What Is the Essence of Christianity? Part 2
In Part 1 of this series I said that Christian theologians have identified three aspects of Christianity’s essence: orthodoxy (right belief), orthopathy (right experience), and orthopraxy (right living). Different theologians have focused on one or two or all three—as most crucial to identifying Christianity’s essence.
Why is it necessary to identify Christianity’s essence? Well, simply because there have been and are so many very different individuals and groups calling themselves Christians who differ radically from each other and from the consensus of the Christian church fathers and reformers, to say nothing of from the New Testament!
To say that all who claim to be Christian are is to empty the word “Christianity” of meaning.
On the other hand, it is conceivable that Christianity’s essence is not something anyone can pin down—like the proverbial butterfly in the box. Still, there are situations where some people, obviously not all, have to make some kind of judgment, however tentative, as to what really constitutes authentic Christianity and what does not.
*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.*
To me, anyway, Christianity is a centered set as opposed to a bounded set category. Christianity has a center and that is the person of Jesus Christ. The World Council of Churches requires a church to affirm that Jesus Christ is God and Savior in order to join. I agree with that. However, I have also experienced some people saying that Jesus Christ is God and Savior but effectively denying it by the way they think and teach, live and walk, and/or say they experience God.
Still, Christian identity is not a closed circle; it is a center without a circumference. Nevertheless, it is possible to be or go so far from the center that the claim to be Christian becomes meaningless.
I will dare to say, based on many years of study and teaching about Christianity, that the center, the essence, of Christianity, is composed of three elements or aspects: orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy. Naturally, here I am talking only about people who claim to be Christian and are capable of thinking and believing, of experiencing and feeling, and of practically live out a life with God and other people.
To me, the most crucial of the three aspects is orthopathy by which, in this context, I mean communion with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. But, of course, only God knows with absolute certainty who has that fellowship with him. Still, if someone of relatively mature age says he or she has never needed to repent but is a Christian, I have to doubt the authenticity of his or her Christianity. According to the Bible and Christian tradition, acknowledging one’s sin and repenting is part of having fellowship with God.
Second to orthopathy is, I believe, orthodoxy. I am not putting it over orthopraxy but simply arguing that it is more crucial to identifying whether a group or individual deserves to be considered Christian or not. A quick perusal of his or her stated beliefs or of a group’s stated beliefs is essential to determining whether he, she or they deserve to be considered authentically Christian. To me, the Nicene Creed is the best written statement of authentic Christian orthodoxy. That is not to say every individual or group has to explicitly affirm it; it is only to say that I use it as a kind of “canon” for deciding whether I think a person or group is authentically Christian based on what I can discern about his, her or their beliefs.
Finally, at the center, the heart of Christianity is orthopraxy which is best summed up, for Christians, by Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Of course, very few people live it out consistently one hundred percent of the time. Perhaps it is even impossible to live it out that consistently over a lifetime. But if a group calling itself Christian obviously celebrates violence as good and right, that calls the authenticity of their Christianity into question.
But all of this is a “more or less” kind of process of discernment. Rarely, but sometimes, it is possible and necessary to say “No, that group is not authentically Christian at all.” However, most of the time, it is possible and necessary to say “Yes, that group is authentically Christian except in this or that particular aspect where they could do better.”
Finally, once again, I will dare to say that Christianity’s essence is identifiable but not absolutely and is probably an impossible ideal rather than something someone possesses perfectly.
This requires a combination of humility and courage to make judgments, something that is very unpopular in contemporary Western culture, and humility in making those judgements. And, of course, Christianity itself calls for charity even when one has to say “No, I don’t consider that church (or other group) authentically Christian.” One has to qualify that with “But I am not judging their salvation; only God knows who belongs to him.”
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