VIII. Christianity
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Of all the great religions Christianity is the most widespread and has the largest number of adherents. The figure is probably inflated, but registries list almost one out of every three persons today as Christian, bringing the number into the neighborhood of one and one-half billion.

The Historical Jesus

Christianity is basically a historical religion. That is to say, it is founded not on abstract principles but in concrete events, actual historical happenings.

The most important of these is the life of a Jewish carpenter who, as has often been pointed out, was born in a stable, was executed as a criminal at age thirty-three, never traveled more than ninety miles from his birthplace, owned nothing, attended no college, marshaled no army, and instead of producing books did his only writing in the sand.

The biographical details of Jesus’ life are so meager that early in this century some investigators went so far as to suggest that he may never have lived. That possibility was soon rejected, but the impact of Albert Schweitzer’s century-dominating Quest for the Historical Jesus reduced what the world was hearing about Jesus from biblical scholars to two points: We know almost nothing about him; and of the little we know, what is most certain is that he was wrong— this last referred to his putative belief that the world would quickly come to an end.

“The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me.”  Who, then, was this Jesus whom New Testament scholars are beginning to return to view? He was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great, probably around 4 B.C.—our reckoning of the centuries that purports to date from his birth is almost certainly off by several years . He grew up in or near Nazareth, presumably after the fashion of other normal Jews of the time . He was baptized by John, a dedicated prophet who was electrifying the region with his proclamation of God’s coming judgment. In his early thirties he had a teaching-healing career , which lasted between one and three years and was focused largely in Galilee. In time he incurred the hostility of some of his own compatriots and the suspicion of Rome, which led to his crucifixion on the outskirts of Jerusalem. From these facts that fix the framework of Jesus’ life, we turn to the life that was lived within that framework.

“By the Spirit of God I Cast Out Demons.” In what has proved to be one of our century’s most durable books about religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James tells us that “in its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.”

“By the Spirit of God I Cast Out Demons.”  Until recently, modern science seemed to question the reality of unseen entities; but with Eddington’s observation that the world is more like a mind than a machine, and astrophysicists ’ reports that 90 percent of the “matter” in the universe is invisible in the sense that it impacts none of their instruments, scientific skepticism has begun to subside .

“Thy Kingdom Come, on Earth.”  Politically , the position of the Jews in Jesus’ time was desperate. They had been in servitude to Rome for the better part of a century and, along with their loss of freedom, were being taxed almost beyond endurance . Existing responses to their predicament were four.
Sadducees, who were relatively well off, favored making the best of a bad situation and accommodated themselves to Hellenistic culture and Roman rule.

The Essenes considered the world as too corrupt to allow for Judaism to renew itself within it, so they dropped out. Withdrawing into property-sharing communes, they devoted themselves to lives of disciplined piety.
Pharisees, on the other hand, remained within society and sought to revitalize Judaism through adhering strictly to the Mosaic law, especially its holiness code.
Representatives of the fourth position have been referred to as
Zealots, but it is doubtful that they were sufficiently organized to deserve a name. Despairing that any change could occur without brute force, they launched sporadic acts of resistance that culminated in the catastrophic revolt of 66– 70 A.D., which led to the second destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Into this political cauldron Jesus introduced
a fifth option. Unlike the Sadducees, he wanted change. Unlike the Essenes, he stayed in the world. Unlike the advocates of the military option, he extolled peacemakers and urged that even enemies be loved. It was the Pharisees that Jesus stood closest to, for the difference between them was one of emphasis only. The Pharisees stressed Yahweh’s holiness, while Jesus stressed Yahweh’s compassion; but the Pharisees would have been the first to insist that Yahweh was also compassionate, and Jesus that Yahweh was holy.

The Christ of Faith

How does one move from the Jesus of history, whose life and work have thus far occupied us, to the Christ whom his followers came to believe had been God in human form?

“He Went About Doing Good.”  We begin with what Jesus did. For one thing, Jesus did not emphasize his miracles. He never used them as devices to strong-arm people into believing in him.
“Never Spoke Man Thus.”  It was not only what Jesus did, however, that made his contemporaries think of him in new dimensions. It was also what he said.

“We Have Seen His Glory.” “There is in the world,” writes Dostoevsky, “only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ. That infinitely lovely figure is… an infinite marvel.”

The End and the Beginning

The way that Jesus’ earthly ministry ended is known to everyone. After mingling with his people and teaching them for a number of months, he was crucified.

What is clear is that Jesus’ followers began to experience him in a new way, namely as having the qualities of God.

Faith in Jesus’ resurrection produced the Church and its Christology. To grasp the power of the belief, we must see that it did not merely concern the fate of a worthy man. Its claim extended ultimately to the status of goodness in the universe, contending that it was all-powerful.

The Good News

The conviction that Jesus continued to live transformed a dozen or so disconsolate followers of a slain and discredited leader into one of the most dynamic groups in human history.

If we had been living around the eastern Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Christian era, we might have noticed scratched here and there on the sides of walls and houses or simply on the ground the crude outline of a fish. Had we been Christians we would have seen these drawings as the logo for the Good News. The heads of the fish would have pointed us toward the place where the local Christian group held its underground meetings.

The fish was one of their favorites, for the Greek letters for the word fish are also the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” This was the Good News, epitomized in the crude outline of an ordinary fish.

The Mystical Body of Christ

The first Christians who spread the Good News throughout the Mediterranean world did not feel themselves to be alone. They were not even alone together, for they believed that Jesus was in their midst as a concrete, energizing power.

The Mind of the Church

It was not the disciples’ minds that were first drawn to Jesus. Rather, we have seen, it was their experience— the experience of living in the presence of someone whose selfless love, crystalline joy, and preternatural power came together in a way his disciples found divinely mysterious.

It was only a matter of time, however, before Christians felt the need to understand this mystery in order to explain it to themselves and to others. Christian theology was born, and from then on the Church was head as well as heart.

Forced in this brief survey to choose, we shall confine ourselves to Christianity’s three most distinctive tenets:
the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Trinity.

New Testament scholars sometimes fall into step with this mood to the extent of trying to draw a sharp line between the “religion of Jesus” and “the religion about Jesus,” between the forthright ethics of Jesus and the convoluted theology of Paul, between the human Jesus and the cosmic Christ, with strong insinuations that in each case the former is the nobler.

The Christian Creeds are the bedrock of Christian theology for being the earliest attempts by Christians to understand systematically the events that had changed their lives.

When in the year 325 the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea to decide whether Christ was of the same substance as God or only of like substance, three hundred bishops and their attendants came rushing in a frenzy of excitement from all over the empire. They must have presented a strange sight, for many of them bore empty eye sockets, disfigured faces, and limbs that were twisted and paralyzed from the Diocletian persecution they had endured.

Turning to the doctrine of the
Atonement, we know that its root meaning is reconciliation, the recovery of wholeness or at-one-ment.

The third key Christian doctrine that we shall consider is the
Trinity. It holds that while God is fully one, God is also three. The latter half of this claim leads Jews and Muslims to wonder if Christians are truly monotheists, but Christians are confident that they are.

And then came Pentecost, which brought a third visitation. While they were all together in one place, suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2: 1– 4)

Roman Catholicism

Up to 313 the Church struggled in the face of official Roman persecution. In that year it became legally recognized and enjoyed equal rights with other religions of the empire. Before the century was out, in 380, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. With a few minor splinterings, such as the Nestorians, it continued as a united body up to 1054. This means that for roughly half its history the Church remained substantially one institution. In 1054, however, its first great division occurred, between the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West.

Instead we move to the next great division, which occurred in the Western Church with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Protestantism follows four main courses— Baptist, Lutheran, Calvinists, and Anglican— which themselves subdivide until the current census lists over 900 denominations in the United States alone.

Beginning with the Roman Catholic Church, we shall confine ourselves to what are perhaps the two most important concepts for the understanding of this branch of Christendom: the Church as teaching authority, and the Church as sacramental agent.

Ultimately, this idea of the Church as teaching authority shapes the idea of
papal infallibility. The doctrine of papal infallibility asserts that when the pope speaks officially on matters of faith or morals, God stays him against error.

The Church as Sacramental Agent. The second idea central to Roman Catholicism is the idea of the Church as sacramental agent. Since the twelfth century the number of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church has been fixed at seven. In a striking way these parallel the great moments and needs of human life.
The central Sacrament of the Catholic Church is the Mass, known also as the Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper.

Eastern Orthodoxy

The Eastern Orthodox Church, which today has somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 million communicants, broke officially with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054, each charging the other with responsibility for the break.

It honors the same seven Sacraments and interprets them in fundamental respects exactly as does the Roman Church.

In practice the Church has exercised her prerogative as interpreter only seven times, in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, all of which were held before 787. This means that the Eastern Church assumes that though the articles a Christian must believe are decisive, their number is relatively few.

The Eastern Church has no pope— if we want to epitomize the difference between the two Churches, it is this. Instead, it holds that God’s truth is disclosed through “the conscience of the Church,” using this phrase to refer to the consensus of Christians generally.

Whereas the administration of the Roman Church is avowedly hierarchical, the Eastern Church grounds more of its decisions in the laity.

The Eastern Church encourages the mystical life more actively. From very early times, when the deserts near Antioch and Alexandria were filled with hermits seeking illumination, the mystical enterprise has occupied a more prominent place in its life.


The causes that led to the break between Roman Catholicism and what came to be known as Protestant Christianity are complex and still in dispute. Political economy, nationalism, Renaissance individualism, and a rising concern over ecclesiastical abuses all played their part. They do not, however, camouflage the fact that the basic cause was religious, a difference in Christian perspective between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.


Faith, in the Protestant conception, is not simply a matter of belief, an acceptance of knowledge held with certainty yet not on evidence. It is a response of the entire self; in Emil Brunner’s phrase, “a totality-act of the whole personality.”
The Protestant Principle.
The other controlling perspective in Protestantism has come to be called the Protestant Principle. Stated philosophically, it warns against absolutizing the relative. Stated theologically, it warns against idolatry. The chief Protestant idolatry has been Bibliolatry. Protestants do believe that God speaks to people through the Bible as in no other way. But to elevate it as a book to a point above criticism, to insist that every word and letter was dictated directly by God and so can contain no historical, scientific, or other inaccuracies, is again to forget that in entering the world, God’s word must speak through human minds.

Actually, 85 percent of all Protestants belong to twelve denominations. Considering the freedom of belief Protestantism affirms in principle, the wonder lies not in its diversity but in the extent to which Protestants have managed to stay together.