Do you believe in the Trinity? If you say no, you are not Christian. If you say yes, you’re most likely Christian.
When defining Christianity the litmus test often used is if Jesus plays a major role in a religion’s theology. I always found this confusing since everyone believes something about Jesus. Everyone believes he actually existed at a specific point in time (well, except for all these people). Many others believe he was some sort of prophet, spiritual guide or even a god. Both Islam and Baha’i’ make major claims to Jesus. (For more see Wikipedia here.)
So, starting with Jesus isn’t helpful. What is helpful is defining what Christians believe about Jesus. Christians believe Jesus is God. Christians also believe the Holy Spirit is God and that the Father is God. Three in One. The Trinity.
This Trinitarian belief is held by Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox believers. A common expression of this view is through the Nicene Creed. Here are the specific Trinitarian lines of the creed:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty….
And in one Lord Jesus Christ…very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life…who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified….
Click below to read the full creed at any of these websites representing a variety of Christian belief systems:
Since this belief is so widely accepted and has been for so long it’s easy to see why it defines Christianity as such. Some Christians, such as Baptists and many non-denominational churches, don’t focus on creeds, but if you look through their statement of beliefs Trinitarian acceptance is clear. (For example, see the Southern Baptist’s basic beliefs.) In addition to the Trinity, Christians also believe in a few other core doctrines such as the sin and resurrection stuff and you’ll notice those elements in the full Nicene Creed, too.
Aren’t Some Non-Trinitarians Christian?
We just talked about the expansive breadth of Christian believers that believe in the Trinity. There are, though, some belief systems that put Jesus central that are not Trinitarian. A major example is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons. Jesus is central in their theology but they don’t believe in the Trinity. Another example is Jehovah’s Witnesses. They adamantly deny trinitarianism. Like I stated at the beginning, many want to define Christianity as any religion where Jesus is a major player in the belief system, but clearly there are many beliefs about Jesus. Some concepts are closer to a Christian belief than others but the Trinitarian belief has always been the main uniter of Christians. My point is not that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-Trinitarian faiths shouldn’t be labeled as Christians, although I don’t think they should,* my point is that Christian is a specific term for a specific belief system — a belief system that is Trinitarian.
*I feel that believers of these religions in these examples, and others, want to be considered Christian because otherwise they are labeled as cults or worse and suffer persecution and bullying tactics. I may not agree with their beliefs or that they are Christian but I vehemently condemn any persecution towards them because of not being Christian.
**If you believe in the meaning of the Trinity but just don’t like that term, I get where you’re coming from. It’s just a term that contains a concept. The term, though, is very helpful to many people and I do believe doctrine needs to be defined not so much as a means to determine what to believe but what not to believe.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)
Bethany Sundstrom-Smith holds a Master's Degree in Theology (Th.M.) with a focus in Media Arts from Dallas Theological Seminary. Her background is in journalism, marketing, and making lattes. She lives in Portland and runs Cadia Marketing.