Christianity is NOT an ...ism

An ...ism usually describes a formulated complex of thought or action. The vital dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ cannot be formulated into an ...ism of procedure or ideology.

©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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Christianity is NOT Religion series

   In a previous study we sought to explain that Christianity is not a religion, despite the fact that the misnomer of "Christian religion" does exist today. The failure to differentiate between Christianity and religion has created much confusion and obfuscation in the thinking of both Christians and non-Christians. It has become necessary to explain that the Christian religion, sometimes referred to as "Christendom," is the organized institutional entity that many also mistakenly refer to as the "Church." That is why Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled Attack on Christendom, and explained that

"Christendom is an effort of the human race to go back to walking on all fours, to get rid of Christianity, to do it knavishly under the pretext that this is Christianity, claiming that it is Christianity perfected.1

The Christianity of Christendom...takes away from Christianity the offense, the paradox, etc., and instead of that introduces probability, the plainly comprehensible. That is, it transforms Christianity into something entirely different from what it is in the New Testament, yea, into exactly the opposite; and this is the Christianity of Christendom, of us men."2

   Christian religion is the sociological movement that is comprised of formulated belief-systems and morality patterns, and is structured into hierarchical political organizations. Christianity, on the other hand, is the vital dynamic of the Spirit of Christ in those who are receptive to Him by faith. A Christian is a "Christ-one," identified in spiritual union with Jesus Christ, and Christianity is "Christ-in-you-ity" (cf. Col. 1:27; II Cor. 13:5), as the Spirit of Christ indwells the spirit of each Christian individual (Rom. 8:9).

   Our explanations are further complicated when we recognize that the English word "Christianity" has as its equivalent in the French language, the word "christianisme." This would tend to imply that Christianity is some form of philosophical ...ism. Such is not the case. Christianity is not an ...ism! Jacques Ellul, a French writer, wrote a book entitled La Subversion du Christianisme. It was later translated into English as The Subversion of Christianity,3 but this was misleading to some English readers who did not realize the double entendre of the title, and thus thought that Ellul was engaged in Christian-bashing. God forbid, for Ellul was an extremely astute Christian who did, indeed, critically expose Christian religion, but admirably expounded the reality of Christianity in the living Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, it was Jacques Ellul who, in the aforementioned book, sought to explain that Christianity is not an ...ism, and thus provided the germinal idea for this chapter. It will be instructive to quote what he wrote, and allow it to serve as a springboard for our further elucidation.

"A word ending in 'ism' denotes an ideological or doctrinal trend deriving from a philosophy. Thus we have positivism, socialism, republicanism, spiritualism, idealism, materialism, etc. None of these words, however, denotes the philosophy itself. In fact, it might be directly opposed to it. Marx and Kierkegaard both tried to prevent their thinking from being reduced to an ideological mechanism. But they could not stop their successors from freezing their living thought into one (or many) systems, and in this way an ideology arose. Even Sartre accepts the term existentialism without seeing how it perverts what he is saying. The moment the mutation takes place from existential thinking to existentialism, a living stream is transformed into a more or less regulated and stagnant irrigation channel, and as the thought moves further and further away from the source it becomes banal and familiar.

The suffix 'ism' injects something new into a well-marked and well-defined complex. As originality is eliminated and replaced by commonplaces, the life and thought lose their radical and coherent character. The well-defined complex is now vague and fluid. Passages are dug out in all directions. From the point of departure various possibilities open up for exploitation, and they are in fact utilized. There thus comes into being a curious complex formed of many tendencies, often contradictory but all covered by the relevant 'ism.' In a final loosening of the original knot of life and thought, which are generally united in the creator and his immediate disciples, the 'ism' sometimes takes the form of a practical sociological trend, a type of organization or mass movement, such as socialism, communism, royalism, or republicanism.

At this point there is an even greater distance between the rock of the first life and thought and the sandy wastes that now engulf it. Marxism and what has been derived from it for a whole century have nothing in common. It is the same whenever an 'ism' is made in the name of some creator, such as Thomism, Lutheranism, or Rousseauism. It seems that in each case the deviation and subversion mentioned are typical of the Western world. We need not go into that here. The only point is that the 'ism' aspect of Christianity is not peculiar to it. Similar results occur in many other cases. Nevertheless, the perversion or subversion here is much more vast and aberrant and incomprehensible than any of the others."4

   Ellul is correct in asserting that the attempted reduction of Christianity into an ...ism is a greater perversion than any other. The living reality of the divine life of Jesus Christ which constitutes Christianity, cannot be killed and compressed into a casket of an ideological construct. The theories and concepts of man can, and are, boiled down into ...isms, but how can the ontological dynamic of the infinite Living God be compressed into a humanly manageable package of thought? Impossible, except it be decimated and destroyed, having been reduced to something that no longer represents the reality of the expression of God in Jesus Christ.

The Formulating of ...isms

   It is the natural propensity of man to attempt to get everything figured out with finite reasoning. This is particularly true of man in Western civilization, following in the footsteps of Aristotelian reasoning, and seeking to explain all phenomena in the linear logic of direct cause and effect. Man wants to turn his observations into syllogisms and rational laws based on deductive inferences and inductive persuasion.

   The philosophers and the theologians, in particular, have served as thought-mechanics to ratchet and wrench human thought into ideological constructs. They are not content to allow the conceptual-artists of poetry and drama and music to express ideas in abstraction. The logicians can allow for no paradoxes or antinomies which are against the law of reason. Their minds short-circuit whenever there are loose-ends of thought that cannot be tied-down into an outline of reasonable categories. Contrary to Eastern thinkers who are more prone to accept a both-and explanation rather than a polarized either-or explanation, the Western thinkers have a difficult time accepting the balance of a dialectic tension. Western philosophy and theology has thus tended to analyze, categorize, compartmentalize and systematize their thought into tightly formulated structures, propagated in academic disciplines such as systematic or dogmatic theology. They have a lust for understanding and certainty that cannot be satiated until they have conceived, created and constructed an ideological ...ism.

   Behind these narrow classifications of rational explanation is the quest to cast all thought into an explicable entity. They seem to think that all phenomena must be made conceptually comprehensible and coherent. It must be reduced and consolidated into an understandable unit, which can then be labeled with an ...ism. By this process of reductionism men have attempted to box up and package human thought, to nail it down in air-tight compartments, which can then be stereotyped and "pegged." Little do they seem to realize that air-tight compartments are stale, stagnant and static, chambers of death, tombs of tautology.

   When the living reality and expression of the being and activity of the eternal, infinite God in His Son, Jesus Christ, is subjected to this simplification and summarization of rational explanation, He is completely diminished and transposed into a conceptual ...ism that in no way explains the divine reality of Christianity. God cannot be put in a box! When men attempt to do so, they have only devised an idea of God that is no larger than their cranial cavity, and who would want a god that small? Yet, evidencing the deification of their own human reason, men have continued since the Fall to attempt to reduce God to a unit of thought. In doing so they have accepted the original temptation they that can "be like God," for they can then take the religious formulation of thought they have created in their minds, manipulate it in their own interest, and control the collective society of people thereby. Thus it is that religionism attempts to "play God" in the lives of people, and propagates a particular belief-system that becomes a distinctive ...ism of a sociological movement.

Christian Religion and its ...isms

   Many are the ...isms that have formed in the context of Christian religion over the centuries, and which serve as a denial of the divine reality of Christianity. Every such ...ism serves only as a pathetic diminishment of the divine display of Christ's life in Christians. They also serve as bunkers behind which religionists can hide in order to participate in their divisive positioning and posturing, instead of focusing together and being unified in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

   These ...isms take different forms, so we shall consider them in five categories (which is certainly not an attempt to create an ...ism out of ...isms!). As these are very fluid, they can easily overlap as they flow into one another.

(1) ...isms of ideological theories. As previously noted, many ...isms are formed as ideological constructs of thought. One of the earliest ...isms confronted by nascent Christianity was that of Greek gnosticism, with its emphasis on the necessity of having a special knowledge of spiritual mysteries in order to advance into spiritual elitism. Though the early church rejected this philosophy, they were somewhat unaware of the extent to which the dualism of Hellenism and Platonism was affecting Christian thought. This was evidenced in an arid intellectualism and rationalism, that later led to scholasticism. The theologism of doctrinalism and creedalism soon became pervasive. Christian religion became the advocacy of a belief-system, assented to by easy-believism. This remains the focus of ideological fundamentalism and evangelicalism, defending their epistemological position with the dogmatism of absolutism, often based on a biblicism and literalism borrowed from Judaism.

(2) ...isms of conceptual trends. Throughout the history of the Christian religion there have been philosophical and theological trends of thought that influenced the ideological theories. Behind gnosticism there were concepts of mysticism and spiritualism, which have arisen over and over again in Christian religion. There has always been the conceptual dichotomy between the historicism which fosters conservatism and traditionalism, versus the liberalism that advocates progressivism and revolutionism. In the midst of such there has always been an expectancy of futurism, often taking variant forms of apocalypticism or millennialism, with trends toward triumphalism or pessimism. As the Christian religion adapted to its surroundings in culturalism, it often adopted new tendencies by eclecticism or syncretism. An historical review of the absorption of idealism, empiricism, pragmatism, and existentialism (just to name a few) will document the tendency to borrow the conceptual trends of humanism.

(3) ...isms of behavioral practices. The rapid rate of decline wherein the Christian religion degenerated into the religionism of moralism and ethicism is astounding. How soon they abandoned reliance upon the dynamic grace of God for Christian behavior. For the most part they lapsed into the legalism of the old Pharisaism, but some opted for the hedonism of libertinism where "anything goes!". Subsequent emphases on behavioral practices included pietism, quietism, and the suppressionism of fleshly tendencies. On a collective level there have been calls for social activism, as well as pressured appeals to participate in evangelism and revivalism.

(4) ...isms of procedural patterns. In order to pass on the explanations of their belief-system, Christian religion instituted catechism instruction. Those who were the teachers participated in the authoritarianism of clericalism, and its eventual professionalism. The inevitable politicism of the church leadership resulted in hierarchicalism and papalism. As they conducted the public gatherings of the Christian religion, these same leaders encouraged ceremonialism and formalism through ritualism and liturgism. Sacramentalism further tied the participants to the procedural patterns of the priests. Though there were some Christians who attempted to escape all worldliness through asceticism or monasticism, the vast majority accepted the proceduralisms of what would later take the forms of methodism, congregationalism, and the like.

(5) ...isms of sociological movements. As the theories, trends, practices and procedures were implemented, the collectivism of a sociological movement took place. What was to have been the collective expression of Christianity in the Church, now took the form of ecclesiasticism and institutionalism. Though the universality of Catholicism held this together in a singular sociological institution for many centuries, it was eventually severed by Protestantism, which eventually splintered into sectarianism and a diverse denominationalism, which has never unified despite the attempts of ecumenism. Theological groupings were often identified by the ideology of a particular personage, such as Augustinianism, Thomism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Arminianism, Wesleyanism, etc. Other groups are identified by ethnicity, ex. Anglicanism, or by polity, ex. Presbyterianism.

   This brief review of religious ...isms is by no means exhaustive, and could surely be multiplied many times with other examples and other categories. The intent is solely to expose the propensity to accumulate ...isms in the Christian religion.

Christianity is not an ...ism

   All ...isms are antithetical to Christianity, and are necessarily a reductionism of the spiritual reality that is Christianity. All ...isms are an attempt to encapsulate or encompass Christianity into an entity (be it ideological, conceptual, behavioral, procedural or sociological) that can in no wise contain the supernatural activity of the Living God. The being and activity of the God of the universe will never be confined in a bottle or box of man's making and understanding.

   Christianity is alive with the living expression of the life of the risen Lord Jesus. Christianity is the ontological dynamic of Jesus who is "alive and well" in Christians today, just as in every generation since Pentecost. He cannot be bound up in the religion of ideology, behavior, procedures or institutions. He is free to express His divinity in our humanity!

   Whereas ...isms are fixed and unchanging in their parameters, having been carefully clarified and defined, the life of Jesus Christ expressed in Christians is spontaneous, unique and creative; ever-changing and surprising ­ never capable of being stereotyped and regulated. The only pattern is the consistency of the immutable character of Christ in the midst of the multitudinous expressions of His life in Christian behavior.

   Collectively, His life is expressed in the ecclesia of the Body of Christ, the Church (Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18,24). Never intended to be an organizational institution, the Church is a living spiritual organism wherein the life of Jesus Christ is expressed interactively and socially in loving interpersonal relationships. As the character of Christ's "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,... (Gal. 5:22,23) is manifested toward one another in Christian relationships, Christianity becomes the restoration of man, both in individual behavior and in collective community.
Christianity is not an ...ism! Christianity is Christ!


  Kierkegaard, Soren, Attack on Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1944. pg. 160.
  Ibid., pgs. 162, 163.
  Ellul, Jacques, The Subversion of Christianity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986.
  Ibid., pgs 10,11.