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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Christianity

The religion that arose from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ during the first century of the common era. In its two thousand year history, Christianity has grown to become the religion with the largest population with about two billion adherents, but it has also splintered into many denominations and groups. The World Christian Encyclopedia (2003) estimated that in the year 2000, there were 33,800 independent Christian sects all over the world. The largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, had about one billion members; Protestants, about 340,000,000; Orthodox, 215,000,000; the rest consists of Anglicans, Independents and Marginal Christians.

This article will cover its history, including the major denominations that have appeared; the organization and structure of its largest denominations; its scriptures, main doctrines and practices; and its relationship with other religions. For an account of the life of its founder, see JESUS CHRIST. For the theosophical view of Christianity, see CHRISTIANITY, THEOSOPHICAL APPROACHES TO.

HISTORY

Christianity is a daughter religion of Judaism which flourished in Israel. The followers of Jesus believed him to be the promised Messiah of the Jewish people, and this led to an irreconcilable split with the Jews who did not so believe. A further source of division is their view that the teachings were meant even for non-Jews (or the Gentiles). In spite of these differences, what became a new religion, Christianity, still attempted to reconcile itself with the traditional doctrines of the Jewish people. Thus today Christianity uses the entire Tanakh as part of its scriptures, and calls it the Old Testament, despite certain basic incongruities with the new teachings of Jesus and his apostles that are contained in a new collection of writings, called the New Testament. After the death of Jesus, according to the New Testament, the apostles spread out to different parts of Europe and Asia to convert non-Jews to the new faith. Paul (d. 66? ce), formerly Saul of Tarsus, was the primary champion of the faith despite the fact that he did not personally meet Jesus, but was converted sometime after the death of Jesus during one of his travels when he was blinded for three days by a bright light and heard the voice of Jesus. From being a persecutor of Christians, he became the ablest exponent of Christianity. The work of the apostles immediately after the death of Jesus was chronicled in the “Acts of the Apostles” that now form part of the New Testament. The post-apostolic history of Christianity can be divided into four major periods:

1. the period prior to the consolidation of church authority in the 5th century CE;

2. from the 5th century to the 11th century during which it became the state religion of the Roman Empire;

3. from the 11th to the 15th century, when the Church was divided into two major groups: the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church;

4. from 15th century onwards, after Martin Luther and several others sparked the Reformation movement that led to Protestantism and the eventual emergence of thousands of independent Christian churches.

Early Period. Prior to the 5th century, Christians were essentially not organized under one authority. During the time of the apostles, there were at least clear authorities that all Christians hearken to, such as Paul and James, the brother of Jesus, who headed the church in Jerusalem. After their deaths, the authorities gradually centered on the bishops in centers called patriarchates.

By the 2nd century ce, Christians were already divided in their views and these were reflected in the independent groups that flourished during the period, such as The Gnostics, who claimed a heritage of secret teachings, led by Valentinus (2nd cent.), Basilides (2nd cent.) and others. Another was Montanism, started by Montanus who considered himself a new prophet after Christ. Its most well-known convert was Tertullian (3rd cent.) of Carthage. A Persian religion, MANICHAEISM, is also sometimes regarded as a heretical religion although it sprouted as an independent religion. Mani (d. 274), its founder, advocated a dualistic view of the cosmos.

In the fourth century, another major division was caused by Arius (260-336) when he taught that Jesus was not divine and not of the same substance as the Father. Arianism was declared a heresy in 381, but it continued to exist among Germans up to the 7th century. In contrast to this, the Monophysites alleged that Jesus had only one nature, the divine nature. Monophysite churches continue to this day, such as the Coptic Orthodox Church, Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobites), Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The fourth century also saw the rise of the Donatists, who believed that they were the true church, and was influential in North Africa. All these caused schisms within the Church.

During this period, the grounds for the eventual religious monopoly of the Roman Church in the West was already being laid with the conversion of Constantine the Great (272-337) in 312 to Christianity. While he did not declare Christianity to be the state religion, he favored it with gifts and privileges in his empire. This intervention by the state crucially influenced the future of Christianity since political power determined which Christian factions would prevail. It was Constantine who suppressed the Donatist faction by force. In dealing with the Arians, he was more tolerant by calling the Council of Nicaea to resolve the controversy about the nature of Christ. Constantine, by establishing Constantinople as a center of Christianity, also altered the future of the Christian organization.

The sons of Constantine went further than their father in asserting the supremacy of Christianity by suppressing paganism. This trend was reversed when Julian (the Apostate) (d. 363) became emperor. He instead promoted “Hellenism,” while being tolerant to the Christians. His successors however who were Christians returned to the suppression of “paganism,” reaching a point when, during the reign of the Magnus Maximus (d. 388), even a bishop of the Church (Priscillian) was executed for heresy. This had never been done before, and it was a significant milestone in the history of Christianity. From a persecuted church, Christianity grew to become the dominant religion in the largest empire in Europe.

The emergence of seriously conflicting views necessitated the establishment of a common doctrine by the Church. This was done through the councils of bishops. The first one was the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE convened by Constantine and led to the declaration of the Nicene Creed that dogmatized the divinity of Jesus and rejected Arianism, which denied the divinity of Jesus. A total of 21 general councils have been held to this day, the last of which was the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII in 1962-65. Many of them were convened in response to threats of heresy.

The Papacy and the Roman Empire. In the third century, the bishop of Rome began to be considered as the primary one among all the bishops of the Church. This has constantly been challenged by Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Empire. Leo I (440-61) claimed a direct link between Peter and the office of the Roman bishop. Peter was considered as the first pope of Christendom. The wide recognition of this link contributed to the consolidation of the church authority in the bishop of Rome. The term “Papa” (or Pope) used to be a title given to any bishop, but from the 6th century onwards its use became more limited to the bishop of Rome. There were many periods when there were two or more popes contesting the papacy. The rival popes are usually referred as antipopes, such as during the Western Schism (see below).

In the first four centuries, it was assumed that the Emperor had supreme control over the affairs of the state, including religious ones. But by the fifth century, the bishop of Rome, Gelasius I (d. 496), proclaimed the doctrine that the Pope embodied spiritual power while the Emperor was granted temporal power. It was just one step away from a declaration that the Church had temporal power even above Emperors. The first demonstration of this supremacy was when Bishop Ambrose (340-397) of Milan excommunicated Emperor Theodosius and required him to do penance before reinstating him. This power grew such that by the 11th century, when the Roman Emperor Henry IV (1050-1108) attempted to depose Pope Gregory VII (d. 1085) through a council at Worms that Henry convened, the Pope turned the tables by excommunicating the Emperor and effectively deposed Henry IV as king by telling the people that they were released from their allegiance to the king. Henry IV relented in humiliation and had to travel to Rome to ask to be absolved by the Pope.

The East-West Schism. The rivalry between the Eastern Church, with its center in Constantinople, and the Western Church, centered in Rome, grew to a point that a schism became inevitable. In 1054, the Pope Leo IX (1002-54) excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius (1000-1059), who in turn excommunicated the Pope. This created the Eastern Orthodox Church. The immediate reason for the schism was the resentment of the Eastern Church towards changes imposed by Rome without consulting them. One of the them was the addition to the Nicene Creed about the Holy Spirit proceeding from both the Father and Son, an issue called Filioque (“and from the son”). Others were the imposition of clerical celibacy, the use of unleavened bread during the mass, and the limitations on the bishop regarding confirmation. The mutual excommunications of 1054 was but the breaking point of a long series of mutual distrust and resentment between the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople. Two centuries before, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, had already caused a serious schism on the very same issue about the Filioque, which the Eastern Church rejected as an error. The tendency of the Latin Church (Rome) to impose itself on the other Greek patriarchates (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria) had been a constant source of resentment. The Greek centers viewed the five patriarchates as semi-autonomous from each other. Previous schisms had been healed, but the one of 1054 became a permanent one and divided the Church in half: the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was only in 1965 that the two Churches lifted their mutual excommunications but remained separate. To this day, the different centers of the Orthodox Church consider themselves as autocephalous or autonomous, although the Patriarch of Constantinople is still considered as the first among equals.

During this period, the Byzantine Empire whose capital was Constantinople was facing the threat of the Islamic Seljuq Turks. In 1095, Pope Urban II (d. 1099) called for a Christian army to help the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I. This was met with an unexpected enthusiastic response, and this launched the several waves of military expeditions called the Crusades in the next two centuries that sought to regain Jerusalem, particularly the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, from Islamic control. Eight major expeditions and many minor ones were launched that had a major impact on European history. It was due to the Crusades that the Knight Templars were formed in 1120, intended to protect pilgrims going to Jerusalem. The Templars grew not only in numbers but, more significantly, in wealth, such that it virtually became the banking network of Europe, used by kings and commoners, until its suppression in 1307 by King Philip IV (1268-1314) of France and Pope Clement V (1264-1314).

The schism of 1054 enabled the Roman Church to consolidate its power in the West. Within its jurisdiction, it began to impose sanctions on heresy. In 1231, Pope Gregory IX (d. 1241) established the Inquisition to try heretics. In 1252, under Pope Innocent IV (d. 1254), torture was authorized. The Inquisition reached its infamous heights under Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498) in Spain, under whose rule more than 2,000 were burned at stake.

In 1378, however, another schism in the Catholic Church broke out that was to last till 1417. Called the Western Schism, it involved the election of a Pope (Clement VII) by the cardinals in Avignon in France (which used to be the seat of the papacy for 70 years) while Urban VI was still sitting as the Pope in Rome. There were four antipopes during this schism. The schism ended only after the Council of Constance elected Martin V unanimously in 1417.

The Reformation. The most serious setback to the religious monopoly of the Catholic Church in the West was the Reformation, a religious revolution sparked by Martin Luther (1483-1546) on Oct. 31, 1517, in Germany when he posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in protest against the practice of selling of indulgences by the Church. It was, to Luther, not merely a protest against a corrupt practice but a doctrinal break wherein he questioned the Pope’s authority over the fate of the souls in purgatory, and affirmed that the scripture was the basis of the faith. He was excommunicated. Support, however, for Luther spread in northern Europe. In 1536, John Calvin (1509-64) published his proposal for church reform, leading to Calvinism. In the meantime, Henry VIII broke away from Rome in 1534 when Pope Clement VII refused to grant him divorce, thus creating the Anglican Church.

The term Protestants was applied to them by the Diet of Speyer in 1529, convened by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Catholic princes of Germany. The Protestants today form the third of the three major groups of Christianity, in addition to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Protestantism covers a very large number of denominations. In addition to Lutheranism, Calvinism, and the Anglican Church, the other major ones are Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Anabaptist (Amish and Mennonites). Other groups that emerged much later were Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.

DOCTRINES AND STRUCTURES

Scriptures. All of the Christian churches accept the Old and New Testament as scriptures, but they differ as to the exact contents of the Bible (see Bible). The Protestants generally recognize only the books of the Old Testaments found in the Hebrew Tanakh as canonical, while the Roman Catholics and Orthodox Churches accept certain books that were included in the Greek Septuagint translation (See APOCRYPHA). In addition to the scriptures, some of them have added basic books issued by their founders, such as the Book of Mormons for the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.

Doctrines. The earliest statement on the essential elements of the Christian faith was the Apostle’s Creed, which affirmed its belief in God, Jesus, the Trinity, forgiveness of sins, etc. In 325 CE, the Council of Nicaea expanded it into what is now known as the Nicene Creed, which is still the common doctrine of the major Christian denominations: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Roman Catholic Church asserts that the basis of its faith is not only the scriptures but also tradition, that is, the oral teachings of the apostles transmitted through the Church or magisterium. The Pope, in fact, as a successor to Peter, is considered infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. Protestantism, on the other hand, repudiates this reliance on tradition and states the scriptures are the sole source of the teachings (the sola scriptura of Luther). This implies that any Christian can arrive at the truth by understanding the scriptures, thus opening up the issue of diversity of private interpretation of the scripture. Another basic position of Protestantism is justification by faith alone (sola fide) and not by works. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) of the Catholic Church condemned this view.

Other issues have divided the various churches, such as on the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the role and method of baptism, Bible interpretation, and other matters. The Unitarians, for example, reject the Trinity; while the Anabaptists denies the validity of infant baptism, which is widely practiced in the Catholic Church.

Organization. The organization of major Christian denominations may be roughly divided into Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Congregational. Episcopalian churches recognize the authority of bishops, patriarchs and popes. These include the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican Church. The Catholic Church is headed by the Pope in Rome, who is elected by a college of Cardinals. A cardinal is appointed by the Pope as his assistant or adviser. Bishops have charge over their dioceses, while an archbishop is a bishop who exercises administrative powers over bishops. Below them are the clergy, i.e. bishops, priests and deacons.

The clergy are required to be celibate and restricted to males in the Catholic Church. In the Anglican Church, however, women have been allowed. In the Orthodox Churches, priests can be married if they contracted this prior to ordination. Among Protestants, celibacy is generally not required for one to be a pastor or minister.

The Orthodox Churches, while episcopal, are autocephalous. The head of each patriarchy does not report to any higher authority and hence there is no position similar to the Pope of the Catholic Church. The autocephalous Churches are those of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Czech and Slovak, Albania, America and Macedonia. These churches recognize, or are in “full communion” with, each other. Autonomous churches are not considered autocephalous, for their head is appointed by a patriarchate.

Presbyterian churches are organized differently from episcopalian through its rejection of the sole authority of a Pope or archbishops. They are ruled by an assembly of presbyters, bishops or elders.

Congregational churches, on the other hand, consider that each local church is independent. Examples of these are the Anabaptists, Baptists, and Pentecostals. A local church is governed by the congregation itself, and not solely by the pastor or minister, thus preventing abuse of power.

Christianity and Other Religions. Prior to the 20th century, the almost universal attitude of Christian groups towards non-Christian religions had been intolerance. This is particularly true of the major branches of Christianity that believe that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that Jesus is the only savior. A number of factors changed this attitude. First, the advancement of science weakened the doctrinal positions of Christianity. Astronomy, for example, since the time Copernicus and Galileo, had demonstrated that the earth was not the center of the universe or solar system as alleged by the Church. Charles Darwin and archeological fossils had put in doubt the creation story of Genesis. All these had put into question the credibility of the Bible itself, and showed that the Church was subject to error and did not have a monopoly of truth. Second, the need for inter-Christian ecumenism had become more and more necessary to bring about a unity among Christians. Many Churches were claiming that they were the only true Church, thus creating further inter-Christian intolerance. In the Catholic Church, this openness was started by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) in his 1894 encyclical on “The Reunion of Christendom” (Praeclara Gratulationis), and culminated in the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) which issued the decree “Unitatis Redintegratio” in 1964 defining the basis of Christian unity, particularly, the scriptures and baptism.

This inter-Christian ecumenism was but a step away from true global ecumenism that recognized the validity of the spiritual traditions of other non-Christian religions. This next step was taken by Pope Paul VI in his 1965 Declaration “Nostra Aetate

Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

Since then, the Catholic Church had allowed active collaboration between the clergy and members of the Church with the practitioners of other religions. Pope John Paul II has been particularly active in encouraging such exchanges, and even invited the heads of the major religions of the world (Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Muslim, etc.) to interfaith prayers in Assisi, Italy (1986, 1993, and 2002).

See also JESUS CHRIST; CHRISTIANITY, THEOSOPHICAL APPROACHES TO; BIBLE; APOCRYPHA; GNOSTICISM; CHRISTIANITY, ESOTERIC; CHRISTMAS, ESOTERIC SIGNIFICANCE OF.

V.H.C.

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