My own attempt at “mere Christianity”

As a history teacher, I think about ways to make the most complex and confusing story we know, human history, more understandable to college students.  Last year, I think, I tried to put the main doctrines of Christianity on a Power Point in a way that most who have called themselves Christians throughout the centuries could agree on.  This was for my lecture on the beginnings of Christianity.  Since all traditional Christians say that their beliefs go back to the first century, I thought that it made sense to capture what they could agree on while also trying to be faithful to what the earliest Christians believed so that it wasn’t just watered down.  I said that traditional Christians would generally agree with these statements, although they would interpret and explain them differently.

This year, I’m thinking about giving out a sheet with the basics that we would return to in the later parts of the course, as we look at the post-apostolic church in the ancient world, the Orthodox Church, the medieval Catholic church, and the different Protestant groups.  This would give the students an opportunity to explain how the different churches would explain these Christian basics.

So the reason that I put them up here is to ask you this: what do you think of this list of four basic Christian statements?  Do they need to be modified?  What am I missing?  Keep in mind that I am trying to reflect what we know about the earliest Christians without adding on the layers of interpretation that (necessarily) had to take place afterwards.  But maybe you think that’s a goofy way to approach it, and I would appreciate your constructive criticism too.

Here they are:

  • Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel and incarnate Son of God
  • Faith in Jesus’ Lordship, death, and resurrection led to forgiveness of sins and eternal life
  • Believers were baptized into the church and expected to live holy lives
  • Jesus would return to judge the earth

I can think of some ways to improve them just by reviewing them again, but I will leave them as is to get your responses.  Thanks!

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9 comments

  1. Yes, definitely. Especially with the role that the Scriptures played as one of the main pillars of orthodoxy in the early centuries.

    I also think that I am going to change the one about baptism to “Christians were baptized…” since there is a dispute about credo vs. paedo and how early it occurred.

  2. There’s an awful lot that’s in the apostle’s creed that’s missing from your 4 points. It seems a bit too minimalistic to me.

  3. How do you define “the earliest Christians.” because that would certainly influence what one puts in the list? Also, would you consider including beliefs of the “earliest Christians” if they contradicted modern Protestant thought? For instance, about the only people who remotely agree with reasonable interpretations of Justin Martyr’s and Ignatius’ writings on the Eucharist are Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans. Presbyterians, Methodists, Assemblies of God Pentecostals and Calvary/Vineyard non-denominational types all vehemently reject such literal interpretations of Jesus words.

    When one looks at what CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, for instance, I don’t think he selected things based on what the earliest (pre-Constantine) Christians believed as much the overarching themes in Christianity which are still accepted by pretty much everyone today. That’s a huge distinction. I’m not sure historically grounding the beliefs was a primary purpose of Lewis. It’s been several years since I read Mere Christianity, so maybe I’m off track on that point. I certainly don’t recall him regularly quoting Ignatius, Iranaeus, Justin Martyr, et. al.

    • I was being a bit facetious by calling it my attempt at mere Christianity, and my intent is something different from his. You’re right that he wasn’t trying to be historical, but philosophical.

      As far as “the earliest Christians,” I’m thinking of the 1st century. I want to be as faithful as I can to that, although my Protestantism certainly colors the way that I see it. When we talk about the development of the church in the 2nd century and on, I make sure to highlight the importance of the bishops being seen as preservers of the teachings of the apostles so that the Catholic-Protestant arguments make sense.

      Can you be more specific about Ignatius and Justin Martyr? I know that Ignatius talks about the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality” in chapter 20 of his letter to the Ephesians, but is there another passage that you’re thinking of?

      • The problem with limiting oneself to the first century, is that it can easily turn into a Bible study as opposed to a history class. That was the apostolic age and not much can indisputably be placed there. Heck, even 2 Peter is thought by lots (most?) scholars to be a 2nd century work. Confidently hanging a 1st century date on early Christian writings is tough. The apostles seemed far more interested in spreading the gospel by word of mouth than by the written word. The NT lacks the detail and consistency one would need to confidently assemble the beliefs of the early Church. I suppose one could argue that the Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas and Epistles of Clement are 1st century works, but even half of those are disputed. The Shepherd of Hermas is also a bit of tough book to grasp as an intro. I would never recommend it to a newbie to early Christian thought, though it was considered by many to be Scripture and a part of the NT in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Probably, I just don’t understand what you are really trying to do.

      • Regarding Ignatius of Antioch and the Eucharist, he had quite a bit to say that no Protestant would every dream of saying. From where I sit, pretty much everything Ignatius wrote on the topic could be put in that category.. The Eucharist to him was both literally the body and blood of Christ and also closely connected to the concept of unity in the Church and the authority of the bishop.

        Epistle to the Smyrnaeans
        “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.”

        “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

        Epistle to the Philadelphians
        “Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.”

        Epistle to the Romans
        “I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.”

      • Regarding Justing Martyr, he also said that this bread and wine are the body and blood of our savior Jesus Christ. They are no longer ordinary bread and wine, but are changed at the prayer of consecration. If one were to pull this quote out of context and ask someone to whom it would be attributed, one might guess Luther or Rowan Williams or a pope, but never Mark Driscoll nor Chuck Smith nor anyone like them.

        First Apology, Ch. 66: On the Eucharist
        “And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.”

  4. Perhaps the best way to present Christianity without interpretation is to just quote the Bible, particularly the NT. I suspect there are reasonably sized verses which fit much of your description above.

    It is a bit more difficult, but it’s as early as you’re going to get and all Christians accept it as an authority, making it hard to argue with it, particularly if it’s repeated in different contexts throughout scripture and if you don’t elaborate on it too much.

    Of course, people can always argue over translation, but that could be part of your point in attempting to separate interpretation.

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