Our final installment in my series on mere Christianity comes from James N. Anderson. Dr. Anderson is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions, Why Should I Believe Christianity?, and Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status. (On a personal note, I highly recommend Paradox in Christian Theology if you have an interest in the subject. It’s a great read.) Dr. Anderson blogs at https://www.proginosko.com/.
James Anderson on Mere Christianity
“Charitable answer: MC is an irreducible core of beliefs (something like the Apostles’ Creed) and practices (corporate worship, Scripture reading, prayer, baptism, Lord’s Supper, evangelism, catechism, etc.) that must be affirmed in order to count as genuinely Christian. MC is necessary but not sufficient for Christian orthodoxy, since the latter also requires not denying some further doctrinal and moral claims.
“Cynical answer: MC is a relatively recent invention, a lowest-common-denominator approach to defining and defending Christianity that aims to maximize the boundaries of the church and minimize the burden of argument.”
Let’s start with the charitable answer. Anderson provides a relatively detailed list, one which starts with “something like the Apostles’ Creed”. That seems like a good starting point in terms of belief. Anderson then adds several practices which an individual and/or community must undertake in order “to count as genuinely Christian.”
I certainly agree with Anderson that every one of these practices should be present in Christian communities. However, it is more controversial to claim that every one of these practices must be present in Christian communities for those communities to count as Christian. Note, for example, that the Quakers and Salvation Army would not “count as genuinely Christian” according to this rubric because they do not practice the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I’m also curious as to what, precisely, would constitute “catechism” such that this would be necessary for a community to be Christian.
Now let’s turn to the cynical answer. I’m not sure how recent in origin Anderson thinks mere Christianity to be, but I would submit it is far older than the rise of ecumenism in the twentieth century. For example, the Lutheran theologian Georg Calixtus (1586-1656) famously undertook the project of seeking to unify a fractured, post-Reformation Christendom on a core of shared doctrinal belief and practice.
Finally, let’s turn to Anderson’s apparent conviction that “maximizing the boundaries of the church” is a bad thing. (I assume he views this trend with suspicion given that he includes it as part of his “cynical answer”.)
Perhaps we can illustrate the issues with a criminal justice analogy. So, consider the following two errors:
(1) The error of convicting an innocent man.
(2) The error of exonerating a guilty man.
As I understand it, the standards of proof in western criminal justice generally prioritize avoidance of (1) over avoidance of (2). In other words, we’d rather a guilty man walk free than an innocent man be convicted. And that priority is expressed in the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Now consider the question of church boundaries with this theological analogue:
(3) The error of falsely recognizing a non-Christian as Christian.
(4) The error of falsely recognizing a Christian as non-Christian.
If one likewise considers (3) as a greater error than (4) then one will adopt a more generous and minimalist ecclesiology (and definition of mere Christianity). After all, if error in judgment is to arise, we’d rather recognize non-Christians as Christians than denounce genuine Christians as non-Christians.
However, Anderson’s concern about maximizing church boundaries by minimizing the demands of doctrine and practice suggests he would either consider (3) and (4) equal errors or, conversely, would consider (4) a greater error. In other words, better a real Christian be excluded from the community of faith than a false Christian be included.