Michael J McClymond. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Christianity is the religion of those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and follow the way of life inaugurated by him. More than other major religions, Christianity centers on a person. Muslims do not claim the sort of relationship to Muhammad that Christians claim with Jesus, and the same holds true for Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, and most forms of Buddhism with regard to their respective founders. The New Testament refers to the community of believers as “the body of Christ,” which signifies an intimate bond between Jesus and the church.
Christianity inherited from its parent religion, Judaism, a monotheistic belief that there is only one true God, who is personal, the creator of all things, all-powerful, holy, loving, forgiving, and yet opposed to sin and evil. Christian monotheism, however, is fundamentally shaped by belief in Jesus. Christianity can be under-stood as a doctrine concerning Jesus, an experience of communion with Jesus, an ethic taught by Jesus, a community in relationship to Jesus, and a social institution emerging from the life and ministry of Jesus. Alongside the stress on Jesus is an experience of life in the Holy Spirit. From the earliest period Christians have worshiped God as Father, Son, and Spirit, and the doctrine of the Trinity encapsulates a distinctively Christian conception of God.
Christianity exists in a great variety of forms, and different Christian groups highlight different aspects. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christians all stress in varying fashion the need for correct doctrine, while mystics, saints, Pietists, evangelicals, and Pentecostals speak in divergent ways of an immediate experience of God. Other Christians underscore the ethical imperatives of the faith, and still others are primarily concerned with the life of the community, its institutional forms, traditions, and self-government. Because of its 2,000-year history and global extension, Christianity has become astonishingly complex, and a predominant characteristic throughout history, especially evident today, is its cultural diversity.
During the 1900s, the two world wars in Europe, the spread of communism, and the growth of secularism in Europe brought an effective end to the perceived link between Christianity and Western culture. Following World War II, there has been an astonishing expansion of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. China, with only a million Christians in 1949, today has somewhere between 50 and 100 million Christians, and about 10,000 new converts every day. In Africa during the 1900s, the Christian population mushroomed from 9 to 335 million Christians. In Latin America, Pentecostalism has overtaken Roman Catholicism as the dominant faith in many regions. During the last decade, millions of Dalits in India (formerly known as “untouchables”) have converted to Christianity. While the churches of Europe are losing members, and those of North America are statistically stagnant, the situation in the developing world is different. The intense prayer, evangelistic fervor, and openness to the miraculous that characterize the Pentecostal movement—now numbering 524 million adherents—could set the future direction for world Christianity. Today Korean, Brazilian, and Chinese missionaries are being sent out to evangelize Muslims, and some are going as missionaries to secular Europeans, a trend that Philip Jenkins has dubbed “the empire strikes back.”
Christianity arose out of a close and yet conflicted relationship with Judaism. In about 30 C.E. Roman authorities in Palestine, with the cooperation of Jewish leaders, executed Jesus on a charge of treason. Soon after, followers of Jesus reported having seen him alive. The earliest Christians had a deep sense of Jesus’ living presence among them; a confidence that he was “Lord,” in the sense of having triumphed over sin and death; and an expectation that he would soon return to reign on earth. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the “anointed one” sent to save Israel, and they found prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, renamed the Old Testament, pointing to Jesus.
Initially all of the central leaders of the Christian community, and probably the overriding number of followers as well, were Jews. Most regarded Christianity as a sect within Judaism rather than a separate religion. The New Testament highlights the leadership role of Simon, called Peter (the Rock) by Jesus, who seems to have been the acknowledged head of the original 12 apostles. James, called the “brother” of Jesus, guided the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem and adhered to Jewish traditions while maintaining faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Saul of Tarsus, renamed Paul, followed a different path, and he was so influential that some historians regard him as a second founder. Paul received an excellent Greek education as well as training in Jewish law, which, together with his burning sense of mission, made him a bridge between the Jewish and Gentile worlds. Paul claimed to have had a vision of the resurrected Jesus while he was engaged in persecuting Christians. In time Paul became known as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” and he undertook a monumental effort to establish new congregations of believers throughout the eastern part of the Mediterranean.
Paul’s general method was to go “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek [Gentile]” (Romans 1:16). Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and Paul went from synagogue to synagogue to preach about Jesus, causing consternation wherever he appeared. Paul was controversial not only because he proclaimed that Jesus was Savior but also because he taught that Gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jews. The New Testament shows that at first Paul’s opinion was not shared by most fellow Jews who believed in Jesus. The early church’s decision to admit Gentiles into the community without first making them Jews (Acts 15) set the future direction for Christianity as a multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic religion. If Paul’s position had not won out, Christianity might have kept its Hebrew and Jewish character.
In the first centuries of its existence, Christianity was a despised movement. Not only Jewish leaders but also Roman emperors and governors opposed it. When the emperor Nero wanted to blame someone for a fire in Rome in 64, he unjustly charged the Christians. Soon Christians were exposed to wild beasts in the Roman arenas, a punishment normally reserved for heinous criminals. Many of the earliest Christians were slaves, a status that did not win them favor with authorities. Christians were accused of immorality and cannibalism, the latter probably explained by the reference to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper as “the body and blood of Christ.” Moreover, Christians seemed to be political subversives when they confessed that “Jesus is Lord” and refused to acknowledge the divinity of the Roman rulers.
Despite persecution, the Christian movement spread. Congregations of believers, meeting in private homes, gathered for services that included the reading of scripture, a sermon, a prayer of thanksgiving, and a shared meal, with bread and wine representing the body and blood of Jesus (the Eucharist). A bishop carried responsibility for all congregations in a region. Those who departed from the essential beliefs and moral standards of the Christian communities were known as “heretics,” with their members, pastors, and bishops not recognized by the majority of Christians, known as “Catholics.” Controversial issues were debated and decided at local councils of bishops, while the first truly universal, or “ecumenical,” council occurred in 325.
The foundations of the medieval church were laid by the Roman emperor Constantine (reigned 307-37), who first made the Christian faith legal and then made it his own. In 392 Christianity became the official religion of the empire. The Roman Empire took the church under its protection, and the church in turn provided spiritual sanction and support for the rule of the Roman Caesars (as the emperors following Augustus Caesar were called). While some have seen the empire’s endorsement of the church as an immense blessing, others regard it as the cause of spiritual decline, the clergy’s domination over laypeople, and forcible means for propagating the faith. Nonetheless, when the emperor Constantine converted to the Christian faith, it was the beginning of an effort to create a Christian civilization that blended together the best of pagan Rome with the church’s traditions. In City of God, Augustine (354-430) distinguished between a “city of man,” based on material desires and needs, and a “city of God,” oriented toward eternal life. The book laid the foundation for the medieval idea of the church and state as two realms that are distinct and yet work in harmony.
During the Middle Ages the ideal of the Christian empire took two distinct forms: one in the eastern, Greek-speaking portion of the Mediterranean and the other in the western, Latin-speaking region. In 330 Constantine established a new capital in the city of Constantinople. Until its conquest by the Muslim Turks in 1453, Constantinople was the political and religious focus of the Eastern Christian, or Byzantine, civilization. Constantine and his successors saw themselves as the heirs of the pagan Caesars and yet also as spiritual leaders who had the right to involve themselves in the affairs of the church. While the Eastern emperors were not exactly popes, they had a degree of authority in the church that was unparalleled in the West. After the Islamic conquest of Constantinople (renamed Istanbul), the Russian rulers, or tsars, viewed themselves as the legitimate successors of the Byzantine rulers and helped to shape the Russian Orthodox Church.
Along with its differing conception of the Christian empire, Eastern Orthodoxy stressed the mystical or contemplative dimensions of the faith. The ideal life was given to theoria, or unceasing meditation on God, and was exemplified by holy men and women who went to the desert to purify themselves of worldly desires. Images of Christ, Mary, and the saints, known as icons, came to play a central role in devotional life. Orthodoxy held firmly to the decisions of the early Christian councils that convened in the empire’s eastern portion and was generally reluctant to add to or modify what had been decided. Indeed, Orthodoxy is known for its relative constancy during the past 1,500 years. Some Eastern Christians—including the Coptic Church in Egypt; the Nestorians, or Assyrians, in Iraq; and other “separated” groups—are not a part of Orthodoxy. Though they differ on certain doctrinal points, their practice of the Christian life has more in common with Orthodoxy than with the Latin West.
Orthodoxy resisted the claim that the bishop of Rome, or pope, was leader over the whole of Christianity and held instead that decisions should be made by a consensus of bishops. In the first three centuries, three important centers of Christianity, known as “apostolic sees,” emerged: Alexandria, in Egypt; Antioch, in Syria; and Rome. Constantinople and Jerusalem were later added, and some spoke of a “pentarchy” of five leading cities in the Christian world. Yet Rome followed an increasingly independent course. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor in Rome in 800, an emperor already reigned in Constantinople, and the stage was set for estrangement between Eastern and Western Christians. After a period of theological debate, the pope in 1054 issued a writ of excommunication declaring all Orthodox believers to be separated from the one true and catholic faith. Orthodoxy responded with its own excommunication against the Roman church. (The mutual excommunications were abolished only in 1965.) For Orthodox Christians the most appalling act by the Latin Christians occurred in 1204, when the armies of the Crusaders, at war with the Muslims, sacked and looted the Christian city of Constantinople.
In the Western, Latin-speaking empire, it was not the Christian emperor but rather the Roman bishop, or pope, who set the tone for the historical development of Christianity. Within a century after Constantine, the bishops of Rome referred to themselves as the pontifex maximus (supreme pontiff), a title that had belonged to the pagan Caesars. Because of the relative weakness of political authority in the Western empire, the popes could not avoid playing a political role. When Huns and Vandals threatened Italy in 452 and 455, for example, it was Pope Leo I who represented the city of Rome in negotiations. Rome’s prestige also grew from its association with the apostles Peter and Paul, who were both said to have died there.
As early as the second century, some Christian writers suggested that Rome might serve as a kind of supreme court for church disputes. There gradually emerged the idea of “Petrine primacy,” asserting that Peter and his successors in Rome, the popes, had authority over the whole of the church. In 1302 Pope Boniface VIII issued the statement Unam Sanctam (“One Holy”), declaring that it was necessary for salvation to submit to the pope. The process of defining the authority of the popes did not reach its culmination until 1870, however, when Pope Pius IX led the First Vatican Council, though with dissent among bishops, to state that the pope possesses infallibility when he makes an official declaration (ex cathedra) concerning the Catholic faith. The claims of Petrine primacy in the early church and of papal authority in the medieval and modern periods have played a role in the estrangement between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and they were decisive in the emergence of the Protestant Reformation during the 1500s. Certain Eastern churches known as Eastern Rite (also called Eastern Catholic or Uniate) recognized the primacy of Rome and yet retained their non-Latin liturgies. These include the Maronites of Lebanon and the Eastern Rite Catholics of Ukraine.
During the medieval period Christianity grew and flourished through the efforts of monks, nuns, and members of newly established religious orders. The original Christian monks, led by Anthony (251-356), went into the Egyptian desert to pray and lead simple and largely solitary lives. The colder climate of Europe forced monks there to erect buildings and engage in farming and craftwork to support themselves. In European monasticism, led by Benedict (c. 480-c. 545), male monks and female nuns served the needs of the communities around them. In their work of copying manuscripts, monks preserved both pagan and Christian traditions and so insured that civilization would continue through the Dark Ages of the 800s and 900s. Patrick (c. 390-c. 460), a missionary from Britain to Ireland, was influential in the westward spread of Christianity.
Nestorian Christians sent missionaries into Persia, India, and western China during the sixth and seventh centuries. The Chinese churches lasted for about two centuries, while the Nestorian churches of India have continued to the present time. In Europe missionary monks took the Christian gospel into new regions. Boniface (680-754) preached in Germany, Cyril and Methodius (mid-800s) went from Constantinople to the Slavs of eastern Europe, and Bede (c. 673-735) laid the foundation for scholarship in England. In the 800s Bulgarian leaders considered affiliation with Rome but were repelled by the insistence on papal authority, priestly celibacy, and Latin in worship, and Bulgaria thus turned toward Constantinople. Russian Orthodoxy, which began with the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 988, flourished in the region of Kiev until the invasion of the Mongols in 1240. It was almost three centuries before Russian Christians fully regained their political and religious independence and Moscow displaced Kiev as the Russian religious and cultural capital.
Many reformers of the Middle Ages, who called the church back to its ancient faith and fervor, arose from the ranks of the monks. They included Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226). The greatest of the medieval theologians were all associated with monastic or religious orders. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was head of a Benedictine community, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was a Dominican, and both Bonaventure (1217-74) and Duns Scotus (1266-1308) were Franciscans. Beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, universities were founded throughout Europe as centers for training in theology, medicine, law, and the liberal arts. In its Scholastic form theology played a unifying role as the “the queen of the sciences.” Though women’s roles were limited, the church’s literature was enriched by the writings of great women mystics, including Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Julian of Norwich (mid-1300s-early 1400s).
With Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Protestantism, the call for reform turned against monasticism and the papacy, even though Luther himself had been a monk. Prior to Luther, both John Wycliffe (c. 1330-84) in England and Jan Hus (1372/3-1415) in Bohemia had questioned the pope’s supreme authority, criticized the church for its wealth, and cast doubt on the doctrine of transubstantiation (that the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper literally become the body and blood of Jesus). Yet in Luther’s time these criticisms fell on fertile ground, and the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s allowed Luther to reach a larger reading public than would otherwise have been possible. Beginning with a dispute in 1517 over the sale of indulgences (written statements from the church declaring that “temporal penalties” for sin were removed), the controversy surrounding Luther came to focus on the issue of authority. The question was whether the word of the pope or the word of God contained in the Bible was final. Luther’s opponents asserted that the popes were the authorized interpreters of the Bible, while Luther asserted that he could not accept anything that seemed to contradict the Bible. Within the next generation Luther and his followers rejected the supreme authority of the pope, belief in purgatory, mandatory celibacy for priests, and prayer to Mary and the saints, and they asserted that salvation occurs purely through God’s grace, not human merit.
While Protestants agreed in rejecting the leadership of the popes, they differed over how much of Roman Catholicism to retain. Luther wanted to preserve much of Catholic tradition. He held to the written prayers, or liturgy, of the church (with a few changes), the baptism of infants, the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist (Communion, or Lord’s Supper), and the government of the church by bishops. The most radical of the new Protestants rejected all of these. The Anabaptists, so termed because of their practice of rebaptizing as adults those who had been baptized as infants, were opposed by Luther and suffered persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike. In Zurich, during the 1520s, some were drowned to death in a cruel parody of their practice of baptism by immersion. The Anabaptists, or Radical Reformers, wanted to return to the days before Constantine, when there was no state-supported church and when Christians gathered in private homes to listen to the Bible read aloud and to break bread together. They wanted a “voluntary church,” in which standards of membership would be high, with those who did not follow the Bible excluded. Although certain small groups of Radical Reformers used force against their opponents, many were pacifists. They were ready to die rather than take up arms against their persecutors. The Radical Reformers were early advocates for the separation of church and state.
The Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-64) was more radical than Luther but more traditional than the Anabaptists. Like the Anabaptists, Calvin held that the church must maintain high standards and exclude those who fell short. Unlike the Anabaptists, however, Calvin believed that the state had a role to play in promoting religion, and Geneva became his laboratory for creating an ideal Christian society. Protestant leaders went to Geneva from England and Scotland, carried Calvin’s ideas back to their homelands in the mid-1500s, and, because of their desire to purify the Church of England from its Roman Catholic elements, became known as “Puritans.” English Puritans were the earliest European settlers in New England, beginning with the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, along with Geneva, became one of two major attempts to create a model society according to Calvin’s principles.
Calvin held that the leaders of the New Testament churches were roughly on a par with one another, and thus he opposed the idea of a church hierarchy. Consequently, Calvinists played a role in the rise of modern political democracy. By 1700 Calvinism had taken root in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, South Africa, Scotland, England, and colonial North America. Lutheranism became dominant in Germany and in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Southern Europe—France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal—remained largely Roman Catholic.
The overall situation in the English Reformation was more complex than in any other European nation. In 1534 King Henry VIII declared the Church of England separate from the pope and made himself the titular head of a new “Anglican” Church. Until 1688, when it was established that the monarch must be Protestant, there remained a distinct possibility that the Church of England might return to the Roman fold. Perhaps for this reason, the Anglican Church embraced a larger spectrum of theological viewpoints than did the churches on the continent of Europe. Though all Anglicans used the same prayer book in Sunday worship, some continued to hold to Catholic opinions, while others were moderately Protestant, and still others had Puritan sympathies. Some have called Anglicanism a “middle way” between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Roman Catholic Church was not passive in the face of the Protestant challenge. The Council of Trent (1545-63) set the basic direction for the church until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. It defined Catholic doctrine in opposition to Protestantism, unified the approach to worship and practice, and concentrated authority in the papacy and the Curia (Vatican bureaucracy). Following the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church made up for what it had lost in Europe through a major expansion into Latin America. The church expanded there through the efforts of priests, often members of such religious orders as the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Although voices of protest—including that of Bartolomé de la Casas (1514-c. 1566)—arose against the mistreatment of the indigenous, or Indian, peoples, the general attitude of colonists and missionaries was paternalistic if not exploitative. The colonist’s encomienda system and the Jesuit’s reductions (settlements) tied the Indians to the land and made them like indentured servants. For much of Latin America the process of Christianization proceeded slowly. Because of the paucity of priests and the lack of adequate instruction in the faith, many were baptized without much understanding of the Catholic religion. The blending of Catholicism with indigenous traditions (syncretism) is obvious in Brazilian Umbanda and Haitian voodoo.
Scholastic theology experienced a golden age during this time. Both Catholics and Protestants produced massive volumes of Latin prose. It was an era of great saints, such as Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder in 1540 of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits; Teresa of Avila (1515-82); John of the Cross (1542-91); Blaise Pascal (1623-62); and Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), each of whom called Christians to spiritual renewal. Yet the century from 1550 to 1650 was also characterized by immense conflict throughout Europe along the fracture lines between Catholics and Protestants. A third of the population of Germany perished during the Thirty Year’s War (1618-48). The seeds of the Enlightenment were sown during the 1600s, when theological disputes seemed to be at the root of violence and hatred. People of goodwill sought social harmony, not in a vision of Christian empire but in universal principles of human rationality.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) defined the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his selfincurred tutelage” and urged his readers to “have courage to use your own reason.” The appeal to individual reason was a challenge to Catholics and Protestants alike, since it equally called into question the authority of church traditions and the text of the Bible. Since the eighteenth century the church’s intellectual leaders have grappled with the ideas of the Enlightenment and modernist thought, though in varying ways. Among Roman Catholics the “modernist crisis” came at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Pope Pius X, in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907; “Feeding the Lord’s Flock”), attacked what he saw as an emerging rationalistic assault upon Christianity. Although the antimodernist movement supported by the church suppressed some dubious tendencies in the academy, for a time it probably also stifled legitimate theological inquiry. Protestants were more directly affected by Enlightenment ideas at an earlier stage. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) sought a middle way between traditional Christian faith and the Enlightenment’s “cultured despisers of religion.” Protestant thinkers have been concerned with establishing the “reasonableness” of Christianity. Karl Barth (1886-1968), the twentieth century’s most influential Protestant theologian, rejected Schleiermacher’s mediating style and insisted that Protestant theology needed to become again a “theology of the Word of God.”
The Enlightenment had political as well as intellectual repercussions. In Roman Catholic countries it led to calls for the secularization of the governmental and educational systems. In the Catholic nations of southern Europe—Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy—and in Latin America, secular forms of government gradually took hold in the 1800s and 1900s, while Catholic leaders resisted these changes and favored a state-authorized and state-subsidized church. Although some national constitutions in Latin America specify that Catholicism is the official religion, freedom of religion is now widely accepted, and state support for the Catholic Church has diminished. European countries with state-supported Protestantism—for example, England, Germany, The Netherlands, and Scandinavian nations—have moved in the same general direction.
While academic theologians debated the merits of Enlightenment ideas, popular Christianity from 1700 to 2000 experienced growth and resurgence on many levels. Beginning with the spiritual revivals in English-speaking Protestantism during the mid-1700s, the evangelical movement brought the church a new vitality and sense of mission. Evangelicals stressed the need for individual conversion, a personal relationship with God, Bible reading, evangelistic activity, and social reform. The world missionary movement among Protestants in the 1800s and early 1900s emerged from the evangelical awakening, whose leaders included the Anglican preacher George Whitefield (1714-70), the Congregationalist theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-88). During the 1800s evangelicals were leaders in the campaign against African slavery, in the reform of labor laws, and in the temperance movement. Though evangelicalism originated in England and North America, it has spread throughout the world and is strong today in South Korea, in China and the Chinese diaspora, and in parts of Africa and Latin America.
In the Orthodox world regions originally under the jurisdiction of the patriarch, or bishop, of Constantinople broke away to become autocephalous (self-governing) national churches. Moscow became an independent patriarchate in 1589. In 1833 the patriarch of Constantinople acknowledged the independence of the Greek Orthodox Church, followed by churches in Bulgaria (1870), Serbia (1879), and Romania (1885). Peter the Great removed the patriarch as head of the Russian Church in 1721 and established the Holy Synod, which included laypersons. This situation, an anomaly in Orthodoxy, remained until the Revolution of 1917, when the Moscow Patriarchate was reestablished. During the twentieth century Communist governments in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe persecuted Orthodox churches, and the documented cases of martyrdom run into the tens of millions. Because of opposition from Islam and Communism, Orthodoxy has a historical experience of persecution and martyrdom that sets it apart from the churches of western Europe and North America. Yet Orthodoxy has experienced a resurgence in its historic heartland during the post-Communist generation.
Roman Catholicism entered a time of trials during and following the French Revolution, when revolutionary leaders called for the overthrow of the church in France and throughout Europe. The suppression of the Jesuits in 1773—reinstated in 1814—for a time removed one of the most important religious orders in the church. The papacy began to recover strength as the nineteenth century progressed, however, and Pope Pius IX symbolized the church’s new confidence when he declared Mary’s Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870. Yet the Syllabus of Errors (1864), which condemned freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the separation of church and state, proved irksome to Catholics living under governments where these principles were established. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891; “Of New Things”) called for the church to become engaged in promoting justice for workers and a decent standard of living for all. The emphasis on social justice has been a feature of Catholic philosophy ever since, and it emerged in a challenging way during the second conference of Latin-American bishops, held in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, and in the “liberation theology” of Gustavo Gutiérrez (born in 1928) and others.
The twentieth century brought massive changes in world Christianity. In 1900 nearly 80 percent of all Christians were white, and the demographic center of Christianity lay in Europe and North America. By 2000 only 45 percent of the world’s Christians were white, and the most dynamic and rapidly growing Christian communities were located in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In Africa the Christian population mushroomed from 9 million to 335 million during the twentieth century. Until the 1960s African Christianity was tied to colonialism, yet the expansion of Christianity occurred through Bible translations, village schools, and traveling African catechists (religious instructors) as much as through the activities of missionaries. The cultural impact of Bible translations, the first written texts in most African languages, is hard to overestimate. The translations helped to preserve indigenous languages and, with them, many oral traditions. Today African Christianity is phenomenally diverse, with thousands of groups and movements. Some African Initiated Churches (AICs) hold to customs, such as polygamy and ancestor veneration, that were forbidden by European colonists and missionaries.
Christianity entered China through the Nestorians in the sixth century, the Franciscans in the fourteenth, and the Jesuits in the sixteenth. Yet it was only with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in the mid-1800s that an enduring Chinese church was established. Communist persecution since 1949 seems only to have enhanced the growth of Christianity, and today the number of Chinese Christians may be between 70 million and 100 million. Many belong to unregistered “house churches” rather than official denominations. Following Francis Xavier’s visit to Japan in 1549, large numbers converted to Christianity, and by 1600 there may have been 300,000 Christians. In the early 1600s Japanese Christians experienced severe persecution, and Japan cut off contact with foreigners until the mid-1800s. During the twentieth century there has been a numerically small but influential Christian community in Japan. Korean Christianity, especially in its Presbyterian and Pentecostal forms, expanded rapidly during the twentieth century to become one of the world’s most dynamic movements. The largest Christian congregation in the world is located in Seoul, and Korean churches send missionaries throughout the world.
The Philippines have long been the only predominantly Christian nation in Asia. The Spanish arrived in 1538, remained in power for three and a half centuries, and established a form of Roman Catholicism that is much like that of Latin America. Vietnam is predominantly Buddhist but has a strong Catholic minority. In Burma, Baptist missionaries in the 1800s spread Christianity among the non-Burmese minority. Indonesia is the nation with the largest number of Muslims converting to Christianity. In part this arose as a reaction to the violence committed by Muslims against real or suspected Communists in the failed coup of 1965. Since that time millions have converted to Christianity, including the Bataks of Sumatra. In India, Christian origins go back to the fourth, second, or perhaps first century. According to early tradition, the apostle Thomas took Christianity to India. Since the 1800s outcaste groups with little stake in Hindu society and non-Hindu tribal peoples, such as the Naga, have entered the Christian church in growing numbers.
Anglicanism spread to Australia and New Zealand in the late 1700s, followed by other Protestant groups and Roman Catholicism. Christianity is now the religion of almost all of the original inhabitants of the Pacific Islands. Typically the dominant form of Christianity is that of the first missionaries to arrive—for example, Congregationalism in Hawaii and Methodism in Fiji. The Pacific Islanders converted in “people movements” (also found in Africa and Asia and among Latin-American Indians), in which the tribal leaders and entire society entered the church at the same time. New Guinea received missionaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s from Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga and today is over-whelmingly Christian.
A major part of the modern expansion of Christianity lies in the Pentecostal, or charismatic, movements that emerged after 1900 and spread rapidly and widely. Pentecostal Christianity has come to dominate large portions of Africa and Latin America, where more people may attend weekly Pentecostal services than the Roman Catholic Mass. The movement began with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, led by the African-American preacher William Seymour (1870-1922). After several days of fasting and praying, a number of people began to speak in unknown languages, taken to be an outward sign of the experience known as “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” which soon became the hallmark of Pentecostalism. Within a generation small groups of Spirit-baptized Christians were found throughout the world. Pentecostals emphasize supernatural elements in Christianity, such as divine healing, prophecy and visions, the casting out of demons, and “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia.
The ecumenical movement arose out of a conference on world evangelization in Edinburgh in 1910. Delegates became aware that divisions in the Christian world were a major hindrance for missionaries, and the discussions begun at Edinburgh gave rise to a number of organizations concerned with Christian reunion. In 1948 they merged into the World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC has promoted dialogue and joint action among Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches, with some Roman Catholic participation as well. The statement “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” (1982) reflected broad agreements on these points. In 1999 the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation offered the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” another sign of a gradually emerging theological consensus.
In North America the early twentieth century brought controversy and ultimately division between liberal and conservative Protestants, termed “fundamentalists” but later described as “evangelicals.” The liberals inherited the church’s denominational and theological institutions, while the conservatives left the mainline denominations and started over. Conservative churches in the United States, however, have been growing at the expense of more liberal groups. One region of the world that shows less Christian vitality is western Europe, where services in massive cathedrals may attract a mere handful of worshipers. In England, for example, less than a million Anglicans attend Sunday services, while in Nigeria the Anglican Church has 17 million members and the attendance rate is 89 percent. Thus, the future of the Church of England may lie not in England but in Africa and other regions that were the object of earlier missionary efforts.
The great Christian event of the twentieth century was almost certainly the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which in a single generation transformed the lives of Roman Catholics throughout the world. Vatican II allowed worship in vernacular languages rather than Latin, taught that Protestants were “separated brethren” rather than heretics or schismatics, opened a door for dialogue with non-Christians, and called for the church to become engaged in the struggle for justice and dignity for all human beings. Following the council, however, the declining number of new vocations to the priesthood and religious orders has threatened the viability of Catholicism. Debates over women’s ordination and artificial birth control, as well as sexual abuse scandals in the United States, also are challenges for Catholics.
Christian theology seeks to understand God and his relation to the world in light of the salvation brought by Jesus Christ. It is based on the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments—as inter-preted in the light of tradition, reason, and experience. Anselm of Canterbury described theology as fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.” Faith does not exclude intellectual inquiry but rather invites it. Christians have generally been more concerned with orthodoxy (correct doctrinal expression) than have the adherents of other religions. Judaism and Islam have been more preoccupied with orthopraxy (right practice). Buddhists and Hindus have tended to be flexible about doctrines, seeing them as guidelines rather than fixed standards of belief. Thus, in many ways Christianity is the most theological of the major religions.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians make individual opinion and private interpretation in understanding Scripture subordinate to the inherited traditions of the church. By contrast, Protestants make the text of the Bible the final authority. During the past three centuries many Christian thinkers have emphasized human reason as much as Scripture or tradition. The Enlightenment taught that human beings must use their own reason to evaluate all truth claims, including the texts of the Bible and the traditions of the church. Pietistic and Pentecostal Christians claim that theology emerges from personal experience, which can be a source and test of theological truth. Thus, today Christian theology involves a complex interplay of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
Christian theology rests on an understanding of God as Holy Trinity. The first universal, or ecumenical, council of the Christian church, held at Nicea in Asia Minor in 325, affirmed that Jesus is “of one nature [Greek, homoousios] with the Father” and thus that both Father and Son are divine. In 381 a council at Constantinople affirmed that the Holy Spirit is also fully divine. Thus, the existence of three persons in one God was established as a formal principle at an early stage. The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed summarize Christian beliefs, including the doctrine of the Trinity, and almost all Christian groups affirm them. The Trinity provides the basic framework for understanding salvation, which comes from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. Prayer, worship, and service to God reverse this movement and are offered in the Spirit, through the Son, and toward the Father.
The classical concept of God taught in Christianity was carried over from Judaism and is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646): “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy … working all things … for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity … and withal, most just … hating all sin.” These basic assertions regarding God’s infinity, mercy, and justice continue to be affirmed, although many contemporary theologians stress God’s intimate relationship with creatures rather than his power over them.
Both the Bible itself and the Apostle’s Creed begin with the assertion that God created all things. There is nothing that exists apart from God’s will, and God has unlimited dominion over all things. God not only created the world but also directs natural and historical events in accordance with a purpose. The story of Jesus, whose crucifixion preceded his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, encourages Christians to believe that God is working out a plan that turns evil toward good: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Christian faith interprets evil in the light of a gracious God who will one day remove it altogether: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more … And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new'” (Revelation 21:4-5).
Divine providence somehow concurs with genuine human choice and thus is not a negation of human freedom. Yet Christian theologians have never arrived at a consensus regarding the relation of God’s will to human wills. Augustine argued that God could cause certain events to take place necessarily but without abolishing human choice. He claimed that from the beginning God had decided the exact number of those who would be saved (predestination). By contrast, in the early 400s Pelagius taught that humans could serve God through their own volition and apart from grace, but his viewpoint has found little favor in mainstream Christianity. Many theologians in Western Christianity, including Anselm, Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Jansenists, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth, have followed Augustine’s position. An intermediate position, known as semi-Pelagianism or Arminianism and associated with John Cassian (c. 360-435), the Jesuits, and John Wesley and Methodism, asserts that salvation begins with a human choice that is then aided and strengthened by God and divine grace. Orthodoxy generally has not shared the West’s concern for probing the intricacies of divine grace and human volition but has been more concerned with Christology (the doctrine concerning Christ) and the Trinity.
For Christian theology human beings are made in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and thus are distinct from other creatures. The “image” is variously identified with reason, conscience, the soul, self-awareness, or the power of dominion over other created things. Genesis states that all things made by God were “very good” (1:31), which means that human beings commit sin and yet never become evil per se. As traditionally interpreted, the story of the “fall” of humanity in Genesis 3 indicates that sin and death entered the world through the transgression of the first human pair, Adam and Eve. The doctrine of original sin asserts that all human beings are born with an inclination toward evildoing: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The exception is Jesus Christ, who was born without the taint of original sin. Roman Catholicism, in its doctrine of Immaculate Conception—first defined in 1854—asserts that Mary, like Jesus, was also conceived without original sin.
The center of Christian theology lies in its affirmations regarding Jesus as Messiah, Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Priest, Prophet, and Returning King. While each generation of Christians has tended to re-create Jesus in its own image, certain doctrines have remained relatively constant. Chief among these is the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity, humanity, and unity as a single, undivided person. The term “incarnation” refers to the affirmation that God took on human nature in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). The early Christian councils were largely devoted to elaborating basic doctrines concerning Jesus, with all departures from them defined as heresies. The heresy of Ebionitism presented a Jesus who was human but not divine, while Docetism portrayed Jesus as divine but not human. The Jesus of Arianism was neither fully human nor fully divine. Nestorianism depicted Jesus as divine and human and yet divided into two distinct persons.
Because they believe that salvation is at stake, Christian thinkers of all eras have been preoccupied with describing Jesus’ character. In 451 the Council of Chalcedon sought to define the exact relationship between his divine and human natures. Jesus’ role as Savior requires that he function as the mediator between God and humanity. Salvation depends on a full and true incarnation of God in human life. As God, Jesus can save fallen humanity; as human, he represents other humans and offers to God the perfect obedience that all owe to God. As a single, undivided person, he brings divinity and humanity into connection. The Incarnation affirms that God enters into human experience, understands humans from the inside out, and validates the material world and physical body through his union with it: “For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Because of the Incarnation, human beings find God to be approachable and empathetic.
Not only who Jesus is but also what he does matters for Christian theology. When he wished to summarize the gospel he preached, Paul spoke of two things—the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul writes that through the cross of Jesus God mysteriously identifies himself with the guilt, weakness, and suffering of humanity in order to remove them (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). The doctrine of Atonement states that the death of Jesus is the basis for salvation. Various theories of the Atonement seek to explain this. Jesus’ death frees believers from Satan’s dominion (classical theory), awakens a love for God by showing the depth of God’s love for humans (exemplary theory), presents an offering of perfect obedience to God (Anselmian theory), or serves as vicarious punishment inflicted on Jesus in place of all other humans (substitutionary theory). Each theory offers a partial glimpse into the significance of Jesus’ cross. The resurrection of Jesus is his public vindication, whereby he is “declared to be the Son of God with power” (Romans 1:4), and it is the ultimate basis for the Christian hope in life beyond life. Because he rose from the dead, those who believe in him have hope for their own resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-22).
The Christian doctrine of salvation follows from the doctrine of sin. Because human beings are estranged, God undertakes to bring them back into a closer relationship with him: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The process starts with God’s eternal will to bring salvation (election, or predestination); unfolds as human beings exercise faith and repentance; ushers sinners into a new relationship of gracious acceptance by God; finds expression in the daily struggle to grow in faith, obedience, and holiness before God; and reaches its culmination when believers are raised from the dead and transformed into a glorious and immortal state. Orthodox theology speaks of salvation as “divinization” or “deification” (Greek, theosis), a process whereby human beings are brought to share in God’s own life and so participate in his holiness and glory.
Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Anglican Christians view salvation as something mediated through the Christian community. In this view salvation comes through participation in the church, with baptism as the sign of that participation. Traditional Catholic theology states that unbaptized persons cannot be saved. Following baptism, a believer’s strengthening in the faith comes from participation in the Eucharist and the other sacraments—confirmation, penance (reconciliation), holy orders (ordination), matrimony, and extreme unction (anointing of the sick). Some Catholic theologians emphasize the correct performance of the rituals, though others stress the importance of approaching the sacraments in faith. Like Catholics, Orthodox and Anglican Christians understand the church to be a sacramental community. In these traditions the church exhibits an unbroken line of leaders, or “apostolic succession,” extending from the first century to the present time. Catholics emphasize the succession of Roman bishops, or popes, beginning with Peter (Matthew 16:17-19), as the leaders of Christendom, while Orthodox and Anglican Christians hold that the bishops collectively share in decision making and responsibility.
Protestants show a less communal interpretation of salvation, Christian life, and church leadership. Luther had been a faithful monk and yet lacked “assurance of salvation,” which he found through Bible reading and a conversion experience in which God’s mercy suddenly became real to him. Since that time Protestants have stressed the Bible and personal experience of God. Neither the outward forms of the church nor baptism and the sacraments are as important as the individual’s experience of Christ. Most Protestants hold to two basic church rituals—baptism and the Eucharist. Lutherans and Calvinists hold that the outward actions are genuine sacraments with spiritual power attached to them. Baptists, Pentecostals, and nondenominational Protestants believe that the outward actions are merely signs attesting to and confirming the faith of those who share in them. Thus, this latter group of Protestants baptize only adults and older children on a profession of faith (believer’s baptism). Though all Protestants deny the supreme spiritual authority of the papacy, they differ as to what they put in its place. Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans preserve the ancient system of church government by bishops, while Baptists, Pentecostals, and Congregationalists allow each local gathering to govern itself, with Presbyterians placing local gatherings under the direction of a representative assembly.
Christian theology includes eschatology, or a doctrine of “last things”—Jesus’ return (or Second Coming), judgment by God, heaven, and hell. In the Gospels, Jesus’ teaching focused on the kingdom of God, and the Lord’s Prayer includes a petition for God to bring an earthly realization of his purposes: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Although the kingdom of God is already present in a limited way, it will attain perfection only when Jesus returns, “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Christian eschatology offers confidence that God will ultimately transform individuals, society, and the world at large into “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). Jesus’ resurrection shows God’s purpose to overcome all that threatens humanity, including death itself. Though some versions of eschatology have encouraged Christians to retreat from the world, many have driven believers to struggle for mercy, peace, and justice. Eschatology has been an engine of social change and even revolution. The Book of Revelation offers an elaborate picture of the Christian hope, and yet the text is notoriously hard to interpret. Some theologians view it as a more or less literal account of what is to happen before Jesus returns, while others see it as symbolic in character or as referring to events that have already transpired.
Moral Code of Conduct
Christianity offers a revelation concerning God’s love and human salvation. Similarly, it offers instruction in moral and spiritual life, also based on revelation. At the same time, most Christian thinkers maintain that Christians and non-Christians alike are accountable to conscience or natural law. Thus, when the Bible gives the commands “you shall not steal” and “you shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:15-16), these imperatives agree with human nature and can be discerned as ethically binding apart from divine revelation. Discussions of Christian ethics thus shift back and forth between natural law and biblical revelation, with Roman Catholic thinkers characteristically emphasizing the former and Protestants the latter.
If there is something distinctive about Christian ethics, it lies in the commandments to “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” with the added assertion that “all the law” depends on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). By linking love for God with love for neighbor, Jesus’ teaching connects spirituality and ethics. Furthermore, Christian love as commanded in the New Testament goes beyond the bounds of natural law or everyday ethics. Ordinary morality tells a person that he ought not steal from his neighbor, but “love your neighbor as yourself” means that a person must meet his neighbor’s needs, even if this requires personal sacrifice. Jesus himself presents the ultimate model of sacrifice on behalf of others: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
As Christian ethics evolved through time, it developed divergent emphases. One way of summarizing the Christian way of life is “imitation” of Christ. Paul wrote, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Various branches of Christianity have all held that the goal of the Christian life is to embody Jesus’ character. This theme underlies the most popular book of Christian devotion ever written, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (c. 1379-1471). The imitation of Christ was so strong a theme in early Christianity that the notion of imitating anyone else, such as saints, did not become prevalent until the fourth and fifth century.
Early Christian literature included exhortations to patience and perseverance in the face of difficulty, persecution, and martyrdom. It also stressed the need for prayer, almsgiving, and fasting and the avoidance of idolatry, violence, and sexual immorality. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire and believers were no longer persecuted, monks went into the desert to pursue God in prayer and self-denial and to undergo a voluntary martyrdom for Christ. Monastic literature is concerned with eliminating wrongful desires and growing in spiritual joy and contemplation of God. Beginning in the fourth century, Christian authors began to look for harmony between pagan wisdom and biblical ethics. Ambrose modeled his De Officiis on a comparable work by Cicero and carried over Greco-Roman teachings on the virtues. Augustine followed along these lines but also used the Ten Commandments and love commandments as a framework. For Augustine love involved spontaneity and not rigidity: “Love, and do what you will.” Only God was to be loved for his own sake, claimed Augustine, while all creatures were to be loved “in God,” or for the sake of God. Different kinds of love engendered different sorts of human communities. Augustine distinguished a “city of man,” centering on material things, from a “city of God,” directed toward eternal bliss.
As the centuries passed, Eastern and Western Christianity diverged in their emphases. In the East monks served as confessors and spiritual directors for laypersons, and so the monastic experience permeated the entire notion of the Christian life. Asceticism, prayer, and contemplation led to theosis, or “divinization” (a process of growth into Godlikeness). The spiritual standards were high, if not perfectionistic. Humans were made in the “image” of God but had to restore the “likeness” through lengthy self-discipline. Orthodox ethics are generally simpler and less formal than Roman Catholic ethics.
Western theology reached a climax in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized many strands of ethical thought. Following Aristotle, Aquinas held that humans are teleological, or goal oriented. Human fulfillment consists of knowing and choosing good ends. The natural virtues of wisdom, justice, prudence, and temperance contribute to this fulfillment. The supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love complement the natural virtues in such a way that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” Perfect fulfillment comes only in the “beatific vision” of the saints who see God in heaven. Aquinas and his Dominican order emphasized reason, while Bonaventure and the Franciscans highlighted the will and the exercise of love as the chief features in human fulfillment.
A more down-to-earth form of ethical reflection developed in connection with the sacrament of confession. Beginning in the ninth century, guidebooks for confessors (“Irish penitentials”) specified what penance was appropriate for a given transgression. Over time an emerging tradition of moral theology took into account not only the acts themselves but also circumstances and intentions. Mortal sins concerned grave matters, occurred when the act was done deliberately and with full consent, and blocked a person from receiving grace. Venial sins were less serious, though they still required “satisfaction,” or outward actions, to show contrition and to compensate for the wrong committed. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the church taught that purgatory provided a place where those who died without mortal sin but without having made satisfaction for their venial sins could make reparation through cleansing fire. In the period from the 1600s to the 1960s, Roman Catholic moral theology took the form of multivolume works of casuistry, or moral reasoning, that considered every conceivable sort of transgression. Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology has moved away from this formal and legal style to a more personal and humanistic approach.
Protestants laid emphasis on Scripture as the basis for ethics and generally rejected casuistry. Since they had no centralized teaching authority, Protestants developed a diversity of approaches. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin used the Ten Commandments as a broad frame-work for ethical teaching, and both invoked Jesus’ love commandments. They rejected medieval notions of merit, or “works-righteousness,” and asserted that the Christian life was fundamentally a response to the salvation already given by God. Salvation was a matter of grace, and ethics of gratitude. Luther was reluctant to describe the Christian life as a journey in which the person gradually approached a goal. Instead, every day was a new beginning. Holy living required spontaneity and not calculation. Freedom was fundamental, and “faith is a living, active, busy thing.” Given Luther’s assumptions, there was little place for honoring the saints as models of the Christian life.
Calvin’s teaching was closer to that of Roman Catholics. He held that growth in holiness, or sanctification, could be tracked through time, and the English Calvinists, or Puritans, used personal journals as a way of “reading the evidence” of God’s grace in their lives. Some Puritans wrote works of casuistry akin to Roman Catholic manuals. Many early Calvinists adopted an abstemious, self-denying, and even monklike attitude in all spheres of life, which led the sociologist Max Weber to conclude that Calvinist attitudes lay at the root of the strenuous work ethic and growth of capitalism in northern Europe during the 1500s and 1600s.
The Radical Reformers turned not to the Ten Commandments but to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They focused on the radical imperatives to “love your enemies,” “turn the other [cheek],” and “give to every-one who begs from you” (Matthew 5:44, 39, 42). Luther and Calvin, they said, had preached only on the “sweet Christ” who offered forgiveness of sins, not on the “bitter Christ” who called his followers to forsake all worldly comforts and undergo persecution. The Christian ideal was martyrdom. While Roman Catholics and mainstream reformers sought to find harmony between church and state, or the Bible and culture, the Radical Reformers perceived a disjunction. They formed themselves into countercultural communities, and within these groups they exercised discipline, admitting or removing members based on whether or not they followed Jesus’ strict demands.
The basic concepts for the Christian life vary markedly. The major saints and founders of new religious traditions all had different emphases. Anthony recounted his battles with demons through prayer. John Climacus described a “ladder of ascent,” in which each rung led on to the next. Benedict summarized his monastic movement in the words ora et labora (work and prayer). Francis spoke of “holy poverty” and stressed total abandonment to God. Gregory Palamas and the Hesychasts (Greek, hesychia, or “quietness”) practiced contemplation until they experienced a divine illumination akin to that exhibited by Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Some medieval mystics referred to God as their heavenly spouse. Johann von Staupitz spoke of “nakedly following the naked Christ.”
Luther wrote of “the freedom of a Christian,” in which a believer was perfectly free and yet yielded that freedom to serve others. Ignatius Loyola viewed the church as the militia Christi (army of Christ) and called his followers to disciplined service. Calvin was concerned with the proper “use” of the present life and an attitude of detachment from material things. Teresa of Avila described stages in prayer, leading from strenuous effort (watering a garden), to growing ease (an irrigation system), and pure receptivity (receiving a drenching rain). John of the Cross described a “dark night of the soul” that brought detachment from earthly things and attachment to God. Quietists, such as Miguel de Molina and Madame Guyon, taught that holiness followed not from effort but from the renunciation of effort.
The Puritans were activists who continually sought to organize their lives so as to bring the greatest glory to God. Jonathan Edwards wrote that religion “consists most essentially in holy affections.” John Wesley taught that “total sanctification,” or freedom from all conscious sin, was possible in the present life and should be sought after. During the nineteenth century the Holiness movement followed in Wesley’s tradition and gave rise to twentieth-century Pentecostalism. Liberation theologians have highlighted the “preferential option for the poor” and encouraged the creation of “base communities” that address both spiritual and economic concerns. Thus, although a few basic themes run through Christian ethics—the love commandments, the Ten Commandments, and the imitation of Christ—the overall picture is one of kaleidoscopic diversity.
The Christian Bible includes the Old Testament and the New Testament. Christians accept the books of the Jewish, or Hebrew, Bible as sacred Scripture and designate them collectively as the Old Testament. An addendum, or New Testament, contains the accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), along with the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul, other letters (Catholic Epistles), and the Book of Revelation. Much of the New Testament consists of reinterpretations of Old Testament writings in relation to the life, teaching, ministry, and person of Jesus.
When Christianity emerged, the Jewish people had synagogue services in which the Hebrew Bible was read aloud, sometimes in a Greek translation known as the Septuagint, and yet there was variation in the books that were used. A larger canon that was prevalent among Greek-speaking Jews included various books and added portions of books (Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, Additions to Esther, and others), while a smaller canon was common among non-Greek-speaking Jews. The books included in the larger canon became known as the Apocrypha, or deuterocanonical books. Jewish Bibles published in modern times do not include the Apocrypha, and Protestant Bibles typically follow the Jewish custom of excluding them. The situation in early and medieval Christianity, however, was fluid. Some groups used the Apocrypha in their worship services, while others did not. In 1548 the Council of Trent decreed that the Apocrypha was a part of the Old Testament, and since then Catholic Bibles have consistently included it.
The debate regarding the Apocrypha pertains only to the Old Testament, and all major Christian groups agree about which books belong in the New Testament. The so-called New Testament Apocrypha (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and others) consists of books that claim to come from the time of the apostles but probably originated many decades later. These books have not played a part in Christian worship in any of the historic churches.
One of the earliest Christian symbols was the fish, associated with the fishermen who followed Jesus. The Greek word for fish (ichthus) is an acronym for the words “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” Today the symbol is especially popular among evangelical Christians. A dove, with wings outstretched, symbolizes the Holy Spirit and is widely used by Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.
During the era of Roman persecution, Christians produced their first enduring artistic images on the walls of underground tombs, or catacombs. One of the earliest images was of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders, a representation of God’s love in seeking out sinners. Other images portrayed dramatic scenes from Israel’s history.
After Constantine made Christianity legal in the fourth century, Christians erected basilicas, and the Christian artistic tradition then began to unfold in rich variety. Every episode in Jesus’ life was treated in loving detail. His birth, baptism, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension were especially common images. Not only biblical events but also the saints were commemorated in pictures and statues. Images of Mary and Jesus, the Madonna and Child, were among the most widespread. Pope Gregory I argued that images in church buildings were “books for the illiterate” and so had educational value. During much of the seventh and eighth centuries, however, controversy concerning the use of images raged in the eastern Mediterranean. The Iconoclasts argued that icons, or Christian images, were a violation of the second of the Ten Commandments—”you shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:4)—and so had to be removed from churches. Those who insisted that reverence shown to an icon was reverence shown to God ultimately triumphed. Veneration for icons, such as kissing images and lighting candles, continues to play a major role in Orthodox Christianity. While the Western church tends to think of images as educational aids, the Eastern church has adopted a more explicitly devotional attitude toward them.
The cross is a fundamental Christian symbol, although Eastern Christians portray the cross differently than do Western Christians. The Greek cross has four arms of equal length, while the Latin cross has three arms of roughly equal length, with one longer arm. Eastern crosses sometimes have small crossbars near the ends of the arms. In honor of Andrew, who is said to have died on a cross in the form of an X, the Russian cross has three arms across the vertical shaft, two parallel to the ground and one at a 45-degree angle. The crucifix, a three-dimensional representation of Jesus on the cross, appeared in about 1000 in the Rhineland. It subsequently became one of the most distinctive Christian symbols and is especially associated with Roman Catholicism. Orthodox Christians have not generally favored the crucifix, since they view the cross as Jesus’ moment of triumph.
Some Protestants did away with all images, while others abolished three-dimensional images, thought to be idolatrous, and yet allowed two-dimensional images in books or in stained glass. A simple cross, without Jesus’ body, is one of the few symbols widely shared among Protestant groups. Protestants sometimes use images of books or open pages, a testimony to the importance of the Bible in their tradition.
Early and Modern Leaders
The earliest church seems to have regarded Peter as the leader of the 12 apostles chosen by Jesus. Numerous passages in the New Testament suggest a unique role for him (Matthew 16), and Roman Catholicism asserts that Peter was the first pope, or universal leader, of Christendom. Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) did more than any other person in the early church to spread the Christian message and establish new congregations throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Early traditions assert that both Peter and Paul died as martyrs in Rome under Emperor Nero around 64 C.E. James, known as the “brother” of Jesus—variously understood as a kinsman (Roman Catholicism), stepbrother (Orthodoxy), or half brother (Protestantism) of Jesus—was a leader among Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-c. 107) was a bishop who wrote letters that reveal much regarding the early church. After being condemned to die, he welcomed his impending martyrdom in the Roman arena and under-scored the authority of the bishop with the words ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia (where the bishop is, there is the church). Anthony (c. 251-356) initiated and promoted the monastic tradition in Egypt. Athanasius (c. 296-373), the patriarch of Alexandria, was repeatedly deposed and reinstated during a decades-long struggle with the Arians, who denied the full divinity of Jesus. While Anthony promoted a solitary (anchoritic, or eremitic) life, Pachomius (c. 290-346) encouraged a communal (cenobitic) approach to monasticism. In Europe, Benedict (c. 480-c. 545) carried on this communal tradition with his Rule. Constantine (died in 337), who first made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire, presided over the Nicene Council and may have played a role in its theological outcome.
Augustine (354-430) was not baptized until his early thirties, after a dramatic conversion experience that is immortalized in his Confessions. Perhaps no one after the time of the apostles had a greater impact on Christian theology. His teachings on the church and sacraments laid the foundation for medieval and modern Catholicism, and his emphasis on grace and personal experience of God laid the foundation for the Protestant movement. Patrick (c. 390-c. 460) was taken from Britain to Ireland as a slave, escaped some years later, and eventually returned to evangelize the Irish. Arguably the most important Christian missionary since apostolic times, he was the founder of a culturally Irish and non-Roman form of Christianity. Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) described himself as a “servant of the servants of God,” wrote major works on the Christian life (Moralia, Pastoral Rule), and sent missionaries to strengthen the church in England. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), perhaps the most popular saint of all time, called the church back to simplicity through his embrace of “holy poverty.” The order of Franciscans, which he founded, is among the most influential in the history of Christianity. Innocent III (1160-1216), who reigned as pope during the time of the papacy’s greatest power, initiated the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) may have done more than anyone else to shape the development of modern Christianity. Luther began as a faithful monk and loyal member of the church, but his emphasis on the priority of grace and the authority of the Bible provoked a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and forever altered theology, politics, economics, art, literature, and family life. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-64) were second-generation reformers in the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva, respectively, and their Reformed version of Protestantism had influence in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, North America, and South Africa. Menno Simons (1496-1561) was among the best-known and most irenic figures in the Radical Reformation, and his followers are known to this day as Mennonites.
Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) was originally a soldier, and while recovering from battle wounds, he read the lives of the saints and decided to offer himself as a soldier for Christ. The order he founded in 1540, the Society of Jesus, has long been a leader in Catholic theology and educational work. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) led in the founding of the order of discalced (barefoot) Carmelites, and her spiritual writings, including Autobiography and The Interior Castle, were so well received that she became the first woman ever to be named a “doctor” of the Catholic Church. (Catherine of Siena [1347-80] and Teresa of Lisieux [1873-97], “the Little Flower,” were subsequently given this title.) John of the Cross (1542-91), Teresa of Avila’s disciple, was also a major spiritual teacher and stressed even more than Teresa the need for detachment from earthly things. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) was a cardinal and outstanding Catholic theologian, though he is also known as the clergyman who sought to silence Galileo. Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), who began the Pietist movement in German Lutheranism, called on Christians to have not only doctrinal knowledge but also a deep and affective experience of God’s grace.
There were three major figures in the evangelical movement of the 1700s. George Whitefield (1714-70), while still in his twenties, was so powerful a preacher that thousands gathered to hear him in England and America. John Wesley (1703-88) worked alongside Whitefield, but his abilities were more organizational than oratorical. After Wesley’s death, and against his wishes, his renewal movement separated from the Church of England to become the Methodist Church. The writings of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), America’s greatest and most original theologian, have had tremendous influence on evangelical Christianity throughout the world.
During the nineteenth century William Wilber-force (1759-1833) entered the English Parliament to agitate for the elimination of the slave trade, and he achieved his goal in 1807. Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c. 1807-91), an Anglican, became the first African appointed a bishop under missionary auspices, and though snubbed by European missionaries during his later years, he has inspired generations of African Christians. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) entered a cave in Russia, where he remained in solitary prayer for 15 years. When he opened his door for visitors, many were astonished by his wisdom, and he became a spiritual director for many. Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) promulgated the doctrines of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the infallibility of the pope in 1870. Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), a Baptist preacher, drew thousands to his Metropolitan Tabernacle on the outskirts of London and presided over the largest congregation in England.
According to statistician David B. Barrett, 45 million Christians died as martyrs during the twentieth century. Among the best known were Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), a Lutheran minister who resisted Nazi totalitarianism and was executed; Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68), a Baptist minister who led in the civil rights struggle in the United States and who was assassinated; Janani Luwun (1922-77), an Anglican archbishop in Uganda who was executed under dictator Idi Amin; and Oscar Romero (1917-80), a Catholic bishop in El Salvador who sided with the poor and who was murdered while celebrating Mass. The influential Russian priest Alexander Men (1935-90), described as a “one-man antidote” to Marxist propaganda, was murdered with an ax as he left his automobile.
When Russia restored the Moscow Patriarchate in 1917, Tikhon (1866-1925) was the first to enter the office, and he led Russian Orthodoxy during the period of Stalinist repression. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (born in 1918), an Orthodox Christian who documented the Soviet Union’s prison camps in The Gulag Archipelago, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyła in 1920; served as pope, 1978-2005), who helped to abolish Communism in his native Poland and who upheld conservative doctrinal and moral positions in the church, was a towering figure of twentieth-century Catholicism. Mother Teresa (born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu; 1910-97), leader of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta, drew international attention for her work serving the poor and was canonized in 2003. The Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu (born in 1931) was a leader of the South African movement against apartheid. Through the Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was part of the struggle for social justice in American cities. Billy Graham (born in 1918), an American evangelist, preached to more people than anyone in history. New church-related organizations emerged in North America in the twentieth century. Cameron Townsend (1896-1982) founded Wycliffe Bible Translators; Bill Bright (1921-2003), Campus Crusade for Christ; and Demos Shakarian (1913-93), the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Association. Prominent in the developing nations were Watchman Nee (1903-72) in China and Bakht Singh (1903-2000) in India, both responsible for establishing several hundred new congregations.
Major Theologians and Authors
Beginning in the mid-second century, Christian apologists presented a defense of their faith, often in terms drawn from Greek philosophy, to a pagan Greco-Roman society. Among the best known were Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), Athenagoras (second century), and Origen (c. 185-c. 254). Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200) sought to refute the heresies of his day. Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225), who was the first major Christian author in Latin, contributed to the establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity. He wrote brilliant and often stinging prose and held rigorous and uncompromising standards for the Christian life.
In addition to being an apologist, Origen was among the finest biblical scholars of all time. He suggested that all beings, including the Devil, might ultimately find salvation, and he is reputed to have committed self-castration to avoid fleshly temptation. Although his works were widely read, Origen was judged heretical by some early Christian councils. In the fourth century several brilliant thinkers—Athanasius (c. 296-373), who, against the Arians, insisted on Jesu’s divinity; Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-c. 395); Gregory Nazianzen (329-89); and Basil (c. 330-79)—upheld the doctrines that emerged as orthodoxy. With his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340) laid the foundation for all later histories of Christianity. Jerome (c. 342-424) wrote on the Christian life and produced the Latin translation of the Bible, or Vulgate, that was practically the only version used in Western Christianity for more than a thousand years. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), meaning “golden mouthed,” was a gifted preacher and theologian who served as bishop of Constantinople until his challenging sermons aroused opposition and his enemies deposed him. John of Damascus (c. 675-c. 749), who summarized the Orthodox faith in his writings, is still consulted as an authority.
Augustine (354-430) was the greatest and most influential of the early theologians in the Latin-speaking empire. Peter Lombard (c. 1100-60) wrote the Sentences, which served for centuries as the basic text for theological education in Europe. Anselm (1033-1109) was influenced by Augustine but was an innovator who introduced a more formal method in theology. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was probably the greatest of the medieval theologians, and some regard his Summa Theologica as the finest theological work ever written. In the later Middle Ages, Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and William Ockham (c. 1285-1347) stressed God’s freedom and omnipotence. Gregory Palamas (c. 1296-1359), who defended the Hesychasts and their claim of divine illumination during prayer, was among the most original thinkers in Orthodoxy after the eighth century.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a prodigious writer and theologian, and the complete edition of his works in German and Latin fills 125 large volumes. Huldrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-64) defined the Reformed movement, as distinct from Lutheranism. Calvin’s Institutes may be the finest summary of sixteenth-century Protestant theology. In England, Thomas More (1478-1535) defended Roman Catholic positions against Lutheranism and was executed for opposing the divorce of King Henry VIII. Richard Hooker (c. 1554-1600) synthesized Protestant ideas with an appeal to episcopacy (church government by bishops) and natural law and so set a direction for Anglicanism. During the 1600s and 1700s theologians wrote massive Latin tomes that are little read today. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) is a representative Catholic writer of the period, while Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) is typical of Lutherans and Francis Turrentin (1623-87) of Calvinists. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) and John of the Cross (1542-91), who embodied a Spanish Carmelite school of spirituality, continue to exert influence.
The Enlightenment brought enormous changes in the style and content of Christian theology. The New Englander Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), who offered a brilliant synthesis of experiential religion and empirical philosophy, developed his theology as a reflection on the spiritual revival that occurred in America in 1740-41. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) founded modern theology when he sought to steer a middle course between traditional Christian belief and Enlightenment skepticism. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) was more a philosopher than a theologian, but his all-embracing intellectual synthesis provoked the religious existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) as well as the atheism of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) and Karl Marx (1818-83). John Henry Newman (1801-90) began his life in the Church of England, shared in its Tractarian, or High Church, movement of the 1830s, and later became a Roman Catholic and rose to the rank of cardinal. His many books shaped the development of twentieth-century Catholic thought.
The most influential Protestant thinker of the twentieth century was the Swiss pastor Karl Barth (1886-1968), who led a revolt against the German liberal tradition that had begun with Schleiermacher. Barth sought to return theology to what he called “the strange new world of the Bible.” Emil Brunner (1889-1966) shared credit for establishing Barth’s neo-orthodox, or dialectical, theology. Paul Tillich (1886-1965), with his “theology of culture,” was closer in style to Schleiermacher. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) had much in common with Barth but was an original and independent thinker. The brothers Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) were influential American theologians. Modern Orthodox thinkers have included Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a neopatristic, or traditionalist, scholar, and Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944), a Russian ex-Marxist who applied Orthodoxy to the intellectual and social issues of his day. The leading twentieth-century Catholic thinkers—Yves Congar (1904-95), Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), Jean Daniélou (1905-74), and Karl Rahner (1904-84)—were part of the nouvelle théologie (new theology) of the 1940s and 1950s. Inspired by the early church writers rather than the medieval scholastics, their ideas aroused controversy during the 1950s but found favor at the Second Vatican Council. Bernard Lonergan (1904-84), a Canadian Catholic, wrote influential works on theological method and fundamental theology.
Notable contemporary theologians have included Gustavo Gutiérrez (born in 1928), who was instrumental in the rise of liberation theology. Wolfhart Pannenberg (born in 1928) and Jürgen Moltmann (born in 1926) wrote theology from an eschatological standpoint, understanding God’s kingdom as a future reality that impinges on the present.
Throughout history an underlying issue in Christianity has been the tension between centralized control and localized leadership and decision making. Prior to the third century there were variations in church governance, with certain areas—for example, Asia Minor—having a single bishop over all congregations in a city or region (monoepiscopacy), while others—for example, Corinth—were led by committee. By the third century a greater uniformity existed, and single bishops over cities or regions became the norm. Christians regarded bishops as the only persons with the power to ordain new clergy, and the consecration of a bishop by fellow bishops was said to establish a chain of leadership.
Cyprian (died in 258) believed that the bishops collectively held decision-making authority in the church, and in this conciliar viewpoint the highest authority belongs to an ecumenical council of bishops. In the second century Irenaeus and others suggested that the bishop of Rome might serve as a court of appeal for disputed issues, a viewpoint known as Petrine primacy, after Peter, the first bishop of Rome. Today Roman Catholicism holds to Petrine primacy, while Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and those Protestant groups that have bishops maintain some version of the conciliar perspective. Since Orthodoxy gives no official recognition to any councils that have met since the eighth century, it has a built-in resistance to innovation. In practice the patriarchs of the national churches of Orthodoxy have considerable authority.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, various groups broke from the custom of government by bishops. In 1534 King Henry VIII declared himself the rightful head of the English church, and in some Lutheran regions princes replaced bishops as church leaders. John Calvin judged that the pastors referred to in the New Testament fell into a single order, or rank, and were not in any hierarchical relationship. He thus repudiated the whole idea of bishops, which led to two new models for church organization. Some Calvinists held to congregationalism, in which each local community of believers was in charge of its own affairs. Others favored presbyterianism, which linked together local congregations under the authority of a general assembly of ministers and lay leaders.
During the twentieth century the fastest-growing branches of Christianity were Pentecostal, charismatic, and nondenominational, and these traditions are generally congregationalist, though sometimes with a central government alongside local leaders. Today Christianity is divided between those groups that claim apostolic succession (an unbroken chain of leaders from the earliest church) and generally regard it as crucial and those that make no such claim and regard the issue as unimportant.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Until Constantine’s Edict of Milan, in 313 C.E., the Roman Empire did not acknowledge Christianity as a legitimate religion, and so Christian buildings generally were not erected. Services were held in homes, in underground tombs (catacombs), in fields, and even aboard ships. Thus, the traditions of Christian architecture began after the time of Constantine.
Among the major styles that evolved were the basilica (300s-1000), the Romanesque (1050-1150), and the Gothic (1150-1500). Gothic cathedrals may be the pinnacle of Christian architecture, although humbler churches often incorporate elements of the Gothic style—for example, the tall spire, or steeple, and stained glass. Protestants generally wanted a simple and unadorned architecture, although Lutherans preserved more of Catholic adornment in their church buildings than did Calvinists. The New England Calvinists erected meetinghouses with plain white walls and without statues, stained glass, or even a cross. During the twentieth century some Protestant groups used auditoriumstyle buildings or rented sports facilities. In the developing world church buildings are simpler and may consist only of a thatched hut or raised tin roof to block the wind and rain.
Constantine’s mother, Helena (c. 225-c. 330), visited the Holy Land in 326 and founded basilicas on the Mount of Olives, outside Jerusalem, and at Bethlehem. According to later tradition, she also discovered the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Helena encouraged a kind of Christian archaeology, resulting in the establishment of holy sites that in time became places of pilgrimage. The best known are the Church of the Nativity and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, associated with Jesu’s birth, death, and burial. Other sites in Galilee pertain to Jesus’ ministry.
Christian holy sites are not confined to Palestine. For Orthodox Christians the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople is an important center, though since 1453 the building has been a mosque and museum. Mount Athos, in northern Greece, contains a vast complex of Orthodox monasteries, where at its peak, in the 1400s, 40,000 monks may have been in residence. For Anglicans the town of Canterbury was an early Christian center and the archbishop’s seat. Glastonbury, in England, is the site where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have taken the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. In Spain the shrine of Saint James in Compostela is a major pilgrimage center. Several sacred sites are connected with reported appearances of the Virgin Mary, including Lourdes in France (1858), Fátima in Portugal (1917), and Medjugorje in Croatia (1981). Lourdes has become the most famous center for healing in Christendom.
Many Protestants reject the whole idea of holy sites and insist that all places are equally sacred in God’s sight. Yet Protestant tours to the Holy Land and to cities connected with the sixteenth-century Reformation—for example, Wittenberg and Geneva—indicate that the notion of holy ground may still be present.
What Is Sacred?
The term “martyr” originally meant “witness,” and those who had died rather than renounce the Christian faith were regarded as the ultimate witnesses to the truth of the gospel. The martyrs had undergone a “baptism of blood” that was a sure mark of saintliness. By the end of the second century, the anniversary of a martyr’s death was kept as a feast, with a worship service at the tomb. Churches were later built on these sites.
Early Christians believed that a dying martyr had the power to declare the forgiveness of a person’s sins. Eventually the idea of a martyr’s “intercession” was carried beyond death, and people prayed to deceased martyrs for their aid. Originally ora pro nobis (pray for us) was a collective prayer to all deceased martyrs and saints. In time individual saints emerged as intercessors for particular classes—for example, those bearing a certain name or following a given occupation—or for particular issues. Thus, Christopher became the patron saint of travelers and Jude the champion of hopeless causes.
Until about 1000 C.E. Christian martyrs and saints were known and celebrated locally. Over time, especially in Rome, a universal calendar developed that specified which deceased Christians were to be honored as saints. Canonization emerged as a process whereby the Roman Catholic Church could authenticate a deceased person as a saint. A person may be declared “blessed” or “venerable” without attaining the full status of sainthood. If the church declares sainthood, it is attested that the person is in heaven, the saint is invoked in public prayers, churches are dedicated to the saint’s memory, festival days are celebrated, images are made showing the saint surrounded by light or with a halo, and the saint’s physical remains, or relics, may be enclosed in vessels and publicly honored.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, holds a special place of honor for Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and many Anglicans. Thomas Aquinas argued that God alone was to receive worship in the full sense (Greek, latreia), while the saints generally deserved veneration (douleia), with Mary worthy of something more than veneration and less than worship, which he termed hyperdouleia. In general this describes Mary’s place within Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The two most common Catholic prayers may be the Our Father and the Hail Mary.
Early church writers seldom mentioned Mary, though occasionally they contrasted her obedience with the disobedience of Eve. By the fourth century, however, Christian writers were asserting that Mary was not only a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth but also a virgin throughout her life (Greek, aeiparthenos, or “ever virginal”). Protestants typically deny this, asserting that those called the brothers of Jesus in the New Testament were children born to Mary after the birth of Jesus. In 421 the Council of Ephesus assigned to Mary the title Theotokos, or Mother of God. Though some Christian leaders—for example, Nestorius—objected that the term might imply that Mary gave birth to God rather than to Christ, it became universal in Roman Catholic and Orthodox contexts. In 1854 the Catholic Church promulgated the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and in 1950 her Bodily Assumption. According to the former, Mary, like Jesus, was conceived without the taint of original sin, while the latter asserts that Mary was assumed directly into heaven.
In Roman Catholicism sacramentals are physical objects or rituals that hold sacred meaning but do not convey grace in the theologically defined way of the sacraments. Included among the sacramentals are holy water (for baptism and sprinkling), holy oil (for anointing the baptized and the sick), crucifixes, pictures or statues of saints, medallions and scapulars (worn on the body for a person’s spiritual good), relics of the saints, and water from Lourdes. While the number of Catholic sacraments is fixed at seven, there is no limit to the possible number of sacramentals. Orthodoxy also acknowledges sacramentals, though not in a theologically defined fashion.
Holidays and Festivals
The earliest Jewish believers in Jesus worshiped in synagogues on Saturdays and gathered again on Sundays for Christian worship. By the second century the number of Jews in the church had declined, and worship on Sunday, understood as the day of Jesus’ resurrection, displaced Saturday worship with-in the mainstream of Christianity. An exception was Ethiopian Orthodoxy, which kept a number of Jewish practices, including Saturday Sabbath observance.
Beginning with the Protestant Reformation, and especially in Britain, there was discussion regarding the Old Testament commandment to “remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Some British Protestants were Sabbatarians who held that Sunday needed to be observed, like the Jewish Sabbath, as a day of complete rest. Their spiritual descendants, the Puritans, took the Sabbatarian viewpoint to New England and helped to establish Sunday blue laws. Some of the stricter Sabbatarians held that the Old Testament law was binding in its original form and that Saturday, rather than Sunday, was the appropriate day for worship. A small group of Seventh Day (Saturday-worshiping) Baptists emerged in England, followed by Seventh-day Adventists in the United States beginning in the 1840s.
The Christian liturgical year consists of both movable and fixed celebrations. The former include those whose calendar dates vary each year with the date of Easter (the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead), while the latter always fall on the same date. Essentially there are two annual cycles, one connected with Easter, Christmas, and the life of Jesus, which is known as temporale, or the Proper of Seasons. A second cycle includes the festivals of the saints, which is known as sanctorale, or the Proper of Saints.
In 325 C.E., at the Council of Nicea, the date of Easter was fixed as the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Despite this decision, the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars resulted in a celebration of Easter on different days among Western and Eastern Christians. As the tradition developed, the period from Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to Easter Sunday was set aside as Holy Week. Thursday through Saturday of Holy Week became known as triduum, and the Saturday Easter Vigil was an extended service for biblical lessons and the lighting of candles.
In early Christianity the Easter Vigil became the most appropriate time for baptizing new members, with a part of their preparation being a period of fasting that was gradually extended to 40 days, in imitation of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. Over time the fast was extended to include all Christians, with the church defining Lent as a period for self-denial and contrition for sins. Lent did not require a total fast, and in its modern Roman Catholic form it typically involves refraining from eating meat on Fridays from Ash Wednesday until Easter. In Orthodoxy there are differing dietary restrictions, forbidding milk and eggs as well as meat, and the total period of time was extended, since neither Saturdays nor Sundays were regarded as appropriate for fasting and Orthodoxy wished to keep the number of fast days at exactly 40. Orthodox Christians also fast during Advent and before certain major festivals.
By the second century the Christian Easter celebration initiated a 50-day period of rejoicing, the season of Pentecost. By the fourth century a celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven occurred on the 40th day following Easter, and the sending of the Holy Spirit 10 days later, on the day of Pentecost, or Whitsunday.
In addition to Easter, the major annual festivals are Christmas (commemorating Jesus’ birth) and Epiphany. In the early fourth century Roman Christians celebrated December 25 as the festival of Jesus’ birth and the beginning of the year. This date coincided with the pagan solstice festival of Sol Invictus, yet December 25 may have been selected by adding nine months to March 25, already celebrated as the date of Jesus’ conception. Orthodoxy also celebrates Jesus’ nativity on December 25. In Eastern Christianity, perhaps as early as the second century, a festival of Epiphany was set on January 6 to commemorate Jesus’ baptism and his revelation as a member of the Holy Trinity. In most Latin cultures Epiphany is a time for exchanging gifts, after the example of the Magi. In northern Europe and in English-speaking countries, the exchange of gifts takes place on December 25. Just as Lent prepares for Easter, Advent, usually lasting four weeks, is a season of preparation for Christmas.
The calendar of saint’s days has never been uniform throughout Christendom. Lutherans and Anglicans have tended to commemorate only those saints who were biblical characters, and many Protestants have ceased from honoring saint’s days altogether. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants emphasized Sunday worship as the chief feature of the Christian calendar. Some Protestants do not celebrate any events in the liturgical year, including Christmas and Easter. Yet secular holidays, like Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July in the United States, have sometimes found their way into church celebrations as quasi-sacred events.
Mode of Dress
No specifically Christian mode of dress is attested in the earliest centuries of the church, except perhaps for the white garb of those to be baptized. Today Christian worship rarely involves any special attire for its lay participants.
Clerical vestments developed during the fourth to ninth centuries, and their style was based on ordinary secular clothes worn in antiquity. Among traditional vestments are the surplice and alb (white garments), stole, chasuble and tunicle (outer cloaks), and, for bishops, sandals, a miter, a pallium, and gloves. The crosier is a crook-shaped staff carried by bishops and some-times by abbots and abbesses (heads of religious communities). Another mark of the Christian minister is the clerical collar, a black band with a white rectangle in front that is worn around the neck. Roman Catholic cardinals wear distinctive red vestments, and popes formerly wore a tiara, a custom abolished in the 1960s. Orthodox priests and bishops have beards—since Jesus and the apostles are traditionally shown this way—and often wear black clothing and pectoral crosses (suspended by a chain or cord around the neck).
Lutherans and Anglicans have kept some of the Catholic clerical vestments, while many Protestant ministers dress in businessmen’s suits or in everyday garb. Reformed ministers may wear a black gown and a variant of the clerical collar known as “Geneva tabs.” As women have entered into the ordained ministry, they have adapted vestments for their use.
The New Testament states that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Paul’s letters condemn those who “demand abstinence from foods” and add that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). While some early followers of Jesus continued to follow the Jewish dietary laws (Acts 15), the practice faded as Gentile Christianity grew.
The early Christians celebrated the Eucharist in the context of a complete meal, known as an agape, or “love feast.” As time passed, the Eucharist involved diminishing portions of bread and wine, and by the fifth or sixth century its connection with a full meal had faded. The church continued to provide charity meals for the poor, which had been one of the functions of the agape. In modern times church potlucks and soup kitchens show some analogy to the ancient agape, though usually with-out any link to the Eucharist.
Fasting may be more distinctive to Christianity than dietary customs. It can involve refraining from all food and drink (an absolute fast), forgoing all food but not fluids, or refraining from certain kinds of food or drink (for example, meat). The second-century Didache (“Teaching”) indicates that the earliest Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. During the course of history, fasting developed in two directions. Some Christians came to fast according to a church calendar, especially during Lent, while others fasted at times and in ways they chose. Monastic communities have sometimes practiced fasting as a way of life. Some fourth-century monks, for example, prayed and fasted each day until the ninth hour (3 P.M.), at which time they ate their first meal. Others have rejected meat or rich foods such as butter, oil, wine, or spicy cuisine. Some modern groups have taught that a restricted or bland diet is conducive to holy living. The nineteenth-century American prophetess Ellen White sought simple food for her followers, and her disciple John Harvey Kellogg invented cornflakes.
Fasting is common among contemporary Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, who view the practice, combined with fervent prayer, as a means of releasing spiritual power and overcoming obstacles. Pentecostals may enter into prolonged fasts for up to 40 days, in imitation of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Woon Mong Ra (born in 1914) trained his Korean followers to with-draw to a “prayer mountain” and fast for weeks at a time, and he reported that dramatic conversions, healings, and exorcisms followed.
Christianity is expressed in rituals as much as in theology or ethics. Rituals include the sacraments of the church and other simple and widespread actions. One is signing, or making the sign of the cross. The sign may have been used originally during baptism and then extended to other situations and modified to include the torso rather than the forehead alone. Orthodox Christians make the horizontal portion of the sign with a right to left movement, and Roman Catholics left to right. Signing occurs also among Anglicans and Lutherans.
Another simple ritual is closing the eyes and folding the hands for prayer. Pentecostals may stand during worship services and raise their hands into the air while singing and praying. The acts of kneeling or genuflecting (among Roman Catholics), bowing or prostrating (among Orthodox), processing and recessing in worship, pronouncing written prayers in unison, sprinkling holy water, anointing with oil, wearing a crucifix or medal that has been blessed, and dancing in worship are all Christian rituals. Evangelicals use an “altar call” for dedication or rededication to Christ, while Pentecostals may lay hands on a person during prayer and invoke God for healing, the casting out of demons, or the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Certain Protestant groups practice foot washing. Christian rituals thus include actions that are not officially sacraments and may not have received much theological scrutiny or sanction.
A single ritual often has multiple meanings, and participants may perceive one meaning but not another. An infant baptism, for example, signifies the gift of divine grace, the child’s incorporation into the church, a pledge by parents to raise the child in the faith, and a pledge by godparents and others to aid the parents. None of the major Christian rituals is limited to a single meaning.
Christians describe their leading rituals under the term “sacraments,” a word used by the ancient Romans to refer to a sacred pledge of fidelity, later adapted by Tertullian to denote baptism. During the first centuries of Christianity, the term had a broad meaning and could be used for any church ritual or the symbolic elements it contained. For example, Pope Innocent I referred to both the eucharistic bread and wine and the consecrated oil as sacraments. Augustine defined a sacrament simply as “a sign of something sacred.” It was not until the Middle Ages that theologians came to distinguish between sacraments and sacramentals, the former referring to rituals that were deemed to have spiritual effects by virtue of their proper performance (Latin, ex opere operato; “through the act performed”) and the latter to rituals that transmitted grace in less specific ways. Thus, the Eucharist counted as a sacrament, while the sprinkling of holy water was a sacramental. Peter Lombard and, following him, Thomas Aquinas defined the church’s sacraments as seven in number (which Orthodox Christians follow Roman Catholics in acknowledging): baptism, confirmation, penance (reconciliation), the Eucharist, holy orders (ordination), matrimony, and extreme unction (anointing of the sick).
The seven sacraments commemorate major life transitions (baptism after birth, and anointing and Eucharist before death), allow the restoration of a person who has sinned (penance), set people apart for one another (marriage), and set others apart for Christian service (ordination). The Eucharist plays an integral role by sustaining fellowship with God and the church. Taken together, the seven sacraments form a comprehensive system and make Roman Catholicism a sacramental community.
During the Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism came to assert that a “sacrifice of the Mass” takes place in the eucharistic liturgy and that this sacrifice is beneficial for both the living and the dead. Clergy began to offer masses for the dead. Catholicism also taught that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ at the time of their consecration by the priest. This doctrine, proposed in the early Middle Ages and officially defined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, is known as “transubstantiation” and is central to Catholic life and thought. Orthodox Christianity holds to Christ’s real presence in the consecrated bread and wine but does not insist on the term “transubstantiation.” Orthodoxy teaches that the change in the elements occurs at the epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy. In Catholicism the belief in tran-substantiation gave rise to the customs of genuflection (bending one knee before the altar), to kneeling during the Mass as a sign of respect for Christ’s body and blood, and to eucharistic adoration, wherein the consecrated bread is set aside in a tabernacle, or receptacle, before which believers engage in prayers and vigils.
Beginning with Martin Luther, Protestants have reacted against the alleged superstitions connected with the medieval sacraments. Many Protestants are suspicious of the idea that the church transmits grace through its rituals and believe that correct belief, knowledge of the Bible, and individual faith and sincerity toward God matter more. The Protestant tendency is to deny the label “sacrament” to all practices not directly supported by the Bible. On this basis Protestants generally affirm only baptism and the Eucharist, which were directly sanctioned by Jesus in the New Testament. Anglicans sometimes acknowledge the other five sacraments but see them as instituted by the church rather than by Christ. Baptists and nondenominational Protestants usually reject the term “sacrament,” since it signifies a practice that transmits grace, and substitute the term “ordinance.” More radical still are the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Salvation Army, which reject baptism and the Eucharist and for whom spiritual life is an inward reality disconnected from outward actions. In some ways, though not labeled as such, the Bible itself is a central sacrament for Protestants. Following Augustine, Luther judged that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are “visible words,” and he asserted that ritual actions carry their meaning only in the context of the spoken liturgy, or preached word of God.
Other Christian rituals include divine healing (through prayer); exorcism, or the casting out of demons; pilgrimages to holy sites; the practice of making vows or offerings to God, Jesus, Mary, or a saint in the hope of a blessing to be given or in response to a blessing received; and practices connected with saint’s days and the Virgin Mary. These vary from region to region in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
Rites of Passage
The fundamental Christian ritual of initiation is baptism, which marks the transition from unbelief to faith, from sin to repentance, from death to life, and from the world to the church. Almost all Christian groups agree on its centrality. From an early period the ritual was performed with water and the three-fold formula “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In the Acts of the Apostles, there are references to baptism “in the name of Jesus,” which has led some Pentecostals to use only Jesu’s name. With this exception, baptism is universally performed in the name of the Trinity.
Many disputed issues surround baptism. One concerns the mode—that is, whether the proper procedure involves the sprinkling of water, pouring, or full immersion. The New Testament provides no detailed description of the ritual, and early church teaching seems flexible on the matter. In modern times Baptists and certain revivalistic groups have been concerned with the issue, with some regarding baptism as invalid unless performed by full immersion.
An especially divisive issue is whether infants can receive baptism. Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and many traditional Protestant groups practice infant baptism, while Baptists, nondenominational Christians, and Pentecostals prefer adult, or “believer’s,” baptism. They argue that New Testament baptism required a profession of faith, which an infant cannot supply. Catholics, the Orthodox, and some Anglicans teach that baptism confers grace (“baptismal regeneration”) apart from any conscious response to God. Traditional Catholic theology asserted that baptism is necessary to remove the guilt of original sin and that unbaptized persons cannot therefore be saved. Luther defended infant baptism by appealing to an infant faith implicit in the child, and he also invoked the parent’s or church’s faith as standing in for the recipient’s. Calvinists, including Presbyterians, think of the church as a covenant community in which baptism is an outward mark of belonging though not a guarantee of final salvation. Such Protestants link baptism to faith and yet allow for the baptism of infants.
Another issue concerns the validity of a prior baptism when a person moves from one Christian group to another. Following Augustine, Roman Catholicism holds that all baptisms done in the name of the Holy Trinity are valid if performed with genuine intent. Thus, a Protestant baptized as an infant is not rebaptized. Protestants, however, have mixed views on the matter. Some rebaptize members who come from Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or even from other Protestant groups, while others do not. Orthodoxy generally opposes such rebaptisms. Baptists and others who do not recognize the validity of infant baptisms tend to perform adult rebaptisms.
During the first several centuries Christians initiated new members, who were adults, through a process of catechesis (instruction in the faith) followed by a period of fasting, a ritual of exorcism, and baptism, together with an anointing with oil (chrismation) and the laying on of hands. In later centuries the ritual of anointing and the laying on of hands became separated from baptism, and from the 400s the Roman Catholic church began to teach that only bishops could perform the postbaptismal anointing. Thus, confirmation, originally part of the baptism ritual, became a separate sacrament. By contrast, Orthodoxy administers an anointing with oil and a first Communion to an infant at the time of baptism. Those Protestants who practice confirmation typically focus on doctrinal instruction in the faith for teenagers, while Catholics offer confirmation in late childhood.
In addition to baptism and confirmation, rituals of initiation and rites of passage in Christianity include marriage customs, in all their variety; funeral practices; ceremonies of ordination to the priesthood or ministry; the Catholic priest’s first Mass or the Protestant minister’s first sermon; the rituals for entering a religious order, such as the 30-day retreat practiced by the Jesuits; and the vows for the monastic life or for religious sisters.
The Gospels say that Jesus commanded his followers to carry on his mission, most famously in the words of the “Great Commission”: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Thus, the call to spread the gospel is central to Christianity. Some writers distinguish evangelism from missions. The former denotes any Christian sharing the good news, while the latter involves a more deliberate effort to establish new churches in cultures or regions without Christians. However the terms are defined, the Christian act of bearing witness flows from the conviction that Jesus is Savior and that salvation comes through him.
The expansion of Christianity from its homeland in Palestine to the rest of the world has been a continual process of translation. Linguists have rendered the Bible into thousands of languages, each with a different word for God and a different set of cultural and religious assumptions. Christianity is thus a religion of cultural adaptation, and the faith must be “incarnated” in each new setting. For the message about Jesus to be credible, how-ever, there must be actions as well as words. Francis of Assisi reportedly said to “preach the gospel always and use words when necessary.” In missionary work Roman Catholics stress tangible acts of service and compassion for non-Christians, while Protestants tend to emphasize preaching, conversation, and other verbal methods of evangelism. Yet exemplary missionaries throughout history have worked in both ways. Catholic and Protestant missionaries, for example, established many of the first hospitals and orphanages in Africa and Asia.
Throughout history missionaries went into new territories because they were convinced that non-Christians were doomed to hell. The early church writer Cyprian coined the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside the church). Some modern Christians have rejected this exclusivist position, that only those who consciously turn to Christ are saved, in favor of an inclusivist position, that some are saved by Christ with-out knowing him by name. The twentieth-century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner argued that faithful members of non-Christian religions may be “anonymous Christians,” a view that has been wide-spread in Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council. A related idea is that evangelism should be preceded by dialogue with non-Christians, in which a Christian listens before speaking. More radical is the pluralist position that all religions lead to salvation and to the same ultimate reality, or God, and according to this view, conversion should be replaced by interreligious dialogue.
The record of Christianity in allowing people to follow their religious beliefs without external constraint is mixed. The Roman Empire allowed people to continue worshiping ancestral gods, while insisting that all groups acknowledge the divinity of the Caesars. Most Christians refused to make even a token gesture on behalf of Caesar and so were harassed or killed. The lines of division were equally apparent in early Christian attitudes toward heretics. Those who broke from the main body of Christians were no longer acknowledged as fellow believers, and a chief concern in the first centuries lay in establishing the doctrines and practices that distinguished orthodoxy from heresy. While Christians lacked political power, there was no question of their persecuting non-Christians, though Christians could remove heretics from their worshiping communities.
After Constantine’s conversion paganism became increasingly unpopular. In 415 the pagan philosopher Hypatia was executed by a Christian lynch mob in Alexandria. In 529 the emperor Justinian closed the philosophical academies in Athens and forced pagans to accept baptism. Augustine encouraged coercive policies when he interpreted the biblical phrase compelle intrare (“compel them to come in”; Luke 14:23) to mean that force was a legitimate means for bringing people into communion with the true church. According to the theory of two swords, the clergy could not coerce heretics and pagans, but since the state was charged with maintaining true religion, heretics apprehended by the church could be turned over to the state for punishment. This was the theory underlying the papal and Spanish inquisitions (authorized in 1231 and 1478, respectively), which allowed hearsay evidence, torture, and forced confessions and so resulted in the conviction of many innocent persons. Stimulated by the 1487 book Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”), the so-called witch craze of the 1500s and 1600s brought as many as 110,000 to trial, and perhaps 60,000 were executed.
Among Protestants, John Calvin consented to the execution of the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus in 1553, and New England clergy applied the death penalty to Quakers in the early 1600s and during the 1692 Salem witch trials. Luther justified his opposition to the papacy when he declared in 1521 that “my conscience is captive to the Word of God,” yet neither he nor most Protestants were ready to allow others to follow their own consciences. When the Pilgrims went to America in 1619, they went not for freedom of religion but for freedom to practice their own religion. Roger Williams (c. 1604-83) and Anne Hutchinson were both ejected from Massachusetts in the 1630s for holding unacceptable theological views. Williams’s The Bloody Tenent of Persecution (1644) was an eloquent plea for religious liberty.
As a result of the Reformation, Protestant countries passed laws against Catholics and Catholic nations against Protestants. In England the Test Act (1673) required all officeholders to renounce Roman Catholic beliefs, and it remained in force until 1829. In 1685 King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which since 1598 had provided for the toleration of Protestants, and the result was a mass exodus.
Among the earliest proponents of church-state separation and freedom of conscience were the Radical Reformers of the early 1500s. Some argue that they advocated religious freedom simply so that they themselves would not be persecuted, but in fact their entire conception of a voluntary rather than state-subsidized church required that religious practice be uncoerced. The government might enforce outward obedience through the threat of punishment, they argued, yet this would hardly make anyone more devout. Today their arguments seem so self-evident that it is difficult to understand the perspective of medieval and early modern Christians, who viewed heresy as a moral and spiritual plague and thought that the death of heretics was necessary for the good of society.
In many ways, however, it was the Enlightenment rather than Roman Catholic or Protestant theology that did the most to promote the ideal of religious tolerance. Secular thinkers regarded the religious wars of the 1500s and 1600s with horror and argued that the state needed to rest on a nonreligious and nonsectarian foundation. Some founders of the United States, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were Enlightenment deists rather than traditional Christians, and the U.S. constitution provided for freedom of religion and the nonestablishment of any church. In Europe during the early 1800s, Jews, who were the largest non-Christian minority in most regions, were gradually given citizenship rights that had formerly been limited to Christians.
The principle of church-state separation, though growing in influence throughout the 1800s, provoked a backlash in Roman Catholicism. In the Syllabus of Errors (1864), Pope Pius IX rejected the principles of freedom of religion and of the press and favored a statesponsored church. The “Americanist” controversy, provoked by Pope Leo XIII’s Testem Benevolentiae (1899; “Witness to Good Will”), involved similar ideas. Yet the Second Vatican Council, which explicitly affirmed freedom of conscience, has revised earlier Catholic teaching, and many nations in Europe and Latin America that formerly declared Roman Catholicism to be the national church have amended their constitutions.
Christian attitudes toward social issues follow from the basic themes of the Hebrew and Judaic tradition. The God of the Hebrews was not tribal but rather a universal deity. The Bible declares God to be just and compassionate toward all humanity, and the Hebrews had to exhibit the same traits. Thus, Christianity carried over from Judaism a transcendent God and social ideal. The early church brought together people from widely separated social classes, including slaves, noblemen, barbarians, highborn women, and Jews. Equally surprising to pagans was Christian’s compassion. They raised abandoned infants as their own, fed the poor, and attended the sick. Christian inclusiveness and compassion derived not only from Judaism but also from the example of Jesus, who associated with disreputable people in his society and so set a pattern for ministry to outcastes. His ministry touched women as well as men, and, contrary to the rabbinical customs of the time, he allowed women to be his pupils.
In the fifth century Patrick, a former slave, became one of the first persons in history to condemn slavery in principle. Early and medieval monasticism included service to the community as practiced by Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits. Many female religious orders, including the Poor Clares, Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of Charity, have been almost exclusively oriented toward serving the needy. The early Protestants also demonstrated a concern for social needs. During the 1540s and 1550s, John Calvin created a social welfare system in Geneva that cared for the poor and needy. The Radical Reformers, though not institution builders, were generous toward outsiders, and to the present day the Mennonite Central Committee sends emergency workers all over the globe. Like the Mennonites, George Fox (1624-91) and his followers (Quakers) were known for their pacifism, and the Quakers have strenuously worked toward the nonviolent resolution of conflicts. The Pietist movement in Germany, led by August Francke in the early 1700s, had a strong bent toward social welfare. The Moravians, led by Count Nicholas Zinzendorf (1700-60), were radical Pietists who lived in community, prayed in shifts 24 hours a day, and, in one case, allowed themselves to be sold into slavery so that they could serve among Caribbean slaves.
The evangelical revivals of the 1700s brought a new concern for social issues. John Wesley’s movement brought many working-class people into the church, and in time Methodism became an engine of social reform. Historically the British Labour Party found inspiration and support in Methodism, which emerged outside the ruling class and voiced the concerns of ordinary people.
Evangelicals like William Wilberforce led in the campaign to end the slave trade and make slavery illegal. In 1861 William Booth (1829-1912) and Catherine Booth (1829-90) founded the Salvation Army to meet the needs of the urban poor by providing “soap, soup, and salvation.” In the United States the separation of church and state led in the 1800s to the formation of many voluntary societies devoted to such causes as temperance, the abolition of slavery, observance of the Sabbath, and foreign missions. The revivalist Charles Finney (1792-1875) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), the novelist daughter of a revivalist, did much to initiate the abolitionist movement. After the Civil War a new generation of reformers lobbied for labor reforms and woman suffrage. American Protestant women, meeting in ladie’s guilds or church auxiliaries, played a growing role in social reform movements. In Germany the Innere Mission sought prison reform and better provision for the homeless and mentally deficient.
In his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII laid the foundation for more than a century of Roman Catholic social teaching. Though the Catholic Church had earlier shown ambivalence toward labor groups, this document marked a new era in which the church identified with the concerns of workers. Rerum Novarum sought a middle way between unregulated capitalism and state-sponsored socialism. Later encyclicals by Pope Pius XI and Pope John Paul II brought further refinements to this approach. The Catholic Worker movement of Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and Peter Maurin (1877-1949) gave concrete expression to the church’s concern for the urban poor. Thomas Merton (1915-68), Philip Berrigan (1923-2002), and Daniel Berrigan (born in 1921) were critics of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and the Berrigan brothers were imprisoned for destroying draft records and for other acts of civil disobedience.
Among Protestants the twentieth century brought division. Modernists, who were socially progressive and theologically nontraditional, felt increasingly estranged from conservatives, who after 1910 became known as “fundamentalists.” Throughout the 1800s conservatives had been active in social causes, but by the early 1900s such social activism was associated with the Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and theological modernism. Beginning in the 1970s, however, conservative Protestants in the United States began to reenter the field of social activism in greater numbers. Since the 1960s liberation theology has brought a radical rethinking of Christian theology from the standpoint of God’s special concern for the poor.
The cultural impact of Christianity becomes conspicuous when it is set against the backdrop of Greco-Roman society. Slaves and women had little status, and most people regarded life as expendable. Individuals had value only to the extent that they contributed to the greater good of the family and the state. Christianity exhibited a strikingly different attitude. Because God loved all individuals, Christians opposed abortion, infanticide, child abandonment, and the gladiatorial games. They maintained a moral standard of chastity outside marriage and faithfulness within, though some early Christian councils upheld a more stringent law for women than for men. Sex belonged in married life and was not for public display.
Thus, Christian attitudes toward sex, marriage, and the family had pronounced effects in the lives of women. The exhortation for husbands to “love your wives” (Ephesians 5:25) was unknown in the Greco-Roman world. Christianity gave men ideals, even if they did not always live up to them. In disapproving of extramarital sex, spousal neglect, divorce, polygamy, and power mongering, Christianity did much to create a new ideal of domestic respect and familial harmony.
It is clear from the biblical stories concerning Jesus that he respectfully addressed women who were social outcastes and drew many female followers. Paul referred to Phoebe as a “deacon” (Romans 16:1), or officeholder in the church, and designated Euodia and Syntyche as his “co-workers” (Philippians 4:2-3). Women’s legal rights changed because of Christian influence. Greek and Roman women had little personal freedom. They could not divorce their husbands and could not receive an inheritance unless they were under manus (a man’s control). Beginning in the 400s, however, wives under Roman law were able to divorce an unfaithful husband. Polygamy slowly disappeared in Christian regions, and women also received inheritance rights.
In modern times Christians have opposed many of the egregious abuses of women around the world. Christian principles led the British authorities in 1829 to ban the Indian practice of suttee, the burning alive of widows at their husband’s funerals. Foot binding, which caused pain and often led to infection or amputation, was outlawed in China in 1912, with Christian missionaries leading the opposition. Neither the giving of child brides nor female genital mutilation (clitoridectomy) has endured in regions with a strong Christian influence. Those who led the campaign for woman suffrage in the United States included many, like Frances Willard, who began as social activists in churches, and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s was rooted in the Christian church.
Jesus condemned divorce as well as the lustful attitudes that lead husbands and wives to reject their spouses to marry someone else (Matthew 5:27-32; Mark 10:1-12). Both Jesus and Paul appealed to the statement in Genesis that “they become one flesh” (2:24), interpreting this to mean that a husband and wife enter into an indissoluble unity. Certain New Testament texts intimate, however, that divorce might be allowed in the case of adultery (Matthew 5:32) and perhaps if willful desertion has occurred, especially on the part of an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15). Martin Luther suggested that impotence might be grounds for divorce. In modern times Christian pastors and counselors have discussed whether physical or verbal abuse, substance addiction, or simple marital unhappiness is a basis for divorce.
Today many Christian churches agree that at least some divorces are justified and allow divorced members to remarry with the church’s blessing. Orthodoxy, for instance, allows remarriage but uses a more subdued ceremony than for a first marriage. Evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals tend to oppose divorce. The Roman Catholic Church does not acknowledge the legitimacy of divorce but insists that a physical separation of spouses, without the right to remarry in the church, is all that can be offered. On the other hand, it allows for annulment, which declares that an alleged marriage has no sacramental validity.
Jesus’ teaching refers to a “husband” and “wife” in the singular, and references to Genesis also make it clear that monogamy rather than polygamy is understood as normative. Paul seems to have excluded polygamists from leadership in churches (Titus 1:6). As Christianity became dominant, many nations passed laws forbidding polygamy. The question reemerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in Africa, where before contact with Christianity there had been a strong tradition of multiple wives for one husband. Many Western missionaries excluded polygamous households from the full benefits of church membership, and if they wished to be baptized, polygamists sometimes had to separate from all but one spouse. Some African Initiated Churches defend polygamy on the precedents offered by such Old Testament patriarchs as Abraham.
Paul used Genesis 2:24 as the basis for sexual ethics. Because sex creates a bond of “one flesh” between the partners, it is not to be pursued outside a marriage covenant (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). Many societies throughout the world have been tolerant of sexual activity between unmarried persons, but Christianity regards this as a sin almost as serious as adultery. Homosexual practice is debated in some Christian churches, but it is hard to find biblical texts or Christian writings before the late 1900s that favor it. Some argue that the church might reconsider the issue, however, just as it has its stance on slavery and women’s rights.
The first imperative given in the Bible is to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), and some people argue that the bearing of offspring is an inherent part of God’s purpose for sexuality. Roman Catholic teaching, made explicit in the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968; “Of Human Life”), holds that it is sinful to interfere with the process of conception by means of artificial birth control. Not only is it wrong to destroy an actual life through abortion but it is also wrong to prevent life from coming into existence through contraception. Catholic teaching allows for “natural family planning,” which restricts sexual intercourse to the monthly periods when a woman is infertile and unlikely to conceive. In the decades since Humanae Vitae, however, many Catholics in developed nations have ignored the official church ban on contraception. Protestants generally accept the legitimacy of contraception for married couples, while the Orthodox attitude has been ambivalent.
Political attitudes vary among Christians. In Christ and Culture H. Richard Niebuhr concluded that Christians have sometimes pulled away from secular society (“Christ against culture”), sought to create a synthesis of church and society (“Christ of culture”), or applied Christian principles to reform society (“Christ transforming culture”). When the church has existed as a small countercultural group—the early Christians, the Radical Reformers of the 1500s, or modern communes—it has often ignored politics. When the church has been culturally dominant, as with Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, it has generally attempted to incorporate Christian principles into political life. When the church has been an expanding social force, as with Puritanism, it has sought to transform society, sometimes with the aim of achieving an ideal Christian community on earth.
Those who hold the ideal of “Christ against culture” are often pacifists, rejecting all use of violence. Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and some Roman Catholics share this viewpoint. The Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus commands his followers to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), is cited in favor of pacifism. Yet most Christians hold that force is legitimate under specific situations, explained in terms of the just-war theory. For a war to be just, there must be a genuine effort to find peaceful means of resolving the conflict, the cause itself must be just and not for selfish ends, a distinction must be maintained between combatants and noncombatants, and the force used must be proportionate to the situation. Just-war proponents cite Paul’s teaching that the political state is given a “sword” to protect the innocent (Romans 13:1-4).
In distinction to the just-war theory is the idea of a holy war, a conflict of the righteous against the wicked inaugurated by God himself. While certain Old Testament passages speak of God commanding the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites, the New Testament contains nothing of the kind. Instead, Jesus tells Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Although the idea of holy war is not commonplace in Christianity, it appeared in the medieval Crusades, in the sixteenth-century radical Thomas Muentzer, and among white European colonists in New England, Latin America, and South Africa who sought to justify their actions against indigenous peoples.
The limited powers of government and the rights of the individual are basic principles in Judeo-Christian civilization. The Israelites considered their kings as subject to a higher law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). They concerned themselves with offenses against people, and crimes committed against the lower classes were punished. Thus, the notion of the equality of all persons under the law had its roots in ancient Israel, and Christianity carried this tradition into the medieval and modern period. For example, the Magna Carta of 1215, which received strong endorsement from the head of the English church, laid the foundation for individual rights in England and, indirectly, for the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, which itself has been a model for other nation-states.
Whereas the Greeks and Romans regarded manual labor as fit only for slaves, the early Christians, who often arose from the lower classes, had a positive attitude toward such work. Jesus, a carpenter before he began his ministry, served as a role model. Thus, Christianity has had the effect of giving dignity to ordinary work. During the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted that ordinary lay Christians—in distinction from priests, monks, and nuns—had a “vocation,” or “calling,” to serve God in their everyday activities. This teaching had a powerful effect in promoting economic development, with the sociologist Max Weber arguing in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that Calvinistic Protestantism laid the foundation for modern capitalism.
The Romans spoke of liberalitas (generosity) as something given to impress others and win favors in return. Christiancaritas (charity), however, was given to those in need without concern for repayment. Early Christians had a fund to support widows, the disabled, orphans, the sick, and prisoners and to provide for burials for the poor and the release of slaves. When plagues broke out, Christians cared for the sick in peril to their own health. In the late 300s Christians founded the nos-comia, probably the first institutions to provide ongoing care for the sick in the general populace. The church also founded orphanages, houses for travelers, institutions for the blind, and the first homes for the aged (gerontocomia). By the end of the thirteenth century, the Order of the Holy Ghost had opened more than 800 orphanages, and by the mid-1500s some 37,000 Benedictine monasteries cared for the sick. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), founded in 1844 in London, provided aid in urban regions, as did the Salvation Army of William and Catherine Booth. Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, a devout Christian and member of Parliament, was instrumental in the Factory Act of 1833, which protected children from economic exploitation. In the nineteenth century Christian compassion motivated Dorothea Dix, who led a movement to improve care for the mentally ill; Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton, important figures in the field of nursing; and Jean Henry Dunant, who founded the International Red Cross.
As early as the second century, Christians founded catechetical schools for new converts, which may have been the first to teach both sexes in the same setting. From the beginning Christian education was not limited to the upper classes, as was customary in Greco-Roman civilization. During the ninth and tenth centuries, monks kept alive the traditions of classical learning by recopying texts that would otherwise have vanished. The monastic leader Benedict has been called the “the godfather of libraries,” and his Benedictines collected and loaned books. From the fourth to the tenth centuries, cathedral schools offered instruction in the seven liberal arts: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). While these schools were primarily for the clergy, they admitted others as well. Girls were educated in monasteries and nunneries.
It can be argued that the European university emerged out of the monasteries. During the medieval period the Christian character of the universities—Paris, Bologna, Salamanca, Oxford, Cambridge, and others—was unmistakable. In the 1500s and 1600s Protestanism was a religion of the book, and the desire to prepare learned ministers led to the founding of new institutions in Europe (Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Leiden) and America (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton). Protestants believed in universal education, and Martin Luther seems to have been the first modern author to urge compulsory school attendance. In 1837 Friedrich Froebel, son of a Lutheran pastor, began the first kindergarten in Europe. A number of Christians, including Thomas Gallaudet and Louis Braille, led in the education of the deaf and the blind. With the exception of the University of Pennsylvania, every college founded in America before the Revolutionary War began through the effort of a Christian church. Churches established more than 90 percent of all U.S. colleges founded before the Civil War.
The early Christians wrote doctrinal, moral, and apologetic works. By the fourth century they had begun to exhibit a new confidence, as shown in Jerome’s On Illustrious Men (393), which argued that Christian orators, philosophers, and writers could rival the best that paganism had to offer. Augustine’s City of God (426) argued that Christians could pursue the life of the mind as a form of service to God. Major works that are distinctly Christian include Alcuin’s Rhetoric and Virtue (790s); Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1321); Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1380s); Desiderius Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly (1511); the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry of John Donne and George Herbert; John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), perhaps the greatest poem in the English language; Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (1670); John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678); Charles Dicken’ss A Christmas Carol (1843); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880); Four Quartets (1943) and other poetry and prose by T.S. Eliot; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55); C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1942), Mere Christianity (1943), and The Chronicles of Narnia (1950); and the works of G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Shusako Endo.
Bible translations have had a major impact on literature. During the ninth century Cyril and Methodius invented the Glagolitic alphabet to render the sounds of the Slavic language and thus laid the foundation for Russian and other Slavic literatures. Through his translation of the complete Bible in 1534, Martin Luther established the modern German language. Similarly, the Authorized, or King James, Version of 1611 had an extensive influence on English usage, with hundreds of common expressions derived from it. In addition, biblical themes percolate through the entire Western literary tradition.
According to the New Testament, Jesus sang with his disciples on the night before his death (Matthew 26:30). Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they were to “speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19), and evidence indicates that certain biblical texts were sung before the New Testament was written (1 Timothy 3:16; Philippians 2:5-11). In the fourth century Ambrose had members of his congregation sing psalms, wrote hymns in metrical forms that all could follow, and thus laid the basis for congregational singing in the Western church. By the ninth century plainsong—music sung monophonically and without accompaniment and named Gregorian chant in honor of Pope Gregory I—was in common use. As early as the ninth century, biblical stories were dramatized and performed in the altar area of French churches, and modern opera evolved out of these dramas.
Ubaldus Hucbald (840-930), a French Benedictine, combined two or more melodies in harmony, thus ushering in polyphony, and Guido of Arezzo (c. 995-1050), another Benedictine, introduced the musical staff to indicate the pitch of notes and introduced the system of naming them. From the high Middle Ages until the twentieth century, every new form in Western music emerged in the context of church sponsorship and patronage. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), one of the greatest composers of all time, was a man of such profound Christian faith that he has been called “the fifth evangelist.” At the end of each manuscript he wrote Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory). Great religious works by classical composers include Bach’s masterpiece, Saint Matthew Passion, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah,Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ and The Creation, as well as numerous works by such modern composers as Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen. These composers were practicing Christians who saw their music as an expression of worship.
The rich traditions of Christian hymnody, which began in the eighteenth century with Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, have continued to proliferate. There seems to be no musical style that has not been used for Christian purposes. Moreover, the direction of influence has often run from the sacred to the secular. Ray Charles, for example, scandalized some Christians in the mid-twentieth century when he used the emotive spiritual style of the black church in such secular songs as “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” Even earlier, blues and jazz grew out of black spirituals, which were a form of sacred song.
Before 200, Christianity developed little in terms of a tradition of visual arts, and this has been attributed to the persecution of the church, to the expectation of the speedy end of the world, and to the Jewish prohibition against the making of images that persisted among early Christians. Yet Christian ossuaries from the first and second centuries bore simple symbols—ships, plows, stars, trees, etc—that carried a Christian meaning. Early Christians borrowed from Greco-Roman artistic traditions. Jesus appeared in the guise of the pagan gods Orpheus, Apollo, and Dionysius, and holding a magician’s wand when he healed. In the late third century, Roman catacombs were decorated with images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (a pre-Christian, Mediterranean motif), and a host of Old Testament figures—e.g., Jonah, Noah, and Daniel—in dramatic scenes of rescue and deliverance, often in the orans (lit., “praying”) posture with hands upraised. When Christianity received sanction in the Roman Empire, the theme of rescue diminished and artistic works began to depict such regal and imperial scenes as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Jesus’ enthronement as cosmic ruler (as in the Byzantine Pantokrator or “universal ruler”).
The imperial sponsorship of Christianity encouraged new architectural traditions. The basilica—a place for Greco-Roman public gatherings—was adapted for Christian use beginning in the fourth century, with an altar set in the curved apse that had contained a statue of the emperor. The round tombs of rulers and heroes were used for saint’s graves and sites of martyrdom. The floors often contained stone mosaics. Jesus appeared as clean-shaven youth, and only later portrayed as bearded and middle-aged. For centuries there were virtually no images of the crucifixion or a suffering Christ. Because of the destruction of Ethiopian Christian art by Muslims, most remaining monuments in Ethiopia date from the tenth or eleventh centuries, and these include the rock churches of Lalibela as well as vibrant murals and altarpieces exhibiting a distinctive Ethiopian style.
Constantine (d. 337) helped create a Byzantine artistic tradition when he moved his capital to Constantinople, and, with help from his mother, Helena, erected the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (328-36) on the supposed site of Jesu’s death and burial in Jerusalem. Christian sculpture was rare until well into the medieval period, and yet painting on wood panels offered images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Justinian created an enduring legacy of Christian architecture in the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia, 532-37) in Constantinople, a structure melding the basilica and round church into a huge, light-filled space, with a largest dome ever created up to that time. The iconoclastic controversy in the Eastern Church (726-843) resulted in the destruction of icons, mosaics, and paintings, yet ended with an affirmation of art’s devotionality. Reverence for an icon was reverence for Christ. Icon-painting reached a pinnacle with Andrei Rublev (ca. 1360-1430), whose images exude warmth and humanness.
In the west, the Celtic monks of Ireland and Scotland exhibited a unique aesthetic style in the dense ornamentation of the illustrated Book of Kells (ca. 800). On the continent, Charlemagne erected an octagonal chapel at Aachen (792-805) patterned after Byzantine models. Breaking with Byzantium, Franco-German artists began to produce images of a suffering Savior–including a dead, life-sized crucifix at Cologne—starting in the 900s. In the later eleventh and the twelfth centuries, the Romanesque style of architecture adopted the arch and vault of the ancient Romans, and merged the basilica plan with a system of aisles and ambulatories. Booty brought back from the crusades allowed Europeans artisans to produce reliquaries and liturgical objects with precious metals and gemstones. Though some criticized this lavish used of wealth, Abbot Suger (1081-1151) considered the contemplation of precious things as a path to God. The Gothic style, beginning in the twelfth century, is generally regarded as the highest Christian achievement in architecture. By shifting the weight of stone roofs and towers onto columns, piers, and external butresses, Gothic churches rose in height. Walls were no longer load-bearing, and so contained stained-glass windows that flooded the interior with light.
The 1200s and 1300s witnessed a newer, naturalistic style in painting and sculpture—a trend culminating in the artistic brilliance of the Renaissance era. The bubonic plague of 1348-50 temporarily reversed the trend, and brought a return to more somber themes and less naturalistic images. By the 1400s Flemish painters showed the Virgin Mary in the cozy surroundings of a middle-class home, with household objects as spiritual symbols (e.g., a vase of lilies representing purity). Those who commissioned paintings were sometimes represented in the works alongside of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Mathematical principles, such as symbolic ratios, geometry, and one-point perspective, were seen as reflections of God’s own mind, and began to govern the work of artists and architects. Raphael was considered to have attained a perfect style. Yet Michelangelo—perhaps the first fully independent artist—produced the even more celebrated masterworks of the Sistine Chapel and statues of David and Moses. By the late 1500s, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) and others in the Mannerist style broke with earlier traditions by presenting elongated figures that strain and twist. Christian art in Germany continued to highlight suffering and compassion, as shown in Matthias Gruenwald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1510-15) and its poignant image of the crucifixion.
Many early Protestants were iconoclasts like Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), who stripped medieval churches of all artwork and whitewashed their interiors. The iconoclastic style was also in vogue among John Calvin and his followers, including the Puritans of colonial New England, whose meetinghouses lacked representational art. Martin Luther acknowledged that religious art served a didactic function, and so Lutherans were never strict iconoclasts—though they like other Protestants often rejected religious sculpture. Anglican artistic sensibilities owed something to both Protestant and Catholic viewpoints. Protestant church buildings of the 1500s and 1600s eliminated the high altar, and raised the pulpit higher than ever—symbolizing the importance of the preached word.
Roman Catholics responded to Protestantism by highlighting the visual arts, though carefully controlling their content. (A Venetian artist, Veronese [1528-1588], who portrayed the Last Supper in 1573 was called before the Inquisition for incorporating dwarves, animals, and Germans into his painting!) Ironically, this highly controlled church art was also highly sensual, and featured saints of both sexes (sometimes nearly nude) writhing in agony or ecstasy. Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” (1545-52) is a kind of religious theater, with erotic undertones. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Spaniard Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) offered stark scenes of saints lost in devotion, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens painted allegorical scenes in bright colors, while the Dutchman Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) treated religious themes with a finesse and psychological depth that has never been surpassed, as in his “Return of the Prodigal Son” (ca. 1665). In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, aristocratic patrons of the arts lost interest in religious themes, and a secularizing tendency was apparent. Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) painted historical images with moral themes that substituted for traditional religious art.
Because of the influence of Enlightenment thought, which regards religion as a personal preference rather than an ultimate truth, the relationship between art and faith has become problematic during the modern era. Some consider “Christian art” as an antiquated category since about 1800. During the 1800s and 1900s, romantics, impressionists, cubists, expressionists, surrealists, and abstract artists offered works that touched on Christian themes, but often used religious images in ambiguous ways. Christian artists found themselves in a precarious position, since fellow artists did not share their faith commitment and fellow Christians did not welcome their aesthetic innovations. Critics of modern art have stigmatized it as formless, chaotic, and unsuitable for expressing spiritual truths. Yet earlier Romantics, such as William Blake (1757-1827) and P. O. Runge (1777-1810), delved deeply into religious themes. C. D. Friedrich (1774-1840) sought a religious dimension in his landscape painting. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) experimented with religious themes in his “Yellow Christ” (1889) and “Ave Maria” (1891), as Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)—preacher-turnedartist—dreamt of renewing Christian art, and conveyed a spiritual presence through his intense expressionism. The Eisenach regulation (1861) mandated the Gothic style for church buildings in Germany, and church architecture of the last two centuries has generally mimicked earlier Christian styles or else followed a more functional and secular approach.
Religious themes occur marginally, though impressively, in works by Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985). A twentieth-century artist of international stature known for his Christian faith is Georges Rouault (1871-1958). The Jesuit order has established the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (St. Louis, USA) and the Center for Contemporary Art (Cologne, Germany). Pope John Paul II has sought to reestablish the relationship of the church to artists, and of artists to the church, through his “Letter to Artists” (1999). A recent development is the Christian use of non-Western artistic media and content by Third World artists in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, India, Sri Lanka, Bali, China, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. In light of this growing trend, the future development of Christian art could occur largely outside of the Western nations.