The Only Security

Seeking a Definition

Whether times are tumultuous or calm, Christians must ask what it means to be a Christian.

In tumultuous times such as these, the question certainly feels more urgent. The assertion that Christians do not have to hold to traditional moral standards is a tacit redefinition of what it means to be a Christian. Recently in the Roman Catholic church, for example, Pope Francis’ attack on the Church’s traditional moral standards has led to discussions of what Catholicism is.[1]

Though not so urgent-seeming in good times—when Christians are not attacked, and their traditions operate without much strife—Christians still want to be “good Christians.” They must know what a Christian is if they are going to be a good one. In the words of a contributor to this site, Father Charles Erlandson, “definitions [tell us] what should be.” In his case, a full definition of Anglicanism would show how to be Anglican.[2]

Typically, there is available a given definition; this “given” is carried through by tradition. Tradition seeks to protect the given from and apply the given to, what is new. But such is the history of Christianity that challenges and inquiries have never ceased, and these challenges come from within the church as much as from without.

This never-ending need to ask what a Christian is does not appear to me necessarily ignoble. Modern men already suffer from a frontier-less world, and it is good we have some noble questions that will always interest us.

Simple Definitions

Sometimes, however, the attempt to define Christianity is in fact malicious—consider Thomas Hobbes.

Atheistic philosophers like Hobbes have, from time to time, sought to provide a simple definition of Christianity. Hobbes did so in the hope that a simple definition would bring about a more tolerant society. He hoped an English monarch would be able to unify Christians with a simple definition of Christianity, one that might relieve them of the trouble caused by theological and moral questions that had traditionally divided them. Christians, Hobbes hoped, could put aside all those other questions and simply agree on “the only necessary article of Christian faith, [namely,] that Jesus is the Christ.”[3] If some subject of the English commonwealth started causing trouble by demanding that Christians develop specific ideas about theology and morals, he could be branded a troublemaker because, after all, he is no more a Christian than any of the other Christians. All Christians, as Christians, are equal; and, if they are equal, no one of them has a right to assert a preeminence over the others.[4] If a man demands that his fellow Christians develop specific ideas about theology and morals, he appears to be challenging the equality that exists between Christians. Hobbes hoped that a monarch might establish the simple definition and therefore establish a wide equality, from which he could neutralize all the busy-bodies who wanted to “improve” their fellows with fancy ideas about theology or big claims about morality.

There may be some Christians who, out of a love of equality, profess belief in this sort of thing. They don’t want other men engaging in theology or preaching strict morals because they believe these kinds of topics are unnecessary to the faith and divisive. If they permit men these kinds of pursuits, they circumscribe them by saying they are unimportant—if a man takes theology or moral philosophy too seriously, he becomes divisive and therefore unchristian, or less of a Christian. According to this way of thinking, a good Christian accepts anyone who says “Jesus is the Christ” and opposes anyone who asks what that means. Of course, few Christians take things this far. But if Christians do not adopt the Hobbesian definition, then they have to seek out a more complex explanation for what it means to believe that “Jesus is the Christ.” Indeed, this is what must be done in any event because simple definitions do not solve the problems they are fashioned to solve. The article of faith, that “Jesus is the Christ,” and all other similar attempts at simplification, are in need of explanation. Since they are in need of explanation, all the theological and moral questions—and quite a few others—are raised and must be answered.

Once an explanation is attempted, the simple answers which, I repeat, tend to be born from atheism, are left behind, and complex or full answers need to be sought out. Before I try to explain this search, allow me to point out two things about these simple definitions.

First, if a simple definition ever produces a unity, it is a false and weak unity. The slightest inclination to question will break it. If men seek to enforce this unity, they become hypocritical—as we see today. There are Christian hypocrites that ostracize anyone who wishes to deepen the faith, and they do so on the grounds that the attempt to deepen the faith is exclusionary. They “marginalize” some Christians because those Christians have ideas that might “marginalize” others. – You can imagine (and have probably witnessed) a situation where a Christian denounces sin, and then is denounced for speaking about sin, on the grounds that it is a sin to speak about sin, especially in front of sinners.

Second, simple definitions encourage—sometimes intentionally, always incidentally—assimilation to the World. A simple definition allows, invites, the World to dictate what it means to be a Christian, because it is the World that represents the “baseline” or “given”; refusing to accept the moral standards and general opinions in the workplace, in a business setting, in school, and so on makes a person potentially disagreeable. Unless Christians allow themselves to be disagreeable people, they will eventually assimilate to the prevailing culture.

Full Definitions

A full definition makes it possible for Christians to avoid these two pitfalls. A full definition would provide Christians a way to be Christian. For example, Roman Catholics believe that “Jesus is the Christ” means Christians must seek absolution from an ordained priest. Obviously, this is debatable, but all full definitions are debatable. The difference between what I am calling “full” and “simple” definitions is really this awareness regarding the inevitability of disagreement; those who recognize this inevitability are seeking out full definitions. Those who wish to abolish the possibility of disagreement and its resulting strife, by defining disagreement away, are trying to make answers rather than discover answers. They are living within a fortress of denial: they say, “in here, the problems are solved because we need them to be solved.”

Outside of this Ostrich Fortress, we admit to ourselves that the problems of theology and morality remain vital, and that the definitions must be sought (and will be sought). The troublesomeness of this quest is a result of its being a very important quest, and the only way to abolish the troubles is to deny its importance. Anything of importance to man becomes troublesome to him when he errs.

Teleological Perfection

The great difficulty of a full definition is that it requires teleological perfection, i.e., a full definition includes the entirety of what it means to be a Christian. This requirement is what really motivates people to adopt the simple definition. I’ll elaborate on this difficulty but before I do it is important to note: the difficulty is unavoidable and the attempt to seek refuge in a simple definition doesn’t solve anything. To illustrate the difficulty, I’ll set down a few questions, the answers to which all suggest that a Christian is a perfect man, that Christianity requires perfection or at least a striving for perfection.

  • Should a Christian choose to sin, or overcome sin?
  • Can a man become more of a Christian through sinning?
  • Do we glorify God by asking for forgiveness more often or for more and worse sins?
  • Should men deny standards of conduct because they cannot live up to them? Do those standards cease to be standards because they are impossible or almost impossible?
  • Should a Christian love God more than he does, or less than he does?
  • Doesn’t believing bizarre or insane things about God endanger one’s identity as a Christian? If it eventually endangers (I assume not every little error endangers) there is a threshold, and if there is a threshold, there is a sliding scale.

There are also, of course, the passages in the New Testament that suggest perfection is necessary, but I am trying to speak here only of what is strictly necessary—our minds must work this way, and it’s only wishful thinking that leads us to deny full definitions of Christianity.[5]

This need for perfection can have its edge taken off it if we admit that, though a thing be imperfect, it does not necessarily cease to be the thing we think it is, not altogether anyway. An imperfect Christian does not cease being a Christian because he is imperfect.

Now, I know some say, being imperfect is the very definition of being a Christian. This is a contemporary form of the “simple definition” insofar as it creates hypocrites. It’s not a real definition because it’s not a tenable definition. Consider: there are few (if any) perfectly healthy animals of any kind. Imperfection is typical. But if we took that imperfection for being the definition, then an extremely healthy animal would thereby become less an animal than the more imperfect, sicker, animal. And just so, people espousing this definition often attack the less imperfect Christians on the grounds that to be a Christian is to be imperfect.

So, while the definition of what a Christian is cannot be “imperfect,” there are, nevertheless, imperfect Christians just as there are less healthy and even unhealthy animals. This distinction is not unimportant: for the imperfect being must strive its whole life to become what it was meant to be. If we accept a full definition of Christianity, then every Christian will be aware of the need to strive for perfection, but if the definition of the Christian is “imperfection,” there develops an inescapable tendency to hypocrisy and non-sense as those who strive become less of a Christian by that striving.[6]

Further, the question of authority—ever important, no matter how much people would like to pretend it isn’t—is clarified when we admit that the more perfect Christians (or more mature Christians, if you want to use one of the less offensive translations of τέλειος[7]) are the natural authorities on theological and moral questions, indeed on all questions Christians debate.

Unity

Unity can therefore only ever be aimed at perfection, however imperfect the body of Christians so aiming may be.

There cannot be a unity around anything other than perfection—even around beliefs as important as the inerrancy of Scripture or the sovereignty of God’s grace. Take the question of gay marriage or even the ordination of women: scripture is clear on these things, but through the interpretation of imperfect men it is claimed that homosexuality is not a sin, or at least isn’t so much of a sin, or not a sin we should consider sinful or more deleterious than other sin; and the ordination of women is called “scriptural.” In other words, the only safety to be found is in the right interpretation by men who, if not perfect, have devoted their entire lives to perfection. Is an institution holy? It might be, if it be made up of holy men. Is the scripture holy? It is, when it is properly understood by men quickened by God’s grace. Is there any security other than a fellowship of mature and faithful men? I claim there is not and to support this claim I point to the dialectical power of the definition.

Anglicanism and Tradition

From the point of view of an immature Christian or a non-Christian—what I have said may not sound very helpful. An immature Christian might understand that only a mature Christian can be counted upon to really uphold the inerrancy of Scripture, but then the immature man is troubled by the fact that he is not a mature Christian, and so how is he to know which interpretation is done by a mature Christian and which by an immature or imperfect believer?

Thankfully there are signs, both miraculous and human, that help us. Mature Christians leave behind testaments to their attainments—for example, the Book of Common Prayer is such a testament. The BCP combines beauty and longevity; if the BCP were to be found by complete aliens to Anglo-Christianity, it would still be recognized as a book of authority and good counsel. An immature Christian seeking out mature Christians would do well to join communities of Christians where such achievements as the Book of Common Prayer can be found.

It should be admitted that other Christian traditions also have had these good men, and these good men have left their marks as they always tend to do. Consider the Westminster Confession of Faith or the many cathedrals that enliven continental Europe. Christians of immense intelligence, will, and foresight were inspired—by nature and the divine—to call men to their noble natures and perfect fatherland.

A man longing for God but feeling mixed-up or perplexed isn’t left in the dark; first, there is nature herself that attests to God. Second, there are the works of men of God. A man pursuing his innermost necessity, a man on his quest for God, will find guidance to the truth; he can find mature Christians in his day sitting at the feet of mature Christians of yesterday.

“Disunity”

We are moved to strive for unity as we are moved to strive for a full definition, i.e., for perfection. We want the name Christian applied to those who are as close to maturity as can be, and we must worry when it is gently applied to very many immature men.

Be that as it may, let the drive for unity work as strongly as the drive for perfection. There is a discernible difference between the men who strive and the men who malign striving as “discriminatory” or “exclusive.” There is a discernible difference between men who are debating the definition of a Christian and those who see debate as divisive. Finally, there is a discernible difference between those who embrace the quest for definition and those who wish to abolish the need for definitions because they cannot face up to the implications of that need. Between the former, there might be a formal disunity—but it is not a noxious disunity. Between the former and the latter, there is an irreconcilable disunity and therefore a genuine conflict.

Notes

  1. At FirstThings, Dan Hitchens complains that the Pope has confused things, making a “black hole”: Dan Hitchens, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2023/12/the-pope-and-the-black-hole. In this same vein, Archbishop Chaput complains that this confusion has “made a mess,” and that the Pope is uncharitable because the Pope is confusing: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2023/12/the-cost-of-making-a-mess.
  2. Erlandson, Charles. 2019. “Tract I: What Is Anglicanism?” The North American Anglican. September 11, 2019. https://northamanglican.com/tract-i-what-is-anglicanism/.
  3. Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. https://www.gutenberg.org/Files/3207/3207-h/3207-H.htm. 1651. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/3207/pg3207-images.html. Specifically, see chapter 43 “Of what is necessary for a man’s reception into the Kingdome of Heaven.” Hobbes may seem to make much of this little requirement but, ultimately, he leaves it perfectly empty of meaning outside of the need to obey the civil sovereign.
  4. This dialectical tendency can be seen in the statements by Bishops Edgar and Hunter, mentioned by Rev. Brashier in his recent “Open Letter to The College of Bishops”.
  5. The fact that this is required by bare reason alone has been (is often) used to disparage it as “the wisdom of the World,” while the simple definition is held up as “truly Christian” and “not of this world” precisely because it is impossible and breaks under any pressure whatsoever. I have heard some men say that God’s grace makes it so our minds are not bound by the necessity I lay out, but, upon speaking with these men, it is easy to discover that either grace did not so change this iron tendency of human thought or that they do not have the grace they claim to have.
  6. I am aware that some people claim to be perfect when they are not or become completely pig-headed when they are striving to be good. Such people are called to be better than they are—they should become more perfect by correctly assessing themselves.
  7. Translating τέλειος as “mature” is less offensive because it is assumed that, as all boys mature into adults, all immature Christians are fully Christian and will eventually grow into this. Locke performs a similar move in the Second Treatise: “Children, I confess, are not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it.” (sec 55) Ultimately, this is a mere feint: the word “mature”—that to which “all men are born”—stands in for “complete, whole, perfect.” Dialectic demands a word, and you can use “mature” if you please for that demand. If you use the word “mature” to stand for these things, you are still stuck with the uncomfortable consequences of dialectical rigor; if, on the other hand, you substitute a word like “mature” for “perfect” and then, through a sleight of hand, turn “mature” to mean something less than “complete, whole, perfect,” then all you’ve done is lose the internal consistency you had gained through dialectical analysis and are left again with hypocrisy and non-sense.

 


Cole Simmons

Cole Simmons teaches high school literature and rhetoric at Redeemer Classical School, in McGaheysville VA. He earned his doctorate from the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas. He is a member of the Anglican Church in North America and worships at The Church of the Lamb, in Penn Laird VA.


'The Only Security' have 3 comments

  1. April 2, 2024 @ 9:47 pm Sudduth Rea Cummings

    Who is? a Christian? How about anyone who is baptized with water and in the name of the Holy Trinity and who perseveres as a member of the church with faith and active love? Or, is that too much?

    Reply

    • April 2, 2024 @ 9:48 pm Sudduth Rea Cummings

      Apologies for the typo of the first question mark.

      Reply

    • April 5, 2024 @ 8:37 pm Cole Simmons

      What does it mean for a person to be baptized?

      More: what does it mean to have “faith and active love.”

      Can you love someone if you harm them? How can you avoid harming them if you don’t know what’s good for them?

      In other words: you assert, “why isn’t this simple thing enough” without sufficiently considering how complicated that “simple thing” is. How do you know you have faith? How do you know you are persevering? What happens if a man with very different ideas of these things claims to be “persevering in the faith.” And if you assert that *anyone* who says “I am faithful and persevering” is in fact doing so, then there is no longer any need to “persevere” because whatever change you undergo can also be “persevering in the faith.”

      Why do you say “active love” instead of just “love”? Is that supposed to be a clear statement? If I’m loving someone, can I be “inactively loving”?

      Etc.

      Reply


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