Why isn’t the Trinity in the Bible?”
- Loftus on eternal torture
- Nuts and Bolts 013: Mere Christianity
- A (genuine) Generous Orthodoxy
- Deal Breakers and Christian Essentials