One Christianity or Many Christianities?

I know this is a controversial topic for the people who frequently comment on blog posts here at The Secular Outpost, and my view seems to be the minority view.  Perhaps I am the only person in this crowd who thinks that there is some hope of being able to define “Christianity” in a way that is both reasonable and that is specific enough to allow for an answer to the question “Is Christianity true?”

Most of you, I believe, think that there is not just ONE Christianity, but that there are MANY Christianities, and so it is not possible to answer the question “Is Christianity true?”   Before we can form such an evaluation–you would say–we must specify which specific version of Christianity is under discussion.  Once a specific version of Christianity has been specified, then maybe there will be some hope of being able to evaluate the truth of that specific version of Christianity.

It is obvious that there are indeed MANY versions of Christianity:  Catholicism, Greek Orthodox,  Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, etc.

One of my sisters is a member of a Presbyterian church in California, and because of disagreement between Presbyterians about how to view and respond to homosexuality and homosexual couples, her church left one branch of Presbyterianism and joined a different branch of Presbyterianism.  Some members of her church were very unhappy with that change and ended their membership in that local church.

Christians disagree with each other over ethical, political, and theological issues, and sometimes the disagreements are so strong and heated, that churches and church organizations split up into factions, into new and separate churches and church organizations or denominations.  So, in this sense, there are clearly MANY different versions of Christianity.

However, despite the obvious variety of versions of Christianity, it is not clear to me that we cannot reasonably talk about and think about and evaluate the truth of Christianity.  I’m inclined to believe that there is a set of beliefs that can be identified as standard or traditional Christian beliefs, and that such a set of beliefs (a) has been held by most educated Christians for many centuries, and (b) these beliefs are central or core beliefs of the Christian faith, and (c) these beliefs when taken together are sufficient to constitute a point of view or worldview.

I believe that it is BOTH the case that there are many different versions of Christianity AND that there is, nevertheless, some set of beliefs that can reasonably be identified as constituting the Christian worldview, thus allowing for the possibility of asking and of answering the question “Is Christianity true?”

One bit of evidence for my point of view is that there are ancient creeds of the Christian faith that are used and accepted by a broad range of Christian churches and denominations:

The Apostles’ Creed … sometimes entitled Symbol of the Apostles, is an early statement of Christian belief—a creed or “symbol”. It is widely used by a number of Christian denominations for both liturgical and catechetical purposes, most visibly by liturgical Churches of Western tradition, including the Roman Catholic Church, Lutheranism and Anglicanism. It is also used by Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists.

The Apostles’ Creed was based on Christian theological understanding of the Canonical gospels, the letters of the New Testament and to a lesser extent the Old Testament. Its basis appears to be the old Roman Creed known also as the Old Roman Symbol. Because of the early origin of its original form, it does not address some Christological issues defined in the Nicene and other Christian Creeds. It thus says nothing explicitly about the divinity of either Jesus or of the Holy Spirit. This makes it acceptable to many Arians and Unitarians. Nor does it address many other theological questions which became objects of dispute centuries later. [ref]

Another widely used and accepted creed of the Christian faith is the Nicene Creed:

The Nicene Creed … is a profession of faith widely used in Christian liturgy.

It is called Nicene…because it was originally adopted in the city of Nicaea (present day Iznik, Turkey) by the First Council of Nicaea in 325.  In 381, it was amended at the First Council of Constantinople, and the amended form is referred to as the Nicene or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The churches of Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian churches use this profession of faith with the verbs in the original plural (“we believe”) form. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church use it with the verbs of believing changed to the singular (“I believe”) form. The Anglican Communion and many Protestant denominations also use it, sometimes with the verbs of believing in the plural form but generally in the singular. [ref]

These two ancient Christian creeds are used and accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, by  Anglicans, and by many Protestant denominations.  This is significant evidence that there is a set of core beliefs that have been shared by a large portion of believers in a wide range of Christian churches and denominations over a period of many centuries.

There are a couple of points of qualification, that, I think, also help the case for my point of view.

  1. In any political or ideological group or organization of significant size there will almost always be a few people who do not accept the “party line” or the “official dogma”.  But this is often the exception that proves the rule.  If we insist that every last person in a group fully buy into every last doctrine or belief or policy embraced by that group in order to identify a set of doctrines or beliefs that “belong” to that ideological group, then it will be virtually impossible to ever talk about the doctrines or beliefs of an ideological group.  To be realistic, we must be willing to identify beliefs associated with an ideological group on the basis that most or nearly all of the members of that group accept those beliefs, even though there are a few people in the group who do not accept those beliefs.
  2. Many people, I’m sad to say, are ignorant about the doctrines and beliefs of their own specific religious tradition.  As a result, the actual beliefs of many people sitting in the pews may be widely divergent from the official doctrines of their church or religious tradition.   Once again, to be realistic, we cannot expect every Tom, Dick, and Harry who wanders into a church a few times a year to have any clear understanding of the content of their own religious tradition.  So, what is most relevant is the beliefs of the educated and well-informed (and somewhat dedicated) members of churches and denominations.  If we survey the beliefs of everybody who happens to wander into a church from time to time, then we will see a great diversity of beliefs (including atheism and pantheism) even if we only go to churches of one specific denomination.  But if we survey educated, well-informed, and dedicated members of churches, we would, I strongly suspect, see more uniformity of belief and greater orthodoxy of belief.  An educated and well-informed believer will generally remain a member of a church or denomination only if his or her beliefs generally correspond with the official doctrines of that church or denomination.
  3. Some theological differences between Christians are very important in terms of their implications for a person’s eternal destiny, but may not be important in the sense of being a belief that is required as support for other basic beliefs in the faith.  For example, one major theological disagreement between protestants and catholics is over the protestant claim that “salvation is by faith alone”.  This belief is very important in that it has implications for the question “Who is saved from eternal damnation?” and thus for the question “Am I saved from eternal damnation?”  This is obviously a question of great existential and psychological significance.  However, the protestant belief that “salvation is by faith alone” does not, it seems to me, play an important role in supporting other basic Christian beliefs.  One can believe that God exists, even if one doubts that “salvation is by faith alone”.  One can believe that Jesus died on the cross, even if one doubts that “salvation is by faith alone”.  One can believe that Jesus rose from the dead, even if one doubts that “salvation is by faith alone”.  So, although this protestant belief is very important in terms of answering the existentially weighty question “Am I saved from eternal damnation?”, it does not appear to play a significant role in the logical structure of the Christian worldview.  Therefore, some seemingly important theological disagreements between Christians, can be reasonably set aside as not being essential to the Christian worldview because the beliefs in question don’t have a significant role in the logical stucture of the Christian worldview.