Christianity, the most widely distributed of the world religions, having substantial representation in all the populated continents of the globe. Its total membership may exceed 1.7 billion people.
Like any system of belief and values—be it Platonism, Marxism, Freudianism, or democracy—Christianity is in many ways comprehensible only “from the inside,” to those who share the beliefs and strive to live by the values; and a description that would ignore these “inside” aspects of it would not be historically faithful. To a degree that those on the inside often fail to recognize, however, such a system of beliefs and values can also be described in a way that makes sense as well to an interested observer who does not, or even cannot, share their outlook.
Doctrine and Practice
II. Doctrine and Practice
A community, a way of life, a system of belief, a liturgical observance, a tradition—Christianity is all of these, and more. Each of these aspects of Christianity has affinities with other faiths, but each also bears unmistakable marks of its Christian origins. Thus, it is helpful, in fact unavoidable, to examine Christian ideas and institutions comparatively, by relating them to those of other religions, but equally important to look for those features that are uniquely Christian.
A. Central Teachings
Any phenomenon as complex and as vital as Christianity is easier to describe historically than to define logically, but such a description does yield some insights into its continuing elements and essential characteristics. One such element is the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ. That centrality is, in one way or another, a feature of all the historical varieties of Christian belief and practice. Christians have not agreed in their understanding and definition of what makes Christ distinctive or unique. Certainly they would all affirm that his life and example should be followed and that his teachings about love and fellowship should be the basis of human relations. Large parts of his teachings have their counterparts in the sayings of the rabbis—that is, after all, what he was—or in the wisdom of Socrates and Confucius. In Christian teaching, Jesus cannot be less than the supreme preacher and exemplar of the moral life, but for most Christians that, by itself, does not do full justice to the significance of his life and work.
What is known of Jesus, historically, is told in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. Other portions of the New Testament summarize the beliefs of the early Christian church. Paul and the other writers of Scripture believed that Jesus was the revealer not only of human life in its perfection but of divine reality itself. See also Christology.
The ultimate mystery of the universe, called by many different names in various religions, was called “Father” in the sayings of Jesus, and Christians therefore call Jesus himself “Son of God.” At the very least, there was in his language and life an intimacy with God and an immediacy of access to God, as well as the promise that, through all that Christ was and did, his followers might share in the life of the Father in heaven and might themselves become children of God. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, to which early Christians referred when they spoke about him as the one who had reconciled humanity to God, made the cross the chief focus of Christian faith and devotion and the principal symbol of the saving love of God the Father.
This love is, in the New Testament and in subsequent Christian doctrine, the most decisive among the attributes of God. Christians teach that God is almighty in dominion over all that is in heaven and on earth, righteous in judgment over good and evil, beyond time and space and change; but above all they teach that “God is love.” The creation of the world out of nothing and the creation of the human race were expressions of that love, and so was the coming of Christ. The classic statement of this trust in the love of God came in the words of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). Early Christianity found in such words evidence both of the special standing men and women have as children of such a heavenly Father and of the even more special position occupied by Christ. That special position led the first generations of believers to rank him together with the Father—and eventually “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father [sent] in [Christ’s] name”—in the formula used for the administration of baptism and in the several creeds of the first centuries. After controversy and reflection, that confession took the form of the doctrine of God as Trinity. See also Holy Spirit.
Baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” or sometimes perhaps more simply “in the name of Christ,” has been from the beginning the means of initiation into Christianity. At first it seems to have been administered chiefly to adults after they had professed their faith and promised to amend their lives, but this turned into a more inclusive practice with the baptism of infants. The other universally accepted ritual among Christians is the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, in which Christians share in bread and wine and, through them, express and acknowledge the reality of the presence of Christ as they commemorate him in the communion of believers with one another. In the form it acquired as it developed, the Eucharist became an elaborate ceremony of consecration and adoration, the texts of which have been set to music by numerous composers of masses. The Eucharist has also become one of the chief points of conflict among the various Christian churches, which disagree about the “presence” of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine and about the effect of that presence upon those who receive. See also Liturgy; Mass, Musical Settings of.
Another fundamental component of Christian faith and practice is the Christian community itself—the church. Some scholars question the assumption that Jesus intended to found a church (the word church appears only twice in the Gospels), but his followers were always convinced that his promise to be with them “always, to the close of the age” found its fulfillment in his “mystical body on earth,” the holy catholic (universal) church. The relation of this holy catholic church to the various ecclesiastical organizations of worldwide Christendom is the source of major divisions among these organizations. Roman Catholicism has tended to equate its own institutional structure with the catholic church, as the common usage of the latter term suggests, and some extreme Protestant groups have been ready to claim that they, and they alone, represent the true visible church. Increasingly, however, Christians of all segments have begun to acknowledge that no one group has an exclusive right to call itself “the” church, and they have begun to work toward the reunion of all Christians. See Ecumenical Movement; Protestantism; Roman Catholic Church.
Whatever its institutional form, the community of faith in the church is the primary setting for Christian worship. Christians of all traditions have placed a strong emphasis on private devotion and individual prayer, as Jesus taught. But he also prescribed a form of praying, universally known as the Lord’s Prayer, the opening words of which stress the communal nature of worship: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Since New Testament times, the stated day for the communal worship of Christians has been the “first day of the week,” Sunday, in commemoration of the resurrection of Christ. Like the Jewish Sabbath, Sunday is traditionally a day of rest. It is also the time when believers gather to hear the reading and preaching of the word of God in the Bible, to participate in the sacraments, and to pray, praise, and give thanks. The needs of corporate worship have been responsible for the composition of thousands of hymns, chorales, and chants, as well as instrumental music, especially for the organ. Since the 4th century, Christian communities have also been constructing special buildings for their worship, thereby helping to shape the history of architecture. See Basilica; Church; Early Christian Art and Architecture; Hymn; Prayer.
C. Christian Life
The instruction and exhortation of Christian preaching and teaching concern all the themes of doctrine and morals: the love of God and the love of neighbor, the two chief commandments in the ethical message of Jesus (see Matthew 22: 34-40). Application of these commandments to the concrete situations of human life, both personal and social, does not produce a uniformity of moral or political behavior. Many Christians, for example, regard all drinking of alcoholic beverages as sinful, whereas others do not. Christians can be found on both the far left and the far right of many contemporary questions, as well as in the middle. Still it is possible to speak of a Christian way of life, one that is informed by the call to discipleship and service. The inherent worth of every person as one who has been created in the image of God, the sanctity of human life and thus of marriage and the family, the imperative to strive for justice even in a fallen world—all of these are dynamic moral commitments that Christians would accept, however much their own conduct may fall short of these norms. It is evident already from the pages of the New Testament that the task of working out the implications of the ethic of love under the conditions of existence has always been difficult, and that there has, in fact, never been a “golden age” in which it was otherwise.
There is in Christian doctrine, however, the prospect of such a time, expressed in the Christian hope for everlasting life. Jesus spoke of this hope with such urgency that many of his followers clearly expected the end of the world and the coming of the eternal kingdom in their own lifetimes. Since the 1st century such expectations have tended to ebb and flow, sometimes reaching a fever of excitement and at other times receding to an apparent acceptance of the world as it is. The creeds of the church speak of this hope in the language of resurrection, a new life of participation in the glory of the resurrected Christ. Christianity may therefore be said to be an otherworldly religion, and sometimes it has been almost exclusively that. But the Christian hope has also, throughout the history of the church, served as a motivation to make life on earth conform more fully to the will of God as revealed in Christ. See also Catechism; Eschatology; Second Coming.
History: The Beginnings of the Church
Almost all the information about Jesus himself and about early Christianity comes from those who claimed to be his followers. Because they wrote to persuade believers rather than to satisfy historical curiosity, this information often raises more questions than it answers, and no one has ever succeeded in harmonizing all of it into a coherent and completely satisfying chronological account. Because of the nature of these sources, it is impossible, except in a highly tentative way, to distinguish between the original teachings of Jesus and the developing teachings about Jesus in early Christian communities.
What is known is that the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth early attracted a following of those who believed him to be a new prophet. Their recollections of his words and deeds, transmitted to posterity through those who eventually composed the Gospels, recall Jesus’ days on earth in the light of experiences identified by early Christians with the miracle of his resurrection from the dead on the first Easter. They concluded that what he had shown himself to be by the resurrection, he must have been already when he walked among the inhabitants of Palestine—and, indeed, must have been even before he was born of Mary, in the very being of God from eternity. They drew upon the language of their Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible, which Christians came to call the Old Testament) to give an account of the reality, “ever ancient, ever new,” that they had learned to know as the apostles of Jesus Christ. Believing that it had been his will and command that they should band together in a new community, as the saving remnant of the people of Israel, these Jewish Christians became the first church, in Jerusalem. There it was that they believed themselves to be receiving his promised gift of the Holy Spirit and of a new power.
A. The Beginnings of the Church
Jerusalem was the center of the Christian movement, at least until its destruction by Roman armies in AD 70, but from this center Christianity radiated to other cities and towns in Palestine and beyond. At first, its appeal was largely, although not completely, confined to the adherents of Judaism, to whom it presented itself as “new,” not in the sense of novel and brand-new, but in the sense of continuing and fulfilling what God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Already in its very beginnings, therefore, Christianity manifested a dual relation to the Jewish faith, a relation of continuity and yet of fulfillment, of antithesis and yet of affirmation. The forced conversions of Jews in the Middle Ages and the history of anti-Semitism (despite official condemnations of both by church leaders) are evidence that the antithesis could easily overshadow the affirmation. The fateful loss of continuity with Judaism has, however, never been total. Above all, the presence of so many elements of Judaism in the Christian Bible has acted to remind Christians that he whom they worshipped as their Lord was himself a Jew, and that the New Testament did not stand on its own but was appended to the Old.
An important source of the alienation of Christianity from its Jewish roots was the change in the membership of the church that took place by the end of the 2nd century (just when, and how, is uncertain). At some point, Christians with Gentile backgrounds began to outnumber Jewish Christians. Clearly, the work of the apostle Paul was influential. Born a Jew, he was deeply involved in the destiny of Judaism, but as a result of his conversion, he believed that he was the “chosen instrument” to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles. He was the one who formulated, in his Epistles (see Epistle) to several early Christian congregations, many of the ideas and terms that were to constitute the core of Christian belief. He deserves the title of the “first Christian theologian,” and most theologians who came after him based their concepts and systems on his Epistles, now collected and codified in the New Testament. See also Paul, Saint.
From these Epistles and from other sources in the first two centuries it is possible to gain some notion of how the early congregations were organized. The Epistles to Timothy and to Titus bearing the name of Paul (although many biblical scholars now find his authorship of these letters implausible) show the beginnings of an organization based on an orderly transmission of leadership from the generation of the first apostles (including Paul himself) to subsequent “bishops,” but the fluid use of such terms as bishop, presbyter, and deacon in the documents precludes identification of a single and uniform policy. By the 3rd century agreement was widespread about the authority of the bishop as the link with the apostles. He was such a link, however, only if in his life and teaching he adhered to the teaching of the apostles as this was laid down in the New Testament and in the “deposit of faith” transmitted by the apostolic churches.
Councils and Creeds, Persecution, and Official Acceptance
B. Councils and Creeds
Clarification of this deposit became necessary when interpretations of the Christian message arose that were deemed to be deviations from these norms. The most important deviations, or heresies (see Heresy), had to do with the person of Christ. Some theologians sought to protect his holiness by denying that his humanity was like that of other human beings; others sought to protect the monotheistic faith by making Christ a lesser divine being than God the Father.
In response to both of these tendencies, early creeds began the process of specifying the divine in Christ, both in relation to the divine in the Father and in relation to the human in Christ. The definitive formulations of these relations came in a series of official church councils during the 4th and 5th centuries—notably the one at Nicaea in 325 and the one at Chalcedon in 451—which stated the doctrines of the Trinity and of the two natures of Christ in the form still accepted by most Christians (see Chalcedon, Council of; Nicene Creed). To arrive at these formulations, Christianity had to refine its thought and language, creating in the process a philosophical theology, both in Greek and in Latin, that was to be the dominant intellectual system of Europe for more than a thousand years. The principal architect of Western theology was Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose literary output, including the classic Confessions and The City of God, did more than any other body of writings, except for the Bible itself, to shape that system.
First, however, Christianity had to settle its relation to the political order. As a Jewish sect, the primitive Christian church shared the status of Judaism in the Roman Empire, but before the death of Emperor Nero in 68 it had already been singled out as an enemy. The grounds for hostility to the Christians were not always the same, and often opposition and persecution were localized. The loyalty of Christians to “Jesus as Lord,” however, was irreconcilable with the worship of the Roman emperor as “Lord,” and those emperors, such as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, who were the most deeply committed to unity and reform were also the ones who recognized the Christians as a threat to those goals and who therefore undertook to eliminate the threat. As in the history of other religions, especially Islam, opposition produced the exact contrary of its intended purpose, and, in the epigram of the North African church father Tertullian, the “blood of the martyrs” became the “seed of the church.” By the beginning of the 4th century, Christianity had grown so much in size and in strength that it had to be either eradicated or accepted. Emperor Diocletian tried to do the first and failed; Constantine the Great did the second and created a Christian empire.
D. Official Acceptance
The conversion of Constantine the Great assured the church a privileged place in society, and it became easier to be a Christian than not to be one. As a result, Christians began to feel that standards of Christian conduct were being lowered and that the only way to obey the moral imperatives of Christ was to flee the world (and the church that was in the world, perhaps even of the world) and to follow the full-time profession of Christian discipline as a monk. From its early beginnings in the Egyptian desert, with the hermit St. Anthony, Christian monasticism spread to many parts of the Christian empire during the 4th and 5th centuries. Not only in Greek and Latin portions of the empire, but even beyond its eastern borders, far into Asia, Christian monks devoted themselves to prayer, asceticism, and service. They were to become, during the Byzantine and medieval periods, the most powerful single force in the Christianization of nonbelievers, in the renewal of worship and preaching, and (despite the anti-intellectualism that repeatedly asserted itself in their midst) in theology and scholarship. Most Christians today owe their Christianity ultimately to the work of monks. See also Religious Orders and Communities.