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General Essay on Christianity

Christianity is founded on the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ ('Jesus the Messiah') who lived among Palestinian Jews from about 6-5 BCE to 30 CE. Our knowledge of Jesus' ministry derives almost entirely from the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), which present Jesus as one who proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God throughout the villages and countryside of Galilee. His acceptance of social outsiders and his claim to prophethood and divinity led to conflict with the Jewish priesthood and ultimately to his arrest and execution by crucifixion. Each of the Gospels contains accounts of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, and John's contains a reference to Jesus' ascension to heaven.

The birth of the Christian church is generally regarded as having taken place on the Jewish harvest festival of shavout. According to The Acts of the Apostles the followers of Jesus were gathered in an upstairs room in the city when they were empowered by the Spirit of God to preach in the various languages of the Jewish diaspora. One of the Apostles, Peter, preached to the crowd about the resurrected Christ and some 3000 people came forward for baptism.

At this early stage the followers of Jesus still saw themselves as Jews and within the Jewish community. However, disputes between the new movement and the Jewish authorities led to the persecution of the new movement, the consequent flight of some of its followers from Jerusalem and the establishment of independent communities among the diaspora Jews. One figure who was particularly instrumental in the persecution of the new movement was a Pharisee called Saul of Tarsus, who had witnessed and approved of the stoning of an early Christian called Stephen and who was determined to destroy the early church. Saul's life changed in about the year 35 when he was travelling to Damascus with the purpose of encouraging the Christians there to return to Judaism. On his journey to Damascus Saul had a vision of the risen Christ which led him to renounce his Pharisaic Judaism, to embrace Christianity and to adopt the name Paul.

Paul spent much of the remainder of his life visiting Christian communities in various parts of Asia Minor and Europe in order to encourage them in their faith. It was through corresponding with the Christian communities of Italy, Greece and Asia Minor that Paul was able to communicate and develop his own theology, at the heart of which was the belief that Christ's death and resurrection atoned for human sin and provided salvation for all those who believed in him.

According to tradition, Paul was martyred in the year 64 in the context of the persecution of the church instigated by the Roman emperor, Nero. Nero's actions constituted the beginning of a period of persecution against the church instigated by the Roman Empire that would last into the 4th century. The Christians' refusal to participate in the official religious practices of the empire caused them to be perceived as a threat to the empire and the source of some of the empire's misfortunes. It was only in the second decade of the 4th century when the pro-Christian Constantine came to power in 312 after defeating his rival Maxentius at the battle at the Milvian bridge near Rome that the situation changed. Constantine attributed his victory over Maxentius to the Christian God and, accordingly, issued an edict (the Edict of Milan) in 313 which ensured protection to Christians throughout the empire. In 330 he established the capital of the empire at Byzantium, which was later renamed Constantinople ('City of Constantine'). During the rest of the century Christianity consolidated its position so that by the time of the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (346-395) Christianity was the sole official religion of the Roman Empire.

The 4th and 5th centuries were important because it was at this time that the important doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were formulated. Such formulations arose out of bitter disputes about theology. The most divisive and important of these was over the meaning of the opening passage of John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made." (John 1:1-2) An Egyptian priest called Arius interpreted the passage at the beginning of John's Gospel to mean that the Word was a creature made by God with the purpose of creating the world. This interpretation was opposed by the Alexandrian theologian, Athanasius, on the grounds that Arius's theology denied the full divinity of the Word. In order to resolve the dispute and reconcile the two factions, Constantine called a council at Nicaea in 325. The Council of Nicaea supported the Athanasian position of the full divinity of the Word by ascribing to the word the same nature as the Father.

The doctrine of the Trinity was fully confirmed at what came to be regarded as the second ecumenical council, held at Constantinople in 381. This council affirmed the full divinity of the Holy Spirit; its definitional statement, along with that of the Council of Nicaea, provides the basis of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (Nicene Creed) which affirms the co-identity of the three Persons of the Trinity.

In the 5th century the church was shaken by disputes over the relationship between the divine Word and the human person Jesus of Nazareth. These disputes arose primarily out of the meaning of the following passage in John's Gospel: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." (John 1:14) The expression "the Word became flesh" raises the issue of the relationship between the divine Word and the physical body and personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The two principal disputants were Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, and Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople. Cyril of Alexandria claimed that the human and divine nature of Jesus were inseparable. The position of Nestorius is problematic because none of his writings survive and our knowledge of Nestorius' theology derives from the writings of Nestorius' opponents. According to these writings Nestorius claimed that the divine and the human nature of Christ are separate from one another to the point that Christ consisted of two persons.

To resolve this dispute a council was convened at Ephesus in 431, which deposed Nestorius and ultimately led to his exile. The deposition of Nestorius produced a major schism in the church as Nestorius' followers broke away in support of their bishop. This church grew very strong in Syria, Chaldea and spread as far as China. It continues to exist in the modern day state of Iraq.

Another council was held at Chalcedon in 451 whose purpose was to further clarify the church's Christological formula. Chalcedon endeavoured to affirm the distinction between the divine and human aspects of Christ's being by stating that Christ is 'made known to us in two natures . . . in one person'. The two natures formula was intended to reconcile those parties who differed over the extent to which the divine and human natures should be united or separated. However, it merely served to create further divisions in the church by alienating those Christians who felt that the Chalcedonian formula, by ascribing to Christ two natures, undermined the unity of Christ and was too close to Nestorianism.

The non-Chalcedonian churches came to be known as monophysite because of their attachment to the doctrine that Christ had only a single (divine) nature which manifested itself in human form. The churches which adhere to this monophysite perspective are the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of the Malabar in South India, and the Church of Armenia. All of these churches continue to exist to the present day.

In addition to divisions within the eastern Christian church, there were also tensions between the Greek speaking church based around Constantinople and the Latin speaking church based around Rome. Cultural differences and political rivalries between Rome and Constantinople erupted in the 9th century when the Latin Pope, Nicholas I, refused to recognize the validity of the election of a certain Photius to the office of Patriarch of Constantinople. In response Photius broke communion with Rome, and condemned certain aspects of Western Christian doctrine.
Communion was restored only to be broken again in the 11th century. The principal source of dispute between the Eastern and Western churches was over the Western church's inclusion of the word Filioque ('And the Son') in the Nicene Creed. The purpose of this inclusion was to indicate that the Holy Spirit does not derive solely from God the Father but also from God the Son. This amended version of the Nicene Creed was made official by Pope Benedict VIII in 1014. In reaction to this development, Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered all Latin-speaking churches in Constantinople to be closed. This led the church in Rome to anathematise Cerularius and Cerularius to excommunicate the church in Rome. Although these anathemas were revoked on 7 December 1965 in order to bring to an end the breach between Constantinople and Rome, the two branches of the church continue to use their own versions of the Nicene Creed.

In the 16th century the Western Church itself was subject to schism. The new churches that emerged in Northern and Central Europe at this time took the name Protestant after a document of 1529 entitled the Protestatio delivered to the Reichstag in support of the reforms to the church advocated by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther.

Luther had come to prominence in 1517 over his opposition to the practice of selling indulgences as a form of penance for sins. In October 1517 Luther nailed his objections to the sale of indulgences to the church door at Wittenberg. The ensuing conflicts with the church led to Luther's excommunication and the formation of a distinct Lutheran theology and independent church. At the heart of Luther's theology was the doctrine of justification through faith. Faith (the total commitment to God) is the means by which people are justified (made righteous) in God's eyes. Once grace has been appropriated through faith the sinful individual is no longer regarded as sinful by God.

Such a doctrine had massive implications for the structure and working of the church. If grace through faith alone was all that is necessary for salvation then all other purported channels of grace were redundant. The church did not need a special priesthood to minister the sacraments. The church did not need a monastic order since celibacy is not in itself a virtue. The church did not need a papacy since Christ alone is the head of the church.

Another important figure of the 16th century reformation was John Calvin. Calvin shared many of Luther's basic beliefs such as the priesthood of believers, the sole authority of scripture, salvation by divine grace rather than works. The theology of Calvin and his successors is distinctive, however, by its particular emphasis on the absolute rule and righteousness of God and the total depravity of humanity after the Fall. This condition of complete depravity means that people can do nothing to contribute to their own salvation; they are entirely dependent on God's gracious mercy, through which he has chosen to save some. The doctrine that God has predestined some to be saved and others not to be saved is known as predestination.

The third branch of the reformation church in continental Europe is often referred to as the radical reformation. In various cities in Europe (and particularly in Switzerland, Holland and Germany) groups who came to be called Anabaptists emerged. Their theology was in a number of important respects different from the Lutherans and the Calvinists. One important difference between the Anabaptists and mainstream reformers was in their belief that only believing adults should be baptised. The church does not consist of church members but of those who sincerely profess faith in Christ. A second important component of Anabaptist theology is their advocacy of the separation of church and state. The political state has no right to interfere with the church and the church has no right to interfere with the affairs of state. The two are completely separate. Because of their advocacy of non-interference in matters of personal faith, they opposed all forms of persecution against people on the grounds of personal belief and believed in tolerance. Thirdly, with a few exceptions, the Anabaptists were pacifists. They refused to swear oaths of allegiance and they refused military service.

The fourth major tradition to emerge out of the Protestant reformation is Anglicanism. "Anglicanism" is the term given to the tradition and practices of the Church of England, which broke away from the authority of the Church of Rome in 1534 over the Pope's refusal to grant the then English monarch, Henry VIII, permission to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII placed the Church of England under the control of the English monarch and placed into effect reforms consistent with those on the European continent such as the dissolution of monasteries and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular.

The process of Protestant reform was furthered under the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI (r. 1547-1553), during which the Book of Common Prayer was introduced. After the brief reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558), who endeavoured to place the English church within the jurisdiction of the Church of Rome, Elizabeth I reestablished the power of the monarchy over the English church through the introduction of the Act of Supremacy of 1559. This was followed by the production of the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563, which constitute the definitive statement of the theology of the Church of England.

An important group to emerge out of the Anglican reformation were the Puritans. These were so-called because of their desire to purify the church from what they perceived to be residual practices associated with the Church of Rome (namely, prescribed clerical dress, kneeling before the sacraments, and the use of the sign of the cross in baptism). Some Puritans were so opposed to these practices that they separated themselves entirely from the Church of England and in some cases suffered persecution and imprisonment as a consequence of their beliefs.

Out of this separatist tendency came the Baptist church. One separatist preacher, John Smyth (1570?-1612) led his congregation out of England to Holland, where a permanent community was established at Leyden. Here he baptised himself and other members of his congregation, thus forming the first English-speaking Baptist church. Some of Smyth's followers returned to England in 1611 and provided the foundations for the Baptist community in England.

Other important groups that emerged out of Anglicanism are the Quakers and the Methodists. The Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends) were founded in the 1650s by George Fox. They were distinguished through their total pacifism, their refusal to swear oaths, their rejection of the formal aspects of religion such as the sacraments, wearing robes and singing hymns, and their belief in an inner light through which the presence of God is experienced.

The Methodists were founded in 1739 by an Englishman called John Wesley. Wesley originally worked in the Anglican church but came to be viewed with suspicion because of his emphasis on the direct experience of the presence of God. This sense of the immediate presence of God is sometimes known as enthusiasm and, in the case of Wesley's theology, provided the basis of a doctrine particularly associated with Methodism: Perfectionism. Perfectionism is the belief that it is possible for a Christian to attain a condition in which he or she is free from the effects of original sin.

All of these traditions were transplanted onto American soil and there established their own independent and distinct identity. The Baptists in particular flourished in America. The Baptist churches organised themselves into distinct regionally based groupings, the main ones being the Southern Baptist Convention and the Northern Baptist Convention (later renamed the American Baptist Convention).

An important expression of American Christianity is the various millennial or Adventist traditions that developed in the 19th century. One such tradition is the Seventh Day Adventists, founded by a Baptist farmer called William Miller who predicted that Christ would return in 1844. Another prominent adventist sect is the Jehovah's Witnesses whose founder Charles Taze Russell claimed that Christ would return secretly to earth in 1874 and that the world would end in 1914. Both the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses have large followings today and are represented in many parts of the world.

Also associated with North American Christianity is Pentecostalism. The term "Pentecostalism" is applied to those churches which emphasize the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues and healing) as fundamental to the work of the church. The beginnings of Pentecostalism are due to the work of a Los Angeles based minister called William Seymour whose all-night church services attracted widespread attention and encouraged the establishment of similar types of churches. More recently (from the 1960s) a form of Church expression known as Neo-Pentecostalism or the Charismatic Movment has acquired prominence because of its assertive evangelism and effective church planting.

The growth of the Charismatic movement and other Christian groups testifies to the continuing strength of Christianity in the world today. While church attendance has been in decline in Europe, in other parts of the world Christianity continues to flourish. The 20th century has seen a marked shift in the global demography of Christianity so that for the first time since the 7th century there are now more Christians outside of Europe than in Europe. In the 21st century the majority of the world's Christians will live in Latin America and Africa.

For bibliography and references, please see the essays on the specific areas of Christianity