What Makes A Christian?

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Baptist Church in California
Author of The Purpose Driven Life

Are Catholics Christians?  That was the title of one of the first articles I wrote for this blog. It was also one of my most popular articles. You can read it here. So what makes a Christian?  I mean, at least doctrinally speaking anyway. We can debate about a person's behaviour all we want. That's not the topic of this article. What I want to discuss here is what makes a Christian in a doctrinal sense. Maybe to be more specific, we should ask what defines Christianity, doctrinally speaking?  In modern society, we just take this sort of thing for granted. I mean what makes a Christian different from a Jew or a Muslim? They both believe in one God -- right? So couldn't we call a Muslim a Christian, or a Christian a Muslim? Can't the two terms be interchangeable? Well, not exactly.

You see, religions are defined by their understanding of God. This is why Pagans and Christians are not the same thing. Pagans believe in many gods, and worship them. Christians believe in only one God. We are monotheist, as opposed to polytheist. This distinction, between the number of gods, is a very large distinction, and it defines the respective religions. So you see, a religion, in the most simple of all breakdowns, is defined by its understanding of God.

Modern Jews and Muslims define God as absolute one. They are hyper-monotheists. In their understanding of God, there is no room for anything but one divine Person. While there are more distinctions between their respective understanding of God, this form of hyper-monotheism defines them. Christians however, have a modified monotheist approach. We believe in the Trinity, which is to say one God, eternally existent in three Divine Persons. Now this approach may seem strange to outsiders, but there is actually a very logical and profound reason for this. This definition of God has many other facets that further elaborate on it. From the Trinity comes the understanding of the Incarnation, which is to say that the Second Person of the Trinity (called "The Word" or "The Son") took upon himself human flesh and lived as a man named Jesus of Nazareth. From this understanding of the Incarnation we begin to get a better grasp of the Atonement, which is the teaching that God The Son, Jesus Christ, took upon himself all the sins of humanity, and paid the penalty for them on the cross, opening the gates of heaven to mankind, and then rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory over sin and death. These three doctrines -- the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement -- are intimately tied together, each one further elaborating on the other, creating the religion we know today as Christianity. There are many variations of Christianity today. These are known as communions, branches, denominations, affiliations and sects. But all of them are under the one religion of Christianity.

So what is Christianity in it's most stripped down, bear bones, absolute minimal doctrine.  It is...
  1. The Trinity
  2. The Incarnation
  3. The Atonement
Now admittedly that is a very minimal approach. If that's all there was, we would be left a little incomplete. Nevertheless, there is a whole lot packed into those three statements consisting of just six words.

The Catholic Church dose not have a problem recognising the essential Christianity in anyone who adheres to these three doctrines listed above. For the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly says... 
1240 In the Latin Church this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister's words: "N., I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." In the Eastern liturgies the catechumen turns toward the East and the priest says: "The servant of God, N., is baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." At the invocation of each person of the Most Holy Trinity, the priest immerses the candidate in the water and raises him up again.
1271 Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: "For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptised are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." "Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn."
818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."
So in the Catholic Church, the criteria necessary for being recognised as a Christian, in the most basic and minimalist sense, is to be baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The idea here being that as the doctrine of the Trinity is contemplated fully, the other two doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement will be revealed. Catholic Christians, as a matter of Catholic faith, are required to recognise as "Christian" anyone who is baptised in the name of the Trinity.

Wow!  That's a pretty generous application when you really stop and think about it. That means, as a practising Catholic, I have to recognise as "Christian" brethren, anyone who was baptised in and professes faith in the Trinity. Who does this include? Well, it generally includes the Eastern Orthodox, and all of the following Protestant denominations...
  • Lutheran
  • Evangelical
  • Mennonite
  • Amish 
  • Reformed
  • Presbyterian
  • Anglican
  • Methodist
  • Puritan
  • Baptist
  • Pentecostal (with the exception of "Oneness Pentecostal")
  • Assemblies of God
  • Charismatic
  • Church of the Nazarene
  • Seventh Day Adventist
  • Salvation Army
There are of course many more, and well as a host of non-denominational, interdenominational and unaffiliated churches. It certainly doesn't include all churches, simply because some do not teach the Trinity, but as you can see by the list above, the vast majority do. As a Catholic, I would have to acknowledge any baptised member of one of these churches as a fellow Christian and my brother or sister in Christ. Granted, our communion is incomplete. It is less than perfect, because they are not Catholic, but it is a communion nonetheless. 

On the flip side, Protestants, historically and currently, have a harder time with reciprocation, especially with Catholics. This would include many within the list above. Some don't even acknowledge each other as Christian, so it's not surprising that they would exclude Catholicism from their definition of Christianity as well. There is nothing new about this. Indeed, Protestantism was originally founded on the assumption that the Catholic Church had apostate from the Christian faith. Granted, most mainline Protestant denominations have moderated that tone in subsequent centuries, but many of the newer denominations have stuck with it more militantly. Within all of these denominations and groups, one can easily find Protestant individuals who are willing to reach out to Catholics and acknowledge our Christianity. However, that doesn't necessarily mean their church would approve. For example; I know many Baptists and Pentecostals in my personal life. Most of them have been very open and forward in acknowledging me as a Christian brother. Some have even gone out of their way to do so. However, I also know a little bit about their respective churches. Some of their churches would approve of their actions toward me and some would not. In fact, I know of a couple of Baptists and Pentecostals who would be told to stop affirming me as their Christian brother if their pastors knew what they were doing. This is all just part of the overall condition Protestantism finds itself in these days. I certainly don't take it personally, and I never have, nor should any Catholic.

One of the most famous Protestant evangelists of recent memory was Billy Graham. Having a clear focus for keeping things simple, and trying to preach the gospel as clearly as he possibly could, Graham was well known for refusing to pull Catholics out of the Catholic Church. When Catholics would attend one of his crusades, and they would make the customary "altar call" (which is really just saying a prayer to accept Christ as personal Lord and Saviour) Graham would advise his counsellors to tell Catholics they should return to mass and the sacraments for further instruction. Typically, Evangelical "altar calls" (again, there is usually no altar, this is just an expression) are accompanied with an encouragement for non-Evangelicals to leave their previous religious tradition behind and become Evangelicals. Indeed, this is how many Catholics leave the Catholic Church. They attend an Evangelical crusade of some sort, participate in an "altar call" and are then advised to leave the Catholic Church. Graham broke with this custom, and focused instead on the message of salvation through Christ himself, and forming a personal relationship with him. Beyond that, Graham sought to return Catholics (and many other Christians) back to their churches for further instruction and growth. In his autobiography, Graham wrote...
"He [Willis Haymaker] would also call on the local Catholic bishop or other clerics to acquaint them with Crusade plans and invite them to the meetings; they would usually appoint a priest to attend and report back. This was years before Vatican II's openness to Protestants, but we were concerned to let the Catholic bishops see that my goal was not to get people to leave their church; rather, I wanted them to commit their lives to Christ." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 163  
"My goal, I always made clear, was not to preach against Catholic beliefs or to proselytise people who were already committed to Christ within the Catholic Church. Rather, it was to proclaim the Gospel to all those who had never truly committed their lives to Christ." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 357
"We also suspected, with some justification, that some of the hard-line Communist officials hoped to use an American Protestant evangelist to weaken the strong authority of the Roman Catholic Church. If so, it was a naive hope; I would not have done or said anything that might be taken as anti-Catholic." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 482 
"When we left Hungary, we set off on a brief trip to the Vatican. Years before, I had visited the city-state as a tourist, but on this trip I was to be received by Pope John Paul II, my first visit with a pope. As I was ushered into his quarters, Pope John Paul II greeted me, and we shook hands warmly. I found him extremely cordial and very interested in our ministry, especially in his homeland. After only a few minutes, I felt as if we had known each other for many years. He also expressed great delight at the small gift I had brought him, a woodcarving of a shepherd with his sheep, done by a North Carolina craftsman. We recalled together Jesus' words in John 10:14,16.... In turn the pope gave me a medallion commemorating his papacy and several magnificently bound volumes." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, pages 488-489 
"I was asked by Pope John Paul II to participate with him during that same time period in an unprecedented ecumenical service of worship during his visit to Colombia, South Carolina. It was not to be a Mass but a service of Scripture, prayer, and preaching. I was to speak on the subject of the family. I was looking forward to that event, especially since the pope and I had a cordial relationship." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 599
"One whom I have yet to mention - and with whom I felt a special affinity - was Roman Catholic preacher Bishop Fulton L. Sheen." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 692 
For this generous and ecumenical attitude toward Catholics, Billy Graham was (and continues to be) savaged by various Protestant Fundamentalists, who have called him everything from a "false teacher," to a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Again, this is nothing new. As I said above, all of Protestantism (from which these various denominations came) was originally founded five-hundred years ago on the prospect that the Roman Catholic Church had apostate from the Christian faith. They said it was no longer Christian. So modern Protestant Fundamentalists are simply being consistent with the Protestant founders. Any Evangelical, Baptist or Pentecostal preacher, be he a pastor or evangelist, walks a precariously narrow line when he steps outside this foundational principle of Protestantism. Indeed, many of these men have come to a better understanding of the truth, realising that there are strong elements of Christianity within Catholicism. But to actually speak about this understanding is very dangerous business in the Evangelical Protestant world. Few venture to tread down this path. Billy Graham was one of them, and he was quite probably the greatest Protestant evangelist of the 20th century. While many Protestant Fundamentalists are quick to write him off as a "heretic" because of his warm relations with Catholics, 20th century Protestantism would be a bleak and lonely religion without him. He was, in my estimation, one of the greatest men in Protestant history. There have been many who have followed in his footsteps, but none can fill his shoes.

This calls to mind my own epiphany while I was an Evangelical. It was that moment when I too, like Billy Graham before me, came to that realisation that Christianity extends far beyond my own Evangelical sphere. Indeed, with the narrow definition many Fundamentalists put on Christianity, scarcely anyone outside of Evangelical Protestantism (such as Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic or Adventist) could be considered Christian. Sometimes these groups don't even recognise each other as Christian. (As an anecdotal side note, I've even witnessed one Baptist church tell a Baptist woman, from another kind of Baptist church, that she would have to be "re-baptised" because they did not recognise her as a Christian.) It was shortly after I moved to the Ozark Mountains when I, as an Evangelical, came to the realisation that this line of thinking is just ridiculous! For if Christianity really is defined by the narrow criteria of Fundamentalists, then virtually nobody outside of North America can be Christian (except for a few missionary pockets here and there). Indeed, as I later came to study history, almost all Europeans for the last 2,000 years would have to be excluded from Christianity. Even the Protestant founders themselves would be questionable. This was absurd. On the flip side, I knew that liberal relativism was not the answer either. There had to be specific doctrinal criteria for what defined a Christian, but I knew it had to be simple. It was after reading authors like Billy Graham, and Dr. Walter Martin, that I came to accept the threefold minimal doctrines as defining Christianity: Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. Naturally, upon accepting this, I was willing to take a second look at Catholicism as well. While I had many strong issues against the Catholic Church at the time, I was willing to acknowledge, as Christians, those who were its members in spite of the Church. As an Evangelical, this was a big step for me. It would be some years before I finally looked into the actual teachings of the Catholic Church as told by the Catechism. Only then would I begin to understand that Catholicism is Christianity to its fullest!

Other Evangelicals are coming to the same conclusion, and some of them are megachurch pastors. In Sweden recently, the pastor for the nation's largest Evangelical megachurch, Ulf Ekman, actually converted to Catholicism. While in the United States, Southern Baptist Pastor Rick Warren, of the Saddleback Baptist megachurch in Lake Forest, California, has come out speaking the truth about Catholics and the Catholic Church. You can watch the video above or by clicking here.

Pastor Warren has publicly acknowledged Catholics as Christians and the Catholic Church as a Christian institution. For this, in predictable fashion, he is being brutally cannibalised by some of his more Fundamentalist Baptist brethren. His sanity and very Christianity are now being called into question. There is no word yet as to whether or not the Southern Baptist Convention will take any disciplinary action. We Catholics should pray for this man, that he will at least have the courage to hold the narrow line, as Billy Graham did, if not completely swim the Tiber, as Pastor Ulf Ekman did. By making this bold statement, Pastor Rick Warren is calling out many other megachurch pastors to ecumenical recognition of Catholics, as well as other Christians. Let us pray his message does not fall on too many deaf ears.

Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'

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Shane Schaetzel said…
I recently had a dialogue with a Traditionalist Catholic who cited quotes from two papal bulls from the Middle Ages that on the surface seem to give undeniable proof that the Catholic Church teaches unless one is a member of the Catholic Church, one cannot be saved. Now this only remotely deals with the article above, since nowhere do I discuss the issue of salvation. In the article above, I simply discussed who has the right to be called Christian, and since I am a Catholic (not a Calvinist), one should not assume that when I call somebody a Christian, that means I automatically think one has already attained salvation. I believe no such thing. Christians have a moral hope in salvation, but not a guarantee.

Still I found the issue intriguing enough to engage in the dialogue and later found it unfruitful for two reasons. First, in my initial response I poorly stated my position, in fact, I stated it so badly that when I went back to reread it, I had to laugh. So the dialogue was spoiled from the start. Second, I found the Traditionalist's written words toward the contemporary magisterium of the Catholic Church objectionable. So I deleted the whole conversation. (It's my blog, I can do that.) On the chance however, that some third party may have been interested in the topic, I have decided to go over the subject matter here. The two papal bulls in question are as follows...

"This [papal] authority, however, (though it has been given to man and is exercised by man), is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him (Peter) and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, 'Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven' etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [Rom 13:2], unless he invent like Manicheus two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical, since according to the testimony of Moses, it is not in the beginnings but in the beginning that God created heaven and earth [Gen 1:1]. Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." (Pope Boniface VIII, the Bull Unum Sanctum, 1302)

"The Most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, and heretics, and schismatics, can ever be partakers of eternal life, but that they are to go into the eternal fire "which was prepared for the devil, and his angels," (Mt. 25:41) unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this Ecclesiastical Body, that only those remaining within this unity can profit from the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and that they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, almsdeeds, and other works of Christian piety and duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved unless they abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church." (Pope Eugene IV, the Bull Cantate Domino, 1441) "

Now, before I go on here, I should point out that both of these bulls were given ex cathedra, which means they are infallible. However, we must take into careful consideration both the context of these bulls, what they say, and what they don't say. Because you see, Protestant Fundamentalists love to cite these papal bulls as "proof positive" that the Catholic Church teaches that all non-Catholics are damned, and Catholic Fundamentalists (Radical Traditionalists) love to assert the exact same thing....
Shane Schaetzel said…
...So let's look at what these statements say and don't say. The first one (Unum Sanctum) says the following…

1. Resisting the teaching authority of the Successor of Saint Peter (the pope) is the equivalent of resisting God himself.
2. Every human being must be subject to the pope as a necessity for salvation.

The second one (Cantate Domino) says the following…

1. None of those existing outside the Catholic Church can partake in eternal life.
2. Not Pagans -- because they have no knowledge of the true God.
3. Not Jews -- because they have only partial knowledge of the true God.
4. Not heretics -- because they, being Catholics, believed the truth but rejected it.
5. Not schismatics -- because they, having been Catholics once, left the Church.

Now both Unum Sanctum and Cantate Domino must be taken together, for it is the same Holy Spirit who speaks through both. I think the key is in the first point of Unum Sanctum, specifically in the word "resist." This sets up a condition. It says that if anyone "resists" the teaching authority of the pope, he risks damnation. The operative word here is "resist" implying that one knows and understands the nature of the papacy and voluntarily resists his authority anyway. In Cantate Domino we get some more detail. Heretics are mentioned specifically. These are Catholics, who have once believed the truth and yet reject it. It also mentions schismatics, because they once were Catholics, but have voluntarily left the Catholic Church. Clearly, there is something missing here. The definition is incomplete. Because neither Unum Sanctum nor Cantate Domino mention those Christians who were born and raised outside of the Catholic Church, have never received proper catechesis to begin with, some of them actually having their minds poisoned against the Catholic Church and the papacy from youth. The reason why they don't mention them is likely because these people didn't exist at the time of these writings. They would come about centuries later after the Protestant Reformation. These people may subscribe to heresy, but through no fault of their own, because they didn't invent it. Nor were they ever properly catechised to begin with, so they never actively rejected the truth, they just never heard it taught. These same people cannot be called schismatics, because once again, these people were never in formally union of the Catholic Church to begin with, and they never left, so how could they be schismatics? The Catholic Church has always taught that no soul is lost except by its own fault, its rejection of truth and charity, it cannot be held accountable for something that is not its own fault. Simply adhering to another religion does not necessarily mean such rejection. He didn't invent that religion. He likely never chose it either. More often than not, religions are chosen by parents, and children are instructed in them from a very early age. It would appear the popes of ages past recognised this incomplete definition, and they were not silent about it….

"The Church clearly declares that the only hope of salvation for mankind is placed in the Christian faith, which teaches the truth, scatters the darkness of ignorance by the splendor of its light, and works through love. This hope of salvation is placed in the Catholic Church which, in preserving the true worship, is the solid home of this faith and the temple of God. Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control." (Pope Pius IX, encyclical of Pope Pius IX, 1856)...
Shane Schaetzel said…
...Pius IX elaborates further here...

"There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments." (Pope Pius IX, encyclical of Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, 1863)

So there you have it. Pope Pius IX fills in the blanks left by Unum Sanctum and Cantate Domino. While these encyclicals do not bear the official note of infallibility, they nevertheless elaborate on the mind of the Church in the interpretation of what Unum Sanctum and Cantate Domino, particularly those circumstances left unsaid. From this the Catechism of the Catholic Church further elaborates…

"Outside the Church there is no salvation"
846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.
847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.
848 "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."

Notice here the Catechism in 847 does not say they WILL be saved, but rather they MAY be saved, which again leave it open ended. How many achieve this? We may never know. What we do know is that the Old Testament Saints (Jews and non-Jews) had some knowledge of God, and we believe they were saved. Again, the non-Catholics must be non-Catholics "through no fault of their own." I'll give you one hypothetical scenario where this could happen. Suppose a man is born and raised in the Baptist church, spends his life as a Baptist, has heard about Catholicism but doesn't understand it and feels apprehensive about looking into it. This man lives a life that would put many Catholics to shame. He dies suddenly and unexpectedly at a relatively young age of 45. Could this man be saved? Yes, possibly he could be. It's up to God really...
Shane Schaetzel said…
...There is also this, as I stated in the article above, the Catholic Church recognises all Trinitarian baptisms as fully sacramental. That means that most Protestants essentially have "one foot in the door" of the Catholic Church, sacramentally speaking anyway, even though they probably don't realise it, and may not have any accurate knowledge about Catholicism. There are two types of members in the Catholic Church. There are those who have formal union with the Catholic Church, meaning those who actually have their names on a parish roster somewhere. Then there are those who may have salvific union with the Catholic Church, meaning their names are not on any parish rosters, they may not have any understanding of Catholicism, yet they have been properly baptised in the name of the Trinity. There are many Protestants, who have never formally rejected the Catholic Church through any fault of their own, who might fit this category.

So that's all I'm going to say about this topic. My comment moderation is on. You don't have to agree with my assessment here, but don't expect to be allowed to post things that are disparaging to the Catechism or the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
johnnyc said…
After reading 846,847 and 848 to a protestant invariably the first question asked is 'then I don't have to be a Catholic?' Shouldn't it be 'where do I sign up?'

And what of protestants who actively go on mission trips to lead people away from the One True Church?
Shane Schaetzel said…
johnynyc, what it comes down to is the sacraments. We can't take those sections of the Catechism out of the context of the whole Catechism. Christ left his Church with seven sacraments, and each one acts as a "tool of grace" if you will, that helps us get to heaven. Of those seven sacraments the Protestants have access only to TWO -- baptism and matrimony. That's it. Even their Holy Communion is not valid. So they need the other five sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and these do not exist outside of the Catholic Church.