Empirical Christianity versus Real Christianity

Empirical Christianity versus Real Christianity March 26, 2024

Empirical Christianity versus Real Christianity

I rarely devote a whole blog essay to answering one question asked by a blog friend. But in this case I have been thinking a lot about the question recently asked by one of my most faithful and, to me, most interesting interlocutors.

In a recent blog post I mentioned “empirical Christianity.” An astute reader asked me for a definition of that. As is often the case, I failed to answer adequately and that has bothered me for days. So here I will try to answer more adequately and I hope that will be helpful not only the the person who asked but to many more.

“Empirical Christianity,” as I use the phrase, refers, for me, to “Christianity” that anyone, even outsiders, non-Christians, can see. But, to borrow William James’s description of nature, that is a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” Can all expressions of it be true Christianity? Can any church or organization or individual or institution that calls itself “Christian” be authentically Christian?

Some historical background might be helpful (or not). During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one group of Protestant Christians emerged early from the so-called “magisterial Reformers” who allowed the civil states to govern the pace and nature of the Reformation. These are called “radical Reformers” and most of them were some kind of Anabaptists. This movement began in 1525 in Zurich although there were some such as Balthasar Hubmaier who were not in Zurich when the movement began.

The Anabaptists, of which I am one, made a lot of noise about believing that much of the Christendom of their day was not truly Christian. Did they mean that non-Anabaptists could not be “saved?” I don’t think so. But they wanted a pure, New Testament Christianity and believed that, for example, the Holy Roman Empire was not that and even the Protestant churches that allowed the states to govern the Reformation were hardly really Christian at all.

Were the Anabaptists then and today part of “empirical Christianity?” Yes. True Christianity, in its organized expression, is enfolded within empirical Christianity. But the point is that not all empirical Christianity is true Christianity. Discerning the differences is no easy task, but it is part of the task of every Christian theologian of which I am one.

Empirical Christianity, then, is simply a way of describing ALL people, especially all organized expressions of self-identified Christianity, that is visible to all people who care to look, study and learn.

For example, when I wrote the 14th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States for Abingdon Press I followed the pattern of previous editions and included many denominations that I do not personally consider true expressions of Christianity. The book was about empirical Christianity in the U.S., especially in its denominational expressions. I had to bracket out my theologian’s task of discernment and just “wear” a kind of historical-sociological “hat.”

But then Abingdon Press asked me to write a book distinguishing between “true” and “counterfeit” Christianity, especially in America. There I put my theologian’s hat back on.

*Note: If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures or links.*

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