Western society, steeped in Aristotelian rationalism, always seeks a formulated and systematized ideology to adhere to. Christianity is not a belief-system, but the vital dynamic of the very Being of the person and life of Jesus Christ by the Spirit.
Allow me to retell the story of Guatama Buddha who lived some four hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus Christ. He was dying. Some of his devotees came to Buddha and asked how they should perpetuate his memory. "How should we share with the world the remembrance of you? How shall we memorialize you?" Buddha responded, "Don't bother! It is not me that matters, it is my teaching that should be propagated and adhered to throughout the world."
Does that seem self-effacing a noble ideal to avoid ego-centricity? "Don't focus on me, just remember my teaching."
If Jesus Christ had said something like that, it would certainly legitimize what we see all around us in so-called "Christian religion" today. For "Christian religion" is the propagation of various understandings of Jesus' teaching as determined by various interpretations of the Bible. From what we observe in "Christian religion" today, it would appear that most who call themselves "Christians" must think that Jesus advocated the same thing that Buddha is alleged to have uttered.
Jesus Christ did not say anything like that! In fact, what Buddha said is contrary to everything Jesus taught, and everything recorded in the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus did not say, "Just remember My teaching." Jesus said, "I AM the way, the truth and the life." (John 14:6) "I AM the resurrection and the life." (John 11:25). Jesus Himself, the very Person and Life of Jesus Christ, is the essence of everything He came to bring to this world. Christianity is Christ!
Christianity is not just another religion propagating an ideology. Christianity is not just another religion remembering the teaching of its founder. Christianity is not just another religion reiterating the propositional tenets of its founder's teaching, and calling such "truth." Christianity is not just another religion demanding conformity to a particular "belief-system" or data-base of doctrine.
The essence of Christianity is Jesus Christ. All of Christianity is inherent in Jesus, His Person and His continuing activity. Christianity functions only by the dynamic of the risen and living Lord Jesus. Christianity is the function of the Spirit of Christ as He continues to live in Christians.
It is a sad state of affairs in what is passed off as "Christian religion" today. There is almost total failure to discern that the essence of Christianity is Jesus Christ Himself. The essence of Christianity is not a standardized belief-system. The essence of Christianity is not a consensus of doctrine. The essence of Christianity is not commonality of creeds. Jesus Christ is the essence of Christianity.
Where did "Christian religion" go off track into thinking that consenting to, confessing and conforming to doctrinal data was what Christianity was all about? When did this "Christian religion" develop the idea that Christianity is the acceptance of a correct and orthodox belief-system?
Christians today seem to be abysmally ignorant of church history. A quick review of church history will assist in answering the questions just asked:
Jesus did not come to bring new information about God, about salvation, about love, about eternal life. Christ came to be Life to all mankind. He came as God, as salvation, as love. He came to restore mankind to what God intended in creation, and that by functioning as God in man, the spiritual dynamic of life.
The redemptive mission to make His life available took place, historically, in a world that was dominated by Jewish and Greek thinking. The Jews wanted to put everything into the context of an organized religion with rules and regulations. The Greeks were influenced by Plato and Aristotle, and their abstract philosophical mind-set of metaphysics and logical patterns of thought.
So despite the clarity of Jesus' teaching, and the clear and simple record of the gospel dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ in the writings of Scripture by Paul, Peter, John, etc., these soon began to be interpreted in the contexts of religion and logical compartmentalization of human thought. The so-called "church fathers" of the first few centuries of Christianity had already reduced Christianity into moralistic and ethical religious rules and into creedalistic concepts of correct content of thought. They so quickly let go of the dynamic life of Jesus Christ as the essence of Christianity, and allowed it to become merely a belief-system.
The Roman Emperor, Constantine, solidified this static concept of Christianity even more in the early part of the fourth century. Constantine wanted to unify everything government, economics, religion, "Christian thought", etc. He organized the Nicene Council in 325 A.D., bringing together these philosophically-based thinkers, theologians, to develop a rigid expression of "Christian belief." They compressed "Christian thought" into logical propositions of truth and orthodoxy and called it the "Nicene Creed," to which everyone who was called "Christian" was to give mental assent, or be regarded as a heretic.
By 325 A.D. Christianity had been perverted into a formulated and fixated belief system, demanding devotion to its doctrine. This process was progressively developed in the institutionalized Roman or Latin Church. T.F. Torrance refers to this epistemologically based rationalism as "the Latin heresy."1
Augustine lived and wrote in the century following the Nicene Council. His Augustinian theology, on which Calvin later based much of his theology, was extremely rationalistic, full of logical determinism with such ideas as strict divine predestination. Karl Barth referred to Augustinian theology as "sweet poison;"2 "sweet" because it emphasized the sovereignty of God; "poison" because it was a system of logical and theological determinism.
The Roman empire disintegrated in about 500 A.D. The seven hundred year period from 200 B.C. to 500 A.D. is known as the "Classical Period" of Greek and Roman thought patterns. The following five hundred years, 500 A.D. to 1000 A.D. are known as the Dark Ages or Middle Ages. All thinking was related back statically to the Classical Period. No new thinking was encouraged or allowed Dark Ages indeed!
Thomas Aquinas appeared as the Renaissance Period was picking up steam, but his Thomistic theology just placed "Christian thought" in a tight scholastic stronghold of the Roman Church. The Church was regarded as the mediator of God's thought. "Believe as the Pope and the Church advocates, or face the consequences!" Many did!
During the Renaissance Period the thinking of "Christian religion" just followed along like a lap-dog to the philosophers and scientists of that day (as it has throughout most of its history.) Rene Descartes introduced Cartesian doubt, "I think, therefore I am." Rationalistic belief was the foremost criteria for being. Sir Isaac Newton developed ideas of deterministic causalism, and these were adapted into theology also.
In the sixteenth century the Reformation exploded with Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others. It is called the "Reformation" because it re-formed the religious structures that existed in "Christian religion" at that time. But the birth of Protestantism did not restore the centrality of the spiritual dynamic of Jesus Christ. "Christian religion" was still regarded as essentially a "belief-system," but instead of a singular formulated and fixated belief-system in the Roman Church, it became multiple factious and fractious belief-systems competing with one another and beating on one another (both verbally and physically.) Disagreeing on every minute point of theology conceivable, they began to divide and sub-divide into denominationalized belief-system organizations, each believing that they had formulated and fixated their belief-system in accord with God's thinking. There were Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists and many others, all claiming to have the orthodox belief-system; all claiming to have figured-out what God, the "Great Theologue," believes, and supposedly demands that all His adherents likewise believe.
Obviously there was not any recovery of the dynamic understanding of Christianity in the Protestant Reformation. Gene Edwards concludes, "The Reformation was neither revival nor restoration. The Reformation was an intellectual brawl."3
In the next century, in 1611 A.D., King James of England authorized what became known as the Authorized Version, better known as the King James Version, of an English translation of the Bible. The "Christian religion" of that day was still engaged in competing belief-systems.
King James hired translators to translate the Bible into English. The word for "teaching" in the English language of King James' time was "doctrine." The King James Version refers to the word "doctrine" 56 different times. But languages evolve, and the meanings of words change. So it is with the word "doctrine." Looking at a contemporary English dictionary you will discover that although "doctrine" used to mean "teaching" or "instruction," that definition is now regarded as "archaic" or "obsolete." What does the word "doctrine" mean in contemporary English? Webster's Collegiate Dictionary reads: "Doctrine a principle accepted by a body of believers or adherents to a philosophy or school; principles of knowledge or a system of belief." "Doctrinaire dictatorial or dogmatic." "Indoctrinate to imbue with a partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view or principle." Synonyms used for "indoctrinate" include "propagandize, program, brainwash, infect, instill, inculcate, etc." Is it any wonder that newer English translations tend to avoid the word "doctrine"? The New American Standard Bible, for example, uses the word "doctrine" only fourteen times, and even those are probably a carry-over of the traditionalism of ecclesiastical terminology. The Greek words, didache and didaskalia, should be consistently translated "teaching," except when reference is being made to "man-made doctrines" (Eph. 4:14; Col. 2:22; etc.)
In contemporary English language "doctrine" has come to mean "a traditional belief-system as interpreted and accepted by a particular group of people." "Doctrinaire" means "to dogmatically assert a traditional belief-system as interpreted and accepted by a particular group of people." "Indoctrinate" implies "to propagandize or brainwash others with this traditional belief-system as interpreted and accepted by a particular group of people."
Such a definition was most certainly not what the hearers intended when they listened to Jesus and "were astonished at His doctrine" (Luke 4:32 - KJV). They were not "astonished at His traditional belief-system," rather they were "amazed at His teaching" (NASB). The teaching of Jesus was the extending, the offering, the demonstration of Himself His Life. His teaching was Life-teaching. The etymological root for the Greek word "teaching" had to do with "extending the hand" or "offering oneself." To demonstrate what is being taught; that is the way to teach Life!
The fundamentalism and evangelicalism that predominate in popular "Christian religion" in America today tend to key in on "doctrine" as belief-system. That may be the reason they often prefer to retain the King James Version, and interpret the use of the word "doctrine" throughout the New Testament as their particular brand of formulated and fixated belief-system. These religious doctrinarians continue to indoctrinate others and perpetuate the factious and fractious denominationalism of differing belief-systems. Americans, with their fierce individualism and concepts of personal freedom, have elevated denominationalism to an all-time high, a real "religious science", with thousands of religious denominations, divided by disputed doctrinal belief-systems. Those involved in "Christian religion" today still think that Christianity is essentially consent to a particular doctrinal belief-system.
This is, in fact, the definition of "fundamentalism," a grouping of people who has rigidly determined the "fundamentals" of their acceptable doctrinal belief-system. "Fundamentalism" is a word much used today. The newspapers and news reports are full of references to "Muslim fundamentalists" in Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, etc.; "Hindu fundamentalists" in Sri Lanka; "Christian fundamentalists" barging at and bombing abortion clinics in the United States. Have you ever noticed that fundamentalists always fight? Why is that? They feel they have an obligation to defend the particular way they have stacked all of their doctrinal blocks in their belief-system.
The fundamentalist "Christian religion" in general has allowed doctrine, their belief-system, to become the supreme issue. "Doctrine" becomes their basis of fellowship, acceptance, security, bonding, etc. It is a tragic misrepresentation of the Church when the basis of our commonality is calculated by doctrinal agreement, rather than the indwelling Lord Jesus Christ; when uniformity of doctrine is the primary issue instead of unity in Christ. How sad when much of what is called "Christian preaching" is but tirades against so-called "heretics" who do not stack the doctrinal fundamentals of their belief-system just like we do!
Doctrine has been deified in "Christian religion" today. Doctrine has become their "god." It is a gross form of idolatry when one's properly-aligned stack of doctrinal ideas is elevated and revered to the extent that it must be defended at all costs, even to the point of terrorism, even to the point of dying for it.
God alone is absolute and immutable. His attributes are exclusive to Himself. What God is, only God is. To attribute God's attributes to our doctrine and determine that our doctrine is absolute and unchangeable is to deify doctrine, and to engage in the absolutism that is indicative of fundamentalistic religion around the world.
The Scottish preacher and teacher, James S. Stewart, wrote these words: "Those who have succeeded in defining doctrine most closely, have lost Christ most completely."4
Doctrines, belief-systems, will always be the focus of religion, but not of Christianity. Christianity is Christ! Jesus' teaching was about Himself. He is the essence of Christian teaching, contrary to what Buddha said about his religion.
In Christianity, TRUTH is a Person, Jesus Christ. "Truth" is not just propositional truth statements within a belief-system of doctrinal theology by which orthodoxy is rationalistically determined. Jesus Christ is Truth! Jesus Christ is our Life! He is so exclusively; there is no other Way! John 14:6 - "I AM the way, the truth and the life." (James Fowler)
Christianity is not a belief-system. Christianity is Christ!
by James Fowler
1 Torrance, T.F., Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, page 215, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990
2 Torrance, T.F., Ibid. page 122.
3 Edwards, Gene, Church Unity...How to Get There, page 99, Auburn: Christian Books Publishing House, 1991.
4 Stewart, James S., A Man in Christ, New York: Harper and Brothers.