In a previous post in this series, I suggested that we define Christianity as the religion, which includes a coherent world-view, established by Jesus Christ, and first promoted though his disciples, the Apostles. The question posed to us by Bertrand Russell, which I am attempting to answer, is which beliefs are essential to Christianity. If we want to say that Christianity is the religion founded by Jesus and the Apostles, then whatever list of beliefs we finally settle on should be consistent with what they believed and taught. Those teachings are preserved firstly in the New Testament (which builds on the Old Testament, which the Apostles firmly accepted, and believed foreshadowed the New), and secondly in their oral teachings which were preserved by the individual Churches they founded, in cities from Rome across to the Persian Empire and possibly as far away as India. This rule of faith can then be pieced together by comparing other early Christian writings, and used as a guide to help interpret and understand the New Testament.
I would propose which beliefs are essential to a coherent belief system is in itself an essential doctrine of that belief system. Suppose that we have three groups of people. One group has lax in defining the essential beliefs, the second is too stringent, and the third gets it right. The group that is too lax will include various ideologies which (if the belief system when properly formulated is true) are incorrect. They will admit those who shouldn't be there. What this means is that they are tolerant of error. To be tolerant of error means that you do not correct someone's mistakes. For a religion such as Christianity, which calls on its followers to target perfection, to tolerate error is impossible. There is nothing more hateful than to let someone continue to be guided by dangerously wrong ideas. Such an approach would include those the apostles would have excluded, and thus cannot be considered as Christian. The apostles did exclude people (see, for example, Titus 3:10, 1 Corinthians 5:11, Matthew 7:23).
On the other hand, to be too strict in the definition of belief, for example by placing additional burdens on believers, would exclude perspectives which ought to be included within the spectrum of Christian beliefs. It might even exclude the apostles, and certainly would exclude many of the apostle's age they would have included. Thus while this group might be a subset of Christianity, they cannot represent Christianity as a whole.
In either case, we either include people the apostle's would have excluded, and considered it essential to exclude if the church was to maintain its message, or exclude people the apostle's would have included, and considered it essential to include if the church was to maintain its breadth. Thus we believe something differently to the apostles, which the apostles considered essential. Given that the beliefs the apostles considered essential to the faith define Christianity, to have a different list of essential beliefs denies us the status of being a good Christian. We may well still be a Christian, just not a perfect one. Of course, we should admit the uncertainty in our own list of beliefs.
So if the list of which beliefs are essential is an essential part of the definition of a religion, then if we choose a different list to that which the apostles selected, then we are excluding the apostles from Christianity. We are saying that they incorrectly understood what Christianity is, and since this understanding is essential to being a good Christian, we would be saying that the apostles were not authentic Christians. And this is an absurd conclusion.
So when asking ourselves what are the essential beliefs of Christianity, we should begin by looking at what the apostles (being the closest we can get to Jesus, at least in a historical study) considered essential.
Of course, this definition runs into problems. Firstly, the group of apostles were not completely uniform in their beliefs. Which one do we point to when there is a difference between them? But do we need to point? We know that they accepted each other as Christians, despite their differences. The list of essential beliefs is not a single pinprick: believe this, or else! It is a region: believe this, or this, or this, but not that. So for each of the apostles, although they would have each had their own particular spin on Christianity, which they would no doubted believed themselves to be best, they would still have considered the other apostle's preferred set of doctrines as acceptable. There is therefore room in the list of essential beliefs for a degree of diversity, as long as it does not go too far into realms which all the apostles would have believed to be unacceptable. Equally, just because all the apostles believed something doesn't mean that they would have considered it essential to the faith. They were interested in the good news of the salvation from sin offered by Jesus, and the associated matters of morality and theology. Many questions are irrelevant to this. I'm sure that many of the apostles would have had strong views on the best ways to catch fish. They wouldn't have made it an article of the Christian faith. They no doubt followed their culture into many scientific errors; again, they would have considered those matters irrelevant to the message of Jesus. Thus, in matters such as these, Christians are free to believe what they will (although they ought to follow the best available evidence, just as they do when they build up their Christian faith).
The next problem is how do we construct the beliefs from the evidence available to us? There is room for different interpretations. But we have to distinguish between valid interpretations and invalid interpretations. So let us consider a particular text - any text will do. Before we start by reading it, this text could have any meaning whatsoever: these meanings are the possible interpretations. The words used in their direct grammatical context constrain the meaning, ruling most of the interpretations invalid. But, words necessarily contain a certain degree of ambiguity in meaning (particularly since words shift in meaning from place to place and time to time, so when looking at a historical text we have to reconstruct which of those meanings apply). We cannot rule out every interpretation but one from the grammatical sense of the text, but we can still limit them considerably. When eliminating invalid interpretations, of equal importance as considering the words used by the writer is to think about the words they didn't use. If they had meant our suggested interpretation, would they have expressed it in a different way, that made it clearer, and was less open to misunderstanding? Also, we must keep in mind the literary form of the text: is it poetry or allegory, containing metaphor and imagery, description, instruction, parable, hyperbole, or something else? Is the writer quoting an opponent, or expressing his own view, or neither? Each literary form has its own rules of interpretation. The more picturesque the language, the broader the range of possible interpretations consistent with it.
Next we need to compare the remaining interpretations against the entire body of writing, firstly the immediate context, and then the wider context. Is this interpretation consistent with what was written elsewhere? If not, then we can discard it. We use those passages which are clearer to interpret those which are less clear.
Thirdly, we look at the surrounding culture of the writer. What did the writer believe? In the case of the New Testament writers, we know that they were raised in second temple Judaism, and their world-view was shaped by the Old Testament as interpreted by the teachers of the time. While there are obviously differences between the New and Old Testaments, and some novelties introduced in Christianity, nonetheless there is a great deal of influence. We should also watch out for allusions to the Old Testament in the New; a choice of words which calls back, intentionally, to some Old Testament imagery which further expands what the author intended to say. Equally there are other Jewish sources: Josephus, Philo, the Talmud and so on, which can give an insight to the mindset of the culture in which Jesus operated.
Next, we should look at how the text was interpreted by the disciples of the apostles, in the post-apostolic Christian writings. These authors had advantages over us: they lived in the same culture, spoke the same language natively, and, in the earliest generations at least, could call on memories of what the apostles taught in person, or of the apostle's own disciples, and to early written sources which are now lost to us. Obviously each generation removed from the original source makes these memories less reliable (although since the teachings were passed on in community rather than just from one person to another, and since early Christianity was highly suspicious of theological novelty, the passing on of tradition would still be very reliable), but equally obviously we don't have to rely on a single chain of witnesses, but several largely independent chains. What was agreed on across the early Church has a very good chance of stretching back to the original source; where there was strong disagreement, less so.
Finally, we can demand internal consistency when we systematise our interpretations of different passages.
Thus by well established methods of interpretation, we can reduce the list of possible interpretations to just a few viable alternatives: we remove almost all of the uncertainty. What remains, we add to the uncertainty from the diversity of belief among the apostles themselves.
But how do we know that we have an accurate manuscript in the first place? How do we know that the words we read were those first written? Once again, we can be more confident than many people might realise. The Romans and Persian elites were vivacious readers, but only the very wealthy, or institutions such as schools, academies and churches or monasteries, could maintain large libraries. Before the invention of printing, manuscripts were copied by hand, one at a time. It was a slow and expensive process; even the writing materials (parchment and Papyrus) were expensive, so professional scribes were well trained not to make mistakes. They were much better at copying than we are today. A wealthy man would learn of a book he wanted to read and add to his library. He would seek out his nearest copy, borrow it, and find a scribe willing to copy it. What errors introduced in the copying process would remain in that manuscript and those copied from it, and no others. Except in the earliest years of the manuscript history, the copies would generally be found in the same geographical neighbourhood as the original, leading to manuscript traditions growing up independently in different places. The Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been divided into four independent families, each centred around one of the early centres of learning and training of clergy in the early Church: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome.
Each manuscript is on a particular branch of a tree, and each branch is linked by an independent line of boughs to the trunk of the tree, which represents the original. The manuscripts we possess today are twigs taken from anywhere on that tree, and we have a good sample of all the branches, albeit that most of the earlier texts are Alexandrian, and the majority of the later texts are Byzantine: but we possess some manuscripts from each family across a wide range of time periods. Major errors in the copying process were rare (things such as spelling mistakes, or the omission or repetition of words are more common, but easily recognised); the chances of the same substantial error occurring twice independently (let alone the several hundred or thousand times that would be needed to explain the New Testament manuscript record) are sufficiently remote that we can forget about it. If we have enough manuscripts, then through careful comparison, we can trace them back to their common ancestor, which is likely to be the original. In the case of the New Testament, we have more than enough manuscripts and fragments, with the earliest dating from just a few years after the originals were written, collected together from almost every location there were Greek speaking Christians. On top of that, we have the translations, citations in early Christian writers, and the early lectionaries. There is an abundance of evidence, far more than any other ancient text. We know what sorts of errors copyists generally make, and what sorts of errors they don't make. In short, we can with almost complete certainty remove the errors introduced in the copying process, and recover the words of the original manuscript. A modern New Testament will provide a translation of the reading that the translators consider most reliable, with possible alternative readings marked in the footnotes. We can be certain that the original is translated by either the main text or one of the footnotes. What little uncertainty remains can be added to the imprecision we have already encountered.
Indeed, we can see how little uncertainty there is just by using the English translations, rather than having to go back to the Greek text. We can compare the King James Bible against a good word-for-word modern translation (following the same translation methodology as the KJV) such as the English Standard Version. There is obviously a vast difference between seventeenth century and twenty-first century language, but I am interested in the meaning of the text. The King James Bible was based on a handful of late Byzantine manuscripts. It was a very good translation of a (by modern terms) very bad manuscript. The Greek text used by the modern translations is constructed by taking the early Alexandrian manuscripts as a base text, and then correcting that reading from the other manuscript families as appropriate; it is widely regarded as the best text we have available. One translation is based on what is regarded as the worst critical text produced by scholars (albeit ground-breaking for its time), the other on what is regarded as the best text there has ever been. Now try to find a significant difference in meaning between the two translations. There are a few, but you have to hunt pretty hard to locate them. While there is a vast number of variations in the manuscript record, almost all of them can be eliminated, and those which remain don't affect the meaning of the text.
Then we have the problem that the New Testament writers didn't directly provide a list of essential beliefs. That's not their problem: they weren't writing specifically for our benefit to answer this problem, but to answer the problems faced by their contemporaries. In some places, they directly state that something is essential or of first importance. In other places, they directly say that something is non-essential. For other things, we have to interpret as best we can, which introduces more uncertainty.
So I seem to have a problem: my definition of what constitutes Christian belief is imprecise to begin with, and our knowledge of that definition is even more imprecise. But is this really a problem? Uncertainty is something which all scientists deal with on a day-to-day basis, and it can be, and must be, parametrised, defined, accurately stated, and reduced by further systematic investigation. Definitions don't have to be perfectly precise, and for most things they shouldn't be. When we define the word cat, we don't imagine one particular cat and leave it at that, but make the definition sufficiently broad that it includes every possible cat, and sufficiently narrow that it excludes every possible dog. While there is uncertainty in the definition of Christian belief, it is not so broad that the definition becomes useless; we can point with certainty to beliefs and say that to believe them makes one a Christian, and to deny them makes one outside the faith; the uncertainty just amounts to a little fuzziness around the edges.
We can take one possible set of beliefs which we can consider Christian; say the most likely reconstruction of the beliefs of the apostle Paul. Modify it a little bit, and we have a different belief system, which will still be Christian. Group these two belief-systems together, and we have a set. Continue expanding the set by infinitesimal modifications, until we map out the region of possible states bound by our analysis of the earliest Christian sources, including the uncertainty and the requirement for logical coherence. Logical coherence is important. It is impossible to get from Christianity to, for example, Buddhism, in small steps because the intermediate region is not coherent, while both Christianity and Buddhism are. Thus we can make a clear distinction between the different religions. Like every definition constructed in this way (which should be all definitions), it is unchanging in time. A Church organisation can evolve its doctrines. Christianity itself can't. The Church will either move away, or perhaps towards, authentic Christianity; but Christianity isn't defined by the resolutions of contemporary Church councils, but by what was taught by Jesus through his Apostles.
We can then take a particular person off the street today, and ask what they believe. We compare the beliefs he lists against the set. If the belief system is a member of that set, then it is Christian. If it is not, then it is either non-Christian, heretical Christian or bad Christian. Of course, whether the person himself is Christian or non-Christian not only depends on what he believes, but on whether he lives in accordance with those beliefs. But for this intellectual exercise, we are only interested in the belief systems themselves.
We can treat any religion in a similar way. If a religion is to be defined in terms of sets of beliefs, rituals, and ways of life, then we can construct the set of every possible logically coherent religion, and then within this set, draw various subsets. One of these subsets would correspond to Christianity, another to Islam, another to Hinduism, and so on. There are two different definitions of a religion, and we need both of them. Firstly, we want to define it in terms of a list of beliefs, rituals and behaviours, which is necessary if we are to take apart and investigate the truth or falsity of the beliefs of the religion. Secondly, we can define a religion in terms of the beliefs and intentions of its founder. We want these two definitions to be equivalent. We would be pretty stupid if we defined the Muslim, in part, as someone who accepted a particular set of beliefs, if that list of beliefs excluded Mohammed. Thus, at least in the time of Mohammed, we would have to use what Mohammed believed as part of our definition of Islam; what he believed to be essential to the religion, what he believed to be accidental, and those possible beliefs which he claimed were forbidden for Muslims. One might think that we would include Mohammed by making the list of correct beliefs broader than what Mohammed would have chosen, but this is not viable. For one of the key tenets of any religion is where its boundaries should be drawn, and by drawing them in a different place to where Mohammed would, we are saying that his view on this matter was not Islamic, and therefore that he was either a bad Muslim or no Muslim at all, which is absurd. But since definitions are unchanging in time, we have to, as much as is possible and sensible, use the same list of defining beliefs today.
Doesn't looking back at a Jewish Peasant two thousand years ago render Christianity irrelevant? After all, Jesus might have said some wise things, but don't we have far more accumulated wisdom to draw on today? If Christianity were false, there would be merit in this objection. But if Christianity is true, then Jesus was God Himself walking on the earth. Whatever wisdom (or lack of it - we have got a lot of things wrong as well as getting a lot right) we have obtained over the past millennia is insignificant next to the the wisdom of God. Thus if Christianity is true, rather than using our modern standard to judge which bits of Jesus' teachings we like and which we should discard, we should be using Jesus' standard to decide which bits of modern wisdom are good and which should be put aside. After all, reason is the process of moving from premise to conclusion. A conclusion is only as good as the premises that support it, and every premise can be challenged. And the premises that our modern culture and philosophy are built on are as shaky as any other. The only way we can be sure that we are building from true premises is to establish them using non-rational means: empirical observation or the direct word of God. So if Christianity is right about Jesus, and modern reasoning contradicts Christian doctrine, then we should jettison at least some of the premises on which modern reasoning is built. Indeed, it is the only rational thing to do.
Should we accept all of the beliefs of the Apostles as being binding on Christians? I think that the answer should be 'No.' Some of their common beliefs would have been taken from Jesus' life, ministry and teachings. Others would have been taken from the culture around them. For example, they might have held to a particular view of reproduction; that the child inherited from the father alone, and the mother was only the carrier of the child. But if this belief didn't come from Jesus, then it need not be correct. They would not have regarded such beliefs, or beliefs such as that the earth was at the centre of the universe, as being essential to Christianity, and therefore Christians are free to follow what the best empirical evidence has to say.
What about their views on ethical matters such as slavery? If all the apostles accepted slavery, then should Christians do so as well? This particular issue is more complex than is often realised. When we think of slavery, we think of the horrific Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the sugar cane plantations of North and Central America. This is slavery in its worst form. In Biblical times, it corresponds to the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, which is universally condemned throughout the Bible, or, in Roman times, pirates who kidnapped people to sell them on to slavery, who Paul directly condemns in 1 Timothy. Thus it is certainly permissible (I would say mandatory) for Christians to oppose that form of slavery. But there were other forms of slavery as well, and many of these (not all) were beneficial for the slave: debt slavery, when people would lease themselves for a short period in slavery to pay off their debts; or the tutors, scribes and stewards, who had better lives as part of a Patrician's household than they would have done trying to ply their trades privately as freemen. But, even here, it is not clear that the Apostles supported slavery. The ancient justification for slavery was that some people were naturally inferior and thus deserved to be slaves to their betters. The Apostle's teaching completely overturned this teaching, saying that slaves and freemen were equal before God. Christian masters were asked to receive their slaves as brothers. Slaves were encouraged to seek their freedom, if they could obtain it through legal means. Slaves and freemen worshipped side by side in the Church, the distinction dissolved through Christian unity. This idea continued throughout Christian history, with most theologians arguing that slavery was an evil. In the early church, the majority regarded it as a necessary evil, fearing a complete collapse of the Roman economy if slavery ended (which probably would have occurred). A few supported slavery, while some called for its abolition despite the economic consequences. As time progressed, opposition to slavery hardened. There were, as is commonly cited, many theologians in North America, even otherwise very well regarded theologians, who argued in favour of slavery at the height of the trade in the Americas. But they are the exception. These exceptions are warnings about what can happen if theologians seek to use contemporary culture to guide their interpretation of scripture, much as some theologians today try to mutilate scripture to support contemporary society's approval of certain forms of sexual immorality.
I am aware of five crusades against slavery in human history. The first was by the Western Church in the middle ages, culminating in the permanent abolition of slavery in Northern Europe by the early twelfth century. The second was by various Buddhists in India and China, but their campaigns only achieved a few years of success. Thirdly, after the Spanish and Portuguese began slavery of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands and North and Central America (mainly from secular influences, although briefly permitted by the papacy), and began the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the efforts of various Catholic monks, Catholic Kings, and a continual stream of condemnations of slavery by the post-Renaissance Popes saw the outlawing of slavery and the slave trade in Catholic Southern Europe. Fourthly, from various Anglican Evangelicals and Quakers in the United Kingdom, which led to the end of slavery in the overseas territories of the Northern European Empires. Finally in North America in the events leading up to the civil war, inspired partly by Christianity and partly from secular (enlightenment) philosophy. Three and a half out of five of the only movements in human history to oppose slavery were Christian, and Christianity is the only major movement to have a consistent, albeit not unanimous, anti-slavery streak from first establishment to the present day. The reintroduction of slavery in Renaissance Europe against the trajectory of Christian doctrine and due to secular ideologies is a good example of why the Church should not let itself be influenced by new ideas from outside its tradition.
But what about the evolution of Christian belief over time? Hasn't Christian doctrine changed over the centuries, and does this not rule out the idea of defining Christian belief in terms of the beliefs of the early church? This is not just an issue with Christian belief, but of any intellectual system defined in terms of what it believes. If certain doctrines are regarded as being essential to a belief system, and the organisation in charge of interpreting and guarding those doctrines then tries to modify them, does this mean that the doctrine has changed? With a few caveats, no. It means that the organisation no longer believes what it was founded to defend. The body of belief ceases to be what it was, and becomes something else. That something else might be better than the original belief system, or it might be worse. This is true for anything. If certain attributes are essential to a type of being, and it so that it no longer possesses some or all of those attributes, then it is no longer that type of being but something else. The Church which changes its beliefs beyond the bounds of authentic Christianity will believe in some other religion; perhaps a better one than it was founded upon, but nonetheless different. If names are to be of any use, then the new belief system should be called by something else, otherwise we can no longer say Christian and expect to know what is meant. If names are to have use, their meaning has to remain constant over time. Otherwise we would have to qualify each definition with a date and time, for example, by saying that it is a aardvark according to the twelfth century European definition, rather than the eighteenth century Chinese definition, and hope that the reader is learned enough to be able to distinguish between the two. Better just to call it an aardvark, and if the Chinese meant something different, then use a different word to describe the concept. Better to just call it a Christian, and whether it is a second century Christian or a twentieth century Christian, use the same label to refer to the same religion, and a different or qualified label if the doctrine changed between those times. If a Church tries to change its doctrine while still claiming to accept the same faith, then by nature it excludes those who hold to the original doctrine (even if the Church's change makes the doctrine more inclusive), and leaves them with nowhere to go. Since the mission of the Church is to preserve and guard the doctrine, it has, in effect, betrayed that purpose and its members. If members of a Church believe that they can do better than the founding doctrines of that Church, then they should leave that Church and found a new organisation to reflect their no doubt superior religion.
So what sort of changes are acceptable? Those developments which don't affect the underlying meaning of the original message.
- Reversion of a doctrine. If a Church strays into error, then it is clearly good to revert that mistake and go back to the original belief. The best forms of the reformation (including the counter-reformation at the council of Trento) are a good example of this. As a moderate protestant, I would say that the counter-reformation didn't go far enough, the ana-baptists went too far, and the Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians got it roughly right (with the Anglicans coming out the best because they preserved ancient church structure as well as recovering ancient church doctrine). Clearly other Christians would disagree with me here, but this is neither the place nor time to re-fight the thirty years war.
- Clarification and systematisation. For example, this might involve expressing an old idea in new language, or bringing together various diverse strands of doctrine into a single coherent statement. I would class the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, as developed by the first four ecumenical councils, as examples of this. This type of change is good, because it doesn't bring in any new meaning, but merely explains existing doctrine more clearly and more precisely.
- Formal reception of doctrine. Again, this is not really a change, but merely a statement that certain interpretations of doctrine are correct, and other interpretations erroneous. I would class the acknowledgement of the canon of scripture as one example of this change.
- Philosophical systematisation. This is where we attempt to explain the doctrine philosophically, and show how it fits in with other knowledge. This is also not a change in the content of the doctrine, but can be used to bridge gaps in it, make it more intellectually appealing, and explain out the connections between the body of doctrine and other branches of human knowledge, including scientific knowledge.
- Change in matters non-essential to the faith. If the apostles believed X, but said it is not really important and you can belief Y is also acceptable, then if it is later determined that in fact Y is correct, then the Church should be free to insist on Y. How vigorously it insists should depend on how certain it is that Y is true, and if it is later found that the Church was mistaken in its appraisal of Y, then it should revert its judgement.
- Addition of discipline. If, in the original formulation of doctrine, one can choose between A, B and C, then a church should be free to insist that its members follow B, as long as it acknowledges that this is an additional discipline rather than a core part of the religion.
- Modification of essential beliefs.
- Removal of essential beliefs.
- Addition of new beliefs which are then declared to be essential to the religion.
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