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 into heaven.

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 Church.

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 Wesley.

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 School movement.

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 groups.

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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