Sunday, June 22, 2008

What makes something 'another religion'?

I've been pondering lately the question of what makes something a different religion. For example, it is generally accepted that Judaism is a different religion to Christianity. Yet both share much of the same history, worship the same God, share many of the same scriptures etc. Likewise Islam is considered a different religion to both Judaism and Christianity despite a lot of overlap too.

On the other hand, there was a group called the Gnostics in the second century. They believed the creation of the world was an error made by a demigod and that Jesus had been sent by a higher god to help rescue some of the pure spiritual souls that had become trapped in matter. Through secret knowledge of the nature of the cosmos, these souls could escape the realm of matter after death. The Gnostics generally rejected the Old Testament, and had their own New Testament books and gospels. Now I would want to say Gnosticism is a different religion to Christianity. It isn't just a "heresy", but it's another religion entirely. Yet generally it is described by historians of doctrine as simply a heresy. I can't quite fathom that.

Really, the question I have been pondering over the last couple of months, is whether Calvinism can really be called Christianity or whether it must be counted as a separate religion. When I pull my nose out of a book about New Testament or pre-Nicene Christianity and wander out onto the internet, I see statements by Calvinists that simply have nothing in common with early Christianity whatsoever. Of course, the same argument could potentially be made whenever Christian doctrine varies, and thus could be used against all heresies throughout history and all Christians today. However, some differences are obviously more profound than others and Calvinism increasingly strikes me as being so antithetical to early Christianity that it is hard to consider it anything other than a different religion.

If we consider the core doctrines of the early Christian faith:
  1. Monotheism
  2. Christ as Teacher of Righteousness
  3. Final Judgment by Works
  4. Free Will
Catholicism and non-Calvinistic Protestantism vary between endorsing two to four of these doctrines. Yet Calvinism agrees only with the first and is deliberately and implacably opposed to the other three (ie 2. Penal substitutionary atonement, 3. Judgment by faith and grace alone, 4. TULIP). Like the Gnostics, the Calvinist system of salvation bears no relationship whatsoever to the early Christian view. It also adds in a wide variety of additional doctrines (though is no worse than Roman Catholicism in this regard I suppose). Anyway, over the last couple of months as I have reflected on this, I have become convinced that Calvinism cannot be meaningfully classed as Christianity and represents such a complete departure from NT and pre-Nicene Christianity that it should be classified as a separate religion (at least from the point of view of doctrine - the issue of classifying religions is obviously more complex and has to take into account rituals, customs and practices etc as well).


Blogger Roger Pearse said...

Gnosticism is indeed a different religion, I think. But it pretended to be Christian, and we know it mainly through the works of the heresiologists. (Or we did, before the discovery of Nag Hammadi!) So I suggest that the classification is merely a practical one, reflecting the close ties in our knowledge of it with patristics.

We think of Manichaeism as a heresy too. But of course that had no Christian content at all at the other end of its geographical range, in China. Again the classification is practical rather than logical.

The problem only arises when some damn fool treats the fact that we do this as an excuse to say "Manichaeism is just as Christian as the Christianity of the NT". They certainly do this with gnosticism!

Blogger CD-Host said...

Usually we consider something a different religion when people on both sides reject one another as being part of the same religion. That's why Jehovah's witnesses are still considered Christian.

As for your comments about early Christianity I don't see much evidence that was the pre-Nicene view. The earliest most reliable Christian and pseudo-Christian works we have have Jesus being an atoning sacrifice. Christ crucified and suffering is the earliest teaching we have. You can make a far better case that Jesus taught nothing then you can that the crucifixion was not key to Christianity from the earliest days.


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