For our purposes, Christianity requires providence and free will, sin and salvation, and heaven and hell. Let’s be clear: Christianity requires much more than these basic beliefs — the Trinity, for example. Nevertheless, we focus on these doctrines both because they are basic and also because they come into conflict with certain widespread beliefs about equality and justice.
Though I may fail miserably, I’m trying to put everything in plain, straightforward speech. Specialized knowledge can be boring, but — even worse — specialized vocabulary can obscure the blunt claims we are trying to make. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves.”
I think about Christian identification in terms of membership. The American Philosophical Association (APA) usually requires “training in philosophy” that is “advanced and systematic enough” to teach college-level philosophy. By contrast, the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) opens membership “to anyone interested in philosophy who considers himself or herself a Christian.” So you have to say you are something to be in the SCP, but not in the APA. Finally, the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS) requires agreement with specific Christian doctrines. You cannot deny the Trinity and be a member of EPS, but, if you call yourself a Christian, the SCP welcomes you.
If all the acronyms give you a headache, here’s the basic point: The claim to Christianity extends beyond your most specific theological beliefs, but it’s narrower than the vast expanse of self-identified Christians. Calling yourself a Christian does not make you a Christian any more than calling yourself a communist makes you a communist. To know whether you are something, we need to know whether or not you hold beliefs consistent with the label.
“Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves.”
G. K. CHESTERTON
Some Basic Christian Beliefs
Providence says God governs the world. God’s governance of the world is more than merely establishing the rules of the game and letting us go our own way. On the contrary, Christians think God cares intimately about the world and actively participates in it in order to achieve his purposes. Free will means we make genuine choices. Sin is disobedience. Salvation means rescue from sin and from the punishment for sin. Heaven is a place of future bliss; hell, of future punishment.
Christians believe these things, though they understand them differently. Does God superintend how many flies enter my house on a summer afternoon? Does freedom require the ability to do otherwise? To the specialists, our discussion may appear superficial; to the uninitiated, unbelievably complex. We have to gloss over these questions in order to specify what is common to all.
Providence. God is “the sovereign master of his plan,” who “in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures.” (Lines from John Calvin’s Institutes? No, that’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
Free will. “When God converts a sinner,” he “enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.” (A page from John Wesley’s journal? Not quite! That’s the Westminster Confession of Faith.)
Sin. “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 14).
Salvation. “Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer.” (Don’t let the British spelling — the -our rather than -or in Saviour — mislead you. Rather than the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, that’s the Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
Heaven. “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1024).
Hell. Because “man has not kept the Law of God, but transgressed it, his corrupt nature, thoughts, words, and works fighting against it,” “he is under God's wrath, death, all temporal calamities, and the punishment of hell-fire.” (Words written for a fire and brimstone preacher? Maybe, if he’s Lutheran.)