What is the essence of Christianity?

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.

Kevin Holtsberry | Wed, 10/13/2021 - 02:35 | Permalink

Wow, there is a lot to wrestle with here.  I feel like this is a little more radical in tone and approach them some of your more academic or hermeneutical posts. Get rid of the term “Christian?” Woah.

But I have to say, I have a hard time reconciling the narrative-historical approach to “mainstream” Christianity of whatever flavor (progressive, conservative, mainline, evangelical, etc.).

I have tried over the last six months of so to really wrestle with Paul and this approach.  I have read the following books (some of them twice) on Paul:

I still find your approach most closely captures what I read when I read Paul (I also read the entire Bible plus Apocrypha this year using the Bibliotheca set I purchased years ago).

But I really struggle in understanding how reconcile the transition from the Jesus movement within Judaism to Christianity as THE religion of the empire.  It does seem like in some important way God rejected his people and that what became the people of God became bitter enemies of the Jews not only abandoning the Jewish foundations of their faith but actively persecuting them and creating a Platonistic religion in its place.

I would like to follow Gager and the Paul within Judaism crowd and say that we misread Paul and that he was speaking to Gentile only and that Jews can and should remain Jews but I can’t square that with the Gospels.  But then what to make of Judaism today?  This is my quandary.

But I also keep coming back to the fact that Christianity today, when it is not a cover for various ideologies of left or right, is fundamentally doctrinally driven and focused on individual souls (some to save them from hell and some to save them in this life). That is when it is not a thin patina over moralistic therapeutic deism.

I have been reading this blog for some time but I can’t say that I feel any closer to reconciling the narrative-historical perspective with any sort of Christianity practiced in the United States.  I continue to practice my faith, and attend church every Sunday, but when I read posts like this it seems intellectually I remain an exile or a heretic.

Thanks for this Kevin. Perhaps two weeks of covid has left me bad tempered.

But I really struggle in understanding how reconcile the transition from the Jesus movement within Judaism to Christianity as THE religion of the empire.

I think we have to see Christendom as a huge adaptation to an unforeseen historical development. It’s not straight line between Jesus and the conversion of the empire.

Biblical eschatology, probably through to Jesus, held to the paradigm of a restored Jewish centre to which the nations would come to bring tribute and to pay their respects to the living God of Israel.

In the diaspora context the growing weight of the Gentile presence in the churches tipped eschatology away from the Jewish paradigm towards the idea of a usurpation of power and change of religious allegiance at the heart of the pagan world—meaning Rome. That broadly remains within the scope of Old Testament expectations, but the centre of gravity has shifted considerably.

But this is a lengthy process, and we have only a very limited perspective—a snapshot or two—in the New Testament.

Paul doesn’t know how things will work out. How would his people react to the catastrophe of the wrath of God—a war against Rome which they could not win? There is no definitive statement about the future place of Israel in the scheme of things because it depends on whether the nation repents and confesses that YHWH has made Jesus Lord and Christ—either before the wrath of God, out of jealousy at the inclusion of Gentiles, or after, out of the realisation that Jesus had been right all along.

The New Testament also makes no attempt to define the life and work of the churches across the empire after the parousia, after the triumph over the old gods, after the conversion of the nations. The climactic moment is confidently predicted, but John’s insertion of a simple unexamined thousand year period between the fall of Babylon the great and the final judgment shows just how little interested he was in the practical outworking of Christ’s rule over the nations, though admittedly, as I see it, the second vision of the descending holy city gives us a bit more information.

All that said, the journey of redemption and renewal is never the same as the arrival. The difference between the way of Jesus and Christendom is the difference between Israel on its journey out of Egypt and through the wilderness and Israel settled in the land promised to them, evolving for good reasons and bad into a nation state among other nation states. The journey is one of hardship and radical trust in God to provide food and water; the settlement entails the development of the institutions of national life—economic, political, religious, judicial, military, and so on. Christendom was the settlement in the land only on a much larger scale.

I sympathise with your second quandary, but the form of this world is passing away. We have to be patient.

Thanks, Andrew. That helps me see the bigger picture even if it is complicated, murky and contingent, etc. 😊 Hope things improve post-Covid. 

Andrew, interesting, as usual. You say,

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.  

You may be right in some respects. I agree that Christianity has been “repackaged” from a public faith to a private experience.  But what are we to do? Should we not remain steadfast that Christ is still Lord of the nations, whether the nations recognize it or not?  The nations did not recognize this during the first few centuries of the church, and yet Christian culture arose in the wake of their sacrifice. Could not a similar thing happen in the future? Are God’s people suppose to give up their convictions because the surrounding culture has?  If we give up bearing witness to the God who became man, we will lose all sense of meaning.  If we reject Nicene Orthodoxy, what grounding to we have for this journey?

It seems that everyone in our culture (Christians included) is “imagining” a new future. But, our own private imaginations lead to future cultural disintegration. It seems that every church has is own “vision” of what things should look like, and this of course has led to widespread disunity in the church today. I’m guessing you would say that this is just part of the process of western civilization being no longer ruled by God. But if we reject — or even fail to embrace — traditional Christian orthodoxy and practices, on what basis can be be a priestly, obedient people? 

It doesn’t appear that western civilization as a whole is going to change it trajectory, so a state sanctioned public faith is not likely in the future. But what if we embrace some version of the Benedict Option, where faith is more than a private experience, but lived out in a community?

Should we not remain steadfast that Christ is still Lord of the nations, whether the nations recognize it or not?

I don’t think that this is an option if we take the course of identifying the New Testament prophecies about the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations with the actual historical outcome. If we are to be consistent, the historical rejection of the lordship of Christ by western civilisation must have the same “eschatological” weight as its acceptance. It just happens to be beyond the purview of the New Testament, unless we think that this is the point of Revelation 20:7-10—Satan is released from the abyss in the modern era to deceive the nations again, but fire comes down from heaven in the form of a climate emergency as judgment on modern global humanity, just as the driving forces behind imperial Rome were tormented in the lake of fire? Too fanciful?

Anyway, I would differentiate between the particular historical embodiment of Christ’s rule over the nations and his unchanging rule at the right hand of God, above all authority and power, for the sake of the church. He remains the one who judges and safeguards the church whether or not he is acknowledged by the wider society. The point is that the existence and integrity of the church are guaranteed wherever history takes us.

If we reject Nicene Orthodoxy, what grounding to we have for this journey?

I’m not quite rejecting it. My point is that it was a narrowly focused (and therefore misleading) lens that served the purpose of focusing belief for the European churches. The collapse of European Christendom and the more recent emergence of a solid historical grasp of the New Testament give us the occasion and means to recover the larger narrative mode of self-understanding—recovering, on the one hand, the Jewish grounding of the story, and attempting to outline, on the other, where things might go from here.

But if we reject — or even fail to embrace — traditional Christian orthodoxy and practices, on what basis can we be a priestly, obedient people?

I would suggest, a little recklessly, that we do it the same way that Jesus and his followers did it: by knowing the scriptures and by listening to, and following, the Spirit of God. What can possibly go wrong? After all, traditional Christian orthodoxy was only ever meant to be a summary and sytematisation of biblical teaching. So let’s go back and read the scriptures carefully from our current vantage point in the storyline.

But what if we embrace some version of the Benedict Option, where faith is more than a private experience, but lived out in a community?

Why not indeed? But if we are not expecting Christianity to be state sanctioned again, that is already a very different eschatological vision to that either of the New Testament or of the church fathers.