“I am a Christian,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Benjamin Rush.
To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.
Was Jefferson a Christian? Discuss.
You may say, “It depends on what you mean by ‘Christian’,” but it doesn’t. Was Jefferson a Christian? The truth depends on historical facts about Jefferson and what he believed, not on contemporary facts about me and what I had in mind when I asked the question.
The meaning of a word depends on the conventions that govern its use.
I can use the word ‘Christian’ in an unconventional sense. But if I do, then until and unless my non-standard use of the word catches on and itself becomes part of the norm, there is a mismatch between what I say and what I mean. To take a different example, when Ayn Rand said that selfishness is a virtue, she did not mean what she said. (She said that selfishness is a virtue. But it’s not.) She did, however, say what she meant. (She meant that self-interest is a virtue. And it is.)
The conventions which govern our use of the word ‘Christian’ allow for more than one distinct sense of the word. For example, there are nominal Christians, cultural Christians, liberal Christians, fundamentalist Christians, practising Christians, denominational Christians, non-denominational Christians, and so on. But the conventions which govern our use of the word ‘Christian’ also determine a primary sense of the word.
Was Jefferson a real Christian? Discuss.