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History of Religions



 

 

 

 

History of religions

Human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine. Religion is commonly regarded as consisting of a person’s relation to God or to gods or spirits. Worship is probably the most basic element of religion, but moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions are generally also constituent elements of the religious life as practiced by believers and worshipers and as commanded by religious sages and scriptures.

For treatment of particular religious systems, as well as founders, reformers, and other religious personages, see

biblical literature; Buddhism; Calvinism; Christianity; Confucianism; Daoism;
Eastern Orthodoxy; Greek religion; Hinduism; Islam; Jainism; Jesus Christ; Judaism; Lutheranism; Middle Eastern religion; Moses; mystery religion; Protestantism; Roman Catholicism; Shinto; Sikhism; Zoroastrianism.

For cross-cultural discussion of religious beliefs and practices, see

ceremonial object; creed; death rite; dietary law; doctrine and dogma; feast; myth; nature worship; prayer; purification rite; religious dress; religious experience; religious symbolism and iconography; rite of passage; ritual; sacrament; sacrifice; sacred; theology; worship.

For philosophical and ethical aspects, see
ethics; metaphysics; philosophy of science.

For a review of the efforts to systematically study the nature and classify the forms of religious experience, see
philosophy of religion;
study of religion.
 

see also:
DAVID HUME "The Natural History of Religion"
A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Egyptian religion
Key Ideas: Judaism; The history of Judaism
Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto; Hundred Schools of Thought
Greek Mythology
Manichaeism; Zoroaster
Key Ideas: Christianity; The history of Christianity
Key Ideas: Islam
In Focus: The Reformation; Reformation; Lutheranism; Protestantism; Calvinism

 

 


Christianity


Overview
Religion stemming from the teachings of Jesus in the 1st century ad.

Its sacred scripture is the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Its principal tenets are that Jesus is the Son of God (the second person of the Holy Trinity), that God’s love for the world is the essential component of his being, and that Jesus died to redeem humankind. Christianity was originally a movement of Jews who accepted Jesus as the messiah, but the movement quickly became predominantly Gentile. The early church was shaped by St. Paul and other Christian missionaries and theologians; it was persecuted under the Roman Empire but supported by Constantine I, the first Christian emperor. In medieval and early modern Europe, Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther contributed to the growth of Christian theology, and beginning in the 15th century missionaries spread the faith throughout much of the world. The major divisions of Christianity are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Nearly all Christian churches have an ordained clergy, members of which are typically though not universally male. Members of the clergy lead group worship services and are viewed as intermediaries between the laity and the divine in some churches. Most Christian churches administer two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist. In the early 21st century there were more than two billion adherents of Christianity throughout the world, found on all continents.

Main
major religion, stemming from the life, teachings, and death of Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ, or the Anointed One of God) in the 1st century ad. It has become the largest of the world’s religions. Geographically the most widely diffused of all faiths, it has a constituency of more than 2 billion believers. Its largest groups are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Protestant churches; in addition to these churches there are several independent churches of Eastern Christianity as well as numerous sects throughout the world. See also Eastern Orthodoxy; Roman Catholicism; and Protestantism.

This article first considers the nature and development of the Christian religion, its ideas, and its institutions. This is followed by an examination of several intellectual manifestations of Christianity. Finally, the position of Christianity in the world, the relations among its divisions and denominations, its missionary outreach to other peoples, and its relations with other world religions are discussed. For supporting material on various topics, see biblical literature; doctrine and dogma; Jesus Christ; sacred; worship; prayer; creed; sacrament; religious dress; monasticism; and priesthood.

The church and its history » The essence and identity of Christianity
At the very least, Christianity is the faith tradition that focuses on the figure of Jesus Christ. In this context, faith refers both to the believers’ act of trust and to the content of their faith. As a tradition, Christianity is more than a system of religious belief. It also has generated a culture, a set of ideas and ways of life, practices, and artifacts that have been handed down from generation to generation since Jesus first became the object of faith. Christianity is thus both a living tradition of faith and the culture that the faith leaves behind. The agent of Christianity is the church, the community of people who make up the body of believers.

To say that Christianity “focuses” on Jesus Christ is to say that somehow it brings together its beliefs and practices and other traditions in reference to a historic figure. Few Christians, however, would be content to keep this reference merely historical. Although their faith tradition is historical—i.e., they believe that transactions with the divine do not occur in the realm of timeless ideas but among ordinary humans through the ages—the vast majority of Christians focus their faith in Jesus Christ as someone who is also a present reality. They may include many other references in their tradition and thus may speak of “God” and “human nature” or of “church” and “world,” but they would not be called Christian if they did not bring their attentions first and last to Jesus Christ.

While there is something simple about this focus on Jesus as the central figure, there is also something very complicated. That complexity is revealed by the thousands of separate churches, sects, and denominations that make up the modern Christian tradition. To project these separate bodies against the background of their development in the nations of the world is to suggest the bewildering variety. To picture people expressing their adherence to that tradition in their prayer life and church-building, in their quiet worship or their strenuous efforts to change the world, is to suggest even more of the variety.

Given such complexity, it is natural that throughout Christian history both those in the tradition and those surrounding it have made attempts at simplification. Two ways to do this have been to concentrate on the “essence” of the faith, and thus on the ideas that are integral to it, or to be concerned with the “identity” of the tradition, and thus on the boundaries of its historical experience.

Modern scholars have located the focus of this faith tradition in the context of monotheistic religions. Christianity addresses the historical figure of Jesus Christ against the background of, and while seeking to remain faithful to, the experience of one God. It has consistently rejected polytheism and atheism.

A second element of the faith tradition of Christianity, with rare exceptions, is a plan of salvation or redemption. That is to say, the believers in the church picture themselves as in a plight from which they need rescue. For whatever reason, they have been distanced from God and need to be saved. Christianity is based on a particular experience or scheme directed to the act of saving—that is, of bringing or “buying back,” which is part of what redemption means, these creatures of God to their source in God. The agent of that redemption is Jesus Christ.

It is possible that through the centuries the vast majority of believers have not used the term essence to describe the central focus of their faith. The term is itself of Greek origin and thus represents only one part of the tradition, one element in the terms that have gone into making up Christianity. Essence refers to those qualities that give something its identity and are at the centre of what makes that thing different from everything else. To Greek philosophers it meant something intrinsic to and inherent in a thing or category of things, which gave it its character and thus separated it from everything of different character. Thus Jesus Christ belongs to the essential character of Christianity and gives it identity in the same way that Buddha does for Buddhism.

If most people are not concerned with defining the essence of Christianity, in practice they must come to terms with what the word essence implies. Whether they are engaged in being saved or redeemed on the one hand, or thinking and speaking about that redemption, its agent, and its meaning on the other, they are concentrating on the essence of their experience. Those who have concentrated from within the faith tradition have also helped to give it its identity. It is not possible to speak of the essence of a historical tradition without referring to how its ideal qualities have been discussed through the ages. Yet one can take up the separate subjects of essence and identity in sequence, being always aware of how they interrelate.


The church and its history » The essence and identity of Christianity » Historical views of the essence » Early views
Jesus and the earliest members of the Christian faith tradition were Jews, and thus they stood in the faith tradition inherited by Hebrew people in Israel and the lands of the Diaspora. They were monotheists, devoted to the God of Israel. When they claimed that Jesus was divine, they had to do so in ways that would not challenge monotheism.

Insofar as they began to separate or be separated from Judaism, which did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, the earliest Christians expressed certain ideas about the one on whom their faith focused. As with other religious people, they became involved in a search for truth. God, in the very nature of things, was necessarily the final Truth. In a reference preserved in the Gospel According to John, however, Jesus refers to himself not only as “the way” and “the life” but also as “the Truth.” Roughly, this meant “all the reality there is” and was a reference to Jesus’ participation in the reality of the one God.

From the beginning there were Christians who may not have seen Jesus as the Truth, or as a unique participant in the reality of God. There have been “humanist” devotees of Jesus, modernist adapters of the truth about the Christ; but even in the act of adapting him to humanist concepts in their day they have contributed to the debate of the essence of Christianity and brought it back to the issues of monotheism and a way of salvation.

It has been suggested that the best way to preserve the essence of Christianity is to look at the earliest documents—the four Gospels and the letters that make up much of the New Testament—which contain the best account of what the earliest Christians remembered, taught, or believed about Jesus Christ. It is presumed that “the simple Jesus” and the “primitive faith” emerge from these documents as the core of the essence. This view has been challenged, however, by the view that the writings that make up the New Testament themselves reflect Jewish and Greek ways of thinking about Jesus and God. They are seen through the experience of different personalities, such as the apostle Paul or the nameless composers—traditionally identified as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—of documents that came to be edited as the Gospels. Indeed, there are not only diverse ways of worship, of polity or governance of the Christian community, and of behaviour pictured or prescribed in the New Testament but also diverse theologies, or interpretations of the heart of the faith. Most believers see these diversities as complementing each other and leave to scholars the argument that the primal documents may compete with and even contradict each other. Yet there is a core of ideas that all New Testament scholars and believers would agree are central to ancient Christian beliefs. One British scholar, James G. Dunn, for example, says they would all agree that “the Risen Jesus is the Ascended Lord.” That is to say, there would have been no faith tradition and no scriptures had not the early believers thought that Jesus was “Risen,” raised from the dead, and, as “Ascended,” somehow above the ordinary plane of mortal and temporal experience. From that simple assertion early Christians could begin to complicate the search for essence.

An immediate question was how to combine the essential focus on Jesus with the essential monotheism. At various points in the New Testament and especially in the works of the Apologists, late 1st- and 2nd-century writers who sought to defend and explain the faith to members of Greco-Roman society, Jesus is identified as the “preexistent Logos.” That is, before there was a historical Jesus born of Mary and accessible to the sight and touch of Jews and others in his own day, there was a Logos—a principle of reason, an element of ordering, a “word”—that participated in the Godhead and thus existed, but which only preexisted as far as the “incarnate” Logos, the word that took on flesh and humanity (John 1:1–14), was concerned.

In searching for an essence of truth and the way of salvation, some primitive Jewish Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, and occasional theologians in later ages employed a metaphor of adoption. These theologians used as their source certain biblical passages (e.g., Acts 2:22). Much as an earthly parent might adopt a child, so the divine parent, the one Jesus called abba (Aramaic: “daddy,” or “father”), had adopted him and taken him into the heart of the nature of what it is to be God. There were countless variations of themes such as the preexistent Logos or the concept of adoption, but they provide some sense of the ways the early Apologists carried out their task of contributing to the definition of the essence of their Jesus-focused yet monotheistic faith.

While it is easier to point to diversity than to simplicity or clarity among those who early expressed faith, it must also be said that from the beginning the believers insisted that they were—or were intended to be, or were commanded and were striving to be—united in their devotion to the essence of their faith tradition. There could not have been many final truths, and there were not many legitimate ways of salvation. It was of the essence of their tradition to reject other gods and other ways, and most defining of essence and identity occurred as one set of Christians was concerned lest others might deviate from the essential faith and might, for example, be attracted to other gods or other ways.

While Jesus lived among his disciples and those who ignored or rejected him, to make him the focus of faith or denial presented one type of issue. After the “Risen Jesus” had become the “Ascended Lord” and was no longer a visible physical presence, those at the head of the tradition had a different problem. Jesus remained, a present reality to them, and when they gathered to worship they believed that he was “in the midst of them.” He was present in their minds and hearts, in the spoken word that testified to him, and also present in some form when they had their sacred meal and ingested bread and wine as his “body and blood.” They created a reality around this experience; if once Judaism was that reality, now Christianity resulted.

The search for the essence of Christianity led people in the Greek world to concentrate on ideas. The focus on Jesus narrowed to ideas, to “beliefs about” and not only “belief in,” and to doctrines. The essence began to be cognitive, referring to what was known, or substantive. As debates over the cognitive or substantive aspects of Jesus’ participation in God became both intense and refined, the pursuit of essences became almost a matter of competition in the minds of the Apologists and the formulators of doctrines in the 3rd through the 6th centuries. During this time Christians met in council to develop statements of faith, confessions, and creeds. The claimed essence was used in conflict and rivalry with others. Christian Apologists began to speak, both to the Jews and to the other members of the Greco-Roman world, in terms that unfavourably compared their religions to Christianity. The essence also came to be a way to define who had the best credentials and was most faithful. The claim that one had discerned the essence of Christianity could be used to rule out the faithless, the apostate, or the heretic. The believers in the essential truth and way of salvation saw themselves as insiders and others as outsiders. This concept became important after the Christian movement had triumphed in the Roman Empire, which became officially Christian by the late 4th century. To fail to grasp or to misconceive what was believed to be the essence of faith might mean exile, harassment, or even death.

In the early stages of the development of their faith, Christians did something rare if not unique in the history of religion: they adopted the entire scriptural canon of what they now saw to be another faith, Judaism, and embraced the Hebrew Scriptures, which they called the Old Testament. But while doing so, they also incorporated the insistent monotheism of Judaism as part of the essence of their truth and way of salvation, just as they incorporated the Hebrew Scriptures’ story as part of their own identity-giving narrative and experience.

This narrowing of focus on Jesus Christ as truth meant also a complementary sharpening of focus on the way of salvation. There is no purpose in saving someone who does not need salvation. Christianity therefore began to make, through its councils and creeds, theologians and scholars, some attempts at definitive descriptions of what it is to be human. Later some of these descriptions were called “original sin,” the idea that all humans inherited from Adam, the first-created human, a condition that made it impossible for them to be perfect or to please a personal God on their own. While Christians never agreed on a specific teaching on original sin, they did describe as the essence of Christianity the fact that something limited humans and led them to need redemption. Yet the concentration always returned to Jesus Christ as belonging more to the essence of Christianity than did any statements about the human condition.

The essence of Christianity eventually included statements about the reality to God. Christians inherited from the Jews a relatively intimate picture of a God who made their young and small universe, with its starry heavens, and then carried on discourse with humans, making covenants with them and rewarding or punishing them. But the Greek part of their tradition contributed the concept of a God who was greater than any ideas of God but who had to be addressed through ideas. Indeed, it was during this time that words such as essence, substance, and being—terms that did not belong to the Old or New Testament traditions—came to be wedded to biblical witness in the creeds. Christians used the vocabulary and repertory of options then available to them in speaking of the all-encompassing and the ineffable and grafted these onto the witness to God that was essential to their faith. Modern Christians, including many who reject the notion of creeds or any non-biblical language, are still left with the problems and intentions of the ancients: how to think of Jesus in such a way that they are devoted to him not in isolation, as an end in himself—for that would be idolatry of a human—but in the context of the total divine reality.

It is impossible to chronicle the efforts at expressing essence without pointing to diversity within the unity. Yet the belief in final unity belongs to any claims of finding an essence. Thus it was both a typical and a decisive moment when in the 5th century Vincent of Lérins’s, a Gallo-Roman theologian, provided a formula according to which Christianity expressed a faith that “has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). Even if not all Christians could agree on all formulations, it was widely held that there was some fundamental “thing” that had thus been believed.

The church and its history » The essence and identity of Christianity » Historical views of the essence » Medieval and Reformation views
For a thousand years, a period that began with what some historians called “Dark Ages” in the Christian West and that endured through both the Eastern and Western extensions of the Roman Empire, the essence of Christian faith was guarded differently than it had been in the first three centuries, before Christianity became official; throughout the Middle Ages itself the understanding of the essence evolved. In the 4th and 5th centuries, theologians including Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Jerome laid the foundations for the development of Christian thought. By the 5th century, the bishop of Rome, the pope, as a result of conciliar decisions and unique events in Rome, had become the leading spokesman for the faith in Latin, or Western, Christendom. This position would assume greater institutional strength in later periods of the Middle Ages. In the Eastern churches, despite the claims of the patriarch of Constantinople, no single pontiff ruled over the bishops, but they saw themselves just as surely and energetically in command of the doctrines that made up the essence of Christianity.

The Western drama, especially after the year 1000, was more fateful for Christianity in the modern world. The pope and the bishops of Latin Christendom progressively determined the essence through doctrines and canons that enhanced the ancient grasp of faith. As they came to dominate in Europe, they sought to suppress contrary understandings of the essence of the faith. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Jews were confined to ghettos, segregated and self-segregated enclaves where they did not and could not share the full prerogatives of Christendom. When sects were defined as heretical—Waldenses, Cathari, and others—because of their repudiation of Roman Catholic concepts of Christian essence, they had to go into hiding or were pushed into enclaves beyond the reach of the custodians of official teaching. The essence of Christianity had become a set of doctrines and laws articulated and controlled by a hierarchy that saw those doctrines as a divine deposit of truth. Theologians might argue about the articulations with great subtlety and intensity, but in that millennium few would have chosen to engage in basic disagreement over the official teachings, all of which were seen to be corollaries of the basic faith in Jesus Christ as participating in the truth of God and providing the way of salvation.

Through these centuries there was also increasing differentiation between the official clergy, which administered the sacraments and oversaw the body of the faithful, and the laity. Most of what was debated centuries later about the essence of medieval Christianity came from the records of these authorities. As more is learned about the faith of the ordinary believers, it becomes more evident in the records of social history that people offered countless variations on the essence of the faith. Many people used the church’s officially legitimated faith in the power of saints’ relics to develop patterns of dealing with God that, according to the Protestant Reformers, detracted from the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only agent of salvation.

During this thousand years in both Western and Eastern Christianity, when the faith had a cultural monopoly, there was an outburst of creativity and a fashioning of a Christian culture that greatly enhanced and complicated any once-simple notions of an essence. Christianity was as much a cultural tradition as it was a faith tradition, an assertion that the leadership of the medieval church would not have regarded as diminishing or insulting. Christianity as a cultural tradition is perhaps most vividly revealed in the magnificent cathedrals and churches that were built in the Middle Ages and in the illuminated manuscripts of the period.

As Christian culture grew ever more complex, however, there arose a constant stream of individual reformers who tried to get back to what they thought was its original essence. Among these was St. Francis of Assisi, who in his personal style of devotion and simple way of life was often seen as capturing in his person and teachings more of the original essence of Jesus’ truth and way of salvation than did the ordained authorities in the church and empires. Unlike the Waldenses and members of other dissident groups, Francis accepted the authority of the ordained clergy and contributed to a reform and revival of the broader church.

In the late Middle Ages a number of dissenters emerged—such as Jan Hus in Bohemia, John Wycliffe in England, and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence—who challenged the teachings of the church in more radical ways than someone like St. Francis did. For all their differences, they were united in their critique of what they thought complicated the essence of Christianity. On biblical prophetic grounds they sought simplicity in the cognitive, moral, and devotional life of Christianity.

When the Protestant Reformation divided Western Christianity—as Eastern Christians, already separated since the 11th century, looked on—the 16th-century European world experienced a foretaste of the infinite Christian variety to come. The reforms that gave rise to the many Protestant bodies—Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anabaptist, Quaker, and others—were themselves debates over the essence of Christianity. Taken together, they made it increasingly difficult for any one to claim a monopoly on the custodianship of that essence, try as they might. Each new sect offered a partial discernment of a different essence or way of speaking of it, even if the vast majority of Protestants agreed that the essence could be retrieved best, or, indeed uniquely, through recovery of the central message of the Holy Scriptures.

After the ferment of the Reformation, most of the dissenting groups, as they established themselves in various nations, found it necessary to engage in their own narrowing of focus, rendering of precise doctrines, and understanding of divine truth and the way of salvation. Within a century theologians at many Protestant universities were adopting systems that paralleled the old scholasticisms against which some reformers had railed. Those who had once thought that definition of doctrine failed to capture the essence of Christianity were now defining their concept of the essence in doctrinal terms, but were doing so for Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, and even for more radical dissenters and resistors of creeds, such as the Anabaptists.

The belief of Vincent of Lérins that there is a faith that has been held by everyone, always, and everywhere, lived on through the proliferation of Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic movements and, in sophisticated ways, has helped animate the modern ecumenical movement. Thus some have spoken of that movement as a reunion of churches, an idea that carries an implication that they had once been “one,” and a further hint that one included an essence on which people agreed. Reunion, then, would mean a stripping away of accretions, a reducing of the number of arguments, and a refocusing on essentials.

The church and its history » The essence and identity of Christianity » Historical views of the essence » Modern views
The modern church and world brought new difficulties to the quest for defining an essence of Christianity. Both as a result of Renaissance humanism, which gloried in human achievement and encouraged human autonomy, and of Reformation ideas that believers were responsible in conscience and reason for their faith, an autonomy in expressing faith developed. Some spoke of Protestantism as being devoted to the right of private judgment. Roman Catholics warned that believers who did not submit to church authority would issue as many concepts of essence as there were believers to make the claims.

In the 18th century the Western philosophical movement called the Enlightenment further obscured searches for the essence of Christianity. The Enlightenment proclaimed optimistic views of human reach and perfectibility that challenged formerly essential Christian views of human limits. The deity became a benevolent if impersonal force, not an agent that arranged a way of salvation to people in need of rescue. The Enlightenment also urged a view of human autonomy and of the use of reason in a search for truth. But, in the view of Enlightenment thinkers, reason did not need to be responsive to supernatural revelation, as contained in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, reason questioned the integrity of those scriptures themselves through methods of historical and literary criticism. No longer should one rely on the word of priests who passed on notions of essential Christianity.

While many Westerners moved out of the orbit of faith as a result of the Enlightenment and the rise of criticism, many others—in Germany, France, England, Scotland, and, eventually, the Americas—remained Christians, people of faith if now of faith differently expressed. Some Christians, the Unitarians, rejected the ideas of both a preexistent Logos made incarnate in Christ and a Jesus adopted into godhead. Jesus was seen as the great teacher or exemplar. They thus also tested the boundaries of essential teaching about a way of salvation. And at the heart of Deist Christianity was a view of God that remained “mono-” in that it was devoted to a single principle, but as “deist” instead of “theist” it departed from the ancient picture of a personal God engaged in human affairs. These were blows to the integrity of Vincent of Lérins’s concept and more reasons for the orthodox to use Vincent’s concept to exclude Unitarians, Deists, and other innovators from the circle of Christianity.

In the 19th century philosophical and historical criticism inspired some Christians to renew the search for essences. For example, in the wake of the German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Hegelian scholars tried to rescue Christianity by viewing it as an unfolding of “absolute spirit.” They followed Christian history through a constant dialectic, a series of forces and counterforces producing new syntheses. A problem with the Hegelian approach arose as the historical Jesus came to be seen merely as one stage in the unfolding of absolute spirit; he was not a decisive agent of the way of salvation “once for all,” as the biblical Letter to the Hebrews had claimed him to be. Soon biblical scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss were speaking of the historical Jesus as a myth of a certain set of people in one moment of the dialectical unfolding. The Christian faith itself began to dissolve, and many Hegelians began to reject the God of the Christian faith along with the historical Jesus.

Another group of 19th-century theologians took the opposite course. In the spirit of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, these neo-Kantians spoke not of the noumenal world, the unseen realm of essences beyond visible reality, but of the phenomenal realm, the world of history in which things happened. Theologians in this school engaged in a century-long “quest for the historical Jesus,” in which they sought the simple essence of Christianity. Significantly, the greatest exemplar of this historical tradition, the German theologian Adolf von Harnack, wrote one of the best-known modern books on the essence of Christianity, Das Wesen des Christentums (1900; What Is Christianity?).

The call had come to purge Christianity of what Harnack called traces of “acute Hellenization,” the Greek ideas of essence, substance, and being that were introduced into the Christian tradition in its early history. The focus was shifted to the Fatherhood of God and the announcement of the Kingdom, as Jesus had proclaimed in the Gospels. While this approach matched the thirst for simplification in the minds of many of the Christian faithful, it also diminished the concept of God. The result was a form of Christian humanism that more traditional Christians regarded as a departure from the essence of Christianity. This view claimed to be based on the historical Jesus, but scholars could not agree on the details.

Throughout the modern period some thinkers took another route toward expressing the essence of Christianity. The notion that the theologians would never find the essence of Christianity grew among German Pietists, among the followers of John Wesley into Methodism, and in any number of Roman Catholic or Protestant devotional movements. Instead, according to these groups, the Christian essence was discernible in acts of piety, closeness to the fatherly heart of God as shown in the life of Jesus, and intimate communion with God on emotional or affective—not cognitive, rational, or substantial (i.e., doctrinal)—grounds. Although these pietisms have been immensely satisfying to millions of modern believers, they have been handicapped in the intellectual arena when pressed for the definitions people need in a world of choice.

Some modern Christians have shifted the topic from the essence of Christianity to its absoluteness among the religions. They have been moved by what the Germans called Religionswissenschaft, the study of world religions. In that school, the focus fell on the sacred, what the German theologian Rudolf Otto called “the idea of the Holy.” On those terms, as the German scholar Ernst Troeltsch showed, it was more difficult to speak of the “absoluteness” of Christianity and its truth; one had to speak of it on comparative terms. Yet some early 20th-century comparativists, such as the Swedish Lutheran archbishop Nathan Söderblom, applied their understanding of the study of religion to help animate the movement for Christian reunion.

The modern ecumenical movement is based upon the belief that the church has different cultural expressions that must be honoured and differing confessional or doctrinal traditions designed to express the essential faith. These traditions demand criticism, comparison, and perhaps revision, with some possible blending toward greater consensus in the future. At the same time, supporters of the movement have shown that, among Christians of good will, elaborations of what constitutes the essence of Christianity are as confusing as they are inevitable and necessary.

Despite this confusion, the ecumenical movement was an important development in the 20th century. It took institutional form in the World Council of Churches in 1948, which was composed of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches. The World Council emerged out of two organizations that offered distinct approaches to the essential concepts of the faith. One approach was devoted first to “Life and Work,” a view that the essentials of Christianity could be best found and expressed when people followed the way or did the works of Christ, since this constituted his essence. The other approach, concerned with “Faith and Order,” stressed the need for comparative study of doctrine, with critical devotion to the search for what was central. By no means did these groups cling any longer to the notion that when they found unity they would have found a simple essence of Christianity. Yet they believed that they could find compatible elements that would help to sustain them on the never-ending search for what was central to the faith tradition.

Some modern scholars—for example, the British theologian John Hick—viewing the chaos of languages dealing with the essentials of the faith and the complex of historical arguments, pose the understanding of the essence in the future. They speak of “eschatological verification,” referring to the end, the time beyond history, or the time of fulfillment. In that future, one might say, it will have become possible to assess the claims of faith. Theologians of these schools argue that such futuristic notions motivate Christians and the scholars among them to clarify their language, refine their historical understandings, and focus their devotion and spirituality.


The church and its history » The essence and identity of Christianity » The question of Christian identity
These comments on the search for the essence of Christianity, the task of defining the core of the faith tradition, demonstrate that the question of Christian identity is at stake at all times. What the psychologist Erik Erikson said of the individual—that a sense of identity meant “the accrued confidence that one’s ability to maintain inner sameness and continuity . . . is matched by the sameness and continuity of one’s meaning for others”—can be translated to the concerns of the group. This means that Christians strive, in the midst of change, to have some “inner sameness and continuity” through the focus on Jesus Christ and the way of salvation. At the same time, Christians posit that this identity will be discoverable by and useful to those who are not part of the tradition: secularists, Buddhists, Communists, or other people who parallel or rival Christian claims about truth and salvation.

On these terms, writers of Christian history normally begin phenomenologically when discussing Christian identity; that is, they do not bring norms or standards by which they have determined the truth of this or that branch of Christianity or even of the faith tradition as a whole but identify everyone as Christian who call themselves Christian. Thus, from one point of view, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons as they are commonly called, is, in the view of scholar Jan Shipps, “a new religious tradition.” The followers of the Book of Mormon incorporated the Old and New Testaments into their canon—just as the New Testament Christians incorporated the entire scripture of a previous tradition—and then supplied reinterpretations. As a new religious tradition, Mormonism would not be Christian. But because Mormons use Christian terminology and call themselves Christian, they might also belong to a discussion of Christianity. They may be perceived as departing from the essence of Christianity because other Christians regard their progressive doctrine of God as heretical. Yet Mormons in turn point to perfectionist views of humanity and progressive views of God among more conventionally accepted Christian groups. In areas where the Mormons want to be seen as “latter-day” restorers, basing their essential faith on scriptures not previously accessible to Christians, they would be ruled out of conventional Christian discussion and treatment. Yet they share much of Christian culture, focus their faith in Jesus, proclaim a way of salvation, and want to be included for other purposes, and thus fall into the context of a Christian identity at such times.

This phenomenological approach, one that accents historical and contemporary description and resists prescription, does not allow the historian to state the essence of Christianity as a simple guide for all discussion. It is necessary for the scholar to put his own truth claims in a kind of suspension and to record faithfully, sorting out large schools of coherence and pointing to major strains. It is not difficult to state that something was a majority view if the supporting data are present. For example, it is not difficult to say what Roman Catholics at particular times have regarded as the essence of Christianity or what the various Orthodox and Protestant confessions regard as the true way of salvation. Someone using the phenomenological method, however, would stand back and refuse to be the arbiter when these confessional traditions disagree over truth.

Vincent of Lérins, then, speaks more for the hunger of the Christian heart or the dream of Christian union than for the researcher, who finds it more difficult to see a moment when everyone agreed on everything everywhere. Yet it remains safe to say that Christian identity begins and ends with a reference to Jesus in relation to God’s truth and a way of salvation. The rest is a corollary of this central claim, an infinite set of variations and elaborations that are of great importance to the separated Christians who hold to them in various times and places.

Martin E. Marty


The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The primitive church » The relation of the early church to late Judaism
Christianity began as a movement within Judaism at a period when the Jews had long been dominated culturally and politically by foreign powers and had found in their religion (rather than in their politics or cultural achievements) the linchpin of their community. From Amos (8th century bc) onward the religion of Israel was marked by tension between the concept of monotheism, with its universal ideal of salvation (for all nations), and the notion of God’s special choice of Israel. In the Hellenistic age (323 bc–3rd century ad), the dispersion of the Jews throughout the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean and the Roman Empire reinforced this universalistic tendency. But the attempts of foreign rulers, especially the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (in 168–165 bc), to impose Greek culture in Palestine provoked zealous resistance on the part of many Jews, leading to the revolt of Judas Maccabeus against Antiochus. In Palestinian Judaism the predominant note was separation and exclusiveness. Jewish missionaries to other areas were strictly expected to impose the distinctive Jewish customs of circumcision, kosher food, and sabbaths and other festivals. Other Jews, however, were not so exclusive, welcoming Greek culture and accepting converts without requiring circumcision.

The relationship of the earliest Christian churches to Judaism turned principally on two questions: (1) the messianic role of Jesus of Nazareth and (2) the permanent validity of the Mosaic Law for all.

The Hebrew Scriptures viewed history as the stage of a providential drama eventually ending in a triumph of God over all present sources of frustration (e.g., foreign domination or the sins of Israel). God’s rule would be established by an anointed prince (the Messiah) of the line of David, king of Israel in the 10th century bc. The proper course of action leading to the consummation of the drama, however, was the subject of some disagreement. Among the diverse groups were the aristocratic and conservative Sadducees, who accepted only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) and whose lives and political power were intimately associated with Temple worship, and the Pharisees, who accepted the force of oral tradition and were widely respected for their learning and piety. The Pharisees not only accepted biblical books outside the Pentateuch but also embraced doctrines—such as those on resurrection and the existence of angels—of recent acceptance in Judaism, many of which were derived from apocalyptic expectations that the consummation of history would be heralded by God’s intervention in the affairs of men in dramatic, cataclysmic terms. The Sanhedrin (central council) at Jerusalem was made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees. The Zealots were aggressive revolutionaries known for their violent opposition to Rome and its polytheisms. Other groups were the Herodians, supporters of the client kingdom of the Herods (a dynasty that supported Rome) and abhorrent to the Zealots, and the Essenes, a quasi-monastic dissident group, probably including the sect that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. This latter sect did not participate in the Temple worship at Jerusalem and observed another religious calendar; from their desert retreat they awaited divine intervention and searched prophetic writings for signs indicating the consummation.

What relation the followers of Jesus had to some of these groups is not clear. In the canonical Gospels (those accepted as authentic by the church) the main targets of criticism are the scribes and Pharisees, whose attachment to the tradition of Judaism is presented as legalistic and pettifogging. The Sadducees and Herodians likewise receive an unfriendly portrait. The Essenes are never mentioned. Simon, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, was or had once been a Zealot. Jesus probably stood close to the Pharisees.

Under the social and political conditions of the time, there could be no long future either for the Sadducees or for the Zealots: their attempts to make apocalyptic dreams effective led to the desolation of Judaea and the destruction of the Temple after the two major Jewish revolts against the Romans in 66–70 and 132–135. The choice for many Jews, who were barred from Jerusalem after 135, thus lay between the Pharisees and the emerging Christian movement. Pharisaism as enshrined in the Mishna (oral law) and the Talmud (commentary on and addition to the oral law) became normative Judaism. By looking to the Gentile (non-Jewish) world and carefully dissociating itself from the Zealot revolutionaries and the Pharisees, Christianity made possible its ideal of a world religion, at the price of sacrificing Jewish particularity and exclusiveness. The fact that Christianity has never succeeded in gaining the allegiance of more than a small minority of Jews is more a mystery to theologians than to historians.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The primitive church » The relation of the early church to the career and intentions of Jesus
The prime sources for knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth are the four canonical Gospels in the New Testament. There are also a number of noncanonical sources, notably the apocryphal gospels, which contain stories about Jesus and sayings attributed to him. The Gospel of Thomas, preserved in a Coptic Gnostic library found about 1945 in Egypt, contains several such sayings, besides some independent versions of canonical sayings. At certain points the Gospel tradition finds independent confirmation in the letters of the apostle Paul. Although the allusions in non-Christian sources (the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and Talmudic texts) are almost negligible, they refute the unsubstantiated notion that Jesus might never have existed.

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are closely related in form, structure, and content. Because they can be studied in parallel columns called a synopsis, they are known as the Synoptic Gospels. Mark was probably used by Matthew and Luke, who may also have used the Q Gospel (so-called from the German Quelle, “source”; Q is the hypothetical Gospel that is the origin of common material in later Gospels). John, differing in both pattern and content, appears richer in theological interpretation but may also preserve good historical information. The Gospels are not detached reports but were written to serve the religious needs of the early Christian communities. Legendary and apologetic (defensive) motifs, and the various preoccupations of the communities for which they were first produced, can readily be discerned as influences upon their narratives. Although many details of the Gospels remain the subject of disagreement and uncertainty, the scholarly consensus accepts the substance of the Gospel tradition as a truthful account.

The chronology of the life of Jesus is one of the matters of uncertainty. Matthew places the birth of Jesus at least two years before Herod the Great’s death late in 5 bc or early in 4 bc. Luke connects Jesus’ birth with a Roman census that, according to Josephus, occurred in ad 6–7 and caused a revolt against the governor Quirinius. Luke could be right about the census and wrong about the governor. The crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea (ad 26–36), was probably about the year 29–30, but again certainty is impossible.

Jesus’ encounter with John the Baptist, the ascetic in the Judaean Desert who preached repentance and baptism in view of God’s coming Kingdom, marked a decisive moment for his career. He recognized in John the forerunner of the kingdom that his own ministry proclaimed. The first preaching of Jesus, in his home region of Galilee, took the form of vivid parables and was accompanied by miraculous healings. The Synoptic writers describe a single climactic visit of Jesus to Jerusalem at the end of his career; but John may be right (implicitly supported by Luke 13:7) in representing his visits as more frequent and the period of ministry as lasting more than a single year. Jesus’ attitude to the observance of the law generated conflict with the Pharisees; he also aroused the fear and hostility of the ruling Jewish authorities. A triumphal entry to Jerusalem at Passover time (the period celebrating the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in the 13th century bc) was the prelude to a final crisis. After a last supper with his disciples he was betrayed by one of them, Judas Iscariot. Arrest and trial followed, first before the Sanhedrin and then before Pilate, who condemned him to crucifixion. According to the Evangelists, Pilate condemned Jesus reluctantly, finding no fault in him. Their version of the condemnation was an attempt to keep Jesus from appearing guilty in Roman eyes, and it was a means for the early Christian community to find its way in the Roman world. In any event, Jesus was executed in a manner reserved for political or religious agitators. It was a universal Christian belief that three days after his death he was raised from the dead by divine power.

Jesus preached the imminent presence of God’s Kingdom, in some texts as future consummation, in others as already present. The words and acts of Jesus were believed to be the inauguration of a process that was to culminate in a final triumph of God. His disciples recognized him as the Messiah, the Anointed One, though there is no record of him using the word (except indirectly) in reference to himself. The titles Prophet and Rabbi also were applied to him. His own enigmatic self-designation was “Son of man,” sometimes in allusion to his suffering, sometimes to his future role as judge. This title is derived from the version of the Book of Daniel (7:13), where “one like a son of man,” contrasted with beast figures, represents the humiliated people of God, ascending to be vindicated by the divine Judge. In the developed Gospel tradition the theme of the transcendent judge seems to be most prominent.

Apocalyptic hope could easily merge into messianic zealotry. Moreover, Jesus’ teaching was critical of the established order and encouraged the poor and oppressed, even though it contained an implicit rejection of revolution. Violence was viewed as incompatible with the ethic of the Kingdom of God. Whatever contacts there may have been with the Zealot movement (as the narrative of feeding 5,000 people in the desert may hint), the Gospels assume the widest distance between Jesus’ understanding of his role and the Zealot revolution.

With this distance from revolutionary idealism goes a sombre estimate of human perfectibility. The gospel of repentance presupposes deep defilement in individuals and in society. The sufferings and pains of humanity under the power of evil spirits calls out for compassion and an urgent mission. All the acts of a disciple must express love and forgiveness, even to enemies, and also detachment from property and worldly wealth. To Jesus, the outcasts of society (prostitutes, the hated and oppressive tax agents, and others) were objects of special care, and censoriousness was no virtue. Though the state is regarded as a distant entity in certain respects, it yet has the right to require taxes and civic obligations: Caesar has rights that must be respected and are not incompatible with the fulfillment of God’s demands.

Some of the futurist sayings, if taken by themselves, raise the question whether Jesus intended to found a church. A negative answer emerges only if the authentic Jesus is assumed to have expected an immediate catastrophic intervention by God. There is no doubt that he gathered and intended to gather around him a community of followers. This community continued after his time, regarding itself as the specially called congregation of God’s people, possessing as covenant signs the rites of baptism and Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) with which Jesus was particularly associated—baptism because of his example, Eucharist because the Last Supper on the night before the crucifixion was marked as an anticipation of the messianic feast of the coming age.

A closely related question is whether Jesus intended his gospel to be addressed to Jews only or if the Gentiles were also to be included. In the Gospels Gentiles appear as isolated exceptions, and the choice of 12 Apostles has an evident symbolic relation to the 12 tribes of Israel. The fact that the extension of Christian preaching to the Gentiles caused intense debate in the 40s of the 1st century is decisive proof that Jesus had given no unambiguous directive on the matter. Gospel sayings that make the Jews’ refusal to recognize Jesus’ authority as the ground for extending the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles must, therefore, have been cast by the early community.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The primitive church » The Gentile mission and St. Paul
Saul, or Paul (as he was later called), was a Pharisee who persecuted the primitive church. Born at Tarsus (Asia Minor), he had come to Jerusalem as a student of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel and had harried a Christian group called by Luke the “Hellenists,” who were led by Stephen (the first Christian martyr) and who regarded Jesus as a spiritual reformer sent to purge the corrupt worship of Jerusalem. While on a mission to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, Paul was suddenly converted to faith in Christ and, simultaneously, to a conviction that the Gospel must pass to the non-Jewish world under conditions that dispensed with exclusively and distinctively Jewish ceremonies. Paul was disapproved by Christian Jews and remained throughout his career a controversial figure. He gained recognition for the converts of the Gentile mission by the Christian community in Jerusalem; but his work was considered an affront to Jewish traditionalism. He saw clearly that the universal mission of the church to all humanity, implicit in the coming of the Messiah, or Christ, meant a radical break with rabbinical traditions.

Owing to the preservation of some weighty letters, Paul is the only vivid figure of the apostolic age (1st century ad). Like his elder contemporary Philo of Alexandria, also a Hellenized Jew of the dispersion, he interpreted the Old Testament allegorically and affirmed the primacy of spirit over letter in a manner that was in line with Jesus’ freedom with regard to the sabbath. The crucifixion of Jesus he viewed as the supreme redemptive act and also as the means of expiation for the sin of mankind. Salvation is, in Paul’s thought, therefore, not found by a conscientious moralism but rather is a gift of grace, a doctrine in which Paul was anticipated by Philo. But Paul linked this doctrine with his theme that the Gospel represents liberation from the Mosaic Law. The latter thesis created difficulties at Jerusalem, where the Christian community was led by James, the brother of Jesus, and the circle of the intimate disciples of Jesus. James, martyred at Jerusalem in 62, was the primary authority for the Christian Jews, especially those made anxious by Paul; the canonical letter ascribed to James opposes the antinomian (anti-law) interpretations of the doctrine of justification by faith. A middle position seems to have been occupied by Peter. All the Gospels record a special commission of Jesus to Peter as the leader among the 12 Apostles. But Peter’s biography can only be dimly constructed; he died in Rome (according to early tradition) in Nero’s persecution (64) about the same time as Paul.

The supremacy of the Gentile mission within the church was ensured by the effects on Jewish Christianity of the fall of Jerusalem (70) and Hadrian’s exclusion of all Jews from the city (135). Jewish Christianity declined and became the faith of a very small group without links to either synagogue or Gentile church. Some bore the title Ebionites, “the poor” (compare Matthew 5:3), and did not accept the tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin.

In Paul’s theology, the human achievement of Jesus was important because his obedient fidelity to his vocation gave moral and redemptive value to his self-sacrifice. A different emphasis appears in The Gospel According to John, written (according to 2nd-century tradition) at Ephesus. John’s Gospel partly reflects local disputes, not only between the church and the Hellenized synagogue but also between various Christian groups, including Gnostic communities in Asia Minor. John’s special individuality lies in his view of the relation between the historical events of the tradition and the Christian community’s present experience of redemption. The history is treated symbolically to provide a vehicle for faith. Because it is less attached to the contingent events of a particular man’s life, John’s conception of the preexistent Logos becoming incarnate (made flesh) in Jesus made intelligible to the Hellenistic world the universal significance of Jesus. In antiquity, divine presence had to be understood as either inspiration or incarnation. If the Synoptic Gospels suggest inspiration, The Gospel According to John chooses incarnation. The tension between these two types of Christology (doctrines of Christ) first became acute in the debate between the schools of Antioch and Alexandria in the late 4th century.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The primitive church » The contemporary social, religious, and intellectual world
Many Palestinian Jews appreciated the benefits of Roman rule in guaranteeing peace and order. The Roman government tolerated regional and local religious groups and found it convenient to control Palestine through client kings like the Herods. The demand that divine honours be paid not only to the traditional Roman or similar gods but also to the emperors was not extended to Judaea except under the emperor Caligula (reigned 37–41), whose early death prevented desecration of Jerusalem’s holy sites and social unrest. It was enough that the Jews dedicated temple sacrifices and synagogues in the emperor’s honour. The privileges of Roman citizenship were possessed by some Jewish families, including that of the apostle Paul.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul affirmed the providential role of government in restraining evil. Christians did not need to be disaffected from the empire, though the deification of the emperor was offensive to them. Moreover, although as an agency of social welfare the church offered much to the downtrodden elements in society, the Christians did not at any stage represent a social and political threat. After the example of their master, the Christians encouraged humility and patience before wicked men. Even the institution of slavery was not the subject of fundamental Christian criticism before the 4th century. The church, however, was not lost in pious mysticism. It provided for far more than the cultic (liturgical) needs of its members. Inheriting a Jewish moral ideal, its activities included food for the poor, orphans, and foundlings; care for prisoners; and a community funeral service.

Christianity also inherited from Judaism a strong sense of being holy, separate from idolatry and pagan eroticism. As polytheism permeated ancient society, a moral rigorism severely limited Christian participation in some trades and professions. At baptism a Christian was expected to renounce his occupation if that implicated him in public or private compromise with polytheism, superstition, dishonesty, or vice. There was disagreement about military service, however. The majority held that a soldier, if converted and baptized, was not required to leave the army, but there was hesitation about whether an already baptized Christian might properly enlist. Strict Christians also thought poorly of the teaching profession because it involved instructing the young in literature replete with pagan ideals and what was viewed as indecency. Acting and dancing were similarly suspect occupations, and any involvement in magic was completely forbidden.

The Christian ethic therefore demanded some detachment from society, which in some cases made for economic difficulties. The structure of ancient society was dominated not by class but by the relationship of patron and client. A slave or freedman depended for his livelihood and prospects upon his patron, and a man’s power in society was reflected in the extent of his dependents and supporters. In antiquity a strong patron was indispensable if one was negotiating with police or tax authorities or law courts or if one had ambitions in the imperial service. The authority of the father of the family was considerable. Often, Christianity penetrated the social strata first through women and children, especially in the upper classes. But once the householder was a Christian, his dependents tended to follow. The Christian community itself was close-knit. Third-century evidence portrays Christians banking their money with fellow believers; and widely separated groups helped one another with trade and mutual assistance.

Women in ancient society—Greek, Roman, or Jewish—had a domestic, not a public, role; feminine subordination was self-evident. To Paul, however, Christian faith transcends barriers to make all free and equal (Galatians 3:28). Of all ancient writers Paul was the most powerful spokesman for equality. Nevertheless, just as he refused to harbour a runaway slave, so he opposed any practice that would identify the church with social radicalism (a principal pagan charge against it). Paul did not avoid self-contradiction (1 Corinthians 11:5, 14:34–35). His opposition to a public liturgical role for women decided subsequent Catholic tradition in the East and West. Yet in the Greek churches (though not often in the Latin) women were ordained as deacons—in the 4th century by prayer and imposition of hands with the same rite as male deacons—and had a special responsibility at women’s baptism. Widows and orphans were the neediest in antiquity, and the church provided them substantial relief. It also encouraged vows of virginity, and by ad 400 women from wealthy or politically powerful families acquired prominence as superiors of religious communities. It seemed natural to elect as abbess a woman whose family connections might bring benefactions.

The religious environment of the Gentile mission was a tolerant, syncretistic blend of many cults and myths. Paganism was concerned with success; the gods were believed to give victory in war, good harvests, success in love and marriage, and sons and daughters. Defeat, famine, civil disorder, and infertility were recognized as signs of cultic pollution and disfavour. People looked to religion for help in mastering the forces of nature rather than to achieve moral improvement. Individual gods cared either for specific human needs or for specific places and groups. The transcendent God of biblical religion was, therefore, very different from the numerous gods of limited power and local significance. In Asia Minor Paul and his coworker Barnabas were taken to be gods in mortal form because of their miracles. To offer sacrifice on an altar seemed a natural expression of gratitude to any dead, or even living, benefactor. Popular enthusiasm could bestow divine honours on such heroes as dead pugilists and athletes. In the Roman Empire it seemed natural to offer sacrifice and burn incense to the divine emperor as a symbol of loyalty, much like standing for a national anthem today.

Traditional Roman religion was a public cult, not private mysticism, and was upheld because it was the received way of keeping heaven friendly. To refuse participation was thought to be an expression of disloyalty. The Jews were granted exemption for their refusal because their monotheism was an ancestral national tradition. The Christians, however, did everything in their power to dissuade people from following the customs of their fathers, whether Gentiles or Jews, and thereby seemed to threaten the cohesion of society and the principle that each group was entitled to follow its national customs in religion.

If ancient religion was tolerant, the philosophical schools were seldom so. Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics tended to be very critical of one another. By the 1st century bc, an eclecticism emerged; and by the 2nd century ad, there developed a common stock of philosophy shared by most educated people and by some professional philosophers, which derived metaphysics involving theories on the nature of Being from Plato, ethics from the Stoics, and logic from Aristotle. This eclectic Platonism provided an important background and springboard for early Christian apologetics. Its main outlines appear already in Philo of Alexandria, whose thought influenced not only perhaps the writer of the anonymous letter to the Hebrews, traditionally held to be Paul, in the New Testament but also the great Christian thinkers Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Ambrose of Milan. Because of this widespread philosophical tendency in ancient society, the Christian could generally assume some belief in Providence and assent to high moral imperatives among his pagan contemporaries. Platonism in particular provided a metaphysical framework within which the Christians could interpret the entire pattern of creation, the Fall of humanity, the incarnation, redemption, the church, sacraments, and last things.


Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian philosophy
It has been debated whether there is anything that is properly called Christian philosophy. Christianity is not a system of ideas but a religion, a way of salvation. But as a religion becomes a distinguishable strand of human history, it absorbs philosophical assumptions from its environment and generates new philosophical constructions and arguments both in the formation of doctrines and in their defense against philosophical objections. Moreover, philosophical criticism from both within and without the Christian community has influenced the development of its beliefs.


Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian philosophy » History of the interactions of philosophy and theology » Influence of Greek philosophy
As the Christian movement expanded beyond its original Jewish nucleus into the Greco-Roman world, it had to understand, explain, and defend itself in terms that were intelligible in an intellectual milieu largely structured by Greek philosophical thought. By the 2nd century ad several competing streams of Greek and Roman philosophy—Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism—had merged into a common worldview that was basically Neoplatonic, though enriched by the ethical outlook of the Stoics. This constituted the broad intellectual background for most educated people throughout the Roman Empire, functioning in a way comparable to the pervasive contemporary Western secular view of the universe as an autonomous system within which everything can in principle be understood scientifically.

Neoplatonic themes that provided intellectual material for Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike in the early centuries of the Common Era included a hierarchical conception of the universe, with the spiritual on a higher level than the physical; the eternal reality of such values as goodness, truth, and beauty and of the various universals that give specific form to matter; and the tendency of everything to return to its origin in the divine reality. The Christian Apologists, Christian writers of the 2nd century who provided a defense of the faith against prevailing Greco-Roman culture, were at home in this thought-world, and many of them used its ideas and assumptions both in propagating the Gospel and in defending it as a coherent and intellectually tenable system of belief. They accepted the prevailing Neoplatonic worldview and presented Christianity as its fulfillment, correcting and completing rather than replacing it. Philosophy, they thought, was to the Greeks what the Law was to the Jews—a preparation for the Gospel; and several Apologists agreed with the Jewish writer Philo that Greek philosophy must have received much of its wisdom from Moses. Tertullian (c. 155/160–after 220)—who once asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”—and Tatian (c. 120–173), on the other hand, rejected pagan learning and philosophy as inimical to the Gospel; and the question has been intermittently discussed by theologians ever since whether the Gospel completes and fulfills the findings of human reason or whether reason is itself so distorted by sin as to be incapable of leading toward the truth.

Greek philosophy, then, provided the organizing principles by which the central Christian doctrines were formulated. It is possible to distinguish between, on the one hand, first-order religious expressions, directly reflecting primary religious experience, and, on the other, the interpretations of these in philosophically formulated doctrines whose articulation both contributes to and is reciprocally conditioned by a comprehensive belief-system. Thus the primitive Christian confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” expressed the Disciples’ perception of Jesus as the one through whom God was transformingly present to them and to whom their lives were accordingly oriented in complete trust and commitment. The interpretive process whereby the original experience developed a comprehensive doctrinal superstructure began with the application to Jesus of the two distinctively Jewish concepts of the expected messiah and the Son of man who was to come on the last day and also of the son of God metaphor, which was commonly applied in the ancient world to individuals, whether kings or holy men, who were believed to be close to God. It continued on a more philosophical level with the use, in The Gospel According to John, of the idea of the Logos, drawn both from the Hebraic notions of the Wisdom and the Word of God and from the Greek notion of the Logos as the universal principle of rationality and self-expression. As Jesus, son of God, became Christ, God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, he was identified with the Logos.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian philosophy » History of the interactions of philosophy and theology » Emergence of official doctrine
During the first several generations of Christian history there was great variety and experimentation in Christian thinking. But as the faith was legally recognized under Constantine in 313 and then became the sole official religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius, its doctrines had to be formalized throughout the church. This pressure for uniformity provoked intense debates. The orthodox versions of the doctrine of Christ and the Trinity were finally established at the great ecumenical councils (principally Nicaea in 325; Constantinople in 381; and Chalcedon in 451). The key ideas of these Christological and Trinitarian debates and their conclusions were based upon the Greek concepts of ousia (nature or essence) and hypostasis (entity, used as virtually equivalent to prosōpon, person). (In Latin these terms became substantia and persona.) Christ was said to have two natures, one of which was of the same nature (homoousios) as the Father, whereas the other was of the same nature as humanity; and the Trinity was said to consist of one ousia in three hypostases. The Platonic origin of this conceptuality is clear in the explanation of the Cappadocian Fathers that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the same divine ousia in the way Peter, James, and John shared the same humanity.

The influence of Neoplatonism on Christian thought also appears in the response of the greatest of the early Christian thinkers, St. Augustine (354–430), to the perennially challenging question of how it is that evil exists in a world created by an all-good and all-powerful God. Augustine’s answer (which, as refined by later thinkers, remained the standard Christian answer until modern times) includes both theological aspects (the ideas of the fall of angels and then of humans, of the redemption of some by the cross of Christ, and of the ultimate disposal of souls in eternities of bliss and torment) and philosophical aspects. The basic philosophical theme, drawn directly from Neoplatonism, is one that the American philosopher Arthur Lovejoy, in The Great Chain of Being (1936), called the principle of plenitude. This is the idea that the best possible universe does not consist only of the highest kind of creature, the archangels, but contains a maximum richness of variety of modes of being, thus realizing every possible kind of existence from the highest to the lowest. The result is a hierarchy of degrees both of being and of goodness, for the identity of being and goodness was another fundamental idea Augustine inherited from Neoplatonism and in particular from Plotinus (205–270). God, as absolute being and goodness, stands at the summit, with the great chain of being descending through the many forms of spiritual, animal, and plant life down to lifeless matter. Each embodies being and is therefore good on its own level; and together they constitute a universe whose rich variety is beautiful in the sight of God. Evil occurs only when creatures at any level forfeit the distinctive goodness with which the Creator had endowed them. Evil is thus negative or privative, a lack of proper good rather than anything having substance in its own right. This, too, was a theme that had been taken over from Neoplatonism by a number of earlier Christian writers. And if evil is not an entity, or substance, it follows that it was not a part of God’s original creation. It consists instead in the going wrong of something that is in itself good, though also mutable. Augustine locates the origin of this going-wrong in the sinful misuse of freedom by some of the angels and then by the first humans. His theodicy is thus a blend of Neoplatonic and biblical themes and shows clearly the immense influence of Neoplatonism upon Christian thought during its early formative period.

Augustine and Christian thinkers in general departed from Neoplatonism at one crucial point. Neoplatonism maintained that the world was continuous in being with the ultimate divine reality, the One. The One, in its limitless plenitude of being, overflows into the surrounding void, and the descending and attenuating degrees of being constitute the many-leveled universe. In contrast to this emanationist conception Augustine held that the universe is a created realm, brought into existence by God out of nothing (ex nihilo). It has no independent power of being, or aseity, but is contingent, absolutely dependent upon the creative divine power. Further, Augustine emphasized that God did not create the universe out of preexistent matter or chaos, but that “out of nothing” simply means “not out of anything” (De natura boni). This understanding of creation, entailing the universe’s total emptiness of independent self-existence and yet its ultimate goodness as the free expression of God’s creative love, is perhaps the most distinctively Christian contribution to metaphysical thought. It goes beyond the earlier Hebraic understanding in making explicit the ex nihilo character of creation in contrast to the emanationism of the Neoplatonic thought-world. This basic Christian idea entails the value of creaturely life and of the material world itself, its dependence upon God, and the meaningfulness of the whole temporal process as fulfilling an ultimate divine purpose.

Modern Christian treatments of the idea of creation ex nihilo have detached it from a literal use of the Genesis creation myth. The idea of the total dependence of the universe upon God does not preclude the development of the universe in its present phase from the “big bang” onward, including the evolution of the forms of life on Earth. Although creation ex nihilo (a term apparently first introduced into Christian discourse by Irenaeus in the 2nd century) remains the general Christian conception of the relation between God and the physical universe, some 20th-century Christian thinkers substituted the view (derived from Alfred North Whitehead and developed by Charles Hartshorne) that God, instead of being its transcendent Creator, is an aspect of the universe itself, being either the inherent creativity in virtue of which it is a living process or a deity of finite power who seeks to lure the world into ever more valuable forms.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian philosophy » History of the interactions of philosophy and theology » Aristotle and Aquinas
Although Neoplatonism was the major philosophical influence on Christian thought in its early period and has never ceased to be an important element within it, Aristotelianism also shaped Christian teachings. At first known for his works on logic, Aristotle gained fuller appreciation in the 12th and 13th centuries when his works on physics, metaphysics, and ethics became available in Latin, translated either from the Greek or from Arabic sources. Aristotle’s thought had a profound impact on generations of medieval scholars and was crucial for the greatest of the medieval Christian thinkers, St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74). One of Aristotle’s ideas that particularly influenced Thomas was that knowledge is not innate but is gained from the reports of the senses and from logical inference from self-evident truths. (Thomas, however, in distinction from Aristotle, added divinely revealed propositions to self-evident truths in forming his basis for inference.) Thomas also adopted Aristotle’s conception of metaphysics as the science of being. His doctrine of analogy, according to which statements about God are true analogically rather than univocally, was likewise inspired by Aristotle, as were his distinctions between act and potency, essence and existence, substance and accidents, and the active and passive intellect and his view of the soul as the “form” of the body.

Thomas Aquinas’s system, however, was by no means simply Aristotle Christianized. He did not hesitate to differ from “the Philosopher,” as he called him, when the Christian tradition required this; for whereas Aristotle had been concerned to understand how the world functions, Thomas was also concerned, more fundamentally, to explain why it exists.

With the gradual breakdown of the medieval worldview, the nature of the philosophical enterprise began to change. The French thinker René Descartes (1596–1650) is generally regarded as the father of modern philosophy, and in the new movements of thought that began with him philosophy became less a matter of building and defending comprehensive metaphysical systems, or imagined pictures of the universe, and more a critical probing of presuppositions, categories of thought, and modes of reasoning, as well as an inquiry into what it is to know, how knowledge and belief are arrived at in different areas of life, how well various kinds of beliefs are grounded, and how thought is related to language.

There has long ceased to be a generally accepted philosophical framework, comparable with Neoplatonism, in terms of which Christianity can appropriately be expressed and defended. There is instead a plurality of philosophical perspectives and methods—analytic, phenomenological, idealist, pragmatist, and existentialist. Thus modern Christianity, having inherited a body of doctrines developed in the framework of ancient worldviews that are now virtually defunct, lacks any philosophy of comparable status in terms of which to rethink its beliefs.

In this situation some theologians turned to existentialism, which is not so much a philosophical system as a hard-to-define point of view and style of thinking. Indeed, the earlier existentialists, such as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), vehemently rejected the idea of a metaphysical system—in particular, for 19th-century existentialists, the Hegelian system—though some later ones, such as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), developed their own systems. Existentialists are identified by the appearance in their writings of one or more of a number of loosely related themes. These include the significance of the concrete individual in contrast to abstractions and general principles; a stress upon human freedom and choice and the centrality of decision, and hence a view of religion as ultimate commitment; a preference for paradox rather than rational explanation; and the highlighting of certain special modes of experience that cut across ordinary consciousness, particularly a generalized anxiety or dread and the haunting awareness of mortality. Existentialists have been both atheists (e.g., Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre) and Christians (e.g., Kierkegaard, the Protestant Rudolf Bultmann, and the Roman Catholic Gabriel Marcel). It would be difficult to identify any doctrines that are common to all these thinkers. Existentialist themes have also been incorporated into systematic Christian theologies (e.g., by John Macquarrie).

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian philosophy » History of the interactions of philosophy and theology » Other influences
Others have sought to construct theologies in the mold of 19th-century German idealism (e.g., Paul Tillich); some, as process theologians, in that of the early 20th-century British mathematician and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead (e.g., Charles Hartshorne on the doctrine of God, John Cobb on Christology); some, the liberation theologians, in highly pragmatic and political terms (e.g., Juan Luis Segundo, Gustavo Gutiérrez); and some, as feminist theologians, in terms of the self-consciousness of women and the awareness of a distorting patriarchal influence on all past forms of Christian thought (e.g., Rosemary Ruether, Elizabeth Fiorenza). Most theologians, however, have continued to accept the traditional structure of Christian beliefs. The more liberal among them have sought to detach these from the older traditions and reformulate them so as to connect with modern consciousness (e.g., Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack, Karl Rahner, Gordon Kaufman); while the more conservative have sought to defend the traditional formulations within an increasingly alien intellectual environment (e.g., B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, Karl Barth, Cornelis Berkouwer).

Of the factors forming the intellectual environment of Christian thought in the modern period, perhaps the most powerful have been the physical and human sciences. The former have compelled the rethinking of certain Christian doctrines, as astronomy undermined the assumption of the centrality of the Earth in the universe, as geologic evidence concerning its age rendered implausible the biblical chronology, and as biology located humanity within the larger evolution of the forms of life on Earth. The human sciences of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and history have suggested possible naturalistic explanations of religion itself based, for example, upon the projection of desire for a cosmic father figure, the need for socially cohesive symbols, or the power of royal and priestly classes. Such naturalistic interpretations of religion, together with the ever-widening scientific understanding of the physical universe, have prompted some Christian philosophers to think of the religious ambiguity of the universe as a totality that can, from the human standpoint within it, be interpreted in both naturalistic and religious ways, thus providing scope for the exercise of faith as a free response to the mystery of existence.


Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian philosophy » Faith and reason
Different conceptions of faith cohere with different views of its relation to reason or rationality. The classic medieval understanding of faith, set forth by Thomas Aquinas, saw it as the belief in revealed truths on the authority of God as their ultimate source and guarantor. Thus, though the ultimate object of faith is God, its immediate object is the body of propositions articulating the basic Christian dogmas. Such faith is to be distinguished from knowledge. Whereas the propositions that are the objects of scientia, or knowledge, compel belief by their self-evidence or their demonstrability from self-evident premises, the propositions accepted by faith do not thus compel assent but require a voluntary act of trusting acceptance. As unforced belief, faith is “an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will” (Summa theologiae, II/II, Q. 4, art. 5); and it is because this is a free and responsible act that faith is one of the virtues. It follows that one cannot have knowledge and faith at the same time in relation to the same proposition; faith can only arise in the absence of knowledge. Faith also differs from mere opinion, which is inherently changeable. Opinions are not matters of absolute commitment but allow in principle for the possibility of doubt and change. Faith, as the wholehearted acceptance of revealed truth, excludes doubt.

In the wider context of his philosophy, Aquinas held that human reason, without supernatural aid, can establish the existence of God and the immortality of the soul; for those who cannot or do not engage in such strenuous intellectual activity, however, these matters are also revealed and can be known by faith. Faith, though, extends beyond the findings of reason in accepting further truths such as the triune nature of God and the divinity of Christ. Aquinas thus supported the general (though not universal) Christian view that revelation supplements, rather than cancels or replaces, the findings of sound philosophy.

From a skeptical point of view, which does not acknowledge divine revelation, this Thomist conception amounts to faith—belief that is without evidence or that is stronger than the evidence warrants, the gap being filled by the believer’s own will to believe. As such it attracts the charge that belief upon insufficient evidence is always irrational.

In response to this kind of attack the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–62) proposed a voluntarist defense of faith as a rational wager. Pascal assumed, in disagreement with Thomas Aquinas but in agreement with much modern thinking, that divine existence can neither be proved nor disproved. He reasoned, therefore, that if one decides to believe in God and to act on this basis, one gains eternal life if right but loses little if wrong, whereas if one decides not to believe, one gains little if right but may lose eternal life if wrong, concluding that the rational course is to believe. The argument has been criticized theologically for presupposing an unacceptable image of God as rewarding such calculating worship and also on the philosophical ground that it is too permissive in that it could justify belief in the claims, however fantastic, of any person or group who threatened nonbelievers with damnation or other dangerous consequences.

The American philosopher William James (1842–1910) refined this approach by limiting it, among matters that cannot be proved, to belief-options that one has some real inclination or desire to accept, carry momentous implications, and are such that a failure to choose constitutes a negative choice. Theistic belief is for many people such an option, and James claimed that they have the right to make the positive decision to believe and to proceed in their lives on that basis. Either choice involves unavoidable risks: on the one hand the risk of being importantly deluded and on the other the risk of missing a limitlessly valuable truth. In this situation each individual is entitled to decide which risk to run. This argument has also been criticized as being too permissive and as constituting in effect a license for wishful believing, but its basic principle can perhaps be validly used in the context of basing beliefs upon one’s religious experience.

The element of risk in faith as a free cognitive choice was emphasized, to the exclusion of all else, by Kierkegaard in his idea of the leap of faith. He believed that without risk there is no faith, and that the greater the risk the greater the faith. Faith is thus a passionate commitment, not based upon reason but inwardly necessitated, to that which can be grasped in no other way.

The epistemological character of faith as assent to propositions, basic to the Thomist account, is less pronounced in the conceptions of Pascal and James in that these accept not a system of doctrines but only the thought of God as existing, which itself has conceptual and implicitly propositional content. Kierkegaard’s self-constituting leap of faith likewise only implicitly involves conceptual and propositional thought, as does the account of faith based upon Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of seeing-as (Philosophical Investigations, 1953). Wittgenstein pointed to the epistemological significance of puzzle pictures, such as the ambiguous “duck-rabbit” that can be seen either as a duck’s head facing one way or a rabbit’s head facing another way. The enlarged concept of experiencing-as (developed by the British philosopher John Hick) refers to the way in which an object, event, or situation is experienced as having a particular character or meaning such that to experience it in this manner involves being in a dispositional state to behave in relation to the object or event, or within the situation, in ways that are appropriate to its having that particular character. All conscious experience is in this sense experiencing-as. The application of this idea to religion suggests that the total environment is religiously ambiguous, capable of being experienced in both religious and naturalistic ways. Religious faith is the element of uncompelled interpretation within the distinctively religious ways of experiencing—for theism, experiencing the world or events in history or in one’s own life as mediating the presence and activity of God. In ancient Hebrew history, for example, events that are described by secular historians as the effects of political and economic forces were experienced by the prophets as occasions in which God was saving or punishing, rewarding or testing, the Israelites. In such cases, religious experiencing-as does not replace secular experiencing-as but supervenes upon it, revealing a further order of meaning in the events of the world. And the often unconscious cognitive choice whereby someone experiences religiously constitutes, on this view, faith in its most epistemologically basic sense.

For these voluntarist, existentialist, and experiential conceptions of faith the place of reason in religion, although important, is secondary. Reason cannot directly establish the truth of religious propositions, but it can defend the propriety of trusting one’s deeper intuitions or one’s religious experience and basing one’s beliefs and life upon them. These schools of thought assume that the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God are inconclusive, and that the universe is capable of being consistently thought of and experienced in both religious and naturalistic ways. This assumption, however, runs counter to the long tradition of natural theology.


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Historical views
From the perspectives of history and sociology, the Christian community has been related to the world in diverse and even paradoxical ways. This is reflected not only in changes in this relationship over time but also in simultaneously expressed alternatives ranging from withdrawal from and rejection of the world to theocratic triumphalism. For example, early Christians so consistently rejected imperial deities that they were known as atheists, while later Christians so embraced European monarchies that they were known as reactionary theists. Franciscans, especially the Spiritual Franciscans, proclaimed that true Christians should divest themselves of money at the same time that the Catholic church erected magnificent churches and the clergy dressed in elaborate finery. Another classic example of this paradoxical relationship is provided by the monks, who withdrew from the world but also preserved and transmitted classical culture and learning to medieval Europe. In the modern period some Christian communities regard secularization as a fall from true Christianity; others view it as a legitimate consequence of a desacralization of the world initiated by Christ.

The Christian community has always been part of the world in which it exists. It has served the typical religious function of legitimating social systems and values and of creating structures of meaning, plausibility, and compensation for society as it faces loss and death. The Christian community has sometimes exercised this religious function in collusion with tribalistic nationalisms (e.g., the “German Christians” and Nazism) by disregarding traditional church tenets. When the Christian community has held to its teachings, however, it has opposed such social systems and values. Given the inherent fragility of human culture and society, religion in general and the Christian community in particular frequently are conservative forces.

However, the Christian community has not always been a conservative force. Twentieth-century black theology and Latin American liberation theology shared the conviction that God takes the side of the oppressed against the world’s injustices. From the perspective of theology or faith, the criticism of the world of which the Christian community itself is a part is the exercise of its commitment to Jesus Christ. For the Christian community, the death and Resurrection of Jesus call into question all structures, systems, and values of the world that claim ultimacy.

The relationship of the Christian community to the world may be seen differently depending upon one’s historical, sociological, and theological perspectives because the Christian community is both a creation in the world and an influence upon it. This complexity led the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr to comment in Christ and Culture (1956) that “the many-sided debate about the relations of Christianity and civilization…is as confused as it is many-sided.”


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church, sect, and mystical movement
The German scholar Ernst Troeltsch sought to impose a meaningful pattern on this confusion by organizing the complex relationships of the Christian community to the world into three types of religious social organization: church, sect, and mystical movement. He described the church as a conservative institution that affirms the world and mediates salvation through clergy and sacraments. It is also characterized by inclusivity and continuity, signified by its adherence to infant baptism and historical creeds, doctrines, liturgies, and forms of organization. The objective-institutional character of the church increases as it relinquishes its commitment to eschatological perfection in order to create the corpus Christianum, the Christian commonwealth or society. This development stimulates opposition from those who understand the Gospel in terms of personal commitment and detachment from the world. The opposition develops into sects, which are comparatively small groups that strive for unmediated salvation and that are related indifferently or antagonistically to the world. The exclusivity and historical discontinuity of the sect is signified by its adherence to believers’ baptism and efforts to imitate what it believes is the New Testament community. Mystical movements are the expression of a radical religious individualism that strives to interiorize and live out the personal example of Jesus. They are not interested in creating a community but strive toward universal tolerance, a fellowship of spiritual religion beyond creeds and dogmas. The Methodist Church exemplifies the dynamic of these types. The Methodist movement began as a sectarian protest against the worldliness of the Church of England; its success stimulated it to become a church, which in turn spawned various sectarian protests, including charismatic communities.

Niebuhr further developed Troeltsch’s efforts by distinguishing five repetitive types of the Christian community’s relations to the world. Niebuhr’s types are: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. The first two are expressions of opposition to and endorsement of the world, while the last three share a concern to mediate in distinctive ways the opposition between the first two.

Opposition to the world is exemplified by Tertullian’s question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This sharp opposition to the world was expressed in the biblical disjunction between the children of God and the children of the world and between “the light” and “the darkness” (1 John 2:15, 4:4–5; Revelation); and it has continued to find personal exponents, such as Leo Tolstoy, and communal expressions, such as the Hutterites.

Endorsement of the world emerged in the 4th century with the imperial legal recognition of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine. Although frequently associated with the medieval efforts to construct a Christian commonwealth, this type is present wherever national, social, political, and economic programs are “baptized” as Christian. Thus, its historical expressions may be as diverse as the Jeffersonian United States and Hitlerian Germany.

The other three types that Niebuhr proposed are variations on the theme of mediation between rejection and uncritical endorsement of the world. The “Christ above culture” type recognizes continuity between the world and faith. This was probably best expressed by Thomas Aquinas’s conviction that grace or the supernatural does not destroy nature but completes it. The “Christ and culture in paradox” type views the Christian community’s relationship to the world in terms of a permanent and dynamic tension in which the Kingdom of God is not of this world and yet is to be proclaimed in it. A well-known expression of this position is Martin Luther’s law–gospel dialectic, distinguishing how the Christian community is to live in the world as both sinful and righteous at the same time. The conviction that the world may be transformed and regenerated by Christianity (“Christ the transformer of culture”) has been attributed to expressions that have theocratic tendencies, such as those of Augustine and John Calvin.

Efforts by scholars such as Troeltsch and Niebuhr to provide typical patterns of Christian relations to the world enable appreciation of the multiformity of these relationships without being overwhelmed by historical data. These models relieve the illusion that the Christian community has ever been monolithic, homogeneous, or static. This “many-sidedness” may be seen in the Christian community’s relationships to the state, society, education, the arts, social welfare, and family and personal life.

Carter H. Lindberg


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state
The relationship of Christians and Christian institutions to forms of the political order has shown an extraordinary diversity throughout church history. There have been, for example, theocratically founded monarchies, democracies, and communist communities. In various periods, however, political revolution, based on theological foundations, has also belonged to this diversity.

In certain eras of church history the desire to establish the Kingdom of God stimulated political and social strivings. The political power of the Christian proclamation of the coming sovereignty of God resided in its promise of both the establishment of a kingdom of peace and the execution of judgment.

The church, like the state, has been exposed to the temptation of power, which resulted in the transformation of the church into an ecclesiastical state. This took place in the development of the Papal States and, to a lesser degree, in several theocratic churches, as well as in Calvin’s ecclesiastical state in Geneva in the 16th century. At times, too, the secular state declared itself Christian and the executor of the spiritual, political, and social commission of the church; it understood itself to be the representative of the Kingdom of God. This development took place in both the Byzantine and the Carolingian empires as well as in the medieval Holy Roman Empire.

The struggle between the church, understanding itself as state, and the state, understanding itself as representative of the church, not only dominated the Middle Ages but also continued into the Reformation period. The wars of religion in the era of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation discredited in the eyes of many the theological and metaphysical rationales for a Christian state. The Anabaptists in the 16th century and some Puritans in the 17th century contributed to this skepticism by advocating religious liberty and rejecting the involvement of the state in religious matters. The Enlightenment idea of grounding the relationship between church and state on natural law, as advanced by Friedrich Schleiermacher among others, led to the advocacy of the legal separation of church and state.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » The history of church and state » The church and the Roman Empire
The attitude of the first generations of Christians toward the existing political order was determined by the imminent expectation of the Kingdom of God, whose miraculous power had begun to be visibly realized in the figure of Jesus Christ. The importance of the political order was, thus, negligible, as Jesus himself asserted when he said, “My kingship is not of this world.” Orientation toward the coming kingdom of peace placed Christians in tension with the state, which made demands upon them that were in direct conflict with their faith.

This contrast was developed most pointedly in the rejection of the emperor cult and of certain state offices—above all, that of judge—to which the power over life and death was professionally entrusted. Although opposition to fundamental orderings of the ruling state was not based upon any conscious revolutionary program, contemporaries blamed the expansion of the Christian church in the Roman Empire for an internal weakening of the empire on the basis of this conscious avoidance of many aspects of public life, including military service.

Despite the early Christian longing for the coming Kingdom of God, even the Christians of the early generations acknowledged the pagan state as the bearer of order in the world. Two contrary views thus faced one another within the Christian communities. On the one hand, under the influence of Pauline missions, was the idea that the “ruling body”—i.e., the existing political order of the Roman Empire—was “from God…for your good” (Romans 13:1–4) and that Christians should be “subject to the governing authorities.” Another similar idea held by Paul (in 2 Thessalonians) was that the Roman state, through its legal order, “restrains” the downfall of the world that the Antichrist is attempting to bring about. On the other hand, and existing at the same time, was the apocalyptic identification of the imperial city of Rome with the great whore of Babylon (Revelation 17:3–7). The first attitude, formulated by Paul, was decisive in the development of a Christian political consciousness. The second was noticeable especially in the history of radical Christianity and in radical Christian pacifism, which rejects cooperation as much in military service as in public judgeship.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » The history of church and state » The church and the Byzantine, or Eastern, Empire
In the 4th century, the emperor Constantine granted himself, as “bishop of foreign affairs,” certain rights to church leadership. These rights concerned not only the “outward” activity of the church but also encroached upon the inner life of the church—as was shown by the role of the emperor in summoning and leading imperial councils to formulate fundamental Christian doctrine and to ratify their decisions.

In the Byzantine Empire, the secular ruler was called “priest and emperor” and exercised authority as head of the church. Although never ordained, the emperor held jurisdiction over ecclesiastical affairs. The belief that his authority came directly from God was symbolically expressed in the ceremony of both crowning and anointing him. This tradition was continued in the Russian realms, where the tsardom claimed a growing authority for itself even in the area of the church.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » The history of church and state » The church and Western states
In the political vacuum that arose in the West because of the invasion by the German tribes, the Roman church was the single institution that preserved in its episcopal dioceses the Roman provincial arrangement. In its administration of justice the church largely depended upon the old imperial law and—in a period of legal and administrative chaos—was viewed as the only guarantor of order. The Roman popes, most notably Gregory I the Great (reigned 590–604), assumed many of the duties of the decadent imperial bureaucracy. Gregory negotiated with the Lombard kings of Italy, oversaw public welfare, and was the soldiers’ paymaster. His administrative skill helped lay the foundation for the Papal States, which emerged in the 8th century. Supporting papal claims and responsibilities was the so-called Petrine theory—the idea that the pope was the representative of Christ and the successor of Peter.

Although he considered himself part of a Christian commonwealth headed by the emperor in Constantinople, Gregory sought to improve the religious life of the peoples of the West. Under him the church in Spain, Gaul, and northern Italy was strengthened, and England was converted to Roman Christianity. Later popes forged an alliance with the rulers of the Frankish (Germanic) kingdom in the 8th century and succeeded in winning them as protectors of the Papal States when the Byzantine emperor was no longer able to protect Rome. The relationship created a new area of tension, as religious and secular leaders sought to define the exact nature of the relationship between them. From at least the time of Pope Gelasius I (reigned 492–496), two powers, or swords, were recognized as having been established by God to rule. Carolingian rulers maintained that, as holders of one of the swords, they had special rights and duties to protect the church. Indeed, the emperor Charlemagne claimed for himself the right to appoint the bishops of his empire, who were thus increasingly involved in political affairs.

Emperors in the 10th century, building on Carolingian precedent, continued to involve themselves in church affairs. As a result, bishops in the empire were sometimes also the reigning princes of their dioceses, and they were occasionally guilty of being more interested in the political than in the spiritual affairs of their dominions.

These conflicting perspectives were the cause of a series of struggles between popes and secular rulers that began in the 11th century, when lay and religious leaders sought to reform society and the church. Already in the 10th century, monastic reform movements centred at Cluny, Gorze, and elsewhere had attempted to improve the religious life of the monks and establish a new understanding of ecclesiastical liberty. In the 11th century, reformers such as Peter Damian and Humbert of Silva Candida provided new definitions of the sins of clerical marriage and simony. These intellectual developments, along with new decrees governing papal elections, led to the virtual elimination of secular interference in episcopal and papal succession. The staunchest supporter of these reforms, Pope Gregory VII, ultimately banned the practice of the lay investiture of bishops and challenged the traditions of sacral kingship. Gregory’s assertion of papal authority, however, was opposed by the German ruler Henry IV. Their conflict eventually burst into the great Investiture Controversy, which became a struggle for supremacy between the church and the monarchy. The resolution of the controversy left the emperor in a weakened state and increased the influence of the secular and ecclesiastical princes.

Although the empire was reconstituted in the 12th century on the basis of Roman law and the understanding of the empire as a distinct sacred institution (sacrum imperium), it broke down during the 13th century as the result of a new struggle between the emperors and several successive popes. The church, however, faced a new challenge in the rise of the European nation-states. Papal ideology had been shaped by the struggle with the emperors and thus was not suited to deal effectively with kings of nation-states. This first became clearly evident in the conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France over matters of ecclesiastical independence and royal authority. In 1296 Boniface issued a bull denying the king’s right to tax the clergy, which he withdrew because Philip forbade the clergy to send money to Rome and the pope needed the revenue. In 1301, Philip violated long-standing tradition by trying the bishop of Pamiers in a royal court. Boniface responded in 1302 with the bull Unam Sanctam (“One Holy Church”), the most extreme assertion by any pope of the supremacy of spiritual over secular authority. Revealing how much had changed since the time of Gregory VII, Philip rallied public opinion against the pope, calling the Estates General to session to accuse Boniface of heresy, witchcraft, sodomy, and other crimes. Philip’s adviser, Guillaume de Nogaret, seized Boniface at Anagni, a town near Rome. Although the pope was rescued by local inhabitants, he died from the shock of the capture, and Philip emerged triumphant. Papal fortunes declined even further during the subsequent Babylonian Captivity of the church, when the papacy resided in Avignon (1309–77) and was perceived as being dominated by the French monarchy.

Secular control of the church increased during the Great Schism (1378–1417), and in some parts of Europe it continued even after the schism ended. The schism was partly the result of growing demands for the papacy’s return to Rome. Pope Urban VI settled in Rome and alienated a number of cardinals, who returned to Avignon and elected a rival pope, Clement VII. Popes and antipopes reigning simultaneously excommunicated each other, thus demeaning the papacy. The schism spread great uncertainty throughout Europe about the validity of the consecration of bishops and the sacraments as administered by the priests they ordained. It was perpetuated in part by European politics, as rival rulers supported either the pope in Rome or the pope in Avignon to assert ever greater authority over the church in their realms. The schism contributed to the rise of the 15th-century conciliar movement, which posited the supreme authority of ecumenical councils in the church.

Although the relationship between the temporal and spiritual powers continued to be a matter of concern in the 16th and 17th centuries, the changes brought by the Reformation and the growth of state power recast the nature of the debate. Under King Henry VIII of England a revolutionary dissociation of the English church from papal supremacy took place. In the German territories the reigning princes became, in effect, the legal guardians of the Protestant churches—a movement already in the process of consolidation in the late Middle Ages. The development in the Catholic nation-states, such as Spain, Portugal, and France, occurred in a similar way.

The ideas of the freedom and equality of Christians and their representation in a communion of saints by virtue of voluntary membership had been disseminated in various medieval sects such as the Cathari, Waldenses, Hussites, and the Bohemian Brethren and were reinforced during the Reformation by groups such as the Hutterites, Mennonites, and Schwenckfelders. These groups also renounced involvement with the state in certain respects, such as through military service and the holding of state offices; some of these groups attempted to structure their own form of common life in Christian, communist communities. Many of their political ideas—at first bloodily suppressed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation states and churches—were later prominent in the Dutch wars of independence and in the English Revolution.

In the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) confessional antitheses were intermingled with politics, and the credibility of the feuding ecclesiastical parties was thereby called into question. Subsequently, from the 17th century on, the tendency toward a new, natural-law conception of the relationship between state and church began to develop. Henceforth, in the Protestant countries, state sovereignty was increasingly emphasized vis-à-vis the churches. The state established the right to regulate educational and marriage concerns as well as all administrative affairs of the church. A similar development also occurred in Roman Catholic areas. In the second half of the 18th century Febronianism demanded a replacement of papal centralism with a national church episcopal system; in Austria a state-church concept was established under Josephinism (after Joseph II [reigned 1765–90]) through the dismantling of numerous ecclesiastical privileges. The Eastern Orthodox Church also was drawn into this development under Peter the Great.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » The history of church and state » Separation of church and state
The separation of church and state was one of the legacies of the American and French revolutions at the end of the 18th century. It was achieved as a result of ideas arising from opposition to the English episcopal system and the English throne as well as from the ideals of the Enlightenment. It was implemented in France because of the social-revolutionary criticism of the wealthy ecclesiastical hierarchy but also because of the desire to guarantee the freedom of the church. The French state took over education and other functions of a civic nature that had been traditionally exercised by the church.

Beginning in the late 18th century, two fundamental attitudes developed in matters related to the separation of church and state. The first, as implied in the Constitution of the United States, was supported by a tendency to leave to the church, set free from state supervision, a maximum freedom in the realization of its spiritual, moral, and educational tasks. In the United States, for example, a comprehensive church school and educational system has been created by the churches on the basis of this freedom, and numerous colleges and universities have been founded by churches. The separation of church and state by the French Revolution and later in the Soviet Union and the countries under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence was based upon an opposite tendency. The attempt was not only to restrict the public role of the church but also to work toward its gradual disappearance. The church was to be replaced with a secular ideology.

In contrast to this, the attitude of National Socialism in Germany under Hitler was contradictory. On the one hand, Nazi ideology allowed no public role for the church and its teaching. On the other hand, Hitler was concerned not to trigger an outright confrontation with the church. The concordat concluded in 1933 between Germany and the Roman Catholic Church illustrates this policy of official neutrality.

In Germany state-church traditions had been largely eliminated in 1918 with the establishment of the Weimar Republic; the abolition of the monarchical system of government also deprived the territorial churches of their supreme Protestant episcopal heads. The Weimar Constitution sanctioned the separation of church and state. State-church traditions were maintained in various forms in Germany, not only during the Weimar Republic but also during the Hitler regime and afterward in the Federal Republic of Germany. Thus, through state agreements, definite special rights, primarily in the areas of taxes and education, were granted to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical (Lutheran-Reformed) churches of the individual states.

Even in the United States, however, the old state-church system, overcome during the American Revolution, still produces aftereffects in the form of tax privileges of the church (exemption from most taxation), the exemption of the clergy from military service, and the financial furtherance of confessional school and educational systems through the state. These privileges have been questioned and even attacked by certain segments of the American public.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » Church and state in Eastern and Western theology
The two main forms of the relationship between church and state that have been predominant and decisive through the centuries and in which the structural difference between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy becomes most evident can best be explained by comparing the views of two great theologians: Eusebius of Caesarea and Augustine.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » Church and state in Eastern and Western theology » The views of Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius (c. 260–339), the bishop of Caesarea, was a historian and exegete who formed the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between church and state. He saw the empire and the imperial church as sharing a close bond with each other; in the centre of the Christian empire stood the figure of the Christian emperor rather than that of the spiritual head of the church.

In Eusebian political theology, the Christian emperor appears as God’s representative on Earth in whom God himself “lets shine forth the image of his absolute power.” He is the “Godloved, three times blessed” servant of the highest ruler, who, “armed with divine armor cleans the world from the horde of the godless, the strong-voiced heralds of undeceiving fear of God,” the rays of which “penetrate the world.” Through the possession of these characteristics the Christian emperor is the archetype not only of justice but also of the love of humankind. When it is said about Constantine, “God himself has chosen him to be the lord and leader so that no man can praise himself to have raised him up,” the rule of the Orthodox emperor has been based on the immediate grace of God.

To a certain extent this understanding of the emperor was the Christian reinterpretation of the ancient Roman view of the emperor as the representative of god or the gods. Some of Eusebius’s remarks echo the cult of the Unconquered Sun, Sol Invictus, who was represented by the emperor according to pagan understanding. The emperor—in this respect he also played the role of the pontifex maximus (high priest) in the state cult—took the central position within the church as well. He summoned the synods of bishops, “as though he had been appointed bishop by God,” presided over the synods, and granted judicial power for the empire to their decisions. He was the protector of the church who stood up for the preservation of unity and truth of the Christian faith and who fought not only as a warrior but also as an intercessor, as a second Moses during the battle against God’s enemies, “holy and purely praying to God, sending his prayers up to him.” The Christian emperor entered not only the political but also the sacred succession of the divinely appointed Roman emperor. Next to such a figure, an independent leadership of the church could hardly develop.

Orthodox theologians have understood the coexistence of the Christian emperor and the head of the Christian church as symphōnia, or “harmony.” The church recognized the powers of the emperor as protector of the church and preserver of the unity of the faith and asserted its own authority over the spiritual domain of preserving Orthodox doctrine and order in the church. The emperor, on the other hand, was subject to the church’s spiritual leadership as far as he was a son of the church.

The special position of the emperor and the function of the Byzantine patriarch as the spiritual head of the church were defined in the 9th century in the Epanagoge, the judicial ruling establishing this relationship of church and state. The church-judicial affirmation of this relationship in the 6th and 7th centuries made the development of a judicial independence of the Byzantine patriarch in the style of the Roman papacy impossible from the beginning.

The Epanagoge, however, did not completely subject the patriarch to the supervision of the emperor but rather directed him expressly “to support the truth and to undertake the defense of the holy teachings without fear of the emperor.” Therefore, the tension between the imperial reign that misused its absolutism against the spiritual freedom of the church and a church that claimed its spiritual freedom against an absolutist emperor or tsar was characteristic of Byzantine and Slavic political history but not the same as the political tension between the imperial power and the papacy that occurred in the West, especially during the period from 1050 to 1300.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » Church and state in Eastern and Western theology » The views of Augustine
Augustine’s City of God attempted to answer questions arising from the most painful event of his day: the sack of the city of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. Augustine responded to the shock and dismay his contemporaries experienced with the collapse of their world by delivering a literary demolition of paganism. From Augustine’s perspective the “splendid vices” of the pagans had led inexorably to the fall of an idolatrous world. In sharp contrast to this “earthly city,” epitomized by Rome but everywhere energized by the same human desires for praise and glory, Augustine projected the “most glorious city” of praise and thanks to God, the heavenly Jerusalem. However, Augustine did not simply identify the state with the earthly city and the church with the city of God. He perceived that the state existed not simply in opposition to God but as a divine instrument for the welfare of humankind. The civitas dei (“city of God”) and the civitas terrena (“earthly city”) finally correspond neither to church and state nor to heaven and earth. They are rather two opposed societies with antagonistic orders of value that intersect both state and church and in each case show the radical incompatibility of the love of God with the values of worldly society.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and state » Church and state in Eastern and Western theology » Later developments
The historical development of the church in the Latin West took a different course from that of the Byzantine imperial church. In the West a new power gradually emerged—the Roman church, the church of the bishop of Rome. This church assumed many of the administrative, political, and social-welfare functions of the ancient Roman state in the West following the invasion of the Germans.

It was in this context that the judicial pretense of the “Gift of the emperor Constantine”—the Donation of Constantine—became possible, to which the later development of the papacy was connected. The Donation is the account of Constantine’s purported conferring upon Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314–335) of the primacy of the West, including the imperial symbols of rulership. The pope returned the crown to Constantine, who in gratitude moved the capital to Byzantium (Constantinople). The Donation thereby explained and legitimated a number of important political developments and papal claims, including the transfer of the capital to Byzantium, the displacement of old Rome by the new Rome of the church, papal secular authority, and the papacy’s separation from allegiance to the Byzantine empire and association with the rising power of the Latin West. The Donation, which was based on traditions dating to the 5th century, was compiled in the mid-8th century and is associated with the political transformation that took place in Italy at that time.

This was the point from which the developments in the East and in the West led in two different directions. The growing independence of the West was markedly illustrated by the Donation of Pippin (Pippin, father of Charlemagne, was anointed king of the Franks by Pope Stephen III in 754), which laid the foundation of the Papal States as independent of any temporal power and gave the pope the Byzantine exarchate of Ravenna.

The idea of the church as a state also appeared in a democratic form and in strict contrast to its absolutist Roman model in some Reformation church and sect developments and in Free churches of the post-Reformation period. The sects of the Reformation period renewed the old idea of the Christian congregation as God’s people, wandering on this Earth—a people connected with God, like Israel, through a special covenant. This idea of God’s people and the special covenant of God with a certain chosen group caused the influx of theocratic ideas, which were expressed in forms of theocratic communities similar to states and led to formations similar to an ecclesiastical state. Such tendencies were exhibited among various Reformation groups (e.g., the Münster prophets), Puritans in Massachusetts, and groups of the American Western frontier. One of the rare exceptions to early modern theocratic theology was Luther’s sharp distinction of political and ecclesial responsibilities by his dialectic of law and gospel. He commented that it is not necessary that an emperor be a Christian to rule, only that he possess reason.

The most recent attempt to form a church-state by a sect that understood itself as the chosen people distinguished by God through a special new revelation was undertaken by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons as they are commonly known. Based on the prophetic direction of their leaders, they attempted to found the state Deseret, after their entrance into the desert around the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The borders of the state were expected to include the largest part of the area of the present states of Utah, California, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. The Mormons, however, eventually had to recognize the fact that the comparatively small centre state, Utah, of the originally intended larger Mormon territory, could not exist as a theocracy (though structured as other secular models) under a government of Mormon Church leaders. Reports (some apparently spurious) by federal agents hostile to the church and widespread revulsion toward the Mormon practice of polygyny mitigated against federal sanction of the church leadership as the governmental heads of the proposed state. Utah eventually became a federal state of the United States.


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and society
The development of Christianity’s influence on the character of society since the Reformation has been twofold. In the realm of state churches and territorial churches, Christianity contributed to the preservation of the status quo of society. In England, the Anglican Church remained an ally of the throne, as did the Protestant churches of the German states. In Russia the Orthodox Church continued to support a social order founded upon the monarchy, and even the monarch carried out a leading function within the church as protector.

Though the impulses for transformation of the social order according to the spirit of the Christian ethic came more strongly from the Free churches and state and territorial churches made positive contributions in improving the status quo. In 17th- and 18th-century Germany, Lutheran clergy, such as August Francke (1663–1727), were active in establishing poorhouses, orphanages, schools, and hospitals. In England, Anglican clerics, such as Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley in the 19th century, began a Christian social movement during the Industrial Revolution that brought Christian influence to the conditions of life and work in industry. Johann Hinrich Wichern proclaimed, “There is a Christian Socialism,” at the Kirchentag Church Convention in Wittenberg [Germany] in 1848, the year of the publication of the Communist Manifesto and a wave of revolutions across Europe, and created the “Inner Mission” in order to address “works of saving love” to all suffering spiritual and physical distress. The diaconal movements of the Inner Mission were concerned with social issues, prison reform, and care of the mentally ill.

The Anglo-Saxon Free churches made great efforts to bring the social atmosphere and living conditions into line with a Christian understanding of human life. Methodists and Baptists addressed their message mainly to those segments of society that were neglected by the established church. They recognized that the distress of the newly formed working class, a consequence of industrialization, could not be removed by the traditional charitable means used by the state churches. In Germany, in particular, the spiritual leaders of the so-called revival movement, such as Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher (1796–1868), denied the right of self-organization to the workers by claiming that all earthly social injustices would receive compensation in heaven caused Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to separate themselves completely from the church and its purely charitable attempts at a settlement of social conflicts and to declare religion with its promise of a better beyond as the “opiate of the people.” This reproach, however, was as little in keeping with the social-ethical activities of the Inner Mission and of Methodists and Baptists as it was with the selfless courage of the Quakers, who fought against social demoralization, against the catastrophic situation in the prisons, against war, and, most of all, against slavery.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and society » The problem of slavery and persecution
Christian approaches to slavery have passed through many controversial phases. Paul recommended to Philemon that he accept back his runaway slave Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord” (verse 16); the passage does not reject slavery but stresses that masters must treat their slaves humanely. Although the biblical writings made no direct attack upon the ancient world’s institution of slavery, its proleptic abolition in community with Christ—“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)—has been a judgment upon the world’s and the Christian community’s failure to overcome slavery and all forms of oppression. Most scholars assume that the eschatological assumptions of the apostolic community—that the return of Jesus and thus the end of time were imminent—rendered social issues secondary. As it became evident that Jesus’ return was not imminent and as the early church made its place in the world, the Church Fathers began to address social issues, and they identified slavery as the just punishment for sin. However, they also emphasized the need to treat slaves justly and maintained that Christians could not be enslaved. Medieval society made slow progress in the abolition of slavery, but by the year 1000 slavery had essentially disappeared in much of Western Europe, and by about 1100 it had been replaced by serfdom. One of the special tasks of the orders of knighthood was the liberation of Christian slaves who had fallen captive to the Muslims; and special knightly orders were even founded for the ransom of Christian slaves.

With the discovery of the New World, the institution of slavery grew to proportions greater than had been previously conceived. The widespread conviction of the Spanish conquerors of the New World that its inhabitants were not fully human, and therefore could be enslaved, added to the problem. The importation of African slaves to North America was supported by various Christian churches, including the Anglican, which predominated in Virginia and other British colonies. Into the 18th century, African slaves were described as bearing the mark of Cain, and other scriptural passages were used to support slavery. When some churches began to champion abolition in the 19th century, churches in the American South continued to find support for the institution in the Bible.

The attempt of missionaries, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas in 16th-century Mexico, to counter the inhuman system of slavery in the colonial economic systems finally introduced the great basic debate concerning the question of human rights. A decisive part in the elaboration of the general principles of human rights was taken by the Spanish and Portuguese theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, especially Francisco de Vitoria. In the 18th century Puritan leaders continued the struggle against slavery as an institution. In German Pietism, Nikolaus Ludwig, Graf von Zinzendorf, who became acquainted with slavery on the island of Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands, used his influence on the king of Denmark for the human rights of the slaves. The Methodist and Baptist churches advocated abolition of slavery in the United States in the decisive years preceding the foundation of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston in 1832 by William Lloyd Garrison. In England and in The Netherlands, the Free churches were very active in the struggle against slavery, which was directed mainly against the participation of Christian trade and shipping companies in the profitable slave trade. The abolition of slavery did not end racial discrimination, of course. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist pastor and Nobel laureate, led the struggle for civil rights in the United States until his assassination in 1968.

Christian churches have engaged in similar struggles on behalf of other exploited or persecuted groups. In Germany in the 1930s some Christians fought against the Nazis’ violent anti-Semitism and their attempts to euthanize the mentally ill and others they considered “unfit to live.” For his leadership in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984. He later served as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which investigated allegations of human rights abuses during the apartheid era. And Pope John Paul II used his enormous influence among Catholics and throughout the world to promote respect for human dignity and to deter the use of violence.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and society » Theological and humanitarian motivations
Decisive impulses for achieving social change based on Christian ethics have been and are initiated by men and women in the grasp of a deep personal Christian experience of faith, for whom the message of the coming Kingdom of God forms the foundation for faithful affirmation of social responsibility in the present world. Revival movements have viewed the Christian message as the call to work for the reorganization of society in the sense of a Kingdom of God ethic. Under the leadership of an American Baptist theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), the Social Gospel movement spread in the United States. A corresponding movement was started with the Christian social conferences by German Protestant theologians, such as Paul Martin Rade (1857–1940) of Marburg. The basic idea of the Social Gospel—i.e., the emphasis on the social-ethical tasks of the church—gained widespread influence within the ecumenical movement and especially affected Christian world missions. In many respects modern economic and other forms of aid to developing countries—including significant ecumenical contributions from the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Roman Catholic Church—replaced the Social Gospel.

Christians have sometimes argued that these developments reduce the Christian message to a purely secular social program that is absorbed by political programs. Other Christians, however, have maintained that faithful responsibility in and to the world requires political, economic, and social assistance to oppressed peoples with the goal of their liberation to a full human life.


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and education » Intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism
In contrast to Tertullian’s anti-intellectual attitude, a positive approach to intellectual activities has also made itself heard from the beginning of the Christian church; it was perhaps best expressed in the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury in the formula fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). But well before Anselm, Christians maintained that because people have been endowed with reason, they have an urge to express their experience of faith intellectually, to translate the contents of faith into concepts, and to formulate beliefs in a systematic understanding of the correlation between God, humankind, and creation. This desire was exemplified by Justin Martyr, a professional philosopher and Christian apologist of the 2nd century who saw Christian revelation as the fulfillment, not the elimination, of philosophical understanding. Even before Justin Martyr, the author of The Gospel According to John set the point of departure for the intellectual history of salvation with his use of the term Logos to open the first chapter of the Gospel. The light of the Logos (the Greek word means “word” or “reason,” in the sense of divine or universal reason permeating the intelligible world) had made itself manifest in a number of sparks and seeds in human history even before its incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ.

These contrasting opinions have stood in permanent tension with one another. In medieval thought the elevation of Christian belief to the status of scientific universal knowledge was dominant. Theology, the queen of the sciences, became the instructor of the different disciplines, organized according to the traditional classification of trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) and incorporated into the system of education as “servants of theology.” This system of education became part of the structure of the universities that were founded in the 13th century.

With the Reformation there was widespread concern for education because the Reformers desired everyone to be able to read the Bible. Luther also argued that it was necessary for society that its youth be educated. He held that it was the duty of civil authorities to compel their subjects to keep their children in school so “that there will always be preachers, jurists, pastors, writers, physicians, schoolmasters, and the like, for we cannot do without them.” This stress on education was made evident by the founding of many colleges in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries by Protestants and by members the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a Roman Catholic missionary and educational order.

Open conflict between science and theology occurred only when the traditional biblical view of the world was seriously questioned, as in the case of the Italian astronomer Galileo (1633). The principles of Galileo’s scientific research, however, were themselves the result of a Christian idea of science and truth. The biblical faith in God as Creator and incarnate Redeemer is an explicit affirmation of the goodness, reality, and contingency of the created world—assumptions underlying scientific work. Positive tendencies concerning education and science have always been dominant in the history of Christianity, even though the opposite attitude arose occasionally during certain periods. Thus the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) spoke of celebrating God in science. In the 20th century, Pope John Paul II maintained that he saw no contradiction between the findings of modern science and biblical accounts of the Creation; he also declared the condemnation of Galileo to be an error and encouraged the scientific search for truth.

The attitude that had been hostile toward intellectual endeavours was heard less frequently after the Christian church had become the church of the Roman Empire. But the relationship between science and theology was attacked when the understanding of truth that had been developed within theology was turned critically against the dogma of the church itself. This occurred, for instance, after the natural sciences and theology had turned away from total dependence upon tradition and directed their attention toward experience—observation and experiment. A number of fundamental dogmatic principles and concepts were thus questioned and eventually abandoned. The struggle concerning the theory of evolution has been a conspicuous modern symptom of this trend.

The estrangement of theology and natural science in the modern period was a complex development related to confessional controversies and wars in the 16th and 17th centuries and philosophical perspectives in the 18th and 19th centuries. The epistemological foundation of faith was radically challenged by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Building upon Hume’s work, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant advocated freedom from any heteronomous authority, such as the church and dogmas, that could not be established by reason alone. Scholars withdrew from the decisions of church authorities and were willing to subject themselves only to critical reason and experience. The rationalism of the Enlightenment appeared to be the answer of science to the claim of true faith that had been made by the churches.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and education » Forms of Christian education
The Christian church created the bases of the Western system of education. From its beginning the Christian community faced external and internal challenges to its faith, which it met by developing and utilizing intellectual and educational resources. The response to the external challenge of rival religions and philosophical perspectives is termed apologetics—i.e., the intellectual defense of the faith. Apologetic theologians from Justin Martyr in the 2nd century to Paul Tillich in the 20th have promoted critical dialogue between the Christian community, the educated world, and other religions. This exchange was further encouraged by the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II, and the ecumenical movement. The internal challenges to the Christian community were met not only by formulating the faith in creeds and dogmas but also by passing this faith on to the next generations through education.

By the 8th and 9th centuries, cathedral schools were established to provide basic education in Latin grammar and Christian doctrine to the clergy, and by the 11th century these schools emerged as centres of higher learning. The school at the court of Charlemagne (which was conducted by clergy), the medieval schools of the religious orders, cathedrals, monasteries, convents, and churches, the flourishing schools of the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Roman Catholic school systems that came into existence during the Counter-Reformation under the leadership of the Jesuits and other new teaching orders contributed much to the civilization of the West. Equally important were the schools started by the German Reformers Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Johann Bugenhagen, John and August Hermann Francke, and the Moravian reformers John Amos Comenius and the graf von Zinzendorf. The church was responsible for overseeing schools even after the Reformation. Only in the 18th century did the school system start to separate itself from its Christian roots and fall more and more under state control.

With the separation of church and state, both institutions have entered into tensely manifold relationships. In some countries the state has taken over the school system and does not allow private church schools except in a few special cases. Other countries (e.g., France) maintain school systems basically free of religion and leave the religious instruction to the private undertakings of the different churches. In the American Revolution the concept of the separation of state and church was intended to free the church from all patronization by the state and to make possible a maximum of free activity, particularly in the area of education. The Soviet Union used its schools particularly for an anti-religious education based upon the state philosophy of dialectical materialism, practicing the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of anti-religious propaganda in schools, though the churches were forbidden to give any education outside their worship services.

A second issue that results from the separation of church and state is the question of state subsidies to private church schools. These are claimed in those countries in which the church schools in many places take over part of the functions of the state schools (e.g., in the United States). After the ideological positivism and the materialism of the 19th century faded away in many areas, it was realized that religious life had an important role in the cultural development of the West and the New World and that the exclusion of religious instruction from the curricula of the schools indicated a lack of balance in education. In the 20th century religion was adopted as a subject among the humanities. State universities in the United States, Canada, and Australia, which did not have theological faculties because of the separation of church and state, founded departments of religion of an interdenominational nature and included non-Christians as academic teachers of religion.

Another development in the history of Christian education was the founding of universities. The origins of the university can be traced to the 12th century, and by the 13th century the medieval university had reached its mature form. Universities were founded during the rest of the Middle Ages throughout Europe and spread from there to other continents after the 16th century. The earliest universities emerged as associations of masters or students (the Latin universitas means guild or union) that were dedicated to the pursuit of higher learning. The universities, which superseded the cathedral schools as centres of advanced study, came to have a number of shared traits: the teaching methods of lecture and disputation, the extended communal living in colleges, the periodically changing leadership of an elected dean, the inner structure according to faculties or “nations,” and the European recognition of academic degrees. Universities provided instruction in the liberal arts and advanced study in the disciplines of law, medicine, and, most importantly, theology. Many of the great theologians of the era, notably, Thomas Aquinas, were associated with the universities.

The advent of humanism and the Reformation, as well as the reforms initiated by some university faculty, created a new situation for all systems of education, especially the universities. Humanists demanded plans to provide designated places for free research in academies that were princely or private institutions and, as such, not controlled by the church. On the other hand, Protestant states and principalities founded new universities, such as Marburg in 1527, Königsberg in 1544, and Jena in 1558. As a counteraction, the Jesuits took over the leadership in the older universities that had remained Roman Catholic or else founded new ones in Europe and overseas.

In areas of missionary work, Christian education has had a twofold task. First, its function was to lay an educational foundation for evangelization of non-Christian peoples by forming a system of education for all levels from grammar school to university. Second, its function was to take care of the education of European settlers. To a large extent the European colonial powers had left the formation of an educational system in their colonies or dominions to the churches. In the Spanish colonial regions in America, Roman Catholic universities were founded very early (e.g., Santo Domingo in 1538, Mexico and Lima in 1551, Guatemala in 1562, and Bogotá in 1573). In China, Jesuit missionaries acted mainly as agents of European education and culture (e.g., astronomy, mathematics, and technology) in their positions as civil servants of the court.

Since the 18th century, the activities of competing Christian denominations in mission areas has led to an intensification of the Christian system of education in Asia and Africa. Even where the African and Asian states have their own system of schools and universities, Christian educational institutions have performed a significant function (St. Xavier University in Bombay and Sophia University in Tokyo are Jesuit foundations; Dōshisha University in Kyōto is a Japanese Presbyterian foundation).

In North America, Christian education took a different course. From the beginning, the churches took over the creation of general educational institutions, and various denominations did pioneer work in the field of education. In the English colonies, later the United States, the denominations founded theological colleges for the purpose of educating their ministers and established universities dealing with all major disciplines, including theology, often emphasizing a denominational slant. Harvard University was founded in 1636 and Yale University in 1701 as Congregational establishments, and the College of William and Mary was established in 1693 as an Anglican institution. They were followed during the 19th century by other Protestant universities (e.g., Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas) and colleges (e.g., Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois) and by Roman Catholic universities (e.g., the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana) and colleges (e.g., Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts). In addition, many private universities were based upon a Christian idea of education according to the wishes of their founders.

Christian education has been undertaken in a variety of forms. The system of Sunday schools is nearly universal in all denominations. Confirmation instruction is more specialized, serving different tasks, such as preparation of the children for confirmation, their conscious acknowledgment of the Christian ethic, of the Christian confessions, of the meaning of the sacraments, and of the special forms of congregational life.

Ernst Wilhelm Benz
Carter H. Lindberg


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and minorities
The tendency to develop an identifiable Christian culture is apparent even when Christians live in an environment that has been shaped and is characterized by a non-Christian religion. This is the case with most Christian churches in Asia and Africa.

In some countries Christian minorities have had to struggle for their existence and recognition, at times in the face of persecution. In some cases, however, the situation of Christian minorities is ideally suited to demonstrate to outsiders the peculiar style of life of a Christian culture. This is particularly advantageous for the church within a caste state, in which the church itself has developed into a caste, with special extrinsic characteristics in clothing and customs (e.g., the Mar Thoma Church of South India).

A special problem presents itself through the coexistence of racially different Christian cultures in racially mixed states. The influence of the Christian black churches, especially of Baptist denominations, has been thoroughly imprinted upon the culture of North American blacks. The churches themselves were founded through the missionary work of white Baptist churches but became independent or were established as autonomous churches within the framework of the Baptist denomination. A similar situation exists in South Africa, where white congregations and separate black congregations were established within the white mission churches.

The Christian church has always urged the overcoming of racism, even though it has generally compromised with prevailing societal values. In the early church, racism was unknown; the Jewish synagogues allowed black proselytes. The first Jewish proselyte mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles was a governmental administrator from Ethiopia, who was baptized by the apostle Philip. Likewise, the early congregations in Alexandria included many black Africans. Among the evangelizing churches, the Portuguese Catholic mission in principle did not recognize differences between races—whoever was baptized became a “human being” and became a member not only of the Christian congregation but also of the Christian society and was allowed to marry another Christian of any race. In contrast to this practice, the Catholic mission of the Spaniards introduced the separation of races under the term casticismo (purity of the Castilian heritage) in the American mission regions and sometimes restricted marriage between Castilian Spanish immigrants and native Christians. Like the Portuguese in Africa and Brazil, the French Catholic mission in Canada and in the regions around the Great Lakes in North America did not prohibit marriage of whites with Indians but tolerated and even encouraged it during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Consequently, the Christian churches both led and thwarted endeavours for racial integration. An ideologically and politically founded racial theory was introduced into black churches in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. The demand for a black theology with a black Christ in its centre has been made and, just as much as a theologically and ideologically founded racial theory on the part of whites, aggravated the specifically Christian task of racial integration within the church.

The promise of late 20th-century liberation theologies such as black theology and feminist theology is that of expanding awareness of the history and praxis of Christianity beyond the history of doctrines, the ideas of the elite, and the institutions that convey these ideas. Such reflection—which arises out of lived situations—reveals roles of the poor, the oppressed, and women that have too often been ignored and suppressed. These new orientations serve the church and the world not only by recalling hitherto unnoticed aspects of the past but also by strengthening peoples’ awareness of their own causes.


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and family
The Christian understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family has been strongly influenced by the Old Testament view of marriage as an institution primarily concerned with the establishment of a family, rather than sustaining the individual happiness of the marriage partners. In spite of this, a transformation occurred from the early days of Christianity. This transformation is evident in the New Testament departure from the Hellenistic understanding of love. The classical understanding of love, expressed in the Platonic concept of eros, was opposed in the Christian community by the biblical understanding of love, agape. Although erotic love has frequently been understood primarily as sexual desire and passion, its classical religious and philosophical meaning was the idealistic desire to acquire the highest spiritual and intellectual good. The early Christian perception of eros as the most sublime form of egocentricity and self-assertion, the drive to acquire the divine itself, is reflected in the fact that the Greek New Testament does not use the word erōs but rather the relatively rare word agapē. Agapē was translated into Latin as caritas and thus appears in English as “charity” and “love.” The Christian concept of love understood human mutuality and reciprocity within the context of God’s self-giving love, which creates value in the person loved. “We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:19–21). Love is presented as the greatest of the virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13) as well as a commandment. The Christian community understood faith active in love primarily in terms of voluntary obedience rather than emotion and applied this understanding to every aspect of life, including sexuality, marriage, and family.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and family » The tendency to spiritualize and individualize marriage
Christianity has contributed to a spiritualization of marriage and family life, to a deepening of the relations between marriage partners and between parents and children. During the first decades of the church, congregational meetings took place in the homes of Christian families. The family, indeed, became the archetype of the church. Paul called the members of his congregation in Ephesus “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). In the early church, children were included in this fellowship. They were baptized when their parents were baptized, took part in the worship life of the congregation, and received Holy Communion with their parents. The Eastern Orthodox Church still practices as part of the eucharistic rite Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

In the early church the Christian foundation of marriage—in the participation of Christians in the body of Christ—postulated a generous interpretation of the fellowship between a Christian and a pagan marriage partner: the pagan one is saved with the Christian one “for the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband”; even the children from such a marriage in which at least one partner belongs to the body of Christ “are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). If the pagan partner, however, does not want to sustain the marriage relationship with a Christian partner under any circumstances, the Christian partner should grant the spouse a divorce.

Jesus himself based his parables of the Kingdom of God on the idea of love between a bride and groom and frequently used parables that describe the messianic meal as a wedding feast. In Revelation the glorious finale of salvation history is depicted as the wedding of the Lamb with the bride, as the beginning of the meal of the chosen ones with the Messiah–Son of Man (Revelation 19:9: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”). The wedding character of the eucharistic meal is also expressed in the liturgy of the early church. It is deepened through the specifically Christian belief that understands the word of the creation story in Genesis “and they become one flesh” as indicative of the oneness of Christ, the head, with the congregation as his body. With this in mind the Christian demand of monogamy becomes understandable.

Christianity did not bring revolutionary social change to the position of women, but it made possible a new position in the family and congregation. In the ancient Mediterranean world, women were often held in low esteem, and this was the basis for divorce practices that put women practically at men’s complete disposal. By preaching to women and prohibiting divorce, Jesus himself did away with this low estimation of women. The decisive turning point came in connection with the understanding of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. In fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28—according to Peter in his sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:17)—the Holy Spirit was poured out over the female disciples of Jesus, as well.

This created a complete change in the position of women in the congregation: in the synagogue the women were inactive participants in the worship service and sat veiled on the women’s side, usually separated from the rest by an opaque lattice. In the Christian congregation, however, women appeared as members with full rights, who used their charismatic gifts within the congregation. In the letters of Paul, women are mentioned as Christians of full value. Paul addresses Prisca (Priscilla) in Romans 16:3 as his fellow worker. The four daughters of Philip were active as prophets in the congregation. Pagan critics of the church, such as Porphyry (c. 234–c. 305), maintained that the church was ruled by women. During the periods of Christian persecution, women as well as men showed great courage in their suffering. The fact that they were honoured as martyrs demonstrates their well-known active roles in the congregations.

The attitude toward women in the early church, however, was ambivalent at best. Paul, on the one hand, included women in his instruction, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19), but, on the other hand, carried over the rule of the synagogue into the Christian congregation that “women should keep silence in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34). Although women were respected for their piety and could hold the office of deaconess, they were excluded from the priesthood. In the early 21st century the Roman Catholic Church still refused to ordain women as priests.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and family » The tendency toward asceticism
The proponents of an ascetic theology demanded exclusiveness of devotion by faithful Christians to Christ and deduced from it the demand of celibacy. This is found in arguments for the monastic life and in the Roman Catholic view of the priesthood. The radical-ascetic interpretation stands in constant tension with the positive understanding of Christian marriage. This tension has led to seemingly unsolvable conflicts and to numerous compromises in the history of Christianity.

In the light of the beginning Kingdom of God, marriage was understood as an order of the passing eon, which would not exist in the approaching new age. The risen ones will “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). Similarly, Paul understood marriage in the light of the coming Kingdom of God: “The appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none…for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29–31). In view of the proximity of the Kingdom of God, it was considered not worthwhile to marry; and marriage was seen to involve unnecessary troubles: “I want you to be free from anxieties” (1 Corinthians 7:32). Therefore, the unmarried, the widowers, and widows “do better” if they do not marry, if they remain single. But according to this point of view marriage was recommended to those who “cannot exercise self-control…for it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9). With the waning of the eschatological expectation that formed the original context for the Pauline views on marriage, his writings were interpreted ascetically. While these texts have been used alone in the course of church history, however, they do not stand alone in the New Testament, which also portrays marriage feasts as joyous occasions and sexual intercourse between spouses as good and holy (Ephesians 5:25–33).

By the 3rd century various Gnostic groups and the Manichaeans (members of an Iranian dualistic religion) had come to reject sex. At the council of Elvira, in 300–303 or 309, the first decrees establishing clerical celibacy were pronounced, and in the 3rd and 4th centuries prominent Christians such as Anthony, Ambrose, and Jerome adopted chastity. The celibate lifestyle came to be regarded as a purer and more spiritual way of life. Gradually, celibacy came to be expected not only of ascetics and monks but also for all members of the clergy, as a function of their office.

The Reformation rejected clerical celibacy because it contravened the divine order of marriage and the family, and denied the goodness of sexuality. Luther viewed marriage as not merely the legitimation of sexual fulfillment but as above all the context for creating a new awareness of human community through the mutuality and companionship of spouses and family. The demand that priests observe celibacy was not fully accepted in the East. The early church, and following it the Eastern Orthodox Church, decided on a compromise at the Council of Nicaea (325): the lower clergy, including the archimandrite, would be allowed to enter matrimony before receiving the higher degrees of ordination; of the higher clergy—i.e., bishops—celibacy would be demanded. This solution has saved the Eastern Orthodox from a permanent fight for the demand of celibacy for all clergymen, but it has resulted in a grave separation of the clergy into a white (celibate) and a black (married) clergy, which led to severe disagreements in times of crisis within Orthodoxy.

The early Christian community’s attitude to birth control was formed partly in reaction against sexual exploitation and infanticide and partly against the Gnostic denigration of the material world and consequent hostility to procreation. In upholding its faith in the goodness of creation, sexuality, marriage, and family, the early church was also influenced by the prevalent Stoic philosophy, which emphasized procreation as the rational purpose in marriage.

In the 20th century the question of birth control entered a new phase with the invention and mass distribution of mechanical contraceptive devices on the one hand and through the appearance of a new attitude toward sexual questions on the other. The various Christian churches responded to this development in different ways: with a few exceptions—e.g., the Mormons—the Protestant churches accepted birth control in terms of a Christian social ethic. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church, in the encyclical of Pius XI Casti Connubii (1930; “On Christian Marriage”) and in the encyclical of Paul VI Humanae Vitae (1968; “On Human Life”), completely rejected any kind of contraception, a position confirmed by Paul’s successors as pope in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Modern economic and population concerns in connection with improved medical care and social and technological progress have once again confronted the Christian community with the issue of contraception.


The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and the individual » Love as the basis for Christian ethics
The main commandment of the Christian ethic was derived from the Old Testament: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), but Jesus filled this commandment with a new, twofold meaning. First, he closely connected the commandment “love your neighbour” with the commandment to love God. In the dispute with the scribes described in Matthew, chapter 22, he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” He spoke of the commandment of love for neighbour, however, as being equal to it. With that he lifted it to the same level as the highest and greatest commandment, the commandment to love God. In The Gospel According to Luke, both commandments have grown together into one single pronouncement with the addition: “Do this, and you will live.” Second, the commandment received a new content in view of God and in view of the neighbour through the relationship of the believer with Christ. Love of God and love of the neighbour is possible because the Son proclaims the Gospel of the Father and brings to it reality and credibility through his life, death, and Resurrection. Based on this connection of the Christian commandment of love with the understanding of Christ’s person and work, the demand of love for the neighbour appears as a new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). The love for each other is supposed to characterize the disciples: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

This is based on an understanding and treatment of human beings as created in the image of God. Furthermore, the ethic does not deal with humanity in an abstract sense but with the actual neighbour. The Christian ethic understands the individual always as a neighbour in Christ.

The new element of the Christian ethic is the founding of the individual ethic in a corporate ethic, in the understanding of the fellowship of Christians as the body of Christ. The individual believer is not understood as a separate individual who has found a new spiritual and moral relationship with God but as a “living stone” (1 Peter 2:4), as a living cell in the body of Christ in which the powers of the Kingdom of God are already working.

Christian love leads to the peculiar exchange of gifts and suffering, of exaltation and humiliations, of defeat and victory; the individual is able through personal sacrifice and suffering to contribute to the development of the whole. All forms of ecclesiastical, political, and social communities of Christianity are founded on this basic idea of the fellowship of believers as the body of Christ. It also has influenced numerous secularized forms of Christian society, even among those that have forgotten or denied their Christian origins.

From the beginning, the commandment contains a certain tension concerning the answer to the question: Does it refer only to fellow Christians or to “all”? The practice of love of neighbour within the inner circle of the disciples was a conspicuous characteristic of the young church. In Christian congregations and, above all, in small fellowships and sects throughout the centuries, love of the neighbour was highly developed in terms of personal pastoral care, social welfare, and help in all situations of life.

The Christian commandment of love, however, has never been limited to fellow Christians. On the contrary, the Christian ethic crossed all social and religious barriers and saw a neighbour in every suffering human being. Characteristically, Jesus himself explicated his understanding of the commandment of love in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who followed the commandment of love and helped a person in need whom a priest and a Levite had chosen to ignore (Luke 10:29–37). A demand in the Letter of James, that the “royal law” of neighbourly love has to be fulfilled without “partiality” (James 2:9), points to its universal validity.

The universalism of the Christian command to love is most strongly expressed in its demand to love one’s enemies. Jesus himself emphasized this with these words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44–45). According to this understanding, love of the enemy is the immediate emission of God’s love, which includes God’s friends and God’s enemies.

The Christian community and the world » The relationships of Christianity » Church and the individual » Freedom and responsibility
The Reformation revitalized a personal sense of Christian responsibility by anchoring it in the free forgiveness of sins. Luther summarized this in “The Freedom of a Christian Man” (1520): “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The second sentence expressed the theme of Christian vocation developed by Luther and Calvin, which they applied to all Christians and to everyday responsibility for the neighbour and for the world. The Reformers emphasized that Christian service is not limited to a narrow religious sphere of life but extends to the everyday relationships of family, marriage, work, and politics.

Later Protestantism under the influence of Pietism and Romanticism restricted the social and communal orientation of the Reformers to a more individualistic orientation. This met, however, with an energetic counterattack from the circles of the Free churches (e.g., Baptists and Methodists) who supported the social task of Christian ethic (mainly through the Social Gospel of the American theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who attempted to change social institutions and bring about a Kingdom of God), which spread through the whole church, penetrating the area of Christian mission. Love rooted in faith played an important role in the 20th century in the struggle between Christianity and ideologies such as Fascism, Communism, and jingoistic nationalisms.

Ernst Wilhelm Benz
Carter H. Lindberg


The Christian community and the world » Christian missions
In the early 21st century, about one-third of the world’s people claimed the Christian faith. Christians thus constituted the world’s largest religious community and embraced remarkable diversity, with churches in every nation. Christianity’s demographic and dynamic centre had shifted from its Western base to Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific region, where more than half the world’s Christians lived. This trend steadily accelerated as the church declined in Europe. The global extent of Christianity represented a new phenomenon in the history of religions. This was the fruit of mission.


The Christian community and the world » Christian missions » Biblical foundations
The word mission (Latin: missio), as a translation of the Greek apostolē, “a sending,” appears only once in the English New Testament (Galatians 2:8). An apostle (apostolos) is one commissioned and sent to fulfill a special purpose. The roots of mission, Christians have believed, lie in God’s active outreach to humanity in history—as a call to those able to fulfill the divine purpose, among them Abraham, Moses, Jonah, and Paul. The New Testament designated Jesus as God’s apostle (Hebrews 3:1). Jesus’ prayer in The Gospel According to John includes the words “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.… [I pray also] for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:18, 20–21). Moreover, the “Great Commission” of Jesus declares: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20; compare Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47, John 20:21–22, and Acts 1:8).


The Christian community and the world » Ecumenism » The history of ecumenism
While unity is given in Christ, two diametric forces appear in the history of the church. One is the tendency toward sectarianism and division; the other is the conviction toward catholicity and unity. Ecumenism represents the struggle between them. Some of the schisms were theological conflicts foreshadowed in the apostolic church; others were internal quarrels related to liturgical differences, power politics between different patriarchates or church centres, problems of discipline and piety, or social and cultural conflicts. Nevertheless, according to the American historian John T. McNeill, “the history of the Christian Church from the first century to the 20th might be written in terms of its struggle to realize ecumenical unity.”

The Christian community and the world » Ecumenism » The history of ecumenism » Early controversies
A long and continuing trail of broken relations among Christians began in the 2nd century when the Gnostics presented a serious doctrinal error and broke fellowship. Quartodecimanism, a dispute over the date of Easter, pitted Christians from Asia Minor against those from Rome. Montanism—which taught a radical enthusiasm, the imminent Second Coming of Christ, and a severe perfection, including abstinence from marriage—split the church. The Novatians broke fellowship with Christians who offered sacrifices to pagan gods during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius in ad 250. In the early 4th century the Donatists, Christians in North Africa who prided themselves as the church of the martyrs, refused to share communion with those who had lapsed (i.e., who had denied the faith under threat of death during the great persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius). They remained a powerful force in Africa into the 5th century and survived into the 7th despite opposition from church and state. This schism—like many since—reflected regional, national, cultural, and economic differences between the poor, rural North African Christians and the sophisticated, urban Romans.

In each century leaders and churches sought to reconcile these divisions and to manifest the visible unity of Christ’s church. But in the 5th century a severe break in the unity of the church took place. The public issues were doctrinal consensus and heresy, yet in the midst of doctrinal controversy alienation was prompted by political, cultural, philosophical, and linguistic differences. Tensions increased as the church began to define the relationship between God the Father and God the Son and later the relation between the divine and human elements in the nature and person of Jesus Christ. The first four ecumenical councils—at Nicaea (ad 325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451)—defined the consensus to be taught and believed, articulating this faith in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition, which stated that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, true man, and true God, one person in “two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Two groups deviated doctrinally from the consensus developed in the councils. The Nestorians taught that there are two distinct persons in the incarnate Christ and two natures conjoined as one; Monophysites taught that there is one single nature, primarily divine. Several churches refused to accept the doctrinal and disciplinary decisions of Ephesus and Chalcedon and formed their own communities. These churches, called pre-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox, became great missionary churches and spread to Armenia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, Persia, and the Malabar coast of India in isolation from other churches.

The Christian community and the world » Ecumenism » The history of ecumenism » The schism of 1054
The greatest schism in church history occurred between the church of Constantinople and the church of Rome. While 1054 is the symbolic date of the separation, the agonizing division was six centuries in the making and the result of several different issues. The Eastern Church sharply disagreed when the Western Church introduced into the Nicene Creed the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from the Father alone—as earlier Church Fathers taught—but from the Father and the Son (Latin: Filioque). When the Roman Empire was divided into two zones, Latin-speaking Rome began to claim superiority over Greek-speaking Constantinople; disputes arose over church boundaries and control (for example, in Illyricum and Bulgaria). Rivalry developed in Slavic regions between Latin missionaries from the West and Byzantine missionaries from the East, who considered this territory to be Orthodox. Disputes over authority became even more heated in the 11th century as Rome asserted its primacy over all churches. Lesser matters related to worship and church discipline—for example, married clergy (Orthodox) versus celibacy (Roman Catholic) and rules of fasting and tonsure—strained ecclesial relations. The tensions became a schism in 1054, when the uncompromising patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and the uncompromising envoys of Pope Leo IX excommunicated each other. No act of separation was at this time considered final by either side. Total alienation came a century and a half later, as a result of the Crusades, when Christian knights made military campaigns to save Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade was diverted to attack and capture Constantinople brutally. Thousands of Orthodox Christians were murdered; churches and icons were desecrated and undying hostility developed between East and West.

Even so, certain leaders and theologians on both sides tried to heal the breach and reunite East and West. In 1274, at the second Council of Lyon, agreement was reached between the two churches over several key issues—Orthodox acceptance of papal primacy and the acceptance of the Nicene Creed with the Filioque clause. But the agreements were only a rushed action conditioned by political intrigue. As a result, reunion on these terms was fiercely rejected by the clergy and laity in Constantinople and other Orthodox provinces. A second attempt at reunion came at the Council of Ferrara-Florence that met in Italy in 1438 and 1439. A formula of union was approved by both delegations, but later it was rejected by rank-and-file Orthodox Christians.

The Christian community and the world » Ecumenism » The history of ecumenism » The Reformation
The next dramatic church division took place during the Reformation in the West in the 16th century. Like other schisms, this one does not yield to simple analysis or explanation. The Reformation was a mixture of theology, ecclesiology, politics, and nationalism, all of which led to breaks in fellowship and created institutional alienation between Christians throughout Western Christendom. In one sense it was a separation, especially a reaction against the rigid juridical structures of medieval Roman Catholicism and its claim to universal truth and jurisdiction. In another sense, however, the Reformation was an evangelical and ecumenical renewal of the church as the Body of Christ, an attempt to return to the apostolic and patristic sources in order, according to Calvin, “to recover the face of the ancient Catholic Church.” All the continental Reformers sought to preserve and reclaim the unity of the church.

Once the separation between the Roman Catholic and new Protestant churches was complete, people on both sides tried to restore unity. Roman Catholics such as Georg Witzel and George Cassander developed proposals for unity, which all parties rejected. Martin Bucer, celebrated promoter of church unity among the 16th-century leaders, brought Martin Luther and his colleague Philipp Melanchthon into dialogue with the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli at Marburg, Germany, in 1529. In 1541 John Calvin (who never ceased to view the church in its catholicity), Bucer, and Melanchthon met with Cardinal Gasparo Contarini and other Roman Catholics at Ratisbon (now Regensburg, Germany) to reconcile their differences on justification by faith, the Lord’s Supper, and the papacy. Another attempt was made in 1559, when Melanchthon and Patriarch Joasaph II of Constantinople corresponded, with the intention of using the Augsburg Confession as the basis of dialogue between Lutheran and Orthodox Christians. On the eve of the French wars of religions (1561), Roman Catholics and Protestants conferred without success in the Colloquy of Poissy. It would seem that the ecumenical projects of theologians and princes in 16th-century Europe failed unequivocally, but they kept alive the vision and the hope.

The Christian community and the world » Ecumenism » The history of ecumenism » Ecumenism in the 17th and 18th centuries
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries storms of contention and division continued to plague the churches of Europe. During these two centuries there was an eclipse of official, church-to-church attempts at unity. Instead, ecumenical witness was made by individuals who courageously spoke and acted against all odds to propose Christian unity.

In England, John Dury, a Scots Presbyterian and (later) an Anglican minister, “a peacemaker without partiality,” traveled more extensively than any other ecumenist before the 19th century. He negotiated for church unity in his own country and in Sweden, Holland, France, Switzerland, and Germany. Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian Puritan, developed proposals for union, including his Worcestershire Association, a local ecumenical venture uniting Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans.

Efforts were undertaken in Germany and Central Europe as well. The German Lutheran George Calixtus called for a united church between Lutherans and Reformed based on the “simplified dogmas,” such as the Apostles’ Creed and the agreements of the church in the first five centuries. Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf applied his Moravian piety to the practical ways that unity might come to Christians of all persuasions. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz worked tirelessly for union between Protestants and Roman Catholics, writing an apologia interpreting Roman Catholic doctrines for Protestants. John Amos Comenius, a Czech Brethren educator and advocate of union, produced a plan of union for Protestants based upon the adoption of a scriptural basis for all doctrine and polity and the integration of all human culture.

Orthodox Christians also participated in the search for union. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox theologian Aleksey S. Khomyakov expressed enthusiasm for ecumenism. Cyrillus Lukaris, Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria and later of Constantinople, took initiatives to reconcile a divided Christendom. People throughout Europe held tenaciously to the dream of ecumenism, although no attempt at union was successful.

The Christian community and the world » Ecumenism » The history of ecumenism » 19th-century efforts
A worldwide movement of evangelical fervour and renewal, noted for its emphasis on personal conversion and missionary expansion, stirred new impulses for Christian unity in the 19th century. The rise of missionary societies and volunteer movements in Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, and the United States expressed a zeal that fed the need for church unity. Enduring the harmful results of Christian divisions in different countries, Protestant missionaries in India, Japan, China, Africa, Latin America, and the United States began to cooperate.

In 1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society, an interdenominational Protestant organization, came into existence to translate the Scriptures into the world’s vernaculars and distribute the translations throughout the world. This was followed, 40 years later, by the founding of two important Christian organizations in England: the Young Men’s Christian Association (1844) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (1855). Their international bodies, the World Alliance of YMCAs and the World YWCA, were established in 1855 and 1894, respectively. The Evangelical Alliance, possibly the most significant agent of Christian unity in the 19th century, held a unique place among the volunteer associations of the age. Founded in London in 1846 (the American section was established in 1867), the alliance sought to draw individual Christians into fellowship and cooperation in prayer for unity, Christian education, the struggle for human rights, and mission.

Also pivotal in the 19th century were advocates for the visible unity of the church. In the United States, where the most articulate 19th-century unity movements were heard, the witness to the unity and union was led by three traditions. The Lutherans Samuel Simon Schmucker and Philip Schaff pleaded for “catholic union on apostolic principles.” Among Episcopalians, the visionaries for unity included Thomas Hubbard Vail, William Augustus Muhlenberg, and William Reed Huntington, who proposed the historic “Quadrilateral” of the Scriptures, the creeds, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and episcopacy as the keystone of unity. Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander, and Barton Warren Stone, members of the church of the Disciples of Christ, taught that “the Church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one.” Ecumenism was enflamed in the hearts of 19th-century Christians and in the next century shaped the churches as never before.

The Christian community and the world » Ecumenism » The history of ecumenism » Ecumenism since the start of the 20th century
The 20th century experienced a flowering of ecumenism. Four different strands—the international Christian movement, cooperation in world mission, Life and Work, and Faith and Order—developed in the early decades and, though distinctive in their emphases, later converged to form one ecumenical movement.

The modern ecumenical era began with a worldwide movement of Christian students, who formed national movements in Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, and Asia. In 1895 the World Student Christian Federation, the vision of American Methodist John R. Mott, was established “to lead students to accept the Christian faith” and to pioneer in Christian unity. The World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh (1910) inaugurated another aspect of ecumenism by dramatizing the necessity of unity and international cooperation in fulfilling the world mission of the church. In 1921 the International Missionary Council (IMC) emerged, bringing together missionary agencies of the West and of the new Christian councils in Asia, Africa, and Latin America for joint consultation, planning, and theological reflection. The Life and Work movement was pledged to practical Christianity and common action by focusing the Christian conscience on international relations and social, industrial, and economic problems. Nathan Söderblom, Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala, inspired world conferences on Life and Work at Stockholm (1925) and Oxford (1937). The Faith and Order movement, which originated in the United States, confronted the doctrinal divisions and sought to overcome them. Charles H. Brent, an Episcopal missionary bishop in the Philippines, was chiefly responsible for this movement, although Peter Ainslie, of the Disciples of Christ, shared the same vision and gave significant leadership. World conferences on Faith and Order at Lausanne (Switzerland; 1925), Edinburgh (1937), Lund (Sweden; 1952), and Montreal (1963) guided the process of theological consensus building among Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, which led to approval by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches of the historic convergence text Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982).

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a privileged instrument of the ecumenical movement. Constituted at Amsterdam in 1948, the conciliar body includes more than 300 churches—Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox—which “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Its general secretaries have been among the architects of modern ecumenism: Willem Adolph Visser ’t Hooft (The Netherlands), Eugene Carson Blake (United States), Philip Potter (Dominica), Emilio Castro (Uruguay), Konrad Raiser (Germany), and Samuel Kobia (Kenya). The witness and programs of the WCC include faith and order, mission and evangelism, refugee and relief work, interfaith dialogue, justice and peace, theological education, and solidarity with women and the poor. What distinguishes the WCC constituency is the forceful involvement of Orthodox churches and churches from the developing world. Through their active presence the WCC, and the wider ecumenical movement, has become a genuinely international community.

Roman Catholic ecumenism received definitions and momentum at the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II; 1962–65), under the ministries of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, and through the ecumenical diplomacy of Augustin Cardinal Bea, the first president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. The church gave the ecumenical movement new hope and language in the “Decree on Ecumenism” (1964), one of the classic ecumenical teaching documents. Another result of Vatican II was the establishment of a wide variety of international theological dialogues, commonly known as bilateral conversations. These included Roman Catholic bilaterals with Lutherans (1965), Orthodox (1967), Anglicans (1967), Methodists (1967), Reformed (1970), and the Disciples of Christ (1977). Topics identified for reconciling discussions include baptism, the Eucharist, episcopacy and papacy, authority in the church, and mixed marriage.

Critical to modern ecumenism is the birth of united churches, which have reconciled formerly divided churches in a given place. In Asia and Africa the first united churches were organized in China (1927), Thailand (1934), Japan (1941), and the Philippines (1944). The most heralded examples of this ecumenism are the United Church of Canada (1925), the Church of South India (1947), and the Church of North India (1970). Statistics of other united churches are revealing. Between 1948 and 1965, 23 churches were formed. In the period from 1965 to 1970, unions involving two or more churches occurred in the West Indies (in Jamaica and Grand Cayman), Ecuador, Zambia, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Pakistan, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Belgium. Strategic union conversations were undertaken in the United States by the nine-church Consultation on Church Union (1960) and by such uniting churches as the United Church of Christ (1957), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1983), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1988).

Spiritual disciplines play a key role in ecumenism, a movement steeped in prayer for unity. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, celebrated every year (January 18–25), Christians from many traditions engage in prayer, Bible study, worship, and fellowship in anticipation of the unity that Christ wills.

Paul A. Crow, Jr.


The Christian community and the world » Christianity and world religions
The global spread of Christianity through the activity of European and American churches in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries has brought it into contact with all other existing religions. Meanwhile, since the beginning of the 19th century, the close connection between Christian world missions and political, economic, technical, and cultural expansion has, at the same time, been loosened.

After World War II, the former mission churches were transformed into independent churches in the newly autonomous Asian and African states. The concern for a responsible cooperation of the members of Christian minority churches and its non-Christian fellow citizens became the more urgent with a renaissance of the Asian higher religions in numerous Asian states.

Missionaries of Asian world religions have moved into Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Numerous Vedanta centres have been established to introduce Hindu teachings within the framework of the Ramakrishna and Vivekananda missions. In 1965, the Hare Krishna movement was founded in the United States, attracting followers to its version of Vaishnava Hinduism. South Asian Theravada (Way of the Elders) Buddhism and the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism of Japan (mainly Zen Buddhism, an intuitive-meditative sect) began world missionary activities under the influence of a Buddhist renaissance. This influence has penetrated Europe and North America not so much in the form of a directly organized mission as in the form of a spontaneously received flow of religious ideas and methods of meditation through literature, philosophy, psychology, and psychotherapy. As a result, Christianity in the latter part of the 20th century found itself forced to enter into a factual discussion with non-Christian religions.

There has also been a general transformation of religious consciousness in the West since the middle of the 19th century. Until about 1900, knowledge of non-Christian world religions was still the privilege of a few specialists. During the 20th century, however, a wide range of people studied translations of source materials from the non-Christian religions. The dissemination of the religious art of India and East Asia through touring exhibitions and the prominence of the Dalai Lama as a political and religious figure have created a new attitude toward the other religions in the broad public of Europe and North America. In recognition of this fact, numerous Christian institutions for the study of non-Christian religions have been founded: e.g., in Bangalore, India; in Rangoon, Burma; in Bangkok, Thailand; in Kyōto, Japan; and in Hong Kong, China.

The readiness of encounter or even cooperation of Christianity with non-Christian religions is a phenomenon of modern times. Until the 18th century, Christians showed little inclination to engage in a serious study of other religions. Even though contacts with Islam had existed since its founding, the first translation of the Qurʾan (the Islamic scriptures) was issued only in 1141 in Toledo by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. Four hundred years later, in 1542/43, Theodor Bibliander, a theologian and successor of the Swiss Reformer Zwingli, edited the translation of the Qurʾan by Peter the Venerable. He was subsequently arrested, and he and his publisher could be freed only through the intervention of Luther.

Christian exposure to Asian religions also was delayed. Although the name Buddha is mentioned for the first time in Christian literature—and there only once—by Clement of Alexandria about ad 200, it did not appear again for some 1,300 years. Pali, the language of the Buddhist canon, remained unknown in the West until the early 19th century, when the modern Western study of Buddhism began.

The reasons for such reticence toward contact with foreign religions were twofold: (1) The ancient church was significantly influenced by the Jewish attitude toward contemporary pagan religions. Like Judaism, it viewed the pagan gods as “nothings” next to the true God; they were offsprings of human error that were considered to be identical with the wooden, stone, or bronze images that were made by humans. (2) Besides this, there was the tendency to identify the pagan gods as evil demonic forces engaged in combat with the true God. The conclusion of the history of salvation, according to the Christian understanding, was to be a final struggle between Christ and his church on one side and Antichrist and his minions on the other, culminating with the victory of Christ.


The Christian community and the world » Christianity and world religions » Conflicting Christian attitudes
The history of religion, however, continued even after Christ. During the 3rd and 4th centuries, a new world religion appeared in the form of Manichaeanism, which asserted itself as a superior form of Christianity with a new universal claim of validity. The Christian Church never acknowledged the claims of Manichaeanism but considered the religion a Christian heresy and opposed it as such.

Christianity faced greater challenges when it encountered Islam and the religions of East Asia. When Islam was founded in the 7th century, it considered the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad to be superior to those of the Old and New Testaments. Christianity also fought Islam as a Christian heresy and saw it as the fulfillment of the eschatological prophecies of the Apocalypse concerning the coming of the “false prophet” (Revelation to John). The religious and political competition between Christianity and Islam led to the Crusades, which influenced the self-consciousness of Western Christianity in the Middle Ages and later centuries. In China and Japan, however, missionaries saw themselves forced into an argument with indigenous religions that could be carried on only with intellectual weapons. The old Logos theory prevailed in a new form founded on natural law, particularly among the Jesuit theologians who worked at the Chinese emperor’s court in Peking (now Beijing). The Jesuits also sought to adapt indigenous religious traditions to Christian rituals but were forbidden from doing so by the pope during the Chinese Rites Controversy.

Philosophical and cultural developments during the Enlightenment brought changes in the understanding of Christianity and other world religions. During the Enlightenment, the existence of the plurality of world religions was recognized by the educated in Europe, partly—as in the case of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—in immediate connection with the theories of natural law of the Jesuit missionaries in China. Only in the philosophy of the Enlightenment was the demand of tolerance, which thus far in Christian Europe had been applied solely to the followers of another Christian denomination, extended to include the followers of different religions.

Some missionaries of the late 18th and the 19th centuries, however, ignored this knowledge or consciously fought against it. Simple lay Christianity of revivalist congregations demanded that a missionary denounce all pagan “idolatry.” The spiritual and intellectual argument with non-Christian world religions simply did not exist for this simplified theology, and in this view a real encounter of Christianity with world religions did not, on the whole, occur in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ernst Wilhelm Benz
John Hick


The Christian community and the world » Christianity and world religions » Modern views
The 20th century experienced an explosion of publicly available information concerning the wider religious life of humanity, as a result of which the older Western assumption of the manifest superiority of Christianity ceased to be plausible for many Christians. Early 20th-century thinkers such as Rudolf Otto, who saw religion throughout the world as a response to the Holy, and Ernst Troeltsch, who showed that, socioculturally, Christianity is one of a number of comparable traditions, opened up new ways of regarding the other major religions.

During the 20th century, most Christians adopted one of three main points of view. According to exclusivism, there is salvation only for Christians. This theology underlay much of the history outlined above, expressed both in the Roman Catholic dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church no salvation”) and in the assumption of the 18th- and 19th-century Protestant missionary movements. The exclusivist outlook was eroded within advanced Roman Catholic thinking in the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council and was finally abandoned in the council’s pronouncements. Pope John Paul II’s outreach to the world’s religions may be seen as the practical application of the decisions of Vatican II. Within Protestant Christianity there is no comparable central authority, but most Protestant theologians, except within the extreme Fundamentalist constituencies, have also moved away from the exclusivist position.

In the 20th century many Roman Catholics and Protestants moved toward inclusivism, the view that, although salvation is by definition Christian, brought about by the atoning work of Christ, it is nevertheless available in principle to all human beings, whether Christian or not. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner expressed the inclusivist view by saying that good and devout people of other faiths may, even without knowing it, be regarded as “anonymous Christians.” Others have expressed in different ways the thought that non-Christians also are included within the universal scope of Christ’s salvific work and their religions fulfilled in Christianity.

The third position, which appealed to a number of individual theologians, was pluralism. According to this view, the great world faiths, including Christianity, are valid spheres of a salvation that takes characteristically different forms within each—though consisting in each case in the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to a new orientation toward the Divine Reality. The other religions are not secondary contexts of Christian redemption but independent paths of salvation. The pluralist position is controversial in Christian theology, because it affects the ways in which the doctrines of the person of Christ, atonement, and the Trinity are formulated.

Christians engage in dialogue with the other major religions through the World Council of Churches’ organization on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies and through the Vatican’s Secretariat for Non-Christians, as well as through a variety of extra-ecclesiastical associations, such as the World Congress of Faiths. A multitude of interreligious encounters have taken place throughout the world, many initiated by Christian and others by non-Christian individuals and groups.

John Hick

 

 

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