Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Religious Colonialism 3

posted by Scot McKnight

Prothero.jpgStephen Prothero’s newest book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter
., seeks to educate his audience on the basics of the major world religions. After his sketch of Islam, upon which I’m no expert, he turns to Christianity. If this chp represents his work, I’d say he gets a B. While he has a handle on some topics — like the diversity of Christianity in the world — there are others that baffle me. I’ll get to those in what follows, but first I want to admit something up front. I’m sketching this chp in light of what I think should be in a sketch of Christianity. So I have to talk a bit about what he didn’t write, and not just about what he did write — which is good and readable.

But, if you had to describe Christianity as a religion, what would be the top three topics you’d discuss? Would you include Mormonism as part of Christianity? (Would Mormons?) Which persons in the history of the Church would you say have to be mentioned?
Prothero sees Christianity as a religion of salvation (Islam as submission). Simple terms often go a long way if they are the right ones. I’d say his term “salvation” is a very good one. It needs some defining and nuancing, which he doesn’t do in a book like this, but salvation is a good descriptor of Christianity if you want to narrow it down to one term. Anyway, it’s good to describe how Christianity has presented what it has to offer to the world.
He thinks earliest Christianity was up for grabs — and here he doesn’t discuss the movement from Jesus through Paul and Peter to Nicea as cohesive, which is how Christians have always understood those years. He prefers the pluralism themes of Ehrman and others.
He also thinks Christianity is defined by what it believes over against Judaism and Islam’s emphasis on how one behaves. And for all his talk about this, there’s very little theological probing in this chp. Instead, he focuses on personal salvation (fair enough) and the facts about the diversity of Christianity (which we need). Still, while I like those two dimensions of his chp, more on the theology would help. And it would also help if he weren’t so casual and flippant about what Christians believe. 


His avoidance of probing theology mysteriously, and I think a bit uncharitably to most Christians, who by his own admission care a great deal about orthodoxy, permits him to include Mormons in his sketch of Christianity. In this chp we could have had a sketch of Jesus’ vision, Paul’s theology, Peter’s theology, etc. … in other words, Christianity is a Bible-based theology and more on what the NT presents would help. I’m perhaps pushing him too much on what he didn’t write, but I’m doing this because he offers a sketch of Christianity … and I’m thinking about how that can be best done.

He emphasizes Story: the Story of Jesus, the Story of Jesus in human history and the Story of Jesus in the lives of individual Christians, all the while emphasize Christianity as a rescue religion and the theme of salvation.
Then we start getting the facts: 2.2 billion Christians, the Reformation as splitting the Church (and here has a minimum of theological sketch of the differences), the Lutherans, the Reformed, the Anglicans and the Anabaptists (more please). He could easily have had more on Eastern Orthodoxy, esp because of the number of Eastern Christians. A section on Mormonism, the Evangelical Century (19th), the Pentecostal (20th), Brown Christians (here he is referring to non whites more than Latin Americans, so he includes Asians and Latin Americans and Africans). He’s got a good grasp here on the Next Christendom themes. Then on Islam and Christianity and a brief on Christian mystics.


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Robert

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:29 am


It would have been a far better book if the author had sketched out his portraits of the major monotheistic religions and then sat down one imminent scholar each at a table and asked them to reply to his sketch, ask questions to the others, and talk honestly about their differences.
That would be tremendous.
Now I haven’t read, or plan to make time to read, Dr. Prothero’s work. It is odd that the trend in western publications is to ignore most of Eastern Orthodoxy. That is sad. It also seems to be a trend to believe that Christianity just came around and the Holy Spirit had no significant influence. But I digress…
You asked a good question in the above post, who would we include? With the ridiculous fragmentation of Christianity over the past 500 years one might wonder if there is any one or two qualified leaders that could speak for Christendom. Could I include a Mormon and disqualify a Jehovah’s Witness? Both have some pretty nutty beliefs. But would I be qualified to answer. I don’t know…



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Diane

posted July 13, 2010 at 8:48 am


I would add as a distinctive Christianity’s radical and uncompromising commitment to forgiveness and peace. Jesus died to break the cycle of revenge and violence.
And as Bonhoeffer never tired of pointing out, the person of Jesus is at the heart of Christianity, not abstract ethical concepts like salvation or sacrifice.
That being said, I’ll be abstract and say that the two distinctive poles of Christianity are Jesus’ oneness with the Father–a oneness available to all of us through the Holy Spirit–there is a God and we all can know and do his will on earth–and radical forgiveness/nonviolence. Unlike Islam and Judaism there is no “out” for us, no just war theory, no point at which retaliation can trump mercy and forgiveness. And unlike Buddhism, the personal God is always there, in our faces, guiding our lives. The worst distortion i think of the well-meaning evangelicals–and I love what they do in the world, often–is to misrepresent Christianity as easy: “Just” accept Jesus as your personal savior…” That’s not a “just” statement: Christianity is hard.
But as George Bernard Shaw said, Christianity is a great idea. Too bad nobody’s ever tried it.
And then we remember a few have, who should be included in our “canon:” at the very least Francis of Assisi and John Woolman jump to mind.



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Rick

posted July 13, 2010 at 9:26 am


Diane wrote:
“And as Bonhoeffer never tired of pointing out, the person of Jesus is at the heart of Christianity…”
If Bonhoeffer is right, then it would be hard to include Mormonism within Christianity.
Quoting Michael Patton:
“Since Mormonism has redefined Christianity in such a way that the answer to the question ?Who do men say that I am?? is not in accordance with the biblical and historical understanding (e.g. Jesus Christ is the eternal God-man) and since they reject the doctrine of the Trinity as one God who eternally exists in three persons, Mormons cannot be considered Christian without doing violence to the very essence of what it means to be Christian. The Mormon Church follows a different Christ, redefining the designation ?Christian? such that the commonality which does exist between Mormonism and Historic Christianity is minimal in comparison to our differences.”



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Travis Greene

posted July 13, 2010 at 9:47 am


I think I would describe Mormonism (on which I’m no expert) as a Christian heresy, which puts it in a slightly different class than, say, Buddhism or Islam. But I do think Mormonism arose as a reaction to some very real problems in Western Christianity, and some of their beliefs about the eschaton (specifically the new earth) are actually more orthodox than some “when the roll is called up yonder” style evangelicalism.
As for Prothero’s book, it can be hard to understand Christianity if you are not inside it. Which should make us scrutinize what Christians say about other faiths like Judaism or Islam.



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Kenny Johnson

posted July 13, 2010 at 10:32 am


@Rick
I guess first we’d have to have a working definition of what Christianity is. If were are using major creeds then I think we could exclude them as Patton suggests, but then I think we might even exclude the Coptic churches from being Christian.
That and no one (that we know of) had a clear understanding of the trinity until about the 4th century. . . Justin Maryr didn’t, Iraneus didn’t… Tertullian (3rd century) was close to our modern understanding, etc.
Does heretical views exclude someone from the label of Christianity?
Personally, I would say that both Mormons and JW’s are Christian, but I would caution that they (far?) outside orthodoxy.



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Larry

posted July 13, 2010 at 10:44 am


I see your point Scott, but I think some of your criticism is criticizing him for approaching his subject from a Religious Studies/Comparative Religions perspective and not an insider’s perspective. And the responses here all seem to be saying they would describe Christianity from their perspective as Christians. The problem for a Religion scholar is that on these things insiders themselves aren’t and wont be in agreement, for instance to what degree if at all are the Mormons Christian. Most insiders will describe the core beliefs and people around what they believe to be orthodoxy and/or ortho-praxis, This is also demonstrated in the above comments. Even your objection to Prothero’s description of early Christianity as disparate and not a cohesion is an element of this way of thinking.
My point if I were writing this book, I think I’d have to decide am I writing such a book as a Christian insider or as a scholar of religion. From you account of what Prothero has written I probably would only change two things give greater emphasis to the mystical and communal in Christianity ie Monasticism, and would have allowed Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians effect my definition and description of Christianity. However, I would as a Religion scholar include the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints as part of the Christian religion, though as an insider I do not consider them Christian, I see Mormonism as a heresy that has so deviated from orthodoxy as to create a different and very American religion.
I looked at Prothero’s CV and it is clear that both Islam and Christianity are his weak points as a scholar, and given his scholarship he is probably going to give his Christian account a somewhat American and pluralist twist. Which is what you describe.



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Rick

posted July 13, 2010 at 11:03 am


Kenny-
“That and no one (that we know of) had a clear understanding of the trinity until about the 4th century. . . Justin Maryr didn’t, Iraneus didn’t… Tertullian (3rd century) was close to our modern understanding, etc.”
The key word may be “clear”. They had basic ideas from the start, including on the person of Christ. It is not as if, in the 4th Century, they all of sudden came up with the idea out of thin air. They they flesh that out in more precise language in the 4th Century, yes. However, when looking at the earliest creeds (pre Nicea), early catecheumens, and early baptismal language, there clearly was a common foundation already laid.
“Does heretical views exclude someone from the label of Christianity?”
Yes. One cannot change the person of Christ, or God (Trinity) and claim to worship the same God. If one does not see Christ and God, or the Holy Spirit as God, and therefore does not worship Them/Him, how can we claim they are part of the same faith (not to mention the various theological implications)?



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Rick

posted July 13, 2010 at 11:05 am


Sorry, in #7 that should read:
“Did they flesh that out in more precise language in the 4th Century, yes.”



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Kenny Johnson

posted July 13, 2010 at 11:57 am


I’m fine with using the understanding of the trinity to label something as orthodox, though I’m not so sure I feel same about the label of Christian. Most people in our churches don’t have orthodox views about the trinity. Heck, I probably don’t. :)
As for the early Christian ideas… I’m not sure what “basic” means. Justin didn’t seem to include the Holy Spirit in the God head and he never speaks of them as distinct persons. Tertullian’s view was that of subordinationism. Neither of their views would be considered orthodox today.



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T

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:06 pm


I agree that “salvation” is good choice if we’re going to try to summarize Christianity in a word or two, though I think Diane is on to something with Bonhoeffer’s Summary.
But unfortunately, the author uses “salvation” in the narrow way it’s been popularized instead of the expansive and holistic usage of the scriptures. I don’t really think it’s helpful or accurate to distinguish Christianity as about after-life rescue based on belief, while other religions are about what one does.
I’ll say this on Mormonism: I think and hope that some Mormons are Christians. But Mormonism has so many teachings that differ from orthodox Christianity that I would never recommend joining or staying in a Mormon church.



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Duncan R

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:54 pm


The Latter Day Saints (Mormons) definitely consider themselves Christians even perhaps evangelical. I know the local Bishop and he has complained about being lumped in with Jehovah’s witnesses as well as anti-mormon literature at the local Christian bookstore. He definitely considers us on the same team more or less.
Also interestingly, while the LDS have some weird and out there theology and all kinds emphases and practices I’m uncomfortable and disagree with, there atonement theology is pretty much the same as far as I understand.



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Rick

posted July 13, 2010 at 1:43 pm


Kenny-
Justin was vague at best, and Tertullian was probably expressing what he was trying to work out at the time. Again, it was not necessarily all “clear” to everyone in the early church, but the foundation was there. It was a process that the Holy Spirit was leading the church through has they worked the the Regula Fidei. If those two were born after the ecumeumenical creeds, I would imagine they would probably be in agreement.
But that is a far cry from (according to the Centers for Apolgetics Research): “Mormonism teaches that there are many gods (including the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost ? each one a distinct god), and that worthy humans may advance spiritually to one day become gods themselves. Eternal life is ultimately dependent on one?s good works.”
Duncan R: In regards to the Atonement, Per Christian apologist Rob Bowman:
“The extent to which the LDS doctrine of the atonement departs from the biblical doctrine is evident from the lengthy story that chapter 12 of Gospel Principles uses to illustrate its understanding of the atonement. According to this story (originally from Boyd K. Packer), our predicament is analogous to that of a man who goes deep into debt and then is unable to pay his creditor and so faces debtor?s prison. If the creditor forgives the debt ?there will be no justice?; if he refuses to forgive the debt ?there will be no mercy? (64). But then a rich friend offers to pay the man?s debt for him to keep him out of prison, on the condition that the debtor accept his friend as his new creditor. ??Then,? said the benefactor, ?you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible? (65). According to this analogy, the debtor still is obliged to repay his debt. The atonement in LDS teaching may pay our ?debt? but it in no way releases us from the debt; it only makes Christ our new ?creditor? and gives us more time to make good on the debt! The atonement turns out to be a kind of divine ?loan? in which Christ pays our debt only on the condition that we agree to repay him on a new contract.”
http://irr.org/mit/GP-BSG-12-Atonement-and-Salvation.html



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DRT

posted July 13, 2010 at 1:58 pm


I would think the word exlusivity has to be in there somewhere. It is only salvation for christians.



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Kenny Johnson

posted July 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm


@Rick,
Again, you have no disagreement from me that they are unorthodoxed. I’m just cautious about using the label “Christian” to be synonymous with “orthodox.”



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Staci

posted July 13, 2010 at 2:47 pm


Mormonism should definitely not be included as Christianity – and as an ex-Mormon I will tell you why. Mormonism’s Jesus is Jehovah, “Elohim”s (“Heavenly Father”‘s) son and “Lucifer”s (Satan’s) brother. We were all spirit children of Heavenly Father and one of many of his spirit wives, we existed eternally as spirit material before being organized by our Heavenly Father in the birth process, and we can go on to become gods, just like Heavenly Father did (was a man who became a god).
It’s not just weird, it’s evil. It takes well-meaning men and women, ones who think they believe in God/Jesus, and moves them as far from YHWH as possible as they continue to believe that they are in the right place. It also does much to discredit the Bible, and uses it only in a eisegetical way – to the extent that it even says that the Mormon beliefs have been maliciously removed and need to be put back in. Yikes!
Just FYI



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Travis Greene

posted July 13, 2010 at 4:23 pm


T 10 “I don’t really think it’s helpful or accurate to distinguish Christianity as about after-life rescue based on belief, while other religions are about what one does.”
Totally agree. Yet I’ve often heard this explicitly taught from the pulpit, even as evangelism.



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T

posted July 13, 2010 at 5:22 pm


Travis,
Me too. I think Diane’s point from Bonhoeffer would help curb that.
captcha: nubs actions



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Kenny Johnson

posted July 13, 2010 at 5:38 pm


Origen (3rd Century) also had some wacky beliefs (by today’s standards). He believed that creation always existed and that God has been eternally creating — that before this world he created other worlds and that he will continue to create new worlds after this world ends. He also believed that people existed before their bodies and their souls were united with God before getting these bodies.
His views were close to gnosticism, even believing there was a special knowledge one could get from reading scripture — but only those with superior intellects could get to these special meanings. And he saw the physical world as something bad.



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Jonathanblake

posted July 14, 2010 at 1:51 am


Since he only gets a B when trying to explain Christianity because he obviously doesn’t have inside experience with our faith, I wonder how well a portrait he paints of the other religions since (I’m assuming) he isn’t a member of the other ones either??? I’m somewhat familiar with Islam so maybe when I get the book I can compare my prior knowledge to his exposition. I also have a former hindu friend. She could answer questions about that religion.
So do we ask a blog of the other faiths to comment on their respective chapters or what?



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Scot McKnight

posted July 14, 2010 at 7:54 am


Jonathanblake #19,
Prothero does have experience; he grew up Episcopalian. It would be helpful to have people of each faith examine whether or not he summarizes the faith adequately.



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Steve Brown

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:36 am


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has as it first Article of Faith: “We belive in God the Eternal Father, His son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Latter-day Saints (Mormons) believe that it is only by means of the atonement of Jesus Christ that we are saved through this gift of grace. Our own efforts, “all that we can do,” are merely our loving response to this Charity from our loving Heavenly Father.
The illustrative story by President Packer must not be construed as a transfer of debt from one creditor to another which must still be repaid to the new creditor. Christ’s atonement is the payment of the debt in our behalf which we as mortals can never repay. His act as the substitute creditor is to forgive our debts and cleanse our sins as we accept Him as our Savior and Redeemer.
Mormon doctrines do not reflect many of the “historical” teachings of Christianity, rather they reflect a re-establihed Biblical Christianity which teaches that we are “the sons of God,” eagerly awaiting His triuphant return.



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Jonathanblake

posted July 15, 2010 at 1:50 pm


Oh sorry I thought he didn’t have any experience with Christianity. Guess I need to read the book. Looking forward to more of these posts



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Guy Briggs

posted July 16, 2010 at 12:10 am


Of course we (Mormons) consider ourselves Christians! In the same way that Major League players consider themselves to be baseball players. The differences is, we don’t look down our noses at players in the Minors and say they’re not really playing baseball.



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