It does little good to argue for Christianity’s truth unless we are clear about what we mean by “Christianity”. Impressions of Christianity are as numerous as observers, and many quite different systems of belief and practice present themselves as Christianity. Christianity has been identified with western culture, democracy, and progressive morality. Some religious thinkers identify Christianity as a system of metaphysical beliefs, and others deny that Christianity asserts any metaphysical truths. It makes sense, then, to spend a little time pursuing the meaning of the term. Even if complete unanimity of opinion is too unrealistic a goal to wish for, surely no one would argue that Christianity is whatever every Tom, Dick, and Harry say it is.
Christianity can be defined descriptively or normatively. In a descriptive definition, Christianity is defined as the system of beliefs and practices cherished by people who self-identify as Christians. Descriptive students of Christianity use historical or social science methods of measurement. For Christians in the 5th century, for example, Christianity is the system believed and practiced by them. Christianity today is whatever contemporary self-identifying Christians believe and practice. Clearly, a purely descriptive method cannot supply a definition of Christianity suitable for the task of answering the question, “Is Christianity true?” If Christianity is whatever self-identifying Christians of any age believe and practice, there are many Christianities, not just one. Indeed, as defined descriptively, there are many Christianities in every age. You can find the most astonishing diversity of belief and practice among self-identifying Christians and churches even in one city. Whose Christianity are we talking about?
Obviously, we also need a normative definition of Christianity. In a normative approach, a system of belief and practice must have certain essential elements to qualify as Christianity. Apart from these elements, a system is not Christianity at all. For normative thinkers, there is no such thing as atheistic Christianity or Christianity without Christ or Gnostic Christianity. Calling such systems of belief and practice “Christianity” is mistaken and misleading. Hence an apologetic argument for the truth of Christianity cannot avoid the perpetual debate among self-identified “Christians” about the essential elements of authentic Christianity. What sense does it make to argue that Christianity is true, if Christianity possesses no essential, identifiable characteristics?
In the course of this year-long series, I will use both descriptive and normative approaches. We need both. I will attempt to clarify the essential elements of Christianity and exclude some variants as impostures. For this post, however, let me define Christianity descriptively, in very general and preliminary way. Christianity is a distinct system of religious and moral beliefs and practices that points to a transcendent divine reality that acts for the salvation of the world from evil and the fulfillment of creation’s potential. For the present, let’s leave aside the task of enumerating and clarifying those beliefs and practices and focus on this formal definition.
Christianity is more than “a distinct system of religious beliefs and practices”, but it is at least that. It is an interlocking system of beliefs that support each other, together with practices that embody these beliefs in specific actions. If Christianity were just a practical way of life or merely a set of religious feelings, the question of its truth would be out of place and unanswerable. The question, “Is Christianity true?” makes sense only if the essential nature of Christianity can be identified and if Christianity makes specific claims about reality that can be assessed in some way for their truth value. The project of answering the question “Is Christianity true?” will need to clarify those claims and examine the evidence for their truth.
Next time: what does it mean to say Christianity is true? What is truth, and what does it mean to say something is true?