The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz. There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content). John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website. A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935. These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity. For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).
CHAPTER SIX: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY
During the first thousand years of the Common Era, the Christian church was one church. In the year 1054, there was a schism or separation, which divided the church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Five centuries later, a German monk named Martin Luther posted his famous “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, igniting the Protestant Reformation and splitting the Western church into Catholic and Protestant. In the years following the Reformation, first Catholic and then Protestant missionaries took the gospel to India, sub-Saharan Africa, the New World and the Far East.
The Patristic Period
The four centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus are called the Patristic Period— the period of the early church fathers— which ended in the fifth century when the Visigoths invaded and sacked Rome. This is the period of the formation of the church by the apostles and their successors; the collection of Christian writings and the church’s agreement on the books to be included in the New Testament canon; the “conversion” of Emperor Constantine in 312 and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380; and the councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451), which hammered out the basic beliefs of Christianity.
The most important church father was Augustine (354-430), who grew up in North Africa and was converted in a garden in Milan in the year 386 while reading a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:13-14). In 387, Augustine became the bishop of Hippo, the modern city of Annaba in Algeria. Augustine’s writings shaped the theology of the church regarding the doctrine of original sin, based on Paul’s letter to the Romans (5:12-14); God’s free, unmerited gift of grace, which had come to Augustine, as it had to Paul; the equality of the “persons” in the Trinity; and the church as the channel of God’s grace. Next to Paul, Augustine did more to shape the thinking and theology of the church than any other person.
The Middle Ages
The Roman Empire lasted for more than twelve hundred years— from the founding of Rome in 753 B.C. to its fall in A.D. 476. During the first centuries of the Christian (or Common) Era, Rome ruled all the lands bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. At the height of Rome’s power, under Emperor Trajan (who reigned from 98 to 117), the empire’s borders embraced some 2 million square miles and had an estimated population of 50 million people, only a small minority of whom, however, were Roman citizens. In the year 410, the Visigoths entered and sacked the city of Rome and then left. Rome finally fell in the year 476. The fall of Rome was the fall of the Western Empire; the Eastern or Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (the “City of Constantine”), continued for another thousand years, falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The reasons for the fall of Rome include weak leadership, moral decay and Rome’s inability to finance and maintain an army sufficient to protect itself from aggressive, warring neighbors. Some call the thousand or so years after the fall of Rome the Dark Ages, but a great deal was going on, especially in the church.
Rome and the Papacy. The church in Rome was the most important church in Christendom: it was situated in the ancient capital of the empire; it had the largest congregation of Christians; and its roots went back to Peter and Paul, whose martyred remains were buried there. (It is said that Peter’s bones lie beneath the altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica.) When Rome fell, the Roman church became the dominant institution in Europe. It claimed that Peter, the chief of the apostles (Matthew 16:18), had passed on to subsequent bishops of Rome his authority as Christ’s vicar or representative on earth, which gave the bishop of Rome authority over all other bishops. In the fifth century, the bishop of Rome began to be called the pope, from the Latin papa, meaning “father.”
The Catholic-Orthodox Schism. The schism (or division) between the Western church in Rome and the Eastern church in Constantinople occurred in 1054. The Western and Eastern churches were separated by distance (one thousand miles), by language (the West spoke Latin and the East spoke Greek) and by authorities (the West followed the pope and the East followed the ecumenical, church-wide councils). In addition, the Eastern church venerated icons— paintings of Jesus, Mary and the saints that were used for teaching and devotions— which the West viewed as “graven images”; it used unleavened bread for the Eucharist; and its clergy could marry (before ordination but not after). In the year 1054, Pope Leo IX excommunicated Cerularius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for overstepping his authority. Cerularius returned the favor, and the church split into Roman Catholic, meaning allegiance to Rome and the church as catholic or universal, and Orthodox, meaning true or correct belief.
The Crusades (1095-1291). The Crusades were a series of major and minor military campaigns to expel the Muslims from the Holy Land, which had been under Muslim control since 638. Pope Urban II launched the first crusade in 1095, promising a total pardon for past sins to those who responded. The first crusade was the most successful, recapturing Jerusalem in 1099, only to lose it again in 1187. The other crusades were not successful— in fact, many ended in dishonor as the crusaders turned their attention from recapturing the holy places of Christendom to pillaging and rape.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas grew up in Aquino, near Naples, Italy. A brilliant, deeply religious man, Aquinas entered the Dominican order in 1244, to the great displeasure of his noble family, and became the greatest philosopher and theologian of the Catholic Church. (In 1880, Pope Leo XIII made Aquinas the patron saint of all Catholic schools and universities.) Aquinas attempted to construct a synthesis between biblical theology (faith) and natural theology (reason), believing that it was possible, through the use of reason, to come to the knowledge of God. One example was his five “proofs” of the existence of God: movement, causation, perfection, contingency and design.
Monasticism. One response to the church’s institutionalization was monasticism, a way of showing one’s devotion to Jesus by living a life of prayer, study, meditation, fasting and also celibacy, which the Second Lateran Council in 1139 declared to be the rule or norm for priests and others called to the religious life. Communal monasticism began in Egypt in the 300s. It blossomed in the West under Benedict of Nursia (Italy), the “father” of Western monasticism, whose rules— The Rule of Saint Benedict—regarding community life, prayer, study and daily manual labor set the pattern for monks to this day. (Monk comes from the Latin monachos, meaning “one who lives alone.”)
The Protestant Reformation
The Reformation— the effort to “reform” the church— split the Western church into Catholic and Protestant. The reformers “protested” against many aspects of the church: the papal system, which concentrated power in the pope and the curia (the agencies used to administer the church); the immorality and corruption of the clergy, some of whom used their positions for personal gain; the church’s oppression, the most violent form being the Spanish Inquisition; and abuses relating to the church’s sale of indulgences to finance the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (Indulgences were written “pardons” thought to shorten one’s time in purgatory— in Catholicism, the place where souls are purified of unforgiven venial sins so they may enter heaven.) Another factor in the Reformation was a growth in nationalism that challenged the dominance of Rome; this challenge was led by princes in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and monarchs such as Henry VIII of England.
Martin Luther (1483-1546). The event that formally ignited the Reformation occurred when Martin Luther, a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, posted his famous Ninety-five Theses Against Indulgences on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. Luther’s theses, which were printed and circulated throughout Germany, were an invitation to the church to discuss abuses relating to the “sale” of indulgences. Luther believed in the forgiveness of sins by and through Christ, which required no payments to the church. Luther was asked to renounce his views. He refused and was charged with heresy and excommunicated (denied the church’s sacraments). Luther’s teachings stressed the sole sufficiency of God’s grace; faith as the only means for its reception; Scripture as the sole norm for faith and life; and Christ as the world’s only Savior— summarized as “grace alone, faith alone, the Word alone, and Christ alone.”
John Calvin (1509-1564). The other giant figure of the Reformation was the Frenchman John Calvin, a second-generation reformer who was twenty-five years Luther’s junior. Calvin lived in French-speaking Geneva. His great contribution to the Reformation was the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic statement of Reformation theology. Calvin wrote, revised and expanded the Institutes four times over the years 1536-1559 (the first version was written when Calvin was only twenty-seven years old). During and after Calvin’s lifetime, Geneva became the center of the non-Germanic Protestant world.
Protestant-Catholic Differences. Some differences between Reformation thought and Roman Catholicism were as follows. First, Reformation theology was based on the Bible and the Bible alone (sola Scriptura); Catholic theology gave equal weight to the teachings of the church fathers. Second, the Reformers translated the Bible into the vernacular so that it could be read by the people; the Catholic Bible was Latin only and the church was its sole interpreter. Third, the Reformers taught that salvation was “by grace … through faith” (Ephesians 2:8); the Catholic Church held itself to be the exclusive channel by which salvation was made available, through the sacraments, to the people. Fourth, the Reformers believed in the “priesthood of all believers,” which eliminated divisions between the clergy and the laity. Fifth, the Reformers saw no scriptural basis for a priest to “dispense” God’s grace; they emphasized, instead, each person’s direct access to God through Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).
The Fourfold Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was not a single reformation but several reformations, which expressed themselves in different forms. Lutheranism was based on the teachings of Martin Luther. Calvinism, which was much more “Protestant” than Lutheranism, was based on the teachings of John Calvin, which differed from those of Luther regarding church polity, the Lord’s Supper and other matters. The English Reformation was more political than theological, at least at the outset. Henry VIII (who reigned from 1509 to 1547) wanted a male heir to his throne. His wife, Catherine of Aragon, was in her forties, and the prospects for a son were not promising, so in 1533 he divorced her. This was not allowed under Catholic canon law, and Henry was excommunicated. (Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, was the Holy Roman Emperor and an ally of the pope). In 1534, the British Parliament made the king the head of the Church of England.
The Radical Reformation went beyond Luther and Calvin. Its leaders wanted a simple, less liturgical form of worship and a congregational form of government. The Radical Reformers included the Puritans, who wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its Romanism; the Separatists, who separated from the Church of England and came to America, where they founded Congregational churches; the Baptists, who baptized by immersion after a believer’s public profession of faith; the Society of Friends, or Quakers, who declared that all should “quake” before the Word of God; and the Methodists, who believed that all should observe the “method of life” laid down in the Bible.
The Council of Trent. When the Reformation began to take root and spread, the Catholic Church was forced to meet it head-on and called the Council of Trent (in northern Italy), which met in three long sessions over the years 1545 to 1563. Trent reaffirmed Catholic doctrines challenged by the Reformers, increased papal authority over the church, and condemned and abolished certain abuses, including the sale of indulgences.
There have been four important periods of mission activity in the history of the church. The first occurred during the years between the death of Jesus and the conversion of Constantine (312), when Christianity was transformed from a small Palestinian sect into a community of believers representing perhaps 10 percent of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. The second took place in the first half of the Middle Ages with the Christianization of Europe. The third took place in the 1500s with the discovery of the Americas and the Far East. The fourth took place in the 1800s with missions into the interiors of India, Africa and China.
In the years following the Reformation, Catholicism won more converts outside Europe than it lost to Protestantism within Europe. There were two reasons for the Catholic Church’s success: first, the great naval powers, Spain and Portugal, were Catholic; second, the church had a trained “army’ of missionaries— Jesuits, Dominicans and others— who accompanied sea captains like Columbus on their overseas voyages.
The Catholic missionary movement began with Francis Xavier (1506-1552), a Spanish Jesuit who took the gospel to Goa, India, in the 1540s. The Protestant missionary movement began with William Carey (1761-1834), an English Baptist who took the gospel to Calcutta, India, in the early 1800s, and J. Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), who penetrated the interior of China in the late 1800s. At the end of the twentieth century, there were an estimated 2 billion Christians (33 percent of the world’s population). According to the Christian World Encyclopedia (2001), Christians are divided roughly 50-40-10 percent between Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, respectively.
The most significant development in Christianity in the last hundred years has been Pentecostalism, which originated in the United States in the early 1900s. According to church demographer David Barrett, Pentecostals and charismatics combined, in January 2000, numbered 524 million (25 percent of Christians worldwide). One reason for Pentecostalism’s exploding growth is the desire of many for a more experiential faith. Pentecostals (called such because the first sign of the Spirit came on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death) believe that speaking in tongues (other languages) is a sign of being “baptized in the Spirit.” Closely aligned with the Pentecostals are the charismatics, from a Greek word meaning “gifts,” who belong to mainline and other churches. They also emphasize the gifts of the Spirit, but are not insistent on speaking in tongues as the only evidence of the Spirit.