July 2018 Pulse
The last three decades have seen a slew of books on basic Christianity. A simple search on Amazon.com would yield titles like Christianity 101 (1993), Basic Discipleship (1992), and Christianity: The Basics (2014). These books receive their inspiration from their celebrated predecessors, namely, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (1952) and John Stott’s Basic Christianity (1958).
The main purpose of these books – as their titles reveal – is to state as succinctly as possible the fundamentals of the Christian faith and its most essential tenets. Their intended readers are either people who are interested in Christianity but are mystified by the varied accounts, or young Christians who wish to get a handle on the faith they have recently embraced.
These books, therefore, have a significant role to play in the spiritual and theological formation of young believers who wish to acquaint themselves with the doctrinal terrain of Christianity. But the habitual return to the basics may prove enlightening and refreshing even for more mature Christians.
What constitutes the basics of Christianity, its non-negotiable essence, is an important and inescapable question. How does one go about distinguishing the essential bits of the Christian faith that must be ‘canonised’, and the rest that should consequently be regarded as theological opinions that can be subjected to discussion and disagreement?
These questions must be carefully considered. This quest can go disastrously wrong if it is guided by false assumptions and alien canons.
In the early 20th century, a formidable group of German theologians led by the eminent Adolf von Harnack sought to recover what they described as the “essence of Christianity”. They wanted to repristinate a Christianity which, in their minds, had been distorted by Hellenistic philosophy.
To cut a long story short, Harnack and his followers began to peel off the husk of the ‘Hellenised’ theology of the Church in order to recover the kernel, namely, the simple teachings of Jesus Christ and His early followers.
The results of Harnack’s research were presented in a series of lectures in the University of Berlin in 1899 and 1900, and subsequently published as What is Christianity? (Das Wesen des Christentums) in 1901. This book, which is the modern re-statement of the essence of Christianity, became the inspiration for liberal theology in the 20th century.
Rejecting what he considered to be the metaphysical accretions of the historic creeds of the Church, Harnack maintains that the essence of Christianity has to do with the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and the ethic of love.
Harnack’s project is instructive because it shows us how not to look for the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
Christianity’s essence cannot be sought by severing Scripture from its authoritative interpreter, the Church. Neither can it be sought by privileging the modern scientific worldview over the theological vision of the Church that was informed and shaped by Scripture itself.
In other words, to understand the essence of the Christian faith, one needs to take with utmost seriousness the very things that Harnack had rejected as farcical and redundant.
One needs to return to the historic ecumenical creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition – for they are, to use Luther’s fine expression, the “ground upon which the Christian Faith is laid”.
In the creeds, wrote Luther, “you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words”.
Basic Christianity, as presented by the creeds, has to do with non-negotiable truths about God and the world that the Word reveals, like the triunity of God, the incarnation of the second person of the Godhead, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the final judgement, and eternal life.
Going back to the basics of the faith should never be regarded as an exercise of simplifying the faith, as some writers seem to suggest. It is never reductionist. Rather, it is an attempt to discern the fullness and wonder of God, who in His revelation remains incomprehensible.
In returning again and again to the essence of the faith, we are brought ever deeper into the boundless and inexhaustible mystery of the One who is Love.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.