Christians have had an easy time deciding, in truth, what Christianity is about. That is why many types of Christians exist. Many people affirm that there is only one way of being a true Christian: Theirs is the only true Christianity. In my youth, I must admit, I was counted among them, but this way of thinking is one of the many things that I left behind as I matured in the faith.
Evangelical Protestant Christianity was characterized by defining the true Christian by the doctrines to which he/she gave assent. For many Adventists, this is still the measuring stick, even if this may, in fact, be only in theory. We have all heard anecdotes of evangelists who baptize people without having taught them the fundamental doctrines of the Church. It was customary to have candidates for baptism take a public doctrinal test in front of the congregation. Only then were members capable of voting intelligently, pro or con, on their acceptance into membership.
Times have, indeed, changed. Today, few Adventists think that membership in the Adventist Church is what makes a Christian. Most of us recognize that there are very good Christians in other denominations. Leaving aside for the moment what may be understood as “salvation,” given our deeper vision of the grace of God, most of us cheerfully admit that even non-Christians are to enjoy salvation. This means that, little by little, we have been shedding our sectarian attitudes. We have come to recognize that claims to be the exclusive possessors of The Saving Truth reflect more our illusions of grandeur than our authenticity. If pride, self-exaltation, is the first sin, spiritual pride is the deadliest.
If we focus our attention on The Truth, we notice that the saying of Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” does not refer to our assent to ecclesiastical doctrines but to the recognition of Jesus as The One Sent by the Father. In John’s Gospel, to believe is to see God in Jesus bringing life to the world. In this context, The Truth that makes us free is not found in words written in a book that guarantees their permanency from generation to generation, but in our confession of faith in the God who sent his Son to the world.
The eyes of faith can believe this in whatever generation they may be. As John’s Gospel says, “Blessed are those who do not see [the earthly Jesus] and believe [in the incarnate God].” The Truth, that Pilate as a well-educated person considered elusive, was the Person he sentenced to death. To this gospel saying we may with some confidence construct an opposite, “Cursed are those who saw and did not believe.” In the panorama of John’s Gospel, those who are confronted by Jesus and believe receive life, whereas those who do not receive death.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses the phrase “the truth of the gospel” more than once. He is engaged in a fiery polemic with Christians of Galatia, the central highland of today’s Turkey. The polemic between Paul and the Galatians has to do with the practical application of Christianity, and to understand it we need to note some facts. Sociologists divide social movements that bring change into two main types. Some are internal reform movements; others are separatist movements. That is, some try to save the society of which they are a part, whereas others consider society beyond repair and wish to form an alternative one.
Without a doubt, the movement led by Jesus in Galilee and Judea was a reform movement within Judaism, not a separatist movement. He tried to “cleanse” the temple. He did not take his followers to a different temple. All the first Christians were Jews that gathered at the Jerusalem temple daily. According to Acts of the Apostles, in the year 58 Paul wished to be in Jerusalem in time to celebrate the Jewish Passover. There is every reason to believe that throughout his life Paul considered himself a good Jew, even though many Jews considered him an apostate.
Paul was a Jew who understood the significance of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ as a radical revelation of the power of God. Christ’s resurrection had been nothing less than a New Creation. For him, Christ was, in the first place, the Second Adam. On this basis, Paul redefined the basic concept of Judaism: the concept of its election as the chosen people. This, of course, fired the animosity of many Christian Jews who considered Christianity a reform movement within Judaism. According to them, only Jews could become Christians.
According to Paul, within the New Creation achieved at the resurrection of Christ, the elect of God are not all the descendents of Abraham. Christ is THE Descendent of Abraham, THE Elect of God. One must be in Christ to be part of the chosen people. One must be crucified and raised with Christ, and in this way be in him. Election now is concentrated in the Christ and embraces all those who have died and now live in him. Paul makes this plain in his letter: “For as many of you as were baptized [the symbolic re-enactment of death and resurrection] into Christ are now covered by Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female; for you are all the same in Christ Jesus.”
This means that it is not necessary for Gentiles (Greeks) to become Jews to be able to become Christians. Those who are in Christand therefore the electcome to Christ directly from any segment of humanity. Paul defends this understanding of the practical application of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ as “the truth of the gospel.” Surely no one among us today is willing to construct a similar polemical argument to defend the right of Gentiles to be baptized without a previous circumcision, and in this way deny that Christianity is a reform movement within Judaism.
For Paul, the creation of the Risen Christ, who is a spiritual being, was a radical move on the part of God to attract to God’s-self all humanity. The way in which Paul tried to keep in balanced tension his Jewish identity and his vision of a universal God could not be maintained by others for long. By the year 90, when the majority of Christians were Gentiles, Christians and Jews began a deadly family fight to establish selfish rights to the inheritance of Abraham that culminated in the Holocaust of the twentieth century.
The apocalyptic, cosmic vision of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ that Paul preached did not lead him to formulate much of a scenario of the future, but to deduce practical applications for the present. It is impossible to know how he would have reacted to the Christian evolution into an anti-Judaic movement and the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues. One may assume that he would have defended his Jewish heritage and “the truth of the gospel.” This truth transcends the vicissitudes of history and cannot be identified with its practical application in a particular circumstance.
Surely “the truth of the gospel” is not that Christ has supplanted the Jews as the Elect of God. In fact, Paul thinks that, on account of their past, as a people the Jews have many privileges and some advantages. But if this consideration leads us to think that God does not have freedom of action, and to deny what God did in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, it is necessary to defend “the truth of the gospel”: Christ died to put an end to the reign of the sin of Adam and God raised the Second Adam to create a reign of justice in Christ. This Truth, like The Truth that Pilate failed to see standing before him, is a truth for the eyes of faith. The explanations of The Truth, or the doctrinal systems that we may construct on top of it, should not become its substitutes.
I confess to being a Pauline Christian, always open to new manifestations of the power of God and predisposed to reconsider the practical applications of The Truth, rather than being a defender of past doctrines. Like Paul the apocalypticist, I am not concerned with scenarios that predict the events that bring about The End, but with the cosmic power of God to change the living present. The only thing from the past that is firm is the object of my present faith: The power of God to create life where death reigned. This creation is an even more imposing demonstration of the power of God than the creation ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”
Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1343