Minimalist Christianity

Ecclesiology religion Theology / Biblical Studies

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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.

Glenn Peoples

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!”

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{ 68 comments… add one }
  • John May 26, 2012, 6:25 pm

    Very good Glenn. Thank you.

  • Jeremy May 26, 2012, 7:01 pm

    If more Christians took this very sensible attitude there would be many fewer denominations and much more ‘unity’.

  • Jason May 26, 2012, 8:27 pm

    Excellent Glenn, I agree with everything said.

  • Tim May 27, 2012, 5:18 am

    Very well said. Excellent. If we would carefully read all the sermons in Acts, I think we would get an idea of what is really important. There’s not a lot there about the doctrines that we typically use to divide one another.

  • Cal May 27, 2012, 9:05 am

    Good post!

    However, would it be right to call Matthew ‘non-trinitarian’? I think the gospel and epistle writers may not be able to be boxed in the same logical paradigm that the Nicene Creed gives for the Triune nature of God, but surely they believed that baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was some triune formulation of God?

    I’d say maybe they’re primitive trinitarians but not ‘non-trinitarians’. Just as I’d say sola scriptura is found primitively in the Scripture, though none express this idea as clearly and concisely as the reformers.

  • Glenn May 27, 2012, 10:38 am

    Cal, well as I see it, once you make the idea so “primitive” that they just affirm all three persons but do not say anything about the precise way they’re related, they’re not Trinitiarian. That’s because the Trinity just is a way of taking all those primitive ideas and then coming up with a system to make best sense of them. Yes, they’re definitely consistent with Trinitarianism, and yes their thoughts, collectively, can be harmonised by introducing the concept of the Trinity, but that’s not a step they ever took, and that’s all I meant.

  • Cal May 27, 2012, 11:38 am

    Fair enough.

    Would it be right to say they write of God triunely without being trinitarian?

  • colin May 27, 2012, 3:35 pm

    So where do you draw the line? Are Mormons Christians? What about Universalists? What about good ol Rob Bell?

    How wrong can you be about stuff and still be saved? Salvation isn’t by knowledge after all.

  • Glenn May 27, 2012, 3:43 pm

    Colin, that’s right, salvation isn’t by knowledge. Something often forgotten in a partisan theological landscape!

    As I said in this blog post, the kind of minimalism that I have in mind – and which I think is biblical – has to do with the things we should affirm, not so much to do with the things we ought not affirm. We affirm the one God, for example. Arguably, Mormonism gets into trouble here with its view of Father Son and Spirit, or with its view that the devil is God’s brother. Do these things undermine the bare minimum that we affirm the one creator God and no others? Well, that’s not a question to be laid only at the minimalist’s feet. It’s a question anyone can address.

    As for Universalists, I think that’s a false belief with harmful consequences, but I would never say that in and of itself it makes a person lost. It’s on the fringes though, as – their protests nothwithstanding – I do not think it presents a genuine concern over judgement in the way that basic Christianity does. But on its own it certainly doesn’t make a person not a Christian.

  • Glenn May 27, 2012, 3:45 pm

    Cal, not sure. I mean “Triune” really gets into the Trinitarian issue. I wouldn’t want to say that they went into those specifics at all – at least not in writing that we know of.

  • Reed May 27, 2012, 4:19 pm

    Thank you Glenn.

  • Cal May 28, 2012, 8:39 am

    Glenn:

    I suppose the difference would be in Trinitarian being more concrete along the lines of the Nicene Creed.

    When Matthew records Jesus teaching His disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father,Son and Holy Spirit, I’d say that’s a triune thought. Though there is nothing concretely trinitarian vis. the Nicene Creed.

    Or when Paul talks about Christ in a reformulation of the Shema, stressing one God, and also saying that Christ is in us while loosely conflating the Spirit of Christ also being in us as well as saying that the Spirit is the Lord. Nothing, without some systematizing, produces trinitarian thinking but one could say that the apostles are speaking of God triunely.

  • colin May 28, 2012, 10:23 am

    “has to do with the things we should affirm”
    It’s good to affirm things, but affirm is kinda just another word for know. You can’t affirm your way into heaven, right?

    “We affirm the one God, for example”
    So do you think it’s possible to be saved even if you believed in multiple gods?

    Maybe the list of things that you have to actually believe to be saved is surprisingly small, but if you were saved for some time, and still believed a bunch of wacky stuff, then that might be a symptom of a deeper problem.

  • Cal May 28, 2012, 10:34 am

    Colin:

    I think it would be safe to formulate it this way:

    We are saved by Faith in Christ. Faith (Pistis in Gk) is a strong form of trust, of believing upon. When we trust/faith Jesus it is followed by a progressively forming orthodoxy and orthopraxy.It involves to listening to His commands and walking as He did. Believing in one God would come pretty early along the path. Such a path would be fostered by the saints guided by the tradition of the apostles (aka. Christ-followers and Scripture) being led always by the Spirit.

    Does that sound like a fair articulation?

    Cal

    PS. I’m really digging this topic, that’s why I’m all over it instead of lurking 🙂

  • colin May 28, 2012, 1:03 pm

    are you taking the pistis? 🙂

    I don’t know all those fancy words, but I suspect that the path would be different for every person. If a person’s culture, background, or environment caused them to be unable to believe one of the ‘non negotiables’ would God punish them for that?

  • {Tim} May 28, 2012, 7:14 pm

    @colin:

    My take on that would be that if they did not affirm one of the essentials they would consequently not be properly Christian (in the orthodox sense), but I also believe that it is possible for a person to be saved while believing unorthodox doctrine. (Not to be taken as an argument in favour of unorthodoxy, btw.)

  • Glenn May 28, 2012, 8:38 pm

    Colin, it just looks to me like you’re raising issues that are already anticipated in this article, and issues that don’t seem to be at odds with what I have said. Can I assume that we agree?

    Apart from the comment about “affirm.” That doesn’t mean “know.” That word just means that we assert something to be true. We may also know it, if we are both correct and warranted, but that leads to a different topic that I won’t pursue here. I have written on it before, here.

  • colin May 29, 2012, 8:17 am

    Tim, so you agree then that someone can be saved without being properly Christian?

    Glenn, I think I’m taking it further than you did in the article. Can you name one thing that you’re certain someone has to know or assert in order for God to save them?

  • Geoff May 29, 2012, 8:54 am

    One just has to acknowledge that Christ died on the cross for their sins..

    This is not something that is done TO BE saved.. it’s a response to being saved.. Glenn might be able to say it more clearly.

  • colin May 29, 2012, 9:22 am

    So you’re saying that it’s not possible to be saved without knowledge of the historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion?

  • Geoff May 29, 2012, 9:29 am

    nope..
    I said it’s a response.

  • Nick May 29, 2012, 4:55 pm

    Good points Glenn. When we technologically advanced Christians consider those who believe and live in remote places the minimalist approach is probably the norm there. As a result of this theme they can still have faith in God without a great deal of technical theological resources. We take for granted Christian education, libraries, internet etc. No doubt they would like more information, but find getting it more difficult.

  • Glenn May 29, 2012, 8:39 pm

    Colin, I see no need to introduce the idea of “certainty,” since I have no pretensions of infallibility on the matter. So if you don’t mind, I will answer you as though you had said: “Can you name one thing that you reasonably believe that someone has to know or assert in order for God to save them?”

    Now of course, this new, differently worded issue has an easy answer: No. If one believes in the sovereignty of God in salvation as a Calvinist-inclined person like me does, people do nothing in order to make it possible for God to save them.

    But then, that has never been the issue – or at least, certainly not one raised in this blog entry, even if it’s an issue that happens to be on Colin’s mind. The other issue – the one that I have raised – is what a worldview must contain in order to be considered a properly Christian worldview. This is not a soteriological issue – whereas the one you raised was entirely soteriological (to do with an understanding of how people are saved). Here I have completely set aside the potentially distracting issue of who will be saved and how, and focused entirely on the content of what Christians believe. Whether or not God will only save Christians is not the issue. It may be something that’s occupying your thoughts for some reason, but it’s not something the blog post commented on.

  • colin May 30, 2012, 7:36 am

    “Whether or not God will only save Christians is not the issue”
    Sorry, I was equating the categories of “Christians” and “those who will be saved”. You seem to allow the possibility for inclusion in the latter and not the former. Do you also allow for inclusion in the former without the latter?

    Or to put it another way, if you define “Christian” solely as a person who believes/knows/asserts a certain set of facts, then isn’t it somewhat arbitrary? Maybe there’s no reason to draw a line at all?

  • Jeremy May 30, 2012, 3:03 pm

    Taking into account the name ‘Christian’ [ one of Christ’s ones ], its probably reasonable to say that to be Christian you have to accept Jesus Christs claims about himself and his teachings. I have trouble with people who deny these things but want to use the label ‘Christian’. At the least it is self delusional and misleading, but really its fundamentally dishonest.

  • Glenn May 30, 2012, 6:12 pm

    “Or to put it another way, if you define “Christian” solely as a person who believes/knows/asserts a certain set of facts, then isn’t it somewhat arbitrary?”

    “Arbitrary” generally refers to a distinction made without grounds. But if Christianity includes some beliefs, then no, distinguishing between Christian and non-Christian people at least partly based on beliefs is not arbitrary.

    And yes, it’s possible to be a Christian in a broad sense and not be “saved,” insofar as Christianity is a sociological phenomenon. But as to whether a person can be a sincere believer and not saved, I don’t think Christian theology provides any grounds for saying so.

  • colin May 31, 2012, 1:23 am

    Jeremy, it sounds like you’re defining Christianity differently to Glenn, who defines it as a set of asserted beliefs. And you seem to have glossed over the centuries of debate that have occurred over exactly what Jesus claimed about himself and what he taught.

    Glenn, the point I’m trying to bring out, is that adherence to your minimalist set of christian beliefs is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation, so in this way it is no different to any other set of beliefs that I might come up with.

  • Tim May 31, 2012, 2:09 am

    Jeremy (comment #26):

    According to Acts, a Christian is a disciple of Jesus (“the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch”), not “Christlike” or “one of Christ’s ones”. So, would you say it is more important to have the right opinions about Jesus or to be a follower of Jesus? Having the right opinions about him does not necessarily entail being a follower of Him.

  • Geoff May 31, 2012, 9:22 am

    Colin,

    Glenn said:
    “…people do nothing in order to make it possible for God to save them.”

    “Believing” is something you do, therefore “believing” (in something like a particular dogma) does not make it possible to be saved. Believing in the work of Christ is therefore not possible until the Spirit makes it so, ie, you are saved. Therefore belief in Christ is a response to the saving work of God, not the means by which the saving happens.

  • Jeremy May 31, 2012, 5:11 pm

    Tim [@ 29]
    I will go with ‘accept, obey, submit’ ie right opinion and following obediently, as enabled by the saving work of God. Scripture suggests even the demons have the right opinion but are in rebellion, also says ‘every knee shall bow’ but this will not be voluntary for many.

    Colin [ @ 28]
    ‘a set of asserted beliefs’… maybe [although i think you are understating his position] …. but that would be beliefs specifically about Jesus Christ, not just any old set of beliefs, eg some people assert Macs are better than PCs

  • Glenn May 31, 2012, 5:53 pm

    “Glenn, the point I’m trying to bring out, is that adherence to your minimalist set of christian beliefs is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation”

    Well I have no good reason to agree with that. As I said last time, as to whether or not a believer might not be saved, “I don’t think Christian theology provides any grounds for saying so.” Unless you have in mind someone who is half-hearted or insincere, but that’s being tricky.

    Also, be careful about claims about me “defining” Christianity. I haven’t offered any attempts here to define it.

  • colin June 1, 2012, 5:50 am

    Jeremy: Yes, certainly the set of beliefs Glenn is proposing center around the general theme of God and Jesus. My point is that there’s nothing functionally unique about the set he has chosen.

    Glenn: You already admitted that your set of beliefs aren’t necessary for salvation. With regards to sufficiency, surely you agree that what you know, assert or believe is of less importance than your actions, attitudes, and posture?

    Point taken about defining Christianity. Maybe you’re not defining it per se, but at least you’re making claims about the nature of Christianity – specifically what beliefs are required in order to be considered a Christian?

  • Jeremy June 1, 2012, 9:57 am

    @34
    “My point is that there’s nothing functionally unique about the set he has chosen”

    Sorry but this is completely meaningless to me, you are going to need to explain with examples. Are you suggesting there could be a significantly different set of beliefs which could be held in order to be considered a Christian.

  • colin June 1, 2012, 10:09 am

    For example, let G1 be the set of beliefs that Glenn considers to be minimal christianity, and G2 to be G1 plus the belief in transubstantiation, and G3 to be G1 minus one belief (chosen at random)

    Then my question is, what can we say about G1 that isn’t true of G2 or G3?

    I originally thought that Glenn was implying something about salvation, but apparently not.

    You might say G1 is what a person needs to believe in order to be a Christian, but that’s not really saying anything.

  • Tim June 1, 2012, 10:13 am

    We could say that G1 is minimal.

  • colin June 1, 2012, 10:15 am

    minimal under what constraints? G3 is a smaller set.

  • Tim June 1, 2012, 10:33 am

    Smaller does not mean minimal. The minimal number of players needed to field a baseball team is nine. Taking away the pitcher does not give you a minimal set, it gives you a set that is no longer a baseball team.

  • colin June 1, 2012, 11:04 am

    My question to you was “minimal under what constraints”
    In your example the constraint is “needed to field a baseball team”

    So what is it that G3 is ‘no longer’?

  • Tim June 1, 2012, 11:11 am

    G3 is no longer the minimal set.

  • colin June 1, 2012, 11:16 am

    It’s more minimal than G2, in that it has less things in it. Why are you ignoring my question about the constraint?

  • Tim June 1, 2012, 11:32 am

    I think you are confusing minimality and cardinality. Having fewer things does not imply “more minimal.”

    I guess I am confused by your question: G1 is by definition the minimal set of things to believe such that G1 implies a Christian worldview (if I understand the original post). If you take anything away, it is no longer a Christian worldview (this is the constraint), which is why it is minimal. If you can take something away and it still imply a Christian worldview, then it is not minimal either, because there is a smaller set that is minimal.

  • Hugh June 1, 2012, 4:09 pm

    Colin if I understand correctly, what you are saying is that the proposed demarcation of christian belief is meaningless if it isn’t sufficient for salvation, because Christian beliefs are that which can save you. But Christian beliefs aren’t defined by their effectiveness (those in the reformed camp will tell you that beliefs cannot do anything to save you). They gain their definition from what a particular group of people consider to be the truth, in this case with respect to God and how He was revealed to the world. So I think point is (someone correct me if I’m mistaken) it’s traditionally established that the first followers of Christ were completely congruent on certain claims about this. These claims are what therefore constitute minimalist Christian belief. Remove one, and you don’t have a set of views which represent what those Christians all believed

  • Glenn June 1, 2012, 7:26 pm

    Colin:

    “Glenn: You already admitted that your set of beliefs aren’t necessary for salvation.” Yes, but that was a question in regard to salvation, and this blog entry isn’t about salvation. I’ve already tried to point that out. The bare essentials *are* necessary in order for a worldview to be a properly Christian one, if you recall.

    “With regards to sufficiency, surely you agree that what you know, assert or believe is of less importance than your actions, attitudes, and posture?”

    Sufficient for what? Salvation? See, you’ve acknowledged that I’m not talking about salvation, but I think you’re trying to smuggle it back in. But setting that aside – because clearly you would rather talk about your own subject (salvation) instead of mine, it sounds to me like you’re raising the possibility of insincere believers, with the wrong “attitude” and “posture,” people who either don’t really hold the beliefs at all, or who do not take them seriously. That’s a bit like cheating. But more importantly, I have tried hard to be clear that I am only talking about the doctrinal aspect of Christianity.

  • Glenn June 1, 2012, 9:55 pm

    Spot on, Hugh.

  • colin June 2, 2012, 3:51 am

    OK, I was responding to your comment “Well I have no good reason to agree with that [statement about salvation]”.

    But Hugh has done what Tim failed to do and provided the constraint in which G1 is a minimal set:
    G1 is the minimal set of beliefs “which represent what [the early] Christians all believed”

    My only problem is that since it is a vague definition at best, we can’t be precise about the contents of G1. And different people will have different perspectives on what should or shouldn’t be in G1.

    Can we say with confidence what all the early Christians believed? Can we? What was it?
    Wasn’t Paul constantly correcting heresies that were believed by people he considered to nevertheless be Christians?
    Didn’t the early Christians all believed some things that we all know now to be false (flatness of the earth)?
    What’s so great about these early Christians anyway?

  • colin June 2, 2012, 3:53 am

    “I guess I am confused by your question”
    And yet you answered it. Not as well as Hugh did, and in much vaguer terms, but you answered it. Good job.

  • Tim June 2, 2012, 4:58 am

    Colin, I think we are in agreement @47 that the answer is vague.

  • Jeremy June 2, 2012, 10:34 am

    Why did some one have to bring up the ‘flat earth’ myth yet again?
    As for a guide to what early Christians believed [accepted as authorative]….how about the New Testament?

  • Glenn June 2, 2012, 10:46 am

    “Didn’t the early Christians all believed some things that we all know now to be false (flatness of the earth)?”

    If you recall, colin, this blog post was not just about beliefs that Christians happened to hold. It was about “the set of essential beliefs that is required in order for a worldview to be properly Christian.” I just don’t see that a person’s view on the shape of the earth comes into play there. Remember the example I chose, of Paul being asked, in effect, “what are the beliefs that you Christians hold?” He certainly didn’t say anything about the shape of the earth or other astronomical/cosmological matters.

    So it seems pretty clear that such beliefs don’t make up part of minimalist Christianity.

  • colin June 2, 2012, 10:59 am

    “Why did some one have to bring up the ‘flat earth’ myth yet again?”
    To illustrate the point that we’re not talking about EVERY belief of the early Christians.

    “how about the New Testament?”
    I love the New Testament, but it’s not really written as a list of doctrinal statements, and is largely open to different interpretations (as history and current denominational variety demonstrates).

    Glenn’s exhortation that we should be minimalist Christians is a great sentiment, and certainly something to keep in mind, but has no rigorous practical application. The ‘maximalist christian’ thinks his set of required beliefs are minimal. The blogger who attacked W.L.Craig did so (I presume) because he thought WLC was compromising on a belief that was required for a Christian world view. At this point it is our word against his.

    What criteria could I use, to consider one of my beliefs, and determine whether it should be included in the minimal set that I should expect from all Christians?

    Or to put it another way, how do I know whether the current set of beliefs that I consider minimal, are minimal enough, or too minimal? There’s no way to know.

  • colin June 2, 2012, 11:11 am

    I certainly do recall that Glenn, but when I pressed for a more precise definition of the constraint under which the set of beliefs was minimal, the answer (that you seemed to approve of) was:

    [it] is the minimal set of beliefs “which represent what [the early] Christians all believed”

    Your alternative answer:
    “the set of essential beliefs that is required in order for a worldview to be properly Christian”
    is meaningless without a definition of what you mean by ‘properly Christian’.

    The shape of the earth was only raised to illustrate that Hugh’s answer still didn’t precisely capture what we intuitively mean by ‘properly Christian’.

    If I differ from you in some belief, what criteria or process can we use to determine whether this is a difference we can celebrate, or an indication that one of us is no longer a card-carrying member?

  • Glenn June 2, 2012, 4:33 pm

    colin, you are mistaken to think that my talking about what’s minimally required for a worldview to be “properly Christian” is meaningless. I don’t understand such strong language being used of the fairly mundane and straightfoward comments and observations I have made here.

    What I have done here is to describe the kind of standard that should be used to determine what makes a worldview “properly Christian.” I’ve done this in a couple of ways, both of which convey substantive ideas that are meaningful. In saying that it is a minimalist standard, I am saying that in fact the doctrinal requirements are relatively few. That is certainly not meaningless. I used the example of the Westminster Confession for a point of contrast with a doctrinal statement that is not minimalist, and I used the Nicene Creed as an example of a creed that is minimalist. So there’s nothing meaningless there. It’s pretty clear and it conveys real information. Anyone listening in good will, wanting to hear what I am saying, will come away having received something meaningful.

    Secondly, I made the case biblically in two ways. First I noted the way that biblical writers spoke against needless controversy. Secondly I used the example of Paul, who, when asked to give an account of what Christians believe, gave a very short summary. I think this second approach is meaningful too. It conveys understandable information, and contains a claim that can either be accepted or rejected (namely, the nature of the summary Paul gave and whether or not it was a long or short list, and whether it really counts as a summation of what was asked for).

    In addition to these two specific ways of explaining what minimalism is and why I see it as biblical, I also gave a couple of pragamtic considerations (apologetic value and pastoral wisdom).

    So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I say that calling the minimalism that I have described “meaningless” is really just rhetorical bluster without any actual substance.

    If you wish that I had – in addition to the above – given a criteria for determining how to grade all doctrines in terms of how important they are, and you wanted me to, for each doctrine, state whether or not it breaks the rules badly enough to get you kicked out of heaven, then you’ve misunderstood what this blog post was written to convey.

  • colin June 3, 2012, 4:19 pm

    “colin, you are mistaken to think that my talking about what’s minimally required for a worldview to be “properly Christian” is meaningless.”
    To be fair, I said meaningless without a definition of what you mean by properly christian.

    “such strong language”
    Sorry, didn’t realize it came across so strong to you. I was trying to make a point.

    “to describe the kind of standard that should be used”
    I must have missed that part. I agree that you stressed the importance of having a standard, but I think I missed the part where you described an actual usable standard that could be applied to beliefs.

    “both of which convey substantive ideas that are meaningful.”
    Right, I didn’t say everything you had written was meaningless. I was saying that it lacked a definition of what ‘properly christian’ really means.

    “the doctrinal requirements are relatively few.”
    But you can’t provide a method for determining what they are?

    “I used the Nicene Creed as an example of a creed that is minimalist.”
    But is it minimalist enough? It seems to me as though what the minimal set should contain isn’t just a matter of preference?

    As I said before: “Glenn’s exhortation that we should be minimalist Christians is a great sentiment, and certainly something to keep in mind, but has no rigorous practical application.”
    Or to put it another way, I completely agree that minimalist christianity is great, and desirable, and biblical and practically beneficial etc etc. But you offer no suggestions towards determining what that minimal set should be.

    “If you wish that I had – in addition to the above – given a criteria for determining how to grade all doctrines in terms of how important they are”
    Right, or determining whether a doctrine belongs in the minimal set or not.

    “then you’ve misunderstood what this blog post was written to convey.”
    So not really actionable information then.

    Put it this way. Everyone who calls themselves a christian would have beliefs they consider non-negotiable and others that they consider negotiable. Maybe your blog is only meant to address people who willfully treat beliefs they secretly believe to be negotiable, as though they are not, if any such people in fact exist,
    Everyone else would at least consider themselves to be a minimal christian.

    I know there are people who would consider themselves ‘properly christian’ who believe that I’m not, because I lack some belief they consider critical
    There are also people who would consider themselves ‘properly christian’, who I would not, because they lack some belief I consider critical.
    And then there’s me, who also considers myself ‘properly christian’.

    Does your blog post intend to offer some method, approach, or standard by which we can resolve our differences? Or to return to my original question “So where do you draw the line?” It sounds like you’re saying that I’ve misunderstood the point of your blog post which was just to stress the importance of drawing the line in the right place,

  • colin June 3, 2012, 4:22 pm

    (sorry, last paragraph was cut off)
    Does your blog post intend to offer some method, approach, or standard by which we can resolve our differences? Or to return to my original question “So where do you draw the line?” It sounds like you’re saying that I’ve misunderstood the point of your blog post which was just to stress the importance of drawing the line in the right place, not to actually help us to do that.

  • Glenn June 3, 2012, 4:34 pm

    “So not really actionable information then.”

    Not so, unless a person is hostile to putting general principles into practice. Perhaps not actionable in some specific way that you have in mind (namely, me telling you exactly what you need to believe), but I guess that’s no failure, since I didn’t set out to do that. But what I said here is definitely actionable. I gave an example of what I don’t approve of (a very long creed), and two examples of what I do approve of (one biblical example, and the Nicene Creed), and in general terms I explained the difference between them.

    If that’s not usable by you, then I’d suggest using a bit more of your own effort. I don’t think I need to spoon feed readers by saying “and so you should believe x, y, z.” Or do I? I hope not. I’m giving tools, not the finished product that you need to make yourself. I’m not going to go continue trying to make this point, I think I’ve said (more than) enough now to make it clear to all.

  • Hugh June 3, 2012, 11:09 pm

    Colin I think you missed when I pointed out

    They gain their definition from what a particular group of people consider to be the truth, in this case with respect to God and how He is revealed to the world

    So it’s not just any kind of belief that they all incidentally held.

  • Dave June 4, 2012, 9:32 am

    Glenn, I think you’ve handled a vexatious, drawn out objection with grace here. Kudos.

  • rey June 11, 2012, 9:41 am

    Ok, you start by talking about a guy who rejected Christianity because he didn’t believe that the sin of Adam is “transmuted” (his choice of words) to all human beings. Bill then 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. Then a bunch of self-appointed Christian authorities acted “like Bill had just denied the resurrection of the dead!”. Thus, obviously, reinforcing this unbeliever’s idea that the concept of Adam’s sin being “transmuted” to the whole race IS something that you cannot be a Christian without believing. Bill was accused of “selling out, of surrendering, of treating the Bible as optional,” etc.

    Now you say “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.”

    But who decides what “is necessary to the Christian faith”? You personally, so it IS about what you personally believe!

    Yet all these other self-appointed authorities will make your life a living hell if you don’t agree with them. You will spend your whole life trying to prove to your pastor, your church, your family, your friends, etc. that you ARE a Christian despite not believing in the “transmutation” (sic) of Adam’s sin to all humanity. And they will treat you as the filth of the earth, as the worst heretic who ever lived, etc. etc.

    So the unbeliever who rejects Christianity out of hand because he doesn’t buy into original sin has saved himself all the angst and frustration and depression that a “minimalist Christian” must go through justifying himself over and over again to a bunch of ninnies who preach justification by faith in Jesus alone and then force him to justify himself by faith in original sin. I can’t say the unbeliever has made the wrong choice. By staying out of Christianity he will keep himself sane enough to live a good moral life — whereas the minimalist Christian will drive himself insane trying to interpret and reinterpret Paul’s epistles for a bunch of implacable lunatics, and probably drive himself so insane he ends up in immorality — unless he leaves Christianity and clears his head.

  • Glenn June 11, 2012, 6:24 pm

    “But who decides what “is necessary to the Christian faith”? You personally, so it IS about what you personally believe!”

    Have a closer read, rey. Yes it’s about some of the things you believe – but I said: “I’m not talking about everything that you yourself personally believe” [emphasis added]. So by cutting those words out in the above statement of yours (the one I quoted) you actually seem to have misrepresented me here – unintentionally no doubt.

    In other words, you might believe in the core essentials of the Christian faith, plus you might happen to believe a lot of other things as well about theology. The point of minimalist Christianity is to acknowledge that those other things, even if true, are not vital in order to have a Christian outlook.

    Fortunately, there are enough people who realise this that the Christian faith is not quite the “living hell” that you depict. I certainly haven’t endured any such thing. And I certainly can’t join you in recommending that people accept falsehoods with long term consequences just to avoid the occasional disagreement.

  • Dave June 11, 2012, 8:30 pm

    “And they will treat you as the filth of the earth, as the worst heretic who ever lived, etc. etc.”

    Ah, no rey – you must be thinking of the treatment dealt out by Dawkins’ disciples to the likes of Michael Ruse – fellow nonbelievers who have the audacity to be reasonable.

  • rey June 12, 2012, 11:42 pm

    @Glenn, You say “Fortunately, there are enough people who realise this that the Christian faith is not quite the ‘living hell’ that you depict.” Where are these mythical people who live in a paradise world where the doctrine of original sin is not crammed in their face every two minutes? Where are these churches who never have to deal with Calvinism? Pray tell.

    @Dave, You are a nonbeliever? I guess so since you call Dawkins a “fellow nonbeliever”. If you’re asserting that I’m a nonbeliever, I can protest that I’m just a “minimal Christian.”

  • Glenn June 13, 2012, 12:19 am

    rey, I’ve been in a number of churches. I have yet to encounter one trying to cram original sin in people’s face even once a week (on Sunday), let alone every two minutes. So they’re not mythical. They are the norm in the real world. You just want churches to be worse than they are so you can harp on about how bad they are.

    You’re just making up stuff. So, anything true to add?

  • Ciaron June 13, 2012, 8:09 am

    Where are these mythical people who live in a paradise world where the doctrine of original sin is not crammed in their face every two minutes?

    puts hand up.

  • Hugh June 13, 2012, 4:32 pm

    also raises hand

  • Glenn June 13, 2012, 6:01 pm

    Stop it. What do you think this is, one of those hand raising places? Charismatics…

  • Ciaron June 14, 2012, 9:25 am

    Would Oh Captain, my Captain be preferable?

  • ratamacue0 March 8, 2014, 9:42 am

    > 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.

    Can you provide a link to this?

  • Glenn March 8, 2014, 11:09 am

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