The criterion for Christianity

In an article on religion.dk, [priest at the Orthodox Church in Copenhagen] Poul Sebbelov has written as follows:

”As to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the fact that this unholy sect calls themselves Christians does not confer on them any Christian authority or credibility at all.”

Naturally, Pouls Sebbelov is entitled to have an opinion. However, it would have been nice to know on what he has based it. Maybe we are back to the discussion about what it means to be a Christian.

It is my guess that Poul Sebbelov requires a Christian denomination to accept the various synods, as for example the one held in Nicaea (now Iznik) in 325. Here it was agreed that Christian should accept that the Father and the Son are ‘ομοουσιοι, being of the same substance. This notion had been introduced by the then unbaptized emperor Constantine the Great. Another similar synod was held in Constantinople, now Istanbul in 381 where the doctrine of Trinity was adopted.

If this is the argument of Poul Sebbelov, Jehovah’s Witnesses are in good company. In the latter half of the third century, a synod was held in Antioch, attended by seventy bishops, priests and deacons from the area. These men anathemised the idea of ‘ομοουσιος (of same substance), very likely because it had been used by the Gnostics at an earlier point of time. (H. Chadwick, The Early Church. (London: Pelican, 1971) pages 113 and 114.)

As to the doctrine of trinity, it is correct that Theophilus of Antiochia had used the word τριας (triad) on God.’ But not in the sense the word /trinity/ later got. After explaining that Teophilus did not regard the Son and the Holy Spirit as equal with the Father, D.S. Wallace-Hadrill writes:

”Despite of his distinction of being the first Christian writer known to use the term Trinity, it is hard to regard Theophilus as a Trinitarian at all.” (D.S. Wallace-Hadrill, Christian Antioch – A Study of Early Christian Thought in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pages 68 and 69).

Most priests and bishops during the first three centuries of church history believed that the Son was subordinate to the Father: ”The formulae which defined the relation of the Father and the Son in the Trinity continued to be characterized by the subordinationism which marks most Christian thinkers of the pre-Nicene period.” (J. Daniélou, A.H. Couratin and John Kent, The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, Volume 2 (Baltimore: Pelican, 1969), page 79.)

In case acceptance of the verdict of the synods from 325 and forward is a criterion for Christianity, then the question must naturally be: what about people here in Antioch before 325 whose beliefs were different of those adopted later on? And what should we call Jehovah’s Witnesses and others whose faith is similar to that of Christians during the first two centuries of church history?

Doctrines are important, as shown by Jesus at his confrontation with the Sadducees reported in Matthew 22, verses 23-33. But there is another criterion for Christianity that is equally important: the honest attempt to imitate Christ. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount concludes with calling those wise who live according to the Words of Jesus, and those stupid who do not. This principle is repeated several times by the apostle Paul, well aware that one cannot fully succeed. But this is where grace or – as Jehovah’s Witnesses call it – underserved kindness comes into the picture. The idea of following the example of Christ was later taken up by [the Danish philosopher] Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote that many church-goers are merely “playing Christians.”

Are those the criteria Poul Sebbelov is looking for? Or is it perhaps something different that makes him call Jehovah’s Witnesses “unholy”?

After all, to be taken seriously even criticism must have a basis.

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About Antiochene

Writer, living in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey).
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