Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

To Be Or Not To Be: Exercising Theological Stewardship Of The Name Christian

Leonardo De Chirico

This paper was presented at the Lausanne Global Consultation on Nominal Christianity, Rome 14-18 March 2018.


The word “Christian” can mean different things to different people and can be used in different contexts. After discussing the first biblical instance in which the name was used in Antioch (Acts 13:26), this article examines present-day evangelical parameters of what it means to be a Christian taking into account the broad evangelical consensus. It then compares and contrasts it to some adjectival descriptors such as “nominal” and “anonymous” (e.g. K. Rahner) as they are applied in the wider ecumenical world, finding them defective. As was the case in the New Testament Antioch, being a Christian means having heard, understood and received the gospel even today. In this sense, “nominal” and “anonymous” Christianity is a self-contradictory definition.

I. Introduction

My father recalls the time when he first met an evangelical Christian in his life. One day he was visited by a couple who were going door to door and distributing gospels in homes. At the doorstep, after greeting him and explaining what they were doing, they suddenly asked him: “Are you a Christian?”. To this unexpected question, my father’s answer was: “Yes, of course, I am Italian!”

For him being a Christian equalled to being Italian and vice versa. In his answer, a whole theology of Christian identity was implied. Being a Christian was associated with national identity rather than biblical markers. Spirituality and citizenship were blurred to the point of overlapping. It was through the reading of Scripture and the exposure to the Gospel that my father came to terms with the unsatisfactory nature of his answer. Was his Christian identity to be defined by him belonging to a culture and nation historically and culturally shaped by a form of Christianity and was there something radically different to be grappled with?

My father’s answer highlights some of the concerns that need to be meditated upon in our theological reflection on nominalism. This paper will follow a kind of creation-fall-redemption movement. First, it will explore biblical parameters that provide the name “Christian” its composite yet distinct character taking the event that originated it as the springboard for our reflection. Second, it will briefly suggest some of the nuances surrounding the name that makes it prone to become a “mere” name. Third, it will adventure in advocating for the responsibility of being good stewards of the name “Christian” in our world that is characterized by a cacophonic plurality of meanings that often abuse it.

II. The Perimeter of the Name

“The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). This is the starting point of our reflection on some of the theological issues involved in using the designation “nominal” as it applies to Christians. Before the Antioch episode is even mentioned, the followers of Christ had been around for some time. Antioch is not the first Christian church mentioned in the book of Acts. Chronologically speaking, before Antioch there was Jerusalem, Samaria, Damascus, Lidda and Caesarea. In the geographic development of the church, the city of Antioch is touched and reached in the context of progressive dissemination of the gospel. Antioch, however, has a particularity among ancient Christian churches. It is a church that functions as a link between the initial expansive phase, marked by daring and unexpected movements, and the more intentional path of growth of the church. Antioch stands in between a somewhat forced mission and a more deliberate mission.

1. The Antiochene Blueprint

Acts chapter 11 tells how the gospel arrived in Antioch. In Antioch, for the first time, the disciples are called Christians. Other names available in the religious vocabulary are still useful but no longer fully adequate:[1] the church is composed of Jews and non-Jews and the Jewishness of the members of this group is no longer sufficient to describe it fairly. Since many of these disciples are not Jews – nor do they belong to another single group – ethnic markers are insufficient to describe these followers of Jesus. Moreover, the church in Antioch has a certain numerical size, such that it can no longer be dismissed as a phenomenon of a group of individuals fascinated by an obscure religious leader. As such, the name Christian denotes not so much the individual identity, but the social reality of a new composite community marked by a common faith in a common Lord.

In addition, the text tells us that meetings in Antioch were held regularly for a whole year giving the idea of continuity and stability in the community life. The Christians are described as having spiritual and communal identity markers over a prolonged length of time. It is after the observation that this community is relatively stable and taking residence in the city that their religious profile begins to emerge. With such identifiable and clear contours, it required lexical creativity to single them out. A new word is born: the disciples are therefore called “Christians”. This word comes from the evidence of a phenomenon that can no longer be described with previously existing words. This new phenomenon cannot be described in opposition to something else but needs a new name to be properly identified in its own terms. The word “Christian” is not even given artificially, it arises from the evidence of the stabilisation of a new public identity. These people are Christians!

2. The Christ-like Shape of the Name

The contours of the new reality, of which the name “Christian” is a descriptor, deserve careful consideration if the theological reflection on nominalism is to be framed in biblical categories rather than just echoing historical, sociological and lexicographic elements.

First, the name Christian is associated with the condition and the challenges of being a “disciple”. Disciple is the standard New Testament word indicating someone who follows the teaching and the example of a master. The disciple is not only one who is cognitively on the same page with the teacher but whose life is also spiritually and existentially identified with the master. Any sense of detached and superficial Christianity is therefore excluded. In calling people to become disciples of Jesus Christ, Christianity is a totalising religion, a call to embrace the path of the Master, to the point of identifying oneself with the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus (e.g. Romans 6:4). The word used in Acts 11:26 is plural, i.e. “disciples”. One is not a disciple on their own. Disciples are called to be a community of followers. It is an all-embracing life program that one needs to pursue personally and in fellowship with other like-minded, fellow disciples. Christianity is therefore a radical faith in terms of its demands and expectations and a social faith at the very heart.

Second, the name Christian bears a pervasive reference to Christ. It is a lexical construction (Christianoi) and elaboration based on the name of Christ. The organic relationship between Christ and his followers is testified by the adaptation of the name of the latter to the personal name of the former. The name Christ is stretched to the point of becoming a descriptor of his disciples. The name of Christ is not duplicated and applied to mere replicas but elaborated into the new form “Christian” and associated with Christ’s disciples. It is organically related to Christ, but at the same time provides space for followers of Christ to be united with him yet be different from him. So deep is the identification between Christ and the Christians that his followers bearing his name are people who can affirm together with the apostle Paul: “for to me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). Christ defines their identity so pervasively that his name is stamped on their name.

On the whole, then, it seems that the naming of these disciples of Christ does not follow a shallow or superficial definition of the phenomenon. It is rather the contrary. It involves the whole of life: the belief system associated with the message of Christ, the ethical behaviour that stems from the example of Christ and belonging to the community of the followers of Christ. Belief, behaviour, and belonging form its programmatic meaning; these three dimensions mark the content of the name Christian. In J.I. Packer’s lucid summary, “being a Christian is a blend of doctrine, experience and practice. Head, heart and legs are all involved. Doctrine and experience without practice would turn me into a knowledgeable spiritual paralytic; experience and practice without doctrine would leave me a restless spiritual sleepwalker”.[2]

3. Present-day Descriptors of the Name

As far as the generating event of the name is concerned, the word Christian is not an empty lexical box that can be arbitrarily filled according to various spiritual inclinations and preferred options. Though it is open to personal, ecclesial, and cultural embodiments, it retains a fundamental core that needs to be accepted as a “given” shaped by how the Bible intends it. This “givenness” of the name forms the non-negotiable, biblically defined DNA of what it means to be a Christian.

Interweaving different biblical threads about the identity of being a Christian, the Lausanne Covenant (par. 4) puts its semantical range in the theological context of a pentagon figure. The name Christian is a space whose contours are:

  • Commitment to the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord
  • Repentance and reconciliation to God
  • Acceptance of the cost of discipleship in following Christ, denying self, and taking up the cross.
  • Incorporation into Christ’s community, the local church
  • Engaging in responsible service in the world for Christ.[3]

Wrapping up the elements highlighted in the Lausanne Covenant, to be a Christian is to be committed to the historical Jesus Christ (faith as notitia), as one’s own personal Saviour and Lord (faith as assensus) in repentance and faith (faith as fiducia). It also has an inherent connection to discipleship and a cruciform, Christ-like life. It is quintessentially lived out within the Church and in the world in service and mission. These markers may vary in intensity and their overall balance. Christians may have different levels of awareness of their identity or different degrees of understanding of what it means to be a Christian. In their mutual interlocking, nonetheless, each of the markers calls the others into existence and is organically related to the whole.

Building on the foundations laid out at Lausanne, it is interesting to refer to how the 2010 Cape Town Commitment helps our discussion by focusing on the identification of the gospel and the gospel people who embrace it. Here is the significant portion of the document:

We love the assurance the gospel brings. Solely through trusting in Christ alone, we are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit and are counted righteous in Christ before God. Being justified by faith we have peace with God and no longer face condemnation. We receive the forgiveness of our sins. We are born again into a living hope by sharing Christ’s risen life. We are adopted as fellow heirs with Christ. We become citizens of God’s covenant people, members of God’s family and the place of God’s dwelling. So by trusting in Christ, we have full assurance of salvation and eternal life, for our salvation ultimately depends, not on ourselves, but on the work of Christ and the promise of God. “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” How we love the gospel’s promise! God commands us to make known to all nations the truth of God’s revelation and the gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, calling all people to repentance, faith, baptism and obedient discipleship” (8.C).[4]

The standard evangelical view of what it means to be a Christian is rehearsed with its traditional emphasis on the “Christ alone” grounds of salvation and the calling to make the Gospel known to the whole world. The theme of Christian assurance is also evoked as stemming from it. The Church is contemplated as “covenant people”, “God’s family”, and “the place of God’s dwelling”. This ensures the Christian message is not communicated with an overtly individualistic bent, but with an ecclesiological thrust. Quite remarkably for an evangelical document of this kind, “baptism” is also referred to as part of the calling to be extended to all nations. There is no hint of sacramental language, though. Even the position of baptism in the fourfold sequence is interesting in that it places baptism after repentance and faith, to allow an understanding of baptism as an ordinance that does not sacramentally cause repentance and faith but rather follows them. According to the Cape Town Commitment, it seems that Christians are those who are baptised having also gone through repentance and having believed the gospel. Baptism in itself cannot define who a Christian is. Contrary to Roman Catholic and ecumenical views whereby it is baptism that causes repentance and faith, Cape Town acknowledges the importance of baptism in the context of a personal response to the gospel.

III. Approximations and Boundaries Around the Name

The name Christian did not originate in a vacuum and was not left as an empty space for people to fill it in arbitrarily. It emerged as a descriptor of a specific spiritual, personal and communal reality marked by the identification of the followers of Jesus Christ with their Master. Having said that, in the NT the name Christian is never considered as an over-spiritualised ideal, nor an abstract concept. While it has a stable perimeter and a Christ-like shape, it is always connected with real people in the real world struggling to walk through the ups and downs of their Christian life.

1. Shades Around the Name

The Bible is fully aware that Christians live different approximations of the identity carried out in their name. Christians may be “weak” (Romans 14:1) or “strong” (Romans 15:1), thus indicating various degrees of spiritual strength and depth in living out the Christian life. Christians can live different stages and phases of their life: they can spiritually be “children” doing “childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11) and then becoming “men” (1 Corinthians 13:11) with more mature postures as far as their understanding of the faith is concerned. A childish Christian still depends on “milk”, i.e. elementary teaching on the Word of God, whereas a mature one can be fed by “solid food” (Hebrews 5:12-13) in order to better discern good and evil. The state of spiritual childhood can also lead to “worldly”, contentious and immature performances of the Christian life as opposed to spiritual ones which display the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Christians are urged to warn the idle, encourage the timid and help the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:15) because these conditions are real and well represented in the Church. People carrying the name “Christian” find themselves at different stages of maturity in their spiritual journey. This is the reason why each apostolic letter is replete with exhortations, admonitions and encouragements addressed to believers to move forward in the Christian life and away from dangerous pitfalls or regressive trends. While all Christians share the same positional status before God that allows them to be identified with Jesus Christ, all Christians bear witness and embody this identity in a variety of ways.

In his usually neat and profound language, John Stott provides a useful summary of how the biblical gospel gives rise to legal, positional dimensions received by the believer as a disciple of Christ as well as originating a renewal process leading to transformation and maturity. The gospel of salvation:

Denotes God’s total plan for man, and it includes at least three phases. Phase one is our deliverance from the guilt and judgment of our sins, our free and full forgiveness, together with our reconciliation to God and our adoption as His children. Phase two is our progressive liberation from the downdrag of evil, beginning with our new birth into the family of God and continuing with our transformation by the Spirit of Christ into the image of Christ. Phase three is our final deliverance from the sin which lingers both in our fallen nature and in our social environment, when on the last day we shall be invested with new and glorious bodies and transferred to a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Further, these three phases, or tenses, of salvation (past, present and future) are associated in the New Testament with the three major events in the saving career of Jesus, His death, His resurrection and subsequent gift of the Spirit, and His return in power and glory. Paul calls them justification, sanctification and glorification.[5]

From Stott’s summary, the basis of Christianity appears to have a threefold significance: a legal dimension whereby the person is freed from the guilt of sin and justified by grace; a transformative dimension whereby the person experiences conversion into the new life and becomes part of the people of God; and an eschatological dimension whereby the effects of sin will be eventually wiped out and the shalom of God will reign forever. As far as the first dimension is concerned, it is an either/or condition that is received by grace alone through faith alone. It is the ground of the Christian life, the entry point into God’s kingdom, and the threshold of salvation. As for sanctification, it is an ongoing process that leads to progressive approximations of Christian maturity. All Christians, already justified by faith alone and therefore covenantally Christians, are called to walk through the journey of growth and service.

This is all to say that while the name “Christian” can be associated with those who belong to Christ, having been justified and adopted by God, the name is not lived out in a one-size-fits-all human experience but encompasses different levels of personal appropriation and application of their identity as disciples of Jesus Christ. While justification marks the position, status and standing of the Christian before God, sanctification points to the renewal and progressive and gradual process that takes place in the life of the Christian. The former is characterised by the “hapax” adverb (once and for all, definitive) of God’s work, and the latter is by the “mallon” adverb (evermore, ongoing).[6] The “dynamics of spiritual life”[7] reflect a wide range of possible situations in the Christian journey.

2. Crossing the Boundaries

The question that needs to be asked at this point is whether the phenomenon of “Nominal Christianity” falls theologically under the many approximations surrounding the Christian identity. If it is true that the name Christian is flexible enough to include varieties of Christian experiences, can it be stretched to the point of embracing “nominal” Christians too?

Simplistically put, nominal Christianity still retains the name “Christian” but implies a radical re-interpretation of its meaning. The signifier is still the same, but the signified is not. The heart of what it means to be a Christian is blurred to the point of being radically altered. Some of the defining features are replaced with other items that do not belong to the biblical core of its basic connotation. Nominal Christianity is a matter of being born in a given family or belonging to a cultural or religious context or having gone through some kind of Christian initiation process that has little if no impact on one’s daily life. For nominal Christians being a Christian is only a “nominal” inference (i.e. superficial, remote, peripheral). They are Christian only by name, not in reality or practice, nor belief. They feel they “belong” to something associated with Christianity with various degrees of closeness/remoteness; what they actually “believe” and the way it is reflected in their lives is a much more complicated matter. In terms of the belief system, many of these “Christians” have a kind of “patchwork” and selective theology based on a self-made version of the Christian faith that does not square with the biblical witness; the same eclecticism is true as far as their moral vision and practice are concerned where rampant secularisation can be found in private and public life while retaining degrees of “religious” language or concern. More radically, these nominal Christians lack experiential engagement and spiritual participation in the biblical definition of what it means to be a Christian. They tend to lack any evidence of being disciples of Jesus in terms of the Antiochene blueprint.

Going back to my father’s story, he considered himself a Christian because he belonged to a national and cultural community loosely associated with a form of Christianity inherited by tradition, but not being a disciple of Jesus Christ in the biblical sense. He felt to be “Christian” was to belong to something without believing the gospel and striving to behave accordingly.

The definitions of what Nominal Christianity is may vary considerably and the complexity around these definitions should be fully appreciated. Here is how the Lausanne Occasional Paper N. 10 defines a nominal Christian:

A nominal Christian is a person who has not responded in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and Lord. He is a Christian in name only. He may be very religious. He may be a practising or non-practising church member. He may give intellectual assent to basic Christian doctrines and claim to be a Christian. He may be faithful in attending liturgical rites and worship services, and be an active member involved in church affairs. But in spite of all this, he is still destined for eternal judgment (cf. Matt. 7:21-23, Jas. 2:19) because he has not committed his life to Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9-10)”.[8]

This definition helpfully lays out some important points to be taken into consideration as far as a theological analysis of it is concerned. According to this LOP, a “nominal” Christian is someone who has not yet gone through a personal conversion to Christ (i.e. repentance and faith). His/her allegiance to the name of Christ is still impersonal and remote. Christ may be an important figure but not the Lord and Saviour of their life. He/she may express various degrees of religiosity, even practising forms of Christian devotion and liturgical participation. Furthermore, they may even be active in a church body and contribute to its life. The point is that taken in themselves, a generic religiosity, a spurious spirituality, a formal membership in the Church (even in evangelical churches) and the involvement in its activities are not signs of the fact that biblical Christianity is activated and implemented. There is still a disjunction between belonging to a religious community and personally believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. What is lacking in a nominal Christian is the personal response to the Gospel that leads to authentic discipleship. The presence of some signs of inherited cultural religiosity is not in itself spiritual evidence of a regenerated life and therefore cannot be exchanged with Christianity according to the gospel.

IV. Standing Critical Issues

The name Christian can be stretched to the point of including different levels of appropriation of its core meaning but it needs to retain the definition already given to it by the Antiochene blueprint. Biblical Christianity, however flexible and adaptable it is, cannot be transformed into something radically different that keeps the name but alters its substance. In this final section, a series of critical points will be reviewed in attempting to highlight the basic difference between the Antiochene blueprint and its possible “religious” deviations.

1. The Cruciality of Conversion[9]

The theological understanding of the name “Christian” is characterised by the insistence on the personal need for salvation and the personal responsibility to respond to God’s grace in repentance and faith. The Gospel is both an announcement of God’s intervention to save and a summons to respond with faith. In David Bebbington’s terms, “conversionism” (together with Biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism) captures the heart of evangelical Christianity in that it recognises the centrality of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ resulting in forgiveness of sin and a changed life.[10] The Reformation doctrine of salvation based on Solus Christus is matched with the Revivalist emphasis on the reality of personal conversion. Against the view that Evangelicalism is only a child of modernity, Stott is worth quoting when he argues that Evangelicalism is not “a new-fangled ‘ism’, a modern brand of Christianity, but an ancient form, indeed the original one”.[11]

Jesus’ injunction to Nicodemus “You must be born again” (John 3:7) becomes paramount for every man. Regeneration through conversion is the necessary threshold for salvation and therefore to be recognised as a Christian and is achieved by the Holy Spirit through the preaching and witness of the Gospel to which men respond in repentance and faith.[12] Salvation does not come from simply being born into a Christian family, nor from being part of a Christian environment. Not even being a formal member of a Christian church, nor having received a sacrament of Christian initiation earns salvation. It is not by merit, it is not by works, it is not by tradition, it is not by sacraments: it is by grace alone through conversion to Jesus Christ.

The personal experience of salvation ushers people into the Christian life. Reflecting on the centrality of conversion as far as an evangelical account of the initiation to the Christian faith, Holmes argues that “Evangelicals are those who preach the same gospel of punctiliar conversion and immediate assurance available through faith alone”.[13] This is not to suggest, however, that there is a single pattern and timing of conversion. In this respect, Klaas Runia correctly says that “When it comes to the ‘form’ of conversion, there are some differences of opinion among evangelicals (is conversion instantaneous, so that one can mention time and place, or is it more in the nature of a process?) but generally Evangelicals do not prescribe a particular method or a particular manifestation. The emphasis is on the fact of conversion, not on its particular form”.[14]

The fact of personal conversion is what makes the difference in answering the question: Who is a Christian and who is not? Most converted Christians can identify with the words of John Newton (1725-1807) who in his world-famous hymn Amazing Grace could write: “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind but now I see”. Personal stories may vary considerably, but they are all characterised by a personal conversion which can be recounted in a personal biography. Biblical Christianity according to the Antiochene blueprint is a conversionist religion and every Christian needs to be taught to always be ready to give her/his personal “testimony”, i.e. an account of her/his conversion and personal walk with the Lord.

The objective message of the cross is the legacy of the sola, solus principles of the Reformation. Together with the personal experience of salvation, they form the foundation of much evangelical preaching of the Gospel, especially of those sermons that came out of the different revivals of post-Reformation history. Again, Packer and Oden are helpful here when they write that “Evangelicalism characteristically emphasizes the penal-substitutionary view of the cross and the radical reality of the Bible-taught, Spirit-wrought inward change, relational and directional, that makes a person a Christian (new birth, regeneration, conversion, faith, repentance, forgiveness, new creation, all in and through Jesus Christ)”.[15] John 3:16 is an example of a Bible verse where the Gospel of God’s salvation and man’s responsibility to believe are masterfully condensed. Christians champion, memorise and extensively use John 3:16 in their spiritual pilgrimage and personal evangelism because it combines the love of God manifested in Christ and the response to it shown forth in personal faith.

Stemming from the Antiochene blueprint of Christianity, in the long trajectory of Church history, modern revivals have emphasised personal conversion as the necessary step towards salvation. The stress on conversion has also strongly influenced the evangelical preaching of the Gospel that invites people to repent from sin, believe in Jesus as personal Saviour and Lord and be saved, urging people to respond and to walk through a conversion experience. The “sinner’s prayer” – “Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Saviour and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be” – captures an important feature of contemporary evangelical accounts of conversion and the expectations it produces.[16]

In the 20th century, the global evangelistic ministry of Billy Graham well epitomised a variant of this inherent combination between the objective (the cross of Christ) and the subjective (personal conversion) sides of conversion. The basic threefold structure of Graham’s message (i.e. the human problem; God’s solution; the way forward), as it is exemplified in his widely circulated book Peace With God, reflects shared patterns of the evangelical way of understanding conversion.[17] The sheer fact that in his 60 year-long career Billy Graham has preached the Gospel live to more than 210 million people in 185 different countries of the world, and that it is estimated that nearly 3 million people have responded to Jesus Christ by faith, are in themselves remarkable markers of his evangelical zeal for spreading the message of Christianity being a conversionist religion. This is also recognised and respected by voices that advance legitimate criticism of various aspects of his ministry.[18]

The vocabulary of conversion is by no means exclusive to the Evangelical tradition. It belongs to the shared language of all versions of Christianity because it is a biblical word. The fact, though, is that evangelicals tend to understand conversion as a “hapax”, a once and for all turning to God in repentance and faith, attaching to it a salvific dimension and assurance of salvation, other traditions tend to understand conversion as part of the on-going religious journey and a call for daily renewal. Nominal Christianity tends to be compatible with the latter. The centrality of conversion is what lies at the core of the Antiochene definition of Christianity but the “equivocal” meaning of conversion needs to be taken into consideration when addressing the issue of Nominal Christianity. A non-converted Christian is a contradiction in terms, but one needs to be clear about what conversion to Jesus Christ means and its effects on one’s life.

2. Thresholds of Christianity

Reflection on conversion needs to be further stretched. Evangelicals tend to view conversion in relational categories whereby God saves lost sinners by reconciling them to himself by the work of Christ alone. The whole theological vocabulary of salvation is relational in focus and intent: regeneration (life language), justification (juridical language), adoption (familial language), and conversion (the language of change). These are all pictures that depict the re-enacted relationship between God and man in different ways. Evangelicals find it difficult to think of salvation in sacramental terms. In the Evangelical understanding and experience of salvation, the sacraments are important, but not prominent. They are in the background, of course, as part of the God-given and Scripture-attested life of the church, but are not essential to salvation and therefore in defining who is a Christian and who is not.[19] The whole sacramental dimension of Christianity is “second without being secondary”.[20]

To put it simply: no Evangelical would say that she is a Christian primarily because she has been baptised or because she is a regular participant in Communion services. The basic view of Christianity is that it is God’s free gift, in spite of ourselves, through the work of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection, and appropriated by faith. John Stott is again helpful here:

If there is no saving merit either in our good works or in our faith, there is no saving merit in the mere reception of the sacraments either… It is not by the mere outward administration of water in baptism that we are cleansed and receive the Spirit, nor by the mere gift of bread and wine in Communion that we feed on Christ crucified, but by faith in the promises of God thus visibly expressed, a faith which is itself meant to be illustrated in our humble, believing acceptance of these signs. But we must not confuse the signs with the promises which they signify. It is possible to receive the sign without receiving the promise, and also to receive the promise apart from receiving the sign”.[21]

The cross, not baptism nor the Eucharist, has centre-stage in the Evangelical horizon of the understanding of what Christianity is all about.[22] The hapax (once-and-for-all) significance of the cross is emphasised much more than the hapax of baptism or the mallon (more and more) aspects of the Eucharist.[23] Each Evangelical tradition has its own sacramentology, but it does not lie at the “centre” of their faith, nor does sacramental language define the grammar and vocabulary of the Evangelical understanding of what belongs to the core of being a Christian.

When Christians belonging to different traditions (Evangelical/Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) converse about who is a Christian and who is not, a relational theological mindset coupled with an experiential outlook is generally assumed by evangelicals whereas other traditions tend to encapsulate the initiation to the Christian faith in a sacramental theological mindset couched in a sense of belonging to the institutional church. Many words and expressions are the same, but their theological meanings are different because of the distance between their underlying, fundamental frameworks.

Linked to the Evangelical uneasiness towards sacramental language is the place of the Church in the account of what defines biblical Christianity. Being a Christian means having responded in repentance and faith to the gospel through the unique mediation of Christ: the church is a creature of this event. The emphasis is put on the direct relationship between the person saved and Christ, rather than on the Church as a corporate agent that administers grace.

Stemming from the once-and-for-all work of Christ and the firm promises of the Gospel, Evangelicals also experience a high degree of the assurance of salvation. Salvation is certain because of the juridical significance of justification and the eschatological trustworthiness of God’s covenant promises. “If I die today, I will go to heaven” is the standard Evangelical language. Sometimes this attitude is perceived as arrogant and misplaced, yet it reflects the “grace alone”, “faith alone” and “Christ alone” emphases of the Evangelical account of what it means to be a Christian. Indeed, salvation belongs to the Lord and those who receive it can be assured of it, despite their failures. Generally speaking, non-evangelical Christians find it difficult to appropriate this assurance, and this reluctance derives from a different way of approaching the question of what is the nature of Christianity and who is a Christian.

3. Are We All Anonymous Christians?

There is yet another critical side of the issue that deserves attention. In present-day ecumenical Christianity, heavily influenced by inter-faith dialogue and universalist trends of thought,[24] the whole discussion on Nominal Christianity has taken a new trajectory. The traditional understanding of the Christian explicitly belonging to the Christian Church and associated with Christian beliefs is undergoing significant transformation.

The Roman Catholic Church used to be committed to a strict and traditional interpretation of the dictum “extra ecclesiam nulla salus”, i.e. outside of the Church there is no salvation. Those who did not sacramentally and juridically belong to the (Roman) Church, both non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians following other religions, were not considered to be Christians in the proper sense. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has significantly changed the understanding of the meaning of the dictum giving rise to a “gradualist” view of Christianity. The Vatican II documents deal with the change in status of non-Christian believers, just as non-Christian religions are seen in a new light. People who follow other religions, even if far away from Christianity, are not considered away from Christ. They are instead in some measure “related” to Christ (Lumen Gentium, n. 16) whether they wish it or not, whether they know it or not. If we take into account the fact that, again according to the council, Catholics enjoy a privileged relationship with Christ being “incorporated” with him (Lumen Gentium, n. 11,14,31), Roman Catholicism is seen as a completion, the achievement of aspirations that are already existing in non-Christian religions. The grace of God is already present in the nature of religions and the church, because of its special prerogatives, is the place where they can be exalted to their accomplishment. In this post-Vatican II view, every man and woman is somewhat mysteriously associated with the “Paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22). Clearly then, the catholicity of present-day Roman Catholicism, which is shared by much of ecumenical theology of religions, transcends the rather narrow boundaries of Christianity as defined by an explicit faith in Jesus Christ and a distinct journey of Christian discipleship.

Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christianity” is an example of this position:

Therefore no matter what a man states in his conceptual, theoretical, and religious reflection, anyone who does not say in his heart, “there is no God” (like the “fool” in the psalm) but testifies to him by the radical acceptance of his being, is a believer… And anyone who has let himself be taken hold of by this grace can be called with every right an “anonymous Christian”.[25]

“Anonymous Christianity” means that a person lives in the grace of God and therefore is a Christian whether or not he is aware of it and attains salvation “outside of explicitly constituted Christianity”.[26]

The nature of Christianity is today understood in a gradualist form giving rise to different shades of what it means to be a Christian. All people are included in one way or another in the circles of Christianity. On the contrary, Biblical Christianity as it is defined by the Antiochene blueprint maintains that this recent development may be trendy and politically correct but is fundamentally wrong. This gradualist interpretation of Christianity blurs the covenantal nature of the Christian faith and transforms it into a universalist religion that has little to do with the Antiochene blueprint.[27]

V. Conclusion

To be or not to be a Christian: this is the question ultimately posed by Nominal Christianity. The Lausanne Covenant is again worth quoting to bring the paper to a close:

To proclaim Jesus as “the Saviour of the world” is not to affirm that all people are either automatically or ultimately saved, still less to affirm that all religions offer salvation in Christ. Rather it is to proclaim God’s love for a world of sinners and to invite everyone to respond to him as Saviour and Lord in the wholehearted personal commitment of repentance and faith. (n. 3)

And again: “The goal should be, by all available means and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have the opportunity to hear, understand, and to receive the good news” (n. 9).

Hearing, understanding and receiving the gospel, this is what defines who a Christian is. A nominal Christian may have come close to hearing, understanding and receiving it, but is still not a Christian because he has not believed it. Our task is to facilitate, under God, and in all ways possible, the proclamation and the witness of the gospel to the whole world.


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