Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Somewhat wishing I hadn't started this.
 
SK was clearly being mischievous (a thing which has almost never happened before) when he pretended that everyone would immediately see that Arians weren't Christians. This left an obvious opening for Sam to pretend that couldn't see any difference between the two positions. The Dawk, after all, uses Arius vs Athanasius as his main example of meaningless theological debate.

Sam, of course, plays the standard counter-gambit – since the Aristotelian terms "same substance" / "similar substance" sound obscure and strange to us, they can't signify any real disagreement; the two schools must have been arguing about nothing whatsoever; Christians are silly etc etc. If charity were really the order of the day, he might have asked whether it made any difference if you believed that Jesus was the Creator, or merely a sub-ordinate creature. But that would require us to ask "what do we mean by difference"? That chap who did the History of Christianity on the Beeb a couple of years back pointed out that Arian art depicted a realistic, human Jesus who appears to age during his ministry, where Byzantine art of the same period depicts a more distanced, obviously divine figure. But that's a bit of a rarefied distinction. I am quite sure that Sam would be able to quite easily spot an Arian by its behaviour. It would be the one wearing a headscarf, knocking on his front door, and asking him to buy a copy of the Watchtower. Is that the kind of difference we are looking for?

We are of course, not permitted to say that "Well, the positions are different because the people who believe in the two positions believe that they are different" because Sam could then play his "Popular Front of Judea vs Judean Popular Front" card. 

In all seriousness. Christians seem able to disagree with each other about quite big theological questions, and still regard each other as "fellow-Christians", albeit "fellow-Christians who should jolly well stop denying the miracle of the mass / worshipping a biscuit and come back to the true church". But Christians have found that the question of the Trinity is one about which they are unable to agree to differ. It's not a question of poor hard done by Arians saying "But we are Christians, the same as you: please let us back into your church." Trinitarians think that Arians aren't Christians; Arians think that they are the only Christians. They knock on my door early on Saturday mornings and try to convert me, which the Bishop of Rome, to give him his due, has never done.

I don't think that the question about whether the Holy Spirit proceeeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone is a question about nothing; I think I could have a stab at saying what the difference is and why it seemed to be important. But the Pope in Rome regards the Patriarch in ... wherever he lives, do you know, I honestly don't know... not merely as a fellow Christian, but as a fellow Christian who is so near to being a Catholic as practically makes no difference. Even though he's quite sure that he's wrong about filoque.

So why do questions like Arianism not admit of the same kind of compromise?

I understand that from a position outside of any Church, this might look odd; could Sam accept that from a position inside the Church, it seems obvious. (Obvious that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon's aren't Christians, but that Anglicans are simply fellow Christians who've got it badly wrong about infant baptism.) Could he perhaps accept on trust that the person of Christ is what Christianity is about; in fact what Christianity is (in the way that the Koran is what Islam is) and that while there can be very great differences of opinion about baptism, Eucharist and even ethics, you can't mess around with our understanding of who Christ is without changing – or in fact obliterating – our faith.

To press the analogy in a possibly ignorant direction; I don't think that there has ever been a textually liberal form of Islam – the Koran is either the actual word of God, or it is nothing, and without the Koran there is no Muslim religion. Would orthodox Jews say the same thing about the Torah – that you can't be "a Jew who doesn't follow the Law" because following the Law is what being a Jew means? But I may be wrong about that.

There are certainly clergy who take the view that Jesus was a teacher of ethics; that he preached a radical, revolutionary message; that his death was a political martyrdom; and that the resurrection is to be understood simply in terms of "his followers kept following his political message even after he died." Does Sam genuinely not see that this is different from the mainstream position that god came down from heaven, died on the cross to enable human beings to go to heaven, came back to life after he had been killed, and then went back to heaven? Does he genuinely not see why I, coming from the second perspective, would not be prepared to call the first one "Christian"?

Is the point "I don't think Giles Fraser really takes the liberal – modernist position that your ascribe to him."? (I am perfectly happy to concede that I may have misjudged him.)

Is the point "It doesn't matter if Giles Fraser takes the liberal - modernist position, because the liberal – modernist position is in fact indistinguishable form the traditional – conservative position." (In which case Fraser is equally to blame, since he appears to deny that Catholics and Evangelicals are Christians in any meaningful sense.) 

Or is the point "It couldn't possibly make any difference whether Fraser is a liberal – modernist or a traditional – conservative because all religious positions are equally meaningless? "

I think that Sam, being what C.S Lewis called a naturalist, may find it genuinely difficult to believe that Christians are what C.S Lewis called supernaturalists. I think that he finds the idea that there is Something Else apart from the scientifically observable universe so strange that he thinks that whenever Christians seem to be talking about something supernatural, they must really be talking about something natural. "I know you say that you say that you think that Jesus died so you could get in touch with God, but you can't really mean that: you must really mean 'so that you can form a more just society' or 'so you can overcome your psychological hangups' ".

I don't think that any good Christian has ever quite believed in the parody of the Atonement which Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser abominate. This is sometimes called "Penal Substitution": I prefer to call it the Tom Sawyer theory. (God wants to whip Becky Thatcher; but Tom Sawyer, who is innocent, volunteers to get whipped instead, so Becky Thatcher gets off scot free.) As committed a death-cultist as John Stott points out that it doesn't work because it's not fully Trinitarian: God is in fact both the one doing the punishing and the one getting punished. Mr C.S Lewis starts out his chapter on the Atonement by saying that before he was a Christian, he thought that the whipping boy theory  was the one he had to believe, and that it made no sense to him. He said that once he became a Christian, even the theory of one person getting punished on someone else's behalf seemed less immoral than it had; and if you changed it to "paying a debt" or "standing the racket" then it made more sense; because it's a matter of common experience that one one person has got himself in trouble, it's the innocent person who isn't in trouble who has to get him out of it. He then propounds a rather complicated theory, based on Anselm, about human beings needing to "go back" to God, but not being able to, and Jesus doing the "going back" on our behalf.

Again: I don't quite know whether Sam really doesn't see the difference between an objective Atonement ("The death of God actually changed the relationship that the material universe has to the supernatural realm") and a subjective Atonement ("Jesus' death was a good example of not striking back against evil, however horrible it is") or whether he's pretending not to for tactical reasons. Or if I'm failing to explain it very well, which is most likely. 

If the Tom Sawyer analogy is a poor one, why do people carry on using it? Because it is a very vivid and dramatic way of picturing the idea that Jesus' death made a difference. God was cross with us; Jesus was punished; now God isn't cross with us any more. Darnay was going to be beheaded; Carton  switched places with him; Darnay lived happily ever after. There are other versions: the human race owed God a debt; Jesus paid the debt; now the human race doesn't owe God a debt any more. Many nasty imperialist evangelical tracts ask us to imagine a judge, or more probably a Judge, who imposes a fine on a certain prisoner and then pays it himself. We were too dirty and filthy to go to heaven; we washed ourselves in the blood of Jesus; now we are clean. Jesus went down into hell, fought with the devil and smashed down the gates, so no-one has to stay in hell unless they want to. For the first thousand years of Christian history, the most popular theory involved God playing a trick on the devil to make him exceed his authority, and idea that would be incredibly alien to almost all Christians, but important if you are are going to make sense out of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

The Bible talks about the death of Jesus in terms of "sacrifice". It is absolutely true that the idea of sacrifice is strange to us. But the idea was clearly not strange to the people who wrote the Bible. Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; he is handed over to be executed preparation day ("when the passover must be killed"); he initiates a sort of holy role-play in which passover wine becomes "my blood of the New Covenant". Church of England churches still have a table at the front which they call an "alter"; Giles Fraser has to perform a rite involving phrases like "in memory of thy perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross" and "Hallelujah! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us." It is very reasonable indeed for a clergyman to say "We need to find ways of explicating this strange language; we need to be pretty sure we understand what "sacrifice" meant to a good Jew, and, come to that, to a pagan convert at the time of Jesus." But I don't think you can say that the whole idea of sacrifice is abhorrent, and actually anti-Christian. You can only say that if you think that the people who we depend on for our knowledge of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) had utterly and completely missed the whole point of every word he had ever said. Possibly you may think that Jesus was all right but the disciples were thick and ordinary, that their twisting it has ruined it for you. Once you've said that, there isn't really anything left called "Christianity" to talk about. 
 
In Fraser's version, Christianity went off the rails pretty darn early. St Mark pretty definitely has a story about Jesus miraculously stopping a storm. Fraser thinks that miracles of the storm-stopping kind are completely contrary to the whole idea of Christianity. That's sort of a bit of a problem. 

It may be that I misread Fraser. It may be that (like me and St Mark) he thinks that the point of the story of Jesus calming a storm is the final line, where the disciples say "Hang on...only Yahweh is meant to be able to tell the weather off. But that means....."; that he's saying "The point of the story is that Jesus really was Yahweh; the point of the story is not that we don't need to listen to the shipping forecast before going on boat trips from now on." It would have been nicer if he could have framed in as an affirmation of what he does believe, and not as a rant about how horrible we evangelicals are. 
 
I'm not talking here about whether we think miracle are even possible, or whether we ought to interpret miracle stories literally or metaphorically. I am quite happy to debate with the fellow who thinks that Mark 4: 35-41 is not a news report, but (say) a commentary on the book of Jonah. But when someone says "Mark completely missed the point of what Jesus was on about; but fortunately, I get the point perfectly well" then I smile patronisingly and walk away.

45 comments:

Andrew Rilstone said...

@Nick - Arians do believe that Jesus was begotten, not created; they just believe that he was begotten "in time", not "from eternity". (i.e There was a time when God was not a Trinity; he needn't have been a Trinity is he hadn't wanted to be.) You ought to get around to reading that fella Milton one of these days. As above, we know what Arians do that Trinitarians don't do -- knock on my door, sell me the Watchtower, and refuse to have blood transfusions.

Andrew Rilstone said...

@Sam
I used Liberaiton theology inexactedly, meaning "the belief that the Kingdom of God is a social order in the present world, and that Jesus was primarily a social reformer." Social Gospel might have been better?

If Fraser thinks that Jesus death is a good example which we are free and able to follow or not as we wish (no original sin or predestination to get in the way) then I would not be insinuating or accusing him of being a Pelegian; that's what I understand the term to mean. I concede I may have overinterpreted some of his remarks, and just because he calls me names I shouldn't call him names back.

NickPheas said...

I am stunningly unlikely to actually read a long book of poetry, but would probably download the BBC7 adaptation if only the site I would download it from were working.

Andrew Rilstone said...

A book of poetry (long or short)
Really does not describe it very well.
More like a long religious fantasy
Which happens to be written in blank verse.

Graham MF Greene said...

And you can sing the first few paragraphs to the tune of the Fintstones theme. Which is always a bonus.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Sometimes I read your blog and it's quite understandable (Doctor Who; C.S. Lewis, riots), and sometimes it's very confusing. "Somewhat wishing I hadn't started this" must mean that there's some conversation is progress, but I have no idea who it's with or where it's taking place.

"Would orthodox Jews say the same thing about the Torah – that you can't be "a Jew who doesn't follow the Law" because following the Law is what being a Jew means?"

Seizing on this one part, Jews all pretty much understand that there are religious Jews and cultural Jews, and that the argument over whether the cultural ones are really Jewish or not is a political argument that only a few people take seriously as a religious one.

JWH said...

Rich,

The 'this' is the debate in the comments section of the previous post:

http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=9987513&postID=7485436825898749488

Regards

John

JWH said...

"Somewhat wishing I hadn't started this..."

Whereas I'm pleased you did. You write really well about this stuff - "Where Dawkins Went Wrong" is full of it, which is why it is a cracking book! Engaging writing about theology is just as readable as engaging writing about Tolkien, Doctor Who, LotR et al.

Thanks again.

Sam Dodsworth said...

I was actually being sincere and trying to engage, you know - not playing a point-scoring game.

Andrew Rilstone said...

@Sam I don't think that in saying that someone may adopt tactics in a discussion is the same as saying that they are not taking serioulsy or treating it is as a game. Pretending not to understand something so as to force your opponent to explain it, and possibly reveal that he doesn't understand it either is a perfectly normal thing to do in a debate? I do think that certain debates are so well worn that it feels like certain pre-set chess moves are being used to counter certain other pre-set chess moves, which is why my heart sinks when someone introduce Arius into the discussion. At any rate, I think I've responded to all your substantive points as honestly as I can.

SK said...

I think I have been ascribed cunning when foolishness would have been more appropriate -- I was not actually trying to derail everything by introducing Arius, it was just where my mind immediately went after 'divinity of Christ' (that's the trouble with trying to write in a sort of free associating style).

My strategy was going to be to get Sam to admit that there were limits to the definition of 'Christian', and that one could use the same form of words ('I believe in Jesus') to mean two very different things, and that the difference between these things could be the difference between being inside the definition and outside, and therefore show that it would be entirely logically possible for Giles Fraser to assent to the same verbal forms as other Christians while meaning something entirely different. I saw Sam's fundamental confusion as arising from a view that says 'if they say the same words as you and do the same things and you both believe in clothing the hungry and feeding the naked then they must be the same as you, right, whatever happens to be going on inside their heads?'.

In the event I thought I was able to re-approach that point, once the Arian thing had come up and derailed me slightly, from a slightly different tangent (by showing that it is possible for two people to act indistinguishably, but one be a 'Christian' and the other not) but it was not my original intention.

[NB: The use of 'Christian' here is entirely to do with the general meaning of the term to describe a certain set of cosmological beliefs, and should not be construed as having any relationship to such concepts as 'regenerate', 'saved', or 'one of the Elect'.]

NickPheas said...

I find it very hard to read poetry. At least, read it silenty. It's all about the rythms and I can't generate them inside my head.

Listening to someone else read them is fine.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew:

I do think that certain debates are so well worn that it feels like certain pre-set chess moves are being used to counter certain other pre-set chess moves, which is why my heart sinks when someone introduce Arius into the discussion.

"I am glad to say that I have never seen Arius introduced into a discussion. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different."


SK:

I saw Sam's fundamental confusion as arising from a view that says 'if they say the same words as you and do the same things and you both believe in clothing the hungry and feeding the naked then they must be the same as you, right, whatever happens to be going on inside their heads?'.

That was certainly the error I was making about Arianism. My point about Giles Fraser is more that the only evidence we have for what's going on inside someone's head is what they say and what they do, and that it seems uncharitable to deny his claim to be a Christian when that evidence isn't there.

I'll confess to a slight bias in favour of Giles Fraser, whose God is more elegant (in the sense that a theorem is elegant) than yours in the way that He operates. But it's probably not a recommendation that an atheist finds his views congenial.

SK said...

it seems uncharitable to deny his claim to be a Christian when that evidence isn't there.

But does Giles Fraser claim to be a 'Christian'? That's what I'm not sure. A lot of the things that are integral to Christianity, he seems determined to distance himself from.

We're back to the question: would he really regard a 'charitable' reading of his work as one which aligns himself with the people he describes as members of a 'death cult'?

Giles Fraser seems to be the one drawing the line, not us. He's the one who doesn't want to be associated with evangelicals like Andrew, Reformed Protestants like me, Catholics, Baptists, Brethren...

The line isn't our invention, it's his. He is the one who doesn't want to be thought of as believing the same things as us. The only debate is over which side of it is labelled 'Christian' and which side is labelled 'social services' / 'death cult'.

I'll confess to a slight bias in favour of Giles Fraser, whose God is more elegant (in the sense that a theorem is elegant) than yours in the way that He operates

I've always thought that a transcendent God was more elegant, in that sense, that Giles Fraser's rather immanent (and therefore messily wrapped up in the good and bad of the world) God; but theoretical elegance often changes depending on your vantage point.

Andrew Rilstone said...

P.P.P.P.S

I don't think that even the death cultists who would ascribe to the Penal Substitution think in terms of appeasing an angry God. I don't think that they think that God is angry; I think that they think that he has declared a penalty for sinning (because a law without a punishment is just a piece of advise) and has to impose that penalty dispassionately. We don't think of parking tickets as a sadistic pleasure which enables magistrates to get over the personal rage they feel towards driving offenders, after all. The idea that the Great Emperor Across the Sea can't break is own rules is about as far as you can get from Fraser's bad tempered sadist. Unless you think that all form of punishment are basically sadistic, which possibly you do.

Andrew Stevens said...

All of this "who is a Christian" discussion is rather timely given the recent controversy here in the U.S. over whether Mormons are Christians or not.

In case the news wasn't important enough to cross the pond, one Republican candidate for President was introduced by a pastor who, in commenting on a different Republican candidate (front-runner and Mormon Mitt Romney), said that he did not believe Mormons are Christians and that he believed Mormonism is a cult. Personally, I find these views easily defensible, but many people thought the comments were out of line, at least in that context.

For some historical context, Mormonism is the largest religious sub-group in the U.S. which has never had a President elected from their numbers. We've had a couple of Quakers (!), a Catholic, more Presbyterians and Episcopalians than you can fit into a Volkswagen, even a Jehovah's Witness (sort of), but never a Mormon. Mormonism might be slightly different from the Witnesses, though, since, as far as I know, Mormons are happy to call themselves Christians and the Witnesses generally are not. So the modern Arians seem to accept the definition of Christian which rules them out of the club.

As for the Jewish question, the Orthodox belief is that if your mother was Jewish, you're Jewish even if you call yourself a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist. People whose mothers weren't Jewish can convert and become Jewish as well, but there are religious tests for them and they must follow the Law to be considered Jewish. Reform Jews generally believe that people who leave the faith and start calling themselves something else become non-Jews (though they're relaxed about it if you just stop practicing Judaism and don't start practicing some other religion).

Andrew Stevens said...

Whoops. It seems the Witnesses do call themselves Christians. My mistake.

Andrew Hickey said...

Witnesses do call themselves Christians, they just don't think that Nicene Christians (everyone in the whole of history who's ever called themselves a Christian except them, essentially) are Christians at all.

And for those still confused by the Arian/Nicene distinction, I'd point out that our host explains it quite concisely in his excellent book Where Dawkins Went Wrong, so you should read that.

(On the other hand the Doctor Who audio The Council Of Nicea does a terrible job - even though it's written by someone with a doctorate in theology, and who's apparently an Anglican priest, she seems to take an attitude of "why were these people so unfair to poor Arius? It was only a tiny difference in opinion, he had the right to his views too")

Gavin Burrows said...

"We don't think of parking tickets as a sadistic pleasure which enables magistrates to get over the personal rage they feel towards driving offenders, after all. "

Ah, yes. You have given up reading the Daily Mail.

"We've had... even a Jehovah's Witness (sort of), but never a Mormon."

Really? Who was it? And why "sort of"?

SK said...

I don't think that they think that God is angry; I think that they think that he has declared a penalty for sinning (because a law without a punishment is just a piece of advise) and has to impose that penalty dispassionately

Actually even that makes it sound like God chose to make the law, and could equally well have chosen not to; I suspect your hardened death cultist would say that it's no more within God's power to be unjust than it is to be 'unlove'. He doesn't choose to punish sin, He must, because of His nature; but because He loves, this distresses Him, and so He must find a way to satisfy both.

After all, if He could just have declared that sin was no longer to be punished, why wouldn't He, especially given the slightly traumatic nature of the alternative?

Gareth McCaughan said...

NickPheas: Then read it aloud! Most poets have mostly intended their poems to be read that way.

Andrew: No indeed, Christians never think in terms of an angry God. If they did, why then there would be famous sermons with titles like "Sinners in the hands of an angry God".

(Butbutbut that was long ago, and far away ... but, really, the quickest Google search will reveal (and more careful investigation will confirm) that the idea that God's attitude towards sin, and perhaps sinners, is one of anger, is widely and enthusiastically held by a lot of evangelical Christians.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

So the modernist objection is simply to that subset of Christians who use the term "angry" [*], and not to "penal substitution" or "objective atonement" per se, yes.

[*] In the sense of "having a strop" as opposed to "righteous indignation": presumably there is no problem in saying "I am angry when I read that 1% of the population own 99% of the wealth" and God is allowed to be "angry" that sense.

JWH said...

"I don't think that even the death cultists who would ascribe to the Penal Substitution think in terms of appeasing an angry God. I don't think that they think that God is angry; I think that they think that he has declared a penalty for sinning (because a law without a punishment is just a piece of advise) and has to impose that penalty dispassionately."

Maybe God is angered by sins? "Dispassionately" makes the whole thing seem bureaucratic, like a "do the crime, do the time" thing. God may be angered by the transgression of the just law and on behalf of the victim, whom God never forgets. Perhaps this is why the disputes over "heresies" and errors are so heated - "don't you know you are angering God by blatantly breaking God's law?" etc.

Regards

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes. But I took it that when Giles Fraser was appalled by the idea of an "angry" God, he wasn't talking about "righteous indignation."

(It would be interested to know what Fraser thinks of the story of Jesus driving the money lenders out of the temple. With a whip. "Oh no, that can't be right, Jesus would never have been angry?" Presumably not.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Gavin, Dwight Eisenhower's parents were originally Mennonites, but became Witnesses when Dwight was five and he was raised as a Witness as a child (at that time called the Russellites or Bible Students). This is in some dispute. When Dwight was 25, his father and his brothers broke from the Witnesses, though his mother remained a believer until her death. There is good reason to believe that Eisenhower was never a convinced Witness himself. His attending West Point, for example, which gravely disappointed his mother though she would say she was nevertheless proud of his accomplishments in later life.

As an adult, Eisenhower hid his Witness background and was a member of no organized church. Shortly before becoming President, he was baptized into the Presbyterian faith. For his second inauguration, he was sworn in on his mother's Watchtower Bible. See this link for more details.

thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

Px17.S

Thinking about it, it can't just be the language of divine "anger" and "punishment" that he objects to, because he singles out the hymn "There Is a Green Hill Far Away" for particular criticism; and that hymn doesn't speak in terms of infliction of punishment, but of payment of debt. ("There was no other good enough / To pay the price of sing / He only could unlock the gate / Of heaven and let us in.")

Thomas said...

Andrew Rilstone: ..the story of Jesus driving the money lenders out of the temple

The weren't money lenders, they were money changers and people who sold animals to be used in sacrifices. People came to the temple from far away, with foreign money, that they needed to change to use in Jerusalem, and rather than bringing animals all the way from home to sacrifice, they could just bring money and buy the sacrificial animals there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple

Andrew Rilstone said...

Money changers, not money lenders, obviously. (I seem to remember reading somewhere that you had to have special temple coins to buy your sacrificial animals with, because Roman coins had pictures of the emperor on them and were therefore not kosher. I have no idea if that's correct.) But Jesus was cross about his dad's house being used as a bank, however you read it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

QUESTION

Am I still debating with any one other on any substantive point?

If so, is the substantive point now only "Do Mr Fraser's remarks necessarily imply that he's a "modernist"; or can we suppose that he's actually a pretty traditional Christian who believes in heaven and hell and sin and miracles and stuff but sometimes uses odd language when writing for the Guardian?" (I have conceded this point. Short of actually talking to Mr Fraser, who has, I guess, got other things on his mind, I don't think there is any way of answering it.)

Or is there still room for debate around "Even if he is a "modernist" then modernists are as near the same as evangelicals as makes no difference?"

Andrew Rilstone said...

Px19. S

I have a lot of time for that Religious Tolerance website which defines Christian as "anyone who says they're a Christian". (Actually, they qualify that as "anyone who says they're a Christian who has thought about it seriously".)

On the other hand, Quakers, on the one hand, and Mr Fred Phelps, on the other hand, both say they are Christians having thought about it seriously, but it would be quite hard to argue that they mean the same thing by the word or have anything very much in common. (Unless you are going to take the line that "Sitting in a quiet room trying to listen to a non existant being who hates war" and "Sitting in a mission hall singing hymns and speaking in tongues about a non existant being who hates homosexuals and methodists" amounts to the same thing, in which case you would probably have to extend your defintion of "Christian" to include "Muslims", "Hindus" and "people who believe in the Loch Ness Monster, which I guess Richard Dawkins does. Extend the definition, I mean, not believe in the monster.) That makes three hands altogether.

Has anyone asked the Mormon who wants to be President if he thinks that Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists are "Christians"?

Some years ago, I was approached by some members of the Jesus Army, a group who I imagine I would have quite strong theological and practical differences of opinion with, and asked if I would like to come to an evangelistic meeting they were holding in a tent. "Actually, I'm a Christian already" I said "That's great!" they replied "Would you pray our meeting is a success, then." (I admit that I avoided the question about when I was baptised in the spirit, which might have brought the whole thing tumbling down.) Had I said to a Jehovah's Witness "Actually, I'm a Christian already" they would have replied "Oh no you're not." In fact, I think they think Jehovah is a good deal more annoyed with people who have signed up to false churches (i.e everyone who isn't a Jehovah's Witness) than people who don't have any religion at all. In general, that sort of thing is a two way street: Anglicans don't think Christedelphians are Christians; Christedelphians think taht we blasphemous Trinitarians are the very anti-christ that Paul warned us about. Someone once told me that Mormons are an exception to this rule: Anglicans think Mormons aren't Christians; Mormons think Anglicans are Christians who are missing a bit of extra information they'd find helpful. I don't know if this is right.

Gavin Burrows said...

Thanks for the explanation, Andrew.

Witnesses, insofar as I know, are one of the few of such groups who actually began in the States. Most started out in Europe, even if they changed somewhat along the way. (Baptists would be an example.)

In fact the only other example I can think of would be the Mormons. So is it the two indigenous groups who don't get to have Presidents? (Or sort of in the Witnesses' case.) Or can someone think of an exception to this rule?

Andrew Stevens said...

Mr. Rilstone, I'm not sure if anyone's asked him the question in so many words, but it's crystal clear that he does regard Catholics, Baptists, etc., as Christians. In any event, Mormon soteriology is such that religious differences aren't as important as in many other religions.

Gavin: No, I think it's mostly right. The American heresies are viewed as heretical even in America (you could throw in the Seventh Day Adventists). The only strictly American denomination which has elected a President are the Disciples of Christ, but their beliefs don't in any way differ from Congregationalists and everybody considers them mainline Protestant. By the way, I was hasty earlier. I'm now sure no Lutheran has been President, which would actually make them the largest group never to have had a President. Even non-Christians get represented since Abraham Lincoln had idiosyncratic views and was almost certainly not a Christian by anyone's definition. Not sure what to make of the absence of Lutherans. There is a total dearth of prominent national Lutheran politicians throughout U.S. history. Hubert H. Humphrey, one time Vice-President and Democratic nominee in 1968, was born Lutheran, but even he was Congregationalist when he was running for President. Could be just that the practical German-Americans don't go in much for politics. They are probably one of the most under-represented ethnic groups in U.S. politics.

NickPheas said...

On the other hand the Doctor Who audio The Council Of Nicea does a terrible job - even though it's written by someone with a doctorate in theology, and who's apparently an Anglican priest, she seems to take an attitude of "why were these people so unfair to poor Arius? It was only a tiny difference in opinion, he had the right to his views too"

On the basis of no information, I am somewhat inclined to beleive that the actual point theology, as discussed above, was not the whole story. The exact date or non-date of the begetting doesn't seem worth a riot, let alone capital punishment.

Andrew Hickey said...

NickPheas - the 'date of the begetting' isn't really the point. If Jesus was created by God, then he was a creation rather than the creator. If Jesus was created by God as a part of God, that means that God can change and has changed - which in turn means that there was a time when God was not perfect.

These are questions that really get to the heart of what Christians believe. If you think that Jesus wasn't God, or that God exists within and changes with time, then you're simply not a Christian in any sense that the vast majority of people who've thought of themselves as Christians in history would understand by the term.

Also, Arius wasn't a victim of capital punishment - though he may have been poisoned by his enemies. He died rather suspiciously the day before he was meant to have been received back into the Christian communion on the order of Constantine. But on the other hand, he was in his eighties at the time, a very old age for anyone in the fourth century.

(My favourite fact about Arius - he was slapped in the face by St Nicholas at the Council Of Nicea. So pretty definitely on the naughty list then.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Isn't it possible to make out some kind of a case for saying that Arius wasn't an Arian? i.e He really did believe in the Trinity, that the second person of the Trinity was God, that Jesus was God and Man, and had no problem at all with blood transfusions BUT thought that the word "begat" implied an event: there was a time (whatever "time") means; when God wasn't a Trinity. On this view, other theological clever-clogs came along and said "If you believe that the Son was begotten in time, then you don't believe he was co-equal with the Father; and if you don't believe he's co-equal with the Father, then you don't believe in the Incarnation, without the incarnation there is no Atonement, and without the Atonement we all have to knock on strangers doors and can't have Christmas presents." And Arius (hypothetically) replied "Actually, I do believe all those things, it's was just a pernickety technical point, actually." On this view, modern Arians believe what Athanasius accused Arius of believing, as opposed to what Arius himself actually believed.

But I am speaking more than usually from a position of almost complete ignorance. I wouldn't pay any attention to me if I was me.

Andrew Hickey said...

You may well be right. All I know about Arianism I learned firstly from your own blog, then later from a bit of reading around the intellectual background for people like Milton.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Milton was an Arian, or at least uses Arian ideas in his blank verse novella, but seems to be orthodox in most other respects:

"Hear, all ye Angels, progeny of light -- Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers -- hear my decree, which unrevoked shall stand. This day I have begot whom I declare my only Son, and on this holy hill Him have anointed, whom ye now behold at my right hand; your head I him appoint; and by myself have sworn, to him shall bow all knees in Heaven, and shall confess him Lord..."

This is, as we've seen is what causes all the bother.

"So spake the Omnipotent, and with his words all seemed well pleased; all seemed, but were not all."

NickPheas said...

If Jesus was created by God, then he was a creation rather than the creator.

Well yes, which is why, as per Andrew's first post, "Arians do believe that Jesus was begotten, not created".

There is certainly an appealing simplicity to the idea that Jesus, who was begotten on the 21st of March Zero, had not previously existed. That God mad Man and so transformed himself into the Trinity at that point (presuming that the Holy Ghost predates Pentecost). I realise that there are people who've spent their time combing the old testament for appearances of Jesus - the being that appeared to Daniel in the firey furnace, the rather physical God that Jacob wrestled with, but they've never seemed entirely necessary.

Also, Arius wasn't a victim of capital punishment

wasn't meaning to suggest he was, though there is a quote halfway down the Arius page on Wikipedia to the effect that possessing any of Arius' writings should be punishable by death.

Gavin Burrows said...

We're back to the German Americans again!

SK said...

Isn't it possible to make out some kind of a case for saying that Arius wasn't an Arian?

Well, that would be why I mentioned the debatable extent to which Calvin was a Calvinist.

Milton [...] seems to be orthodox in most other respects

His first heresy is in line 10 (and therefore well within the first sentence). But fundamentally I don't think that a verse drama should be used as conclusive evidence for its author's theological positions -- one assumes that he also didn't think that the angels fought with physical cannon, but put it in because it was a dramatic scene (though if there's any evidence from his non-poetical writings please do correct me).

There is certainly an appealing simplicity to the idea that Jesus, who was begotten on the 21st of March Zero, had not previously existed.

Ruled out, however, by the first verse of the first chapter of the gospel of St John.

I realise that there are people who've spent their time combing the old testament for appearances of Jesus - the being that appeared to Daniel in the firey furnace, the rather physical God that Jacob wrestled with, but they've never seemed entirely necessary.

Those do seem to be reaching, but there are certainly hints of the multi-personal nature of God in the Old Testament: the Shekinah, the figure of Wisdom moving over the waves. Not to mention the many instances of 'God's spirit' resting on the prophets and heroes of Israel.

SK said...

the being that appeared to Daniel in the firey furnace

When was Daniel in a furnace?!?!?!

Someone is not getting the prize for Scripture Knowledge.

Thomas said...

SK: the figure of Wisdom moving over the waves

This will also put my out of the running for the prize of Scripture Knowledge, but what is this referring to?

JWH said...

"Or is there still room for debate around "Even if he is a "modernist" then modernists are as near the same as evangelicals as makes no difference?" "

I don't really think that there is much room for debate about this - I can see how both sides could call themseves "Christians" as they are both, but in very different senses, trying to "follow Christ", but I really can't see how an outsider looking on could expect the person who believed in Jesus "literal" divinity to use the term "Christian" of someone who didn't. Similarly, I guess the possibility remains open that a modernist could use the term "Christian" about someone who didn't believe in the existence of Jesus at all but happened to follow closly his social teaching, whereas it couldn't occur to a non-modernist to do that.

However, it is possible that non-modernists don't always appreciate quite how revolutionary Jesus might be "symbolically" to a modernist, because they think of Christ as really divine.

Tom R said...

So:... two of the three US Presidents who held office 1953-1974 -- the two decades of the Korean and Vietnam wars -- were raised in three different pacifist denominations between them. The Mennonite/ JW Eisenhower, and the Quaker Nixon.

Both lapsed, clearly.