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
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
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
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.
who were relatively well off, favored making the best of a bad situation
and accommodated themselves to Hellenistic culture and Roman rule.
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.
on the other hand, remained within society and sought to revitalize
Judaism through adhering strictly to the Mosaic law, especially its
Representatives of the fourth position have been referred to as
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
we know that its root meaning is reconciliation, the recovery of wholeness
The third key Christian doctrine that we shall consider is the
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)
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
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
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.
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
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.