Four Good Questions

Four Good Questions December 4, 2015

Through the years, I have often taught courses on Christian history, covering various periods. Whenever I do that, I usually approach the course with a simple four-point formula that proves useful to focus students on the issues that Christians debate in particular eras – although the key issues and conflicts will differ between periods. Depending on the period, the questions asked here would ideally lead into many different kinds of intellectual territory. Arguably, these questions – or something very much like them – mark the critical divisions in all Christian debates and discussions.

I am not pretending to offer any great theological insights here, but just suggesting a framework for organizing a class. In my experience, it is particularly useful at a time when even bright and well informed students have virtually no background about Christian doctrines or history. By the way, that comment also applies, distressingly, to many people who are very active church members.

The formula has four parts, which I  remember by a mnemonic like CASI or SICA, or whatever works for you:

 

What is the Church?

By what authority?

What must I do to be saved?

Who do men say that I am?

 

(that is, CASI: Church – Authority – Saved – I am).

In more detail,

What is the Church?

How do people define the church? Does that definition correspond with institutional structures? In other words, is “The Church” an observable objective reality, or a spiritual, mystical communion? Is there a sense that multiple churches or denominations can legitimately coexist? How do believers classify those outside the church? Historically, a major defining point in these questions is that of communion or the Eucharist, the issue of who is entitled to share communion.

By what authority?

What is the supreme authority for Christian belief or practice? How do believers value scripture, tradition, apostolic succession, or charismatic authority? Do they believe that these sources of authority are closed or open? Is it possible for new revelations or charismatic statements to overrule older forms? How is the canon of scripture defined? Who has the power to authorize such changes? Who decides?

British left-wing politician Tony Benn offered a provocative list of “Five Questions About Power,” which he thought people should always be asking of those in charge. They ran as follows:

“What power have you got?”

“Where did you get it from?”

“In whose interests do you use it?”

“To whom are you accountable?”

and “How do we get rid of you?”

He certainly was not intending to apply those questions to power and authority within the church or churches, but they can yield interesting results. Maybe that is a whole different column right there. (That might be all the more topical because Benn’s son Hilary Benn is now such a rising star in British politics).

What must I do to be saved?

That gets to issues of individual versus collective salvation; the necessity of the church institutions and its sacraments; the role of private devotion and the Bible; and the relative worth of faith and works. Is baptism necessary for salvation? The Eucharist? Do sacraments have a power and influence independent of the conscious intent of the person receiving them (eg the ancient debates about infant baptism).

If I have to believe particular doctrines to be saved, what exactly are the minimum limits of that belief?

Is salvation only possible within one church institution? Is it possible outside the bounds of Christianity? And so on.

Who do men say that I am?

How is Christ understood? That is obviously the key question during the early church and Late Antiquity, when Christians are so divided over Christological struggles. In later times, that again relates to Eucharistic questions, and the issue of whether Christ is really literally present in the liturgy. (And because it is the best-known version of the quote, I am here using the gender-specific translation).

 

If this structure works for you as a teaching tool, that’s wonderful. If not, well, thanks for your attention. Does anyone else have any teaching tools that they would like to share?

 

 

 

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  • MesKalamDug

    A really comprehensive post. I don’t teach (gave it up sixty years ago)
    but it is great advice for real life teachers.

    I submit that the first question is the one that matters . I see too many people trying to solve problems by edicting them out of the Church. One of the biggest mistakes
    of that ilk was the chasm built between Islam and “The Church”. As I’ve said before
    Islam is really a Christian denomination – and the internal problems of Islam – like
    the Da’ish – are really Christina problems. Denying that is simply make our problems worse.