What is a Christian?

The day before Easter is a good time to ask this question, wouldn’t you say?

It’s also a good time to lament that this question needs to be asked at all. One would think that the answer is self-evident.

And so it was for the better part of 2,000 years. You could have asked anyone, say, 200 years ago, and you would have received an unequivocal answer:

A Christian is someone who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Had you insisted on details, the same respondent could have simply said, “Read the text of the Nicene Creed. It’s all in there.”

These days following this advice is considerably easier than 200 years ago. Just tap ‘nicene creed’ (never mind the capitals) into your Google, push a button and out it comes: “I believe in one God…”

Alas, in common with such words as ‘liberalism’ (and other cognates of ‘liberty’), ‘conservatism’ and ‘marriage’, the word ‘Christian’ has become desemanticised. Or rather it now means so many different things as to mean nothing at all.

For example, the way my friend Dave uses it, the word means roughly the same thing as a conscientious social worker who may choose a church rather than the local ‘social’ as his base of operations. Or he may choose neither – just caring and sharing is enough.

(Actually, never mind Dave. He really doesn’t care about Christianity, however defined. His sole concern is staying in power, such as it is.

The word ‘Christian’ comes in handy when it offers a chance to outflank his proudly atheist opponents. If the word ‘animist’ could do the job better, Dave would be claiming that dancing around a totem pole is his favourite pastime.

And if he felt that cannibalism would serve his purpose better… well, you catch my drift.) 

Many people use the word ‘Christian’ simply to mean a good person. That makes one wonder what exactly is wrong with the words ‘good person’. Why do they need help from another term, that’s always more likely to confuse the issue?

And so forth – the lexical hole is getting deeper and deeper, yet people never stop digging.

This unfortunate tendency isn’t all that recent either. For example, in 1901 the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Leo Tolstoy.

This represented an act of ultimate mercy: in, say, Elizabethan England, Tolstoy’s frenzied anti-Christian invective would have put him on a pyre faster than you could say ‘blasphemy’.

In the Russian Church, incidentally, excommunication didn’t mean expulsion or anathematising. It merely meant that the parishioner could no longer take communion – which for Tolstoy shouldn’t have been particularly onerous since he didn’t believe in all that nonsense anyway.

Yet he felt called upon to write his notorious Letter to the Synod, protesting that he was a true Christian and, implicitly, the truest of all. Tolstoy didn’t offer his definition of a Christian, but it can be easily inferred:   

“That I have rejected the church that calls itself Russian Orthodox,’ he writes, ‘is perfectly true… I’ve come to the conclusion that in theory the teaching of the church is a perfidious and harmful lie, while in practice it is a collection of the crudest superstitions and sorcery, hiding completely the entire meaning of Christian teaching… It is perfectly true that I reject the incomprehensible Trinity and the myth, these days meaningless, of the fall of the first man, the blasphemous story of a god born of a virgin to redeem the human race… You say that I reject all the rituals. That is perfectly true… This [the Eucharist] is horrible!”

If this is protest, methinks the writer doth protest too little. Every word in this ‘protest’ screams visceral hatred for the church and everything it stands for. Just look at the adjectives: ‘perfidious’, ‘harmful’, ‘crudest’, ‘meaningless’, ‘incomprehensible’, ‘blasphemous’, ‘horrible’.

The rhetoric of Bolshevik cathedral-dynamiters had nothing on Tolstoy’s harangues. But the Bolsheviks had the advantage of never describing themselves as true Christians.

In other words, it’s possible to claim being a Christian not only when one sees the Church as merely an extension of social services, but even when one is maliciously hostile to it.

It’s getting too complicated for words. Do let’s keep it simple. Forgetting Tolstoy’s stupid hysterics, we must still realise that a ‘Christian’ means something different from a ‘good person’.

Not every good person is a Christian; not every Christian is a good person. The terms are too different to be interchangeable.

Thus terminological precision, if nothing else, demands that, in search of an answer to the question in the title, we go back to the Nicene Creed. Specifically, on this eve of the greatest day in the Christian calendar, to these words:

And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,

And ascended into heaven,

And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.

And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead:

Whose kingdom shall have no end.

Happy Easter!




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