I read Roger Olson’s blog from time to time. He has recently written a couple of posts asking, “What is the Essence of Christianity?” We need to address these simple but fundamental questions from time to time.
I know, it’s been a while, what with Covid and a major writing project to complete….
What Olson is interested in is not what modern Christianity empirically is—the sort of account that a sociologist of religion might come up with—but in the normative definition. “By inquiring into the essence of Christianity we are asking about what Christianity ought to be in order to be authentically itself.”
The question can be answered, Olson says in the first post, in three ways. The essence of Christianity may be a matter of 1) right belief or doctrine (orthodoxy), 2) right experience or spirituality (orthopathy), or 3) right practice or ethics (orthopraxy). In each case the definition must be determined with reference not only to the Bible but also to the early church fathers. Global Christianity today is simply too chaotic, too disparate, and too heterodox to tell us anything about what proper Christianity ought to be.
The theoretical options have their real world counterparts, of course. Modern conservative Protestantism has made orthodoxy the defining characteristic of authentic Christianity. Liberal Protestantism has put the emphasis on experience or orthopathy—especially a universal “God-consciousness.” Oddly, Olson doesn’t mention Pentecostalism or the Charismatic Movement here. Some sections of Liberal Protestantism—the liberation theology folk—have put ethics or orthopraxy at the centre. I have the impression that this would now come under the heading of Progressive Christianity.
Olson’s own view, set out in the second post, is that a christologically conservative orthopathy should have priority. Christianity is centred on Jesus Christ and is defined, in the first place, by the experiential relationship with Jesus as God and Saviour.
Then comes orthodoxy. Examination of stated beliefs is crucial for determining whether an individual or group deserves to be “considered authentically Christian.” The best summary statement of Christian orthodoxy is the Nicene Creed.
Finally—last but not least—we get to orthopraxy, best summed up in Jesus’ sermon on the mount. So “if a group calling itself Christian obviously celebrates violence as good and right, that calls the authenticity of their Christianity into question.”
In practice, this definition is applied as a rough “process of discernment,” and realistically it is always going to be difficult to say whether or to what degree a person or group is authentically Christian.
So there we have Olson’s answer to the question, “What is the essence of Christianity?” It’s the saving relationship with Jesus Christ articulated in narrow patristic terms and lived out according to a narrow Jesus-ethic. What may we say about it from a narrative-historical perspective? In other words, is that really what Jesus and his apostles set out to achieve?
1. Olson, I think, treats “Christianity” as a fixed, self-sufficient religious system, a comprehensive account of how things are, in competition with other religious and increasingly with other irreligious worldviews for the adherence of modern individuals. That way of thinking is bound to miss the “essence” of what is described in the New Testament. It is an example of theological reflection that is, on the face of it, out of touch with the revolution that has taken place in New Testament studies over the last 50-60 years.
2. Any definition of the “essence of Christianity” that does not reference the story of Israel must be considered fundamentally flawed. That goes also for the Nicene Creed. We cannot explain either Jesus or the impact that he had without taking into account the concrete historical circumstances of first century Judaism. Jesus portrays himself as the “son” sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant (Mk. 12:1-11). Paul agrees with this portrayal: Jesus was sent at a critical moment in Israel’s history to redeem those under the Law (Gal. 4:4-5; Rom. 8:3). We have to explain what Jesus had to do with Israel.
3. The defining event in the New Testament is not the death but the resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation to the right hand of God. The significance of this in the context of the story about Israel emerges in two stages, both having to do with the prophetic announcement about the kingdom of God—another key element that does not feature in Olson’s definition.
First, it meant that Jesus was—and would eventually be seen to be (cf. Mk. 14:62)—the solution to the crisis confronting first century Israel. The nation was on a broad road leading to a war against Rome that would culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It’s as simple as that. Only those Jews who followed Jesus down a narrow and difficult road of repentance and suffering would experience the life of the age to come.
The sermon on the mount is not a summary of a general Christian ethic that might meaningfully be implemented today. Jesus is teaching the vulnerable community of his Jewish disciples how to deal with the peculiar pressures that they would face in the period leading up to the storm and flood that would destroy the house of Israel. To be sure, we can pick out the bits that we like, but the thing as a whole is stitched tightly into the tapestry of the unfolding story. Why vandalise it?
Secondly, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus came to be understood also to entail his eventual rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world (cf. Rom. 15:12). Paul’s mission was to proclaim—quite absurdly when you think about it—to the peoples of the empire, from Jerusalem to Spain, that the God of the Jews had given all these nations to his Son as his heritage, to rule with a rod of iron, in the words of Psalm 2. It was only a matter of time.
4. Between these two eschatological outcomes, however, a major narrative disruption occurs. Jesus and his followers in Jerusalem and Judea foresaw a catastrophic “judgment” against the current corrupt generation of Jews and the emergence of a renewed faithful Israel in the immediate aftermath. It happened, however, that Gentiles were more impressed by this story about Israel’s messiah than Jews were (cf. Acts 13:44-50). The churches increasingly became precursors, therefore, not of renewed Israel but of the far more spectacular transformation of the whole pagan world.
But in the process the apostolic movement began to lose touch with its Jewish origins. Paul’s appeal to the seminal faith of Abraham just about saves the narrative from breaking into two, but his anguished deliberations in Romans 9-11 show how troubled he was by the refusal of the Jews to believe in this new future. Olson lumps the New Testament and the early church fathers together as a single coherent authority, but in reality the faith and worldview of Christendom was the work of the Greek and Roman fathers, not of the Jewish apostles. The “Christianity” for which Olson seeks to provide a normative definition is essentially—as a matter both of narrative and of history—a post-biblical phenomenon.
5. I would argue, therefore, that the essence of New Testament “faith” was not so much what God had done but what God was going to do. Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming not the reconciliation of people to God through his death but the future reality of the kingdom of God (Mk. 1:15). Paul’s converts renounced their pagan beliefs and practices and were waiting for the Son from heaven to deliver them from the wrath to come on their doomed civilisation (1 Thess. 1:9-10; cf. Acts 17:30-31).
6. Are we left with nothing to say about normative “Christianity” today? Of course not. We would do well, frankly, to dump the term “Christianity,” because it obscures both the continuity with the Old Testament and the historical contingency of the existence of the people of God. It seems to me much better to talk about the church, or churches, or communities of faith, or whatever, as concrete corporate embodiments of divine purpose.
7. But the important thing is to keep doggedly following the story through. This is an ortho-narratival definition of whatever it means to be whatever we are.
Abraham was chosen to be the father of a people which would be, first, an obedient new creation in microcosm, enjoying the original blessing of the world, and, secondly, a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). That gives us the persistent, irreducible thing that needs to be defined. So what is the essence of being a people chosen by the living God? It is to be a new creation and it is to serve the interests of the living creator God, as a priestly people, not as a professional caste, in the midst of the nations. At this basic level we do not need to mention Christ or Christianity
The vocation required, at every level, a radically disciplined existence, which was what the Law was for. But the discipline repeatedly broke down. Jesus was sent to Israel, therefore, in the fullness of time, to rescue God’s new creation, priestly people from a final judgment on its indisciplined existence, centred on the temple, in the land. The tenant farmers managing the vineyard were not producing the fruit of righteousness—the behaviours that the Law prescribed.
The result, as we have seen, was the inauguration of a new mode of existence in the Spirit, under the lordship of a crucified messiah. But this set in motion a whole new train of eschatological events which would culminate in the collapse of ancient paganism, the conversion of the empire, and the painstaking construction of a Trinitarian worldview, that would preserve the foreign “language” of the Jewish New Testament story in the aspic of a Platonic consciousness, roughly speaking.
8. Olson’s theology, like much modern theology, is as much a reaction to the disintegration of the Christendom worldview as it is an appeal to a patristic orthodoxy. The priority that he gives to the “experiential” relationship with Jesus as God and Saviour, for example, belongs to a very modern attempt to compensate for the collapse of the shared worldview, the public forms of faith, by repackaging Christianity for private and personal consumption. Much of what the churches have been doing over the last two hundred years or so may be characterised as a stubborn refusal to close the chapter on the concrete realisation of the rule of Israel’s God over Western civilisation.
We cannot stop the march of history. It will simply march over us. Instead, we are again in the position of having to “imagine” a radically new future. How do we exist as obedient priestly, new creation communities as the forces of globalisation strangle the planet, as being human becomes a journey into the unknown rather than a comforting given, as societies struggle urgently and sometimes violently to re-form themselves, and as rational predictions of the end-of-the-world as we know it penetrate deep into the collective subconscious?
How do we define the essence of that renewal of vocation? Perhaps that is the question.