The Unity Scale

Christians are called to unity. (John 17:21-23, Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 1:10, etc.). Unity requires harmony, like-mindedness, having things in common. However, until we are perfected in glory, there is an inverse relationship between the number of people with whom we have unity and the number of things about which we are unified. For example, if I state that “it’s good to be happy,” this is something that almost everyone can agree on. However, as soon as I add to that statement (for example, “watching the St. Louis Cardinals win makes me happy”), the size of the group that is in agreement will shrink.

So, in our pursuit of unity, there is a balance between pursuing unity with the maximum number of other Christians possible and pursuing unity in as many areas as possible. In the new heavens and new earth, there will be 100% agreement over all things with all people. In our current fallen world, we sometimes have to choose between limited unity with more people or more unity with fewer people.

If you take the route of pursuing unity with the maximum number of other Christians, you will find that the number of things about which you are unified must be relatively small. This can lead to a pretty anemic version of Christianity, where “doctrine” consists of little more than platitudes.

On the other hand, trying to achieve unity in as many areas as possible can lead to isolation. One of the connotations of “fundamentalism” is the idea that you only associate with those who share your opinions on just about everything. When you can’t come to agreement on an issue, you splinter off into smaller and smaller groups.

A healthy approach is not simply to find the “midpoint” where you have a reasonable level of unity with a reasonable group of believers, but to have a balance of both types of unity: a mix of basic unity with the larger body of Christ and a smaller group of believers with whom you can enjoy deeper unity on more levels. If all of your unity with other believers is at a very basic level, you’re probably lacking in doctrinal depth and missing out on the joy of pursuing and discussing rich theology with others who are likeminded. If all your unity with other believers is with a small group of others who agree with you on almost all matters, you’re probably missing out on the diversity within the body of Christ and you’re probably not being sufficiently challenged to love, respect, and work together with those who hold different convictions than you.

The Necessity of Debate

Many (most?) people will accept the following two principles:

  1. The truth matters.
  2. No one (except God) has a corner on the truth.

Therefore, debate is necessary.

Because of principle #2, humility is necessary, and continual engagement with others is necessary. We should not think, “I have obtained the truth, so there is no need for debate.”

Some people put so much emphasis on principle #2 that they are unwilling or uninterested in debating the truth. But this has the effect of negating principle #1. If we stop short of finding the truth, or declare that the truth is unobtainable, then we are essentially saying that the truth is not necessary. To believe that the truth matters, is also to believe that the truth is something that can be grasped (not exhaustively, or in every situation, but in general; see principle #2), and is worth fighting for.

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?


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.