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The Christian Truth Claims - by Bruce A. Flickinger

The Christian Truth Claims

By Bruce A. Flickinger, BA, MDiv

Christianity lives or dies by the status that can be given to its central truth claims. The Christian faith at its core makes several truth claims that are both profound and for many hard to accept. While many contemporary people tend to think of the truth claims of Christianity only being difficult for modern and post-modern people, the fact is that the core truth claims of the Christian faith have always posed difficulties for some people right back to the beginning and some of the difficulties were also difficulties faced by Judaism out of which Christianity grew.

Since Christianity is in human terms a phenomenon of the actual world of human beings, what is delineated by the term "Christianity" or the terms "Christian faith" has to have an identifiable core of qualities or characteristics that make it Christianity and not something else. The core set of qualities or characteristics constitute the criteria by which to decide whether something identifying itself as Christianity or Christian, as a legitimate part of the Christian faith, is in fact able to be classified as part of Christianity or not. Part of what typically constitutes Christianity as is generally true of most religious bodies in the world is a body of teaching, which entail truth claims being made, and a set of aims. [i]

The teaching and the aims of a religion, as with any institutional entity, are interrelated and fuel each other. Underlying this body of teaching and these aims, and especially so for Christianity, are critical truth claims, which if they are valid claims justify the orientation the Christian faith has to its body of teaching and to the aims it seeks to realize within the world of human beings and the human culture. If these claims are not valid then Christianity, per se, cannot be said to be a legitimate organization or institution. And on the other hand, if the truth claims have validity, they have to endure throughout time in order for successive generations who would identify themselves as Christians to be legitimately considered Christians.

In our contemporary world it is becoming unfashionable, at least in some circles, particularly in the West, to make truth claims and to put them forward for testing. Increasingly, as one of the bits of unnecessary fallout from the European Enlightenment and the birth of the modern age, now evolving into the post-modern age, is the growing notion that truth claims can no longer legitimately be made. The mentality of some is to say that that making of any truth claim is to be engaged in making a claim that cannot be validated, is to put forward something as absolute and definite which can be no more than simply personal opinion. There still persists in the popular culture a kind of positivism that once was popular in science and philosophy but has long been shown to be unsustainable, unrealistic, and contradictory. Positivism puts forth a kind of truth claim - and one which happens to be able to be tested and found wanting - and if this truth claim, which claims that truth claims involving more than the empirical cannot be made being no more than subjective human opinion or preference, to be true it would have to somehow demonstrate [which it cannot] that it is itself exempt from the category into which it would put all other truth claims.

So once again, the culture that is aware of the shift back to the legitimacy of making and testing truth claims moves beyond the superficiality of the thinking of the general popular mind and is busy, rightly, evaluating truth claims in a number of fields including religion and ethics. Thus, it is right to consider the truth claims that Christianity entails and to consider whether they are valid.

What are the truth claims that Christianity makes and are central, that is core, to its identity?

With Judaism, Christianity claims there is one God and only one God. God is the Creator of the entire cosmos, the universe, and that moment by moment this God sustains the cosmos and cares for it, is concerned for the people and other living beings that make it up, and is engaged with the cosmos directly and indirectly.

With Judaism, Christianity claims that awareness of this God, who is the ultimate Benefactor of humankind, is dependent upon God making God known to humankind. And, with Judaism, Christianity claims that God makes known some true knowledge about God and about the way Creation is made to operate, meant to operate. God also makes known true knowledge about humankind and the human condition.

With Judaism, Christianity claims that God made humankind not out of necessity or out of need or out of want, but as a creative option for the expressing of the overflowing love and goodness which is God. God was free to create or not create human beings, however God choose to make that decision when considering the options open to God.

With Judaism, Christianity claims that God created the world that human beings inhabit as good and created human beings innocent. God in creating human beings endowed them with free-will and this allowed human beings to be more than robots or machines and thus human beings are free to love God or not love God. As well human beings are free to live within the perimeters of the cosmos and how best it is meant to work or they are free to try to live outside those perimeters to their own frustrating of their human existence.

Judaism and Christianity see the created order as finite and having limits, unlike what is true of God. That our reality has limits and is finite accords with our human experience of reality and our lives.

Within these limits there is freedom to flourish or to suffer unnecessary pain and frustration. To flourish means having to recognize the limits and accept these and not try to live life always "tilting at windmills" as the old cliché puts it. Judaism and Christianity see that much, though not all, of human suffering and pain has come as a result of humankind freely exercising its free will and decision making in a direction that seeks to live human existence out of synch with reality as it really is. From the beginning humankind began to choose, desiring to acquire a knowledge of reality as it is [and this, in itself, not a bad thing] and with that knowledge trying to live as if humankind could live totally independently of the Creator, God; or if not totally independent, at least in a relationship with the Creator on humankind's terms, as if we had created the universe and created and set in motion the dynamics. Human free will also meant a certain tendency toward pride and this would include the pride could become disordered and imbalanced [pride in and of itself not necessarily a negative]. Like the human child who at some points thinks he or she is wiser than their parent, and knows better than the parent, humankind has tended to react in a similar way to the Creator.

With decision making a pattern gets developed. An inclination to choose in a certain direction gets strengthened with each successive choice made in that same or a similar direction. To choose to work in accord with reality strengthens successively each decision to choose to live in accord with reality. Each decision not to live in accord with the dynamics of reality helps to strengthen the inclination to choose the next time to choose similarly not to live in accord with the dynamics of reality.

This description is what is entailed when Judaism and Christianity speak of there being within humankind, each human being endowed with free will and capable of exercising it, an "evil inclination" and a "good inclination". The decision to live in relation to God, the Creator and Benefactor, to love God, exercised repeatedly helps strengthen the loving of God and entering into the relationship with God humankind is meant and created to know and enjoy. The decision to live independently from God or on one's own terms in relationship to God, and perhaps not freely and completely to choose to love God, limits or even breaks the relationship one could have with one's Creator, Benefactor, and ultimate Good.

God allows for some discretion to be exercised by human beings in their having a relationship with God and in their loving God but that still occurs within a set of perimeters; there is nothing like wholly free discretion and nothing like being able to choose to relate to God in any way whatsoever.

Judaism and Christianity claim that God has given definite and true knowledge about the perimeters of relating to God and God who is Love models for humankind authentically what true love is actually like, which is something more than mere human sentiment or emotional feeling or raging hormones.

Now Judaism and Christianity both see that the resultant of the continual exercise of human free will and decisions actually made, humankind has drifted away from God, become separated from God, and that the gulf which naturally exists between the infinite and the finite has widened. Yet the fullness to be realized in our having been created to be human entails of necessity our being in close and real relationship with our Creator and Benefactor. Part of the "key" to our realization of full and complete humanness is held by God.

Yet the gulf between the infinite and finite is wide and the reality is that the gulf cannot successfully be breached or overcome from the finite side - because the finite side is just that, finite. The gulf has to be overcome, crossed, from the infinite side. Both Judaism and Christianity agree on this truth claim.

Judaism and Christianity also agree that God, out of God's freedom, not compulsion or necessity, has chosen to continually pursue the human creatures God has made and seeks to overcome the gulf with each and every single human being. Again, the knowledge of this action of God has to come at God's initiative and God's making it known to humankind. The truth claim of Judaism and Christianity is that God has done this in a variety of ways including through God's actual participation in human history and human events, through traditions God established with human beings in specific communities through which God seeks to bring human beings into closer relationship with God, and through written records which witness to these actions of God in relation to God's pursuit of humankind and which records are endowed, like the authentic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, with an authenticity and authority as kinds of revelation - witnessing to the Revelations of God - and which are the joint productions of God and specific human beings.

It is at this point, where Judaism and Christianity begin to differ in their respective truth claims. It is not necessarily the case their respective truth claims entirely cancel out each others truth claims, for in fact some of their further truth claims can exist side by side without contradiction, while at the same time some do cancel each other out or are contradictory and both cannot be true. The Christian witness has been from the beginning, for example as found in the Christian scriptural record itself, [ii] that Christianity, despite appearances to the contrary, remains part of Judaism and Judaism and Christianity remain intricately linked. Christianity and Christians are in the Apostle to the Gentile's metaphor, "grafted into" the tree of Judaism.

It goes beyond the focus of this essay to present and examine in detail the differing truth claims of Judaism but the tie between Judaism and Christianity should be kept in mind so as to maintain a proper Christian humility toward the specific truth claims Christianity puts forward in difference from Judaism. That humility does not entail denying or diminishing or dumbing down the Christian truth claims that Judaism and Christianity differ over, but it can serve to help Christians to better enter into dialogue and sharing across the respective borders of the communities of faith with our fellow co-religionists in Judaism. Such humility, while maintaining the different truth claims on either side of the border, should contribute to diminishing and eliminating the unnecessary and wrongful hostility that has too often existed between Judaism and Christianity.

Building on the actions of God within the culture and religion of the Jews, Christians make the truth claim that God at a specific point in time, in actual human history, chose to become incarnate, a human being, taken on a full human nature, while remaining God. This occurred within the context of Judaism as God elected to become human through the agency and cooperation of a young virgin Jewish maiden, Miriam [Mary]. Living an authentic human existence, from birth to adulthood, Jesus of Nazareth came to announce a new society for humanity in fulfillment of Israel being meant to be the means to bring humankind back into full relationship with God. [iii] Jesus, as he began his ministry, coming back into Galilee following his baptism in the Jordan by his cousin, John, a type of prophet like those found in the Jewish Bible and history, called this new society the kingdom of God. The invitation to enter it was, beginning with Jesus, extended through his apostles, disciples, and successive generations of followers and members of the kingdom, being made to all of humankind. The means of entry was, having heard the invitation, to respond by faith and repenting [turning around from] of one's sins [one's bad choices and theirs consequences, etc.] and allowing one's self to be embraced by the grace, love, forgiveness and aid of God to live a transformed life which would begin to confirm to the reality each human existence was meant to conform to, generally and particularly, according to the uniqueness given by God to each individual human creature.

The Christian claim is that in and through Jesus, both God and Man, fully divine and fully human, God brought about the possible restoration of humankind to a relation with God, possible in that human beings were and are still free to accept or reject the invitation. And, the Christian claim is that God mysteriously effected this through the life, teaching, work [such as miracles], death [by crucifixion], and literal bodily resurrection of Jesus in the era c. 30-36 [AD, or CE].

The Christian claim is that Jesus was born of a virgin Jewish maiden and without the biological contribution of a human father. The Christian claim is that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Being God Jesus could not and did not sin; as a human being Jesus always chose to do God's will.

The Christian claim is that Jesus was endowed with the authority to correctly interpret the Jewish hope of restoration to full relationship with God and to correctly interpret and apply the Jewish traditions and Jewish scriptures. The latter was particularly necessary, for due to human freedom and human inclinations, it was the case that human understanding of the essence of the Jewish hope, traditions, and scriptures got skewed over time.

The Christian claim then is that Jesus called into existence an authoritative body of leaders, twelve apostles, to which he extended his same authority to develop the community, with its future traditions and written records, that would witness to the arrival of the kingdom of God and extend the invitation to enter it, through the agency of the community he was founding through his disciples, to all of humankind, to every part of the human world. This community would remember and recall with the help of God through the Holy Spirit that Jesus would provide to his apostles and other disciples after he left, and the apostles would authoritatively teach what they had seen Jesus teach and do, and would establish authoritative traditions, and in time, though not envisioned at the start, an authoritative written record which would, with tradition, carry and be a kind of revelation witnessing to the full Revelation God had made in and through Jesus, that God had made as Jesus, as a human being, as God in the flesh.

Christianity exists and lives on the basis of these foundational truth claims. To deny any of these or to find them invalid is to stop being Christian or to put Christianity out of business. The correct interpretation of the Revelation of God in Jesus is given by Jesus himself in the authority he gave first by his living it and then endowing the same authority onto his apostles and their legitimate successors [the bishops of the one, continual, historical, catholic church descending through time from the first church without any breach or break in continuity either of doctrine or aim]. The Holy Spirit, being God, [and Christians believe in one God, yet God exists in three persons, each equally God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, another truth claim that differentiates Christianity from Judaism], is infallible and the authentic, continuous, and historic community of Jesus is endowed with that infallibility of the Spirit. Jesus himself said the Holy Spirit would preserve the community in truth, protecting it from error, and through the centuries Christians believe that the Holy Spirit has done just that. Jesus made the apostles and their successors the infallible and authoritative interpreters and appliers of the revelation as found in the tradition of the community [the Church] and in the written record the community's earliest leaders produced and appended to the Greek version of the Jewish Bible. Through the living community directed by the Holy Spirit, through the living tradition and memory of the apostolic deposit of faith, and through the scriptures of the Greek Jewish Bible [in translation for most Christians] and the Greek New Testament [also in translation for most Christians], the community of Christians hear Jesus authentic voice.

The Christian claim is that what is see and heard in the living community, in the tradition, and the scripture are not manmade ideas and notions, nor human opinion. What is heard is the authentic voice of God. Saint Jerome, who worked diligently on the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible and rendering them into their first translation into the vernacular for the Western Church [thus, into Latin], said "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ". What is found in the historic, continuous, unbroken community, in the community's apostolic traditions and written record, is a certain and knowable revelation. To be Christian today is to be in compliance with the truth claims of the historic, continuous community that is at the heart of the Christian faith or religion today. Here is found the fullness of the Christian revelation and experience and found in authoritative form.

To deviate from these claims or the living experience of the historic, continuous church through time is to lose something of the legitimacy or identity of what fully makes something Christianity or Christian. To deny a great deal of these claims or all of these claims [and some who want to be called Christians and want to be identified as Christian today, individuals and some institutions - or at least significant parts of some institutions, and be considered as legitimate parts of Christianity, do in fact deny all or nearly all of these key claims] is to not be Christian and not to be legitimately part of Christianity.

Some Christians, through the sad circumstances of history, became estranged or "separated" brethren from the historic and continuous and fully authoritative and authentic church, and as a result lost some of the authority and endowments Jesus meant for all of his disciples to know from full participation and life in the continuous historic community. Not all authority and endowments were necessarily lost, but depending on degrees and distance involved in separation there was a proportionate losing of what was intended. Jesus founded one church, one community, and the existence of denominations separate from his historic, continuous body goes against his expressed will. The night before he was arrested, after the founding of the priesthood for his community and gave them the sacramental meal of the Eucharist, Jesus prayed for the oneness of the church. Jesus' desire is to see those who are in schism from his one community to return to the main body. He understands that historically things occurred that should not have which contributed to some of his followers separating themselves from the community, but history has also shown it was never for the main community not having maintained the essence of the authoritative revelation and truth given to the community. The Holy Spirit brought historic correction to the main community and purged it of its errors [never erred in doctrine but practices] and presents the separated brothers and sisters today with a community that ought to be able to find it possible to rejoin. They would, as many in fact are doing, when they find out the actual teaching and contemporary practice of the core authentic community, the church, at the heart of Christianity.

--The Rev. Bruce A. Flickinger resides in the Diocese of Florida.

[i] See, Swinburne, Richard. Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. Oxford : The Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 122-123f. Swinburne develops the criteria used here in delineating and defining the Church through time, and the criteria and approach he uses is applicable to Christianity generally as well as the Church specifically.

[ii] See, Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11.

[iii] See Genesis 12 and following. The promise made to Abram [later, Abraham] was a promise and hope given for the whole human species. God would make Abram, in effect, the father of many nations, i.e., every nation. From the Christian perspective this is fulfilled in Abram's key ancestor, also ancestor to King David, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

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