What is a Christian? Part 2

In order to pin down a definition of “Christian” it should be recognized that this definition can come from one of two sources: from the Bible or from outside the Bible. Presumably our Evangelical friends would prefer a definition of the word “Christian” that has strong Biblical support. Presumably they are not trying to craft a definition for their own purposes (like excluding Mormonism) but are trying to get at a definition that is sustained by the Bible. So, in this post we turn to the Bible to look for a definition of the word “Christian”. We are going to examine every case in which the word “Christian” is found in the Bible and discover whether this definition is problematic for Mormonism or not. Actually, instead of reinventing the wheel I’m going to reproduce work already done by a couple LDS scholars.

I anticipate that some will protest against this methodology. “Hey! We don’t need to literally find the word ‘Christian’ in a Biblical statement about what it means to be a Christian!”. Well….why not? We are trying to discover the definition of a word. Since we all agree that the Bible is inspired scripture, let’s start there. It seems logical enough that if you want to discover the way in which the Bible uses a word you should look for instances of that word in the Bible and study them. In a future post (maybe the next one) I will address this objection further. For now, let’s just take a look at how the word “Christian” is used in the Bible.

This comes from Offenders for a Word by Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks. These excerpts will be a bit lengthier than I’d like, but they contain loads of important information. I’ve left the footnotes in which link to the actual footnotes of the book at the Maxwell Institute website.

There are three instances of the word “Christian” in the Bible. We will examine each of them.

Acts 11:26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

In Acts 11:26 we are told that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”76 Here, the use of the passive verb—they “were called Christians”—allows us to infer that the term was first used by non-Christians.77 That is to say that the Christians did not, at first, call themselves by that name. In fact, as E. H. Trenchard notes of the biblical evidence, “In early times this name was mainly used by outsiders or by enemies.”78 It was “originally used as a pagan designation.”79 “It is a characteristically Gentile appellation,” declares F. F. Bruce, “and would never have been devised by Jews.”80 Instead, the term “Christian” was modeled on such words as “Herodian” and “Caesarian,” already in circulation, probably on the mistaken assumption that the title “Christ,” a Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah,” was a proper name like “Herod” and “Caesar.”81 “Christian” probably meant nothing more complicated, originally, than “Christ’s people” or, perhaps, “partisans of Christ.”82 (In the United States, we have frequently called people “Jacksonian democrats,” or “Freudian analysts,” or “Marxists,” or “Darwinians.” The history of Christianity is amply supplied with “Augustinians,” “Pelagians,” “Lutherans,” “Calvinists,” “Mennonites,” and the like. All of these titles occur on the same principle as “Christian.”)

Who were these people who first were called “Christians”? What was the composition of the Church at Antioch, which drew that designation from outsiders? For one thing, it included “prophets” (Acts 13:1).83 (This should give some critics of Mormonism food for thought, for they often claim that Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God, and that there can consequently be no prophets after him. Yet, here, the first congregation of Jesus’ followers to receive the title of “Christian” is characterized, precisely, by Christian prophets.)

Many of the congregants in the Antioch branch were Hellenistic; the group was deeply involved with the Gentile mission and heavily influenced by Pauline teachings.84 Outsiders probably began to notice that Christians were not merely another sect of Jews because the church at Antioch did not require circumcision of converts.85 But to leave it at that would be to commit a gross oversimplification. The careful presentation of John P. Meier on the subject shows clearly that there were, among the “Christians” of Antioch, believers along the whole spectrum of attitudes toward the Jewish law. Paul’s was not only not the only influence at Antioch, it was not the dominant one.86 Why is that fact important? Simply because Mormons are often expelled from Christendom because they do not accept the supposedly Pauline doctrine of salvation by grace alone. But neither, it seems, did members of that Antiochene congregation who were the very first in the Old World to receive the title of “Christian.”

Amid the various theological strands that characterized Antiochene Christianity, loyalty to Jesus Christ was the unifying thread. This is of the utmost significance. Considering his study on Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, James D. G. Dunn points out “the surprising extent to which the different unifying factors in first-century Christianity focus again and again on Christ, on the unity between Jesus the man and Jesus the exalted one. And when we ask in addition what both unifies and marks out the distinctiveness of first-century Christianity, the unifying stand narrows again and again to Christ alone. As soon as we move beyond it, as soon as we begin to attempt to fill it out in word or practice, diversity quickly becomes as prominent as unity. And the more we attempt to add to it, the more disagreement and controversy we find ourselves caught up in. In the final analysis then, the unity of first-century Christianity focuses (often exclusively) on Jesus the man now exalted, Christ crucified but risen.”87

What makes a person a Christian in the first century, and what makes a person a Christian today, is, simply, a commitment to Jesus Christ. Such commitment is central to the religion of the Latter-day Saints. It is evident in their hymns, their scriptures, their prayers, and their religious rituals. Clearly, there is nothing in Acts 11:26 which will justify a denial that Mormons are Christians.

Acts 26:28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.

In Acts 26:28, Agrippa II makes his famous reply to Paul: “A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me.”88 This statement occurs after a brief speech by Paul at Caesarea, in which the apostle relates to Agrippa and Festus the story of his conversion.89 The doctrinal content of Paul’s speech is slight, but that slightness is itself deeply significant: Paul bears witness that Jesus had been foretold by the Jewish prophets, that he suffered and rose from the dead, and that it is through Jesus that forgiveness may be obtained. Paul describes his mission as that of summoning people to “repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20). There is no evidence that the apostle’s speech at Caesarea mentioned original sin, or a metaphysical trinity, or salvation by grace alone, or ex nihilo creation, or any of the other doctrines for which, as we shall see, Mormons are expelled from Christendom by zealous critics. Yet Paul does not deny Agrippa’s perception of his minimal theological statement as a summation of “Christianity” (Acts 26:29).

If Paul’s statement to Agrippa and Festus is accepted as a scriptural test for the Christianity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons pass easily. Do they believe that the Jewish prophets foretold the coming of Jesus Christ? Emphatically yes. Indeed, the three books of scripture revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith offer prophecies of the advent of Christ which are far clearer and more specific than anything found in the present text of the Hebrew Bible. Do Mormons believe that Jesus suffered and rose from the dead? Absolutely! “The fundamental principles of our religion,” Joseph Smith said, “are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”90 Do Mormons believe that it is through Jesus Christ that forgiveness may be obtained? The third Article of Faith should leave no doubt of that. Nor should literally scores if not hundreds of passages in the scriptures of the Latter-day Saints. Do Mormons believe it their duty to summon people to “repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance”? Without a doubt they do. (See, for example, D&C 6:9; 11:9; 14:8; 18:14, 41; 19:21, 31; 36:6; 44:3; etc.) Do Mormons call upon their hearers to do good works? Indeed they do, and this is one of the charges which their critics inconsistently bring against them, claiming that it shows them to be non-Christian. In fact, the Latter-day Saints meet Paul’s minimum statement of Christianity remarkably well. If there is anyone who should be doing some soul-searching on this point, it might well be those who condemn The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for teaching that men and women must “do works meet for repentance.” Acts 26:28 cannot plausibly be used to purge Mormons from Christianity.

1 Peter 4:16 Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.

1 Peter 4:16 represents the last relevant New Testament passage.92 Yet it is virtually without theological content, merely assuring the believer that he need not worry if he suffer as a “Christian.” Persecution is contrasted with suffering “as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer.” And even here, perhaps, we are to think of “Christian” as an identification made by persecuting outsiders, just as “murderer,” “thief,” and “evildoer” might be judgments rendered by a Roman court.93 It is, says F. F. Bruce, “by implication used by non-Christians.”94

We might also note that being “Christian” here probably has a behavioral aspect. After all, suffering “as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer” clearly would flow from something the sufferer does. A person is not punished merely for holding the theoretical belief that murder might be acceptable. (In an instance like this, faith without representative works is legally irrelevant.) A thief is not merely a believer in the abstract redistribution of wealth. Both of these are “evildoers,” and it is as evildoers that they suffer or are punished by the law. If Peter really meant that suffering as a “Christian” was analogous to suffering “as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer,” is it not logical to infer that he saw “Christianity” as expressing itself in behavior? So do the Latter-day Saints! It is Mormon insistence upon the necessity of repentance and good works which, as we shall see below, leads many anti-Mormons to deny that the Latter-day Saints are Christian. If, for this offense, they are thrust from the Christian fold, they may well find Peter already outside the wall. This is not bad company to keep.

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One comment on “What is a Christian? Part 2

  1. Smelly Pete says:

    Do you believe in Freudian Christians?

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