The Psychology of Christianity: Part 1, The Bigger Tent

Just this week I (along with my co-author Andrea Haugen) submitted a chapter for a coming APA handbook on psychology and spirituality. My chapter was to present an overview of the Christian faith, noting its theological distinctives while simultaneously reviewing the empirical literature related to Christian belief and practice. (Others are writing chapters on the other world religions.)

This was an interesting job as it involved trying to view the entire Christian faith through the lens of psychology. My first task in this chapter was to specify the Christian faith. Who are Christians? And what do they believe?

Current estimates indicate that 32-33% of the world population is Christian, around 1.9 to 2.1 billion souls. Most of these are in Europe (531 million), followed by Latin America (511 million), Africa (389 million), and North America (381 million).

As far as the shape of the Christian communion is concerned, the four major branches of Christianity are Catholic (1.1 billion adherents, or 52.4% of Christians), Protestant (375 million, or 17.9%), Orthodox (219 million, or 10.4%), and Anglican (79 million, or 3.8%).

What do these Christians believe? Answering this question was the first task of the chapter, deciding how to specify the Christian faith, theologically speaking. I made a predictable decision and decided to use either the Apostles' or Nicene Creed:

The Apostles' Creed
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of 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.
Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Which creed should I pick? If I was to go with the creed that is considered to be the guiding doctrinal statement of the faith I should go with the Nicene Creed, as it is considered the gold standard of orthodoxy. The reason for this, as many of you know, is that the lack of specificity in the Apostles' Creed makes it prone to heresy (then and now). The Apostles' Creed, in various forms, was the earlier of the two creeds, and was used primarily as a baptismal confession. Thus it begins with the individualized "I believe." But this simple baptismal confession proved to lack the theological specificity needed to stamp out the various heresies that were beginning to plague the early church. A more theologically rich and specific creed was needed that would unite the Christian communion, thus the Nicene refrain "We believe."

You can see the fingerprints of heresy all over the surface of the Nicene Creed. For example, at the time of the Nicene councils the Marcion heresy contended that there were two gods. One god, the god of the Old Testament, created this sorry world, and a second nicer god, the one proclaimed by Jesus Christ, who was seeking to rescue us from this world (and its reigning deity). Motivated by theodicy concerns Marcionism has some psychological appeal (just crack God in half leaving his good parts on one side and his bad parts on the other side). In contrast to this God-cracking, the Nicene Creed makes a bolder and more difficult (from a theodicy stance) theological move:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
Basically, no God cracking allowed. There is one God and God, as unfortunate as this seems at times, created everything. And, as you can see, these additional theological details (e.g., moving from "I believe in God" to "I believe in one God") makes the Nicene Creed longer and theologically more complex than the Apostles' Creed.

This trend continues and intensifies in the second, Christological sections of the creeds. In the Apostles' Creed Jesus is simply called things like "son," Lord," and "judge." This gave followers of Arius some wiggle room to deny the full divinity and preexistence of Jesus, believing instead that God "adopted" the man Jesus and made him divine. In response to this Christological wiggle room the Nicene Creed goes to great lengths to secure the preexistent divinity of Jesus:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
And the theological fun continues in the third sections of the creeds where we consider the third person of the Christian Trinity, the Holy Spirit. For example, consider the filioque controversy. The Apostles' Creed simply has "I believe in the Holy Spirit." The Nicene Creed, as always, goes into a lot more detail:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
The filioque controversy was a part of the rift between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. Filioque is Latin for "and from the Son." The original text of the Nicene Creed did not include filioque. The difference with and without the filioque:
Original Text:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father.

Filioque Text (emphasis added):
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
The filioque began to be added a few hundred years after the Nicene consensus. Eventually, the filioque was adopted by Rome in 1014, causing a rift between the Western and Eastern churches. The tensions involved in this controversy were both theological and political/national in nature. People still debate the issue.

The point in all this is that the Nicene Creed, while theologically authoritative relative to the Apostles' Creed, is a lot more complex, metaphysically speaking. All this made me hesitant to use the Nicene Creed in my chapter. Conversely, the terseness and generality of the Apostles' Creed made it attractive given my purposes. Namely, the lack of metaphysical specificity within the Apostles' Creed makes it a more general statement of faith. Crudely put, both heretics and the orthodox can subscribe to the Apostles' Creed. Which makes it, theologically speaking, a bigger tent. Given my task of surveying "Christianity," in all its heterogeneity, a bigger tent was preferred.

So I went with the Apostles' Creed, opting for its terse simplicity and lack of metaphysical specificity. In short, the very aspects of the Apostles' Creed that made it such a headache during the Nicene deliberations made it ideal for my chapter on Christianity. I needed the biggest tent I could find, to group as many people as possible under the label "Christian." Admittedly, this still leaves out a lot of the people. For example, there are people who would self-identify as "Christian" but who, while being followers of Jesus, might be agnostics or atheists. However, I had a chapter to write that was to be built around Christian belief. One has to start somewhere...

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17 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 1, The Bigger Tent”

  1. Doesn't seem fair that one particular thread of "Christianity" has seized the label using Roman, secular authority as flowed from his August Imperial Highness etc etc. The purpose of the theological councils wasn't to stamp down heresy but to excise diversity from the Christian church. Especially to exclude the Orientals who chafed under Roman authority and whose theological writings reflected that. It was a political move.

    I find it so galling that people call the Bible the unalterable word of God when it was compiled by vote, a vote which specifically excluded many people who called themselves "Christian" and a vote that was specifically engineered to grant a Christian colored divine right to a distinctly secular (and contemptible) Roman authority.

    This is one of the things that makes me most sympathetic to the excluded scriptures - they were openly and proudly contemptuous of all the kings and bishops and pompous pundits of the Roman aristocracy. They envisioned a sub-luminary "heaven" that was like Earth; iron-bound by rules, natural laws, and governed by a cosmic Soviet bureaucracy that was constantly enforcing submission to its own interpretation of ambiguities.

    Who won? The Roman Catholics (and their eventual offshoots like the Orthodox and Protestants) managed to retain a claim to authority, divine hierarchy, and orthodoxy.

    Of course, "we" really won; there's still a different version of Christianity preached on each street corner, and theophony still occurs whether recognized as legitimate by the church or not.

  2. Am I the only one who recognizes the delicious irony of a member of the Church of Christ, a professor at a Church of Christ university, a member of a movement who "knows no creed but the Bible", having to decide which creed to choose that is most inclusive?

    How do I get back to my home planet?

  3. As a member of the SCM who believes we have much to learn from the creedal traditions, I applaud your willingness to discuss Christianity broadly by using a consensus statement like the Apostles or Nicene Creed. I would, however, argue that the Nicene Creed actually gives you the "biggest tent" because the Apostles Creed is only a Western creed. Also the Nicene Creed includes not only has the support of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but also the Oriental Orthodox churches, which is an important bridge as the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches are finally starting to dialogue for the first time since Chalcedon.

    Dammerung, I think the Eastern Orthodox would take great issue with you referring to them as "offshoots" of Roman Catholicism. They would say the opposite.

  4. 381 million North American’s are Christians???

    The 2008 estimate I found of the total number of North Americans is 581 million. If my arithmetic is right then 72% of North American’s are ‘Christians.’ Yes, I do understand the ecumenical leanings here; but, this is not a point worth stating.

    The term Christian is defined in Acts 11. After God did that, men, with various agendas, tried to define it in the various creeds. God's definition only included people who had actually been saved and actually were disciples. They actually did believe and that without the benefit of the creeds. There is a difference between those who only say they believe (but do not) and those who, in fact, do believe. Yes, it is impossible for us to clearly identify these two groups. Nevertheless, to use the term in such a watered down manner seems misleading at best.

  5. Well, it's a relief that one man, Paul of Tarsus, was uniquely qualified to answer any question about Christian heritage for ever and ever, amen. Saves us the trouble of thinking. It only stands to reason that Paul's opinions are isomorphic to those of God, after all, he did only see through a glass darkly.

    Since the Bible is (obviously) the direct dictation of the Holy Spirit, is it fair to say that the Holy Spirit also sees through a glass only darkly?

  6. David, there is a difference between defining what a Christian is from the social science perspective versus that of a religious perspective. Dr. Beck is working in the social science perspective here and is trying to find a balance between being inclusive in his definition and making the definition meaningless by being too inclusive. This is a challenge.

    Of course Christians themselves quibble often about what constitutes a Christian. Many get offended when another Christian tells them they are not a Christian. I would argue that it is silly to get offended because both parties are using different criteria for defining what makes a Christian. Often the offended party would agree that they do not fit the definition that the other is using.

  7. Oh, the irony is not lost on me at all.

    At some point on this blog I need to spend some time reflecting on my CoC heritage. I'm sure inquiring minds want to know.

  8. But, that is just the point. My definition or your definition are, well, silly. God has already defined the term and here we are helping Him out with a new and improved version.

    If social scientists want to define some group then shouldn't they use a term that has not already been defined.

  9. From the context of language, what we mean by any word or idea such as "Christian" is simply that, what we mean. When we describe something as "red" that does not mean that everyone will agree (I say it is orange). In the end, majority rules.

    Even if God wrote the definition of Christian on the moon for us to all see, its definition in language would be determined by how we as a people use the word. So get a bunch of Christians to submit what they believe constitutes a Christian. You will get differing answers, some in disagreement but some overall commonalities might appear and it is possible that the Apostles Creed summarizes these quite well.

    As to the fact that God already defined the term for us in that book, well, I can guarantee that many disagree as to what he meant. It just isn't that easy.

  10. Actually, it was a a flat piece of highly polished metal used to reflect an image and not a glass. What God told him was true; what he wrote in his letters was true; but, it was not all inclusive. Surely, you understood that? And, where do you get the idea that it was dictation?

    By the way, the canon had been determined long before the Roman Catholic Church took a vote. They are not the ones who threw out those books you value so highly.

  11. Where did Paul say he was writing "what God told him?" This is perilously similar to the alleged dictation of the Qu'ran to Mohammad. And, frankly, I find this point of view clearly heretical in addition to being antithetical to character of Paul.

    If there was an Inquisition today, I think the amount of heresy uncovered among "mainstream Christians" would be found to be astonishing.

    By the way, the canon STILL isn't determined. The Eastern Orthodox Church includes the Book of Jubilees. The Book of Enoch is widely contested. The Catholics accept the first two books of Maccabees. So.

  12. Who is this catholic/christian 'jesus'?

  13. Some laudable aspects of Christian behaviour are described in Acts 11 [0]. However, the term `Christian' only appears once in that chapter, to say that Antioch was where these folks were so called, so you cannot claim that the chapter in any way defines the term.

    [0] It happens that Peter's vision is one of my favourite passages; "don't call anything made clean unclean" goes very far indeed. It's the point of a pebble dropping in the ocean with the ripples of welcome & inclusion spreading out to embrace the whole world. That's the Spirit of the Kingdom of God, which is not partisan.

  14. the term `Christian' only appears once in that chapter

    How many times does a term have to appear in a chapter for it to be a valid definition?

    Are Christians something in Antioch and something else in Chicago?

    It's the point of a pebble dropping in the ocean ... spreading out to embrace the whole world.

    According to God the point of the 'clean to unclean' vision is stated in Acts 11:18. Not really much to do with a pebble in the ocean. Rather, the Jews now saw that the gospel was for Gentiles too.

  15. How many times does a term have to appear in a chapter for it to be a valid definition?

    You need it to be clear that a term and a valid definition are to be associated, so once within reasonable proximity would be a start.

    You've not taken the message of Peter's vision far enough. Who are the Gentiles today that are brought under the welcome of the Kingdom much to the establishment's surprised annoyance?

    Now tell me what that has to do with some proposed definition of Christianity, noting that only v19 onwards talks about Antioch - up to v18 is set in Jerusalem.

  16. The so-called Apostles' Creed isn't broad enough. Mention of "the Virgin Mary" automatically excludes both Ebionites and Marcionites as well as many modern "liberal" Christians. (Of course calling the Father the creator of the world also would chafe Marcionites.) "He suffered under Pontius Pilate" excludes those who think perhaps he was crucified earlier or later than the traditional gospel accounts, and those who believe Paul's statements about the archons of this age (i.e. rulers of this world) crucifying Jesus (1 Cor 2:8) indicate that Paul believed Jesus was crucified in some supernatural realm by demons of some sort.

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