Christianity, the most widely distributed of the world religions, having substantial representation in all the populated continents of the globe. In the late 1990s, its total membership exceeded 1.9 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 worshiped 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.
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
Saint Augustine, born in what is now Souk-Ahras, Algeria, in ad 354, brought a systematic method of philosophy to Christian theology. Augustine taught rhetoric in the ancient cities of Carthage, Rome, and Milan before his Christian baptism in 387. His discussions of the knowledge of truth and of the existence of God drew from the Bible and from the philosophers of ancient Greece. A vigorous advocate of Roman Catholicism, Augustine developed many of his doctrines while attempting to resolve theological conflicts with Donatism and Pelagianism, two heretical Christian movements.
THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE
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.
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 Saint 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.
One of the most influential acts of Constantine the Great was his decision in 330 to move the capital of the empire from Rome to “New Rome,” the city of Byzantium at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The new capital, Constantinople (now İstanbul), also became the intellectual and religious focus of Eastern Christianity. While Western Christianity became increasingly centralized, a pyramid the apex of which was the pope of Rome (see Papacy), the principal centers of the East—Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria—developed autonomously. The emperor at Constantinople held a special place in the life of the church. It was he, for example, who convoked and presided over the general councils of the church, which were the supreme organ of ecclesiastical legislation in both faith and morals. This special relation between church and state, frequently (but with some oversimplification) called Caesaropapism, fostered a Christian culture in which (as the great Church of the Holy Wisdom at Constantinople, dedicated by Emperor Justinian in 538, attests) the noblest achievements of the entire society blended the elements of Christianity and of classical antiquity in a new synthesis.
At its worst, this culture could mean the subordination of the church to the tyranny of the state. The crisis of the 8th century over the legitimacy of the use of images in Christian churches was also a collision of the church and the imperial power. Emperor Leo III prohibited images, thus precipitating a struggle in which Eastern monks became the principal defenders of the icons. Eventually the icons were restored, and with them a measure of independence for the church (see Iconoclasm). During the 7th and 8th centuries three of the four Eastern centers were captured by the dynamic new faith of Islam, with only Constantinople remaining unconquered. It, too, was often besieged and finally fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The confrontation with the Muslims was not purely military, however. Eastern Christians and the followers of the Prophet Muhammad exerted influence on one another in intellectual, philosophical, scientific, and even theological matters.
The conflict over the images was so intense because it threatened the Eastern church at its most vital point—its liturgy. Eastern Christianity was, and still is, a way of worship and on that basis a way of life and a way of belief. The Greek word orthodoxy, together with its Slavic equivalent pravoslavie, refers to the correct form for giving praise to God, which is finally inseparable from the right way of confessing true doctrine about God and of living in accordance with the will of God. This emphasis gave to Eastern liturgy and theology a quality that Western observers, even in the Middle Ages, would characterize as mystical, a quality enhanced by the strongly Neoplatonic strain in Byzantine philosophy (see Neoplatonism). Eastern monasticism, although often hostile to these philosophical currents of thought, nonetheless practiced its devotional life under the influence of writings of church fathers and theologians, such as Saint Basil of Caesarea, who had absorbed a Christian Hellenism in which many of these emphases were at work.
All these distinctive features of the Christian East—the lack of a centralized authority, the close tie to the Byzantine Empire, the mystical and liturgical tradition, the continuity with Greek language and culture, and the isolation as a consequence of Muslim expansion—contributed also to its increasing alienation from the West, which finally produced the East-West schism. Historians have often dated the schism from 1054, when Rome and Constantinople exchanged excommunications, but much can be said for fixing the date at 1204. In that year, the Western Christian armies on their way to wrest the Holy Land from the hand of the Turks (see Crusades) attacked and ravaged the Christian city of Constantinople. Whatever the date, the separation of East and West has continued into modern times, despite repeated attempts at reconciliation.
Among the points of controversy between Constantinople and Rome was the evangelization of the Slavs, beginning in the 9th century. Although several Slavic tribes—Poles, Moravs, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, and Slovenes—did end up in the orbit of the Western church, the vast majority of Slavic peoples became Christians in the Eastern (Byzantine) church. From its early foundations in Kyiv, Ukraine, this Slavic Orthodoxy permeated Russia, where the features of Eastern Christianity outlined above took firm hold. The autocratic authority of the Muscovite tsar derived some of its sanctions from Byzantine Caesaropapism, and Russian monasticism took over the ascetic and devotional emphases cultivated by the Greek monasteries of Mount Athos. The stress on cultural and ethnic autonomy meant that from its beginnings Slavic Christianity had its own liturgical language (still known as Old Church Slavic, or Slavonic), while it adapted to its uses the architectural and artistic styles imported from the centers of Orthodoxy in Greek-speaking territory. Also in the Eastern church were some of the Balkan Slavs—Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosnians, and Slavic Macedonians; the Bulgars, a Turkic people; Albanians, descendants of the ancient Illyrians; and Romanians, a Romance people. During the centuries-long rule of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans some of the local Christian populations were forced or enticed to embrace Islam, as, for example, some of the Bosnians, some of the Bulgarians, and some of the Albanians.
Although Eastern Christianity was in many ways the direct heir of the early church, some of the most dynamic development took place in the western part of the Roman Empire. Of the many reasons for this development, two closely related forces deserve particular mention: the growth of the papacy and the migration of the Germanic peoples. When the capital of the empire moved to Constantinople, the most powerful force remaining in Rome was its bishop. The old city, which could trace its Christian faith to the apostles Peter and Paul and which repeatedly acted as arbiter of orthodoxy when other centers, including Constantinople, fell into heresy or schism, was the capital of the Western church. It held this position when the succeeding waves of Germanic tribes, in what used to be called the “barbarian invasions,” swept into Europe. Conversion of the invaders to Catholic Christianity meant at the same time their incorporation into the institution of which the bishop of Rome was the head, as the conversion of the king of the Franks, Clovis I, illustrates. As the political power of Constantinople over its western provinces declined, separate Germanic kingdoms were created, and finally, in 800, an independent Western “Roman empire” was born when Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III.
Medieval Christianity in the West, unlike its Eastern counterpart, was therefore a single entity, or at any rate strove to be one. When a tribe became Christian in the West, it learned Latin and often (as in the case of France and Spain) lost its own language in the process. The language of ancient Rome thus became the liturgical, literary, and scholarly speech of western Europe. Archbishops and abbots, although wielding great power in their own regions, were subordinate to the pope, despite his frequent inability to enforce his claims. Theological controversies occurred during the early centuries of the Middle Ages in the West, but they never assumed the proportions that they did in the East. Nor did Western theology, at least until after the year 1000, acquire the measure of philosophical sophistication evident in the East. The long shadow of Saint Augustine continued to dominate Latin theology, and there was little independent access to the speculations of the ancients.
The image of cooperation between church and state, symbolized by the pope’s coronation of Charlemagne, must not be taken to mean that no conflict existed between the two in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, they clashed repeatedly over the delineation of their respective spheres of authority. The most persistent source of such clashes was the right of the sovereign to appoint bishops in his realm (lay investiture), which brought Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to a deadlock in 1075. The pope excommunicated the emperor, and the emperor refused to acknowledge Gregory as pope. They were temporarily reconciled when Henry subjected himself in penance to the pope at Canossa in 1077, but the tension continued. A similar issue was at stake in the excommunication of King John of England by Pope Innocent III in 1209, which ended with the king’s submission four years later. The basis of these disputes was the complex involvement of the church in feudal society. Bishops and abbots administered great amounts of land and other wealth and were thus a major economic and political force, over which the king had to exercise some control if he was to assert his authority over his secular nobility. On the other hand, the papacy could not afford to let a national church become the puppet of a political regime.
Church and state did cooperate by closing ranks against a common foe in the Crusades. The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem meant that the holy places associated with the life of Jesus were under the control of a non-Christian power; and even though the reports of interference with Christian pilgrims were often highly exaggerated, the conviction grew that it was the will of God for Christian armies to liberate the Holy Land. Beginning with the First Crusade in 1095, the campaigns of liberation did manage to establish a Latin kingdom and patriarchate in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem returned to Muslim rule a century later and within 200 years the last Christian outpost had fallen. In this sense the Crusades were a failure, or even (in the case of the Fourth Crusade of 1202-1204, mentioned above) a disaster. They did not permanently restore Christian rule to the Holy Land, and they did not unify the West either ecclesiastically or politically.
A more impressive achievement of the medieval church during the period of the Crusades was the development of Scholastic philosophy and theology. Building as always on the foundations of the thought of Saint Augustine, Latin theologians turned their attention to the relation between the knowledge of God attainable by unaided human reason and the knowledge communicated by revelation. Saint Anselm took as his motto “I believe in order that I might understand” and constructed a proof for the existence of God based on the structure of human thought itself (the ontological argument). About the same time, Peter Abelard was examining the contradictions between various strains in the doctrinal tradition of the church, with a view toward developing methods of harmonization. These two tasks dominated the thinking of the 12th and 13th centuries, until the recovery of the lost works of Aristotle made available a set of definitions and distinctions that could be applied to both. The philosophical theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas sought to do justice to the natural knowledge of God while at the same time exalting the revealed knowledge in the gospel, and it wove the disparate parts of the tradition into a unified whole. Together with such contemporaries as Saint Bonaventure, Aquinas represents the intellectual ideal of medieval Christianity.
Even by the time Aquinas died, however, storms were beginning to gather over the Western church. In 1309 the papacy fled from Rome to Avignon, where it remained until 1377 in the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the church. This was followed by the Great Schism, during which there were two (and sometimes even three) claimants to the papal throne. That was not resolved until 1417, but the reunited papacy could not regain control or even respect.
Reformation and Counter Reformation
Reformers of different kinds—including John Wycliffe, Jan Hus (John Huss), and Girolamo Savonarola—denounced the moral laxity and financial corruption that had infected the church “in its members and in its head” and called for radical change. Profound social and political changes were taking place in the West, with the awakening of national consciousness and the increasing strength of the cities in which a new merchant class came into its own. The Protestant Reformation may be seen as the convergence of such forces as the call for reform in the church, the growth of nationalism, and the emergence of the “spirit of capitalism.”
Martin Luther was the catalyst that precipitated the new movement. His personal struggle for religious certainty led him, against his will, to question the medieval system of salvation and the very authority of the church, and his excommunication by Pope Leo X proved to be an irreversible step toward the division of Western Christendom. Nor was the movement confined to Luther’s Germany. Native reform movements in Switzerland found leadership in Huldreich Zwingli and especially in John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion became the most influential summary of the new theology. The English Reformation, provoked by the troubles of King Henry VIII, reflected the influence of the Lutheran and then of the Calvinistic reforms, but went its own “middle way,” retaining Catholic elements such as the historic episcopate alongside Protestant elements such as the sole authority of the Bible. The thought of Calvin helped in his native France to create the Huguenot party (see Huguenots), which was fiercely opposed by both church and state, but finally achieved recognition with the Edict of Nantes in 1598 (ultimately revoked in 1685). The more radical Reformation groups, notably the Anabaptists, set themselves against other Protestants as well as against Rome, rejecting such long-established practices as infant baptism and sometimes even such dogmas as the Trinity and denouncing the alliance of church and state. See also Calvinism; Lutheranism; Presbyterianism.
That alliance helped to determine the outcome of the Reformation, which succeeded where it gained the support of the new national states. As a consequence of these ties to the rising national spirit, the Reformation helped to created the literary monuments—especially translations of the Bible—that decisively shaped the language and the spirit of the peoples. It also gave fresh stimulus to biblical preaching and to worship in the vernacular, for which a new hymnody came into being. Because of its emphasis on the participation of all believers in worship and confession, the Reformation developed systems for instruction in doctrine and ethics, especially in the form of catechisms, and an ethic of service in the world.
The Protestant Reformation did not exhaust the spirit of reform within the Roman Catholic Church. In response both to the Protestant challenge and to its own needs, the church summoned the Council of Trent, which continued over the years 1545-1563, giving definitive formulation to doctrines at issue and legislating practical reforms in liturgy, church administration, and education. Responsibility for carrying out the actions of the council fell in considerable measure on the Society of Jesus, formed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (see Jesuits). The chronological coincidence of the discovery of the New World and the Reformation was seen as a providential opportunity to evangelize those who had never heard the gospel. Trent on the Roman Catholic side and the several confessions of faith on the Protestant side had the effect of making the divisions permanent.
In one respect the divisions were not permanent, for new divisions continued to appear. Historically, the most noteworthy of these were probably the ones that arose in the Church of England. The Puritans objected to the “remnants of popery” in the liturgical and institutional life of Anglicanism and pressed for a further reformation. Because of the Anglican union of throne and altar, this agitation had direct—and, as it turned out, violent—political consequences, climaxing in the English Revolution and the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Puritanism found its most complete expression, both politically and theologically, in North America. The Pietists of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches of Europe usually managed to remain within the establishment as a party instead of forming a separate church, but Pietism shaped the outlook of many among the Continental groups who came to North America. European Pietism also found an echo in England, where it was a significant force in the life and thought of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement (see Methodism).
The Modern Period
Already during the Renaissance and Reformation, but even more in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was evident that Christianity would be obliged to define and to defend itself in response to the rise of modern science and philosophy. That problem made its presence known in all the churches, albeit in different ways. The condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy was eventually to find its Protestant equivalent in the controversies over the implications of the theory of evolution for the biblical account of creation. Against other modern movements, too, Christianity frequently found itself on the defensive. The critical-historical method of studying the Bible, which began in the 17th century, seemed to threaten the authority of Scripture, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment was condemned as a source of religious indifference and anticlericalism (see Biblical Criticism; Enlightenment, Age of). Because of its emphasis on the human capacity to determine human destiny, even democracy could fall under condemnation. The increasing secularization of society removed the control of the church from areas of life, especially education, over which it had once been dominant.
Partly a cause and partly a result of this situation was the fundamental redefinition of the relation between Christianity and the civil order. The granting of religious toleration to minority faiths and then the gradual separation of church and state represented a departure from the system that had, with many variations, held sway since the conversion of Constantine the Great and is, in the opinion of many scholars, the most far-reaching change in the modern history of Christianity. Carried to its logical conclusion, it seemed to many to imply both a reconsideration of how the various groups and traditions calling themselves Christian were related to one another and a reexamination of how all of them taken together were related to other religious traditions. Both of these implications played an even larger role in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The ecumenical movement has been a major force for bringing together, at least toward better understanding and sometimes even toward reunion, Christian denominations that had long been separated. At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church took important steps toward reconciliation both with the East and with Protestantism. That same council likewise expressed, for the first time in an official forum, a positive appreciation of the genuine spiritual power present in the world religions. A special case is the relation between Christianity and its parent, Judaism; after many centuries of hostility and even persecution, the two faiths have moved toward a closer degree of mutual understanding than at any time since the 1st century.
The reactions of the churches to their changed situation in the modern period have also included an unprecedented increase in theological interest. Such Protestant theologians as Jonathan Edwards and Friedrich Schleiermacher and such Roman Catholic thinkers as Blaise Pascal and John Henry Newman took up the reorientation of the traditional apologias for the faith, drawing upon religious experience as a validation of the reality of the divine. The 19th century was preeminently the time of historical research into the development of Christian ideas and institutions. This research indicated to many that no particular form of doctrine or church structure could claim to be absolute and final, but it also provided other theologians with new resources for reinterpreting the Christian message. Literary investigation of the biblical books, although regarded with suspicion by many conservatives, led to new insights into how the Bible had been composed and assembled. And the study of the liturgy, combined with a recognition that ancient forms did not always make sense to the modern era, stimulated the reform of worship.
The ambivalent relation of the Christian faith to modern culture, evident in all these trends, is discernible also in the role it has played in social and political history. Christians were found on both sides of the 19th-century debates over slavery, and both used biblical arguments. Much of the inspiration for revolutions, from the French to the Russian, was explicitly anti-Christian. Particularly under 20th-century Marxist regimes, Christians were oppressed for their faith, and their traditional beliefs were denounced as reactionary. Nevertheless, the revolutionary faith has frequently drawn from Christian sources. Mohandas K. Gandhi maintained that he was acting in the spirit of Jesus Christ, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the martyred leader of the world movement for civil rights, was a Protestant preacher who strove to make the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount the basis of his political program.
By the last quarter of the 20th century, the missionary movements of the church had carried the Christian faith throughout the world. A characteristic of modern times, however, was the change in leadership of the “daughter” or mission churches. Since World War II (1939-1945) national leaders have increasingly taken over from Westerners in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches in the Third World. The adaptations of native customs pose problems of theology and tradition, as, for example, African polygamists attempt to live Christian family lives. The merger of denominations in churches such as the United Church of Canada may alter the nature of some of the component groups. Thus, change continues to challenge Christianity.
Among Protestants, evangelicalism gained strength during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Evangelicals, including Pentecostals and Fundamentalists, emphasized the authority of the Bible, personal commitment to Jesus, and salvation through faith. On the family and on other social issues, they tended to take a conservative stance. Some questioned the teaching of evolution in schools. Many American Catholics regretted what they saw as their church’s failure to remain relevant in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Concern about a dwindling clergy also grew as the church continued to exclude married priests and women.
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