What is the essence of Christianity, the heart of the Christian message, the sine qua non of the Christian faith?
Many people today would answer this question with an ethical statement. “We should be kind to others”, would be a fairly standard example of this kind of answer.
Is this the correct answer?
Before answering that question we should ponder another question. Why do so many people think that the essence of Christianity is an ethical message about being good or kind to other people?
One answer to that question might be “Because Jesus taught us to be kind to other people”. That is true. In His most famous Sermon Jesus said “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12) Since most people would prefer that others were kind to them this could be paraphrased as “be good and kind to other people.” Does this lie at the absolute centre of Jesus’ message though?
There is an implication of the idea that “being good to others” is at the heart of Jesus’ message that has perhaps not occurred to many of those who would give a knee-jerk “yes” answer to that last question. If, “being good to others” was central to Jesus’ message, with everything else He taught being peripheral, then Christ’s message would be an anthropocentric message, man-centred, rather than a theocentric message, God-centred.
This implication actually points us to the reason why so many people conceive of the Christian message as being basically ethical. There has been a revolution in Western thought over the last 500-800 years.
If we go back to the roots of Western civilization in ancient Athens, Socrates laid the intellectual foundation for two millennia of Western thought when he re-focused Greek thought away from questions about the substance of the material world, which had been the focus of earlier Greek philosophers such as Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Empedocles of Agrigentum, and Heraclitus of Ephesus. Socrates, focused on questions about things which transcended the material world. “What is courage?” “What is justice?” “What is virtue?” He searched for answers to these questions insisting that a valid answer would be one which would apply universally to all examples of these things. Socrates’ student Plato, through whose writings his teacher is known to us today, developed out of Socrates search for universals, the idea that the material world is an imperfect, shadowy reflection of reality. Reality, according to Plato consisted of perfect, eternal, immaterial, universals which he called eidoi (usually translated “Forms”) and which man could only contemplate through the use of reason. Plato’s own pupil, Aristotle, differed from Plato in that he taught that man approached transcendent universals though particulars that one experiences empirically in this world, but agreed with his teacher that the transcendent universals themselves, are the subject of the highest, truest, and most important knowledge.
This concept of the Athenian philosophers, that things which are invisible, eternal, perfect, and beyond the world available to the senses but imperfectly represented in that world, was the foundation of Western thought for millennia. It provided the intellectual framework within which Christian theology was developed.
Then, over the last several centuries, modern philosophers began to reorient Western thought away from the universal, the invisible, the transcendent, towards the physical world. In the 14th Century, William of Occam taught a form of nominalism (the denial of the existence of metaphysical universals). In the 17th Century, René Descartes tried to develop a rational belief system in which nothing was “known” unless he could logically demonstrate it from something of which he was absolutely certain. His search for such certainty turned inward until he reasoned that since he couldn’t doubt that he was doubting, his mental activity and hence his existence, were certainties. It was a brilliant solution to his problem – brilliant, but autocentric. Immanuel Kant, in the 18th Century taught that our knowledge was subjective, that we can only ever know phenomena (external things as they appear to us) because we play an active role in how we perceive things, therefore noumena (things “as they are in themselves”, this is the term which in classical philosophy includes everything beyond the world available to the senses) are forever outside our knowledge. In the 19th Century, Auguste Comte, one of the first sociologists, argued for positivism, the idea that we can only know that which we can experience, observe, and empirically test in the material world. He taught a progressive theory of the history of human knowledge in which theology and metaphysics are primitive stages prior to the “positive” approach of modern science. In the early 20th Century an extreme version of this doctrine called “logical positivism” became popular in intellectual circles.
This reorientation of Western thought away from the transcendent, invisible, and eternal to the imminent, visible, and temporal both contributed to and was the result of the birth of modern science with all of its blessings and curses. It has also led to a way of referring to the physical world as the “real world” that is popular among parents who wish to encourage their kids to focus on their education and get good jobs, among people who have come to regard life as a long bitter struggle to sustain one’s physical existence, and various others. It has further led to a popular misconception of the relationship between the scientific and the possible. Since scientists express the summaries of their observations as “laws” many people have gotten the wrong impression that a scientific law means “such-and-such has to happen in this way under all circumstances” rather than “such-and-such has always happened in this way in our observations and experiments so there is a high probability that it will continue to always happen this way in the future”.
This in turn has led to a bias against the possibility of the supernatural, of miracles. Thus, people who had adopted these modern perspectives, and who therefore read the Gospels and dismissed the possibility of the Virgin Birth, the turning of the water into wine, the healing miracles, the calming of the storm and walking on water, the raising of Lazarus, the feeding of the 5000, and the Resurrection, but who still wished to think of themselves as Christians, had to look for an essence of Christianity which relegated all of the supernatural aspects of the Gospels to outward religious trappings of the Christian message. This left them with the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ.
Did Jesus Christ make ethics the heart of His message however? Do those who see Jesus as primarily an ethical teacher even understand His ethical teachings?
“Love thy neighbor as thyself” Jesus is often quoted as saying. He did say that, but He was not introducing anything new. He was quoting Leviticus 19:18. Furthermore, He made it explicitly clear that “love thy neighbor as thyself” is not the highest principle of His ethical system. It is only the second greatest commandment. The greatest is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”. Loving God, takes precedence over loving man, in Christ’s ethical teachings. This precludes “being kind to other people” from being central to Christ’s teachings. It is important but it is not the most important thing.
Jesus said of these commandments “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. What does this mean? “The law and the prophets” are what Christians call “the Old Testament” and what Jews call the Tanakh (from the acronym of the initials of the Hebrew words for Law, Prophets, and Writings). When Jesus says that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” He is saying that the Old Testament is summarized in these two commandments. He is also saying that someone who truly loves God and his neighbor, will keep all the commandments of the Old Testament.
That is something that people who think Jesus’ teachings can be summarized in “be nice to one another” are not likely to be very comfortable with. The Old Testament contains all sorts of commandments that such people usually don’t like. They like to think that the point of Jesus’ teachings was to do away with the Old Testament commandments and replace them with “be nice to each other”. Jesus Himself, however, warned people against interpreting His words this way:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
These words occur in the Sermon on the Mount just prior to the section where Jesus quotes six Old Testament rules and demonstrates that the standard of righteousness God requires goes beyond the mere, literal, sense of the commandments. The commandment against murder, Jesus says, means that “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” The commandment against adultery, Jesus says, is broken even by lustful thoughts. The Old Testament includes civil law provisions for divorce and swearing oaths, but the righteousness God demands of people, Jesus said, requires that you do not divorce your wife unless she has been unfaithful and that you speak the truth at all times so that an oath is redundant and unnecessary. The Old Testament includes instructions for civil judges as to how to dispense justice and commands love for one’s neighbor. Jesus adds that one is not to take the former into his own hands and avenge oneself and that love should be extended even to one’s enemies.
The “love” Jesus preached, then, goes beyond the bland “kindness” and “niceness” that the modern liberal reads into it. Jesus’ ethical teachings are extremely demanding. Furthermore, they are filled with threats of judgment and Hell. This is exactly the sort of thing that people who think Christianity is about “being nice to others” don’t like, but Jesus talked about these subjects more than anybody else in the Bible.
After Jesus’ baptism, and his 40 day fast in the wilderness, the Gospels record that He began His preaching/teaching ministry. The message, the Gospels record Him preaching throughout Galilee is “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What did that mean?
The kingdom of heaven is what the Jews were waiting for. The Old Testament records the covenant God made with the people of Israel, and the history of how they would be unfaithful, God would judge them, they would repent, and He would restore them. The prophetic literature of the Old Testament records the words of the prophets addressed to Israel and Judah (and sometimes to the surrounding nations) in the last days of the divided Kingdom, in the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions that wiped out Israel’s political sovereignty. The prophets spoke of this as God’s judgment on Israel for unfaithfulness, idolatry, and a lack of mercy and justice. The prophetic pronouncements of judgment and condemnation, however, were tempered with a message of hope. God will not be angry with His people forever. He will establish His kingdom on earth, He will establish a New Covenant in which He will write His laws, not on tablets of stone but upon the hearts of His people, He will send a Redeemer.
“The kingdom of heaven is at hand” meant that that promised time had arrived at long last. Therefore, Israel was called upon to repent and to “believe the gospel (“good news”, in this case meaning that the long-awaited kingdom is finally here). At the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus made it explicit what He meant by “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, when He rode into Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover on a donkey. He was the promised Redeemer. He was the Messiah. He was the Christ. That was His message.
This had been present in His teachings all along. He said things no ordinary teacher of ethics would ever have said. In the portion of the Sermon on the Mount referred to above, where He expounded on the meaning of 6 commandments in the Old Testament, He used a formula “You have heard that it was said…but I say unto you” which placed His own teachings on the level of the writings He had declared to be authoritative Scripture. At the very end of that same Sermon, just before He compares His teachings to a rock, and people who do what He says to a man who builds a house on the rock rather than on the sinking foundation of sand, He said:
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt. 7:21-23)
Do you recognize the significance of this? Jesus is saying in these words that He will be the one who will pronounce the final judgment upon men. He was saying that He was Himself God come down from Heaven to live amongst His people.
This lay at the heart of everything He said, and everything He did, from His telling the man with palsy whom He healed “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee” to when He promised the rich young ruler that he would have treasure in heaven if he gave up everything he had and followed Jesus, statements no ordinary teacher could have made without committing blasphemy. He accepted men’s worship, commended those who displayed faith in Him and rewarded that faith, and rebuked those who did not believe, including on several occasions, His own disciples.
When He presented Himself in Jerusalem openly as the Messiah, initially the masses welcomed Him, crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” By the end of the week, they were demanding His blood from Pilate, crying out “Crucify Him”. That too, lies at the heart of His message.
Jesus at one point asked His disciples Who men said that He was. They gave various answers and He then asked them Who they said He was. Peter answered “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, which answer Jesus commended. He then began telling His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, where He would be put to death, and three days later He would rise again.
On the night before His crucifixion, at the Last Supper He took bread and after blessing and breaking it, He gave it to His disciples saying “Take, eat; this is My body”, then took the cup and after giving thanks said:
Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matt. 26:27-28)
The “new testament” is the new covenant that was promised by the Prophets. What Jesus was saying here as He commissioned the Eucharist, was that He Himself, would be the sacrifice that would establish the new covenant. His sacrifice would do what no other sacrifice could. It would take away the sins of the world, making peace between God and man, a peace into which all people everywhere are invited to participate through faith.
Jesus Christ Himself, then, is the centre of Christianity. Christianity is about Who Jesus is, about His sacrificial death on the cross, and about His Resurrection from the dead. The Resurrection is the evidence which confirms that Christ is Who He claimed to be.
The Athenian philosophers 400 years before Christ came to earth, argued that true wisdom lies in contemplating the transcendent, the perfect, and the eternal, the things which lie beyond the world we know through our senses. The sort of things they had in mind were universals which correspond to categories of physical particulars. God, of course, is also beyond the world we experience through our senses. He does not, however, correspond to a category in the physical world. How then is He to be known to us? In the pagan cultures of two millennia ago, people made statues of their deities and worshipped their deities through these statues. This practice, called idolatry, is forbidden in the Ten Commandments and condemned throughout Scripture.
St. Paul writing in Colossians 1:15 refers to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God”. The word translated “image” there is the Greek word eikon, from which the English word icon is derived. Jesus is what no idol could ever be. He is the perfect image, the perfect representation, of the true and living, invisible God, because He is God incarnate as a true man.
God’s revelation of Himself to man in Christ, particularly the redeeming love revealed in the death and Resurrection of Christ, is what Christianity is all about.