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Religion

종교 탐방

II. THE CHURCH AND ITS HISTORY

 

1. The essence and identity of Christianity

At the very least, Christianity is the faith tradition that focuses on the figure of Jesus Christ. In this context, faith refers both to the believers' act of trust and to the content of their faith. That tradition, viewed as a system of belief and behaviour, leads people to see Christianity as one of the world religions, alongside Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and others.

As a tradition, Christianity is more than a system of religious belief. It also has generated a culture, a set of ideas and ways of life, practices, and artifacts that have been handed down from generation to generation through the 20 centuries since Jesus first became the object of faith. Christianity is thus both a living tradition of faith and the culture that the faith leaves behind as a kind of deposit. The agent of Christianity is the church, the community of people who make up the body of believers. Christianity may incorporate, along with such believers, their doctrines, customs, and historical episodes.

To say that Christianity "focuses" on Jesus Christ is to say that, whatever else it comprehends, somehow it brings these realities together in reference to an ancient historic figure. Few Christians would be content to keep this reference merely historical. Although their faith tradition is historical--i.e., they believe that transactions with the divine do not occur in the realm of timeless ideas but among ordinary humans through the ages--the vast majority of Christians focus their faith in Jesus Christ as someone who is also a present reality. They may include many other references in their tradition and thus may speak of "God" and "human nature" or of "church" and "world," but they would not want to be nor would they be called Christian if they did not bring their eyes and attentions first and last to Jesus Christ.

While there is something simple about this focus on Jesus as the central figure, there is also something very complicated. That complexity is apparent when one tries to envision the more than 22,000 separate churches, sects, and denominations that make up the Christian faith tradition today. To project these separate bodies against the background of their development in the nations of the world is to suggest the bewildering variety. To picture people expressing their adherence to that tradition in their prayer life and cathedral-building, in their quiet worship or their strenuous efforts to change the world, is to suggest even more of the variety.

Given such complexity, it is natural that through the ages both those in the tradition and those surrounding it have made attempts at simplification. Two ways to do this have been to concentrate on the "essence" of the faith, and thus on the ideas that are integral to it, or to be concerned with the "identity" of the tradition, and thus on the boundaries of its historical experience.

Scholars in the modern world have tended to locate the focus of this faith tradition in the context of monotheistic religions. Christianity addresses the historical figure of Jesus Christ against the background of, and while seeking to remain faithful to, the experience of one God. It has consistently rejected polytheism, which allows for many gods, and atheism, which makes Jesus a purely and ordinarily human figure without divine or transcendent reference.

To monotheism as an element of the faith tradition of Christianity one may add that, with rare exceptions, Christianity refers to a plan of salvation or redemption. That is to say, the believers in the church picture themselves as in a plight from which they need rescue. For whatever reason, they have been distanced from their source in God and need to be saved. Christianity is based on a particular experience or scheme directed to the act of saving--that is, of bringing or "buying back," which is part of what redemption means, these creatures of God to their source in God. The agent of that redemption is Jesus Christ.

It is possible that through the centuries the vast majority of believers have not used the term essence to describe the central focus of their faith. The term is itself of Greek origin and thus represents only one part of the tradition, one element in the terms that have gone into making up Christianity. The search for an essence may be more urgent for philosophers, theologians (who interpret the language of the believing community), or historians than it is for the regular believers who do not share the burden of scholars. Essence refers to those qualities that give something its identity and are at the centre of what makes that thing different from everything else. To Greek philosophers it meant something intrinsic to and inherent in a thing or category of things, which gave it its character and thus separated it from everything of different character. Thus Jesus Christ belongs to the essential character of Christianity and gives it identity in the same way that Buddha does for Buddhism.

If the mass of people do not have the scholar's problem of defining the essence of Christianity, in practice they must come to terms with what the word essence implies. Whether they are engaged in being saved or redeemed on the one hand, or thinking and speaking about that redemption, its agent, and its meaning on the other, they are concentrating on the essence of their experience. Those who have concentrated from within the faith tradition have also helped to give it its identity. It is not possible to speak of the essence of a historical tradition without referring to how its ideal qualities have been discussed through the ages. Yet one can take up the separate subjects of essence and identity in sequence, being always aware of how they interrelate.

1) HISTORICAL VIEWS OF THE ESSENCE

i) Early views.

The earliest members of the Christian faith tradition were Jews, as was Jesus himself, and thus they stood in the faith tradition inherited by Hebrew people in Israel (and lands to which they had been taken as captives in exile). They were monotheists, devoted to the God of Israel. When they made claims that Jesus was divine, it was part of their task to make their witness in ways that would not challenge monotheism.

Insofar as they began to separate or be separated from Judaism, which did not accept Jesus as Christ, these earliest Christians not only experienced salvation but also expressed certain ideas about the one on whom their faith focused. As with other religious people, they became involved in a search for truth. God, in the very nature of things, was necessarily the final Truth. But an early reference, preserved in the Gospel According to John, finds Jesus referring to himself not only as "the way" and "the life" but also as "the Truth." Roughly, this meant "all the reality there is" and was a reference to Jesus' participation in the reality of the one God.

From the beginning there were Christians who may not have seen Jesus as the Truth, or as a unique participant in the reality of God. There have been "humanist" devotees of Jesus, modernist adapters of the truth about the Christ; but even in the act of adapting him to humanist concepts in their day they have contributed to the debate of the essence of Christianity and brought it back to the issues of monotheism and a way of salvation.

Some believers and some scholars have always determined that the best way to preserve the essence of Christianity is to look at the earliest documents--the four Gospels and the letters that make up much of the New Testament--which tell whatever is believed to be known with any kind of assurance about what the earliest Christians remembered, taught, or believed about Jesus Christ. It is presumed that "the simple Jesus" and the "primitive faith" emerge from these documents as the core of the essence.

Other believers and other scholars, however, have disturbed this simple notion of finding the essence by going back to the beginnings. The writings that make up the New Testament themselves reflect Jewish and Greek ways of thinking about Jesus and God. They are seen through the experience of different personalities, such as the Apostle Paul or the nameless composers of documents that came to be edited as the Gospels. Indeed, there are not only diverse ways of worship, of polity or governance of the Christian community, and of behaviour pictured or prescribed in the New Testament but also diverse theologies, or interpretations of the heart of the faith. Most believers see these diversities as complementing each other and leave to scholars the argument that the primal documents may compete with and contradict each other. Yet there is a core of ideas that all New Testament scholars and believers would agree are central to ancient Christian beliefs. One British scholar, James G. Dunn, for example, says they would all agree that "the Risen Jesus is the Ascended Lord." That is to say, there would have been no faith tradition and no scriptures had not the early believers thought that Jesus was "Risen," raised from the dead, and, as "Ascended," somehow above the ordinary plane of mortal and temporal experience. From that simple assertion early Christians could begin to complicate the search for essence.

An immediate question was how to combine the essential focus on Jesus with the essential monotheism. Some of the writers of the New Testament and more of the Apologists, late 1st- and 2nd-century reflectors on the meaning of this faith in both the Jewish and Greek contexts, saw Jesus as the "preexistent Logos." That is, before there was a historical Jesus born of Mary and accessible to the sight and touch of Jews and others in his own day, there was a Logos--a principle of reason, an element of ordering, a "word"--that participated in the Godhead and thus existed, but which only preexisted as far as the "incarnate" Logos, the word that took on flesh and humanity (John 1:1-14), was concerned.

In searching for an essence of truth and the way of salvation, some primitive Jewish Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, and occasional theologians in later ages spoke in terms of what might be called a metaphor of adoption. These theologians used as their source certain biblical passages (e.g., Acts 2:22). Much as an earthly parent might adopt a child, so the divine parent, the one Jesus called abba, "daddy" or father, had adopted him and taken him into the heart of the nature of what it is to be God. There were countless variations of themes such as the preexistent Logos or the concept of adoption, but they provide some sense of the ways the early Apologists carried out their task of contributing to the definition of the essence of their Jesus-focused yet monotheistic faith.

While it is easier to point to diversity than to simplicity or clarity among those who early expressed faith, it must also be said that from the beginning the believers insisted that they were--or were intended to be, or were commanded and were striving to be--united in their devotion to the essence of their faith tradition. There could not have been many final truths and there were not many legitimate ways of salvation. It was of the essence of their tradition to reject other gods and other ways, and most defining of essence and identity occurred as one set of Christians was concerned lest others might deviate from the essential faith and might, for example, be attracted to other gods or other ways.

While Jesus was among his disciples and those who ignored or rejected him, to make him the focus of faith or denial presented one type of issue. After the "Risen Jesus" had become the "Ascended Lord" and was no longer a visible physical presence, those at the head of the tradition had a different problem. Jesus remained, as was said, a present reality to them, and when they gathered to worship they believed that he was "in the midst of them." He was present in their minds and hearts, in the spoken word that testified to him, and also present in some form when they had their sacred meal and ingested bread and wine as his "body and blood." They created a reality around this experience; if once Judaism was that reality, now "Christianism," or Christianity, resulted.

The search for the essence of Christianity necessarily led people in the Greek world to concentrate on ideas. The focus on Jesus narrowed to ideas, to "beliefs about" and not only "belief in," and to doctrines. The essence began to be cognitive, referring to what was known, or substantive. This was most pronounced when people in the idea-centred Greek culture had to grasp through the mind the reality of someone who was not a visible presence.

As debates over the cognitive or substantive aspects of Jesus' participation in God became both intense and refined, the pursuit of essences became almost a matter of competition in the minds of the Apologists and the formulators of doctrines in the 3rd through the 6th centuries. During this time Christians met in council to develop statements of faith, confessions, and creeds. The claimed essence was used in conflict and rivalry with others. Christian Apologists began to speak, both to the Jews and to the other believers in the Greco-Roman world, in terms that unfavourably compared their religions to Christianity. The essence also came to be a definer of who had the best credentials and was most faithful. The claim that one had discerned the essence of Christianity could be used to rule out the faithless, the apostate, or the heretic. The believers in the essential truth and way of salvation saw themselves as insiders and others as outsiders. This concept became important--and, its victims would say, dangerous--after the Christian movement had triumphed in the Roman Empire, which became officially Christian. To fail to grasp or to misconceive what was believed to be the essence of faith might mean exile, harassment, or even death.

In the move from their exclusive roots in Judaism to their experience in Greek and Roman cultures, Christians did something rare if not unique in the history of religion: they adopted the entire scriptural canon of what they now saw to be another faith, Judaism, and embraced the Hebrew Scriptures as what they called the Old Testament. But while doing so, they also incorporated the insistent monotheism of Judaism as part of the essence of their truth and way of salvation, just as they incorporated the Hebrew Scriptures' story as part of their own identity-giving narrative and experience.

This narrowing of focus on Jesus Christ as truth meant also a complementary sharpening of focus on the way of salvation. There is no purpose in saving someone who does not need salvation. Christianity therefore began to make, through its councils and creeds, theologians and scholars, some attempts at definitive descriptions of what it is to be human. Later some of these descriptions were called "original sin," the idea that, inherited from Adam, the first-created human, all mortals carried a condition that made it impossible for them to be perfect or to please a personal God on their own. While Christians never agreed on a specific teaching on original sin, they did describe as the essence of Christianity the fact that something limited humans and led them to need redemption. Yet the concentration always returned to Jesus Christ as belonging more to the essence of Christianity than did any statements about the human condition.

The essence of Christianity eventually included statements about the reality to God. Christians inherited from the Jews a relatively intimate picture of a God who made their young and small universe, with its starry heavens, and then carried on discourse with humans, making covenants with them and rewarding or punishing them. But the Greek part of their tradition contributed the concept of a God who was greater than any ideas of God but who had to be addressed through ideas. Indeed, it was during this time that words such as essence, substance, and being--terms that did not belong to the Old or New Testament traditions--came to be wedded to biblical witness in the creeds. Christians, it might be said, used the vocabulary and repertory of options then available to them in speaking of the all-encompassing and the ineffable and grafted these onto the witness to God that was essential to their faith. Modern Christians, including many who reject the notion of creeds or any non-biblical language, are still left with the problems and intentions of the ancients: how to think of Jesus in such a way that they are devoted to him not in isolation, as an end in himself--for that would be idolatry of a human--but in the context of the total divine reality.

It is impossible to chronicle the efforts at expressing essence without pointing to diversity within the unity. Yet the belief in final unity belongs to any claims of finding an essence. Thus it was both a typical and a decisive moment when in the 5th century Vincent of Lérins, a Gallic theologian, provided a formula according to which Christianity expressed a faith that "has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). Even if not all Christians could agree on all formulations, it was widely held that there was some fundamental "thing" that had thus been believed.

ii) Medieval and Reformation views.

For a thousand years, a period that began with what some historians called "Dark Ages" in the Christian West and that endured through both the Eastern and Western extensions of the Roman Empire, the essence of Christian faith was guarded differently than it had been in the first three centuries, before Christianity became official. By the 5th century, and with rare challenges until the 15th century, in the West the bishop of Rome, as pope and vicar of Christ, became the final custodian of the doctrinal essence of Christianity and could back support of his doctrine with the legal arm of the empire, the sword. In the Eastern churches no single pontiff ruled over the bishops, but they saw themselves just as surely and energetically in command of the doctrines that made up the essence of Christianity. (see also Index: Middle Ages)

The Western drama was more fateful for Christianity in the modern world. The pope and the bishops of Roman Catholicism progressively saw themselves as determiners of the essence through doctrines and canons that enhanced the ancient grasp of faith. As they came to dominate in Europe, they allowed little room for those who did not agree with them. Jews were confined to ghettos, segregated and self-segregated enclaves where they did not and could not share the full prerogatives of Christendom, the "dominion" that now housed Christianity. When sects that were defined as heretical in their dissent--Waldenses, Albigenses, Cathari, and others--emerged to counter or contradict Roman Catholic concepts of Christian essence, they had to go into hiding or were pushed into enclaves beyond the enforcing reach of the custodians of official teaching. The essence of Christianity had become a set of doctrines and laws articulated and controlled by a hierarchy that saw those doctrines as a divine deposit of truth. Theologians might argue about the articulations with great subtlety and intensity, but in that millennium few would have chosen to engage in basic disagreement over the official teachings, all of which were seen to be corollaries of the basic faith in Jesus Christ as participating in the truth of God and providing the way of salvation.

When speaking of popes, bishops, councils, and theologians, it is necessary to make another distinction along with that which saw a narrowing of focus. Through these centuries there was also increasing differentiation between the official clergy and the wider body of believers. Most of what was debated centuries later about the essence of medieval Christianity came from the records of these authorities. As more is learned about the faith of the ordinary believers, it becomes more evident in the records of social history that people offered countless variations on the essence of the faith. Some historians point to survivals of European pagan customs and interpretations, which the later Protestant reformers saw to be threats to divine truth and the Jesus-centred way of salvation. Many people used the church's officially legitimated faith in the power of saints' relics to develop patterns of dealing with God that, according to the Reformers, detracted from the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only agent of salvation.

During this thousand years in both Western and Eastern Christianity, when the faith had a cultural monopoly, there was an outburst of creativity and a fashioning of a Christian culture that greatly enhanced and complicated any once-simple notions of an essence. Christianity was as much a cultural tradition as it was a faith tradition, an assertion that the leadership of the medieval church would not have regarded as diminishing or insulting.

As Christian culture grew ever more complex, however, there arose a constant stream of dissenters and individual reformers who tried to get back to what they thought was the original essence. Typical among these was St. Francis of Assisi, who in his personal style of devotion and simple way of life was often seen as capturing in his person and teachings more of the original essence of Jesus' truth and way of salvation than did the ordained authorities in the church and empires.

Out of this cluster of dissenters came late medieval reformers such as Jan Hus in Bohemia, John Wycliffe in England, and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence. For all their differences, they were united in their critique of what they thought complicated the essence of Christianity. On biblical prophetic grounds they sought simplicity in the cognitive, moral, and devotional life of Christianity. They may have disagreed over the essence of the faith, but they were united in what they thought were accretions that obscured the essence.

When the Protestant Reformation divided Western Christianity--as Eastern Christians, already separated since the 11th century, looked on--the 16th-century European world experienced a foretaste of the infinite Christian variety to come. The reforms that gave rise to the many Protestant bodies--Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anabaptist, Quaker, and others--were themselves debates over the essence of Christianity. Taken together, they made it increasingly difficult for any one to claim a monopoly on the custodianship of that essence. Each new sect offered a partial discernment of a different essence or way of speaking of it, even if the vast majority of Protestants agreed that the essence could be retrieved best, or, indeed uniquely, through recovery of the central message of the Holy Scriptures.

After the ferment of Reformation, most of the dissenting groups, as they established themselves in various nations, found it necessary to engage in their own narrowing of focus, rendering of precise doctrines, and understanding of divine truth and the way of salvation. Within a century theologians at many Protestant universities were adopting systems that paralleled the old scholasticisms against which some reformers had railed. Those who had once thought that definition of doctrine failed to capture the essence of Christianity were now defining their concept of the essence in doctrinal terms, but were doing so for Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, and even for more radical dissenters and resistors of creeds, such as the Anabaptists.

The belief of Vincent of Lérins that there is a faith that has been held by everyone, always, and everywhere, lived on through the proliferation of Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic movements and, in sophisticated ways, has helped animate the modern ecumenical movement. Thus some have spoken of that movement as a reunion of churches, an idea that carries an implication that they had once been "one," and a further hint that that one included an essence on which people agreed. Reunion, then, would mean a stripping away of accretions, a reducing of the number of arguments, and a refocusing on essentials.

iii) Modern views.

The modern church and world brought new difficulties to the quest for defining an essence of Christianity. Both as a result of Renaissance humanism, which gloried in human achievement and encouraged human autonomy, and of Reformation ideas that believers were responsible in conscience and reason for their faith, an autonomy in expressing faith developed. Some spoke of Protestantism as being devoted to the right of private judgment. The danger, said Roman Catholic custodians of the essence, was that proud believers who did not submit to church authority would issue as many concepts of essence as there were believers to make the claims.

In the 18th century the Western philosophical movement called the Enlightenment further obscured searches for the essence of Christianity. The Enlightenment proclaimed optimistic views of human reach and perfectibility that challenged formerly essential Christian views of human limits. The deity became a benevolent if impersonal force, not an agent that arranged a way of salvation to people in need of rescue. The Enlightenment also clearly urged a view of human autonomy and of the use of reason in a search for truth. But this reason did not need to be responsive to supernatural revelation, as contained in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, it called the integrity of those scriptures themselves into question through methods of historical and literary criticism. No longer should one rely on the word of priests who passed on notions of essential Christianity through systems of authority and force.

While many Westerners moved out of the orbit of faith as a result of the Enlightenment and the rise of criticism, many others--in Germany, France, England, Scotland, and, eventually, the Americas--chose to remain Christians, people of faith if now of faith differently expressed. Some, in groups called Arminian, professed such high views of human potential that their essence of Christianity prescribed no need for salvation. They thus constituted a real challenge to the profession of Vincent of Lérins. Another camp of Christians, the Unitarians, rejected the ideas of both a preexistent Logos made incarnate in Christ and a Jesus adopted into godhead. Jesus was seen as the great teacher or exemplar. They thus also tested the boundaries of essential teaching about a way of salvation. And at the heart of Deist Christianity was a view of God that remained "mono-" in that it was devoted to a single principle, but as "deist" instead of "theist" it departed from the ancient picture of a personal God engaged in human affairs. These were further blows to the integrity of Vincent of Lérins' concept and more reasons for the orthodox to use Vincent's concept to exclude Arminians, Unitarians, Deists, and other innovators from the circle of Christianity.

In the 19th century philosophical and historical criticism did inspire some Christians to renew the search for essences. For example, in the wake of the German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Hegelian scholars tried to rescue Christianity by viewing it as an unfolding of "absolute spirit." They followed Christian history through a constant dialectic, a series of forces and counterforces producing new syntheses. A problem with this Hegelian approach arose as the historical Jesus came to be seen merely as one stage in the unfolding of absolute spirit; he was not a decisive agent of the way of salvation "once for all," as the biblical Letter to the Hebrews had claimed him to be. Soon biblical scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss were speaking of the historical Jesus as a myth of a certain set of people in one moment of the dialectical unfolding. The Christian faith itself began to dissolve, and many Hegelians began to reject the God of the Christian faith along with the historical Jesus.

Another group of 19th-century theologians took the opposite course. In the spirit of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, these neo-Kantians spoke not of the noumenal world, the unseen realm of essences beyond visible reality, but of the phenomenal realm, the world of history in which things happened. Theologians in this school engaged in a century-long "quest for the historical Jesus," in which they sought the simple essence of Christianity. Significantly, it was the greatest exemplar of this historical tradition, the German theologian Adolf von Harnack, who wrote the best-known modern book on the essence of Christianity, Das Wesen des Christentums (1900; What Is Christianity?).

The call had come to purge Christianity of what Harnack called traces of "acute Hellenization," the Greek ideas of essence, substance, and being that were introduced into the Christian tradition in the creed-making period. Instead, the focus was shifted to the Fatherhood of God and the announcement of the Kingdom, as the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth had proclaimed in the Gospels. While this approach did match the thirst for simplification in the minds of many of the Christian faithful, it also so diminished the concept of God that it often became a form of Christian humanism and was seen by the orthodox to be another departure from the essence of Christianity even as it claimed to find this in the historical Jesus. And scholars could not agree on the details of that historical Jesus after historical and literary critics had analyzed the Gospels.

Throughout the modern period some thinkers took another route toward expressing the essence of Christianity. Whether among German Pietists, the followers of John Wesley into Methodism, or any number of Roman Catholic or Protestant movements of devotion, there grew the notion that the theologians would never find the essence of Christianity. Instead, one would discern this essence in acts of piety, closeness to the fatherly heart of God as shown in the life of Jesus, or intimate communion with God on emotional or affective, and not cognitive, rational, or substantial (i.e., doctrinal), grounds. These pietisms have been immensely satisfying to millions of modern believers, though they have often been handicapped in the intellectual arena when pressed for the definitions people need in a world of choice.

There have been some modern Christians who have shifted the topic from the essence of Christianity to its absoluteness among the religions. They have been moved by what the Germans called Religionswissenschaft, the study of world religions. In that school, the focus fell on the sacred, what the German theologian Rudolf Otto called "the idea of the Holy." There could be any number of expressions of this idea. On those terms, as the German scholar Ernst Troeltsch showed, it was more difficult to speak of the "absoluteness" of Christianity and its truth; one had to speak of it on comparative terms. Yet some early 20th-century comparativists, such as the Swedish Lutheran archbishop Nathan Söderblom, applied their understanding of the study of religion to help animate the movement for Christian reunion.

The modern ecumenical movement is made up of people who believe the church has different cultural expressions that must be honoured and differing confessional or doctrinal traditions designed to express the essential faith. These traditions demand criticism, comparison, and perhaps revision, with some possible blending toward greater consensus in the future. At the same time, years of serious ecumenical endeavour have shown that, among Christians of great intelligence and good will, elaborations of what constitutes the essence of Christianity are as confusing as they are inevitable and necessary.

In the Protestant and Orthodox side of the ecumenical movement, which took institutional form in the World Council of Churches in 1948, there were two main strands. Both of these included advocates of what were types of essential concepts. One set was devoted first to "Life and Work," a view that the essentials of Christianity could be best found and expressed when people followed the way or did the works of Christ, since this constituted his essence. The other set, concerned with "Faith and Order," stressed the need for comparative study of doctrine, with critical devotion to the search for what was central. By no means did these groups cling any longer to the notion that when they found unity they would have found a simple essence of Christianity. Yet they believed that they could find compatible elements that would help to sustain them on the never-ending search for what was central to the faith tradition.

Some modern scholars--for example, the British theologian John Hick--viewing the chaos of languages dealing with the essentials of the faith and the complex of historical arguments, pose the understanding of the essence in the future. They speak of "eschatological verification," referring to the end, the time beyond history, or the time of fulfillment. In that future, one might say, it will have become possible to assess the claims of faith. Theologians of these schools argue that such futuristic notions motivate Christians and the scholars among them to clarify their language, refine their historical understandings, and, some would say, focus their devotion and spirituality.

2) THE QUESTION OF CHRISTIAN IDENTITY

From these comments on the search for the essence of Christianity, the task of defining the core of the faith tradition, it can be seen that at all times the question of Christian identity is at stake. What the psychologist Erik Erikson said of the individual, that a sense of identity meant "the accrued confidence that one's ability to maintain inner sameness and continuity . . . is matched by the sameness and continuity of one's meaning for others," is thus translated to the concerns of the group. This means that Christians strive, in the midst of change, to have some "inner sameness and continuity" through the focus on Jesus Christ and the way of salvation.

At the same time, Christians posit that this identity will be discoverable by and useful to those who are not part of the tradition: secularists, Buddhists, Communists, or other people who parallel or rival Christian claims about truth and salvation.

On these terms, the writers of Christian history normally begin phenomenologically when discussing Christian identity; that is, they do not bring norms or standards by which they have determined the truth of this or that branch of Christianity or even of the faith tradition as a whole but begin by identifying everyone as Christian who call themselves Christian. Thus, from one point of view, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, is, as scholar Jan Shipps calls it, "a new religious tradition." The followers of the Book of Mormon incorporated the Old and New Testaments into their canon--just as the New Testament Christians incorporated the entire scripture of a previous tradition--and then supplied reinterpretations. As a new religious tradition, Mormonism would not be Christian. But because Mormons use Christian terminology and call themselves Christian, they might also, from some points of view and in some areas, belong to a discussion of Christianity. They may be perceived as departing from the essence of Christianity because other Christians regard their progressive doctrine of God as heretical. Yet Mormons in turn point to perfectionist views of humanity and progressive views of God among more conventionally accepted Christian groups. In areas where the Mormons want to be seen as "latter-day" restorers, basing their essential faith on scriptures not previously accessible to Christians, they would be ruled out of conventional Christian discussion and treatment. Yet they share much of Christian culture, focus their faith in Jesus, proclaim a way of salvation, and want to be included for other purposes, and thus fall into the context of a Christian identity at such times.

This phenomenological approach, one that accents historical and contemporary description and resists prescription, does not allow the historian to state the essence of Christianity as a simple guide for all discussion. It is necessary for the scholar to put his own truth claims in a kind of suspension and to record faithfully, sorting out large schools of coherence and pointing to major strains. It is not difficult to state that something was a majority view if the supporting data are present. For example, it is not difficult to say what Roman Catholics at particular times have regarded as the essence of Christianity or what the various Orthodox and Protestant confessions regard as the true way of salvation. Someone using the phenomenological method, however, would stand back and refuse to be the arbiter when these confessional traditions disagree over truth.

Vincent of Lérins, then, speaks more for the hunger of the Christian heart or the dream of Christian union than for the researcher, who finds it more difficult to see a moment when everyone agreed on everything everywhere. Yet provisionally it remains safe to say that Christian identity begins and ends with a reference to Jesus in relation to God's truth and a way of salvation. The rest is a corollary of this central claim, an infinite set of variations and elaborations that are of great importance to the separated Christians who hold to them in various times and places.

   

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