Christ and Chaos: Making Sense of Christianity’s Many Teachings

Accepting the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus is the first step into Christian faith. As I emphasized in previous posts, this is a huge leap, a revolution that changes the direction of our lives, places them on a new foundation, and initiates a life-long journey of learning and practice. However, as anyone with more than a superficial acquaintance with Christianity knows, Christianity involves more than belief in the resurrection. And our series asks the question, “Is Christianity true?” not merely “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” How shall we continue our progress toward answering the more comprehensive question of Christianity’s truth? Is there a logical order in which we can best assess the truth of Christianity’s many teachings from this point onward?

The first rule I wish to lay down is this: in our examination of Christianity’s teachings we should never think independently of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus. In some way—to be specified later—each Christian teaching needs to be related to the resurrection faith. This rule is of supreme importance. Only in this way can we root the full spectrum of Christian teaching in the thing to which we have the most direct access, that is, an historical event to which we have access by faith, a faith that is our own act of trust and commitment. In so far as we can see the connection between our basic act of faith in Jesus and Christianity’s other teachings, their meaning, truth, and relevance to life will come to light. We can embrace them and hold them with greater confidence and practice them with greater joy. They will no longer appear to us as disconnected and arbitrary teachings that we are supposed to believe because we can see that the Bible says so or because the church says the Bible says so. A set of arbitrary and disconnected beliefs cannot possibly illuminate our minds, focus our attention, transform our affections, and order our lives toward the fullest experience of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. At best, we can hold them verbally and practice them legalistically.

From the perspective of the resurrection faith, Christianity’s other teachings fall into two broad classes: (1) beliefs that are closely associated with the resurrection itself or that are clearly implied by the event of the resurrection and can be readily inferred from it. In previous posts, I dealt in a general way with this first class of beliefs. The resurrection event took place in a context that gives it significance far beyond its status as mere miracle. I noted three components of that context: “(1) the life of Jesus as experienced and remembered by his disciples; (2) contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people; and (3) the impact of the resurrection appearances themselves.” Included in this class of beliefs are: Jesus Christ is the Revealer of the character, identity, and will of God, Jesus is the Revealer of the true human relationship to God, Jesus is Savior and Lord, and Jesus is the long-expected Messiah. Furthermore, it does not take a long trail of reasoning to see that by raising Jesus from the dead, God approved and validated Jesus’ moral and religious teachings as possessing divine authority and perhaps above all that God overturned the death sentence passed on Jesus and pronounced him innocent of the charges Jews and Gentiles urged against him. Hence the resurrection transformed the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus from a human act of failure and judicial murder into a divine act of self-sacrifice and triumph.

(2) The second class of Christian beliefs is less obviously implied within the event of the resurrection but was nevertheless taught by the apostles. As I noted in the previous two posts, our trust and love for the apostles leads us to believe their witness to the resurrection. In this act of faith we acknowledge our dependence on them for what we know about Jesus. We acknowledge that our relationship to them will always be as students to teachers. This relationship cannot be reversed. We want them to tell us everything they know about Jesus and every nuance of their understanding of his death and resurrection and reign as Lord. We need them to help us understand what it means to live on the basis of these truths.

We can see how some of what they teach follows readily from the resurrection event itself. We can even think along with them as they come to these realizations. These teachings fall into the first class (1) discussed above. But how some of their teachings are related to the resurrection event is less obvious. We have to study and think hard in order to grasp how their teachings make the connection to the resurrection. It is harder to think along with them from the resurrection itself to the particular teaching in question. As an example of a doctrine with a less obvious connection to the resurrection, consider the teaching that Jesus preexisted his earthly life as the eternal Word through whom God created the world. And the line of development gets even more obscure when we consider doctrines that received their definitive formulation beyond the New Testament era. Perhaps, the doctrine of the Trinity is the best example from this group.

In future posts, we will examine some of the most important teachings that lie close to the heart of Christianity. As we look at these teachings I will keep in mind the purpose of the series, which is to address the question “Is Christianity True?” I am not writing a catechism, that is, series of instructions on what the church teaches. I am asking about the truth of these teachings. Can we reasonably and responsibility accept them as true? This limit is why we must show the connection of each core Christian doctrine to the resurrection; for the resurrection is the decisive event. If a teaching follows from the resurrection, it warrants our acceptance.

Next week perhaps we ought to reflect further on the place of the Bible in Christianity. The question of the place and authority of the Bible must also be subject to the supreme rule I enunciated above: “in our examination of Christianity’s teachings we should never think independently of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus.”

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