The attempt by some Christians to distance their religion from Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, is laughable since he proudly proclaimed his religion in his writings, but it does raise the interesting question of what it takes to be considered a Christian.
For mainstream Christians, if one is baptized, usually as a newborn infant, you are considered a Christian. As far as evangelical Christians are concerned, all you have to do is say that you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, and you are home free, with a direct non-stop ticket to heaven when you die.
What is noticeable is that there is no real intellectual effort needed to become a Christian. During religious services, worshippers proclaim belief in all manner of extraordinary things in the creeds they recite but few pay any attention to the words and would be surprised if the enormity of what they affirm is pointed out to them, let alone be asked to explain why they believe what they say they believe.
But is it that simple to be a Christian? Not everyone thinks so. Via Jason Rosenhouse, I stumbled across a blog by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who seems to be a Roman Catholic because in his profile, he describes himself thusly: “I am a writer and philosopher living in Los Angeles. I teach philosophy at Pasadena City College. My primary academic research interests are in the philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. I also write on politics, from a conservative point of view; and on religion, from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective.”
In the course of a discussion about the cosmological argument, he posted a comment to his own post (scroll down) where he outlined what would be needed to believe in Christianity. (All italics are in the original.)
For starters, he says:
I would say that as a preliminary to arguing for Christianity, one has to establish first, through independent and purely philosophical arguments:
1. The existence of God
2. Such attributes as the unity, simplicity, power, intellect, and will of God
3. God’s conservation of the world in being and providence
4. The immortality of the soul
5. The possibility of miracles
That’s pretty heavy duty stuff. I would have thought that would have been formidable enough to cause any rational Christian to immediately throw in the towel. Note also that you are expected to show all these through independent and purely philosophical arguments. You don’t need no stinking evidence, which is probably just as well since there isn’t any for any of those claims.
But wait, there’s more! He then says that to be a Christian, you also have to be able to show why all the other religions are false. This is actually an important point that a lot of religious people ignore because all the reasons they give for why other religions are false can be used against their own too. Feser helps them out, starting first with how to eliminate all polytheistic religions, though I am not sure why he includes a nontheistic religion like Buddhism in the mix.
These are just the sorts of topics one finds treated in old-fashioned manuals of natural theology written in the Scholastic tradition. And once one has established this much, religions like Buddhism, Taoism, most forms of Hinduism, etc. are ruled out already. Only some form of monotheism can be true IF any form is true at all.
With those out of the way, he turns to competing major monotheistic religions, though he seems to deal only with Islam, ignoring Judaism altogether. That is typical. Christians in the US tend to tread gingerly around Judaism, believing it to be a false religion but rarely coming out and saying so.
The next step is to show that IF any allegedly revealed religion is true, it has to be backed by miracles in the strict sense — events that could not in principle happen naturally and that could only have had a divine cause. There is no other way one could have rational grounds for confirming the claim that some message really came from God.
That much pretty much rules out Islam. Muhammad never even claimed any miracle other than the Koran itself. But the Koran is clearly not miraculous in principle even if one believed that it was so extraordinary that Muhammad could not have written it. By contrast, everyone agrees that Christ’s resurrection would be impossible by purely natural causes, IF it really occurred.
The next step is to defend the historicity of Christ’s resurrection itself. In my view, it is foolish to do this until one has already independently established points 1-5 above. For only in light of 1-5 is the evidence for the resurrection going to have its full power. Apart from 1-5 a skeptic could always say “Who knows what really happened, but we know it couldn’t have been a miracle” etc. That won’t wash if one has already established 1-5, though.
If one establishes that too, though, and if one grants (what I think there is no reasonable doubt about) that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be divine, then the fact that He was resurrected, that only God could have resurrected Him, and that this happened despite His saying something which would (if false) be blasphemous in the extreme, all would confirm that it was not false. In other words, it would show that there is a divine “seal of approval” on what He said and that what He said is therefore true. But if He is divine, and yet He is a different Person from the Father and Holy Spirit, etc., then we’ve got the essence of the doctrine of the Trinity. And then from there a Thomistic theologian works out the rest by inferring from what natural theology tells us together with what Christ’s revelation tells us. And that takes us beyond natural or philosophical theology and into sacred theology.
That’s nothing more than a sketch, but that’s the framework that a sound Christian theology would begin by fleshing out. It’s the sort of thing Aquinas and other Scholastics do, and the sort of thing that has to be done before the more detailed stuff (law and grace, sin and salvation, Eucharistic theology, etc. etc.) can properly be treated.
So there you go, Christians. None of that wishy-washy “If you accept Jesus as your savior, you are a Christian” short cut. That’s for slackers. Get to work meeting all of Feser’s requirements before calling yourself a Christian.