Christianity: An Overview

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Christianity is defined by one of its leading modern interpreters, Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834), as "a monotheistic faith essentially distinguished from other such faiths by the fact that in it everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth." While many interpreters of the meaning of Christianity would dispute the content that Schleiermacher gave to each of the crucial terms in that definition, the definition as such would probably stand. It is beyond the scope of this article, or even of this encyclopedia, to present an exhaustive summary of all that Christianity is and has ever been: entire encyclopedias several times the size of this one (some of them listed in the bibliography, below) have been devoted to such a summary, and even they have been far from exhaustive. What this article can do, supported by other articles throughout this work, is to sketch some of the main points in the history of Christianity and then to identify some of the features of Christianity that most students of the movement, whether professing personal allegiance to it or not, would probably recognize as belonging to its "essence." Although both the "history" and the "essence" are, unavoidably, controversial in that not everyone would agree with this (or with any) account of them, such an account as this can claim to represent a majority consensus.

The History of Christianity

Christianity is a historical religion. It locates within the events of human history both the redemption it promises and the revelation to which it lays claim: Jesus was born under Caesar Augustus and "suffered under Pontius Pilate," at particular dates in the chronology of the history of Rome (even though the specific dates of those two events may be impossible to determine with absolute precision). In this respect Christianity shows its continuing affinities with the Judaism out of which it came, for there too the historical process becomes the peculiar arena of divine activity. The primal revelation for Judaismand for Christianityis the divine declaration to Moses (Ex. 3:6): "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." To this primal revelation Christianity adds the assertion (Heb. 1:12) that the God who in past times had spoken through the prophets and acted through the exodus from Egypt has now spoken definitively and acted decisively in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, seen as the "Christ," the anointed and chosen one of God.

Early Christianity

It is, then, with Jesus of Nazareth that the history of Christianity takes its start. Almost everything that is known of him, however, comes from those who responded, in loyalty and obedience, to the events of his life and the content of his teaching. Therefore the history of the earliest Christian communities, to the extent that we are in a position to reconstruct it, is at the same time the history of Jesus as they remembered him. His own immediate followers were all Jews, and it is within that framework that they interpreted the significance of what they had received and perceived: he was the Christ, or Messiah, who had been promised to the patriarchs of Israel. As the record of those promises, the Hebrew scriptures were sacred for early Christians no less than for Jews, enabling them to claim a continuity with the history of the people of God since the creation of the world. The apostle Paul both summarized and reinterpreted the message of the first generation of believers. Together with the written deposit of their memories of Jesus in the Gospels, the writings of Paul and several other documents were circulated widely in Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world, eventually becoming the Christian addendum (or "New Testament") to the Hebrew scriptures (or "Old Testament").

Paul was also responsible for the transformation of Christianity from a Jewish sect to a Gentile movement by the end of the first century of the common era. The importance of this change for Christian history is impossible to exaggerate. Jesus had been born in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, but now his followers took upon themselves the assignment of challenging that empire and eventually of conquering it in his name. The opposition between empire and church during the second and third centuries sometimes took the form of persecution and martyrdom, but all that was replaced in the fourth century by the creation of a Christian Roman Empire, when the emperor Constantine (306337) first made the new faith legal, then made it his own, then made it the official religion of the realm. As part of their political and philosophical defense against their adversaries, the apologists for Christianity in the second and third centuries had also sought to clarify its relation to Greek and Roman thought, but with its official adoption their successors in the fourth and fifth centuries undertook to interpret Christian theology as the perennial philosophy in which the aspirations of all religions were now corrected and fulfilled. Among these later apologists, Augustine of Hippo (354430) in his City of God articulated the Christian case against those who charged that by undermining the traditional values of Roman religion the church had been responsible for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. On the contrary, he said, Christianity was the support of just rulers and legitimate governments, and by its faith in the God of history, as well as by its moral teachings about work and the family, it promoted the welfare of society; the City of Earth would function best if it acknowledged the transcendent reality of the City of God, which was beyond history but which had made its presence known within this particular history.

The century that began with Constantine and ended with Augustine also saw the stabilization of the internal life and structure of the Christian movement. One by one, alternative ways of thought and belief that were adjudged to be aberrations were sloughed off or excluded as "heresies" or "schisms." Some of these (particularly the various species of apocalyptic or millenarian expectation) were efforts to perpetuate ways of being Christian that no longer suited the needs of the life of the church when the long-expected second coming of Jesus Christ failed to materialize, while others (notably the several Gnostic systems) involved the adaptation to the Christian message of schemes of revelation and salvation that were also manifesting themselves in other religions. In opposition to these alternative ways of thought and belief, Christianity, since before the days during which the books of the New Testament were being written, identified the content of orthodox belief and fixed its form in a succession of creedal statements. The earliest of these, including that eventually formulated as the Apostles' Creed, are put into the mouth of one or another or all twelve of the apostles of Jesus, and the most important creedal statement was adopted (under Constantine's patronage) at the Council of Nicaea in 325 (see "The Pattern of Christian Belief," below).

During those same early centuries, Christianity was also identifying the structures of authority that were thought to guarantee the preservation of "apostolic" faith and order: the Bible and the bishops. As already noted, the Bible of the Christians consisted of two parts (or "testaments"): the books they had inherited from Judaism, and the combination into a "New Testament" of four gospels about the life and teachings of Jesus, epistles attributed to Paul and other apostolic figures, the Acts of the Apostles, and (from among the many extant apocalyptic writings) the Revelation to John. The bishops through their uninterrupted succession were believed to certify the continuity of the church with its apostolic foundations. As the church that could claim to have been shepherded by all twelve apostles, Jerusalem held a unique place; but as the church that Peter had governed and to which Paul had written (and where both Peter and Paul had been martyred), and as the congregation at the capital of the civilized world, Rome early acquired a special position as "the apostolic see," which it would consolidate by the leadership in faith and life that it exercised during the crises of the fourth and fifth centuries. Actually, the criterion of "apostolicity" was a circular one: apostolic foundation of episcopal sees, apostolic authorship of biblical books, and apostolic orthodoxy of creedal belief supported one another, and no one of them was ever sufficient of itselfeven in the case of the see of Rometo serve as such a criterion in isolation from the others.

Official establishment of Christianity

Constantine's acceptance of Christianity and the eventual establishment of it as the official faith of the Roman Empire is rightly seen as the most portentous eventfor good or ill or some combination of the twoin all of Christian history; conversely, "the end of the Constantinian era," which is how many thoughtful observers have characterized the twentieth century, has brought about the reshaping and rethinking of all the structures of faith and life that Christianity evolved in the aftermath of its new status from the fourth century on. Both in the Roman West, where Constantine prevailed in 312 "by the power of the cross," as he believed, and in the Byzantine East, where Constantine established the new capital of the Christian Roman Empire two decades later, Christianity undertook to create a new civilization that would be a continuation of ancient Greece and Rome and yet would be a transformation of those cultures through the infusion of the spiritual power of Christ as Lord.

The Christian culture of Byzantium

That pattern of continuation with transformation took a special form in the Christian culture of the Byzantine Empire, whose history persisted for more than a thousand years from the creation of Constantinople as "New Rome" in 330 ce to its fall to the armies of the Turkish sultan Mehmed II (and its change of name to Istanbul) in 1453. Constantine and his successorsand, above all, the emperor Justinian (r. 527565)saw themselves in their Roman capacity as the legitimate heirs of the ancient pagan caesars, but at the same time in their Christian capacity as "equal to the apostles" (isapostolos ). In the exercise of this special authority, they frequently became involved in the administrative, liturgical, and doctrinal affairs of the church, and often without opposition and with great success. Contemporary historians tell us that it was the emperor Constantine who came up with the formula "one in being [homoousios] with the Father," which resolved, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, the dispute over the metaphysical relation between Christ and God. Later historians have coined for this special status of the Byzantine emperor the term Caesaropapism, implying that what the pope was in the West, the caesar was in the East. While the reign of Constantine, and even more that of Justinian, may have merited such a designation, the patriarch of Constantinople repeatedly asserted the authority of the church to determine its own destiny, above all in the areas of belief and worship. Most notably, in the iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries, which were brought on by the campaign of a series of emperors to remove images from the worship of the church, the defenders of the church's autonomy, who included especially monks and empresses, eventually carried the day, and the authority of the emperor to legislate unilaterally for the church was significantly curtailed.

One reason for this success in the iconoclastic disputes was the special place of icons in Byzantine (and later in Slavic) Orthodoxy, which one scholar has called its "distinctive identity." As interpreted by its defenders, the cult of the icons was anything but the relapse into idolatrous paganism of which it was accused by the iconoclasts; instead it represented the commitment of Orthodoxy to the reality of the full incarnation of the Son of God in the human figure of Jesus: worship of the image of Jesus Christ was in fact addressed to one who was in his single person completely God and completely man. Thus, to a degree unknown in the West even in the high Middle Ages, Greek Christianity defined itself by its liturgy and devotion, not only (perhaps not primarily) by its dogma and life. The very term orthodoxia in Greek, and its Slavic counterpart pravoslavie, meant in the first instance "correct worship," which also included "correct doctrine." Embodied as it was in the curriculum of Byzantine educational institutions at all levels, the continuing hold that a christianized Neoplatonism exercised over its expositors enabled them to make use of its metaphysics and epistemology in the service of the church's message. The Byzantine icons were only one part of a total Christian culture, in which architecture, poetry, and music also contributed their special part. One feature of this culture was a commitment to preserving the indigenous culture of each people to which the Christian message came: while the Western missionaries, in introducing the Mass, taught each nation Latin when they taught it the gospel (and thus, even without intending to do so, gave it at least some access to pre-Christian Roman culture), Eastern missionaries translated not only the Bible but also the liturgy into the language of the people. It was, above all, in the Byzantine missions to the Slavs (where the two philosophies about the proper language of the liturgy clashed) that this peculiarity of the Eastern church served to create an integrally Slavic Orthodoxy, through which the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia, and Serbia came of age as nations.

Christianity in the Middle Ages

In the Latin West, by contrast, the outcome of the Constantinian settlement took a radically divergent form, in which it was not principally the Christian emperor and the Christian empire, but the bishop of Rome and the papacy, that was to set the tone of the historical development of Christianity. With the transfer of the capital to Constantinople, the pope came to symbolize and to embody the continuity with ancient Rome. Within less than a century after that transfer, the bishop of Rome was calling himself "supreme pontiff" (pontifex maximus ), a title that had belonged to the pagan caesars. When the various Germanic tribes arrived in western Europe, they found the papacy already present as a political and cultural force. Those tribes that chose to ignore that force by clinging too long to Germanic paganism or to forms of Christianity that had been outlawed as heretical also lost the opportunity to shape the future of European history, but the Franks, by allying themselves with the bishop of Rome, were to determine its subsequent course through much of the Middle Ages. The symbolic high point of the alliance came on Christmas Day in the year 800 with the crowning of the Frankish king Charles, known to history as Charlemagne (c. 742814), as "emperor" at the hands of Pope Leo III in Rome, even though there was still an emperor in Constantinople. With its own emperorand, above all, its own bishop and supreme pontiffthe West was free to pursue its own destiny. And although the schism between West and East, in a technical and canonical sense, did not take place until several centuries later, and in a spiritual sense may be said to have happened in 1204, the historical intuition that located it as having originated in the ninth century was in many ways sound.

Confrontation with Islam

Each in its own way, both Eastern and Western Christendom were compelled, from the seventh century onward, to come to terms with the reality of Islam. During the one hundred years after the death of the prophet Muammad in 632 ce, the geographical spread of Islam was both more rapid and more effective than that of Christianity had been during its first several centuries. Several of the major centers of the Eastern churchesAntioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem itselfbecame Muslim in government, although a large Christian population was able to practice its faith under varying degrees of pressure. Eventually, in 1453, Constantinople also became a Muslim city. The Muslim conquest of Palestine was likewise responsible for the most historic confrontation ever between Christianity and another faith, in the Crusades, as successive armies of Western Christians sought to reconquer the "holy places" associated with the life of Jesusan enterprise that eventually failed.

The monks

Because its administrative structure and intellectual tradition were so different from those of the Byzantine East, the medieval Christianity of the West expressed its relation to society and culture in a distinctive fashion as well. In even greater measure than in the East, the bearers of its civilizing force were monks. The missionaries who brought the gospel to the barbariansfor example, Boniface (673754), the "apostle of Germany" sent from Rome, and Cyril (c. 826869) and Methodius (c. 815c. 884), the "apostles to the Slavs" sent from Constantinoplewere monks. So were the scribes who then brought Classical civilization to the same barbarians; thus the Benedictine monk the Venerable Bede (c. 673735) laid many of the foundations of scholarship in England. Most of the reformers who throughout the Middle Ages recalled the church to its primitive faith and its ancient loyalties came from monasticism, as was evident above all in the work of Bernard of Clairvaux (10901153), "the unmitered pope" of the twelfth century, and then in the program of Francis of Assisi (1181/21226). The cloisters likewise supplied most of the theologians who systematized and defended the faith: Anselm of Canterbury (c. 10331109) was a Benedictine abbot, Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) was a Dominican friar, and Bonaventure (c. 12171274) and Duns Scotus (c. 12661308) were both Franciscans.

Repeatedly, of course, the monastic communities themselves needed to be reformed, and in virtually every century of the Middle Ages there arose movements of renewal dedicated to the purification of the monastic ideal and, through it, renewal of the life of the total church. When the leaders of such movements managed to establish themselves as leaders of the total church, the result was often a great conflict. Thus in the eleventh century the reformer Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII (in 1073) and set about renewing the administration, the morals, and the faith and life of the church. He sought to enforce the law of clerical celibacy, to root out financial and political corruption, to free bishops and prelates from the dominance of secular princes, and to purge the church of heresy and schism. This brought him into collision both with his own ecclesiastical subordinates and with the empire, but it also gave him the opportunity to formulate for all time the special prerogatives of the church and the bishop of Rome (see "The Community of Christian Worship," below).

Reformation Christianity

Such reform movements, it seemed, could always be counted on to rescue the church in times of crisisuntil, through Martin Luther (14831546) and the Reformation, a crisis arose in which the primary impetus for reform was to express itself not through monasticism or the papacy, but against both monasticism and the papacy (although it must be remembered that Luther, too, was originally a monk). Already in various late medieval reformations, such as those of the "Spiritual" Franciscans and the Hussites, there was the sense that (to cite the four standard "marks" of the church enumerated in the Nicene Creed) Christendom could be neither one nor holy nor catholic nor apostolic until it had replaced the secularized and corrupt authority of the bishop of Rome with the authenticity of the word of God, for which some looked to a church council while others put their confidence in the recovery of the message of the Bible. That sense finally found its voice in the program of the Protestant reformers. Beginning with the belief that they were merely the loyal children of Mother Church recalling her to her genuine self, they soon found themselves so alienated from the structures and teachings of the church of their time that they were obliged to look for, and if need be to invent, alternative structures and teachings of their own.

The structures and teachings of the several Protestant groups covered an extremely wide spectrum, such that those at one end of the spectrum (Lutherans and Anglicans) were in many ways closer to Roman Catholicism and even to Eastern Orthodoxy, despite the schisms both of the Middle Ages and of the Reformation, than they were to Socinianism or even to Anabaptism or even perhaps to Calvinism. In their ecclesiastical structures, the churches that came out of the Reformation ranged from a retention of the historic episcopate (e.g., in England and Sweden) to a presbyterian form of church government (e.g., in Scotland and in many, though by no means all, of the Calvinist churches on the European continent) to an insistence on the primacy and autonomy of the local congregation (e.g., in various of the dissenters from Anglicanism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the Congregationalists and Baptists, especially in the New World). While the mainstream of Protestantism has in its doctrine maintained a loyalty to the doctrines of the Trinity, of the person of Christ, of original sin, and of salvation through the death of Christ, as these had been developed in the early and medieval church, it has diverged from earlier development (and thus from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) above all in its understanding of the nature of the church and of the meaning (and hence the number) of the sacraments, with only baptism and the Lord's Supper being regarded as authentic sacraments by most Protestants. (See "The Pattern of Christian Belief," below.) The principal difference, at least as seen both by the Protestant reformers and by their Roman Catholic adversaries, lay in the area of religious authority: not the church or its tradition, not the papacy or a church council, but the Bible alone, was to be the norm that determined what Christians were to believe and how they were to live.

The Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation is sometimes called the "Counter-Reformation," although that term has come to be regarded by many scholars as excessively negative in its connotations because it seems to ignore the positive reforms that were not merely a reaction to Protestantism. "The Roman Catholic Reformation" is in many ways a preferable designation. First through a series of responses to the theology and program of the reformers, then above all through the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent (15451563), the Catholic Reformation took up the issues addressed by Luther and by his most eminent successor, John Calvin (15091564), both in the area of church life and morals and in the area of church teaching and authority. Many of the corruptions that had acted as tinder for the Reformation received the careful attention of the council fathers, with the result that Roman Catholicism and the papacy emerged from the crisis of the Reformation diminished in size but chastened and strengthened in spirit. The creation of the Society of Jesus by Ignatius Loyola (c. 14911556) in 1534 provided the church with a powerful instrument for carrying out the program of reform and renewal, and many of the tools employed by the reformers (e.g., the printing press and the catechism) lent themselves to that program just as effectively. A deepening mystical devotion gave new life to medieval spirituality, particularly in sixteenth-century Spain, and the theology of Thomas Aquinas acquired new authority as the defenders of the faith closed ranks against Protestant thought. The historical coincidence of the discovery of the New World and the Protestant Reformation, which both Protestants and Roman Catholics interpreted as providential, enabled Roman Catholic missionaries to recoup in North and South America the losses in prestige and membership caused by the Reformation. It was above all in Latin America that this recovery became a decisive religious and cultural force. Although divided (by the papal Line of Demarcation of 1493) between Spain and Portugal, Latin America was "united" in the sense that it was colonized and converted by Roman Catholic Christianity; the process of the Christianization of native populations was a gradual one, and many beliefs and practices of their pre-Christian history were carried over into their new faith. The effect of these and other missionary campaigns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was to make the term catholic in Roman Catholic begin to mean in fact what it had always meant in principle: present throughout the known world.

The Christian East

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation there were sporadic efforts in the West to establish (or reestablish) contact with the East; these ranged from the dispatch of various legations, to the translation of various classic works in one direction or the other, to marriages between Western monarchs and Byzantine or Russian princesses. The Crusades, which the East sometimes invited and sometimes dreaded, did at least reacquaint many members of the two traditions with one another, although the most unforgettable instance of such reacquaintance was the catastrophe of the sack of Christian Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Followed as it was two and a half centuries later by the Muslim capture of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire, the tragedy of 1204 is probably better entitled than any other event to the dubious distinction of being the point at which the Eastern and Western churches came into schisma schism that, except for repeated but short-lived attempts at reunion (the most notable of which was probably the Union of Florence in 1439), has persisted ever since. Although the loss of Constantinople to the Turks drastically reduced its sphere of influence, the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople continued to enjoy a preeminence of honor within Eastern Orthodoxy, as it does to this day. Numerically as well as politically, however, it was Slavic Orthodoxy, above all in Russia, that became the "heir apparent," uniting itself with Russian culture as it had with medieval Greek culture. Plagued though it was by internal schisms, and caught in the political and cultural upheavals of the tsarist empire, the church in Russia went on producing saints and scholars, and through the icons and the liturgy it suffused the faith and life of the common people with the meaning of the Christian faith: the icon painter Andrei Rublev (c. 1360c. 1430) and, in more modern times, the novelist and spiritual thinker Fyodor Dostoevsky (18211881) were among the products of this tradition best known in the West. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed an upsurge of interest in Eastern Orthodoxy throughout Western Christianity, as a consequence partly of the ecumenical movement and partly of the Russian Revolution, as both Protestants and Roman Catholics looked to Orthodoxy for the correction of what had come to be seen as Western deficiencies and overemphases in the aftermath of the Reformation.

Post-Reformation Christianity

The ecclesiastical map of the West after the Reformation shows a Europe divided between an almost solidly Roman Catholic south and a predominantly Protestant north, with the latter in turn divided between Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed or Calvinist forms of Christianity. The same competition was exported into Christian missions in Africa and Asia and into the Americas. Among the most influential developments of the centuries following the Reformation was the effort, which took a distinct form in each denomination but nevertheless manifested a similarity of spirit, to encourage a deeper seriousness about the claims of the Christian gospel upon personal faith and life: Jansenism within French (and then North American) Roman Catholicism, Puritanism (and later on Methodism) within English Protestantism, and Pietism within the Lutheran and Reformed churches of the continent and of the New World. Especially during the eighteenth century, these movements had it as one of their primary goals to combat and counteract the influence, both in the church and in public life, of the rationalism, freethinking, and "infidelity" associated with the Enlightenment. Combining as it did the application to Christian history and biblical literature of the methods of historical criticism (particularly in German theological scholarship) with the reexamination or even the rejection of the special claims of Christianity to a privileged place in Western society (particularly in the legislation of the French Revolution), the Enlightenment came to represent the campaign for the secularization of culture. An important feature of that combination of emphases in Enlightenment thought was a fundamental reconsideration of the traditional Christian assertions of finality and uniqueness. As the philosophical and historical basis for such assertions was coming under increasing attack from within such traditionally Christian institutions as the theological faculties of universities, the discovery of other religions both in the historical past and in the distant parts of the present world was bringing such concepts as the uniqueness of the Christian message into serious question. The special privileges that Christianity had enjoyed since the Constantinian era were gradually withdrawn. Separation of church and state, as developed especially in the United States, and the growth of religious toleration and religious liberty were the social and political expressions of the new situation that was beginning to become evident at the end of the eighteenth century.

The nineteenth century

Despite the losses in both influence and numbers that it suffered in the period of the Enlightenment, Christianity entered the nineteenth century with a strong sense of its continuing relevance and special mission. The critical reexamination of the Christian toleration of slaverylong overdue, in the opinion of observers inside and outside the churchcame to full realization in the nineteenth century, even though a civil war in the United States was necessary to bring this about. It was likewise in the nineteenth century, surnamed "the great century" in the leading history of Christian missions, that most of the major Christian denominations of the West, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, set out to evangelize the globe. Although the Christian missionary and the colonialist conqueror often marched arm in arm across that globe, the results for native cultures were quite ambiguous: sometimes a loss of national identity and cultural deracination, but on the other hand no less often a deepening sense of historical particularity and the acquisition of scholarly instruments for understanding it and thus of overcoming both the colonialism and the missions. Significantly, it was from the mission schools founded in the nineteenth century that a disproportionately high number of the revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century in developing nations were to emerge. On the home front, the confrontation between traditional Christian beliefs and the discoveries of modern science engaged the attention of the churches. The most violent such confrontation was brought on by the work of Charles Darwin, whose books The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) called into question the traditional Christian belief in a special creation of the human species in the image of God as based on the biblical accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis. Yet as the nineteenth century ended, there was a widespread expectation that the next would truly be "the Christian century." Christianizing the Social Order by Walter Rauschenbusch (18611918), first published in 1912, was a representative statement of that expectation.

The twentieth century

As things turned out, the twentieth century proved to be the age of two world wars, of the coming to power of Marxist regimes throughout most of historic Eastern Christendom, and of moral and intellectual crises (including the Nazi Holocaust and the issues raised by modern technology) that would shake the traditional beliefs and historical confidence of Christians with unprecedented force. The reaction was, if not an overt loss of faith, then a growing indifference in many traditionally Christian groups. The most influential Christian theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth (18861968), protested the synthesis of the gospel with human culture and called for a reassertion of that gospel in its native power and uniqueness. At the same time, however, the most influential Christian event of the twentieth century, the Second Vatican Council of 19621965, undertook a reform of Christian faith and life that reached out to other Christians and to other religious traditions with a new openness. The council was the manifestation within Roman Catholicism of a new ecumenical consciousness that had its origins in Protestantism; the divisions that had followed in the wake of the Reformation now came under question in the light of the recognition that what separated Christians from one another was less significant than all the things that still held them together. That ecumenical consciousness throughout the Christian movement found expression in the recovery of historic Christian beliefs, in the creation of contemporary forms of worship, and in the reexamination of patterns of Christian life both individual and corporate. It remains to consider these three areas of belief, worship, and life, which, taken together, may be said to constitute the essence of Christianity.

The Essence of Christianity

Christianity has manifested an almost infinite variety of expressions as it has spread its presence and influence into all the major cultures of the Western world and into most of those of the East as well. With a billion or more adherents throughout the human race, it continues to be heterogeneous and pluralistic in its forms of organization and worship, belief, and lifeso much so that it appears difficult or foolhardy or impossible to attempt to identify any characteristics as the distinctive genius or continuing essence of Christianity. A well-known criterion was the one proposed by Vincent of Lérins in the fifth centurywhat has been accepted "everywhere, always, by all" (ubique, semper, ab omnibus )but the welter of detail about the history of Christianity scattered across the hundreds of articles dealing with the subject in the volumes of this encyclopedia should convince even the most casual reader that if there is an "essence of Christianity" it cannot possibly be everything that Christianity has ever been to everyone in every time and every place. Therefore, to quote again from Schleiermacher, "the only pertinent way of discovering the peculiar essence of any particular faith and reducing it as far as possible to a formula is by showing the element which remains constant throughout the most diverse religious affections within this same communion, while it is absent from analogous affections within other communions."

The search for an essence of Christianity is as old as the primary deposits of Christianity themselves. Already in the Hebrew scriptures, which Christianity took over as its Old Testament, the prophet Micah had declared: "God has told you what is good; and what is it that the Lord asks of you? Only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk wisely before your God" (NEB Mi. 6:8). And an unknown first-century Christian writer, author of what came to be called the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, stated that "anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who search for him" (Heb. 11:6). The most successful formula for the essence of Christianity, however, was that of the apostle Paul: "In a word, there are three things that last for ever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). Already in the second century, Irenaeus (c. 130c. 200), bishop of Lyons, was invoking this formula as a summary of what "endures unchangeably," and in the fifth century it became the basis and the outline for Augustine's Enchiridion, to which Augustine himself usually referred as On Faith, Hope, and Love. From Augustine, in turn, the formula went on to provide the table of contents for the early catechisms in the age of Charlemagne and then for the rapid expansion in the number and use of catechisms by all parties in the age of the Reformation. Hence it may serve as a device for organizing this description of the essence of Christianity in its historical sweep, its geographical expansion, and its genius. Considered both in its history and in its contemporary expressions, Christianity has been, and is, a system of faith, of hope, and of love, a pattern of belief (and thought), a community of worship (and culture), and a way of life (and society). Paul's triad of faith, hope, and love may thus be used to correspond to the even more universal schema of the true, the beautiful, and the good.

The pattern of Christian belief

As a system of faith, Christianity manifests "faith" in all the various meanings that this term has acquired in the history of religion: as loyalty to the divine, based on the prior loyalty of the divine to the world and to humanity; as the confidence that God is trustworthy in truth and love; as dependence on the Father of Jesus Christ, who is the source of all good in this life and in the life to come; as the commitment to direct thought and action in accordance with the divine word and will; and as the affirmation that certain events and declarations, as given by divine revelation, are a reliable index to that will and word. It is the last of those meanings that provides a basis for describing in an epitome what it is that Christianity believes, teaches, and confesses.

"Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all, hold to the catholic faith." These opening words of the so-called Athanasian Creed (not in fact written by Athanasius, but a Latin and Western creed, compiled perhaps in the fifth century) would not, as they stand, automatically elicit the assent and support of all Christians; nor, for that matter, would all Christians who do accept such a statement be agreed on the precise content and extent of that "catholic faith." Differ though they do on these questions, however, Christians throughout history have affirmed the importance of the act of believing, as well as of the content of what is believed, as a mark of identification by which believers would be known.

The person of Jesus Christ

Christian belief began with the need to specify the significance of the person of Jesus, seen as the "Christ." The initial stages of that process are visible already in the pages of the New Testament. Its titles for himin addition to Christ, such titles as Son of man, Son of God, Word of God (Logos), and Saviorwere an effort to account for that significance, for within the events of Jesus' human life the God of Israel and the creator of the world had been disclosed. Before the theologians had invented ways of defining the content of these titles in any satisfying detail, the devotion and worship of the church were already identifying Jesus with God. This is evident, for example, from the earliest non-Christian account of the church that we possess, the letter of Pliny the Younger (62113), governor of Bithynia, to the Roman emperor Trajan (r. c. 98117), which describes Christians as gathering for worship and "addressing a song to Christ as to God" (Christo ut deo ). But this devotional practice had yet to be squared both with the monotheism that the church inherited from and shared with Israel and with the concrete events of the life of Jesus as these were described in the Gospels. During the second and third centuries the reality of his human life needed to be defended; during the fourth century the divine dimension of his being demanded attention; during the fifth and sixth centuries the relation between the divine and the human in him required clarification. What emerged from the process of debate and definitionespecially in the creeds formulated at the councils of Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, and Chalcedon in 451was a picture of Jesus Christ as having two "natures," divine and human: he was simultaneously "one in being" with God and "one in being" with humanity, and therefore able to mediate between them. The full content of the two natures and of the relation between them has continued to engage the speculative talents of Christian theologians ever since.

The Trinity

The final creedal statement of the relation between Christ and God was part of a more complete statement of belief, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which many theological exponents of Christianity would regard as the central teaching of the Christian faith. Its fundamental outline is already given in the "great commission"which, according to the Gospels, Jesus entrusted to his disciples before withdrawing his visible presence from them (Mt. 28:19)to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Threefold though that single "name" was, it was the relation of the Son to the Father that carried the principal weight in the clarification of the formula. Thus the original creed adopted at Nicaea, after enumerating the various "titles of majesty" belonging to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, simply added "And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit," with no similar elaboration of how and why the Third Person was entitled to stand alongside the Father and the Son. But before the fourth century was over, the status of the Holy Spirit, and thus the complete dogma of God as Trinity, had achieved the form it has held in Christian orthodoxy throughout the history of the church. The dogma presents itself as strictly monotheistic. The opening words of the Nicene Creed are "We believe in one God," and everything that follows about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is set into that framework. The technical philosophical term for the oneness of God was ousia in Greek, substantia or essentia in Latin. But this single divine ousia had its being in three hupostaseis, or "persons."

The doctrine of the Trinity has from the beginning been one of the most productiveand one of the most problematicpoints of contact between Christian theology and speculative philosophy. Both the Greek Neoplatonist Plotinus (c. 205270) and the German idealist G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), with many others between them, taught a philosophical version of the Trinity with which many theologians felt obliged somehow to come to terms. The metaphysical ingenuity of philosophers and theologiansfrom the first of Latin theologians, Tertullian (160?225?), and the boldest of Greek theologians, his contemporary Origen (c. 185c. 254), to philosophical theologians of the twentieth century, such as the Protestant Paul Tillich (18861965) and the Roman Catholic Karl Rahner (19041984)has therefore continually experimented with new ways of accounting for (if not of "explaining") the relation between the One and the Three. Perhaps the most creative of such speculations was that of Augustine's On the Trinity, which constructed a series of trinitarian analogies in the universe and in the human mind as "images [or footprints] of the divine Trinity."

Sin and grace

All the councils that formulated these basic doctrines of the Trinity and of the person of Christ were held in the Greek-speaking eastern part of the Christian Roman Empire under the patronage of the Christian emperor, who was from the year 330 onward resident at Constantinople, and the creeds, which are in Greek, bear the marks of that origin. Still it is a mistake to ignore the role of the Latin West in the determination of normative Christian teaching: both at Nicaea and at Chalcedon there were decisive interventions from Western theologians and bishops. Nevertheless, the most distinctive and original Western contributions during the first five centuries came not in the doctrines of God and Christ but in the doctrines of sin and grace. With significant anticipations in various Western thinkers, it was once again Augustine who formulated these latter doctrines in the concepts and terms that were to dominate most of subsequent Christian teaching in the West, that of Roman Catholicism but no less the theology of Protestantism. Many early interpreters of Christian belieffor example, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335c. 395) in his treatise On the Creation of Man had articulated the biblical teaching (Gn. 1:2627) that, among all creatures on earth, humans alone possessed the special prerogative of having been created "in the image of God," with the promise of immortal life and of a "participation in the divine nature" (2 Pt. 1:4). But in so doing they had often spoken more explicitly about human free will than about human sinfulness. Yet this did not imply, Augustine insisted, that every human being faced the same choice between good and evil that Adam and Eve had faced. On the contrary, humanity had since Adam and Eve been under a curse of what Augustine called "the sin of origin" (peccatum originis ), which infected every human being except Jesus Christ (and perhaps his mother, the Virgin Mary). Even without committing acts of sin, therefore, each member of the human race was corrupted from birth; the traditional practice of infant baptism (see "The Community of Christian Worship," below) was for Augustine evidence of the universality of this sinful condition.


Neither the belief in God as Trinity nor the dogma of Christ as divine and human in nature nor the doctrine of humanity as created in the image of God but fallen into sin is, however, an end in itself for Christian faith. As a religion of redemption, Christianity presents itself as the message of how, through Christ, reconciliation has been achieved between the holiness of God and the sin of a fallen humanity. But while the Trinity, the person of Christ, and (though less universally or explicitly) the doctrine of original sin all have been subjects of a public and ecumenical confession of the church, the manner of this reconciliation has not received such attention. It has been left more to hymnody and preaching than to dogma and metaphysics to supply the metaphors for describing it. One of the most widely distributed such metaphors in early Christian writers, beginning with the sayings of Jesus himself (Mt. 20:28), is the description of redemption as "ransom" (which is, of course, what redemption means): the death of Christ was paid (to God or to the devil) as the price for setting humanity free. The difficulties that such a notion entailed for the Christian picture of God made a modification of the ransom theory seem imperative: the death of Christ took place in the course of a battle between God-in-Christ and the devil with his allies, a battle in which death triumphed initially by the nailing of Christ to the cross but in which Christ was victorious in the end through his resurrection. It remained once again for the medieval West to provide the most inventive of these theories. According to Anselm in his Why God Became Man, the reconciliation of the human race with God was fundamentally the reconciliation between the justice of God, which was committed to upholding "the moral order of the universe" (rectitudo ) and therefore could not ignore human sin or forgive it by a simple fiat, and the mercy of God, which was bent on restoring humanity to the condition for which God had intended it by its creation. God became man in Christ, because as man he would be able, by his death, to produce the satisfaction demanded by divine justice, but as God he would render a satisfaction of infinite worth that could thus be applied to the entire human race. With some modifications and refinements, Anselm's theory has established itself both within Roman Catholicism and within most of classical Protestantism.


Classical Protestantism differs from Roman Catholicism in the interpretation of redemption not on the way redemption was achieved by God in Christ, but on the way it is appropriated by the Christian. Luther's doctrine of justification by faithor, more fully and more precisely, justification by grace through faithdirected itself against what he perceived to be the widespread tendency of medieval Christianity to give human works part of the credit for restoring the right relation between God and man. This he attacked as a denial of the purely gratuitous character of salvation. The role of the human will in salvation was purely passive, accepting the forgiveness of sins as a sheer gift and contributing nothing of its own goodness to the transaction with God. Faith, accordingly, was not (or, at any rate, not primarily) an act of the intellect accepting as true what God has revealed but an act of the will entrusting itself unconditionally to the favor of God as conferred in Christ. Such unconditional trust led to the transformation of human life from the self-centered quest for gratification to the God-centered service of others (see "The Christian Way of Life," below). Partly in response to Luther's doctrine, the Council of Trent at its sixth session affirmed that "faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and the root of all justification," but it condemned anyone who "says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, as though nothing else were required to cooperate."

The community of Christian worship

As a system of hope, Christianity holds forth the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. In the words of what has been called "the gospel in a nutshell" (Jn. 3:16), "God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not die but have eternal life." But that promise and hope of life for those who have faith does not stand in isolation from the full range of Christian hope, the expectation of all the gifts of God for time and for eternity, and the acceptance of those gifts in thankfulness and praise. Hope, consequently, expresses itself chiefly in prayer and worship, both the personal prayer of the individual Christian believer and the corporate worship of the Christian com-munity.

The holy catholic church

One integral component of Christianity both as " a pattern of belief" and as "a community of worship" is expressed in the words of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints." According to the accounts of the New Testament, it was the intention of Jesus to found a church (Mt. 16:18): "I will build my church." Whether one accepts the literal historicity of those accounts or not, Jesus did, in fact, gather a community of disciples and establish a table fellowship. The earliest Christianity we are able to uncover is already a churchly Christianity, to which in fact we owe the Gospels and all the other books of the New Testament. For Christians of every persuasion and denomination, the church is at the same time the primary context of worship.

There is, however, far less unanimity about the nature of the church or about its organization and its authority. The tripartite complex of authority that emerged from the conflicts of early Christianity (see "The History of Christianity," above) vested in the office of the monarchical bishop the visible governance of the church and defined the church accordingly. Two formulas of Cyprian (d. 258), bishop of Carthage, summarize this definition: "Where the bishop is, there the church is" (Ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia ) and "There is no salvation apart from the church" (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus ). For Cyprian himself, as became evident in his disputes with Stephen I (bishop of Rome from 254 to 257), each bishop carried the authority of the office on his own and was answerable to the authority of Christ and of his brother bishops, but not to any one bishop as monarch of the entire church. But there were already signs of a developing pyramidal structure of authority, with certain centers having clear jurisdiction over others. Among these, the see of Rome had, and has, preeminence. As noted earlier, this understanding of authority led in the Middle Ages to a definition of the church as a visible monarchy, analogous in some ways to other monarchies, of which the pope was the absolute ruler"judging all, but being judged by none," as the Dictatus papae of Gregory VII said. Orthodoxy, by contrast, has resisted the pyramidal model of church authority, preferring to see the entire company of the church's bishops, particularly when they are in council assembled, as a corporate and collegial entity, with the bishop of Rome as "first among equals" (primus inter pares ) but not as monarch. One of the major accents of the Second Vatican Council was a new emphasis on episcopal collegiality but not at the expense of the primacy of the bishop of Rome within the college. That accent was closely joined in the decrees of the council to a recovery of the definition of the church as principally the community of Christian worship.

Protestant views of the church

The Protestant rejection of the authority of the pope is closely joined to a redefinition of the nature of the church. There had always been the recognition in the medieval doctrine of the church, particularly as this had come down from Augustine, that the organizational, empirical church was not coextensive with the church as it exists in the eyes of God: some who participate in, or even preside over, the church as an institution today will ultimately perish, while others who now persecute the church are destined to become members of the body of Christ. That definition of the true church as "the company of the elect," and hence as invisible in its membership and in its essence, appears in one form or another in the thought of most of the Protestant reformers. It did not imply, except in the polemics of a radical few, that there was no visible church. With differing forms of ecclesiastical administration (see "Reformation Christianity," above), the reformers took over or adapted patterns of organization that would suit the church for its function as the community of Christian worship and the center of Christian instruction. A favorite Protestant term for the church, therefore, is the phrase in the Apostles' Creed, "the communion of saints."

The preaching of the word of God

Although they would agree that the church is the community of Christian worship, the several denominations disagree about the structure of that communityand about the content of that worship. It is characteristic of most Protestant groups that in their liturgies and forms of worship they assign centrality to communication of the Christian message through preaching: "Where the word of God is, there the church is" (Ubi verbum Dei, ibi ecclesia ) is how they have recast Cyprian's formula. As the leader of the worshiping community, the minister is principally (though never exclusively) the proclaimer of the word of God, a word of God that is found in, or identified and even equated with, the Bible. The emphasis on biblical preaching has sometimes led to a didactic understanding of worship, but this has been counterbalanced in Protestantism by the literally tens of thousands of "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Col. 3:16) that the Protestant churches have developed because of their equally great stress on the participation of the congregation and of each individual worshiper in the service. The traditional concern of Protestant Christianity with the authentic faith and experience of the individualexpressed in Luther's axiom "You must do your own believing as you must do your own dying" is likewise audible in these hymns, many of which, typically, are cast in the language of the first person singular.

The sacraments

It would, however, be a grave distortion (albeit a distortion to which even sympathetic interpreters of Protestant Christianity have sometimes been subject) to interpret Protestantism as a thoroughgoing individualism in its understanding of worship, for the definition of the church as "the community of Christian worship," in Protestantism as well as in Orthodoxy and in Roman Catholicism, is embodied above all in the celebration of the sacraments. Except for certain details (e.g., whether it is the recitation of the words of institution or the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis that effects the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist), Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism stand in basic agreement on the nature of sacramental worship and the meaning of the seven sacraments. Among the many definitions of sacrament that have appeared in the Christian tradition, two (one from the East and one from the West) may suffice here: "the mystery of faith," since in Christian Greek mustērion means both "mystery" and "sacrament"; and, in a formula based on Augustine, "sacred sign," which by a visible means represents (or represents) an invisible divine grace.

The Eucharist

The primary sacrament and the center of Christian worship is, for both the Eastern and the Western tradition, the Eucharist or Lord's Supper, which is, in one form or another, celebrated by all Christian groups. Although the celebration is also a memorial and an expression of community, what sets the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist apart from that of most other groups is their definition of this sacrament as real presence and as sacrifice. In fulfillment of the words and promise of Jesus, "This is my body" and "This is my blood," the bread and wine presented for the sacrament become the very body and blood of Christ, identical in their substance with the body born of Mary, even though the taste, color, and other attributes or "accidents" of bread and wine remain. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 defined this doctrine as "transubstantiation," and it was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent in 1551. As the real presence of the body and blood of the one whose death on the cross and resurrection effected the redemption of the world, the Eucharist is as well a sacrificenot as though the first sacrifice were inadequate and Christ needed to be sacrificed over and over, but "in union with the sacrifice" of Calvary. The daily offering of that sacrifice for the living and the dead is at the center of Roman Catholic worship, devotion, and doctrine; and although Orthodoxy is, characteristically, less explicit in some of its detailed formulations about the metaphysics of the presence and more content to speak of it as a "mystery," its representatives, when pressed, will come up with language not far removed from that of the Westespecially of the West as in the twentieth century it has, thanks to a repossession of the tradition of the Greek fathers, come to speak about the mystery of the Eucharist.

Whatever differences of emphasis there may be between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy about the Eucharist, they are much smaller than the differences among the several Protestant groups. Luther objected to transubstantiation as an excessively philosophical formula, and above all to the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist as a diminution of the redemptive work of Christ, but he vigorously defended the real presence against his fellow Protestants. They in turn laid stress on the "true presence" of Christ in his spirit and power rather than on the "real presence" of the actual body and blood. Within Protestantism, consequently, the memorial aspects of the celebration of the Lord's Supper, which Christ according to the Gospels instituted to be eaten in his remembrance, have been prominent and sometimes even central. The other historic accent of Christian eucharistic worship that has found a new emphasis in Protestant practice and devotion is the understanding of the Lord's Supper as a corporate expression of the "communion" of Christian believers with one another. "Body of Christ" in the New Testament refers sometimes to the Eucharist, sometimes to the church, and sometimes (notably in 1 Corinthians ) to both at the same time. Compared with those two themes of memorial and communion, the specification of just how the body and blood of Christ can be present in the sacrament is of lesser significance.


The other action of the community of Christian worship on whose "sacramental" character all Christians would agree is baptism. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, baptism functions as the means of initiation into the Christian movement and into the reality of Christ himself, and in the epistles of Paul baptism is the way of appropriating the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ. Although all the explicit references in the New Testament to the practice of baptism mention only adults as its recipients, and that generally only after a profession of their faith, the custom of administering it also to children began quite early; just how early is a matter of controversy, but by the end of the second century infant baptism was sufficiently widespread to have called forth objections from Tertullian. Except for that difference from subsequent tradition, Tertullian formulated in his treatise On Baptism what can be regarded as an all but universal consensus about the effects of baptism: remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Eastern and Western Church Fathers, all the medieval scholastics, and many of the Protestant reformers would be able to subscribe to that formulation. Because of their misgivings about any view of any of the sacraments that might appear magical, Protestants have tended to avoid describing the conferral of these effects as something automatic. The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century on the continent, and the several bodies of Baptists in England and especially in the United States since the seventeenth century, have carried that position to the conclusion of repudiating the practice of infant baptism and insisting on "believers' baptism" as the only form of administering the sacrament that is consistent both with the original intention of Jesus and with the true nature of the Christian community.

Other sacraments

Although baptism and the Lord's Supper are for most Protestants the only two ordinances that qualify as sacraments, the medieval development in the West led to a system of seven sacraments, which Eastern Christianity, when obliged to become specific, has likewise affirmed. The sacrament of penance (together with the reception of absolution) developed as a way of coping with sins committed after the reception of forgiveness in baptism. As the contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, and the satisfaction of a work restoring what had been taken away by the sin, penance became, in the Latin Middle Ages, one of the principal means by which the imperatives and the promises of the Christian gospel were applied to individuals and communities. With the universal acceptance of infant baptism, the individual's assumption of the responsibilities of Christian discipleship, originally associated with adult baptism, came to be the central content of the sacrament of confirmation. As infant baptism attended the beginning of life with sacramental grace, so at death, or in a crisis or illness that might portend death, the anointing of the sick (or the sacrament of "extreme unction") brought that grace to the end of life as well. The only one of the seven "sacraments" to which the name was applied in the New Testament (mustērion in Greek, sacramentum in Latin) was marriage (Eph. 5:32); on that authority, it became part of the sacramental system. And as the ordinance by which all the other sacraments were usually made possible, the ordination of priests itself was defined to be a sacrament. Each of the seven, therefore, combines in a special way what is also the special emphasis of Christian hope and of Christian worship: the sacredness of each person, but in the context of the sacred community.

The Christian way of life

As a system of loveand love is, in the formula of Paul, the "greatest" of the three (1 Cor. 13:13)Christianity presented itself to its hearers as a way of life; especially in Acts, "the way" became a standard designation for Christianity itself. In its symbiosis with the societies and cultures in which it has taken root, the Christian way of life has been characterized by even greater heterogeneity than Christian belief or Christian worship. That heterogeneity makes generalizations about it in such a summary as this even more hazardous, and the specifics of the forms of Christian ethics in society must be left for treatment elsewhere in this encyclopedia. It is nevertheless possible to single out briefly certain leitmotifs that run across the varieties of Christian morality, both individual and social.

The imitation of Christ

Ever since the New Testament, the human life of Jesus Christ has served as an example set forth for imitation; it has usually been more than an example, but never less. "Bend your necks to my yoke, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and your souls will find relief" the New Testament (Mt. 11:29) represents him as commanding. Just what that imitation implies concretely for the Christian in the world has been, however, a continuing issue and problem, for the Christ whom the believer is invited to imitate was not married, did not hold public office, and was not supported chiefly from a trade or profession. The imitation of his example has come to mean, therefore, the application to one's own situation of the love and faithfulness that Christ brought to his. Repeatedly, when the demands of society or, for that matter, the requirements of the church have proved to be too complex or abstract, "the imitation of Christ" has become a way of reducing them to their essence. Thus, in what has probably been, except for the Bible itself, the most widely circulated book in Christian history, Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1379/801471), the summons of the figure in the Gospels rises above the intervening voices with a clarity and directness that has spoken to followers in every century; and in the twentieth century, The Cost of Discipleship, by the young Lutheran theologian and martyr under the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (19061945), has applied that New Testament summons of "Follow me" to a new generation of disciples.


The imitation of Christ has also implied obedience to his will, as this was expressed both in his own teachings and in the Mosaic law. In its treatment of that law, the New Testament manifests an ambivalence: Christ is seen as "the end of the law" (Rom. 10:4), and yet he himself is represented as warning in the sermon on the mount (Mt. 5:17), "Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets." The ambivalence manifests itself likewise in the descriptions of the Christian way of life as obedience. The Christian catechisms that have proliferated especially since the sixteenth century (see "Reformation Christianity," above) have usually incorporated an exposition and application of the Mosaic Decalogue as their description of what it means in practical terms to be a Christian. That has been perhaps even more true of Protestant than of Roman Catholic catechisms, despite the polemic of Protestants against "moralism" and "legalism" in Roman Catholic theology and ethics. But both Roman Catholic and Protestant ethicists and teachers have also repeatedly defined Christian obedience as not the strict observance of a legal code, not even of the legal code in the Ten Commandments, but as the spontaneity of the Spirit. "Love God, and do what you will" was Augustine's characteristically epigrammatic way of describing that spontaneity; but that same Augustine is at the same time one of our earliest authorities for the use of the Ten Commandments in Christian pedagogy. Augustine is as well an early source for the adaptation to Christian purposes of the philosophical consideration of the nature and the number of the "virtues": to the classical (or, as they came to be called in Christian parlance, "cardinal") virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, Christian ethical thought added the three "theological" virtues of faith, hope, and love. Obedience to the will of God and the cultivation of these seven virtues were seen as the content of the Christian way of life.

The transformation of the social order

Each of the "cardinal" and "theological" virtues makes sense only in a social context, and obedience to the will of God has traditionally been seen as pertaining to society as well as to the individual. The petitions of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," have been taken to mean that the reign of God and the will of God have as their object here on earth the creation of a social order that conforms as closely as possible to the reign of God in heaven. That is indeed how both the East (see "The Christian Culture of Byzantium," above) and the West (see "Christianity in the Middle Ages," above) have interpreted their mission through most of Christian history, and that was how they carried out their mission within those societies. Calvinism and Puritanism were especially committed to the creation of social and political institutions that lived up to the will of God, and the pacifism of Anabaptist and Quaker groups during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was inspired by a similar commitment. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, such an interpretation of the Christian mission took on new urgencyand occasioned new controversyin a society where the institutions of Christianity no longer command attention or widespread obedience. The Social Gospel associated with the name of Rauschenbusch (see "The Nineteenth Century," above) was the most ambitious of modern efforts to rethink the fundamentals of the Christian way of life in relation to the situation of an industrial society and to define the very meaning of salvation (as well as of other themes of Christian teaching and devotion) in social terms. Although the Social Gospel has in greater or lesser measure affected the ethical thought of most Protestant groups, Roman Catholicism was, during most of the twentieth century, the major center for the development of new social and political theory. In a series of "social encyclicals" beginning with the Rerum novarum of Pope Leo XIII (18101903) of May 15, 1891, the papacy itself has often taken the lead in stimulating such development. But the application of the theory to modern societythe phenomenon of "worker priests" in France, and especially the creation of "liberation theology" by Roman Catholic theologians in Latin Americahas often produced confusion and provoked controversy. Even those whose political or theological conservatism finds such trends dangerous, however, usually speak in the name of a particular definition of the social order that they regard as conforming, at least in some measure, to the same ideals.

Christian universalism

The Christian way of life as love is conventionally seen as finding its ultimate fulfillment in the church as the loving community of believers set apart from the world. But alongside that strain in the Christian tradition there has always stood a concern and a love for the entire world, a Christian universalism no less pronounced than is Christian particularism. It has sometimes expressed itself in a sense of urgency about Christian missions, to "bring the world to Christ." But a less prominent, yet no less persistent, expression of Christian universalism has sought to probe the implications of the unavoidable statements of the New Testament about the entire world as the object of the love of a God "whose will it is that all men should find salvation and come to know the truth" (1 Tm. 2:4). Origen in the third century, Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century, Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth centurythese and other theologians, committed though they were to the church and to its orthodoxy, have taken up the exposition of a universal vision in which the love of God revealed in Christ cannot be completely fulfilled until all God's creation has been reconciled.

Faith, hope, and love

The complex, sometimes labyrinthine, interactions of faith, hope, and love with one another throughout Christian history and throughout Christianity as a system suggest the absence of a set of universal principles that could, in the fashion of Euclid's geometry, yield the Christian worldview. Christianity is, rather, the product of a continuing and organic history. Its principal institutional expression has been the church in its various organizational forms, but Christianity is more than the church. Although its chief intellectual product has been a theological development that spans twenty centuries, the Christian message is not coextensive with its theology. Its most telling effect on history has been in the faith and life of its celebrated saints and seers, but Christianity has consistently declared that its power and spirit can be found as well among the silent in the land, the meek who shall inherit the earth.

See Also

Apostles; Atonement, article on Christian Concepts; Baptism; Biblical Literature; Christian Ethics; Christian Liturgical Year; Church; Community; Confession of Sins; Constantinianism; Councils, article on Christian Councils; Creeds, article on Christian Creeds; Crusades; Deity; Denominationalism; Discipleship; Dogma; Drama, articles on European Religious Drama, Modern Western Theater; Eastern Christianity; Ecumenical Movement; Enlightenment, The; Eucharist; Evil; Faith; Fall, The; Free Will and Predestination, article on Christian Concepts; Gnosticism, articles on Gnosticism as a Christian Heresy, Gnosticism from Its Origins to the Middle Ages; God, articles on God in Postbiblical Christianity, God in the New Testament; Gospel; Grace; Heresy, article on Christian Concepts; Hope; Hypostasis; Iconoclasm; Iconography, article on Christian Iconography; Icons; Incarnation; Jesus; Justification; Literature, article on Religious Dimensions of Modern Western Literature; Marriage; Merit, article on Christian Concepts; Missions, article on Christian Missions; Monastery; Monasticism, article on Christian Monasticism; Music, article on Religious Music in the West; Ordination; Papacy; Persecution, article on Christian Experience; Poetry, article on Christian Poetry; Political Theology; Prayer; Priesthood, article on Christian Priesthood; Protestantism; Reformation; Religious Communities, article on Christian Religious Orders; Repentance; Roman Catholicism; Sacrament, article on Christian Sacraments; Schism, article on Christian Schism; Sin and Guilt; Soul, article on Christian Concepts; Ten Commandments; Theology, article on Christian Theology; Trent, Council of; Trinity; Vatican Councils, article on Vatican II; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Christian Worship.


Christianity is fortunate in having had more works of general reference published about it than any other world religion. Probably the most convenient of these is The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3d ed., rev. (Oxford, 1997). Also in English, and especially helpful for its bibliographies, is The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 vols. (Detroit, 2001). With more articles, a good many of which, however, are relatively brief, the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 11 vols., 2d ed., edited by Michael Buchberger (Freiburg, 19571967), is a masterpiece of condensation. The succeeding editions of the Realenzyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche, 24 vols., 3d ed. (Leipzig, 18961913), whose fourth edition is now in preparation, have contained status reports on research into most of the themes treated in this article. And the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 double vols. (Paris, 19091950), presents comprehensive articles, some of them entire monographs, on many of the same themes.

The monographic literature on the history and the theology of Christianity is, quite literally, incomprehensible in its scope and cannot engage our attention here. But among more general works, perhaps the best overall treatment of its history is in Histoire de l'église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours, edited by Augustin Fliche, Victor Martin, and others (Paris, 19341964). The Pelican History of the Church, 6 vols., edited by Owen Chadwick (Harmondsworth, 19601970), is excellent, except for its omission of a volume on the Christian East, and always readable and often incisive. The more ambitious Oxford History of the Christian Church may well be a collaborative work destined to match Fliche-Martin in comprehensiveness. Atlas zur Kirchengeschichte, edited by Hubert Jedin, Kenneth Scott Latourette, and Jochen Martin (Freiburg, 1970), provides a sense of place for ideas and books that in the theological literature sometimes seem to be suspended in mid-air. The history of those ideas is the concern of my work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 5 vols. (Chicago, 1971), and the books are chronicled with a sureness of touch and with great fairness in Johannes Quasten's Patrology, 4 vols. (Utrecht, 19501960).

Of the many thousands of attempts at a systematic formulation of Christianity as a religion of faith, hope, and love (and therefore not only of Christian dogmatics, but of the entire Christian message), it may seem presumptuous to select only five: John of Damascus's On the Orthodox Faith in the eighth century, which has played a significant part in all three major segments of Christendom, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant; Peter Lombard's Sentences in the twelfth century, which, with the more than one thousand commentaries that have been written on it, shaped Christian teaching for centuries; Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae in the thirteenth century, which many students of Christian thought would regard as the climax of its development; John Calvin's The Institutes of the Christian Religion in the sixteenth century, which summarized the principal tenets of the Protestant Reformation more masterfully than any other book of theology; and Friedrich Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith in the nineteenth century, which, both by its successes and by its failures, is an eloquent statement of the predicament and the promise of the Christian message.

New Sources

Barraclough, Geoffrey, ed. The Christian World. New York, 2003.

Campenhausen, Hans, Freiherr von. The Fathers of the Church. Combined edition of the Fathers of the Greek Church and the Fathers of the Latin Church. Peabody, Mass., 1998.

Chadwick, Henry, and Gillian Rosemary Evans, eds. Atlas of the Christian Church. New York, 1988.

Chadwick, Owen. A History of Christianity. London, 1995.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity. San Francisco, 1998.

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford, 2003.

Horsley, Richard A., ed. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Imperial Society. Harrisburg, Pa., 1997.

Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. Philadelphia, 1990.

O'Mahoney, Kieran J., ed. Christian Origins: Worship, Belief, and Society. London and New York, 2003.

Sheehan, Thomas. The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity. New York, 1986.

Jaroslav Pelikan (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Christianity: An Overview

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Christianity: An Overview