What Constitutes Christianity?

On his blog today, Al Mohler takes issue with some recent comments from Joel Osteen: Does Joel Osteen Not Know, or Does He Not Care?

Mohler:

Joel Osteen is in the news once again, this time for saying that Mormonism is just another form of Christianity.

The main point of concern in Joel’s latest comment is the lack of any biblical standard of judgment and the total abdication of theological responsibility.

He doesn’t “get hung up” on doctrinal issues, nor has he “really studied them or thought about them.”

Not to heap criticism on Osteen, but Mohler is right that all Christians need to think deeply about what constitutes Christianity, and what beliefs separate authentic Christianity from non-Christianity.  We are constantly bombarded with different ideas about what “Christianity” should look like.  Are these different ideas just different opinions from various Christians, or do some of them deviate from actually being Christianity?

 

The Wrath of God

The other day I had a fictional conversation in my head.  In this conversation, I recommended a work by Jonathan Edwards.

Although I don’t really know, I’m guessing that responses to Jonathan Edwards frequently fall into one of several different categories:

1.  Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy!  He was a great thinker and theologian; there is much that can be learned from him.

2.  I’ve heard of him, but that’s about it.

3.  Yeah, I’m not a big fan of those “hellfire and damnation,” “fire and brimstone” types.  We serve a God of love!

These are exaggerated generalizations, and I’m sure there are other categories, but I suspect these three are fairly common reactions.

In my imagined scenario, the person to whom I was speaking fell into the 3rd category.

At that point, I don’t bother trying to convince them that Edwards may have something valuable to offer.  That maybe they have the wrong impression of him; that maybe they should actually read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, instead of just dismiss it.  Instead, I suggest that maybe they should do a study on God’s wrath.

John 3:16 is a wonderful verse.  It’s great news that God offers eternal life to those who believe in Jesus.  But it’s a mistake to focus solely on the positive.  It’s simply not true that the only barrier to eternal life is man’s unwillingness to accept it.  The real barrier, an insurmountable barrier (unless God removes it), is God’s wrath.

John 3:16 says that if we believe in Jesus we will not perish.  We had better ask the question, “why would we perish otherwise?”  We need to read the whole chapter.  John 3:36 tells us that if a person doesn’t believe (and obey) Jesus, then God’s wrath remains (or abides) on him.

I think it’s also worth noting that John isn’t just saying, “one day (in the future) you’ll face God’s wrath” if you don’t trust in Jesus.  It’s true that the day of Judgment, when God pours out His full wrath, is still coming.  But John 3:36 says that God’s wrath “remains.”  It’s already there.  John 3:18 says that the one who doesn’t believe is already under condemnation.

Another instructive passage is in Romans.  Romans 5:8 is quite popular, and rightly so.  But many seem to have lost sight of Romans 5:9.  When we are saved by Christ, what are we saved from?  From ourselves?  Are we rescued from Satan’s grip?  Certainly salvation includes release from bondage to many things, but primarily, we are saved from the wrath of God.

When Jesus died for us, he drank the cup of God’s wrath for us (Matt. 26:42; Isa. 53:4-5,10; Gal. 3:13).  Those who do not trust in Jesus will have to drink the cup of God’s wrath on their own (Rev. 14:10).

There are some within Christianity who minimize or deny the importance of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.  This is a problem, not due to differing interpretations of theological minutia, but a problem of not understanding and appreciating God’s wrath.

Westminster Confession

Several weeks ago I took a look at the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) as examples of the earliest Reformed confessional statements that still have widespread usage today.  These documents were of Dutch origin, the first two written in the 1560’s, with increasing acceptance through the Netherlands and other parts of Europe.  In the early 1600’s they were established as authoritative statements of Dutch Reformed Theology.

Although I didn’t mention it in my previous post, another early Reformed confession is the Second Helvetic Confession, also written in the 1560’s, by Henry Bullinger, with widespread acceptance throughout Switzerland and other germanic countries.

However, probably the most widely recognized doctrinal statements of the Protestant church are the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.  These were developed in the 1640’s in England.  The historical background (aside from coming about 80 years later) is rather different, due partly to the political environment at the time.

The break of the English church from the Roman church in the 1530’s was driven more by political desires than theological differences, but it created an environment that allowed the theological moorings of the church to veer away from Roman Catholicism.  As the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer drafted the first doctrinal statements of the Anglican Church that distinguished the Church of England from the Roman church.  It took a while for the English church to find its identity (during the reign of “Bloody” Mary I, it moved back towards Catholicism), but when Queen Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, she established a church that was entirely distinct from the Roman Catholic church.  The Thirty-Nine Articles become the official doctrinal statement that defined the distinctive “middle path” (via media) of the Church of England, which was no longer Roman Catholic, but not as Lutheran or Reformed as the Reformation churches on the European continent.

With the break from the Roman Catholic church complete, the debates in the Church of England became less “Catholic vs. Reformed” and more “Episcopal vs. Puritan.”  Episcopacy retained characteristics more similar to Catholicism, while Puritanism desired further reform, and favored presbyterian or congregational polity.  The Puritan faction of Parliament attempted to enact further reforms to the Church, but found themselves stymied by King Charles I and his supporters.  Finally in 1643 (without the assent of the king), Parliament appointed the Westminster Assembly to undertake the restructuring of the Church.   Although it was intended to encompass episcopal influences as well as presbyterian, congregational, and others, the episcopalians did not participate, and the presbyterians were the majority.

Initially tasked with revising the Thirty-Nine Articles, the assignment was shifted to that of formulating the basis of a church that would be “nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland and other Reformed Churches abroad.”  (The Protestant Church in Scotland, under the influence of John Knox, and the Scots Confession that he and others wrote in 1560, shared much in common with the theology of John Calvin.)

The resulting Westminster Confession, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism (plus a few other documents) that the Assembly produced were adopted by the Church of England for a short period of time, being revoked in 1660.  However, they were adopted by the Church of Scotland and remain the definitive doctrinal standards for many Presbyterian denominations and other Reformed groups.

The history and content of many Christian creeds has been well documented by church historian Philip Schaff in his work, Creeds of Christendom.

Three Forms of Unity

I’ve known about the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (both Shorter and Larger)1

I also knew there were other confessions/catechisms, and I was kind of interested in the Baptist-flavored ones (like the 1689 London Baptist Confession, or John Piper’s adaptation of a Baptist catechism), because at this point I’m more inclined towards believer’s baptism than infant baptism. (Also, though I’m not sure what these creeds have to say about church polity, I’m more accustomed to congregational polity than presbyterian polity.)

However, I was recently intrigued by the “Three Forms of Unity” comprised of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.

I haven’t read through all three yet, but I would like to. It appears that these are the earliest of the confessional compilations that endure with significant use today.

The Belgic Confession is the earliest of the three, initially written in 1561 by Guido de Bres. Although de Bres wrote his confession independently, it reflects and incorporates the theology expressed by John Calvin. The occasion for this confession was to defend against charges of rebellion against the Roman Catholic political system. Reformed Christians rallied around this confession to affirm in the face of persecution that they believed and abided by the Scriptures. It consists of consists of 37 articles dealing with the doctrines of God, Scripture, humanity, sin, Christ, salvation, the Church, and the end times.

The Heidelberg Catechism has similar content to the Belgic Confession, but a different structure and purpose. Commissioned by Frederick III, the Electoral Palatinate of the Rhine, the catechism is designed to instruct church members in the faith and provide a structure for preaching the scriptures. The catechism was written by theologian Zacharias Ursinus and pastor/theologian Caspar Olevianus, and approved by the Synod of Heidelberg of 1563, then subsequently approved by other synods of the reformed faith. The catechism consists of 129 questions and answers, which have been divided into 52 sections.

Finally, the Canons of Dort are a judicial decision put forth by the Synod of Dort in in 1618-1619. Followers of Jacobus Arminius objected to some content within the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and in 1610 drafted five “Articles of Remonstrance” articulating their differences with other protestants. An international synod met in Dordrecht to respond to the controversy between the Remonstrants and the “Calvinists.” The Synod rejected the views of the Remonstrants, reaffirmed the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and reiterated their views on the five issues at stake in the Articles of Remonstrance. The resulting decision is an exposition of five doctrinal points that have come to comprise the five points (or TULIP) of Calvinism.

These documents were developed during the working out of the Protestant Reformation, in the years following Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (1517), the reforms of Ulrich Zwingli (1520’s), and the publication of John Calvin’s Institutes (1536). While other confessions , catechisms, creeds, and doctrinal statements were written before and after, these three are significant in that they are among the earliest and most enduring.

For future study, it would be interesting to compare the differences between the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Baptist Confession, and the Savoy Declaration .


  1. aren’t those inconsistent terms? shouldn’t it be “shorter and longer” or “smaller and larger”? anyway, I digress… 

Quote o’ the Day

“If I profess, with the loudest voice and clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle fields besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

-Martin Luther

(found at Douglas Wilson’s Blog and Mablog)