Visual History of the World

(CONTENTS)
 

 


HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION & CULTURE

From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Photography
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
Prehistory
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists

 




Christianity


 


A key piece of the Paleologan Mannerism - the Annunciation icon from Ohrid.



 


see also:


THE BIBLE

*

The Bible illustrations by



Julius von Carolsfeld "Das Buch der Bucher in Bildeb"


Gustave Dore


William Blak
e "The Book of Job"

 

 

 
 

 



Annunciation

 


The Annunciation, mural from Ubisi, Georgia

 


An Armenian miniature from the Roslin Gospels, 1287

 


German Altarpiece, 1518

 


Master of Heiligenkreuz, Annunciation, c. 1410

 


Master of Flemalle, Annunciation from the Mérode Altarpiece (1420s)

 


Orazio Gentileschi

 


Parmigianino

 


The history of
Christianity

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Part I



 

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

 

 

 

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