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Who is a Christian?

Definitions according to the Apostles' Creed,
one philosopher, dictionaries, and Google

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The Apostles' creed:

This creed is widely accepted within almost all Christian denominations, and is used by some to define who is a Christian. It is not accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches. It contains a list of beliefs that the early church expected its members to believe.

A common English translation reads:

"I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. [He descended to the dead.*]  On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen."

* This sentence appears to be a later addition by an unknown forger.

There is no consensus over the origin of the creed:

bulletTraditionally, the creed has been dated to about 30 to 40 CE when many of the apostles were preparing to follow the Great Commission -- to leave Palestine and teach the gospel throughout the world. In order to make certain that each apostle taught the same message, they jointly composed the Apostles' Creed before their departure. 
bulletAccording to religious liberals, the creed was written by unknown author(s), in the 4th century CE or later. 

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One philosopher's definitions:

Michael Martin studied Christianity from the point of view of a philosopher. He prepared a series of definitions of "Christian:"

bulletBasic Christian: "Person P is a Basic Christian if and only if P believes that a theistic God exists, that Jesus lived at the time of Pilate, that Jesus is the Incarnation of God, that one is saved through faith in Jesus, and that Jesus is the model of ethical behavior."
bulletOrthodox Christian (meaning a traditional Christian, not necessarily a member of an Eastern Orthodox church): "Person P is an Orthodox Christian if and only if P is a Basic Christian and P believes in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion [ordered] by Pilate, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming."
bulletLiberal Christian: Person P is a liberal Christian if they believe in "a theistic God, ...Jesus as a model of ethical behavior, ...[and] the historicity of Jesus.
bulletExtreme Liberal Christian: Person P is an extreme liberal Christian if they believe in "Jesus as a model of ethical behavior..." Presumably, such an extreme liberal Christian could also be an Agnostic, Atheist or Humanist. 1 

Martin indicates that some would object to his minimal definitions, arguing that Christianity must be more than a set of beliefs; it must involve action. i.e. a Christian must attempt to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus. He suggests that each of his definitions could be given the suffix: "and P follows or attempts to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus."  

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Dictionary definitions:

Unfortunately, an air of religious intolerance permeates North America. Many Americans and Canadians equate "Christian" with being kind, decent or good. This implies that non-Christians lack these qualities. The purpose of dictionary definitions is to reflect the actual usage of words. Many dictionaries reflect this prejudice:


bullet"1. A person professing belief in Jesus as the Christ, or in the religion based on the teachings of Jesus.
bullet2. A decent, respectable person.
bullet3. having the qualities demonstrated and taught by Jesus Christ, as love, kindness, humility, etc.
bullet4. Of or representing Christians or Christianity.
bullet5. humane, decent, etc." 2

Other dictionaries:

bulletWord iQ: "A follower of the faith of Christianity." 3
bulletEncarta: "Any phenomenon as complex and as vital as Christianity is easier to describe historically than to define logically...the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ...is...a feature of all the historical varieties of Christian belief and practice. [However] Christians have not agreed in their understanding and definition of what makes Christ distinctive or unique." 4
  1. [n] a religious person who believes Jesus is the Christ and is a member of a Christian denomination.
  2. [adj] following the teachings or manifesting the qualities or spirit of Jesus Christ
  3. [adj] (religion) relating to or characteristic of Christianity; 'Christian rites'." 5
bulletTheFreeDictionary: "A monotheistic system of beliefs and practices based on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus as embodied in the New Testament and emphasizing the role of Jesus as savior." 6
bulletOther dictionaries: According to, Robin's Nest, most English dictionaries define a Christian as:  "n. person who believes in and follows Christ. adj. relating to Christ or Christianity; kind or good." 7

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A really handy feature of Google is its define function. Googling the search string define: Christian will search out various dictionaries and glossaries on the web and display the answers. In this case, Google returns:

bullet"A monotheistic system of beliefs and practices based on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus as embodied in the New Testament." See http://wordnet.princeton.edu/ This is not a useful definition because there are literally tens of thousands of faith groups in the world that consider themselves Christian, that base their beliefs on the Bible, and yet derive different "systems of beliefs and practices" from the Bible.
bullet"The belief in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world." See: http://www.mnsu.edu/ This is not a good definition because many Christians believe in a set of cardinal beliefs of which Jesus as Savior is only one. That is, it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
bullet"The Christian religion." http://www.innvista.com/ Again, not useful. It defines Christianity in terms of itself.
bullet"The world's largest religion, followed by those who worship Jesus Christ." See: http://www.channel4.com/ Many people who consider themselves progressive Christians regard Jesus as a great prophet and not a God or part of the Trinity. So did many of the earliest Christians who formed the original Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem.

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See also lists of definitions used by some faith groups, and the earliest Christians, secular sources, and this website.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Michael Martin, "The case against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Webster's New World Dictionary, Third college edition.
  3. "Christian," word iQ, at: http://www.wordiq.com/
  4. The Encarta Encyclopedia is online at: http://encarta.msn.com/Default.asp 
  5. "Christian: dictionary entry and meaning," hyperdictionary, at: http://www.hyperdictionary.com/
  6. "Christianity," TheFreeDictionary, at: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/
  7. "A Christian," at: http://www.robinsnest.demon.co.uk/

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Site navigation: Home page > Christianity > Introduction > Definition > here

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Copyright © 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-19
Latest update: 2007-DEC-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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