More questions about Christian beliefs

In Friday’s post I attempted to answer two questions that were asked of me by a group of friends in my church, Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham. In response to the question “Wouldn’t the world be more peaceful if the religions set aside their beliefs and simply engaged in practices such as loving people?” I said that, while beliefs do contribute to conflict between groups, the question is unrealistic because holding beliefs is intrinsic to Christianity and most other religions. In response to the question “Can you have Christianity without beliefs?” I responded that you cannot have traditional Christianity without beliefs, nor can you engage in Christian practices such as forgiving your enemies without affirming Christian beliefs tacitly if not explicitly. The third question is:

What are the core beliefs of Christianity?

Most Christians think that the core Christian beliefs are taught in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. The problem, of course, is that the Bible is a big book. So, from the first century, Christians have drawn up brief statements of what they understood to be the core Christian beliefs. The best-known of these statements are creeds. The two most widely used creeds are the Apostles’ Creed (Rome, about 150 ad) and the Nicene Creed (Constantinople, probably 381 ad). As Baptists we are free to accept and use these creeds and also free to ignore them or to disagree with them. My sense is that most but not all Baptists agree with most if not all of what is in these creeds.

In addition to the creeds, individual Christians offer their own lists of core Christian beliefs. Here is my effort:

There is one God.

God created the world.

The world is a fallen world.

In some mysterious way the one, true God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Father sent the Son into the world.

Jesus lived, preached, taught, loved, died, and rose again to save the world.

The Father and the Son poured out the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus.

The Spirit guides and empowers the church on its world mission.

The church preaches the gospel (Word) and observes the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.

God will complete this work in the future.

The Bible tells us this wonderful story.

For all practical purposes, these beliefs are embraced by all of the churches in the world. They have been called by various names including orthodoxy, the fundamentals, and mere Christianity. They are all taught in the Bible.

Some beliefs that are important to groups such as Protestants, evangelicals, or Baptists do not appear in this list. For example, Baptists believe that in a religiously diverse society the way to grant maximal religious liberty to all citizens to effect a separation of church and state. The reason that beliefs such as this do not appear in this list is that they are not core beliefs for all Christians, just for some.

The bottom line is that it is possible, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, to list core Christian beliefs, but, because there is no official list of them accepted by all churches and all Christians, it is wise to allow some flexibility in stating them.

If we affirm Christian beliefs, must we deny that God works in other religions?

The short answer is “No.” While Christians often sound very exclusive, they also acknowledge that God works throughout all the world. For example, almost all Christians affirm not only that God has given a special revelation in the history of Israel and especially of Jesus, but that God has given a general revelation that is available in principal to all people.

Examples of the general revelation appear in the Bible in a number of passages. For example, the psalmist who wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1-4) was saying that God’s glory may be known by paying attention to the heavens. In Acts 14:15-17 we read that Paul assured the people of Derbe that “God has not left himself without witness” among them, even though they were neither Jews nor Christians. And Paul wrote to the Romans (2:14-15) that even though the Gentiles do not have the Torah, their consciences tell them what God’s moral laws are, and some of them obey those moral laws. When adherents of other religions observe the heavens, or the regular processes of nature, or their consciences, they may receive these messages from God. In that sense God is working through their religion.

Since Christians affirm that there is only one true God and that God is the Creator of all people, it would be surprising if Christians did not allow for the possibility that God works through other religions. While they think that God works more fully through their Christian religion than any other, it does not follow that they are obliged to deny that God ever works through another religion, and many Christians do not deny that, though of course many do.

If we affirm Christian beliefs, must we deny that non-Christians can go to heaven?

The short answer is “No.”

Today many Christian theologians recognize that there is a variety of understandings of the relationship between Christianity and other religions. A standard typology is that there are three basic views (this was affirmed first by Alan Race in 1983 and again by Gavin D’Costa in 1986). The exclusive view is that only Christians are finally saved. The inclusive view is that Christ is the sole savior of the world but that persons who are not Christians may experience the salvation which Christ provided. The pluralist view is that all religions are equally viable ways to God.

Most people encounter the exclusive view early. But if you keep listening, you may find that, as particular questions arise, the church quietly qualifies its exclusivism in ways that lead to inclusivism. Here are three examples:

“What about Jews who died before Jesus came?” They weren’t Christians, but many churches teach that they are in heaven. In fact, Jesus called heaven “the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22).

“What about children who die in infancy?” Many Christians believe that Jesus accepts them as he accepted children during his lifetime on earth (Mark 10:14).

“What about the severely mentally challenged?” Jesus accepts them as he accepts children.

I think the church is wise to offer these qualifications and to be open to others. After all, there is a mystery about what happens to us after death. It is a necessary mystery because none of us who is alive in the world today has experienced it, so we are dependent upon Jesus who did experience it and brought reassurance to his disciples with the words, “Be not afraid” (Mt. 28:10). I think we risk being presumptuous when we claim to know the final destiny of individuals and groups, whether to claim that particular sets of people are forever damned or to claim that in the end no one is finally damned. To me it seems best to pray as Jesus taught us for the coming of the Kingdom of God (Mt. 6:10) and to trust that when this happens every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11).

 

Fisher Humphreys

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Fisher Humphreys is Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

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