Christianity: From the Ground Up

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This article is part of the 'Ground Up' project.


This article is an introduction to the 'Ground Up' project.

Let's assume that someone asks you to tell them about Christianity.  They are reasonably well educated and reasonably intelligent.  There seem to be two basic challenges here: what do I say, and how do I say it?  To address the first, it makes sense to start with and focus on the basics; to address the second, we need to start where they are - with what they already understand.

Focus on the Basics

Sadly, you will not find many resources to help in this task.  Many Christian groups will offer to explain the basics of the Christian faith, but most of them carefully explain the basics as understood by their group, with all the benefits and complications of two thousand years of history and theological argument.  Many people believe that the historic creeds explain the Christian faith, but they were never created with this intention: the creeds were produced to settle the arguments of their day. 

The best starting point for understanding the Christian faith must surely be the life and teaching of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, about which the historic creeds say remarkably little.  The next best way to understand the Christian faith is from the perspectives of the earliest Christians: the ones who knew Him personally, and the ones who knew them.  Fortunately, there is a good amount of material which has been preserved from this time.

Speak in terms people understand

The other challenge is that very little Christian literature is written with the intention of communicating with someone who does not already believe, apart from evangelistic material, which is generally intended to convince you not only to become a Christian, but also that 'our group' is the one to join, out of the hundreds or thousands of competing traditions and denominations.

In practice, most Christians tend to talk about the things they have been taught, and which are important to them - which is entirely reasonable.  But it does not equip them well to talk about Christianity as it was lived and taught at the beginning.  They have been taught how to be a good Christian, not what it means to be a Christian.  And they have been taught the Christian faith from the perspective of a particular tradition which has been 2,000 years in the making.

This is an attempt to fill that gap: to explore Christianity from the perspective of Jesus and the earliest Christians,  using language and concepts which make sense to an ordinary, reasonably well educated person in the modern world.

It's not just Ideas

There is one more point which needs to be made in the introduction: when people talk about the Christian faith, we often focus on matters of belief.  We talk about Christianity as a 'faith', as something which people believe - but the first Christians talked about it as the 'way', a way of life, an approach to living.  At the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus did not tell His followers to make converts and teach them what to believe: He told them to make disciples - followers - and instruct them how to live.

The primary focus of the early Church was on how you live.  Yes, there were doctrines, but these were the doctrine which you needed to understand in order to enable you to live the way you should.  As St Paul said, "The goal of our instruction is love".


It is possible to combine an authentic Christian faith with intellectual honesty - to acknowledge how science and theology have developed over the past 2,000 years, while talking about the Christian faith and seeking to be a follower of Jesus, in ways which would be recognizable to the first Christians.  This approach is to work from the ground up: to start with commonly recognized facts and reasonable assumptions, and build on them with the perspectives and priorities of the first Christians, in the light of what we now know. 

Our aim here is to establish a solid base upon which the priorities and preferences of the modern Christian denominations and traditions can be placed, enabling us to distinguish between the essentials of the Christian faith, and the additional details we find helpful.  'From the ground up' is proposed as a working strategy, which does not depend upon a commitment to the ideas and assumptions of any particular Christian group or tradition, and enables us to communicate with people who are more comfortable with reason, history and science than they are with faith and religion. 


The Christian faith as described 'from the ground up' is deliberately unlike the form of the Christian faith which most people are familiar with today: while most historians and theologians will be familiar with the material, most of it is hardly ever communicated with most 'ordinary' Christians ('in the pews') or with people outside the church (beyond the occasional misleading headlines).

There are two key differences between the Christianity described here and the Christianity most people are familiar with: firstly, we aim to take into account what is well established concerning the faith of the early church (this seems like an obvious thing to do, but is less common than you might think); and secondly, we aim to recognize the contribution to mainstream Christianity from other sources, to learn what we can from them, but resist the temptation to modify Christianity to fit these other ways of thinking and living.  These other sources include:

  • Greek philosophy,
  • Roman law,
  • British imperialism, and
  • Modern rationalism.


It has a long and complicated History

One reason why many Christians have great difficulty talking about their faith (at least, with anyone who doesn't already share it) is because they are trying to talk about something which is 2,000 years old, and which grew out of a religion which, at the time, was itself around 2,000 years old.  Throughout that time, people have been developing doctrines and organizational structures, each of which made complete sense when viewed from the perspective of the concerns and politics of the time, but often make little sense when viewed from the perspective of most people in the modern world.

I know a lovely Christian who sees the world, and understands their Christian faith, through the perspective of the Reformation and the key truths 'rediscovered' by the great Reformers.  For him, this is an active and deliberate choice, but many Christians today only really know about the nature of the faith they were introduced to, plus maybe one or two (usually fairly minor) variants they have encountered subsequently.

So talking about Christianity is difficult because it has a long and complicated history.  Even just listing all the major people and movements over those 4,000 years is a major challenge.  And when you attempt to say anything about any of them, almost anything you say is likely to be challenged by academics who view this history from a different perspective - although (assuming it is sensible!) it is also likely to be supported by other academics who share your perspective.  Christians have always disagreed about what they should believe - and when they do agree on what to believe, they often disagree on what it means.

Does this mean that any rational person should just give up, because it is too big and complicated for ordinary people to understand?  Actually, I'm suggesting precisely the opposite.

But it started Simple

Modern Christianity is the result of 2,000 years of study and prayer and ambition and politics and much, much more.  It contains much that is good, quite a bit that is questionable, and some other bits, and we could argue about the significance of all the different parts till the cows come home.  But we know more about the early Church and understand it far better than anyone has done since they passed away.

While modern Christianity is big and complicated, what the early Church had was small and simple.  It was also deep and powerful; it was (literally) world-changing.  It was a message and lifestyle which uneducated Galilean peasants could pass on - a message and lifestyle which had changed their lives for the better, and which they were convinced could do the same for everybody.  It was 'good news' - too good to keep to themselves, and simple enough for anyone to understand.  It still is, despite our attempts to make it seem complicated.

We have a great deal of reliable information available to us today.  I am suggesting that we can use it to investigate the Christian faith from the ground up.   Start with the things we can be most confident about, and see where they take us.  We can allow the significant people and movements of the past 2,000 years to inform the investigation, but not to control it; we can use modern knowledge to seek an understanding which is as close as possible to that of the earliest Christians.

There are other options - I describe the four main alternatives below.  But I don't believe that any of them offer the same exciting and meaningful prospect of connecting with the beliefs and lived reality which enabled a bunch of nobodies with no organization, no power and no weapons to turn the world upside-down in a few generations.

Why this is Needed

There is a significant difference between the Christian faith as it is understood and practiced by most ordinary Christians 'in the pew' and the Christian faith as it is understood and taught - and often lived, too - by the academics.  And, of course, there are also vast differences between individual Christians and between individual academics.  But the main point here is that many people often struggle with aspects of the Christian faith precisely because they are ignorant of the details which are common knowledge among the academics, but don't generally reach the public.  It is not hidden knowledge - there is no obvious conspiracy to keep people ignorant, beyond simple inertia - it is all widely available in books, but ordinary Christians tend not to read those books. 

So we have a massive gap between what most ordinary Christians believe (sometimes what they are actually taught, sometimes what they simply assume) and what the mainstream academics are confident about. 

One example of the problem is seen in the major historical creeds.  They are generally understood to be summarizing the key doctrines which all Christians believe, but we know that is not what the original authors were saying: the creeds tell us which sides won in the main theological battles which were fought within the early Church.  Every detail in the creeds is there because it was a point which some group of Christians disagreed with.  You can present these doctrines as essential parts of the Christian faith, but these 'essential' doctrines were not believed by many faithful Christians in the early Church.  In functional terms, the early Church did not regard these doctrines as essential, but they came to believe they were helpful.  The difference between being essential and helpful is not one we generally make, but it is very important. 

Another example: almost everybody thinks that Christianity is about going to heaven when you die - or, to put it another way, not going to hell.  But the Bible says nothing about either of these questions: it is all about this world and this life - the 'eternal life' it talks about begins here and now.  The focus we have today on the world to come, reading the texts as if that is what they are really about, only started centuries later. 

Breaking it down

So where do we start?  Different people will have different starting points, which is fine: all we need is to have something useful to say, wherever they want to start.  Here are some possibilities. 

About the history.

About the teaching.



The main objection I hear is that this project is not possible: the origins of the Christian faith are so obscured that we cannot, with any confidence, identify anything meaningful about Jesus and the first Christians.  People have been saying this for a very long time.

However, this objection is simply another statement of faith: some people believe we can have real knowledge concerning the origin of Christianity, and some people believe we cannot.  How do you choose between these two positions?  The only way is to examine the evidence - which is exactly what we are aiming to do.


There are only a few basic options available to us when faced with the complexities and contradictions of the Christian church.  (Do say if you can think of another!)

  • Ignore them all.  Many people who are not Christians choose this one.  You can't trust anybody: there is no point in looking any further, as you can make the Bible say anything you like; and you can claim to be a Christian and believe anything you like, because you can always find a Christian group which agrees with you.  Just forget about the pointless arguments, and turn on the TV.
  • Investigate them all.  Many academic theologians choose this one.  Finding out exactly who said and believed what, and why, and who they influenced, is a never-ending source of research material and publishable papers.
  • Trust the one you know.  Many ordinary Christians choose this one.  Obviously, my own tradition gets it mostly right (although there are probably a few minor details to sort out) and every other tradition is (obviously) wrong, so we can ignore those who disagree with us: they must be mistaken, mad or malicious, or some combination of the three. 
  • Ignore the doctrine.  Many ordinary liberal Christians choose this one.  The details don't matter: what counts is that deep down we really all want the same thing, and it's all about love so the theology is basically unimportant.
  • Investigate from the ground up.  Start with the things you can be most confident about, and see where you can get to.  Allow the significant people and movements to inform the investigation, but not to control it; use modern knowledge to seek an understanding which is as close as possible to that of the earliest Christians.



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