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AFA’s Rusty Benson on “What Is a Christian?”

See here. His answer:

  1. I Peter 1:23 – “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,”

A Christian is a person who has been “born again,” that is, radically and supernaturally changed by God. In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:26) this change is described like this: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

  1. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 – “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

A Christian is one who is so gripped by Christ’s love that he dies more and more to any other person, thing, or idea that would compete for his allegiance.

  1. ?Luke 15:21– “And the [prodigal] son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”

Romans 7:24 – “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

When he first repents, a Christian sees himself in the words of the prodigal son. Though he progresses in the Christian life, he never outgrows his need for Christ and the gospel. In fact, a Christian’s sense of his unworthiness grows as Christ becomes greater in his eyes.

  1. Matthew 21:10 – “And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”

??Though none can fully understand this mystery, a Christian believes that Jesus is God in the flesh and his only Savior. Like Thomas the apostle, a Christian proclaims that Jesus is “my Lord and my God!”? (John 20:28)

  1. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.??”

By faith, a Christian trusts that Jesus fully paid the penalty of sin due each of us and perfectly satisfied God’s justice. It’s a transaction in which Jesus willingly takes the punishment for a Christian’s sin; the Christian gets Jesus’ perfection.

  1. 1 John 3:1a – “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!??”

    A Christian never gets over the wonder of God’s love for him and mercy given to him through Christ. He is forever overwhelmed at the miracle of his own salvation.

This is an interesting standard that the author notes is influenced by some notable orthodox Protestant theologians. As it relates to the American Founding, the problem for the AFA (who seem very sympathetic to a “Christian America” view of the Founding) is that none of the key Founders (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) was, according to this standard, a “Christian.”

And Alexander Hamilton (arguably a key Founder) wasn’t a Christian until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel (and after Hamilton did his “work” as a Founder).

According to the above test, only “born again” Christians who believe in the “Incarnation” are “true Christians.” Likewise the list intimates other doctrines like Sola Fide and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement as part of the definitional mix.

Unitarians, by their nature deny the Incarnation, and by necessity the “satisfaction theory of the atonement.” (This is why we can say some unitarians have an “unorthodox” understanding of the “atonement,” while others just reject the atonement).

Militant unitarians J. Adams and Jefferson, for instance, rejected both the Incarnation and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement (Jefferson rejected the atonement and Adams may have held to an unorthodox understanding of the doctrine).

Franklin didn’t seem to accept the Incarnation when, at the very end of his life answering Ezra Stiles’ question on who Franklin thought Jesus was. Tellingly, after informing Stiles he had “Doubts as to [Jesus’] Divinity,” Franklin doesn’t identify Jesus as Savior/Messiah/or Son of God (all things compatible with and believed by various forms of then existing unitarian Christianity), but rather as someone whose “System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see;…”

So Franklin was no “born again” or “evangelical” Christian. In fact, when, in 1752 discussing the particulars of religion with a “born again” evangelical leader, that figure, George Whitefield, recognized Franklin at that time was not “born again” and tried to convert him:

… As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth. It is a most important, interesting study, and when mastered, will richly answer and repay you for all your pains. One at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that without it, “we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”…

Likewise, George Washington and James Madison were no evangelical, “born again” Christians. Both, though they often expressed their devout belief in Providence, did not talk about Jesus or evince belief necessary to pass Rusty Benson’s biblical standards. Both may have been like Jefferson and J. Adams, unitarians. But they left little on the public record relating to belief in doctrine beyond endorsement of more general concepts like warm Providentialism.

If George Washington was orthodox (I don’t think he was, but don’t necessarily rule it out), it was in the Anglican tradition, which does not teach the necessity of being “born again.” Indeed, the latitudinarian tradition of the Anglican Church offered much latitude on matters of “doctrine,” even transcending orthodox Trinitarian belief.

This is a point Dr. Joseph Waligore makes on “Christian-Deism.” Waligore’s “Christian-Deists” like Dr. Gregg Frazer’s “theistic rationalists” (and those terms are arguably six and one half dozen of the other) seemed quite comfortable in the latitudinarian wing of the Anglican (then Episcopalian) Church.

Attempts to make James Madison into an orthodox or evangelical Christian invariably relate to out of context statements made while very young to William Bradford. For more on the context, see this classic article by James H. Hutson. As noted, Madison, like Washington, could be sphinx like in refusal to put his specific doctrinal beliefs (as opposed to endorsement of generic warm Providence) on the table.

But attempting to latch onto the young Madison’s letters to William Bradford as smoking gun proof is thin gruel. And there is much in Dr. Hutson’s article that provides helpful understanding of context (testimony by, among others, Bishop William Meade, James Ticknor, and Rev. Alexander Balmaine who said Madison’s political association with those of “infidel principles” either changed or made him suspicious of the “creed” of orthodox Christianity which Madison was coming out of).

Finally, Alexander Hamilton. He clearly had some kind of “born again” experience or return to the faith after his son died in a duel. When dying, after he himself was shot in a duel, he sought communion in two orthodox Churches (the Episcopalian and Presbyterian ones) and was initially denied both because of:

1. his lack of established track record as a “Christian” (he had not engaged in Christian communion* with EITHER of the churches, but when dying, these were the ones with whom he sought communion; if Hamilton were an established Christian communicant, with “imperfections,” but still one who worked it out with the church with whom he was in communion, the strange clumsy situation of asking for but being denied communion with by ministers only to have one mercifully relent and administer the holy sacrament would not have occurred); and

2. his un-Christian like conduct engaging in a duel which was condemned by the faith.

By the way, I have never given serious thought on the relation of the practice of “dueling” (which seems to exist in a much less civilized way today with things like gang shootouts and even fist fights) to “Christianity,” but note BOTH of the orthodox ministers in the churches with whom Hamilton sought communion (again, the 1. Episcopalian and 2. Presbyterian) condemned the action as sinful, made a personal issue out of it, and thus knowing Hamilton would soon meet his maker and concerned with his soul demanded he repent of this conduct which led to his death.

*On the matter of communion, we all know how central that doctrine is to Roman Catholics. The Founders, however, with rare exception, were affiliated with the Protestant Churches. And Protestantism being Protestantism, they can appear all over the place. The two churches with whom Hamilton sought communion seemed to have viewed it with fundamental import: a. as the Episcopalian Benjamin Moore who ultimately administered Hamilton communion put it, such was “one of the most solemn offices of our religion”; and b. said the Presbyterian John Mason, it was “a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s supper privately to any person under any circumstances.”

But to tie Hamilton’s faith to the original article, Rusty Benson intimates that Donald Trump isn’t a “real Christian,” but Trump attempts to give a fig leaf of cover to being one. Hamilton’s “Christianity,” before his son died, likewise appears such. Hamilton, very talented statesman he, had all of the prideful, arrogant, obnoxious, egotistical, narcissistic bluster, and sexual improprieties associated with Trump.


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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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19 thoughts on “AFA’s Rusty Benson on “What Is a Christian?”

  1. When I see attempts to make the founding fathers out to be orthodox Christians, either in the traditional pre-Enlightenment sense or, even more so, the present-day White American Evangelical Protestant sense, I assume that Here Be Hackery. This assumption is based on sad experience reading such things, with the track record being consistent enough that I feel no need for further confirmation.

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  2. So what exactly is the relevance to us, or even to hardcore biblicist evangelicals, of the fact that Trump and many of the American Founders seem to fail this test? Which of the other candidates – or which other president or major party candidate in the history of the Republic – appears “forever overwhelmed at the miracle of his own salvation”? How would we determine whether someone is truly and objectively “overwhelmed,” and not merely “rather whelmed” – overwhelmed on Sundays and when the topic comes up, but generally able to operate heavy machinery?

    For political purposes, or the operation of the machinery of state, “being Christian” is obviously much more broadly defined. Likewise, whether the state itself or the American form of government can properly be referred to as “Christian” will always be a statement about Christianity in one sense, but not in another sense.

    The questions can be asked regarding Trump – or Franklin or Hamilton or Hillary Rodham Clinton or Ben Carson and so on – as to whether he or she really embodies a Christian ideal in politics, or whether supporting him or her would be good for the evangelicals or the Christian right, or whether, according to one or another doctrine, whether he or she would qualify as “truly Christian.” It seems to me that the answers to these three questions may be different in many instances, although one apolitical or anti-political tendency in Christianity, as in virtually all belief traditions, will tend toward a denial of the significance or even the possibility of the first two.

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    • The issue is that the people in question will, very likely, make “I Am A Christian” be a foundational plank of their moral-high-ground construction. And, since everyone’s going to be saying it, “I’m A TRUE Christian, Not Like Those Other Fakers” is going to be a common line of argument (as well as “Here’s What TRUE Christians Are, You Aren’t One”.)

      So it’s useful to have a discussion of what we mean when we talk about “TRUE Christianity”, as opposed to “vague sense of nondenominational faith and a layman’s understanding of Christian dogma”.

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    • Well, considering that I saw a quote recently that said “The most successful Socialist in the World was Jesus Christ” one could argue that it’s relevant to Christians of any strip that these folks AREN’T following Christ’s call to both “love your neighbor as yourself” and to feed, clothe and house the “least of these my brothers and sisters” since in doing so we do it for Him.

      But what do I know.

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      • There are different ways to understand the faith, we all know. Re Jesus as a Socialist, some folks think Marx invented collectivism. There is a big history of collectivism (and its debate with individualism) that traces back to Ancient Greece.

        And also, in the Judeo-Christian context. I’ve never read Thomas More’s “Utopia” — but that’s where the word comes from. There’s debate among scholars, on how to properly understand that book.

        But in it, wealth and poverty were abolished. That’s Marxism before Marx. Though whereas Marx was an atheist, More tied the principles of “Utopia” to some kind of eccentric Christian theology.

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  3. We had this debate all the time within the Babtist church.

    Looking back, I should have done a better job of noticing how the debates over whether there was enough of the Water of Life firehosed into our mouths to leave a trickle for the Methodists kinda gave the whole game away.

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  4. This is one of those things where we jump back and forth to what is meant by “Christianity” and how we use the same word to refer to two very (or somewhat, whatever) different things.

    A) There’s the stuff in The Nicene Creed (to use one example, it need not be that particular creed as there are other Christian creeds, of course, but the basic idea of a set of beliefs about God, His Son, The Holy Ghost, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so on are the foundation of this particular definition of Christianity).

    B) There’s the whole “Western Civilization/Enlightenment/Gnosticism” thing. This is where things get a lot squishier and fuzzier. A good (if imperfect) summation was given by Eisenhower:

    And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.

    It’s not required to have a Jesus who was sacrificed for our sins. It’s not even really required to have an interventionist God, really. A deism could work here. This particular attitude gets called “Christian” sometimes (and, more to the point, often enough that it’s a shorthand for “Western Gnosticism rooted in Enlightenment values”).

    So there are some ways in which I am not a Christian. There are some ways in which I am not only Christian, I am a devout Christian.

    And a good way to cheat is to use one of these definitions and then switch out, mid-paragraph, and start using the other definition as if the two concepts are interchangeable (and they, seriously, aren’t… any overlap is coincidental).

    So, yeah, this is a Christian country insofar as it was written with a Christian Constitution by Christian men who believed in Christian values.

    But it also is not a Christian country and the Constitution is not a Christian Constitution and the founders may or may not have been Christians (I hear that Thomas Jefferson was, totally, an atheist) and who did not particularly hold Christian values.

    And so long as we are allowed to be all loosey-goosey about what we mean by “Christian”, both of those sentences can be true at the exact same time.

    But since this is really about Donald Trump, I don’t think he’s particularly Christian in the way that I am a Christian. He might, however, be a Christian in the way that I am not one… but that’s really not that interesting to me.

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    • I always figured that the lesson of Jesus’s death is that there is no more Global Reset Button, there is no more God watching us and making sure that if we screw up too badly he’ll start everything over (saving a chosen few, of course.) I mean, the story goes that we tortured God’s son to death and the worst that happened was a small earthquake!

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      • Jesus’s Death was a lot of different things. The last scapegoat, the last sacrifice, the last blood that God will ever have to drink: His Own.

        It was also the kickoff to “oh, yeah, by the way punishment is now eternal”. This may or may not be seen as preferable to mere destruction of the earth, depending on your time horizon.

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    • Yes, this.

      Trying to separate out Western culture from Christianity is incredibly difficult.

      It’s actually difficult in *both* directions, although there’s a district lack of people trying to remove Western culture (And various Western fanon about Christianity) from Christianity.

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      • What about Ethiopia or indeed some of the middle eastern churches that date back to before Islam took over the area?

        How is their Christianity different, or not to the western version? That might give us some ideas of which parts of the religion are more independent of the surrounding culture.

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        • How is their Christianity different, or not to the western version? That might give us some ideas of which parts of the religion are more independent of the surrounding culture.

          The parts of Christianity that did not end up under Rome and the Catholic church are pretty different. Heck, the parts of Christianity that developed under the *Greek* speaking parts of the Catholic church (Aka, Eastern Orthodox) are pretty different than the direction the west took.

          But, actually, you don’t even have to go that far. A lot of stuff that looks like Western culture influencing Christianity is actually just *American* culture, or at least the *influence* is only happening in America. Even somewhere like England ends up with entirely different religious movements.

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