Defining the Term ‘Christian’

I do quite a bit of blogging with people from all stripes of Christian faith backgrounds and atheists, the only 2 parties that seem to like talking about the role of faith/religion in society. What I am noticing is the pigeon holding of the term ‘Christian’ (from both sides) and what it means to be one.

There are varying views on what a Christian is but the one that seems to stick the most is the one most adamantly (and ignorantly) defended is that a Christian is a conservative literalist when it comes to reality. Conservative in development of ‘morals’ and literal in their view of what scriptures ‘mean’. This idea of what a Christian is seems to be on the forefront of many an athiests definition as well is defended very strongly by many Christian denominations. Plus, if anyone reads or watches anything on athiest-religion debates, is almost always hauled out as the base foundation for tearing Christians a new one.

Well the term Christian actually is about a movement (ie: like how hippies were a movement) of people that identified with the idea of Jesus as messiah (ie: Christ means messiah in Greek). It’s like saying ‘I am from Victoria, I am Victor-ian’. However, the earliest recorded name for Christians was ‘the way’ – loosely based on ‘a way of living’ – likely also borrowed from Judaism law in which Halakah law was seen as ‘the way to live’. So we see early on it’s about having standards to ‘live by’.

Which is where 21st century meets history – ‘a way to live’. The way someone in 400 BCE is not the same way I am going to live in 2011 BCE. Heck, even socially and economically and culturally we all kind of live ‘different ways’. Point being, there is no actual designated way to live that defines you as a Christian – no social makeup so to speak. The scriptures themselves kind of point to this uniqueness as well with varying ways to build your life from Ecclesiastes to Matthew to Paul’s Letters.

So what is a Christian?

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15 thoughts on “Defining the Term ‘Christian’

  1. Interesting no one is taking a stab at this question. People are all too willing to identify as one; I wonder why defining what it means seems so… imposing!

  2. Well, maybe this will help kick things off (or not).

    The Hitch says if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian… and goes on to to define christian fundamentalists as those who think that the Bible is a serious book and should be taken seriously.

  3. then i would be a christian fundamentalist under that vague definition, but i wouldn’t consider myself a fundie. i take the bible seriously, but not literally. i use different methods than the fundamentalists. would you care to take another stab at it?

    • No, I think Hitch got it right the first time. With a bit of review, I think you’ll find that you do take parts of biblical scripture literally and others metaphorically while ignoring other bits and think yourself wise enough through the method of personal revelation (attributed elsewhere in ways you think of as appropriate) to know which should be taken thus. You throw in the line about literal as if it were a meaningful difference when I don’t see how it can be.

      But I know perfectly well that your forte is aimed squarely at insisting everyone else do the heavy lifting to prove or disprove your assumptions and assertions, so no matter what anyone suggests to define a christian, you’ll find wanting. It’s how you protect your beliefs from legitimate criticism… with a wave of the dismissive hand.

  4. “I think you’ll find that you do take parts of biblical scripture literally and others metaphorically…”
    -that’s called Form Criticism. this is not a revelation not all that important. so what?

    “But I know perfectly well that your forte is aimed squarely at insisting everyone else do the heavy lifting to prove or disprove your assumptions and assertions,”
    -ah, yes.

    • No ‘fundamentalist’ I’ve ever encounter took the entire bible literally… as in John 1:29. Jesus was not literally a ‘lamb’ and I don’t think anyone considers him such. So the ‘so what’ shows that the difference between fundamentalists and you is not so clear as you make it out to be.

      • “No ‘fundamentalist’ I’ve ever encounter took the entire bible literally”
        -me either but it’s hard to get them to believe that.

        “So the ‘so what’ shows that the difference between fundamentalists and you is not so clear as you make it out to be.”
        -yup, it actually is. they will stick to their point and claim of biblical literalism long after the evidence proves otherwise. they tend to have extremely strong boundaries of who is in and who is out, and what constitutes that, and anyone deviating from that is declared apostate. sorta like you and reason and “THE TRUTH.”

  5. I would disagree with Hitch’s definition – it’s too narrow in scope (theologically). Problems with the defintion are as follows:

    (1) Blunder: “Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah” – Christ and messiah are essentially the same word in 2 different languages – he can’t be both since he only needs to be one from the exact same terms. Makes me wonder what he is getting at with that curfuffle of linguistics?

    (2) Atonement theory: “by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven”…this is not essential theology. In stories Jesus is forgiving people way before he is ever crucified – was this ‘in lieu’ of his coming death or was this something that just ‘was’? Also atonement as a theory is never flushed out in a single gospel – it’s not really until Hebrews and some of Paul is this really discussed…and Paul doesn’t really touch on the ‘blood’ aspect of this.

    (3) Identification: “you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian”. He has a point, as in identification with many of the big denoms. However, I still find meaningful existence in what I take from the scriptures and am able to articulate it fairly well. So in terms of identification I am ‘lacking’ – but not in terms of a meaningful theology or paradigm. It’s limiting for the sake of being limiting – like developing a box for toys and all the toys ‘have’ to be in that box.

    It’s also problematic in the sense it seems ‘stereotypical’. I would never say every ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ has to be ‘this way’. I would never say every ‘atheist’ has to believe ‘these ideas’. There are essential ideas and I am not sure Hitch nailed them down.

  6. this is why i have no respect for Hitch or you in the realm of theology. Catholics would not fall under this definition because they don’t use just the bible. there is also the tradition. the church fathers, as it were, the traditional interpretation of scripture through the Apostolic Faith, which is operating both seriously and metaphorically and literally at times.

    my definition would be 1. whoever calls themselves a Christian or aligning in some way, shape or form, to the Christian faith. 2. the Christian faith is ”God is; God is as he is in Jesus; therefore, we have hope” with the ethic of 3. Love God and your neighbor as yourself and 4. imitate Christ as your understanding and tradition dictates.

    that’s what i’ve come away with in the discussion on my blog. it still has holes, but it’s the best i can come up with.

    • What are you talking about Z1G? The catholic creed is

      1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
      2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
      3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
      4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
      5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
      6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
      7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
      8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
      9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
      10. the forgiveness of sins,
      11. the resurrection of the body,
      12. and life everlasting.

      Hitchens says if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

      So is Hitchens’ rendition somehow outside of the creed? I don’t think so at all. Yet here you are pretending that catholics would not fit Hitchen’s very loose definition but obviously (to me, anyway) they fall very neatly into it. Does it describe their faith in its entirety? Of course not, nor does it pretend to. It simply asserts that there are some elements necessary to be considered a christian. That’s not an exhaustive list but a generalization.

      So let’s recap: if you don’t believe jesus was anything more than just another guy, can you be considered a christian?

      If you don’t believe this guy was god can you be a christian?

      If you don’t jesus rose from the dead, can you be a christian?

      If you don’t believe jesus died for your sins, can you be a christian?

      And he tops that summation with the word ‘meaningful’ in that if you reject any of these tenets, can christianity then play any kind of meaningful role in your theistic identity?

      I don’t think so. Hitchens doesn’t think so, and I suspect under your religious hood (and through a reiteration of words more suitable to your scriptural interpretations) you don’t think so, either.

  7. You know, I’ve struggled with this question since I’ve left a denomination and joined another and have visited a few distinct groups. I’ve come to cling to Jesus’ words “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you’re my disciples, if you love one another.”
    Any denominations doctrine is very nice, but what is important to me is belief in who Jesus was, what he did on the cross and the resurrection and to be changed by it that shows up practically in the individual’s life, through love.
    Defining love would take another huge conversation, but it would be one well worth having.

  8. “Hitchens says if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

    Hitchens doesn’t know the models and doctrines of the incarnation and theories of atonement. can i say yes to all of those? yes. the debate comes in how one understands those things. horray for vagueness Hitch and ~!

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