What Christianity Means (Note: Not “to Me”)

One of the insidious developments among my students, readers, auditors, and interlocutors is consumerism about theology. Instead of arguing, say, about whether this or that understanding of the Atonement was right or wrong, was true to the Biblical data and faithful to the tradition or not, more and more one hears the assertion, “I don’t like that way of looking at it.”

In other discourses, that would be a sign of extreme ignorance or a form of mental illness. “I don’t like that way of looking at gravity” or “I don’t like that way of understanding compound interest” or even “I don’t like that way of theorizing about poetry.”

To be sure, intuition per se must be respected. Often people make sound judgments that they cannot (yet) articulate, much less can they outline a chain of evidence and inference that led them to this or that conclusion. So if someone tells me that she finds a particular interpretation of providence troublesome or a version of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) problematic, I try to listen for what might be the issue at stake. Perhaps she is onto something important that is deficient about the theology and it just isn’t yet in focus.

What concerns me instead is the increased frequency with which I encounter well informed people who “just don’t like” one or another theological tenet and so feel utterly free to reject it.

Substitutionary atonement is a little too bloody for you, reminds you too much of your demanding parent, causes your friends to look at you strangely? Then don’t believe it!

Genesis 1-3 seems difficult to square with biology, makes you feel uncomfortable in school, causes you to wonder about the authority of Scripture? Just mythologize it!

Sexual intercourse being restricted to marriage strikes you as old-fashioned, cramps your romantic life, prompts your cool friends to mock you? Well, escape it!

Again, I offer here no brief for slavish devotion to tradition. I’m on record as espousing a variety of nontraditional views, from kenotic Christology to feminism, from a “just deserts” view of hell to a demurral from the ordination of clergy. And often theology emerges from initial feelings of dislocation and disquiet, from a sense that something is wrong with the teaching I have received and it warrants another look.

What I am troubled by is the blithe sense that if I don’t like a teaching, I am free to dismiss it. Not to argue with it, not to demonstrate the superiority of alternatives to it, but simply to ignore it as unpleasing to me in some way. And that’s just weird. If theology is anything, it is a description of reality.

Theology deals with Pretty Big and Complicated Subjects, as a rule, so its descriptions are always subject to the limitations of the theologians, and that means theology is provisional and therefore questionable. What theology is not, however, is a discourse of mere preferences.

You may wish the Bible authorized you to sleep with anyone you love (or even just like), but it just doesn’t, and you are not free in any responsible intellectual sense to think it does. You may wish that theology allowed you to be a shark at work and a martinet at home, but it doesn’t. You may wish that you could confess any doctrine and practice any ethic and worship any version of God you prefer and still call yourself a Christian, but you’re free in that case only to demonstrate your ignorance of how words work.

In a distinction I first encountered in Chesterton, you certainly are free (politically and socially) to call yourself a giraffe, but if you want to communicate, you’d better have a very long neck, a spotted coat, and backward-bending knees to be taken seriously as such. You certainly are free (politically and socially) to call yourself a Christian, but if you want anyone serious to take you seriously, your beliefs and practices have to conform with what literally defines Christianity—among which sources is not your own individual opinion.

Today is the day in which we Christians say to each other, “The Lord has risen!” Among the appropriate responses is not, “Well, I prefer to think otherwise. This whole bodily resurrection thing seems so primitive to me, rather embarrassing, actually, and I’d much rather affirm the glory of a new springtime, the miracle of the life cycle, and the promise of hope in everyone’s heart.”

By all means, let’s provoke each other to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24), and among those “good deeds” can be better understandings of theology—that is, interpretations of the Bible and of everything else God has shown us that correspond better to the evidence; cohere with what else we hold as fundamentally true, good and beautiful; and issue in holy love. What isn’t on the table is milk and cookies if you just like them better than bread and wine.


20 Responses to “What Christianity Means (Note: Not “to Me”)”

  1. Contrarian

    Since Genesis 1-3 is clearly not science,what does that say about people who insist it and the Bible are inerrant and authoritive in all things?

    • Charles

      Because science is not the end all authority in truth. There are many fields (anthropology, politics, metaphysics, ontology) with questions which simply cannot be answered by the scientific method.

      • contrararian

        No-one says science is the end authority in anything. However, the scientific method does work in many fields, and Genesis 1-3 fails as science.

        JGS complains that Christians pick & choose which parts of the Bible they like. (I think he does that too, tho that’s a different point).

        You can’t pick and choose which parts of science you like, rejecting the ones which you don’t like for religious reasons.

        • Charles

          Demand the Bible be a science book and then criticize it for not being one? Classic. We maintain the authority and truth of the Holy Scriptures. I know it’s hard to understand in the modern world, but SOMETIMES this does not mean it can be scrutinized by the scientific method. Augustine, for example, hundreds of years before modernism interpreted Gen 1-3 allegorically. It was a logical order of creation, not physical.

          • contrararian

            I’m not demanding that the Bible is a science book. I know it’s not – it’s absurd anyone would think that it’s meant to be – but plenty of people do.

            Claim that the Bible is “authoritative” are meaningless if you can’t say in advance of science what “authoritative” means.

            Are bats birds or not? Do rabbits chew the cud? Is the world millions of years old or thousands? Is the world flat or round? Is Genesis 1-3 literal or allegorical?

            Without knowing what science says about any of these things, the Bible can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to mean on any of these questions.

            That’s a poor authority…

            • Charles

              You can interpret anything to mean or not mean anything you want. Welcome to postmodern deconstructionism. You are again insisting on a particular hermeneutic and then attacking it. Consider a metanarrative approach such as Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology.

            • contrararian

              *You* are insisting on a hermeneutic – that the Bible has some special authority. I am pointing out that this “authority” is meaningless because the “authority” is entirely arbitrary.

              “Biblical theology” is an absurd, made-up-on-the-hoof, nonsensical, after-the-fact rationalisation.

              You should spend some time talking to Koran-defending Muslims. They’re not so different from Bible-defending Christians.

            • Charles

              I pray for God’s grace upon you to love and submit to his words. May you hear the word of the Lord and turn unto him for salvation. Blessings.

            • contrararian

              Yeah, right, but you are secretly hoping I burn eternally in hell for making you feel uncomfortable.

              Thanks for your Christian “love”, but you can keep it.

  2. gingoro

    I fail to understand why some churches define themselves as Christian but then say the resurrection is merely a spiritual resurrection in the minds of the disciples and other followers of Christ. Even the local media at one point asked the moderator of the Uniter Church why he called himself a Christian. Good Question to my mind.

    • contrararian

      This goes to the heart of our gracious host’s post. Who gets to define what is Christian?

      TBH i don’t see that JGS’s or your assertion of what makes a christian is any more authoritative than those who see the Resurrection as a “spiritual” one on the “minds” of believers.

      Can you explain what makes you right and them wrong?

      • John

        The post isn’t about whether I am right or not. The post is about whether we care what is actually right, or whether we treat Christian tenets as beliefs or practices we are free to elect or not and still call ourselves Christians in a substantial way. If I am going to be a scientist, I need to be committed to the scientific method and not feel free to ignore any data or interpretations I don’t like. If I am going to be a judge, I need to be committed to the impartial administration of justice according to the law, not hand down decisions as I please. What I’m talking about here is an attitude toward the disciplined and rigorous discovery of reality: If you see theology as engaging in that sort of enterprise (and Christians, among others, should), then you cannot sensibly draw back whenever the evidence or arguments aren’t going your way.

        • Contrararian

          Does that mean you are prepared to reject theology that is contradicted by science?

          Surely all that’s required for Christianity is to accept Jesus as your Lord & Saviour. Why can’t that be, essentially, metaphorical? Aren’t we in “no true Scotsman” territory otherwise?

          Anyway, interesting post and interesting responses.

  3. Jordan

    This line of argument makes me feel uncomfortable so I reject it 😉

  4. tim

    I appreciate your post today very much John. One sound byte that more or less informs much of my thinking about ‘reality’ comes from George Orwell:”It is not difficult to convince and convert those with no memory of the past.” History has chastened me many times and I do see how many of our beliefs need to held with an open hand and open to new ways of seeing and understanding. For instance, I was once a young earth creationist. I honestly thought that was what the bible taught. Now I see young earth creationism as just plain embarrassing among Christians. So as scholarship and thinking advances, so too does our awareness of how God’s word is true. The question is about what beliefs obtain revisionary immunity and which ones are open to new possibilities? This is why a community of discourse – full of charity – is full of possibilities to understand God’s revelation.

  5. Dave Swartz

    Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD in biblical studies, Yale) in “Darkness Is My Only Companion” says, “When I come across a difficult passage…I struggle with it until I can gain some meaning out of it. If I can’t, I am willing to leave it alone until I am wiser, should such a day ever come, rather than jettisoning it in my mind as though it were less profound than I.”

  6. Tyler Harper

    There have been many benefits of society’s turn away from the strict empiricism of the enlightenment (notice I didn’t use the P word). The work of James K. Smith, and our gracious host, among others, have at times highlighted these benefits, unfortunately, this issue is one one of the significant downsides.

    I was bemoaning this issue with some Catholic friends not too long ago, and a realized, hey, maybe they’re on to something with being able to point to Official doctrine and say This, this is what it means to be a Christian (or at least a Catholic Christian).

    • contrararian

      Except in practice many Catholics disagree with official teaching in many areas, including contraception, gay marriage, etc.

      I read that there are around 41,000 Christian denominations. Even if there are only ~10 major ones, it shows it’s hard to pin down what makes a Christian and what doesn’t.

  7. Mike in Pennsylvania

    Another zinger from Gilbert Keith…”The new theologians say that the old creeds need re-statement; but though they say it, they do not mean it. They mean exactly the opposite. They do not mean that we should find new words to express the exact meaning of the old doctrines. They mean that we should say the old words, but agree that they mean something entirely different.” The Evolution of Words and Meanings, Illustrated London News, July 3, 1920.


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