This article will deliberately focus on the particular problem of the importance of Christianity for the modern phase of the development of societies. This is, of course, only one combination of aspects of the almost infinitely complex phenomenon that is Christianity.
What social scientists call the modern type of society does not have multiple independent origins but has originated in one specific complex, within the area broadly called western Europe, and has been diffused from there, now even to areas with altogether non-Western culture, the first notable case being Japan. On the religious side the area of origin of modern societies has been Christian, with direct involvement, in decisive periods, of numerically small Jewish subcommunities and with largely hostile, although still culturally significant, interaction with the Islamic world.
The main carrier of the Christian traditions significant to modern society was its Western branch, which developed around the Roman papacy in the area inherited from the western Roman Empire. Apart from the sense in which Eastern Orthodoxy underlies the recent importance of Russia in the modern world, the Eastern branch cannot be said to have been a main center of modernizing innovation, in a sense comparable to the Western.
A somewhat parallel, although different and in many ways more complex, differentiation took place in the Reformation period, with the Protestant sector taking the lead in the relation of religion to modernization. This situation came to a head in the movement of “ascetic” Protestantism (as Max Weber called it) and particularly in its more individualistic and “liberal” branches, especially as they matured in Holland and England and were extended to the United States and the English-speaking British dominions. These processes, however, have been intimately involved in complex interactions both with Catholic Europe and with the nonascetic, especially Lutheran, branches of Protestant Europe.
This article will stress two primary themes. The first is the basic continuity of the evolutionary trend. This begins with the Israelitic and Greek cultural backgrounds of Christianity, each of which laid certain decisive foundations of the movement. It then continues through the establishment and survival of the early church, the establishment of the Western church and its differentiation from the Eastern, the very gradual institutionalization of the Christian society of the High Middle Ages, the transition into the Renaissance, and then the Reformation and the developments that led to modern society. I will place special emphasis on the Protestant branch in what follows, because I believe the major turning point in the development of modern society was not, as has so often been held, the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century but rather the developments of the seventeenth century, which centered in Holland and England and, in a special way, in France, which, although profoundly involved in the Reformation, ended up as a Catholic power.
The second primary theme is the analytical complexity of the explanation of what has occurred and what may be projected. This article does not assert that Christianity as a religious movement “produced” modern society; rather it holds that Christianity contributed a crucial complex of factors, which, because of its own internal trends of “transformative” development and because of the great diversity of nonreligious conditions at various stages of the process and in various areas, operated very differently at different points in the developmental process.
Incorporating and synthesizing elements from both of its two main cultural forebears, the Israelitic and the Greek, and developing a new religious pattern of its own, the Christian movement crystallized a new pattern of values not only for the salvation of human souls but also for the nature of the societies in which men should live on earth. This pattern, the conception of a “kingdom” or, in Augustine’s term, a “city” of men living according to the divine mandate on earth, became increasingly institutionalized through a long series of stages, which this article will attempt to sketch. Later it became the appropriate framework of societal values for the modern type of society.
Christianity, through the societal values it has legitimized, has been one principal factor in the evolutionary process that has led up to modern society. At every stage, however, the religious system and its values have stood in complex relations of interdependence with other factors, notably economic and political organization and interests, the underlying institutions of kinship and social stratification, and certain aspects of secular culture. Several times, as in the rise of monasticism and the Puritan “errand into the wilderness,” the main innovative trend has been associated with the withdrawal of its carriers from the main societal arena, rather than with short-run acquisition of control over them. Indeed, in the larger perspective the power of religiously grounded values to shape secular life has depended on the increasing structural differentiation of religion from the organization of the secular society, as is indicated in the great weakening and eventual abolition of the longstanding institution of established churches.
Although the present article is confined to Christianity, it is written in the perspective of the comparative status of Christianity among the historic “world” religions, in their relations to the development of the societies in which they have originated and to which they have become diffused. (This perspective derives, more than from any other source, from the work of Max Weber.) Some centuries before the origin of Christianity, not only in the world of the eastern Mediterranean but eastward through India to east Asia, there had developed the varied system of “historic” religions, including Judaism, Hinduism–,Buddhism, and Confucianism–Taoism. All of them in varying ways and degrees sharply accentuated the differentiation between the profane and the sacred, temporal existence and eternity, worldly and otherworldly, natural and super-natural. These great cultural movements redefined the problems of the meaning of human life both for the individual as a personality and for human societies. One main axis of the problems concerned the relative devaluation of the profane, the temporal or the natural. Should the interests of temporal life be renounced in favor of some conception of radical salvation? Was there to be religious legitimation of those temporal interests or even of human societies with their necessary natural and secular anchorage? How were the two basic references to be balanced in relation to each other?
Christianity developed a very special pattern of solutions to these questions. It was second to no other religion in emphasizing the transcendental character of its conception of divinity. The God which the Christians inherited from the Hebrews was the creator–ruler God, the sole creator and governor of the world, which included the human condition generally—the condition of all peoples. Not only was Christianity a transcendental monotheism, but its theology focused specifically on the conception of a divinely ordained, active mission for man. God created man “in His own image” in order for man to “do His will” on earth. That will, in turn, ordained the performance of a great collective task that eventually was believed to consist essentially of the building of a society in the temporal world in accord with the divine plan. This conception of the God-man relationship greatly influenced the social world through the commitments of its adherents to remake that world in accord with the divine plan. It contrasted very sharply with some of the Oriental religions that motivated “adjustment to” the immanent order of the nonempirical universe.
This transcendental–activistic attitude alone, however, does not account for the broad societal impact of Christianity. It has also characterized Judaism and Islam, but neither of these great movements originated the makings of a modern society on its own. Judaism, after a brief period in a politically independent, “divinely ordained,” small kingdom, was dispersed into small enclaves widely scattered over the civilized world and too small, politically powerless, and insulated to exert a major influence on very large-scale societal developments. Islam so directly fused religious leadership and the government of large-scale, rapidly expanding empires that it could not (at least within a short enough period of time) adequately control the institutional conditions of social change to channel them in the religiously indicated directions. Furthermore, the development of the religious orientatation system itself was not “rationalized” and systematized in a manner comparable with the Christian.
The theme of human imperfection, in acute contrast with the transcendence and thus in some sense the glory of God, is sharply accented in Judaism and became the basis of the Christian doctrine of sin. Such imperfection, however, was inherently relative to the deep theme of the goodness of the divine creation, of which man, “created in God’s image,” was clearly the highest part. Then even such expressions as the “total depravity” of sinful man are not to be taken so literally as to imply no basic potential for religiously legitimized good. It is not the “things of this world” or of the “flesh” which are inherently evil but primarily man’s willfulness, his presumptuousness in disobeying the divine commandments and in thinking he can do without divine guidance.
The other essential ingredient of Christianity came from Greek culture, which had distant relations to Hebraic culture but was predominantly independent of it in development and pattern. The institutional structure of Roman society had sufficiently fused with Hellenistic culture in the area in which Christianity originated, so that we can consider the parts played in the shaping of Christian theology by Greek philosophy and by the institutionalized individualism and law of the Roman polity to be of a piece. Greek culture provided a major constitutive component of Christian religious orientations, and early Roman imperial society provided both an environment in which the movement could spread and institutional components, notably a legal system, which were eventually absorbed by the Christian religious system and the church itself.
Particularly important to the Christian orientation to human society was the Greco–Roman conception of a universalistically defined system of order in the “nature” of the world. In its more cosmic references it underlay the Greek contributions to the beginnings of natural science. But it also had relevance to human relationships, and in this connection, especially among the Stoics, the ideal of human society came to involve the ordering of these relations in accord with the “order of nature.” The fullest institutionalization of this universalistic conception came with the systematization of Roman law, which, by including both the jus civilis (which defined the rights and obligations of Roman citizens) and the jus gentium (which defined the relations among persons of a different civic or ethnic allegiance) in a single, coherent legal system, transcended the parochial particularism that characterized previous conceptions of social order. Furthermore, this transcendence implies that the basic bindingness of such an order must be defined in general terms and not in highly specific prescriptions and prohibitions as has been characteristic of many systems of religious law, such as those of Talmudic Judaism and Islam. This universalism of the secular normative order could then be matched with the universalism of religious evaluation, which was one of the crucial religious features of the Christian movement.
The marriage of Hebraic and Greco–Roman elements that produced Christianity involved a crucial differentiation of the new sociocultural entity from both parent sources. Judaism and Greek and Roman religion had been the religions of already established sociopolitical communities, the People of Israel and the city-states of the Greek and Roman worlds. To use the terms loosely, they had been “ethnic,” “civic,” or “national” religions. On the level of social structure it was decisive that Christianity arose as a sect within Judaism, at a time when Palestine was Hellenized and Romanized—certainly the members of the elite were culturally quite Hellenized. Since all sectarian movements have a separatist tendency, it was natural that early Christianity raised questions about how its differences from the rest of the Jewish community were relevant to the general Greco—Roman matrix. These questions reached a crux when St. Paul initiated the church’s historic break with the traditional Jewish community by declaring that the observance of Jewish law had no bearing on a convert’s status as a Christian. This status was to be based only on the individual’s act of commitment to the church and the saving message of Jesus (Nock 1938). It seems that this development was occasioned by problems stemming from the very success of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles— that is, by the fact that many Christians were essentially alien to the particularities of Jewish tradition.
Its break with the Jewish community gave the church freedom to develop and expand. This freedom was realistically important, particularly because of two main features of the society of the Roman Empire at that time, perhaps especially of its eastern half. First, under the pattern of order just noted, this society was predominantly individualistic in a sense matched by no other society of comparable scale until modern times. In spite of its many regional and ethnic particularities, Rome effected its governmental authority over an exceedingly wide area and maintained substantial peace and internal order for a considerable period. A primary factor in this stability was the highly universalistic system of law, with its quite generalized principles allowing very substantial freedom within its framework. It was a society in which considerable mobility for migration and settlement was feasible and in which the main urban centers, at least, were highly developed and cosmopolitan communities.
Second, the society was psychologically ready for the type of soteriological movement which Christianity represented. Within the Jewish community there had developed much interest in the salvation of the individual, in addition to the traditional primary focus on the destiny of the People of Israel, as recent research has particularly emphasized. Deutero-Isaiah emphasized the individual aspect, and the Christians were not the only sect within Judaism, as, for example, the Essenes show. Beyond the Jewish community there was also considerable ferment of this general character (Nock 1964). The Greek mysteries and various kinds of Oriental cults spread widely through the empire, for example, Mithraism and the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris, and schools of philosophy took on a quasi-religious, if not fully religious, character (Cumont 1910). All of these movements attracted individuals on terms ranging from the clientele of a simple cult to membership in relatively firmly structured associational groups.
The church was the corporate vehicle of the implementation of a distinctive religious orientation. The God of the Christians was of course the God of Israel, in His transcendence as creator and ruler of the universe and as the One who defined man’s mission on earth. Compared to the main lines of Judaism, however, there was a new centrality of the conditions of the salvation of the individual soul rather than of the fate of a community. The Saviour was not the Messiah—although partially identified with him—not a new Moses who would lead his people into a new Promised Land, but the bringer of eternal life to the souls of believers.
The critical thing was the Christ figure as the mediator between the divine and the human levels. As the conception of Christ became stabilized through its elucidation in terms of Neoplatonic philosophy, he was at the same time both divine and human; he was, as formalized in the Nicene Creed, of the same—not similar—substance as the Father. (For the importance of the homousias formula, see Lietzmann 1938.) But as mortal, as dying in the crucifixion, he was a man, sharing all the attributes of humanity. He was the “Word made Flesh.”
The strict monotheism of Prophetic Judaism was thereby modified. God the Father had “begotten” his divine Son. The Son had the power to “save” the souls of men and they in turn could have access to this incomparable gift through faith, through commitment to him and his mission, not through belonging to the Chosen People. This conception in turn called for a third “aspect” of divinity, the Spirit which Christ emanated to the believers and by virtue of which they were reborn into eternal life. Hence the doctrine of the Trinity, which was at the same time one and three divine persons.
Against the background of Judaism the Christian doctrine can be seen to have preserved the transcendence of God, but at the same time broken the bond to the Chosen People as the sole basic vehicle of implementing the divine plan for man. The place of the People of Israel could be taken by the church, which by virtue of the role of the Holy Spirit could be conceived also as at once divine and human, the company of souls “in Christ,” which after death were somehow in “eternity” but in this life on earth constituted a special sort of sacred association. Basically it could only be a collectivity grounded on belief, not an ethnic one (the “People”). This was the theological basis of a critical step of differentiation between the religious system and the main structure of secular society, without which the historic mission of Christianity could not have occurred.
It was crucial that the constitutive symbolism of Christianity was built about the problem of death. The central validating event of Jesus’ mission was the crucifixion. That he died was the symbol of his humanity; that he was resurrected was the symbol of his divinity. The relation of the church to the risen Christ constituted a crucial break with Judaic tradition in that its promise to men was not the reward of a worldly collectivity (the Chosen People) in a future “land of milk and honey,” but the spiritual participation of the individual believer in “eternal life” and “in Christ.” Through the sacrificial death of Jesus, death in general was for the believer not denied but transcended (Nock 1964). The granting of divine status to the mortal human being, to the flesh, and to worldly concerns was perhaps more firmly repudiated than in any other religious tradition. However, in being given the opportunity for salvation, man was called to participate in the world of the divine, in his purely spiritual capacity. Thus, the great Christian step was to spiritualize man while still retaining the legitimation of a mission for him in this world. By contrast, what may be called archaic religions went much further in the direction of divinizing the human—for example, by regarding the Egyptian pharaoh as a god. Indeed, the formula for the spiritualizing of man constituted the essential religious basis of the conception of the church.
Against the background of Hellenism the universalism of the conception of order in human relations in this world could be preserved. Even though the pagan society of imperial Rome could not be positively sanctioned, it could be negatively tolerated, as in the formula “render unto Caesar [a pagan emperor] the things that are Caesar’s,” and Paul could be proud of his Roman citizenship. The articulation with the Christian theology, however, could go beyond the conception of an immanent order of nature to that of a potential new order which developed through the penetration of human society by the Divine Spirit through the agency of Christ and his church and the souls which had been elevated by their Christianization. There was here a new source of leverage over the world of secular human life, a basis, over the long run, of profound influence over it, the efficacy of which depended on many conditions, one of the most important of these being preservation of the basic Israelitic conceptual pattern that the mission of mankind was divinely ordained. The dimensions of this basic cultural orientation can be illuminated by its relation to four of the heresies that had to be combated well down into the Middle Ages.
The Gnostic heresy was perhaps most formidable in the eastern area in the early centuries. Derived from Neoplatonism and certain elements stemming from Persian and Egyptian cults, without the correctives of Hebrew and Roman empiricism and realism, it would have deprived Christianity of its leverage over the secular world by denying the reality of nature in favor of a realm of idealistic symbolization.
The major initial crisis, however, was over the Arian heresy, which in a certain sense was the obverse of the Gnostic heresy. It would essentially have denied the divinity of Christ by making him in substance only “similar” to the Father and thereby have deprived the church of the primary source of its leverage over the world. The church would have been at best divinely legitimized rather than “inspired.” Without the Athanasian victory over Arianism it is hard to see how the church could have maintained its independence under the pressures of institutionalization as the state religion of the Roman Empire.
The Manichaean and the Donatist heresies were particularly important in the developments from Augustine to the High Middle Ages. The Manichaeans, to whom Augustine at one time belonged, would have destroyed the integration of the divine and human spheres, which was so crucial to the mission of Christ and the church, in favor of a basic metaphysical dualism that saw human life as an unending struggle between the forces of light and darkness. The Augustinian doctrine, on the contrary, saw the Christian task as not merely to defeat the forces of evil, but to organize and eventually include the lower and worldly elements in the higher. Although the secular world of his time was only negatively tolerated, Augustine affirmed the potential of Christianization for the “City of Man.”
Finally, the Donatist heresy, although it had presented a major challenge even at the time of Augustine, came to a head at the time of Pope Gregory VII in the issue of the status of the clergy. It located the religious efficacy of priesthood not in the Holy Spirit as infused in the church but in the state of grace of the priest as an individual. Had it prevailed, it would have destroyed the fundamental collective character of the church, its capacity to serve as the agent of reorganization of secular life in the service of the religious ideal.
Thus, the early Christian church became clearly differentiated from any collective structure of the secular societies in which it originated and into which it spread. It thereby achieved a position of independence from all the structures of secular society, which was to prove of the utmost importance (Troeltsch 1912). As a collectivity itself, it embodied a type of structure that both favored its spread in the societies of the time and provided societies which had a considerable Christian population with a model for their change. Thus, in the Middle Ages the church was far more nearly modern in structure than was feudal society. Change came to be the modification of secular society to resemble the church, far more than the accommodation of the church to the secular patterns.
The Christian theological orientation provided the cultural grounding for establishment of the church as an association of believers committed through the faith and in a way that differentiated their status as church members from other elements of the status of the same people in the society in which they lived. The main patterns of institutionalization that the Christian church has assumed follow.
The first broad type is represented by the early church and in a considerably modified form by the many sectarian movements that have appeared throughout the history of Christianity. The common characteristic is the existence of the religious association of the Christian type as essentially a separate entity within a host society, without clearly stabilized relations to the rest of the society. It could, as the early church gradually did, move in the direction of establishment. It could also, like many pietistic sects, come to be stabilized in some kind of enclave within the society, under some kind of toleration—the Diaspora Jewish community is a model. Otherwise, it could fail to preserve its identity and could be dissolved or absorbed.
In the case of the early church the surrounding society was pagan. The church enjoyed a relatively high order of toleration, partly because in the earlier phases its members were relatively obscure people and were centered in the more impersonal urban communities. They supported themselves by work in the relatively ordinary ways; as Paul said, a man “must work that he may eat.” This social situation was associated with the eschatological orientation of the early phase. Concern was overwhelmingly with eternal life and preparation for it. The Second Coming was, at least in a mythological sense (how literally is difficult to tell), paramount in Christian expectations and was to be associated with the Last Judgment and the end of the temporal world.
This orientation was repeatedly renewed, but most sects took positions short of this extreme dissociation from the environing society. In the first place, the society itself had become in some sense Christian; hence the differentiation was interpreted to mean that it was imperfectly so. Very broadly, we can say that the worldly “activism” that we have considered to be a major feature of the Christian movement generally has precluded full long-run stabilization in a sectarian status. An innovative movement within the Christian system would in the nature of the case be oriented to influencing the definition and structure of the system as such, including of course its relation to secular society. Many movements with a more or less sectarian origin have of course found a “niche” —for example, as religious orders within the Catholic system or as denominations within the Protestant.
The second primary type of Christian organization is the Catholic. This is interpreted in the sense of an established church, which is the “state” religion of a politically organized society. The critical difference here from other cases in which membership in the religious community coincides ideally with that in the secular is the differentiation of the church as a social collectivity from the secular political collectivity, the state in more or less the medieval sense. Church and state in this sense are distinct organizations. Their relations to each other, however, have necessarily been complex. Again very broadly, the Eastern Orthodox church, which took primary shape within the Byzantine political structure from Constantine on, was, as Harnack in particular has emphasized, oriented by the transcendental concerns of Christians. It therefore tended to be concerned eventually with its particular version of monasticism and to give the orders a kind of primacy over the secular priesthood, which did not exist for the Roman Catholic church. This in a sense gave by default a special position to the secular political authority, since there was no papal monarchy to match the secular. By contrast, the Roman papacy and secular priesthood gave the church a stronger organizational position, especially in the earlier phases, by contrast with the weak secular structures of the declining western Roman Empire.
Both were Catholic, especially in the sense of establishing a sacramental order, which gave the visible church a specifically transcendental character. The sacraments as the “power of the keys” were in fact the direct means of dispensing divine grace (Troeltsch 1912).
The third basic type is the Protestant. Here the break is fundamentally with the sacramental system, making the “true” church “invisible” and salvation dependent, from the human side, on faith alone. Again, there have been, in the broadest terms, two main forms of Protestantism. The first of these carried over the pattern of the established church from the Catholic versions, with its presumption of the coincidence of the religious and the secular political communities. This position carried with it the obligation of the enforcement, by ecclesiastical and political authorities in varying relations to each other, of doctrinal orthodoxy as a condition both of religiously acceptable standing and of secular citizenship.
The second type of Protestant orientation has basically differentiated the religious from the political systems, in a sense far more radical than that of the Constantinian church and its successors. It “privatized” religious adherence, introduced religious toleration, and eventually promoted denominational pluralism and the separation of church and state.
The special “sectarian” character of the early church was an essential condition of the church’s institutionalization in the Roman Empire as differentiated from the secular “politically organized society.” Moreover, of the two main versions of Catholicism, the Roman had the greater evolutionary potential because it could give a special, new meaning to the conception of the “City of Man,” under the tutelary aegis of the church.
The shift to Protestantism essentially meant the abandonment of this tutelage with its special kind of religious paternalism. The Lutheran branch, however, had a sufficiently “inward” character, so that it entrusted the responsibilities for secular affairs to political authority in a manner somewhat similar to that of the Byzantine church and its Orthodox successor. The other main branch of Protestantism, the Calvinistic, was parallel to the Roman branch of Catholicism in developing in the activistic direction, placing the greatest emphasis up to that time on the conception of the kingdom of God on earth.
The spread of Christianity did not fail to occasion considerable disturbances, including the well-known persecutions of the Christians. However, the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great saw a consolidation of the social position of the movement. In 313 Constantine proclaimed full religious freedom for the Christians, in the Edict of Milan. He later took such an interest as to preside personally over the Council of Nicea (although perhaps partly for its political implications) and eventually was converted. By the end of the fourth century Emperor Constantine had established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire.
When the church came to comprise a large sector of the upper class of the empire as well as the emperor and his court it was necessary to restructure the terms that had defined the distinction between Christians, who as such were free of the entanglements of the sinful world, and pagans, who constituted the secular society. By the third century, the spreading movement comprised a considerable proportion of the population of the Roman Empire and had begun to penetrate the higher social levels of the empire. The Roman upper groups may have been corrupt and pleasureseeking, as legend of the Christian world has it to this day, but they were the carriers of the social responsibilities of their society, however badly they may have failed in their obligations. Clearly, not all of the upper-class converts to Christianity could withdraw from the secular world. Many of them, to be sure, did become anchorites. But some continued to be local magnates and even to hold imperial office.
The expansion of the church up to the critical period of the early fourth century was a slow and complex process. The basic role was evidently performed by the apostles, who as missionaries went from community to community to make converts. Among them, the original apostles, who had been the personal followers of Christ, were only the first of a continuing series. Where the apostles succeeded local associations were formed, which at first were highly informal. However, “teachers” and “deacons” soon appeared to assume certain differentiated functions in maintaining the doctrine and in carrying on the simple administrative tasks of the group. The oldest and largest churches, usually those located in communities that were particularly important in the secular society, became preeminent, and their officials assumed a special importance, especially in relation to the secular political order. Such preeminence soon became involved in the relations between the separate churches, and hence the offices of the leading churches became the points of crystallization for the episcopal organization of the church (Harnack 1902). It was natural that the emerging sacramental system and the administrative functions should become consolidated in the same office at both parish and episcopal levels.
This was a classic case of success threatening the deeper foundations of the values for which the original great commitments were made—not the last such case in Christian history. There is little doubt that this development presented the Christian church with an exceedingly severe temptation and that it partly succumbed. It succumbed much more fully in the eastern half of Christendom than in the western, a differentiation which became crucial in the development of the Western world and had much to do with the great schism of the eleventh century.
A most important feature of the Christian movement, as so far analyzed, was its establishment of independence from the ascriptive ethnic and lineage ties—whether Jewish or Greco-Roman—in which its predecessors had been involved. This was accomplished by combining a specifically religious orientation and a type of collective social organization of the religious community, which was in some respects as great an innovation as the constitutive religious symbolism itself. This independence was, however, notably threatened by the very success of the movement in reorganizing the religious constitution of the Roman Empire. The development of organized collective monasticism, as distinguished from individualistic anchoritism, was in important degree a response to this critical situation. This process—the major innovations being the work of St. Basil—resulted in a differentiation within the church that may be regarded as even more fundamental than that between clergy (administrators of the sacraments) and laity. This was the differentiation between the religious and the laity.
The religious, as members of the orders, became the elite of the church. Their withdrawal from the world, symbolized above all by the vows of poverty and chastity, insured the independence from secular ties which had been so basic to the early church but which had become so much more difficult for most Christians to attain under the new conditions. The vow of obedience can be seen as assuring selective obedience to religious authority, specifically of the abbot, and hence protection against non-religious influences and pressures.
In a sense this was a snobbish discrimination by “superior” Christians against “inferior” Christians. However, it differed crucially from the dualism of the early church in that the lay Christians were still Christians, not pagans, and were expected in principle to comprise practically the whole population of the relevant secular society, even though it took a long time to accomplish this. The pagan element had been religiously upgraded through its conversion by the Christian movement and had become eligible for inclusion, as a total society, in the category of Christian, at least potentially. Moreover, the society was not a small, precarious Chosen People in a vast sea of more powerful alien societies, but was the great Roman Empire, the secular organization of what then seemed to be practically the whole civilized world.
The conversion of Constantine was the event which symbolized concomitantly the enormous opportunity of the Christian church to shape the secular world and the equally enormous threat to its independence represented by its generalization to a great total population and by its conversion of the socially influential and responsible classes. The reality and importance of the threat is evidenced by the long series of conflicts between church and state and, more subtly and insidiously, the involvements of the clergy (and on occasion the orders) in the nexus of secular interests.
The next great stage of Christian history was associated with the differential fate of the two halves of the Roman Empire. In its original cultural constitution Christianity was much more Greek than Roman (Nock 1964; Jaeger 1961). It seems that it could not have arisen and grown to the level it attained had it been confined to the western half of the empire, since not only the Judaic but the Hellenistic component of its heritage was essential. Nevertheless, its greatest mission materialized not in its eastern “homeland,” but in the west. One condition of this lay in the fact that, for a longer period, the west proved to be politically less stable than the east. At the same time, the west was the focus of both the ancient origin and the medieval resurgence of the distinctively Roman institutions of autonomous legal order; in both respects it developed much further than the Greek and the Byzantine elements indigenous to the east.
The decline of the Roman Empire was in the first instance that of the western empire. The eastern portion became highly stabilized, surviving the western by a full millennium. Even though its structure was gradually undermined, the sheer length of this survival is an extraordinary fact. In the west, however, the new crisis of the disorganization of the secular society (beginning with the removal of the capital from Rome to Constantinople) was associated with a great and many-sided surge of organization and innovation in the church.
The tendency for the two halves of the empire to split politically was related to a parallel tendency within the church. At the time of the Council of Nicea, the Arian faction derived its main support from the eastern segments of the church and the Athanasian faction from the western (Lietzmann 1936). In accord with this division, the east moved broadly toward political stabilization without major cultural innovation, whereas the west tended more to foster cultural innovations within the church and organization changes partly determined by them. Four principal trends crystallized within a relatively short period.
(1) The highest levels of theological formulation were greatly transformed by the figure whose doctrines, more than those of anyone else, shaped the distinctive nature of western Christianity, namely, St. Augustine. He lived and worked in western north Africa and wrote in Latin, not Greek. As Harnack so clearly put it (Harnack 1916; Vasi1’ev 1917–1925), Augustine’s conception of the “City of God” was, in one of its two main references, a potentiality for human life on earth. It was not confined to the realm of eternal life after death. Although the emphasis on the basic metaphysical dualism between divine and human, spirit and flesh, remained as sharp as in the Alexandrian theology and was even sharpened in certain respects, salvation was conceived to be not only from the sinfulness of the flesh but also for participation in the divine mission that God had ordained for Christian man in and through the church. The use of the concept of city is particularly significant in that it emphasized the continuity of the conception of the church with that of the polis. This was indeed part of the larger framework within which Augustine produced a new level of cultural generalization in the synthesis of the Christian soteriological message and the main patterns of classical culture. The main orientations of the Eastern church remained at the level of theological concern established by the Alexandrine Fathers, whereas, with Augustine, the west began to build a new foundation, upon which grew the whole Western development, including both Scholasticism and the Reformation.
(2) We have noted that the monastic movement was first established in the east, emerging in close relation to the spread of Christianity, which culminated in its becoming the state religion of the empire. Basilian monasticism, which predominated in the Eastern church for many centuries, was overwhelmingly contemplative and devotional in its emphasis. But in the west there followed closely upon the theology of Augustine and certainly in connection with it a new turn in the monastic movement, starting with the establishment of the Benedictine order (Tufari 1965). The Benedictine Rule instituted a regime of secular useful work for its members, labor in agriculture and in crafts, as a religiously valued ascetic exercise—as Weber particularly noted. One might say that labor was no longer conceived as simply the “curse of Adam,” but as an essential component of the most fully Christian way of life. It was patently connected with a synthesis of the transcendental focus of Christianity and the exigencies of Christian life in this world. Fostering this orientation, the Benedictine order was the first in a series of involvements by the monastic elements of the Western church with the problems, first, of firmly establishing the church in its relations with secular society and, second, of improving secular society itself from a Christian point of view.
(3) The west strongly consolidated the organizational structure of the church itself, with special reference to the position of the secular clergy and their control. In contrast to the Byzantine pattern, which placed the emperor religiously as well as politically above any bishop, the crucial factor in this development was the consolidation of the Roman papacy and the establishment of the primacy of the See of Rome and of the position of its bishop as the true head of the church in the west. Presumably the pope could not have assumed primacy had be been confronted with an emperor who claimed to be head of the church and was resident in the same city. But with the emperor a thousand miles away and Italy in a condition of relative political chaos, the elevation was possible. Of course, the traditions of Peter’s mission to and martyrdom in Rome provided cultural legitimation for this crucial organizational change.
(4) Underlying this organizational consolidation were developments in the sacramental system, especially its extension to all the laity. The core sacrament, the Eucharist, formally ritualized the central constitutive symbolism of Christianity, the sacrificial death of Jesus and its transcendence. The Mass was the primary occasion upon which the communal solidarity of all members of the church was demonstrated at the parish level. (Weber [192la] especially emphasized that the common participation in the Mass included all social classes.)
The sacramental system required a formally ordained, professional priesthood. The episcopal system organized the priesthood in a firm way, and papal monarchy had an opportunity to hold the territorially scattered bishops to a common organizational focus. These features of the organization of the church, which gradually became increasingly formalized and systematized through the development of canon law and administrative agencies, was particularly important because of the decentralized, segmented nature of the emerging feudal society. In the face of these tendencies the church in the west maintained a fundamental unity and a relatively bureaucratic structure.
What was new in the Western church was the idea that the church was not only ordained for the salvation of souls for eternity, but that it also had a mission for this world, to establish the kingdom of God on earth. In the first instance, this was to be realized in the monastic life, then in the church as a whole, and eventually in the whole of secular society. In contrast, the Eastern church had only one focus: eternity and the afterlife of the individual (Harnack 1916). Even when secular society had been Christianized (in the fourth-century sense), the true Christian was to live by the tenet “in but not of” it, almost in the Pauline sense. At the same time the church as organization had to come to terms with secular society, a fact particularly conspicuous at the parish level in the status of the priesthood as both married and virtually hereditary. At the highest social level the direct involvement of the church with government was indicative of a similar mode of accommodation. There was never an independent status of the church, with respect to secular society as a whole, comparable to that attained in the west. The Eastern church remained, in Harnack’s striking phrase, “frozen” at the level of religious concern attained by Christianity generally in the third and fourth centuries under the influence of the theologians who had been Neoplatonists in philosophy. In these terms, a great turning point in the history of Christianity came in the west with the theology of Augustine.
The first culmination of the Western development was what Troeltsch called the “Christian society” of the High Middle Ages. This was partly preceded but also accompanied by a major development in monasticism, centering first in the Cluniac order, and by a new surge of energy and organizational reform in the church itself, especially during the papacy of Gregory vii, who had probably been a Cluniac monk himself. Certainly one of the most significant reforms was the formal institutionalization of clerical celibacy for the secular priesthood, which contributed greatly to the organizational independence of the church. However imperfect the enforcement of celibacy may have been, the policy meant that no priest—including bishops, who were often men of great power—could have legitimate heirs, so that clerical office could not become hereditary. This was particularly important, as Lea (1867) made clear, because the institution of aristocracy was becoming so central to secular society at that time.
Monasticism was also very much involved in the new theological developments, under the stimulus of Scholastic philosophy, especially within the Dominican order. Culminating in the Summa theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Scholasticism carried the integration of theology and philosophy a long step forward and, through the influence of the rediscovered text of Aristotle, accomplished a new and more thorough incorporation of classical culture.
Greater involvement in the secular world was symbolized by the active building of churches, especially of cathedrals, all over Europe. This not only implied an increased concern for the lay Christian, providing better for his worship, but also gave him more opportunity to express his religious concern, since church building required immense efforts from whole communities. Great ecclesiastics competed for the services of architects; village stonemasons embellished the great piers of cathedrals with intricate carvings, and elaborate façades were peopled with sculptured figures, while painting and stained glass decorated interiors.
There was certainly a connection between these religious developments and the growth of urban communities. For example, the guilds, which were becoming ever more prominent in the secular organization of the cities, profited immensely in wealth and power from their part in building the cathedrals and great abbeys. Significantly, no less an authority than St. Thomas held the urban way of life more favorable to Christian virtue than the rural (Troeltsch 1912, p. ’295 in vol. 1 of the 1960 edition)—an interesting contrast to some nineteenth-century religious views. A new level of concern for the laity was also shown in the increasing ecclesiastical emphasis on Christian charity, in which again monasticism, particularly the Franciscan movement, played the leading role. The material, as well as the spiritual, welfare of the economically disadvantaged Christian became more and more the concern of the church.
In growing measure the ecclesiastical development of the Middle Ages became Pan-European, at least from south to north. Italy, as the seat of the papacy, in many respects took the leading role, despite the fact that Scholasticism centered in Paris rather than in Rome; but in general the characteristic changes were as conspicuous north of the Alps as south. The Middle Ages developed a European society and culture far more than ever before, even at the height of Roman influence.
The medieval Christian system was hierarchical. At the top stood the members of the religious orders, who lived the fully religious life—with whatever lapses—and stored up “treasure in heaven” for the benefit of their less committed lay brethren. Not only did the orders exhibit an increasing concern for the world, both in church and in secular life, but also, in sharp contrast to Buddhist monasticism, this religious “upper class” was linked to the laity by an independent secular clergy that controlled the power of the keys.
The Christian laity were in religious terms all presumptive equals. Of course, one must recognize that at this stage there was no implication of secular, social or economic, equality. Not even slavery was morally condemned, although humane treatment of slaves was enjoined. Secular society was highly stratified, with rapidly crystallizing institutions of hereditary aristocracy. These changed gradually from predominantly feudal forms into territorial monarchies, with the monarchs heading the aristocratic classes. The mass of the common people were the tillers of the soil. However, European society differed from many others with a predominantly peasant base and an aristocratic elite in that, largely as a heritage of classical antiquity, corporately organized towns played a very important part. Their organization provided essential models and centers for the development of more egalitarian forms of political institutions and of law, as well as of guild industry and commerce. Crucially, their bourgeois citizens were neither aristocrats nor peasants, but an essentially independent middle class.
Medieval European societies were the first in history to have basic religious uniformity for a very large population as a whole. At the same time they fundamentally differentiated the religious organization, the church, from the secular structure, what in this special sense has been called the state. Thus, within the context of the total society, the church was able to maintain its structural independence. This fact, combined with its organizational features and relatively this-worldly orientation, enabled the church to exert an unprecedented influence on the process of social development.
Both culturally and socially there were certain inherent elements of instability in the medieval system which a certain contemporary romanticism is prone to obscure. On the whole, however, these seem to have involved openness to progressive change rather than a tendency to breakdown or societal regression. On the cultural side, the Scholastic system was shot through with tensions and controversies. Certainly, the emergence of nominalism as a major movement on the borderline between theology and philosophy was highly significant (Mcllwain 1932; Southern 1953; Kristeller 1955; Huizinga 1919). In accord with Thomas’ example in seeking confirmation from Aristotle there was a general turning to classical sources and models—for example, the humanistic concern with classical literature and the revival of interest in Roman law which, especially in relation to the place of canon law within the church, began early in the Middle Ages (Gierke 1881). In fact, the high medieval culture merged almost imperceptibly into that of the Renaissance, however important certain dramatic advances may have been, such as those of Giotto and Masaccio in painting.
These processes of cultural elaboration and differentiation were grounded in the commitment of the Christian movement, especially accentuated in the west, to a genuine synthesis with classical culture. The critical development was the emergence of a differentiated system of secular culture more or less directly articulated with Christian orientations and, despite many tensions, legitimated in general by Christian values. Perhaps the most obvious field is that of art, where architecture was heavily oriented to the church and where painting, besides embellishing churches, dealt almost exclusively with religious subjects.
There was also instability in the relations between the church as organization and secular society. The imposition of clerical celibacy had been in one respect a measure to protect the autonomy of the church from over-involvement in the responsibilities, as well as the perquisites and privileges, of secular affairs. The “investiture controversy” was typical of the structural difficulties at the feudal core of the system, because the bishops, as the principal officers of the church, were responsible for both its political and its property interests. But in feudal terms, the church as corporation could not simply “own” property or enjoy political “rights” in the modern sense. The church was so interwoven with the feudal system that, as property holder, it also became the lord with temporal political jurisdiction, a circumstance that gave rise to a basic question of allegiance: Where did it lie, with the church or the secular authority? In medieval terms, no clear answer was possible (Troeltsch 1912, chapter 2, parts 3 and 4).
Thus, there was an unstable oscillation between ecclesiastical subordination to secular authorities and the direct assumption of secular power by the church, as in the papal states and in a few ecclesiastical principalities north of the Alps. It was inevitable that religious and ecclesiastical problems became intertwined with secular politics, so that the tensions in one sphere fed into the other. This situation goes far to explain the fact that the Reformation stimulated a full break in the unity of western Christendom rather than a “reform” of the church in the more usual sense.
The whole spectrum of cultural development, however, from the spheres of philosophy closest to the theology of the church to the most secular aspects of arts, letters, and eventually science, steadily eroded the cultural foundations of the medieval system. Socially, the feudal core of the society receded in relative importance before the rise of the Italian city-states with their commerce and manufacturing, the growth of the free cities of the Holy Roman Empire north of the Alps from Switzerland to the Netherlands, and the establishment of truly national states, particularly France and England.
The Reformation was the culmination in the strictly religious sphere of the general trend of social and cultural change away from the medieval system and toward modernity. Although it was hostile to certain of the Renaissance achievements (e.g., in art), its basic continuity with the Renaissance is the more impressive fact, as evidenced in the close following of the Italian initiatives in science by Protestant scientists in Holland and England and the hostility of the Protestant north to many of the artistic innovations coming from Italy. It is not unimportant that the founder of the more “progressive” wing of the Protestant movement, Calvin, was trained in law as well as in theology. The Reformation became intimately related to the development of nationalism—vernacular translations of the Bible multiplied—and some Protestant areas advanced very rapidly in economic development.
Although its consequences and implications took long to unfold, the Reformation constituted both a truly fundamental innovation and an authentic evolutionary development from the medieval Catholic base. The aspect of greatest interest here concerns primarily the relation of the religious system to the secular society.
At the strictly religious level the crucial development was the upgrading of the Christian laity. This was effected by ending the individual’s dependence on sacerdotal mediation. The individual soul stood in immediate relation to God through Christ (Bellah 1964). With respect to the ancient triad of functions the effect was to throw emphasis strongly away from the institutional forms of the “cure of souls” and of “casuistry.” It opened the door to an altogether new emphasis on “conscience,” which emerged particularly in the Calvinistic branch, once the more subjective concerns of Lutheranism had given way to concern with objective activism in secular callings. Although it is true that the basic status differential was eliminated, this did not imply any lowering in the evaluation of the clergy or of the system, within which statuses had been “equalized.”
The upgrading is expressed in the basic Protestant doctrine of the invisibility of the true church. The visible social organization, the concrete church with its priests and sacraments, is not the mystical body of Christ; the latter exists only in the souls of those who by faith are its true members in the eyes of God. The visible church has become “secularized.” But in the true visible church the layman has been placed on equal footing with the religious. If the layman truly gives his commitment of faith and accepts the divine grace, his status of sanctification is fully equal to that which had previously been reserved to the monk.
The radical implication was that it is not necessary, in order to be sanctified, to lead a way of life apart from the secular world and under a special discipline (Weber 1904–1905). Religious merit was in principle compatible with any ethically acceptable worldly “calling.” Moreover, as Luther himself deliberately dramatized, it was compatible with marriage. Thus, the two crucial vows of poverty and chastity were no longer preconditions of the “truly” Christian life. The same fate for the vow of obedience was inevitable because, in the monastic state, obedience was owed to a human ecclesiastical authority, in the first instance to the abbot. The differentiation of church and state clearly meant that ecclesiastical authority could not govern conduct in secular callings and presumably not in any complete sense in marriage and family life. The legitimation of monastic separatism as the one pattern of the fully Christian life was thereby destroyed.
The change in the status of the sacraments as administered by the secular clergy was parallel. The direct relation of the individual’s soul to God in seeking grace through faith precluded any humanly administered mechanism from intervention in God’s dispensation of grace. The minister became basically a teacher, counselor, and leader of his congregation (Troeltsch 1912, chapter 3 in vol. 1 of the 1960 edition).
The human individual was no longer conceived as a unitary entity, whose secular or worldly life was inseparable from its spiritual state, but as encompassing a much sharper differentiation between the two components. The aspiration to gain sanctification would yet have consequences for conduct in the secular world, but the commitment of the religious would no longer be embodied in a way of life concretely different from that of the nonreligious. The same principle obtained in regard to the sacraments. No concrete acts of human beings could automatically dispense or withhold grace. The only source of grace was directly divine, and grace could come to the individual only through his private, subjective acceptance of it.
To understand the potential significance of this shift it is essential to reconsider the whole development since early Christianity. The early church and its membership constituted a precarious island of sanctification in a sea of paganism, the latter comprising the whole structure of the secular society. With the successful proselytization of the whole of Western society and Christianity’s emergence as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the newly differentiated religious orders became the elite vanguard of the church. They preserved the central Christian orientation from secularization by absorption in an environment that was not fully Christian in the religious sense and led the movement to the upgrading of the whole lay population on Christian terms.
The Christian society of the High Middle Ages was a class-stratified religious society in that the visible church was endowed with a kind of fundamental guardianship, first and foremost over secular society—the position of the state in this connection being highly equivocal. Within the church there was a parallel guardianship of the laity by the clergy, both regular and secular. Since the Reformation was in the first instance a “revolution” within the church, its primary consequence was, as noted, the emancipation of the laity from this guardianship by the clergy. The implications for secular society, however, were implicit and could not fail to become salient unless the whole development were suppressed.
Although events moved much more rapidly during the Reformation than during the spread of Christianity in the ancient world, there is a significant similarity of pattern. Once a movement apparently so alien to the Roman ethos as Christianity was able to reach a position to bid for religious ascendancy in the empire, an alliance with secular authority was inevitable. In this case, it took the form of conversion of the legitimate Roman emperor and the eventual proclamation of the official status of Christianity. It would have made some, but perhaps not a fundamental, difference if a Christian military leader had gained political supremacy by conquest, as was typical in the spread of Islam. In either case the secularizing influence of political involvement would have operated. As noted, the primary response of the Christian church was to protect its independence, first, by the development of religious orders that had considerably more independence from secular society than the secular clergy, and, second, by retreating into the politically disorganized west, where the secular authority was relatively weak.
The parallel events in the Reformation involve Luther’s alliance with the German princes. (In certain contexts Luther may be considered the Constantine of his day—in the sense of being a politicized churchman, not a converted emperor.) Had not this religious innovation, too, enlisted political power during its crucial period, it could never have succeeded. It could not have become consolidated in strategic metropolitan centers and thus enjoyed the opportunity to spread into new areas. The price of this alliance, however, was a conservative turn—in the social sense—of the religious movement itself, exemplified by Luther’s repressive attitude toward the peasant revolts and his general support of secular authoritarianism.
The developments of this period were the result of a complex combination of innovating and conservative elements at work. The princes were in fact pioneers in the construction of the national state, one of the institutional foundations of modern society. They were, however, at the same time markedly authoritarian in regard to independent movements within their jurisdictions. Luther’s conservative position in economic affairs and especially affairs of political sovereignty vis-à-vis the subjects of the princes, accorded with this context. In an important sense, conservatism culminated in the Lutheran movement’s acceptance of the Erastian principle that the political sovereign should also be the formal head of the church. Here, the development tended, as in Eastern Christianity, toward a symbiosis of church and state, severely compromising the religious potential for reconstructing the secular world. The parallel to the mystical, otherworldly orientation of Eastern monasticism was the Lutheran stress on “inwardness” of the Protestant Christian orientation, which also precluded undertaking major responsibilities in secular affairs. The truly Christian individual was to be primarily concerned with settling his accounts with God and hence relatively indifferent to the fate of secular affairs. The main responsibility for these affairs was to be left to a divinely ordained secular authority. Furthermore, the whole orientation was shot through with pessimistic convictions about the essential sinfulness of secular man, which would inevitably manifest itself in widespread unethical conduct, which could be checked only by a liberal resort to coercive measures on the part of the civil authorities (Troeltsch 1906; 1912, chapter 3, part 2 in vol. 1 of the 1960 edition). Although this conception was another version of the Christian society, it was not a very inspiring one from the viewpoint of secular idealism.
As must be expected of social movements directed toward such broad and generalized social change (Smelser 1962), Reformation Christianity has been characterized by a multiplicity of sectarian movements having a wide variety of orientational content and possibilities for influencing later social developments—as indeed has virtually every subsequent phase of Christianity. Some have been strongly chiliastic and sometimes antinomian and as such have generally failed to become permanently institutionalized—historically one of the most important was the Anabaptist movement (Cohn 1957; Knox 1950). Others have secured more or less stable interstitial positions (e.g., some of the Pietistic movements). Still others, like the two most important American movements, Mormonism and Christian Science, have been relatively close to the main line of ascetic Protestant development.
The major Protestant alternative to the Lutheran development may be considered the main developmental line of Protestantism, if not of Christianity as a whole. Broadly, this started with the Calvinist wing of the Reformation. There is a striking parallel between this major differentiation within Protestantism and that between the eastern and western branches of the earlier church, even the geographical reference remaining stable in that the western was the more activistic branch. Indeed one might even suggest some significance in the fact of continuity with Rome; whereas Luther was a German monk steeped in Scholastic philosophy, Calvin was a Frenchman who had a predominantly lay education with special reference to law in the Roman tradition.
Asceticism within the Protestant framework had to be “this-worldly” in Weber’s sense. Precisely by maintenance of the basic radical dualism between the transcendental and the “world” within that framework, the activistic potentials inherent in the whole Christian movement (and indeed back of it, in Judaism) were accentuated to a far higher degree than had been possible in the Catholic tradition. On the one hand, Calvinism, in common with the Lutheran branch, had emancipated secular society from ecclesiastical tutelage and put it “on its own”; on the other hand, the Calvinist version of the tensions between the divine mission and the human condition gave a far stronger anchorage to activistic orientations than did the Lutheran tendency toward resignation in the face of sin and divine Providence.
The Calvinist pattern centered on the conception, foreshadowed by Augustine but newly accentuated, of the holy community destined by divine mandate, but implemented by human agency, to bring into being a kingdom of God on earth (Miller 1956). This was from one aspect a collective orientation, but from another was perhaps the most radical expression of Christian individualism; at least it was an orientation to realistic possibilities of institutionalization in secular society rather than otherworldliness or antinomian expectations. Calvinism was, however, a developing religious system in a complex cultural and social environment, so that considerable time elapsed and many changes occurred before certain of the most important potentialities could emerge.
In the more immediate situation, the Reformation precipitated a critical period of conflict and reorganization in European society as a whole (Elton 1963)—to be sure, other factors were also involved, for example, the political impetus which led to and derived from the discoveries and extra-European expansion. The broad outcome of the tensions, which in secular terms operated mainly at the political level, was the creation of a northern European tier of predominantly Protestant communities. However, there were many crosscurrents in the political struggles, including those within the Protestant movement. The Catholic political bastions were Spain and the eastern Hapsburg domain, with disunited Italy being a continual battleground of interests. Northeastern Germany became solidly Protestant and with Scandinavia was the main focus of the institutionalization of Lutheranism. However, the most potent political unit of this system, the monarchy of Prussia, came to be dominated by a special version of Calvinism (Kayser 1961).
On the western wing, England, while also becoming, with her colonies in North America, the most important “mother” of institutionalized ascetic Protestantism, adopted in the Church of England the most nearly Catholic type of ecclesiastical organization of any Protestant church. France, after a bitter internal struggle in which the Protestant forces almost gained control, was carried by the most important Catholic victory during the wars of religion, but in a form which destroyed her religio–political “orthodoxy” and in some important respects paved the way for the French Revolution. Holland, in the heat of her struggle for independence from Spanish rule, was for a time the most Protestant of countries, only gradually to attenuate this characteristic in the subsequent period —a fact associated with the preservation, largely under French auspices, of the Catholicism of Flanders and of the German Rhineland, especially of its northern reaches.
The outcome of these complex restructurings, which was clear by the early eighteenth century, was politically inconclusive, but in one sense it was crucially decisive. The Reformation permanently broke the medieval form of the religious unity of western Christendom, and a Europe was created in which religious and political elements were interwoven in a very intricate, pluralistic fashion. Thus, in the mid-eighteenth century His Most Catholic Majesty, the king of France, could find himself first in an alliance negotiated by a cardinal with the Calvinist king of Prussia against the Hapsburgs and then in support of the very Protestant American colonies in their war of independence against the also Protestant British. After 1688 the danger of old-style political-Catholic domination of Britain was past. The position of Prussia made clear that there could be no Catholic reconquest of the eastern boundaries of the main European system—the Hapsburg monopoly was broken. Moreover, major societies of European origin and of predominantly ascetic Protestant orientation had been implanted overseas, beyond any basic control of the parent European system.
The main foundations of the ascetic Protestant religio-political system were laid in Holland and particularly in Great Britain (including Scotland) during the seventeenth century. The earlier version of the conception of the holy community was most dramatically embodied in the Commonwealth under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Although this drastic political innovation lasted only a few years, like the Calvinist movement in France, it left indelible marks on the whole future of the country. The Restoration brought back the monarchy and aristocracy and consolidated the position of the Church of England, but by the time of the Settlement of 1688, religious toleration was assured and opportunity was opened for nonconformism to develop further—a Catholic restoration of the French type would surely have precluded a Methodist movement so soon after the Stuarts.
Besides the religious movement itself, this enormous “effervescence” crucially advanced the development of the British parliamentary system, which eventually extended into a political democracy. It greatly aided the consolidation of the characteristic features of the common law and hence the establishment of the foundations of the legal component of modern citizenship, the famous “rights of Englishmen” (Little 1963; Marshall 1934–1962). It also created a social environment more congenial to the development of science than any hitherto found in the west—the century and country of Cromwell were also those of Newton (Merton 1938). Finally, the very fact that the political emphases of the Cromwellian venture failed to gain ascendancy probably shifted the balance in favor of the economic emphases, which Weber elucidated in his famous analysis. All of these factors—admittedly combined with various others—had much to do with the fact that in the later eighteenth century it was Great Britain that fostered the momentous beginnings of the industrial revolution.
The foregoing summary is not meant to imply that the development in seventeenth-century England was either unitary or independent of non-Protestant antecedents. The depth of the internal division which was manifested politically in the English Civil War is clear. However, the Stuart Restoration did not become consolidated and a new unity was achieved after 1688 which broke the chronic tendency of the crown under the Stuarts to ally itself with Catholic powers and to threaten the Protestant succession. The main framework of the legal system was established, as was religious toleration. In the case of science, of course, the main foundations of the modern development had been laid in Renaissance Italy with Galileo as the most notable figure, but England provided a newly favorable cultural and social environment for the next main phase, with Newton as the great symbolic figure, and the establishment of the Royal Society as the organizational focus.
England was thus unique in the combination of cultural and social factors which led toward modernization. Its only close rival was Holland. Here, however, the efflorescence was briefer and somewhat less widespread—for example, there was less development in the fields of law and parliamentary institutions. Moreover, the insular position of England encouraged the development of a solidary national community and protected her more fully against the inhibiting and disruptive influences of the complex Continental situation, such as the military threats that would encourage a large standing army and restrictions of economic access to trade with immediately neighboring countries. In particular, England was in a strikingly advantageous position to extend her politico–economic influence beyond Europe, and this included religious as well as other types of development overseas.
On the cultural side, another extremely important difference seems to have been established, broadly, between predominantly Catholic and predominantly Protestant Europe. It has been emphasized above that the relation between Christianity and the more secular elements of culture, with their special roots in the classical heritage, presented problems of great significance. The Christian capacity to synthesize with these cultural movements, which in its terms have been primarily secular, has been one of its most important features.
The rise of early modern science, in its connections with philosophy, presented a new set of problems for the nature of this synthesis. Here the more ascetic branches of Protestantism seem to have been able to develop a relation with substantially less immediate and overt conflict than the more predominantly Catholic cultures—with the exception of what later came to be defined as the “fundamentalist” trends in Protestantism. The somewhat special relation between science and Puritanism in seventeenth-century England is a prominent case (Merton 1938), although the situation in Holland was similar in the same period.
By contrast, there seemed to be a greater conflict between science, and more generally the “intellectuals,” and religion in the Catholic sphere. This came to a head in eighteenth-century France in the Enlightenment. By and large, the orientation of the Enlightenment was antireligious, which of course meant anti-Christian. Since the religious structure was Catholic, it was also anticlerical because of the central place of the clergy in the Catholic system. On the whole, the antireligious themes among persons committed to the secular intellectual disciplines have been much less prominent in Protestant areas, again especially those of ascetic Protestantism, although of course it has not been absent. This division still persists, especially between Continental European intellectuals and those of Anglo-American provenience. Thus, the resonance of Marxism has been notably weak in the latter area, which can almost certainly be associated with the militant anti-Christianism of the Marxists.
There is an important sense in which the modernizing outcome of the European development of ascetic Protestantism occurred mainly in North America, although also in other places. In any case, the development there may serve to illustrate the second main subtype of Protestant institutionalization defined in the classification that was outlined above, namely, that characterized for a whole society by the “privatization” of organized religion and hence by the separation of church and state and the “spelling out” of religious toleration in a system of denominational pluralism, in which there is no distinction, as has persisted in England, between an established church and a set of “nonconformist” groups.
This development marks an important step in the general evolutionary trend of the Christian system from the “aspiration to Universal Brotherhood, to the institutionalization of Universal Otherhood” (Nelson 1949). The United States represents by far the largest scale of institutionalization of this type, and in addition, the fact of the American position of power and influence on the world scene, which has developed in the present century, gives this case a special empirical importance.
The case is, however, meant to deal with the realization of the “liberalizing” potentiality of Protestant development from a Calvinistic base, because of the special evolutionary significance of that trend in the total Christian picture. The role of this Protestant liberalism has been one of leading a trend, which could in turn be adopted by other groups, partly because of the generally modernizing developments in the respective societies, as in Scandinavia and much of Lutheran northern Germany and partly because of the impact of the “liberal” Protestant model which, for example, has certainly affected the development of the Catholic church.
Early Calvinism was predominantly collectivist in orientation. At the purely religious level it embodied the old Christian duality of spirit and flesh in the radical form of the doctrine of predestination. As interpreted in certain phases of Calvinism, this purported to categorize concrete human persons as either saved or damned, by divine decree, from eternity. Although the strict theological terms admitted of no visible signs of election, the social tendency was toward a certain kind of elitism, the rule of the presumptively elect over the presumptively damned, the reprobates. Nevertheless; this doctrine basically undermined the institution of aristocracy in the older European sense. There was never the slightest suggestion that God “predestined” persons to election by virtue of their ancestry; had there been, it would have been indefensible in theological terms. Moreover, the invisibility of the status of election raised the question of whether those who claimed it were not merely self-appointed.
Predestination tended continually to be confused with predeterminism and in this interpretation never could have been a genuinely Christian doctrine. It is one thing to assert that salvation comes to all men as a gift of God and that men are thus predestined to salvation. It is quite another to assert that some men are predestined to election and others to rejection. This latter interpretation was too radically in contradiction to the central conception of the mission of Christ to mediate the salvation of all humanity.
There is now clear evidence that the radical” social elitism of original Calvinism should be regarded as characteristic only of an early phase of its development (Loubser 1965). In only two major cases has it actually lasted into the modern situation, namely, that of Prussia and that of the conservative wing of Dutch Calvinism in South Africa. In both the Prussian and the South African cases there was a crosscutting with religiously adventitious factors, which made anything like the relatively “pure” development of North American Christianity impossible. Both cases have in common an element of Christian militancy in facing a threatening environment on a frontier in such a way as to make their pattern of action religiously acceptable. Furthermore, in both cases the populations embodying the perceived threats were regarded as inferior by the bearers of the main tradition, namely, the Slavs on the eastern border of Germany and the “blacks” in South Africa.
American Protestant “fundamentalism” might be regarded as a third survival of “old Calvinism.” In the South it has been intimately associated with racial segregation and the doctrine of the inferiority of the Negro. Like the South African and Prussian cases, it has been related to the frontier experience and indeed has recently been associated with the parts of the country where frontier traditions persist the most.
There can be little doubt, however, that the main line of development from the Calvinistic base has been a liberalizing one and, moreover, has not been predominantly secularizing in the sense of loss of religious commitment. Development along this main line has occurred in a number of nations, certainly in Holland and England, but most purely in the United States, with its earlier phases centering in Massachusetts.
As the general Protestant differentiation between the spiritual and secular components of an individual person matured, the predestination theology, with its categorization of total persons in temporal life as either sanctified or damned, became untenable. The basic Protestant tenet of salvation by faith then gained application to any individual who would make the commitment of faith, With this development, the conception of the church as in partnership with the political authority to enforce church discipline on the unregenerate also became untenable. The invisible church was a communion of souls in the faith, and the visible church of necessity became a voluntary association (Loubser 1964).
This development had gone so far by Independence that the provisions of the first amendment, separation of church and state and freedom of religion, were not seriously contested in the Constitutional Convention (Miller 1965). This fact was an index not of religious indifference, but of consensus on the religious principles involved. Another indication is that many local churches disapproved of taxation for support of the church well before it was held to be unconstitutional.
This article does not assert that on religious grounds alone the development that took place in America was inevitable. That, as contrasted with Dutch Calvinism in South Africa and, indeed, with much of American fundamentalism, it did take this direction was a function of a variety of social, economic, and political circumstances, some of which will be outlined. The crucial point here is that the religious system had the potential for this development, which was a religiously authentic and legitimate alternative. Its emergence, in stronger form than elsewhere, cannot be interpreted simply as the “rationalization” of a developing set of economic interests, as has so often been asserted.
This development was certainly favored by political decentralization, which predominated during the earlier phases of American society and gave wide scope for voluntary associations. The political structure also favored independent activity of the committed Christian in his calling—and not necessarily in any context of association—hence in that aspect of individualistic economic action associated with Max Weber’s analysis of the relation between Protestantism and the development of capitalism. For a variety of reasons and under a variety of influences, America during the nineteenth century became in certain senses increasingly individualistic. However, this fact should not be placed outside the larger context of the conception of a holy community. The conception of the holy community was paramount among the early Protestant colonists, in Virginia as well as in New England (Miller 1956; 1959). As the scope of communication, trade, and common destiny grew the independent units tended to consolidate into a single community, a new “nation under God.”
By the time of its establishment the new nation was religiously and politically pluralistic and was progressively developing increasing degrees of social and economic pluralism. Religiously, it went very far toward basing itself on the principle of voluntary association, a tendency that was virtually complete early in the nineteenth century. Although the exigencies that constrain political voluntarism are harsher, the trend was also toward a “free” polity more exposed to the hazards of populism than to those of traditional European authoritarianism.
The “individualism” of ascetic Protestantism should be understood in this context. It should be remembered that the Reformation eliminated the “two-world” system by virtue of which secular life in general and the secular callings of individuals in particular could not be valued equally with the “religious” callings. However, just as the religious calling and achievement of the individual in the monastic system occurred within the framework of the church, so the religiously critical performances of the Protestant layman in his calling occurred within the context of the holy community, which included both visible church and secular society, even though they were differentiated. Ascetic Protestant activism meant that “innerworldly” callings constituted the primary field for the individual to implement his religious commitments. The intensive activism of the general Christian commitment to regenerate (and hence upgrade) life was thereby channeled into achievement in worldly callings, among them, although by no means predominantly, business achievement.
This individualistic pattern bestowed the strong sanction of religious commitment on what is now often called achievement motivation and fostered the internalization of such motivation by typical individuals (Weber 1904–1905). It imbued the typical ascetic Protestant with a strong sense of responsibility for achievements in this-worldly callings, the obverse of which was the ambition to “succeed.” This has not been primarily an anarchic individualism of impatience at all social restraint but an institutionalized individualism, the achievement of the individual ideally being a contribution to the building of the holy community. Thus, American individualism has been congruent with a prominent development of nationalism and the pervasive presence of many varieties of association, including much large-scale organization. What there is of the attempt to break down restraints in general—and there is a good deal—is more ideology than direct expression of the central cultural pattern.
American society has recently developed a trend that seems most important against the background of the historical trends sketched above. In its formative period the United States was an overwhelmingly Protestant society and one that developed its religious constitution in a liberal direction and toward a relatively advanced level of religious toleration. By immigration it acquired a large number of non-Protestants, so that by now about a quarter of the population is Roman Catholic and a very substantial number are Jewish. The change in the religious character of the immigrants culminated in the generation extending from about 1890 to World War i.
The crucial phenomenon is the inclusion of the non-Protestant groups in a national community which, though of course secular in government, still retains its religious character as a holy community in the transformed sense of a “nation under God.” It has become a Judaeondash;Christian ecumenical community having the positive form of religious toleration entailed in a denominational pluralism, which has been extended to all major groups in the population, including “secular humanists,” who prefer to avoid involvement in organized denominational bodies (Herberg 1955; Parsons 1960). The important core of such groups is not the religiously “indifferent” who simply “backslide” in their religious principles, but the intellectuals who have severe reservations about commitment to any of the more traditional denominational positions. By contrast with much of Continental Europe, the American groups have generally not been characterized by militant atheism or anticlericalism.
We can thus speak of a near-consensus on a “civic” religion—perhaps somewhere near the boundary between theism and deism—expressed in such conceptions as “One Nation Under God” and “In God We Trust” (Bellah 1965). This in turn articulates with and legitimates the broad moral consensus on what I have called the pattern of institutionalized individualism, most massively expressed recently in the civil rights movement, which had the conspicuous backing of all the important religious groups as well as of the “humanists” and agnostics.
The religion of the churches, on the other hand, has been both voluntarized and privatized. More detailed belief systems, more specific observances, variations in ecclesiastical polity, and the extent of the individual’s commitment to them are largely confined to the denominational level and its embodiment in the particular parish. Broadly, all of the groups that historically have belonged in the established church tradition—for which a Jewish equivalent may be discerned in Orthodox Judaism —have “accepted” this situation, some of course more enthusiastically than others.
This process has been interdependent, as suggested above, with a structural pluralizing in the society as a whole: residence, socioeconomic status, occupation, and political attachment have become increasingly dissociated from religious affiliation and from the ethnic components which have historically been so closely associated with religion. This process is by no means complete, and it is unlikely that a society will ever completely “privatize” ethnicity and religion. However, there can be little doubt that recent American developments have reached an altogether new level, certainly if scale is taken into account. The new American “secular city,” as Harvey Cox (1965) has called it, despite all its complex strains, conflicts, and imperfections (which from any religio-ethical point of view are many and serious), has been legitimized as a genuine holy community in the ascetic Protestant sense. Yet, it has undergone a development that few of its Protestant forebears could have expected in its ecumenical aspect, having come to include all those who live under the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. The newly pluralistic framework has come to be institutionally established, however incomplete the implementation of its grand pattern.
It seems justified to consider this another version of the institutionalization of what Troeltsch called a Christian society. To be sure, Troeltsch did not deal with it, or any European variant, as such, but seemed to contend that such a conception implied the institutionalization of an established church. With his dichotomy of church and sect, he seems not to have understood the most important unit of such a pluralistic system, the denomination, which is a voluntary religious association that is nevertheless accepted, both by its members and by others, as an institutionalized unit in the social order. Furthermore, it is not only a Christian society, but a Christian-Jewish-humanistic society, with its very important inclusion of elements from beyond strictly Christian boundaries.
If American society has produced the most highly developed version of the pluralistic ecumenical religious constitution that has so far appeared within a national framework, important developments have also continued in Europe. With the exception of the special fusion of Lutheran and Calvinistic elements in Prussia, perhaps the most obviously important movements have developed on a Lutheran base and have been more spiritual-cultural than organizational, from the point of view of the relation of religion to the secular society. However, they have already had a major impact on the contemporary situation.
Perhaps the most important reference point here is again the impact of the development of secular culture and, in particular, science. In the more western areas, in European terms, the two most important modes of coming to terms with science were the relatively full “synthesis” achieved, especially on an ascetic Protestant base—reaching a high point in the eighteenth century with Jonathan Edwards (Miller 1949)—and the antireligious orientation and acceptance of the challenge associated with the Enlightenment.
In the more eastern sector, centering in Protestant Germany, one main base was the movement of idealistic philosophy. This was intimately associated with Protestant theological concerns and also brought such traditions into close contact with the Enlightenment and its romantic counterpart. Against the background of Kant and Hegel, the more rationalizing theology was best exemplified by Schleiermacher. This trend also involved the philosophical grounding of Marxism, which is more central European than western European in its main cultural foundation, although it linked with the Enlightenment in being strongly anti-Christian. The other major trend took its departure from the “subjectivism” of the Lutheran tradition. Its great landmark was the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard, which in its cognitive structure stressed the limitations on rational philosophy that had been highlighted in the Kantian tradition. This general orientation has also been involved in the “neo-orthodox” movements in Protestant theology, starting with Karl Barth. In broadest terms, the existentialist movement seems to serve as a major counterfoil to the relatively empirical rationalism and the conception of a legally ordered pluralistic society, which have characterized the influence of ascetic Protestantism. It has figured in the revolt of both religious and secular intellectuals whose points of reference have ranged from the ascetic Protestant to the secular, at certain points even being based on Marxist philosophy.
This complex welter of cultural movements could not but become closely involved with the status of the Catholic position. Catholicism has, in its orientation to the secular society, comprised an immense range of different subtypes, from positions, in such areas as northern France and part of Germany and Belgium, that were very close to the Protestant to those, in southern Europe, that often preserved an antimodern traditionalism that was close to medieval.
Doctrinally, the Counter Reformation had hardened the Catholic position, not only against Protestantism but also against the movements of secular philosophy that began prominently in the seventeenth century. Until relatively recently we could therefore speak of the dominance of Neo-Thomism in the church. Although it certainly enhanced the activistic elements in Catholicism, the main concern of the Counter Reformation was to bolster the sacramental position of the church as the core of a Christian society. Hence, it operated to preserve a structural element that tended to be fundamentally premodern.
It can, however, be said that although all of these movements have been at work within the Catholic world, it has felt the impact of two of them especially strongly. On the one hand, the ascetic Protestant pattern of institutionalization of religion, in relation to secular society, has gone far to provide a model sharply different from the traditional Catholic pattern of the relation of church and state. This situation is, perhaps, best exemplified by the fact that the very large Catholic minority in the United States has come to accept the separation of church and state and its own position in the system of denominational pluralism; but this is by no means an isolated phenomenon. On the other hand, the impact of the more subjective-existentialist orientations has worked to attenuate the rigidity of the older Catholic conceptions of sacramental order in favor of what may be called a “spiritual individualism.”
These cultural movements have been associated with institutional changes that have broadly followed the American pattern. Thus, although in only a few European countries have historic Christian churches been totally disestablished, only in the most conservative Catholic areas of southern Europe has the religious freedom of other groups, including the secular humanists, been severely restricted. For the most part, European society has become religiously pluralistic. Even Spain has recently shown signs of an incipient pluralization. The aristocracy, which has been a most important factor in bolstering religious conservatism everywhere, has been considerably more prominent in Europe than in America; but major changes have taken place in the present century, so that aristocracy no longer counts heavily in the more “modernized” countries.
Although the structural changes in European society have been retarded relative to the relevant aspects of American society they have been considerable. How far they have gone has to a certain extent been masked by such factors as the segmentation of Europe into a sizable number of national states, the political disturbances of the present century (especially the two world wars, which had their primary centers in Europe), and the political movements of fascism and communism.
Fascism has been predominantly a regressive phenomenon in the context of the evolutionary scheme developed in this article and is not likely to have left any major mark on the sociocultural constitutions of the societies in which it has figured prominently; it is not the basis of a new fundamental variant of Western society, although it has been a major source of disturbance, and has inflicted severe social injury.
The communist movement is quite another matter. It certainly should be classified as at least a quasi-religious movement that has certain striking resemblances to Calvinism, both with respect to its mission as the agent of building an ideal secular society and with respect to the elitism of the two-class system, the party as the “vanguard” of the “proletariat” and the still socially unregenerate masses. Marxism is largely an offshoot of German idealistic philosophy and as such intimately associated with Protestantism. Indeed, the militant secularism of Marxism may be regarded as, in certain respects, the ideological accentuation of the importance of the kingdom of God on earth, or the “secular city”—God as the author of this great plan being replaced by the “dialectic of history.” For these reasons it seems legitimate to treat the communist movement as part of the more general development of the relations between religiously grounded culture and the organization of secular society.
It is a striking fact that the communist movement has not—contrary to Marx’s predictions— gained political ascendancy in any of the more advanced industrial countries, either in Europe or outside it. Its first great success was in Russia, which was a semi-European power, substantially backward industrially as compared with western Europe, and the largest single area whose Christian history had been dominated by the Eastern Orthodox church. Communism in the Soviet Union— and in China—has certainly been intimately connected with the problem of modernization. Its spread to the “satellite” countries is of course a direct function of Soviet political control in eastern Europe. The communist movement therefore cannot be regarded as a long-run basic alternative to the historic developments of Christianity, although this judgment may not be possible to confirm— or disprove—for a considerable time. At any rate, the acute mutual antagonism between virtually all Christian denominations, perhaps particularly Roman Catholicism, and “atheistic communism” seems to have begun to subside somewhat.
Against this background the catalytic influence of the brief papal reign of John xxiii and the council, Vatican ii, which he called may well constitute a major breakthrough in the development of the Christian system, concerning the relation of the different branches to each other, of all of them to secular society and culture, and of Christianity to non-Christian religious movements and institutions. The fact that the initiative came from Rome seems to be particularly significant.
In the first place, this seems to indicate a further extension of the pattern of secular responsibility that the church had affirmed in the late nineteenth-century encyclicals on labor and related questions. Second, it seems to represent a major step in Catholic movement toward an ecumenical position. It seems to represent very considerable mitigation of the relatively rigid position that has officially obtained ever since the Counter Reformation. In addition to this, the action taken by the council on the problem of relation to the Jews has gone far toward including them in a wider religious community going beyond Christian boundaries. In this respect the Catholic church as a whole has moved appreciably closer to the position that had been crystallizing in the United States, brought to a head especially in connection with the candidacy, election, assassination, and public mourning of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be president of the United States— indeed the first non-Protestant.
Third, the Vatican Council, along with parallel movements in Protestantism centering in the World Council of Churches, seems to represent a very important step in the direction of mitigating the exclusiveness of religious legitimation, even of the Judaeo-Christian complex, in favor of a still wider ecumenicism, which in particular has made overtures to the historic religious traditions of Asia. Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land could be interpreted in a purely Christian context, although its break with the tradition of remaining in Italy was striking, and it brought him necessarily into official contact with Jewish and Muslim groups. His visits to India and to the United Nations, however, must be interpreted as symbolic gestures in the broadest ecumenical context.
It thus seems justified to consider that Christianity is entering on a new phase, part of the trend to institutionalization of Christian values in secular society. The proper type of this society, broadly called modern society, is widely valued. This is not to say that modern society is acceptable to Christian ethics in all detail and without any critical reservation. Quite the contrary, like any other actually existing human society, it is shot through with elements of “evil,” which range from the deplorable to the intolerable. Moreover, differences of evaluation within the Christian community have by no means disappeared, although they have been substantially mitigated.
There seems, however, to be emerging a consensus on a broad framework of the institutions of the morally acceptable society and on social problems to be solved. Thus, high standards in the economic, health, and education fields, certain fundamental patterns of equality, notably of citizenship and opportunity, and certain aspects of freedom and autonomy for individuals and associational groups are almost universally valued. Conversely, the widespread problems of illness and poverty, of exclusion from educational, occupational, and many other opportunities, and of destruction due to the use of physical violence are more widely recognized and protested against than ever.
Many of the intrasocietal and intersocietal problems that distress the modern world owe much of their salience and form of statement to the processes of institutionalization of Christian values sketched above. The distress over them is not so much a measure of the irrelevance of the historic impact of Christianity as a measure of the incompleteness of institutionalization; a conception which implies that there has been in the past significant relative success. The magnitude of the tasks ahead often seems appalling, but they would not even have been defined as tasks if the attitudes of the earlier phases of Christian development still prevailed.
[See alsoProtestant political thoughtand the related articles listed underReligion. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofAquinas; Augustine; Calvin; Erasmus; Luther; Troeltsch; Weber, Max.]
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"Christianity." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/christianity
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CHRISTIANITY, in its many forms, has been the dominant religion of Europeans and their descendants in North America ever since Columbus. It proved as adaptable to the New World as it had been to the Old, while taking on several new characteristics. The ambiguous and endlessly debated meaning of the Christian Gospels permitted diverse American groups to interpret their conduct and beliefs as Christian: from warriors to pacifists, abolitionists to slave owners, polygamists to ascetics, and from those who saw personal wealth as a sign of godliness to those who understood Christianity to mean the repudiation or radical sharing of wealth.
The exploration of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries coincided with the Reformation and Europe's religious wars, intensifying and embittering the international contest for possession of these new territories. Spanish, Portuguese, and French settlers were overwhelmingly Catholic. English, Dutch, Swedish, and German settlers were predominantly Protestant. Each group, to the extent that it tried to convert the American Indians, argued the merits of its own brand of Christianity, but few Indians, witnessing the conquerors' behavior, could have been impressed with Jesus's teaching about the blessedness of peacemakers.
Puritans created the British New England colonies in the early 1600s. They believed that the (Anglican) Church of England, despite Henry VIII's separation from Rome, had not been fully reformed or purified of its former Catholic elements. The religious compromises on which Anglicanism was based (the Thirty-nine Articles) offended them because they looked on Catholicism as demonic. The founders of Plymouth Plantation (the "Pilgrim Fathers" of 1620) were separatists, who believed they should separate themselves completely from the Anglicans. The larger group of Massachusetts Bay colonists, ten years later, remained nominally attached to the Anglican Church and regarded their mission as an attempt to establish an ideal Christian commonwealth that would provide an inspiring example to the coreligionists back in England. Neither group had foreseen the way in which American conditions would force adaptations, especially after the first generation, nor had they anticipated that the English civil wars and the Commonwealth that followed (1640–1660) would impose different imperatives on Puritans still in England than on those who had crossed the ocean. We are well informed about the New England Puritans and their reaction to seventeenth-century events because of their exceptional literacy and loquacity. From the works of Increase Mather (1639–1723) and his son Cotton (1663–1728), for example, we can reconstruct a worldview in which every storm, high tide, deformed fetus, or mild winter was a sign of God's "special providence." Theirs was, besides, a world in which devils abounded and witchcraft (notoriously at the Salem witch trials, 1692) seemed to present a real threat to the community.
More southerly colonies, Virginia and the Carolinas, were commercial tobacco ventures whose far less energetic religious life was supervised by the established Church of England. Maryland began as a Catholic commercial venture but its proprietors reverted to Anglicanism in the bitterly anti-Catholic environment of the Glorious Revolution (1688–1689) in the late seventeenth century. The middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, by contrast, were more ethnically and religiously diverse almost from the beginning, including Dutch Calvinists, German Lutherans and Moravians, Swedish Baptists, and English Quakers.
All these colonies, along with New England, were subjected to periodic surges of revival enthusiasm that are collectively remembered as the Great Awakening. The Awakening's exemplary figure was the spellbinding English preacher George Whitefield (1714–1770), who brought an unprecedented drama to American pulpits in the 1740s and 1750s and shocked some divines by preaching outdoors. The theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) of Northampton, Massachusetts, welcomed the Awakening and tried to square Calvinist orthodoxy with the scientific and cognitive revolutions of Newton and the Enlightenment.
Christianity in the Revolution and Early Republic
By the time of the Revolution (1775–1788), growing numbers of colonists had joined radical Reformation sects, notably the Quakers and Baptists, belonged to ethnically distinct denominations like the Mennonites, or were involved in intradenominational schisms springing from Great Awakening controversies over itinerant preaching and the need for an inspired rather than a learned clergy. The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment specified that there was to be no federally established church and no federal restriction on the free exercise of religion. Some New England states retained established Christian churches after the Revolution—Congregationalism in Massachusetts, for example—but by 1833 all had been severed from the government.
This political separation, however, did not imply any lessening of Christian zeal. To the contrary, the early republic witnessed another immense upsurge of Christian energy and evangelical fervor, with Baptists and Methodists adapting most quickly to a new emotional style, which they carried to the rapidly expanding settlement frontier. Spellbinding preachers like Francis Asbury (1745–1816) and Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) helped inspire the revivals of the "Second Great Awakening" (see Awakening, Second), and linked citizens' conversions to a range of social reforms, including temperance, sabbatarianism, and (most controversially) the abolition of slavery. Radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) denounced the Constitution as an un-Christian pact with the devil because it provided for the perpetuation of slavery. John Brown (1800–1859), who tried to stimulate a slave uprising with his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, saw himself as a biblical avenger. He anticipated, rightly, that his sacrificial death, like Jesus's crucifixion, would lead to the triumph of the anti-slavery cause. Christian abolitionists who had prudently declined to join the rising, like Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), claimed him as a martyr. Beecher's sister Harriet published Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, a novel saturated with the sentimental conventions of American Victorian Protestantism; it popularized the idea that abolition was a Christian imperative.
In the South, meanwhile, slaves had adapted African elements to Gospel teachings and developed their own syncretic style of Christianity, well adapted to the emotional idioms of the Second Awakening. Dissatisfied with attending their masters' churches, they enjoyed emotional "ring shout" meetings in remote brush arbors, or met for whispered prayers and preaching in the slave quarters. Slave owners too thought of themselves as justified in their Christianity. Well armed with quotations to show that the Bible's authors had been slaveholders and that Jesus had never condemned the practice, they saw themselves as the guardians of a Christian way of life under threat from a soulless commercial North. The historian Eugene Genovese has shown that on purely biblical grounds they probably had the stronger argument.
The early republic also witnessed the creation of new Christian sects, including the Assemblies of God, the Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists, and the Mormons. Those with distinctive sexual practices (Shaker celibacy, Oneida "complex marriage," and Mormon polygamy) were vulnerable to persecution by intolerant neighbors who linked the idea of a "Protestant America" to a code of monogamy. The Mormons, the most thriving of all these groups, were founded by an upstate New York farm boy, Joseph Smith (1805–1844), who received a set of golden tablets from an angel. He translated them into the Book of Mormon (1830), which stands beside the Bible as scripture for Mormons, and describes the way in which Jesus conducted a mission in America after his earthly sojourn in the Holy Land. Recurrent persecution, culminating in the assassination of Smith in 1844, led the Mormons under their new leader, Brigham Young (1801–1877), to migrate far beyond the line of settlement to the Great Salt Lake, Utah, in 1846, where their experiments in polygamy persisted until 1890. Polygamy had the virtue of ensuring that the surplus of Mormon women would all have husbands. Mormonism was one of many nineteenth-and twentieth-century American churches in which membership (though not leadership) was disproportionately female.
The Mormon migration was just one small part of a much larger westward expansion of the United States in the early and mid–nineteenth century, much of which was accompanied by the rhetoric of manifest destiny, according to which God had reserved the whole continent for the Americans. No one felt the sting of manifest destiny more sharply than the Indians. Ever since the colonial era missionaries had struggled to convert them to Christianity and to the Euro-American way of life. These missions were sometimes highly successful, as for example the Baptist mission to the Cherokees led by Evan Jones, which created a written version of their language in the early nineteenth century that facilitated translation of the Bible. The Georgia gold rush of 1829 showed, however, that ambitious settlers and prospectors would not be deterred from overrunning Indians' land merely because they were Christian Indians; their forcible removal along the Trail of Tears was one of many disgraceful episodes in white-Indian relations. Southwestern and Plains Indians, meanwhile, often incorporated Christian elements into their religious systems. The New Mexican Pueblo peoples, for example, under Spanish domination until 1848, adapted the Catholic cult of the saints to their traditional pantheon; later the Peyote Way, which spread through the Southwest and Midwest, incorporated evangelical Protestant elements.
Further enriching the American Christian landscape, a large Catholic immigration from Ireland, especially after the famine of 1846–1849, tested the limits of older citizens' religious tolerance. It challenged the validity of the widely held concept of a Protestant America that the earlier tiny Catholic minority had scarcely disturbed. A flourishing polemical literature after 1830 argued that Catholics, owing allegiance to a foreign monarch, the pope, could not be proper American citizens—the idea was embodied in the policies of the Know-Nothing political party in the 1850s. Periodic religious riots in the 1830–1860 era and the coolness of civil authorities encouraged the Catholic newcomers to keep Protestants at arm's length. They set about building their own institutions, not just churches but also a separate system of schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and charities, a work that continued far into the twentieth century. The acquisition of Louisiana in 1804, and the acquisition of the vast Southwest after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), also swelled the U.S. Catholic population.
Soldiers on both sides in the Civil War (1861–1865) went into battle confident that they were doing the will of a Christian God. President Lincoln, and many Union clergy, saw their side's ultimate victory as a sign of divine favor, explaining their heavy losses in the fighting according to the idea that God had scourged them for the sin of tolerating slavery for so long. The defeated Confederates, on the other hand, nourished their cult of the "lost cause" after the war by reminding each other that Jesus's mission on earth had ended in failure and a humiliating death, something similar to their own plight. The slaves, freed first by the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and then by the Fifteenth Amendment (1865), treated President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) as the Great Liberator and compared him to Moses, leading the Children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt.
Christianity and Industrial Society
Rapid industrialization in the later nineteenth century prompted a searching reevaluation of conventional theological ethics. Fluctuations in the business cycle, leading to periodic surges of urban unemployment, made nonsense of the old rural idea that God dependably rewards sobriety and hard work with prosperity. The theologians Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), George Herron (1862–1925), and Washington Gladden (1836–1918) created the social gospel, adapting Christianity to urban industrial life and emphasizing the community's collective responsibility toward its weakest members. Vast numbers of "new immigrants"—Catholics from Poland, Italy, and the Slavic lands; Orthodox Christians from Russia and Greece; and Jews from the Austrian and Russian empires—continued to expand America's religious diversity. They established their own churches and received help from religiously inspired Protestant groups such as the Salvation Army and the settlement house movement.
Meanwhile, Christianity faced an unanticipated intellectual challenge, much of which had been generated from within. Rapid advances in historical-critical study of the Bible and of comparative religion, and the spread of evolutionary biology after Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), forced theologians to ask whether the Genesis creation story and other biblical accounts were literally true. These issues led to a fracture in American Protestantism that persisted through the twentieth century, between liberal Protestants who adapted their religious ideas to the new intellectual orthodoxy and fundamentalists who conscientiously refused to do so. In the fundamentalists' view, strongly represented at Princeton Theological Seminary and later popularized by the Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), the Bible, as God's inspired word, could not be fallible. Anyone who rejected the Genesis story while keeping faith in the Gospels was, they pointed out, making himself rather than the Bible the ultimate judge.
Observers were surprised to note that in the twentieth century American church membership and church attendance rates remained high, indeed increased, at a time when they were declining throughout the rest of the industrialized world. Various theories, all plausible, were advanced to account for this phenomenon: that Americans, being more mobile than Europeans, needed a ready-made community center in each new location, especially as vast and otherwise anonymous suburbs proliferated; that church membership was a permissible way for immigrants and their descendants to retain an element of their families' former identity while assimilating in all other respects to American life; even, in the 1940s and 1950s, that the threat of atomic warfare had led to a collective "failure of nerve" and a retreat into supernaturalism. Twentieth-century Christian churches certainly did double as community centers, around which youth clubs, study classes, therapeutic activities, "singles' groups," and sports teams were organized. Members certainly could have nonreligious motives for attendance, but abundant historical and sociological evidence suggests that they had religious motives too.
Christianity and Politics in the Twentieth Century
Christianity remained a dynamic social force, around which intense political controversies swirled. In 1925 the Scopes Trial tested whether fundamentalists could keep evolution from being taught in schools. A high-school biology teacher was convicted of violating a Tennessee state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution, but the public-relations fallout of the case favored evolutionists rather than creationists. In the same year the Supreme Court ruled (in Pierce v. Society of Sisters) that Catholic and other religious private schools were protected under the Constitution; the legislature of Oregon (then with influential anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan members) was ruled to have exceeded its authority in requiring all children in the state to attend public schools.
In 1928 a Catholic, Al Smith (1873–1944) of New York, ran as the Democratic candidate for president in a religiously superheated campaign. Southern whites were usually a dependable Democratic block vote, but their "Bible Belt" prejudice against Catholics led them to campaign against him. This defeat was not offset until a second Catholic candidate, John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), was elected in 1960, keeping enough southern white votes to ensure a wafer-thin plurality. After this election, and especially after the popular Kennedy's 1963 assassination, which was treated by parts of the nation as martyrdom, American anti-Catholicism declined rapidly. Kennedy had declined to advocate the federal funding of parochial schools and had refused to criticize the Supreme Court when it found, in a series of cases from 1962 and 1963, that prayer and Bible-reading in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
While the Supreme Court appeared to be distancing Christianity from politics, the civil rights movement was bringing them together. A black Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), led the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) and became the preeminent civil rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s. Ever since emancipation, ministers had played a leadership role in the black community, being, usually, its most highly educated members and the men who acted as liaisons between segregated whites and blacks. King, a spellbinding preacher, perfected a style that blended Christian teachings on love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, Old Testament visions of a heaven on earth, and patriotic American rhetoric, the three being beautifully combined in the peroration of his famous "I have a dream" speech from 1963. Like Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, to whom he acknowledged a debt, he knew how to work on the consciences of the dominant group by quoting scriptures they took seriously, interpreting them in such a way as to make them realize their failings as Christians. Religious leaders might disagree about exactly how the movement should proceed—King feuded with black Baptists who did not want the churches politicized, and with whites like the eight ministers whose counsel of patience and self-restraint provoked his "Letter from Birmingham Jail"—but historians of the movement now agree that he was able to stake out, and hold, the religious high ground.
Among the theological influences on King was the work of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). Born and raised in a German evangelical family in Missouri, Niebuhr was the preeminent American Protestant theologian of the century. Reacting, like many clergy, against the superpatriotic fervor of the First World War years (in which Christian ministers often led the way in bloodcurdling denunciation of the "Huns"), he became in the 1920s an advocate of Christian pacifism. During the 1930s, however, against a background of rising totalitarianism in Europe, he abandoned this position on grounds of its utopianism and naiveté, and bore witness to a maturing grasp of Christian ethics in his masterpiece, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). His influential journal Christianity and Crisis, begun in 1941, voiced the ideas of Christians who believed war against Hitler was religiously justified. He became, in the 1940s and 1950s, influential among statesmen, policy makers, and foreign policy "realists," some of whom detached his ethical insights from their Christian foundations, leading the philosopher Morton White to quip that they were "atheists for Niebuhr." Niebuhr had also helped bring to America, from Germany, the theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965), who became a second great theological celebrity in the mid-century decades, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), who worked for a time in the 1930s at Union Seminary, New York, but returned before the war and was later executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
To match these Protestant theological celebrities—of whom Niebuhr's brother Richard (1894–1962) was a fourth—the Catholic Church produced its own. The émigré celebrity was the French convert Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), who wrote with brilliant insight on faith and aesthetics, while the homegrown figure was John Courtney Murray (1904–1967), whose essays on religious liberty were embodied in the religious liberty document of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Men like King, the Niebuhr brothers, Maritain, Tillich, and Murray enjoyed almost the same prominence in mid-twentieth-century America that the Mathers had enjoyed in the seventeenth century, Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth, and the Beechers in the nineteenth—another sign of the persistence of Christian energy in America.
Ever since the Scopes Monkey Trial the evangelical Protestant churches had retreated from politics, but they had continued to grow, to organize (taking advantage of broadcasting technology), and to generate exceptionally talented individuals of their own. None was to have more lasting importance than Billy Graham (b. 1918), whose revivals became a press sensation in the late 1940s. Graham eschewed the sectarian squabbling that many evangelists relished. Instead he tried to create an irenic mood among all evangelicals while reaching out to liberal Protestants with an emotional message of Christian love, forgiveness, and Jesus as personal savior. He traveled worldwide, befriended every president from 1950 to 2000, and said, perhaps rightly, that more people had seen him and knew who he was than anybody else in the world.
Another skilled evangelical, the Baptist Jerry Falwell (b. 1933) shared many of Graham's skills but brought them directly into politics in a way Graham had avoided. Falwell, convinced that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement, the counterculture, and the changing nature of the American family were signs of decadence and sin, catalyzed the Moral Majority, a pressure group that contributed to the "Reagan Revolution" in the election of 1980. That election was particularly noteworthy as a moment in Christian history not only because of the sudden reappearance of politicized evangelicals but also because the losing candidate, President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), was himself a self-proclaimed born-again Christian and Baptist Sunday school teacher.
Nearly all America's Christian churches with a liberal inclination participated in a religious protest against nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Nearly all those with a conservative inclination participated in campaigns against legalized abortion. Indeed, as observers noted at the time, both sides in these and other sundering political controversies were strongly represented by Christian advocates. Collectively they demonstrated the extraordinary vitality and diversity of American Christianity into the third millennium.
Ahlstrom, Sidney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.
Albanese, Catherine L. America, Religions and Religion. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992.
Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: W. Morrow, 1986.
Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
May, Henry F. Protestant Churches and Industrial America. 2d ed. New York: Octagon Books, 1977.
Miller, Perry. The New England Mind. 2 vols. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.
Morris, Charles R. American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners who Built America's Most Powerful Church. New York: Times Books, 1997.
Noll, Mark. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdman's, 1992.
Ostling, Richard N., and Joan K. Ostling. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999.
Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.
See alsoBaptist Churches ; Catholicism ; Creationism ; Episcopalianism ; Evangelicalism and Revivalism ; Fundamentalism ; Indian Missions ; Latter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of ; Protestantism ; Puritans and Puritanism ; Religious Thought and Writings .
"Christianity." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity
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According to the writers of the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth gathered a small group of disciples and went about for three years in first century Galilee, preaching a message of hope to the poor and healing the sick. John the "Baptist" had gone before him, calling people to repent and be baptized, promising the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. He recognized in Jesus a far greater preacher than himself, sent from God. Jesus and his disciples eventually set out for Jerusalem. He threw out those who were trading in the temple precincts. He prophesied that the temple would be destroyed. The Jewish leaders pressed for his punishment and the Roman authorities authorized his crucifixion, with a mocking title nailed to the Cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." Three days after Jesus's body was buried it was discovered to be missing from the tomb where it had been laid. Some of the disciples said they had seen and spoken to the Risen Lord and later that they had seen him ascend into heaven. They began to declare him to be the Son of God.
The spread of Christianity toward the West, through the Roman Empire and eventually the whole world, began with the conversion of the Saul of Tarsus, known after his conversion as Paul. He had been determined to eradicate this new sect until he had a vision on the road to Damascus that took him from an energetic Judaism to missionary zeal for Christianity. It was he who persuaded Peter and the other disciples that it was God's will that they should preach the gospel of Jesus to everyone and not just the Jews.
Jesus wrote nothing, and the lack of contemporary accounts of his ministry makes the "historical Jesus" hard to be sure of. The Holy Scriptures of the Christian faith were composed after his death. The four Gospels, accounts of the life of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles (a history of the early church), a series of pastoral letters to young churches by Paul and others, and an Apocalypse describing the end of all things came to be accepted by the end of the fourth century as a divinely inspired "New Testament" to be added to the Old Testament of the Jewish Scriptures to form the Bible. The Bible has always been used as authority, taken literally by fundamentalists but in most centuries figuratively interpreted as a means of resolving apparent contradictions within it and using it to answer questions it does not directly address.
Christianity and Secular Thought
A series of Christian authors during the first centuries c.e., later known as "the Fathers," defended the faith to contemporary philosophers. Roman imperial religion was syncretistic. Apart from the Christians only the Jews refused to mingle their God with the gods of the pagans. Christians claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and had promised to send the Holy Spirit, or Paraclete, into the world to be "with" his people. Contemporary philosophy described a Trinity in descending order: a Supreme Being, a Logos, a "Soul of the World." Christians insisted that the three "Persons" in one God in their Trinity were equal and coeternal. There were long-running debates about the manner in which God could have "become man." The definitive creed of the council of the whole church held at Nicaea in 325 provided an "official" statement of the approved faith.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the arena of debate changed. In the Eastern, Greek-speaking half of the old Roman Empire, Christian learning survived in deeply conservative monasteries and focused on a mystical spirituality colored by late Platonism. Christian thought and learning in the West moved into the new Christian monasteries, the cathedral schools, and eventually, from the end of the twelfth century, into the newly created universities. Islamic scholarship had preserved and developed Greek thought and was absorbed in its turn by the Christian scholars of the thirteenth century.
Thinkers of the Middle Ages such as Peter Lombard (c. 1095–1160) and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274) worked out a "systematic theology" covering the existence and nature of God, Unity, and Trinity; the way in which God became man and why; a doctrine of the church and the sacraments; and the relationship of human free will to the foreknowledge and predestination and grace of an omniscient and omnipotent God. For most of fifteen hundred years in the West the church dominated intellectual endeavor to the point where philosophy and science were subsumed in theology.
Christians, despite their schismatic tendencies, always put a premium on unity of faith. Yet the Christological debates of the third to fifth centuries ultimately led to the separation of the Monophysite Churches after the Council of Chalcedon (451). In 1054 the Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Church divided, partly over the Western addition to the creed of the assertion that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century in western Europe divided the Roman Catholic Church from the Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and other "reforming" communities. In dispute at this period were the claims of the institutional church to provide the only route to salvation and the reformers' claim that the individual needed only a justifying faith and the Bible to read, and the grace of the Holy Spirit would do the rest. In the eighteenth century the Methodist Church separated from the Church of England (Anglican) over the validity of its ministry and in due course itself became a worldwide "communion."
From the second half of the twentieth century there have been serious attempts to restore Christian unity. From 1948, the World Council of Churches, which influenced the whole of the twentieth century with its work on "faith and order" as well as on "peace and justice," excluded the Roman Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s put the Roman Catholic Church's stamp of approval on the modern ecumenical movement and allowed it to enter into bilateral and multilateral dialogues with other Christian communities.
Christianity and Modern Thought
The eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment returned to "natural" religion, those "truths" that can be arrived at by rational observation of the "created world." This was a first step in allowing changes of fashion in modern secular philosophy and political assumption to drive new thinking in Christian theology. Theologians were prompted to fresh thinking by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Friedrich Schleiermacher continued the challenge into the nineteenth century. Søren Kierkegaard called for a move away from believing "propositions" to living the Christian life. Charles Darwin's work on the Origin of Species forced Christians to think radically about the story of the Creation told in Genesis. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Karl Rahner are leading theologians of the twentieth century who have attempted modern restatements of the faith that allow for the changed philosophical infrastructure. "Process theology" (Alfred Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne) postulated that God is changeable and challengeable—a process, not a substance. Don Cupitt and others have experimented with the idea of the "death" of God. Postmodernism, a multiple and shapeless movement emerging after World War II, and the "deconstruction" of language and forms (Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) have undermined old certainties.
Christianity and Secular Politics
The Gospels say that Jesus taught his disciples to be compliant citizens, "rendering to Caesar" what the law required. The Roman Empire became officially Christian with the conversion of the emperor Constantine the Great in the early fourth century. Modern manifestations of the resulting long-term tension in relations of church and state include liberation theology in South America in the late twentieth century, which pressed for recognition of the dignity of the poor. Liberal feminism, especially vigorous in the United States in the late twentieth century, called for inclusiveness of language and an end to the assumption that God is a "he." Women are ordained to the Anglican, though not the Roman Catholic or Orthodox, priesthood and episcopate in the early twenty-first century. The old debate about the relationship of science and religion has moved partly into the political arena and is now preoccupied with the ethics of the mapping of the human genome, genetically modified food, and the means now available to achieve live births of human children not conceived by ordinary sexual intercourse.
Mission and Interfaith Relations
The Gospels relate that Jesus charged his disciples with spreading the Gospel, and the first generations took it throughout the Roman Empire. Gregory the Great sent a mission of Augustine of Canterbury to England in 597, and from there Boniface in the eighth century took missions into continental Europe. Christianity was still spreading east and north in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The crusading period from the late eleventh to the thirteenth century brought Christianity into contact with Islam in the Middle East and the first translation of the Koran was made in the West in the mid-twelfth century. With world explorations and discovery of the Americas in the sixteenth century it was carried to the New World. There the Roman Catholic tradition dominated Latin America and the colonies established by the Spanish and French in North America, with the future United States predominantly colonized by Protestant exiles from Northern Europe. The nineteenth century saw a somewhat "imperialist" spreading of the faith into the Far East and Africa and the Pacific. Much of this later missionary endeavor has been "denominational"; American Baptist missionaries entered Orthodox Russia after the fall of communism. Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period the Jews had lived in Europe alongside the Christian communities. During World War II the Roman Catholic Church did not protest about the Holocaust, and Pope John Paul II eventually apologized for the silence of the Church. Interfaith dialogue in the early twenty-first century seeks to establish a basis of mutual respect on which adherents of different faiths may live.
Christianity remains numerically probably the largest world religion, with Islam close behind. About a third of the population of the world was Christian in the 1990s, and the majority of the non-Christian population knew of Christianity or had some opportunity of contact with it. The largest number of Christians resided in Latin America, with Europe second and Africa third, then North America, then South Asia. Postcolonialism and globalization pose major challenges as to how far the faith can absorb local culture without itself being essentially changed. But paradoxically the loss of heritage makes for conservatism. The fastest-growing Christian community is in Africa, where the intellectual history of the patristic and medieval West is often unfamiliar. Conservative fundamentalism is making the ordination of homosexuals as priests and bishops in the West a church-dividing matter in parts of Africa. The altered balance of the Christian populations worldwide has begun to throw into question the continuance of an intellectual tradition now culturally remote from many Christians while it continues to privilege the Bible as the foundation text and ultimate authority.
See also Christianity: Asia ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Heaven and Hell ; Heresy and Apostasy ; Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought ; Philosophy of Religion ; Pietism ; Puritanism ; Religion and Science ; Religion and the State ; Ritual: Religion ; Sacred and Profane .
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——, ed. The Medieval Theologians. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.
Ford, David, ed. The Modern Theologians. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
Gascoigne, Bamber. A Brief History of Christianity. London: Robinson, 2003.
Lindberg, Carter, ed. The Reformation Theologians. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
McBrien, Richard P. Catholicism. 3rd ed. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994.
Piepkorn, Arthur Carl. Profiles in Belief: The Religious Bodies of the United States and Canada. 4 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1977–1979. Covers all the main Christian denominations with an account of their differences.
Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin, 1995.
——. Paul. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Ward, Keith. Christianity: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. New ed. London: Penguin, 1993.
G. R. Evans
"Christianity: Overview." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity-overview
"Christianity: Overview." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved January 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity-overview
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Christianity, as its name suggests, is a religion practiced worldwide devoted to the worship and example of Jesus Christ. Jesus was a preacher who lived and taught in Israel two thousand years ago. The word Christ means “anointed” and refers to the fact that his followers believed he was anointed by God, whom many Christians believe to be his father, to redeem Israel. These disciples considered the work of Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophesies in the Hebrew scriptures, which they came to call the Old Testament. For a New Testament they added gospels (stories of his life) and epistles, which were letters to early Christian communities. These focus on the account of Jesus’ death by crucifixion, their belief that he was raised from the dead, and the idea that his disciples were commissioned to carry his message to the entire world.
Despite the common roots of Judaism and Christianity, almost at once Christians and Jews went separate ways and sometimes fell into conflict, which led to Christian anti-Semitism and frequent persecutions of Jews. In the twenty-first century serious efforts are bringing the two communities into conversation and often common action, but relations remain tense in some communities.
From their original home in Jerusalem, believers in Jesus quickly moved north and east, where at Antioch in Syria they were first named “Christians.” During the next four centuries this faith born in Asia also became a vigorous presence in North Africa, which was part of the Roman Empire, and in Europe, with which it came to be most identified until the twentieth century. In the fourth century Christianity, once harassed or forbidden, became the favorite of emperors and the established religion of the Roman Empire. In and after the sixteenth century missionaries and colonialists took the faith into South and North America, and in the early twenty-first century its churches prosper most in the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. About two billion followers, almost one-third of the human race, consider themselves Christian.
Though Roman emperors were some of the first enemies of Christianity, the sudden rise of Islam in the seventh century led to Muslim conquests of most of North Africa, where Christianity eventually all but disappeared. Muslims also conquered Palestine—the “Holy Land” to Christians, Jews, and Muslims—and advanced in Europe. During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries Christian leaders called for crusades to retake the holy places, especially in Jerusalem, and undertook many military ventures against then-Islamic territories.
Internal conflicts also beset Christianity. In the eleventh century the Eastern and Western churches, long in tension over doctrine and practice, separated. At issue in the separation was both the refusal of the Eastern Christians to regard the pope as the supreme authority and a doctrinal point about how Jesus Christ related to God the Father. Many political and cultural issues also led to the break. Within Western, or Roman Catholic, realms there was also conflict, some of it marked by the Inquisition, a name given to severe efforts by official Catholicism to purge itself of individuals and groups that were suspected of heresy against the church (which generally included anyone who was not a practicing Catholic or who refused to convert). The Protestant Reformation, beginning in the early sixteenth century, permanently divided the Western church. That Reformation was fought over, among other things, the authority of the church and the Bible, with Protestants claiming that they relied only on the divinely inspired scriptures and not on human authority, such as that of the pope (the leader of the Roman Catholic Church). In more recent times Protestants have argued among themselves over biblical authority: was the Bible the “inerrant” word of God, or might it be interpreted in such ways that its human elements also stand out?
Through it all the same zeal that produced crusades, inquisitions, schisms, and reformations inspired clerics and laypeople alike to create distinctive cultures marked by the invention of the university in the late Middle Ages, cathedrals, great art, and institutions for providing health care. Such energies also led to diversity in teaching and governance. Roman Catholics remained loyal to the pope. Lutheranism, inspired by the German religious reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), eventually became recognized worldwide as another denomination of Christianity. Similarly the Church of England (Anglicanism), or in the United States the Episcopal Church, rejected papal authority. A third tradition, often called Reformed—informed by the writings of the French theologian and reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) in Switzerland, parts of Germany, and the Netherlands along with John Knox (1513-1572) in Scotland—stressed divine sovereignty. Still another cluster, sometimes called Radical or Anabaptist because its adherents “rebaptized” those who had been received into the church through infant baptism, spread, though its members were often persecuted by other Christians.
While Christian teaching draws most deeply on the Bible, its leaders found it necessary to advance from telling informal stories to engaging in more formal expression in doctrines—official teachings that define the tenets of the faith. At a series of ecumenical (worldwide) councils during and after the fourth century, theologians, emperors, and bishops wrestled with basic questions. Christianity is strongly monotheistic, professing faith in one God (as is Judaism and Islam). But Christians also believe in a complex doctrine called the Holy Trinity, by which God is considered as existing in three persons: the Father (God), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. They also wrestle with the ways to affirm and proclaim that the human Jesus also has divine status. Later councils dealt with the workings and effects of Christ in the church and in the greater community. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus is regarded as the “savior” of believers from their sin, which has distanced them from God, as well as the one who brings them salvation and inspires them to acts of love and justice.
Christians have worked with many forms of organization, usually stressing either episcopal government—which means rule by bishops, as in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism—or more “democratic” patterns, such as rule by elders or congregants themselves in the millions of local Protestant congregations or parishes. Referring to Christianity as a community may seem strained, because it is broken into around thirty thousand subcommunities called church bodies or in some places denominations. In the third millennium the most rapid new growth is in Pentecostalism, a movement of believers who profess the power of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism stresses the immediate experience of God through “signs,” such as healing or speaking in indecipherable spirit-guided vocalizations (speaking in tongues).
The central act of Christians everywhere is worship, usually guided by an ordained or specially appointed leader, named a priest, pastor, or preacher. Christian worship can be formal in cathedrals or informal in home and outdoor settings. Most Christians stress preaching at worship, meaning pronouncing judgment on erring believers and verbally offering forgiveness or grace to those who repent and set out to change their ways.
The other feature in most Christian assemblies is the sacramental life. Most Christians baptize new members with water and offer followers a sacrament, or Eucharist, which was instituted at Jesus’ Last Supper, where bread and wine are consecrated and consumed in remembrance of Jesus’ death (also called the Communion). Through this sacrament it is believed that members receive forgiveness, deepen their community life, and are empowered to serve God, especially by serving their neighbors and people in need.
Throughout its history Christianity has been influenced by the societies in which it thrives. After opposition within the Roman Empire early on, Christianity became the religion established and protected by law. The spectrum of attitudes within the Christian community includes everything from ascetic monasticism to artistic creations. In early Christianity church and regime were separate, and in modern free societies “church and state” remain legally distinct. At the same time Christian faith is very much a public affair, promoting movements of social reform and charity. Furthermore while Jesus’ own teaching inspires pacifists and other peacemakers, faith in a powerful and judgmental God has also authorized arbitrary rule and wars.
Devoted as Christians have been to social, cultural, and often political expressions, their creeds or statements of faith also teach that the world as it is now will someday end. While many Christians may agree that the future and the end are determined by God, they differ widely on the questions of how the end will come, though somehow most associate it with the “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ.
SEE ALSO Church, The; Church and State; Coptic Christian Church; Greek Orthodox Church; Heaven; Hell; Jesus Christ; Judaism; Martyrdom; Orthodoxy; Protestant Ethic; Protestantism; Rastafari; Religion; Roman Catholic Church; Santería
Bowden, John, ed. 2005. Christianity: The Complete Guide. London: Continuum.
Edwards, David Lawrence. 1997. Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Littell, Franklin H. 2001. Historical Atlas of Christianity. 2nd ed. New York: Continuum.
McManners, John, ed. 1990. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Martin E. Marty
"Christianity." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/christianity-0
"Christianity." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/christianity-0
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Fasting or abstaining for a period from food and drink is common to various religions and is often an expression of penitence or mourning. Christian fasting and abstinence can be a purely personal matter or a social event at a special occasion, but it should be distinguished from the regular fasting that is prescribed by ecclesiastical authority and fixed on the Church calendar. The institution of fasting is a commandment for all Christians, and the Church's acceptance of it is thought to go back to Pope Calixtus I (217–222).
Fasting can be abstinence not only from food or drink, but also from sexual intercourse or other activities. This article focuses on food and looks at when Christians fast. Early monastic communities enforced abstinence from meat and wine, following in part the classical argument of Hippocrates and Galenus that warned against such "warm and humid" foods, which were thought to stimulate luxury. These strictures proved too severe—the religious lacked the energy to complete their daily tasks, and the laymen who worked outside the walls could not be expected to observe such stringent restrictions on food and drink.
By the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had modified its rules for fasting, distinguishing between monastics and ordinary people, and regulating the severity of fasts on the Church calendar. The Church never prescribed total fasts (without food and drink) or even those allowing just water and bread during a whole day or longer. Instead, several forms of the discipline were practiced, the more severe of which is called "fasting" and the milder "abstinence."
During fasting periods, Christians were forbidden to eat the meat (and other products, such as milk and eggs) of quadrupeds and birds. Christians did not consider these animals and their products "unclean," as did the Jews (Acts 10–16), but eating them was proscribed by the Church during certain times of the year. At such times, Christians fed on seafood, fish (including hard and soft fish roe), grains, and other field produce. The prohibition on dairy produce and eggs, in particular, and the resulting lack of protein nourishment, placed an enormous strain on medieval people. Chicken eggs were replaced by hard roe and butter, lard, and bacon by vegetable oil. For the European countries north of the Alps, where olives and almonds could not be grown, there was a substantial rise in the cost of living. Those who could afford them obtained expensive olive oil or almonds from the Mediterranean, which were mashed into a binding agent for sauces and chowders. Dried fruits, including dates, figs, raisins, and currants, from the Mediterranean were highly sought in northern Europe, as were the indigenous walnut and hazelnut.
During the milder periods of abstinence, milk could be consumed. It was not clear whether the meat from birds could be consumed during these times, but their eggs were permitted. Late medieval household accounts (fourteenth to fifteenth centuries) show that Christians lived according to these rules, especially during the longest fasting period in the church calendar, the forty weekdays of Lent or the so-called quadragesima (Latin quadraginta = 40, hence quadragesima ), which precedes Easter, when the faithful switched over to a fish-and-oil kitchen.
In addition to Lent, the Catholic Church had four fasting periods called Ember days during the year (Latin quatuor tempora = four times, corrupted to quatember, then to "ember"). These days, prescribed by Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085), correspond to the turn of the seasons: the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week after St. Lucia (13 December) at the beginning of winter; then the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Ash Wednesday (therefore, part of Lent) at the beginning of spring; next, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week after Whitsuntide (Pentecost) at the beginning of summer; last, the same days of the week after Holy Cross Day (14 September) at the beginning of fall. Because the Christian calendar, unlike that of the Muslims, has a solar year with twelve months of more than the twenty-eight days of the orbit of the moon, these so-called Ember days always occur in the same season. Unlike the Muslim Ramadan, which shifts through the year, the Christian quadragesima always occurs during the turn from winter to spring.
In contrast to the quadragesima and the Ember days in which the severe abstinence that we call "fasting" was observed, a milder abstinence was obligatory all other weeks of the year on Wednesday and Friday, or Friday and Saturday, depending on the diocese in which one lived. On those days fish, which might be served with butter, was consumed. Fishermen strove to bring fresh fish to the market on those days, knowing that they would find ready consumers. Long after the fasting prescriptions in Catholic Europe had been mitigated by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the habit of eating fish on Friday or Saturday remained common.
Religious generally did not observe a more severe fasting regimen than lay people, but the duration of the fast was greater. Monks and nuns started the quadragesima ten days prior to Ash Wednesday, thereby making a quinquagesima of fifty days, and they also fasted on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day, the so-called Rogation Days. Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, formed a fasting period for them, not just the Ember days of St. Lucia that fall during this period.
The Rule of St. Benedict forbade the consumption of the meat of quadrupeds unless the religious was ill. The eating of birds was allowed, as was the consumption of eggs and dairy produce, except, of course, on fasting days. In this Rule it was stated that on fasting days, but not before Vespers, only one meal should be served that would be finished before dark. On other days, two meals were eaten, earlier or later depending on the season but always with daylight.
Mindful of the heresy of the Manichees and the Cathars, who taught that the body and the material world were the work of Satan and only the immaterial spirit was the work of God, Christians of the Western Church attempted to strike a balance between gluttony on the one hand and too rigorous an asceticism on the other.
The forty days of Lent referred to the forty years during which the Jews, under the guidance of Moses, had wandered through the desert before reaching the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 1:1–3), as well as to the forty days of Christ's temptation by Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12–13, Luke 4:1–13). But this does little to explain the timing of the Lenten fast, which commences at the turn of winter into spring. There is no text in the Bible prescribing this particular fast period. Also, the other Ember days coincide with the turn of the seasons.
Perhaps a key can be found in the reference to the humoral system of Hippocrates and Galenus, which was used to condemn the consumption of meat and wine as a stimulus of luxury. In this system of thought, every season has its own qualities—dry or humid, hot or cold—and the human body, which also has humoral qualities, needs a little digestive pause to switch over to another season. So fasting might have served such a function. This reasoning was seldom explicit, but in one example, a Latin schoolbook of chronology from 1436 (Computus Magistri Jacobi ), the comparison was made between the qualities of the seasons and the capital sins, from which the human mind should be cleansed by fasting.
However, not all questions concerning the Christian traditions for fasting and abstinence can be answered. Why was the longest fasting period the one from late winter to early spring? And why did the church not forbid the consumption of fish and seafood? Were there economic motives at stake—should eggs be allowed to hatch instead of being eaten by humans? Should the milk of animals be reserved for their newborn? Since Church authorities never clearly explained the reasons behind fasting and abstinence, we may never know the answers to these questions.
See also Christianity ; Lent ; Middle Ages, European ; Shrove Tuesday .
Bazell, Dianne M. "Strife among the Table-Fellows: Conflicting Attitudes of Early and Medieval Christians Toward the Eating of Meat." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65 (1997): 73–99.
Dembinska, Maria. "Fasting and Working Monks: Regulations of the Fifth to Eleventh Centuries." In Food in Change: Eating Habits from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, edited by Alexander Fenton and Eszter Kisban, pp. 152–160. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers/National Museums of Scotland, 1986.
Gumbert-Hepp, Marijke. Computus Magistri Jacobi: Een schoolboek voor tijdrekenkunde uit 1436. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 1987. See pp. 108–111.
Hanslik, Rudolphus, ed. Benedicti Regula: Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Vol. 75. Vienna: Hoelder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1960. See capita 36, 41, 49.
Henish, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, Pa., and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
van Winter, Johanna Maria. "Obligatory Fasts and Voluntary Ascetism in the Middle Ages." In Food in Change: Eating Habits from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, edited by Alexander Fenton and Eszter Kisban, pp. 161–166. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers/National Museums of Scotland, 1986.
Johanna Maria van Winter
"Christianity." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity
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Christianity, religion founded in Palestine by the followers of Jesus. One of the world's major religions, it predominates in Europe and the Americas, where it has been a powerful historical force and cultural influence, but it also claims adherents in virtually every country of the world.
The central teachings of traditional Christianity are that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; that his life on earth, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven are proof of God's love for humanity and God's forgiveness of human sins; and that by faith in Jesus one may attain salvation and eternal life (see creed). This teaching is embodied in the Bible, specifically in the New Testament, but Christians accept also the Old Testament as sacred and authoritative Scripture.
Christian ethics derive to a large extent from the Jewish tradition as presented in the Old Testament, particularly the Ten Commandments, but with some difference of interpretation based on the practice and teachings of Jesus. Christianity may be further generally defined in terms of its practice of corporate worship and rites that usually include the use of sacraments and that are usually conducted by trained clergy within organized churches. There are, however, many different forms of worship, many interpretations of the role of the organized clergy, and many variations in polity and church organization within Christianity.
Divisions within the Religion
In the two millennia of its history Christianity has been divided by schism and roiled by heresy, based on doctrinal and organizational differences. Today there are three broad divisions, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Eastern, and Protestant; but within the category of Protestantism, there is a particularly large number of divergent denominations. Because of the complexity of these differences this article will describe the history of Christianity only to 1054, when the schism between Eastern and Western churches became final. Separate articles detail the history and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Eastern Church and of the other churches of ancient origin, the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church (see Copts), the Jacobite Church, and the Nestorian Church. In the 16th cent. another major schism took place in the Western Church with the Protestant Reformation. For the Protestant churches, see Protestantism and articles on the separate churches. For the 20th-century movement that seeks to end the divisiveness in Christianity and achieve reunion, see ecumenical movement.
Christianity is in a direct sense an offshoot of Judaism, because Jesus and his immediate followers were Jews living in Palestine and Jesus was believed by his followers to have fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. Following a trend of proselytization in the Judaism of that period Christianity was from its beginnings expansionist. Its early missionaries (the most notable of whom was St. Paul, who was also responsible for the formulation of elements of Christian doctrine) spread its teachings in Asia Minor, Alexandria, Greece, and Rome. Missions have remained a major element in Christianity to the present day.
For the first three centuries of Christianity, history is dependent on apologetic and religious writings; there are no chronicles (see patristic literature). Historians differ greatly on how far back the 4th-century picture of the church (which is quite clear) can be projected, especially respecting organization by bishops (each bishop a monarch in the church of his city), celebration of a liturgy entailing a sacrament and a sacrifice, and claims by the bishop of Rome to be head of all the churches (see papacy). There is evidence for these features in the 2d cent. A first problem for Christians was how to resist attempts to interpret the new beliefs in pagan terms (e.g., Gnosticism). The earliest sectarian deviations were those of Marcion and of Montanus (2d cent.). They were handled resolutely by the church; the teachers of novelty were expelled (excommunicated).
For 250 years it was a martyrs' church; the persecutions were fueled by the refusal of Christians to worship the state and the Roman emperor. There were persecutions under Nero, Domitian, Trajan and the other Antonines, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian and Galerius; Decius ordered the first official persecution in 250. In 313, Constantine I and Licinius announced toleration of Christianity in the Edict of Milan. In the East the church passed from persecution directly to imperial control (caesaropapism), inaugurated by Constantine, enshrined later in Justinian's laws, and always a problem for the Orthodox churches. In the West the church remained independent because of the weakness of the emperor and the well-established authority of the bishop of Rome.
Controversy and Growth
For 300 years after AD 275 the church in the East was occupied with doctrinal controversies—Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Monotheletism. These arguments concerned the manner in which Jesus is both divine and human. Decisions were made at a series of general councils of bishops (see council, ecumenical); at them was composed the Nicene Creed. These centuries saw a series of Christian writers of unequaled influence (the Fathers of the Church): Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostom, and Theodoret writing in Greek; St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine writing in Latin. Origen and St. Jerome had a special role in the church's work of determining and preserving the text of the Bible.
From the 3d cent. monasticism was one element of the church. It was first organized by St. Basil. In the West monasticism was central to the missionary work of St. Martin (Gaul, 4th cent.) and St. Patrick (Ireland, 5th cent.). It received definitive shape from St. Benedict and St. Gregory the Great, who thereby generated a mode of life of continuing vitality in the Roman Catholic Church.
German invasions slowed the conversion of Western Europe (e.g., that of England was recommenced in the 6th cent.). Most of the first invaders were converted to Arian Christianity, but the pagan Franks (with Clovis) adopted orthodox Christianity, a fact that probably helped to consolidate their rule. Out of this kingdom came Pepin and Charlemagne, who, by alliance with the papacy and proclamation of an empire (800), charted an ideal of the Middle Ages.
Schism between East and West
In the 7th and 8th cent. the Eastern Church lost to Islam all Asia except Asia Minor. Alienation from the West was exacerbated by the bitter struggle over iconoclasm; ecclesiastical animosity between Rome and Constantinople came to a head in the schism of the 9th cent. This schism centered on the addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed (see creed) in the West and on the western church's use of unleavened bread in the celebration of the mass and insistence on clerical celibacy. The division between East and West grew wider and attained a sort of legal permanence in 1054 (see Leo IX, Saint). Eastern and Western Christendom were already in the 9th cent. two different cultures; their one common tie was the Christian doctrine—even worship and practices were very different. From this time it is customary to distinguish Christian history in its Eastern and Western streams as that of the Orthodox Eastern Church and Roman Catholic Church.
See J. Lebreton and J. Zeiller, A History of the Early Church (4 vol., 1944–46; repr. 1962); H. Lietzmann, The History of the Early Church (4 vol., tr. 1961; repr. 1967); A. Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (1964); H. Marrou et al., The Christian Centuries (1964); J. G. Davies, The Early Christian Church (1965); H. Chadwick, The Early Church (1967); R. M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine (1970); R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970); R. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion (1998); D. MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (2010); G. Vermes, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea (2012); R. L. Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (2012).
"Christianity." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity-0
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See also 69. CATHOLICISM ; 79. CHRIST ; 135. EASTERN ORTHODOXY ; 151. FAITH ; 183. GOD and GODS ; 205. HERESY ; 260. MARY ; 332. PROTESTANTISM ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .
- 1. Obsolete, the pronouncing of a curse or ban with religious solemnity by ecclesiastical authority; anathematization.
- 2. a curse or malediction. —anathema , n.
- a collection of prayers used for solemn feasts in the Orthodox Eastern Church. See also 53. BOOKS .
- 1. a belief in, or adherence to the system of, the Antichrist.
- 2. the state of opposing Christianity in thought or action. Also antichristianity .
- the study of the methods and contents of defenses or proofs of Christianity. —apologetical , adj.
- the condition of adhering to the evangelical doctrine of sanctification and to practicing such rites as healing and foot washing; following the teachings of the twelve apostles. —apostolic , n. —apostolical , adj.
- one of a sect of early Christians who used unleavened bread for the Eucharist.
- Eastern Orthodoxy.
- 1. a manual of instruction in the principles of the Christian religion, usually in question and answer form.
- 2. catechetical instruction. —catechist , n. —catechetical , adj.
- the doctrines, system, and practice of the Catholic Church, especially the Roman Catholic Church. —Catholic , n., adj.
- Christians collectively or the Christian world.
- the religious tenets held by all Christians.
- 1. a writer of the anonymous 2nd-century Christian manual of morals and church practices called the Didache.
- 2. an expert on or student of the Didache.
- Eastern Orthodoxy
- the doctrines, systems, and practices of local and national independent churches (including the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches) in communion with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and adhering to the Nicene Creed and to a common rite celebrated in various languages. Also called Byzantinism . —Eastern Orthodox , n., adj.
- Ecumenism, Oecumenism
- a movement within Christianity toward the recovery of unity among all Christians. —Ecumenicist , n.
- the theological doctrine of God’s predestination of individuals as objects of divine mercy and salvation.
- the practices of a 2nd-century sect that abstained from marriage, wine, and meat. —Encratite , n.
- the state of not being a Christian. —ethnic , n. —ethnical , adj.
- evangelism, evangelicalism
- the missionary, reforming, or redeeming spirit evident throughout the history of Christianity in various guises or emphases. —evangelical, evangelistic , adj.
- 1. the practice of ascetic individuals or groups who indulge in scourging for the sake of discipline or punishment.
- 2. (cap.) the practice of a 13th- and 14th-century fanatical European sect that indulged in scourging to avoid the punishment of God. —flagellant , n., adj.
- impenitence, impenitency
- lack of repentance or contrition for sins committed. —impenitent , n., adj.
- the theological doctrine that man’s fall was foreseen and permitted by God, who then decreed election as a method for the salvation of some of mankind. Cf. supralapsarianism . —infralapsarian , n., adj.
- kerygma, kerugma
- 1. the original, oral gospel preached by the apostles.
- 2. the preaching of the Christian gospel, especially the activity of the earliest Christian missionaries. —kerygmatic , adj.
- worship of the highest order that can be offered only to God.
- the beliefs of an anti-Semitic Gnostic sect in the early Christian church. —Marcionite , n., adj.
- a 2nd- and 3rd-century Christian doctrine that maintained that God is a single person as well as a single being. —monarchian , adj.
- 1. the rule or system of life in a monastery.
- 2. the life or condition of a monk. —monastic , n., adj. —monastical , adj.
- 1. a religious offering, either as charity or to God or a god.
- 2. the Eucharist, especially the offering of bread and wine to God.
- the Holy Spirit, considered as comforter, intercessor, or advocate.
- the coming of Christ on Judgement Day. Also called Second Advent, Second Coming .
- the teachings of the apostle Paul, who believed that people should be emancipated from Jewish law and allowed to follow the faith and spirit of Christ. —Paulist , n. —Paulinian , adj.
- penitence, penitency
- the state or condition of regretting sins or offenses and being willing to atone for them. —penitent , n., adj.
- the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. See also 379. SOUL .
- 1. the doctrines concerning the Holy Spirit.
- 2. the belief in spiritual beings, as angels, between men and God. —pneumatologist , n. —pneumatologic, pneumatological , adj.
- the belief that the prophecies of the book of Revelation have already come to pass. —preterist , n., adj.
- the doctrines and practices of those Western Christian churches not in communion with the Roman or Eastern churches. —Protestant , n., adj.
- Theology. the doctrine that death causes the soul to sleep until the day of resurrection. —psychopannychist , n. —psychopannychian, psychopannychistic , adj.
- 1. the first Sunday of Lent. Also called Quadragesima Sunday .
- 2. Obsolete, the forty days of Lent. —Quadragesimal, quadragesimal , adj.
- the Sunday before Lent. Also called Quinquagesima Sunday . —Quinquagesimal, quinquegesimal , adj.
- 1. the practice in Judaism and some Christian groups of keeping the seventh day holy.
- 2. the practice of keeping Sunday holy and free of work and pleasureful activity. —sabbatarian , n., adj.
- 1. the theological doctrines concerning the sacraments.
- 2. the doctrines asserting that the sacraments are necessary to salvation as a conveyor of grace to a human soul. —sacramentalist , n.
- the theological tenet of progressively declining essence within the Trinity. —subordinationist , n.
- the theological doctrine asserting that God’s plan for the salvation of man decreed election before the fall of man and permitted the fall as an instrumentality for fulfilling the divine purposes. Cf. infralapsarianism . —supralapsarian , n., adj.
- synusiast, synousiast
- Obsolete, one who believes that Christ was a mixture of divine and human substance.
- the force or process of divine inspiration; the power by which the Holy Spirit reveals truth to men. —theopneustic, theopneusted , adj.
- 1. the heretical belief that the Trinity consists of three distinct gods.
- 2. any polytheistic religion having three gods. —tritheist , n. —tritheistic, tritheistical , adj.
- the Eucharist given to one about to die; last rites or extreme unction. —viatic, viatical , adj.
- the doctrine that in the Lord’s supper there is an influence of Christ upon the soul but that the true body of Christ is present only through faith and not reality. —Zwinglianist , n. —Zwinglian , adj.
"Christianity." -Ologies and -Isms. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity
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Christianity exists in a vast diversity of different styles and forms of organization, but all are agreed that the figure of Jesus is the disclosure of God and the means of human reconciliation with him.
In the early years, ‘Christianity’ was one interpretation, among many at that time, of what God's covenant with Israel and his purpose in creation should be; but in this interpretation, it was believed that Jesus was the promised messiah (Heb., ha-Mashiach = messiah = Gk., ho Christos, hence the name ‘Christianity’, which was first used, according to Acts 2. 26, in c.40 CE).
Characteristic Christian doctrines emerged from the demand of the New Testament evidence (and from the experience which brought it into being). Jesus mediated the consequence and effect of God, so that on the one hand it was evidently God who was acting and speaking in and through him, and yet on the other it was clear that Jesus addressed God (e.g. in prayer) as apart from himself, as Father (see ABBA): this produced a quest in the early centuries to find ways of speaking of these two natures in one person (Christology). At the same time, God was clearly present to the life of Jesus (e.g. at his birth and his baptism, and in the directing of his mission), in the ways traditionally spoken of as the Holy Spirit. This led to a further quest to find ways of speaking of the interior nature of God, as being in itself, not an abstract unity, but social and relational (i.e. as Trinity).
It was also recognized that what Jesus had done during his life for some particular people, in reconciling them to God when they had become estranged from him and from each other, was, as a consequence of his death, resurrection, and ascension, extended to others, and indeed made universal, at least as an opportunity for those who respond in faith. This led to doctrines of atonement.
This extension of the consequence of Christ was made immediately realistic, and thus realizable, through the enacted signs of baptism and of the last supper (eucharist).
During the New Testament period, the nature of Christian community (the Church) changed dramatically: the original metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ, with all parts being of equal importance under the headship of Christ, was changed into a metaphor derived from the Roman army, with a hierarchical organization and vertical levels of authority of bishops, priests, and deacons: the clericalization of the Church and the subordination of the laity have remained characteristic of most parts of Christianity down to the present. After the support of Constantine and the recognition of Christianity as the religion of the Empire under Theodosius I (emperor, 379–95), Christianity became the major religion of the Roman world.
Faith and practice were constantly disputed and contested, leading to a series of Councils in which attempts were made to achieve unity and conformity. Creeds developed from baptismal formulae (which served as ‘passwords’) to summaries of approved and legitimized faith. But major divisions emerged, some of which (e.g. Monophysites) persist as continuing Churches to the present. Especially serious was the schism between E. and W. Christianity. Despite attempts at repair, the Orthodox (i.e. E.) Church (itself comprising several different traditions, disciplines, and practices) remains resistant to the claims of the bishop of Rome (the pope) to teaching and jurisdictional authority. W. Christianity was disrupted by the Reformation, with the Reformed Churches dividing further, and repeatedly, on issues of doctrine and practice.
The early involvement of Christianity with the Roman Empire led to the development of a religious life which was deliberately separated from the world. It began with the desert fathers and spread across the known world. It eventually found expression in the monastic orders, notably that of St Benedict, and it gained its evangelical outreach in the religious orders of the 13th cent. onward.
Throughout its history, the Christian quest to share the good news (gospel) of Christ has produced an emphasis on mission, especially in the 19th cent., ‘the century of mission’, culminating in the Edinburgh Conference, 1910. As a result, Christianity is found in all parts of the world, and makes up more than a quarter of the world's population.
Liturgically, Christians follow the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus throughout each year, marking particular days as festivals, and celebrating also those who have been exemplary in faith and practice (saints). The practices of prayer (in its many forms) and worship are fundamental in Christian life.
Vital also is the fact that Christian life should be the manifestation of a pervasive quality of love (agape). From this has arisen the recent view that orthopraxy is at least as important as orthodoxy (perhaps more so): see LIBERATION THEOLOGY. It is this stress on the transformation of human life into love which has led through the centuries to the founding of schools and hospitals, and to the care of the poor, and to the recognition of such people as Francis of Assisi as exemplary.
"Christianity." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity
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Christians were first called "Christians," according to Acts 11: 26, at Antioch in 40 to 44 c.e. A Christian is one who accepts Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ), the Anointed One of God—the one who shows and makes present in history God's nature and purpose for creation.
Normally Christians believe in one creator God, threefold in being (Father, Son, and Spirit). The Son is the Logos or Wisdom of God, the archetype of all creation, who was incarnate in Jesus, reconciling an estranged creation to the divine being through Jesus' death and resurrection. The Spirit, the creative energy of God, is known in the fellowship of the Church, which mediates the presence of the risen Christ to the world. Christians believe that human beings have turned away from the love of God to selfish desire (are "in sin"), but God wills that all should turn back to God, and in Christ calls them and empowers them to return. At the end of history, Christ will be disclosed in glory, and all who have not finally rejected God will receive the gift of eternal life in the presence of God. The "gospel," or good news, is that God forgives sin and offers eternal life to all through Christ.
Christianity has expanded from a small Jewish messianic sect to become the largest religion in the world, with an estimated two billion adherents. It has taken many forms, and there are well over a thousand Christian denominations. Some denominations think of themselves as "Biblical Christians," meaning that they take the Bible as the basis of faith, and often interpret the historical records, including accounts of miracles and of the coming end of the world, as literally as possible. Such groups sometimes find themselves in conflict with the claims of science, most obviously over the age of the universe, the origin of human life, and the probable end of the world.
The mainstream denominations—especially Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran and Anglican—are not committed to biblical literalism. It has become standard to interpret the Genesis accounts and teachings about the end of the world as myths, the purpose of which is to teach the dependence of all things on God, and the final destiny of the universe as lying in union with (or final separation from) God. More radical movements seek to reconstruct Christian faith in terms of personal commitment to agapistic love (to the kingdom of God, seen as a moral community), or of apprehension of the Transcendent, as it is disclosed in Jesus. Nevertheless, belief in God as creator is usually affirmed, and Jesus is seen as a unique instance of God's action in the world, from whose life, death, and resurrection the church originates, as the way of reconciling the world to God. The experimental sciences have flourished in this intellectual environment, since it affirms the rational intelligibility of the universe, as created by a wise God, and gives humans the responsibility for having "dominion" over, or care for, the creation.
See also Christianity, Anglican, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Evangelical, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Lutheran, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Orthodox, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Pentecostalism, Isuses in Science and Religion; Christianity, Radical Reformed, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Reformed, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Roman Catholic, Issues in Science and Religion; Science and Religion, History of Field
mcmanners, john, ed. the oxford illustrated history of christianity. oxford: oxford university press, 1990.
ward, keith. christianity: a short introduction. oxford: oneworld press, 2000.
"Christianity." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity
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In Rome, these Christian groups became the targets of political repression, especially under Nero. This persecution resulted in the new institutions of martyrdom and sainthood. Although Christianity spread among the lower classes, it eventually won favour among the powerful, and in 313 CE Constantine established it as the religion of the Roman Empire. Karl Kautsky's argument (Foundations of Christianity: A Study of Christian Origins, 1908) that early Christianity was a proletarian religion requires qualification.
By the eleventh century, there was a clear divide between Western and Eastern Orthodoxy. The bishop of Rome was transformed into the Pope with authority over Western Christendom. The Roman Catholic Church had a major impact on Western culture, especially through the educational function of monasteries. There was a profound split in the Church as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Christianity is founded on the belief in an omnipotent and just God who is responsible for all Creation. Although humanity has sinned, and therefore fallen from grace, salvation from punishment has been made possible by God's mercy in sending a saviour—Jesus Christ—to atone for these sins. Christians therefore believe that faith in Christ as the Son of God ensures everlasting salvation. However, contemporary Christianity is an extradordinarily diverse belief system, embodying various doctrines emphasizing not only faith but also all manner of good works. A fascinating account of the historical emergence of the doctrines and organization of the Christian church is given in Elaine Pagels's book, The Gnostic Gospels (1979).
Much of the sociology of religion has been concerned with the social consequences of specifically Christian beliefs. Max Weber's protestant ethic thesis is one of the best-known examples. There has also been much debate about the impact of Christianity on Western civilization generally, for example in promoting democracy or scientific innovation, and about the contemporary secularization of the Christian religion. See also CHILIASM; CHURCH; RELIGION, SOCIOLOGY OF; SECT.
"Christianity." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity
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"Christianity." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity
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"Christianity." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity
"Christianity." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved January 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity
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Chris·ti·an·i·ty / ˌkrischēˈanitē/ • n. the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or its beliefs and practices. ∎ Christian quality or character: you may know a man by his Christianity.
"Christianity." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity-1
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"Christianity." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity
"Christianity." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Retrieved January 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity
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This entry includes two subentries:
Eastern Orthodox Christianity
"Christianity." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity-0
"Christianity." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Retrieved January 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/christianity-0
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"Christianity." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity-0
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"Christianity." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity-0
"Christianity." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved January 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/christianity-0