Is Everyone a Christian Who Claims to Be a Christian?
One of my biggest frustrations as a Christian blogger who is also a noted Christian theologian is that many people seem to think that “Christianity” is simply whatever a person who claims to be a Christian says it is. A slightly more sophisticated way of making the same error is to think, as many do, that “Christianity” is simply the consensus of people who call themselves Christians. Therefore, to take one example, it was Christians who carried out the medieval Crusades and pogroms against Jews and etc. Or, in some cases, people will say that Christianity is responsible for the environmental crisis or the presidency of Donald Trump or the genocide in Rwanda, etc.
The same mistake is made today about evangelicalism and evangelicals. It is simply assumed that anyone who says they are evangelical and/or once had a “born again experience” is an evangelical.
This is an example of a larger problem of faulty thinking on the part of most people today. There is little to no recognition or acknowledgement of the “essence” of a religion or an ideology or philosophy.
Let’s move to another, seemingly opposite, but not really opposite at all, example. I know people who claim to be atheists but believe in God. What do they mean by “atheist,” then? They mean they do not believe in the god (as they would put it) of traditional, classical, philosophical theism—Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” or Thomas Aquinas’s “Actus Purus,” etc. German Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann is famous for saying that only a Christian can be an atheist (in response to philosophers Ernst Bloch and Roger Garaudy). (Please don’t lecture me about Roger Garaudy’s later philosophical-religious “journey.)
I believe Moltmann’s claim was “loose talk.” It was confusing. Other believers in God (which Moltmann clearly was and is) have claimed to be atheists because they did/do not believe in the god of classical theism.
And, of course, anyone who has studied church history knows that early Christians were accused of “atheism” because they believed in only one God and not all or many gods.
I could go on giving examples of people who have stretched the meaning of religious, philosophical, and ideological labels to the breaking point. My point is that too few people recognize what is going on or question it.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Christian thinkers (theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers) have always recognized and commented on the fact that there are fake Christians—people who claim to be Christian but do not really deserve the label.
Let’s do a thought experiment to illustrate this. Imagine a possible world in which, for whatever reason, everyone who calls himself or herself “Christian” does not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior. Would that mean that “Christianity” is a religion that denies Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior? Yes, according to many people. No, according to me. In that possible world “Christianity” would have ceased to exist except in documentary form (and, of course, in the mind of God).
That way of thinking—that “Christianity” is whatever most people who call themselves Christians believe and how they live—is a-historical. It is typical of the anti-intellectualism of much of modern and postmodern people in world societies. I’m not sure where the phrase came from, but I call it “bean counting.” It is a reductionist approach to identifying religions, philosophies, and ideologies.
The only cure for this confusion is what I have called here before “prototype theory.” It is the way of identifying ideologies, movements, religions, philosophies, in terms of their historical prototypes. This is an approach used by many students and scholars of intellectual history because it is the only cure for total confusion of categories, terms, and labels. (Sorry, they can’t be escaped or discarded.)
Identifying and describing Christian theology’s prototypes is why I wrote The Story of Christian Theology (InterVarsity Press). Identifying and describing “modern theology” is why I wrote The Journey of Modern Theology. Anyone who reads both books carefully will recognize that I do not think all “modern theologians” who called themselves “Christians” were real Christians. The same is true of The Story of Christian Theology. Basically it is the story of God’s preservation of his people in spite of the power of fake Christians.
People who comment here often write as if all people who call (or called) themselves Christians are (or were). They need to know that virtually no Christian thinks that way—anymore than George Will thinks Donald Trump is a conservative!
I absolutely reject the accusation that when I say someone is not a Christian (who calls himself or herself a Christian) I am being “judgmental.”
One of the absolutes on which all Christian prototypes, including Jesus himself, agreed and agree is that in order to be a Christian one must admit being a sinner and repent (insofar as that is possible). Anyone who says he has never had to repent cannot be a Christian. Saying so is not being “judgmental;” it is simply stating a fact.
To you who would fall into this error, I say: Read a good book about basic Christianity such as John R. Stott’s best-selling Basic Christianity or C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity or something similar—a widely acknowledged true statement of the fundamentals of Christianity. Take the time to inform yourself before spouting off about Christianity and Christians. Do the same with “evangelicalism.” Read (for example) A Passion for Truth by Alister McGrath (IVP).
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).