About the Term “Christian,” & Being “Spiritual, Not Religious.”

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Since my teen years I’ve been fascinated with the question of how much of the Christianity that I grew up with is really American or Western culture, and therefore dispensable. It’s been a fascinating journey. Initially, I thought another way to ask the question was, “What is true, biblical Christianity?” But I eventually realized that the idea of a religion called Christianity had to go on the table as well, since the Christian religion as developed by the Roman church and its Ecumenical Councils departed from the Bible very early in church history (see example.)

For me, the Bible is my ultimate authority and arbiter in these questions. When all is said and done, if God hasn’t spoken to us, then we have no hope at all of escaping subjectivism and relativism. If there is an eternal, objective, invisible spiritual reality, our finite minds and short earthly experiences alone are hopelessly blind to see and understand it. But why the Bible, rather than some other scripture? I contend that biblical revelation and biblical faith are unique in the world. Throughout history our Creator has taken pains to reveal and verify Himself to us, and to invite us to participate in His unfolding counterrevolution of truth and love (see example.) Throughout my years of holding to this view I’ve found great joy and meaning, and I still haven’t found a downside. However, I do see nasty consequences for creating one’s own reality.

I recently had a respectful exchange with Eric Hyde, who authors, “Eric Hyde’s Blog –  Journey Through Orthodox Christianity.” Eric’s blog often seeks to argue for the validity of the ancient, Eastern Orthodox religion, which apparently is enjoying a resurgence among young people today. Beginning with the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea under Constantine, the Roman Church has convened a total of 21 Councils, which are considered by the Catholic Church to be binding, and as authoritative as scripture. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism split in 1054 AD. Eastern Orthodoxy holds only the first 7 of the Ecumenical Councils to be authoritative. (For example, Eastern Orthodox priests can marry, and the church does not recognize the primacy of the Pope.) A key point for this post, however, is that both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy consider themselves to be the true inheritors of the original church going all the way back to the apostles of Jesus.

By contrast, I contend that God’s revelation in the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone is sufficient and authoritative, and is the only lineage that is essential. Beyond the Bible, church tradition may be interesting, and sometimes even helpful, but the world would be a better place today if “the Church” had always held the Bible above church tradition. I challenge my skeptical readers to name any evil perpetrated on the world by “the Church,” and I believe the cause can be traced to a departure from the teaching of Jesus and His chosen apostles.

A skeptic might argue that the Bible presents its very own subjective, provincial, chauvinistic sub-culture. This arguably may be true of the Mosaic Covenant in the Tanakh, but this leads to my point. Jesus brought a new possibility. Part of the beauty of the New Covenant of Jesus is that it does not, (or at least it should not,) rely on external enforcement of a written code (Ro 7:1-6,) and is open to everyone. Jesus brought the possibility of an internal change through spiritual rebirth, and a “new life in the Spirit” that transcends human cultures (Gal 5:22; Ro 13:8-10.) In fact Jesus established the beginnings of a new transcendent culture called the kingdom of God.

Below is my discussion with Eric,  which I believe helps to illustrate how this thinking works. For some context, first comes an excerpt from his blog post, “I’m Spiritual, Not Religious.” (The entire post is worth reading.) Then our dialogue follows:

…I have found the phrase, “I am spiritual, not religious,” and its redheaded stepchild, “I follow Jesus, not tradition,” to be manifestations of spiritual pride, not spiritual enlightenment. These phrases are almost always accompanied by a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of “personal revelation.” It is a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual “popes” abound, but the Church is nonexistent; it’s essentially a personal religious-potpourri not unlike New Age adherence, with slightly different language.
To claim to be spiritual and not religious is like claiming to have taken a swim without getting wet…”
SCOTT: Hey Eric, I like the general thrust of what you say, but I don’t get why you lump “I follow Jesus” in with “religious” and “spiritual”. I don’t refer to myself as a Christian because it has become a meaningless term, whereas “follower of Jesus” is descriptive. We don’t have to wonder what it means. It precludes
“a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of ‘personal revelation.’…a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual ‘popes’ abound, but the Church is nonexistent…”

ERIC HYDE: “I’m a follower of Jesus” is descriptive only if one is clear about which Jesus they follow. There are 1000′s of different Jesus’ available today in our spiritual stock exchange.

SCOTT: What 1000s of Jesus’? There is scant historical reference to Jesus outside of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, other than a few (later) “lost gospels”, and a few later “revelations” such as Islam & Mormonism, all of which contradict the canonical gospels and apostolic writings. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say there are 1000s of Christianities? Any religion which centers its theology around Jesus can rightly be called a Christian religion. This would include not only Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant religions, but also Mormonism & Jehovah’s Witnesses. Therefore, I say the heart of the matter is neither religion nor spirituality, but the person of Jesus as He is revealed in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. This Jesus never claimed to establish a new religion called Christianity. He claimed to establish the kingdom of God as prophesied by the Hebrew prophets who came before Him. If you can demonstrate from the scriptures that this was not his central message, then I will personally give you a back massage. [Author’s note: Eric started his post saying, “I wish I had a back massage for every time I’ve heard someone say ‘I’m spiritual, not religious.’”]

ERIC: I was raised Mormon. We were taught that Jesus was not a Person of the Divine Trinity but rather a literal offspring of Elohim, the Father God. This Jesus was the spiritual brother of Lucifer, later satan. He is our brother in a literal sense in that we too were literally conceived of by Elohim with his many wives in heaven. And Mormons also claim to believe in the Bible you and I both read.

Is this the Jesus you believe in?

This is only one example of the various Jesus’ on the market today.

SCOTT: Thanks Eric. I can’t imagine how you are keeping up with these replies. [Author’s note – Eric received quite a response from readers.]  Here’s my response in case you have the time:
This is my point – there aren’t that many possibilities; only the few that I mentioned. Of course I refer to the Jesus of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. To say I follow him is, in fact, descriptive. The Bible presents a linear, unfolding, harmonious revelation. The Jesus revealed therein is alive and well and knowable. The Jesus of Islam, Mormonism, & the Jehovah’s Witnesses re-interprets & contradicts the Bible with later “revelation” that is considered authoritative within those groups. But when I say I’m a follower of Jesus, it is assumed I’m referring to the Jesus of the Bible. Therefore this phrase has much more meaning and clarity than to say I’m a Christian.

ERIC: My point is a little more nuanced, and is difficult to explain briefly. But, in short, we all come to the text with our own set of ideas, opinions, social conditioning, etc (“presupposition” is a good single word to use here), that influence the way we understand who Jesus is. If you are familiar with the ancient heresy of Arianism, it was a belief that Jesus was created by the Father God. This caused enormous turmoil in the Church and divided it for many years. Arius made his argument strictly from Scripture, as did his Orthodox opponents. Eventually Orthodoxy won out and declared that Jesus was a Person within the divine Trinity and was “begotten” of God eternally. One understands Trinitarian theology due to the great Ecumenical councils, not because of a casual reading of Scripture. 
Whether or not Christ is a created being, if God is Trinity, if the Holy Spirit is God, etc, etc, are issues that can go either way if one does not have the luxury of holy tradition guiding him. I imagine that you have gravitated towards the orthodox rendering of the faith, but this is not happen-chance, it comes from a long line of reasoning within the Church. It only seems like a “no-duh” to us because we are so use to it.

SCOTT: Thanks for the thoughtful reply Eric. I’m open to being proven wrong here, but until then I will say that I absolutely disagree that:
1) Arius made his argument strictly from Scripture

) One understands Trinitarian theology due to the great Ecumenical councils

) …issues [that] can go either way if one does not have the luxury of holy tradition guiding him.

1-Arius wasn’t making his argument “strictly from scripture” because nowhere do the scriptures say that Jesus is a created being, and in many places it says He is divine.

2-It is the authority of the Judeo-Christian scriptures that reveals the triune nature of YHWH. The ecumenical councils were only codifying what had already been revealed in the Bible. To say that…

3-…these issues can go either way w/out tradition is false. You’re essentially saying that the councils created Truth if you think these issues could have gone either way. The councils functioned as a Supreme Court interpreting a constitution that was already written. But the constitution existed first, and is preeminent. Likewise, the Bishop’s interpretations are valid only insofar as they agree with God’s written revelation, which has ultimate authority. So Church tradition is of value, but even the early councils contain errors. It is the Word that judges tradition, not tradition that judges the Word.
[End of excerpt.]

I’m continually amazed at the genius of the Bible. Jesus and His message are as relevant today as ever, because we human beings still need to be made new by our Creator. We still need a Savior, despite human advancements in knowledge and technology. Human arrogance, greed, lust, abuse of power, and general human brokenness continue to turn our own advancements against us. If God has provided a perfect plan of salvation, then any human spiritual vision that adds to it or takes away from it – be it Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Islamic, New Age, or Universalist – will necessarily lead us down an imperfect path. This is not to say there can be nothing good on an imperfect path, only that our human innovations do not improve on God’s perfect provision for salvation and ultimate unity (Eph 1:7-10.)

Got religion? No, thanks – got Jesus.