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031  What is a Christian?

I'm going to talk this week about what defines the boundaries of Christendom.

It came up in a discussion that's been bubbling around the Internet for the last couple of days about a well-known Evangelical minister named Hank Hanegraaff. The discussion about him focuses on the fact that he was very recently chrismated--rebaptised, in effect--as an Eastern Orthodox believer, at an Eastern Orthodox church that he has been attending for the last two years by his own admission.

Now, I was no fan of Mr. Hanegraaff for a very long time. Hanegraaff is the President of Christian Research Institute (CRI for short), a highly-regarded, scholarly group of Evangelicals formed to research and exhaustively document quasi-Christian cults. He took CRI over from its founder Dr. Walter Martin when Martin died in 1989. Hanegraaff also took over Dr. Martin's radio program, "The Bible Answer Man," and he continues in both posts to this day.

Under Hanegraaff, CRI's scholarly tone changed to something more partisan and polemic. He began attacking Charismatic Christians and declaring several well-known Charismatic ministers "false prophets," using his position at the top of CRI as a launching point. I considered his arguments unfair, shallow, and even dishonest. But the Holy Spirit cautioned me to leave him alone, so I did.

I actually met the man some 20 years later, at a training session for Dr. Frank Turek's seminar entitled "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." I was able by then to regard him as "odd but admirable," and to overlook any qualms I might have with his theology or style. Denunciations of Christian ministers who believe differently, well, my anxiety about it helps nobody. God will sort it out.

For a hardened Evangelical like Hanegraaff to join a venerable denomination like Eastern Orthodoxy says to me that the Holy Spirit has been at work, softening what was hard in the man's character. Shelly and I agree that hearing that he's made that shift makes us like him better.

The hard-core Reformed believers don't like him better, though. They're very disappointed. One needs only to hear the title of the article published about his conversion by an Internet theological journal called PulpitandPen.org to know what they think. The editor, Jeff Maple, entitled his article, 

"The Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff, Leaves the Christian Faith?" (See http://pulpitandpen.org/2017/04/10/the-bible-answer-man-hank-hanegraaff-leaves-the-christian-faith/)

At least they ended it with a question mark. That's worth something, I guess..

Snarky me notes that the last time I checked, "Eastern Orthodox" was a Christian denomination. Snarky Phil is not sure how one leaves the Christian faith by joining a Christian denomination.

Intellectually rigorous me, though, understands what Jeff Maple means. Apparently Mr. Maple is one of those who regards Christianity as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith (or some similar Protestant manifesto), which declares that the Bible, not the Church, is the sole basis of faith.

Both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox disagree with the Westminster Confession on this point, though they don't dispute the authority and importance of scripture. But they also disagree with each other regarding which contemporary church actually defines the faith. Divided Christianity is a bit of a mess. Oy vey.

I came into Christendom from Judaism, and from the start I took a pretty ecumenical stance. I used to tell people "My statement of faith is very brief: 'Do you love Jesus? Me too. Let's save arguing over the details till later.'"

I still believe that, more or less, but I've also learned a great deal about the faith since then. It really is important that we show proper regard for the labor of those who have gone before us. Those guys weren't wicked or stupid. They did their jobs faithfully in their times. The creeds that they wrote are there for a reason.

The question of whether Hanegraaff (or anyone else) has left the faith or not turns on how one defines Christianity.

Most discussions of whether one is Christian conflate two, different topics, one spiritual, the other propositional or practical. Some participants want to talk about the spiritually real metamorphosis that takes place inside the believer when he or she confesses faith in Jesus. Protestants like to talk of this as being "born again," but that's just one of several metaphors used by Jesus and the Apostles to describe this mystical change. The theological term for it is "regeneration." Discussing regeneration, Paul says we're "a new creation," "citizens of heaven," "walking in the Spirit." Peter says we're a "chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God's own choosing." John says that we are "sons of God," and that "it does not yet appear what we will be, but when He appears we will be like Him." They're all talking about the fact that God literally changes whichever individual comes to Him into something that's not exactly human anymore, something heavenly. To those who focus on this, one is not Christian unless one has undergone this change.

Others, however, talk of the foundational tenets of the faith and whether one adheres to them or not. These participants focus on the propositional definitions of Christianity that distinguish it from Islam, Buddhism, or Shintoism. To those who focus on this, one is not Christian unless one adheres to the orthodox Christian faith, "the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 3).

I regard both as correct, and both as equally important. Christianity is spiritual truth, and regeneration is a real thing. However, Christianity is not just a spiritual religion, it's a practical one as well. That's why Paul's letters always start off discussing spiritual concepts, but end up giving practical life advice. So we have to undergo the spiritual change, and we also have to live within the practical bounds of the faith.

One cannot see the transformation of the inner man when it occurs, nor is it possible to verify whether it has taken place except by subjective evaluation. The Apostle Paul wouldn't even judge himself, for crying out loud (I Corin 4:3-4). There are subjective criteria which we can apply, though; most importantly, we can assess whether a particular church reflects the character of Jesus, since we're all supposed to be becoming like Him. We can look for humility, gentleness, patience, temperance, faithfulness, courage, and the like.

For more secular and practical evaluations, we do need firm criteria by which we can assess with clarity which gatherings are Christian and which are not. Intellectual discussion is impossible without definitions, and "born again" is too subjective and cannot be verified. The creeds of the Church do an admirable job of establishing these definitions for us. By general agreement, the Apostle's Creed is a good starting point for this sort of evaluation.
 
By the Apostle's Creed, Eastern Orthodoxy is definitely Christian. Mr. Hanegraaff has not left the faith by that definition. Sorry, PulpitandPen Dot Org, you're out of bounds.

By the spiritual definition, a person who has once been born into the Kingdom of God cannot easily undo the change that has occurred, if it's even possible to undo it at all. If Hank Hanegraaff was ever regenerated, he's still "born again" even if he's now having fellowship in a place where they don't talk that way about believers. Only, in actual point of fact, they DO talk that way in the Eastern Orthodox churches. (The question of whether, or how, a regenerated believer can fall from his tranformed condition is beyond this discussion.)

What does that mean for us? Here are a few ideas:

(1) Let's leave the task of judging our fellow-believers' ultimate standing before God to God, who sees those things clearly and can do something about them. It's really not our job (see Matthew 13:24-30).

(2) Let's learn the foundational creeds of the Church. At the very least, let's memorize the Apostle's Creed, and then compare it to our beliefs as we currently understand them. However, note that both Catholic and Orthodox doctrine relegate the Apostle's Creed to use with children, because it's simpler than the Nicene Creed but also less complete. The Nicene Creed is what they accept as the real definition of Christian orthodoxy. So maybe get your hands on the Nicene Creed and memorize it as well.

(3) If you're concerned about the eternal condition of Hank Hanegraaff or anybody else, pray for them.

Thanks for listening, and I'll be back in a few weeks.

Phil Weingart

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