Thursday, May 09, 2002

What is a Christian?

Well, there is not universal agreement on that. Nevertheless, I want to state what I believe makes a person a Christian, so that you’ll know where I am coming from. My definition of a Christian is someone who affirms the following:

Absolutes of Christianity

  1. The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God.
  2. There is a trinity: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
  3. God the Son came to earth, was born of a virgin, and lived as the man Jesus Christ.
  4. Though tempted, Jesus lived a sinless life.
  5. Christ suffered and died on the cross. His work is finished. He paid the full price, once-and-for-all, for my sins.
  6. Christ was resurrected from the dead with a real (glorified) body.
  7. Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.
  8. I contribute nothing to my salvation – it is a free and undeserved gift of God’s grace. Salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone.
  9. Good works are an inevitable result of my salvation, not a contributing factor.

Please email me if you think I left anything out! Some of them (all but the first, but that’s jumping ahead) are redundant, but I still find it helpful to restate certain points in a different way.

This list excludes many from claiming the honorific: Christian. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are way, way out. Many Roman Catholics might agree with the list, but official Catholic teaching is contrary to items 1, 5, 8, and 9.

If you are offended by this wait for an upcoming blog about why you should not be offended before sending me hate mail.

Axiomatic Christianity

As an undergraduate physics major, I took a junior level course on Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Normally relativity courses spend the first few classes analyzing a seminal but tedious experiment demonstrating the constancy of the speed of light regardless of the motion of the observer. This result lays the groundwork for Einstein’s theory.

I had read about this experiment several times and had prepared myself for a set of boring lectures before getting to the “juicy” stuff. However, the professor took an unexpected approach. He bypassed the experiment altogether and instead began his class with the axiom:

Vacuum is vacuum.

He then proceeded, and you will have to take my word on this, to derive, credibly, Einstein’s theory. It was a marvelous approach. It should be noted, however, that the reason it worked is that the students were, at that point, well along in their education and were sophisticated enough to handle and appreciate such a pedagogy.

I believe Christianity lends itself to an axiomatic approach, and the proper axiom is the first item in the list above, restated here:

AXIOM: The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God.

The other items in the list are “derivable” from this one in the following sense: virtually all well meaning persons, upon accepting the axiom, would, after sufficient study, agree that the other items follow logically.

What (may not be) derivable?

Even among those accepting the axiom, there will points of departure. These are areas where even the most learned evangelical theologians will disagree. Denominations have split and congregations have self destructed over some of these:

  • Child vs. adult baptism
  • Baptism by sprinkling vs. baptism by immersion
  • Eschatology (how the end-times and second coming will happen)
  • (Details of) predestination (Calvinism vs. Arminianism)
  • Acceptable worship, viz., head coverings, casual dress, contemporary music, drama, clapping, etc.
  • Frequency of the Lord’s supper
  • Acceptability of para-church organizations (e.g. Promise Keepers)
  • Whether certain activities fall under the umbrella of Christian liberty, viz. (moderate) use of alcohol, public schools, eating at a restaurant on the Sabbath, etc.
  • The earth: is it old or is it young?

Now I have definite opinions on all of these, some of which I will discuss in due time. But I can have Christian fellowship with anyone holding contrary views, as long as they affirm the nine “absolutes” listed above. Of course some, who are more fundamental than I, would elevate their opinions in the above matters into the list of absolutes.

Actually, I’ll mention one of these here, since it pertains to my blog’s description which says Devoted to Reformed Christian Thought. Purists will not agree, but for purposes of simplicity I will equate “Reformed” with “Calvinistic”. I am a died-in-the-wool Calvinist. Actually, I like a phrase that I just learned (via my wife) from a great friend:

I am a Calvinistic sans-culotte

(Thanks Donna). As for Calvinism, I take that to mean the classic Presbyterian view of election: I was utterly dead, not even strong enough to voluntarily swallow the elixir of life that God placed on my lips. I had to be resurrected. Nothing I did merited such treatment. And I was chosen to receive this incredible gift before the foundations of time.

Can the Bible be “almost” right?

There may be some minor variances due to translation, but the bottom line is that inspired means inspired: it is absolute truth. Note that the Bible is self referential:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB).

This bold, self referential claim leaves little wiggle room. Consider someone you know for whom you have a great respect of their knowledge. If you tell that person “you are always right!” he will undoubtedly reply “Thank you, but hardly!” If that person makes an occasional mistake, your esteem will not diminish appreciably. Suppose, however, that the person had answered “Yes indeed, I am always right.” Then the standard will be very high: the first error will result in a substantive degradation of your respect. The Bible takes such a bold position by declaring itself to be inspired. In some sense, it cannot be just “a little” wrong. It is either the Truth, or a big lie. In essence we have the following possibilities:

  1. The Bible is inerrant, and I worship the true God it reveals
  2. The Bible is inerrant, and I worship an invented, false god
  3. The bible contains errors, I worship the god it reveals, which as presented (since the bible has errors) is a false god
  4. The bible contains errors, and I worship an invented, false god

Of course I believe (1) to be correct. I consider (3) and (4) to be impossible since they start with the false premise that the Bible contains errors. (2) is the mistake made by liberal churches. They choose to ignore the revealed God and invent one that is “nicer”.

Agreeing on what the Bible says is not always easy

Well intended Bible readers can sometimes come to vastly different conclusions. Here is my favorite example.

And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate. (Dan 9-27, NASB).

Now if your view of eschatology is amillennial (historically the dominant eschatology, which does not expect a literal 1000 year earthly kingdom), then you interpret the “he” in this verse as referring to the Messiah. If you are premillennial (think of those “Left Behind” books), which today has many proponents, then the “he” is the antichrist! Can’t disagree any more than that!

Is it odd to be a physicist and a Christian?

Maybe, but not compared with some other disciplines. The public university where I taught for about 11 years had a faculty of around 140. Of those, I was aware of perhaps six Christians. All of these were in the hard sciences. Furthermore, there was little outright animosity toward or scorn of Christianity in the hard sciences (although more so in biology than in physics). For truly antagonistic attitudes toward Christianity, one had to look at the social sciences, especially to the philosophy and religious studies faculty. For example, one campus “philosopher” had this utterly fatuous “demonstration” he would perform every year in an introductory class: he would kick a Bible across the floor. (As far as I know, he never kicked a Koran – unwittingly the only thing he actually demonstrated was a good but probably subconscious grasp of Christian “intolerance” and the “peaceful” nature of Islam.)

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