This is not a litmus test for christian beliefs. What I’m about to say isn’t a test for whether someone is Christian or not. Nor is this a way for a person to test how many beliefs they must have to keep their salvation. This isn’t a math equation for figuring out if you’re in-or-out of the faith. This is an illustration that has all the weak spots of word pictures, but that I use to underscore the idea of what is central to historical Christianity and what might be more debatable.
Years ago, in Pennsylvania, my friends and I had a sleepover. It was late summer, that part of the year where bugs know that fall is coming long before anyone starts complaining about the weather. That being the case, the afternoons were often filled with roaming yellow jackets and the evenings featured large spiders on even larger webs.
These webs were massive. They would span across trees. Or they’d reach from a tree to a car parked in the driveway. Long strands sticking who knows where, nearly invisible in the dark, and the perfect trap for anything flying by in the night.
My buddies and I had decided to go out after dark, and we walked through one of these webs. One of us only hit a strand, but one of the others really went right through a bulk of the thing. It was only later, while speeding down the highway, that we discovered one of those giant spiders had also decided to hitch a ride with us.
I’m sure you’ve been in a similar situation. You get home, walking back from your car, and can feel your face brushing through a web strand. It’s such a horrible feeling that for the next few nights, when you get home, you’re waving your arm out in front of you and letting it do the messy job of dealing with webs.
When you take a spiderweb, you can sometimes tear one strand and the web still holds together. You’ll even see the spider show up and fix the broken strand. At other times, you can tear a larger portion of the web and the web, though tattered, is still able to do its job. And sometimes, like that night when my friends and I walked to our car, you pass right through the center of the web and the whole thing gets torn up—all you’re left with is a mess on your face and a spider crawling somewhere along your hairline.
Christian beliefs are a lot like a web. Some of these christian beliefs are from one christian denomination. Some of them are from all denominations. Some beliefs are from specific individuals. But all of them make up an intricate web. Some of the beliefs of Christianity sit out on an individual strand. Some sit out closer to the edge. And some Christian beliefs are so central that if you lose them, you no longer have a Christian web of belief. All you have are the remnants of Christianity spread across your face while funky ideas are playing around your head.
Sometimes Christians make a mistake and teach (or imply) that the center of the web of beliefs has more things than it should. This can be harmful for someone who is new Christian. If there is a gluten-free new Christian who is taught that one must have thick yummy bread during the Lord’s Supper they’ll wind up unnecessarily tearing down even the prospect of Christianity just by the fact that they can’t have bread. That’s crazy.
The key is to figure out which Christian beliefs rightly belong in the center and which should be held further out from the center. That doesn’t make those non-central beliefs unimportant, but it does make them not as essential to those in the center. After all, just like a spider web, if you tear up enough beliefs along the thick edges of Christianity, you can also compromise the essentials. For example, in the Bible, true Christian beliefs are also tied to real Christian practice. In some cases, the beliefs and the practice are so bad that we are warned about people having lost their first love, or have become so merely human in their thinking, or have even shipwrecked their faith.
I think that the central portion of the web contains essential core beliefs that if you compromise them, you no longer have a historically true Christianity. In that center of the web, I would basically put the early creeds of the historical church. Basically the belief in one God (monotheism), the belief in three persons in that godhead (trinitarianism), the belief in the full deity of Jesus Christ, the belief that the second person of the trinity became truly flesh by being born of a woman (the incarnation), the belief in the full deity of Jesus Christ, the fact that he died for the sins of the world on the cross (the atonement), that he physically rose again on the third day (the resurrection), that one day he will return (the second coming), and that believing on this Jesus Christ and the Father who sent him is the only way to be saved, not of our own works but by God’s grace.
I don’t think you have historical Christianity anymore if you lose monotheism. Some forms of lost monotheism might be more catastrophic than others. For example, there’s no such thing, historical or otherwise, as an Atheistic Christian. There might be something like a polytheistic Christian who still hasn’t come to understand that there are no other gods but one. But that’s on account of God’s grace in spite of this person’s individual error, not because of it. And yet, there might be a form of polytheistic Christianity that knows historically trinitarianism and purposefully rejects it opting for Three Gods (like Mormonism)—in which case, this is an outright knowing rejection of historical Christianity and a damnable error.
But like I said—this isn’t a tool for figuring out if someone is Christian or not. It’s rather a way to be honest about our Christian web of belief and to warn the Christian reader: don’t put everything in the center. Some things are still part of the full tapestry of Christianity.