An Introduction to Christianity
Dr. Meredith Sprunger
This document contains a brief history of Christianity, from its inception, through the middle ages and into
the twentieth century.
Christianity: The Religion of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man Mediated by Jesus Christ
Christianity, stemming out of Judaism and developing primarily in the West,
has become the largest religion of the world even though, except for Islam,
it is the youngest major world religion. Approximately one in every three
persons on earth is identified with Christianity.
A religion practiced by so many people naturally encompasses a wide
variety of beliefs and practices. In general Christians share a common
belief in the uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth as a truly divine and truly
human incarnate Son of God who is the savior of mankind. They believe each
individual by their faith and life determine their eternal destiny--either
in heaven or in hell.
Scholars believe that Jesus, the founder of Christianity, was born between
4 and 7 B. C. at Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth of Galilee. His contemporaries
regarded him as the eldest son of Joseph, a carpenter, and his wife, Mary;
but Matthew and Luke report that Jesus was born of a virgin. He grew up
in a family of at least six other children. Roman Catholics maintain these
were children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.
Since Jesus' parents were common people, it is assumed he attended the
local synagogue school and was trained as a carpenter. The story of his
discussion with the teachers of the law in Jerusalem when he was twelve
suggests that he had an unusual interest and knowledge in religious matters.
The next eighteen years are often called the silent years. Since Joseph
drops out of the records at this point, it is assumed that he died during
this period and that Jesus took over the management of the carpenter business
along with the help of his brothers.
When Jesus was about thirty he began his ministry. The first public
act was his baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist, in the Jordan river.
Following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the Judean wilderness
pondering the nature of his ministry. When he returned Jesus selected twelve
apostles and spent three years preaching and teaching in Galilee, Judea,
and Perea. His ministry was a balanced portrayal of the nature of God and
service to man. Many were benefited by his miracles of healing. Peter described
his life succinctly: "He went about doing good."
Both the form and content of Jesus' teachings are recognized and respected
as outstanding among the great religious pioneers and innovators of the
world. Jesus believed he was sent by God and accepted Peter's description
of him as "the Christ" (Messiah). The basic teaching of Jesus
was the love of God and the love of man. The fatherhood of God and the
brotherhood of man is the essence of his gospel. This fellowship of the
sons and daughters of God with each other and with their Heavenly Father
Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. We see
in his life and teachings the centrality of the religious point of view.
His primary concern was that he and all mankind should be completely dedicated
to doing the will of God. Jesus saw the Kingdom of God as a progressive
growth of the individual and society--a mustard seed phenomenon. Jesus
emphasized the worth of human personality. Evil was to be opposed with
vigor but persons must be loved unendingly. Ethically Jesus taught principles
rather than rules. The spirit, the motivation, is the heart of behavior;
external action or appearances are secondary. He saw body, mind, and spirit
as a functional whole which is essentially good and capable of growth and
improvement, striving toward the perfection of the Heavenly Father. Much
of Jesus' most profound teaching is given in parables. Through his life
and teachings he achieved a new synthesis of religious insights which has
attracted people of all religions and has resulted in more books being
written about him than about any person who has ever lived on our planet.
The leaders of Judaism increasingly threatened by his appeal to the
common people and by his unorthodox teaching and behavior contrived to
have him condemned by the Jewish high court and with the co-operation of
the Roman Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, had him crucified. The third
day following his death the Gospels report his resurrection and after forty
days, in which Jesus appeared to various groups of disciples, he ascended
At Pentecost (Shavout, fifty days after Passover) his followers in Jerusalem
experienced being filled with the Holy Spirit and they began preaching
the gospel of their risen Lord with great enthusiasm and dedication. Peter
and James assumed leadership of the Jerusalem Church until its destruction
along with the city in 70 A.D.
Paul of Tarsus is often called "the second founder of Christianity."
He was a Jewish scholar convert who is traditionally considered to be the
author of fourteen books of the New Testament. Paul was the first to state
systematically the beliefs of Christianity and is largely responsible for
transforming a sect of Judaism into the early Christian Church where gentiles
were welcome. John B. Noss says, "He brought intact the religion of
Jesus in the vehicle of a religion about Jesus."
The Bible, made up of the Old Testament and the New Testament, is the
scripture of Christianity. The New Testament began in the early Christian
Church as a series of papers and letters written by numerous people. Over
the years there was much discussion about which books should be officially
recognized. In 367 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in an Easter letter
discusses the books he considered canonical. This is the first list which
includes all of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament as we now have
it. Various church councils in the years that followed adopted this list.
The early Christian Church was not a highly organized body with an established
creed; therefore, it encompassed a wide variety of beliefs. The most famous
heresy of the early church centered around a widespread and diverse group
known as Gnostics. They believed the spirit was good and that flesh was
evil. Consequently, they denied that Christ could have been truly human.
Jesus was not really born of the flesh and there was no resurrection of
the flesh. The Gnostics also regarded Jehovah as an inferior being and
rejected the Old Testament. Gnosticism was a syncretistic movement which
incorporated beliefs of many Middle East religions and philosophies.
Marcionism was a closely related heresy. Marcion, the son of the Bishop
of Pontus, declared that the God of the Old Testament was a cruelly legalistic
and merciless deity and that Christians should discard the Old Testament
and follow Paul in asceticism, celibacy, and scorn the physical world.
A third heresy, Montanism, was a theology preached by Montanus in the
middle of the second century. Montanus taught that the Holy Spirit was
not to be stifled by dogma but should be free to move in the hearts of
Christians, causing them to speak in tongues and engage in other charismatic
activities. He taught that the end of the world was coming soon.
To counter these and other heretical groups Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons,
wrote against the Heresies around 185 A. D. Later the Apostles Creed was
adopted and the New Testament was canonized in an attempt to control religious
beliefs. Modern scholars are finding the struggle with these deviant groups
was much more complex than official records show. At times political and
economic factors may have been more important in determining actions than
the theological issues.
Early Christians, in addition to being torn by internal problems, were
persecuted in the Roman empire. They were accused of being atheists who
committed sexual atrocities and engaged in cannibalism. In such an environment
gradually the Bishop of Rome for a variety of social, political, and ecclesiastical
reasons came to be recognized as the most important bishop of Christendom
and was finally designated Pope. The Emperor Constantine whose wife and
mother were Christians brought persecution to a close. In 325 he called
the Church Council of Nicea to stop the warring within Christianity over
the nature of Christ. Just before dying Constantine accepted baptism and
officially became a Christian.
The writings of St. Augustine (354-430) formulating the doctrines of
original sin, the fall of man, and predestination along with the rise of
the monastic movement had a great influence on Christianity. Theological
differences and deteriorating relationships between East and West finally
resulted in a complete break in 1054 when the pope excommunicated the patriarch
of Constantinople and precipitated the formation of the Eastern Orthodox
The medieval papacy developed power, gathered lands, wealth, and went
to war like any other feudal fiefdom. The moral leadership of the papacy
was at its lowest ebb between 1309 and 1377. It was a time of luxury, moral
laxity, and abuse. The papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon. In 1378 the
Avignon cardinals elected a new pope, Urban VI, who refused to return to
Avignon. The cardinals declared Urban's election void and elected another
pope to rule from Avignon. Urban retaliated by selecting another college
of cardinals who were stationed at Rome. The Council of Pisa called in
1409 to settle the issue resulted instead in electing a third pope who
also claimed to be Christ's vicar on earth. The Great Schism was finally
resolved at the Council of Constance which met from 1414 to 1418. Thomas
Aquinas (1227-1274), a Dominican monk, who lived in this medieval historical
period was one of the greatest thinkers the church ever produced. In his
Summa Theologiae he applied Aristotelian philosophy to the formation of
Christian theology in an attempt to bring faith and reason together.
The Renaissance, the rise of European nationalism, and the decline of
the papacy set the stage for the Protestant Reformation. Forerunners like
John Wyclif in England, John Huss in Bohemia, and Girolamo Savonarola in
Italy helped prepare Europe for the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther
when he nailed ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church
as grounds for debate. Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland and
John Knox in Scotland were the originators of the Reformed-Presbyterian
churches. The marital problems of Henry VIII were instrumental in founding
the Church of England, establishing the heritage of the Episcopal Church,
and later the Methodist Church under the leadership of John and Charles
The most radical of the Protestant groups were the Anabaptists in Switzerland
and the Netherlands. They attempted to discard everything that was not
expressly found in the New Testament. These nonconformists laid the foundation
for the emergence of the Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, Congregationalists,
Baptists, and Unitarians. Later social concerns resulted in the advent
of the Salvation Army, the Young Men's Christian Association, and the Sunday
The Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent in 1545
declared that Catholic tradition was co-equal with scripture as a source
of truth; and that the Roman Catholic Church had the sole right to interpret
scripture. They reaffirmed the seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation,
Penance, Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Marriage, and Ordination. (The Protestant
churches recognize only Baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments.) Later
the Catholic Church established the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception
of Mary (1854) and the bodily assumption of Mary (1950). The Vatican Council
of 1869 declared the dogma of papal infallibility when the pope speaks
ex cathedra. The Second Vatican Council called by John XXIII in 1958 and
at meetings between 1962 and 1965 effected the most sweeping changes ever
made in the Roman Catholic Church. It recognized Non-Catholics as true
Christians; allowed the vernacular in the mass and more congregational
participation in worship; declared Jews were not responsible for the death
of Jesus; and took steps toward reconciliation with Orthodox and Protestant
The nineteenth century was characterized by a strong missionary movement;
and the twentieth century has given birth to the ecumenical movement. Churches
all over the world are beginning to initiate fellowship and unite. The
World Council of Churches was organized in Amsterdam in 1948. Denominations
like the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the
United Presbyterian Church illustrate this trend.
With the rise of modern science and the ecumenical movement the mainline
churches of Christianity became less doctrinaire and began utilizing scientific
knowledge in their religious views. Many accepted evolution as the methodology
which God used in creation and had no trouble with the possibility that
there may be millions of inhabited planets in the universe.
There was a sharp reaction to this "modernism" by conservative
churchmen who became known as fundamentalists. They denounced the National
Council of Churches, evolution, and "worldliness." Fundamentalism
stressed the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible; the deity and virgin
birth of Christ; the necessity of the substitutionary blood atonement doctrine;
the physical or bodily resurrection of Christ; and the bodily second coming
of Christ. These churches now prefer to be called "evangelicals."
They have become quite militant in their evangelism and have a much larger
missionary program than the mainline churches.
On the other extreme, liberal Christianity believes that Christianity
is a dynamic and growing religion; that revelation is progressive and continuous;
that God is personal and each person's religious experience in unique;
that emphasis should be placed on man's inherent worth, dignity, and potentials
as a child of God; and that the struggle against evil is both personal
and social. Christianity must be thought out, deeply experienced, and lived
in all of life.
John Noss sums up Christianity by saying, "Christianity is not
a way of looking into the past, but a way of going forward into the future;
not an escape from the world into solitariness, but a way of spending one's
life in order to find it; not a retreat into ultimate truth, but a redemptive
mission, a way of salvation leading into the world and through the world,
in the love of God and man.
Index to the Full Series
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