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2. The history of Christianity


i) The relation of the early church to late Judaism.

Christianity began as a movement within Judaism at a period when the Jews had long been under foreign influence and rule and had found in their religion (rather than in their politics or cultural achievements) the linchpin of their community. From Amos (8th century BC) onward the religion of Israel was marked by tension between the concept of monotheism, with its universal ideal of salvation (for all nations), and the notion of God's special choice of Israel. In the age after Alexander the Great (i.e., the Hellenistic period, 3rd century BC-3rd century AD), the dispersion of the Jews throughout the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Empire gave some impetus to the universalistic tendency. But the attempts of foreign rulers, especially the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes (in 168-165 BC), to impose Greek culture and religious syncretism in Palestine provoked zealous resistance on the part of many Jews. In Palestinian Judaism the predominant note was separation and exclusiveness. Jewish missionaries to other areas were strictly expected to impose the distinctive Jewish customs of circumcision, kosher food, and sabbaths and other festivals. (see also Index: universalistic religion, particularism)

The relationship of the earliest Christian Church to Judaism turned principally on two questions: (1) the messianic role of Jesus of Nazareth and (2) the permanent validity of the Mosaic Law for all. (see also Index: messiah)

The Hebrew Scriptures viewed history as the stage of a providential drama eventually ending in a triumph of God over all present sources of frustration (e.g., foreign domination or the sins of Israel). God's rule would be established by an anointed prince (the Messiah) of the line of David, king of Israel in the 10th century BC. The proper course of action leading to the consummation of the drama, however, was the subject of some disagreement. Among the diverse groups were the aristocratic and conservative Sadducees, who accepted only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch), and the more popular and strict Pharisees. The Pharisees not only accepted biblical books outside the Pentateuch but also embraced doctrines--such as those on resurrection and the existence of angels--of recent acceptance in Judaism, many of which were derived from apocalyptic expectations that the consummation of history would be heralded by God's intervention in the affairs of men in dramatic, cataclysmic terms. The Sanhedrin (central council) at Jerusalem was made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees. The Zealots were aggressive revolutionaries seeking independence from Rome. Other groups were the Herodians, supporters of the client kingdom of the Herods (a dynasty that supported Rome) and abhorrent to the Zealots, and the Essenes, a quasi-monastic dissident group, probably including the sect that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. This latter sect did not participate in the Temple worship at Jerusalem and observed another religious calendar; from their desert retreat they awaited divine intervention and searched prophetic writings for signs indicating the consummation.

What relation the followers of Jesus had to some of these groups is not clear. In the canonical Gospels (those accepted as authentic by the church) the main targets of criticism are the scribes and Pharisees, whose attachment to the tradition of Judaism is presented as legalistic and pettifogging. The Sadducees and Herodians likewise receive an unfriendly portrait. The Essenes are never mentioned. Simon, one of Jesus' 12 disciples, was or had once been a Zealot. Jesus probably stood close to the Pharisees.

Under the social and political conditions of the time, there could be no long future either for the Sadducees or for the Zealots--whose attempts to make apocalyptic dreams effective led to the destruction of Judaea after the two major Jewish revolts of 66-70 and 132-135 against the Romans. The choice for many Jews thus lay between the Pharisees and Christianity, the former dedicated to the meticulous preservation of the Mosaic Law and the latter to the universal propagation of the biblical faith as a religion for all mankind. Pharisaism as enshrined in the Mishna (Oral Law) and the Talmud (commentary on and addition to the Oral Law) became normative Judaism. By looking to the Gentile (non-Jewish) world and carefully dissociating itself from the Zealot revolutionaries, Christianity made possible its ideal of a world religion, at the price of sacrificing Jewish particularity and exclusiveness. The fact that Christianity has never succeeded in gaining the open allegiance of more than a minority of Jews is more a mystery to theologians than to historians.

ii) The relation of the early church to the career and intentions of Jesus.

The prime sources for knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth are the four canonical Gospels in the New Testament. Only a few probably authentic sayings of Jesus became preserved in oral tradition independent of these documents, though many sayings came to be put into his mouth. These noncanonical sayings are called agrapha (not in Scripture). The Gospel of Thomaspreserved in a Coptic Gnostic library found about 1945 in Egypt, contains several such sayings, besides some independent versions of canonical sayings. At certain points the Gospel tradition finds independent confirmation in the letters of the Apostle Paul. The allusions in non-Christian sources (the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and Talmudic texts) are almost negligible, except as refuting the unsubstantiated notion that Jesus might never have existed.

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, have a literary relation to one another and are hence called Synoptic. Mark was probably used by Matthew and Luke. John, differing in both pattern and content, appears richer in theological interpretation but in detail may preserve good historical information. As their titles imply, the Gospels are not detached reports but were written to serve religious needs; they resemble oil paintings rather than photographs. Legendary and apologetic (defensive) motifs, and the various preoccupations of the communities for which they were first produced, can readily be discerned as influences upon their narratives. Historical scholarship at present has insufficient tools to eliminate subjective judgments about the probability of many details (upon which there will always be disagreement), but the most persuasive scholarly consensus accepts the substance of the Gospel tradition as a veracious picture. (see also Index: Mark, The Gospel According to, Luke, Gospel According to, Synoptic Gospels, John, Gospel According to)

A prominent uncertainty is the matter of chronology. Matthew places the birth of Jesus at least two years before Herod the Great's death late in 5 BC or early in 4 BC. Luke connects Jesus' birth with a Roman census that, according to Josephus, occurred in AD 6-7 and caused a revolt against the governor Quirinius. Luke could be right about the census and wrong about the governor. The crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea (AD 26-36), was probably about the year 29-30, but again certainty is impossible.

Encounter with John the Baptist, the ascetic in the Judaean Desert who preached repentance and baptism in view of God's coming Kingdom, marked a decisive moment for Jesus' career. He recognized in John the forerunner of the kingdom that his own ministry was inaugurating. The first preaching of Jesus, in his home region of Galilee, took the form of vivid parables and was accompanied by miraculous healings. The Synoptic writers give a single climactic visit of Jesus to Jerusalem at the end of his career; but John may be right (implicitly supported by Luke 13:7) in representing his visits as more frequent and the period of ministry as lasting more than a single year. Jesus' attitude to the observance of the law generated conflict with the Pharisees, and, though the people protected him, he also aroused the fear and hostility of the ruling Jewish authorities. A triumphal entry to Jerusalem at Passover time (the period celebrating the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt in the 13th century BC) was the prelude to a final crisis. After a last supper with his disciples he was betrayed by one of them, Judas. Arrest and trial followed, first before the Sanhedrin and then before Pilate, who condemned him to crucifixion. The accusation before Pilate was sedition, in which the Evangelists saw a framed charge. It was universal Christian belief that three days after his death he was raised from the dead by divine power.

Jesus preached the imminent presence of God's Kingdom, in some texts as future consummation, in others as already present. The words and acts of Jesus were believed to be the inauguration of a process that was to culminate in a final triumph of God. His disciples recognized him as the Messiah, the Anointed One. He is not recorded to have used the word of himself. The titles Prophet and Rabbi also were applied to Jesus. His own enigmatic self-designation was "Son of man," sometimes in allusion to his suffering, sometimes to his future role as judge. This title is derived from the version of the Book of Daniel (7:13), where "one like a son of man," contrasted with beast figures, represents the humiliated people of God, ascending to be vindicated by the divine Judge. In the developed Gospel tradition the theme of the transcendent judge seems to be most prominent.

Apocalyptic hope could easily merge into messianic zealotry. Moreover, Jesus' teaching was critical of the established order and encouraged the poor and oppressed, even though it contained an implicit rejection of revolution. Violence was viewed as incompatible with the ethic of the Kingdom of God. Whatever contacts there may have been with the Zealot movement (as the narrative of feeding 5,000 people in the desert may hint), the Gospels assume the widest distance between Jesus' understanding of his role and the Zealot revolution.

With this distance from revolutionary idealism goes a sombre estimate of human perfectibility. The gospel of repentance presupposes deep defilement in individuals and in society. The sufferings and pains of humanity under the power of evil spirits calls out for compassion and an urgent mission. All the acts of a disciple must express love and forgiveness, even to enemies, and also detachment from property and worldly wealth. To Jesus, the outcasts of society (prostitutes, the hated and oppressive tax agents, and others) were objects of special care, and censoriousness was no virtue. Though the state is regarded as a distant entity in certain respects, it yet has the right to require taxes and civic obligations: Caesar has rights that must be respected and are not incompatible with the fulfillment of God's demands.

Some of the futurist sayings, if taken by themselves, raise the question whether Jesus intended to found a church. A negative answer emerges only if the authentic Jesus is assumed to have expected an immediate catastrophic intervention by God. There is no doubt that he gathered and intended to gather around him a community of followers. This community continued after his time, regarding itself as the specially called congregation of God's people, possessing as covenant signs the rites of baptism and Eucharist (Lord's Supper) with which Jesus was particularly associated--baptism because of his example, Eucharist because the Last Supper on the night before the crucifixion was marked as an anticipation of the messianic feast of the coming age.

A closely related question is whether Jesus intended his gospel to be addressed to Jews only or if the Gentiles were also to be included. In the Gospels Gentiles appear as isolated exceptions, and the choice of 12 Apostles has an evident symbolic relation to the 12 tribes of Israel. The fact that the extension of Christian preaching to the Gentiles caused intense debate in the 40s of the 1st century is decisive proof that Jesus had given no unambiguous directive on the matter. Gospel sayings that make the Jews' refusal to recognize Jesus' authority as the ground for extending the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles must, therefore, have been cast by the early community.

iii) The Gentile mission and St. Paul.

Saul, or Paul (as he was later called), was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the primitive church. Born at Tarsus (Asia Minor), he had come to Jerusalem as a student of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel and had harried a Christian group called by Luke the "Hellenists," who were led by Stephen (the first Christian martyr) and who regarded Jesus as a spiritual reformer sent to purge the corrupt worship of Jerusalem. While on a mission to persecute the followers of Jesus, Paul was suddenly converted to faith in Christ and, simultaneously, to a conviction that the Gospel must pass to the non-Jewish world under conditions that dispensed with exclusively and distinctively Jewish ceremonies. Paul was disapproved by Christian Jews who were of conservative opinions and remained throughout his career a controversial figure. He gained recognition for the converts of the Gentile mission by the Christian community in Jerusalem; but his work was considered an affront to Jewish traditionalism, and his program of being "all things to all men" led to bitter charges that he was an unprincipled trimmer. He saw clearly and correctly that the universal mission of the church to all humanity, implicit in the coming of the Messiah, or Christ, meant a radical break with rabbinical conservatism.

Owing to the preservation of some weighty letters, Paul is the only vivid figure of the apostolic age (1st century AD). Like his elder contemporary Philo of Alexandria, also a Hellenized Jew of the dispersion, he interpreted the Old Testament allegorically (symbolically) and affirmed the primacy of spirit over letter in a manner that was in line with Jesus' freedom with regard to the sabbath. The crucifixion of Jesus he viewed as the supreme redemptive act and also as the means of expiation for the sin of mankind. Salvation is, in Paul's thought, therefore, not found by a conscientious moralism but rather is a gift of grace, a doctrine in which Paul was anticipated by Philo. But Paul linked this doctrine with his theme that the Gospel represents liberation from the Mosaic Law. The latter thesis created difficulties at Jerusalem, where the church was under the presidency of James, the brother of Jesus, and the circle of the intimate disciples of Jesus. James, martyred at Jerusalem in 62, was the primary authority for the Christian Jews, especially those made anxious by Paul; the canonical letter ascribed to James opposes the antinomian (anti-law) interpretations of the doctrine of justification by faith. A middle position seems to have been occupied by Peter. All the Gospels record a special commission of Jesus to Peter as the leader among the 12 Apostles. But Peter's biography can only be dimly constructed; he died in Rome (according to early tradition) in Nero's persecution (64) about the same time as Paul.

Apart from its success, the supremacy of the Gentile mission within the church was ensured by the effects on Jewish Christianity of the fall of Jerusalem (70) and Hadrian's exclusion of all Jews from the city (135). Jewish Christianity declined and became the faith of a very small group without links to either synagogue or Gentile church. Some bore the title Ebionites, "the poor" (compare Matthew 5:3). Among them some did not accept the tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin.

In the theology of Paul, the human achievement of Jesus was important because his obedient fidelity to his vocation gave moral and redemptive value to his self-sacrifice. A different emphasis appears in the Gospel According to John, written (according to 2nd-century tradition) at Ephesus. John's Gospel partly reflects local disputes, not only between the church and the Hellenized synagogue but also between orthodox Christianity and deviationist Gnostic groups in Asia Minor. John's special individuality lies in his view of the relation between the historical events of the tradition and the Christian community's present experience of redemption. The history is treated symbolically to provide a vehicle for faith. Because it is less attached to the contingent events of a particular man's life, John's conception of the preexistent Logos becoming incarnate (made flesh) in Jesus made intelligible to the Hellenistic world the universal significance of Jesus. In antiquity, divine presence had to be understood as either inspiration or incarnation. If the Synoptic Gospels suggest inspiration, the Gospel According to John chooses incarnation. The tension between these two types of Christology (doctrines of Christ) first became acute in the debate between the schools of Antioch and Alexandria in the late 4th century.

iv) The contemporary social, religious, and intellectual world.

Many Palestinian Jews appreciated the benefits of Roman rule in guaranteeing order and peace. The Roman government could tolerate regional and local religious groups and found it convenient to control Palestine through client kings like the Herods. The demand that divine honours be paid not only to the traditional Roman or similar gods but also to the emperors was not extended to Judaea except under the emperor Caligula (reigned 37-41). It was enough that the Jews dedicated temple sacrifices and synagogues in the emperor's honour. The privileges of Roman citizenship were possessed by some Jewish families, including that of the Apostle Paul. (see also Index: Greek religion, Roman religion)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul affirmed the providential role of government in restraining evil. Christians did not need to be disaffected from the empire, though the deification of the emperor was offensive to them. Moreover, although as an agency of social welfare the church offered much to the downtrodden elements in society, the Christians did not at any stage represent a social and political threat. The ancient world did not possess a working-class movement in the modern sense, and Christianity did not create or foster one. After the example of their master, the Christians encouraged humility and patience before wicked men. Even the institution of slavery was not the subject of fundamental Christian criticism before the 4th century. The church, however, was not lost in pious mysticism. It provided for far more than the cultic (liturgical) needs of its members. Inheriting a Jewish moral ideal, its activities included food for the poor, orphans, and foundlings; care for prisoners; and a community funeral service. (see also Index: church and state)

The church inherited from Judaism also a strong sense of being holy, separate from idolatry and pagan eroticism. As polytheism with its attendant permissiveness permeated ancient society, a moral rigorism severely limited Christian participation in some trades and professions. At baptism a Christian was expected to renounce his occupation if that necessarily implicated him in public or private compromise with polytheism, superstition, dishonesty, or vice. About military service there was disagreement. The majority held that a soldier, if converted and baptized, was not required to leave the army, but there was hesitation about whether an already baptized Christian might properly enlist. Strict Christians also thought poorly of the teaching profession because it involved instructing the young in literature replete with pagan ideals and what was viewed as indecency. Acting and dancing were similarly suspect occupations. Any involvement in magic was completely forbidden.

The Christian ethic therefore demanded some detachment from society. In some cases this made for economic difficulties. The structure of ancient society was dominated not by class but by the relationship of patron and client. A slave or freedman depended for his livelihood and prospects upon his patron. In antiquity a strong patron was indispensable if one was negotiating with police or tax authorities or lawcourts or if one had ambitions in the imperial service. The authority of the father of the family was considerable. Conversely, a man's power in society depended on the extent of his dependents and supporters. Often, Christianity penetrated the social strata first through women and children, especially in the upper classes. But once the householder was a Christian, his dependents tended to follow. The Christian community itself was close-knit. Third-century evidence portrays Christians banking their money with fellow believers; and widely separated groups helped one another with trade and mutual assistance.

Women in ancient society--Greek, Roman, or Jewish--had a domestic, not a public, role; feminine subordination was self-evident. To Paul, however, Christian faith transcends barriers to make all free and equal (Galatians 3:28). Of all ancient writers Paul was the most powerful spokesman for equality. Nevertheless, just as he refused to harbour a runaway slave, so he opposed any practice that would identify the church with social radicalism (a principal pagan charge against it). Paul did not avoid self-contradiction (1 Corinthians 11:5, 14:34-35). His opposition to a public liturgical role for women decided subsequent Catholic tradition in the East and West. Yet in the Greek churches (though not often in the Latin) women were ordained as deacons--in the 4th century by prayer and imposition of hands with the same rite as male deacons--and had a special responsibility at women's baptism. Widows and orphans were the neediest in antiquity, and the church provided them substantial relief. It also encouraged vows of virginity, and by AD 400 women from wealthy or politically powerful families acquired power as superiors of religious communities. It seemed natural to elect as abbess a woman whose family connections might bring benefactions.

The religious environment of the Gentile mission was a tolerant, syncretistic blend of many cults and myths. Paganism was concerned with success; the gods gave victory in war, good harvests, success in love and marriage, and sons and daughters. Defeat, famine, civil disorder, and infertility were probable signs of cultic pollution and disfavour. People looked to religion for help in mastering the forces of nature rather than to achieve moral improvement. Individual gods cared either for specific human needs or for specific places and groups. The transcendent God of biblical religion was, therefore, very different from the numerous gods of limited power and local significance. In Asia Minor Paul and his coworker Barnabas were taken to be gods in mortal form because of their miracles. To offer sacrifice on an altar seemed a natural expression of gratitude to any dead, or even living, benefactor. Popular enthusiasm could bestow divine honours on such heroes as dead pugilists and athletes. In the Roman Empire it seemed natural to offer sacrifice and burn incense to the divine emperor as a symbol of loyalty, much like standing for a national anthem today.

Traditional Roman religion was a public cult, not private mysticism, and was upheld because it was the received way of keeping heaven friendly. To refuse participation appeared to be disloyal. The Jews could gain acceptance for their refusal by virtue of the undoubted fact that their monotheism was an ancestral national tradition. The Christians, however, did everything in their power to dissuade people from following the customs of their fathers, whether Gentiles or Jews, and thereby seemed to threaten the cohesion of society and the principle that each racial group was entitled to follow its national customs in religion.

If ancient religion was tolerant, the philosophical schools were seldom so. Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics tended to be very critical of one another. By the 1st century BC, an eclecticism emerged; and by the 2nd century AD, there developed a common stock of philosophy shared by most educated people and by some professional philosophers, which derived metaphysics involving theories on the nature of Being from Plato, ethics from the Stoics, and logic from Aristotle. This eclectic Platonism provided an important background and springboard for early Christian apologetics. Its main outlines appear already in Philo of Alexandria, whose thought influenced not only perhaps the writer of the anonymous letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament but also the great Christian thinkers Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Ambrose of Milan. Because of this widespread philosophical tendency, the Christian could generally assume some belief in Providence and assent to high moral imperatives. Platonism in particular provided a metaphysical framework within which the Christians could interpret the entire pattern of creation, the Fall of humanity, the incarnation, redemption, the church, sacraments, and last things.


i) The problem of jurisdictional authority.

In the first Christian generation, authority in the church lay either in the kinsmen of Jesus or in those whom he had commissioned as Apostles and missionaries. The Jerusalem church under James, the brother of Jesus, was the mother church. Paul admitted that if they had refused to grant recognition to his Gentile converts he would have laboured in vain. If there was an attempt to establish a hereditary family overlordship in the church, it did not succeed. Among the Gentile congregations, the Apostles sent by Jesus enjoyed supreme authority. As long as the Apostles lived, there existed a living authoritative voice to which appeal could be made. But once they all had died, there was an acute question regarding the locus of authority. The earliest documents of the 3rd and 4th Christian generations are mainly concerned with this issue: what is the authority of the ministerial hierarchy? The apostolic congregations had normally been served by elders (Greek presbyteroi"priests") or overseers (episkopoi, "bishops"), assisted by attendants (diakonoi, "deacons"). The clergy were responsible for preaching, for administering baptism and Eucharist, and for distributing aid to the poor. In each city the president or senior member of the college (assembly) of presbyters naturally had some special authority; he corresponded with other churches and, when they were ordaining a new president, would go as the representative of his own community and as a symbol of the catholicity--the universality and unity--of the church of Christ. (see also Index: elder)

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch early in the 2nd century, wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom at Rome that indicate how critical the centrifugal forces in the church had made the problem of authority. The bishop, he insisted, is the unique focus of unity without whose authority there is no sacrament and no church. A few years earlier the letter of Bishop Clement of Rome (c. AD 95) to the church at Corinth based the hierarchy's authority on the concept of a historical succession of duly authorized teachers. Clement understood the clergy and laity to be essentially distinct orders within the one community, just as in the Old Testament there were high priests, priests, Levites (Temple functionaries), and laymen. The principles of Clement and Ignatius became important when the church was faced by people claiming recognition for their special charismatic (spiritual) gifts and especially by Gnostic heretics claiming to possess secret oral traditions whispered by Jesus to his disciples and not contained in publicly accessible records such as the Gospels.

The authority of the duly authorized hierarchy became enhanced by the outcome of another 2nd-century debate, about the possibility of absolution for sins committed after baptism. The Shepherd of Hermasa book that enjoyed canonical status in some areas of the early church, enforced the point that excessive rigorism produces hypocrisies. By the 3rd century the old notion of the church as a society of holy people was being replaced by the conception that it was a school for frail sinners. In spite of protests, especially that of the schism led by the theologian and schismatic pope Novatian at Rome in 251, the final consensus held that the power to bind and loose (compare Matthew 16:18-19), to excommunicate and absolve, was vested in bishops and presbyters by their ordination. (see also Index: Novatian Schism)

Early Christianity was predominantly urban; peasants on farms were deeply attached to old ways and followed the paganism favoured by most aristocratic landowners. By AD 400 some landowners had converted and built churches on their property, providing a "benefice" for the priest, who might often be one of the magnate's servants. In the East and in North Africa each township normally had its own bishop. In the Western provinces bishops were fewer and were responsible for larger areas, which, from the 4th century onward, were called by the secular term dioceses (administrative districts). In the 4th century pressure to bring Western custom into line with Eastern and to multiply bishops was resisted on the ground that it would diminish the bishops' social status. By the end of the 3rd century the bishop of the provincial capital was acquiring authority over his colleagues: the metropolitan (from the 4th century on, often entitled archbishop) was chief consecrator of his episcopal colleagues. The bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in the 3rd century were accorded some authority beyond their own provinces. Along with Jerusalem and Constantinople (founded in 330), these three sees (seats of episcopal authority) became, for the Greeks, the five patriarchates. The title papa ("father") was for 600 years an affectionate term applied to any bishop to whom one's relation was intimate; it began to be specially used of bishops of Rome from the 6th century and by the 9th century was almost exclusively applied to them.

From the beginning, the Christians in Rome were aware of special responsibilities for them to lead the church. About AD 165, memorials were erected at Rome to the Apostles Peter and Paul, to Peter in a necropolis on the Vatican Hill, and to Paul on the road to Ostia. The construction reflects a sense of being guardians of an apostolic tradition, a self-consciousness expressed in another form when, about 190, Bishop Victor of Rome threatened with excommunication Christians in Asia Minor who, following immemorial custom, observed Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover rather than (as at Rome) on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Stephen of Rome (256) is the first known pope to base claims to authority on Jesus' commission to Peter (Matthew 16:18-19).

Bishops were elected by their congregations--i.e., by the clergy and laity assembled together. But the consent of the laity decreased in importance as recognition by other churches increased. The metropolitan and other provincial bishops soon became just as important as the congregation as a whole; and, though they could never successfully impose a man on a solidly hostile community, they could often prevent the appointment falling under the control of one powerful lay family or faction. From the 4th century on, the emperors occasionally intervened to fill important sees, but such occurrences were not a regular phenomenon (until the 6th century in Merovingian Gaul).

ii) The problem of scriptural authority.

After the initial problems regarding the continuity and authority of the hierarchy, the greatest guarantee of true continuity and authenticity was found in the Scriptures. Christians inherited (without debate at first) the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God to the people of God at a now superseded stage of their pilgrimage through history. If St. Paul's Gentile mission was valid, then the Old Testament Law was viewed as no longer God's final word to his people. Thus, the Hebrew Bible began to be called the old covenant. There was some hesitation in the church about the exact books included. The Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint) included books (such as the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and others) that were not accepted in the Hebrew canon. Most, but not all, Gentile Christian communities accepted the Septuagintal canon. The 3rd-century Alexandrian theologian Origen and especially the Latin biblical scholar Jerome (4th-5th century) believed it imprudent to base theological affirmations on books enjoying less than universal recognition. The fact that in many English Bibles the parts of the Old Testament accepted in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew canon are often printed separately under the (misleading) title Apocrypha is a tribute to these ancient hesitations.

The growth of the New Testament is more complex and controversial. First-century Christians used oral tradition more than writing to pass on the story of Jesus' acts and words, often told in the context of preaching and teaching. No one thought they needed to be in writing to bear authority. Mark first conceived the plan of composing a connected narrative. Nevertheless, even after the Gospels were in common circulation, oral tradition was still current and could even be preferred. A carefully copied document, however, provided greater security against contamination of the tradition. The Synoptic Gospels seem to have been used by the Apologist Justin Martyr at Rome about AD 150 in the form of an early harmony (or synthesis of the Gospels); to this, Justin's Syrian pupil Tatian added the Gospel According to John to make his Diatessaron(according to the four), a harmony of all four Gospels so successful that in Mesopotamia (Tatian's homeland) it virtually ousted the separate Gospels for 250 years. (see also Index: oral literature)

On a second grade of authority stood the apostolic letters, especially those of Paul. The main body of his correspondence was circulating as a corpus (body of writings) well before AD 90. (see also Index: Pauline letters)

Paul's antitheses of law and grace, justice and goodness, and the letter and the spirit were extended further than Paul intended by the radical semi-Gnostic heretic Marcion of Pontus (c. 140-150), who taught that the Old Testament came from the inferior vengeful Jewish God of justice and that the New Testament told of the kindly universal Father. As the current texts of Gospels and letters presupposed some divine revelation through the Old Testament, Marcion concluded that they had been corrupted and interpolated by Judaizers. Marcion therefore established a fixed canon of an edited version of Luke's Gospel and some of the Pauline Letters (expurgated), and no Old Testament at all.

The orthodox reaction (by such theologians as Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in the 2nd century) was to insist on the Gospel as the fulfillment of prophecy and on creation as the ground of redemption. Reasons were found for accepting the four already current Gospels, the full corpus of Pauline Letters, Acts, John's Revelation (Apocalypse), and some of the Catholic Letters (these last--I, II, and III John, James, and Jude--were the subject of hesitations). On the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews there were doubts: Rome rejected it as non-Pauline and Alexandria accepted it as Pauline. The list once established was a criterion (the meaning of "canon") for the authentic Gospel of the new covenant and soon (by transference from the old) became entitled the New Testament. (The Greek word diatheke means both covenant and testament.) The formation of the canon meant that special revelation ended with the death of the Apostles and that no authority could be attached to the apocryphal gospels, acts, and apocalypses proliferating in the 2nd century.

iii) The problem of theological authority.

Third, a check was found in the creed. At baptism, after renouncing "the devil and his pomps," initiates declared their faith in response to three questions of the form:

Do you believe in God the Father almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ his Son our Lord. . . ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the church and in the Resurrection?

In time, these interrogations became the basis of declaratory creeds, adapted for use by the clergy who felt themselves required to reassure colleagues who were not especially confident of their orthodoxy. The so-called Apostles' Creed is a direct descendant of the baptismal creed used at Rome by AD 200. Each church (or region) might have its own variant form, but all had the threefold structure.

The internal coherence given by creed, canon, and hierarchy was necessary both in the defense of authentic Christianity against Gnostic theosophical speculations and also in confronting pagan society. The strong coherence of the scattered congregations was remarkable to pagan observers.

iv) Early heretical movements.

Gnosticism was the greatest threat to Christianity before 150 and somewhat thereafter. Gnostics taught that there is total opposition between this evil world and God. Redemption was viewed as liberation from the chaos of a creation derived from either incompetent or malevolent powers, a world in which the elect are alien prisoners. The method of salvation was to discover the Kingdom of God within one's elect soul and to learn how to pass the hostile powers barring the soul's ascent to bliss. Gnosticism destroyed the notion of a historical disclosure of God. Its pessimism and dualism (in which matter was viewed as evil and spirit good) had disturbing moral consequences, involving both asceticism and libertinism. Its claims to a totally transcendent revelation were antirational, allowed for no natural goodness in the created order, and eliminated individual responsibility. Both the orthodox theologians and the pagan 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus dismissed Gnosticism as a pretentious but dangerous mumbo jumbo for misleading the half-educated.

The orthodox stressed the need to adhere to tradition, which was attested by the churches of apostolic foundation. A more hazardous reply was to appeal to ecstatic prophecy. About AD 172 a quasi-pentecostal movement in Phrygia was led by Montanus with two prophetesses, reasserting the imminence of the end of the world. He taught that there was an age of the Father (Old Testament), an age of the Son (New Testament), and an age of the Spirit (heralded by the prophet Montanus). Montanism won its chief convert in the Latin theologian Tertullian of Carthage. Its claim to supplement the New Testament was generally rejected.


i) Church-state relations.

The Christians were not respectful toward ancestral pagan customs. Their preaching of a new king sounded like revolution. The opposition of the Jews to them led to breaches of the peace. Thus the Christians could very well be unpopular, and they often were. Paul's success at Ephesus provoked a riot to defend the cult of the goddess Artemis. In AD 64 a fire destroyed much of Rome; the emperor Nero killed a "vast multitude" of Christians as scapegoats. For the first time, Rome was conscious that Christians were distinct from Jews. But there probably was no formal senatorial enactment proscribing Christianity at this time. Nero's persecution was local and short. Soon thereafter, however, the profession of Christianity was defined as a capital crime, though of a special kind because one gained pardon by apostasy (rejection of a faith once confessed) demonstrated by offering sacrifice to the pagan gods or the emperor. Popular gossip soon accused the Christians of secret vices, such as eating murdered infants (due to the secrecy surrounding the Lord's Supper and the use of the words body and blood) and sexual promiscuity (due to the practice of Christians calling each other "brother" or "sister" while living as husband and wife). The governor of Bithynia in AD 111, the younger Pliny, told the emperor Trajan that to his surprise he discovered the Christians to be guilty of no vice, only of obstinacy and superstition. Nevertheless, he executed without a qualm those who refused to apostatize. (see also Index: Roman Republic and Empire)

Early persecutions were sporadic, caused by local conditions and depending on the attitude of the governor. The fundamental cause of persecution was that the Christians conscientiously rejected the gods whose favour was believed to have brought success to the empire. But distrust was increased by Christian detachment and reluctance to serve in the imperial service and in the army. At any time in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, Christians could find themselves the object of unpleasant attention. A pogrom could be precipitated by a bad harvest, a barbarian attack, or a public festival of the emperor cult. Yet, long periods of peace occurred. In 248-250, when Germanic tribes threatened the empire, popular hostility culminated in the persecution under the emperor Decius (reigned 249-251): by edict all citizens were required to offer sacrifice and to obtain from commissioners a certificate witnessing to the act. Many of these certificates have survived. The requirement created an issue of conscience, especially because certificates could be bought by bribes. Under renewed attack (257-259), the great bishop-theologian Cyprian of Carthage was martyred. The persecuting emperor Valerian, however, became a Persian prisoner of war, and his son Gallienus issued an edict of toleration restoring confiscated churches and cemeteries. The church prospered from 261 to 303, but the empire suffered external attack, internal sedition, and rampant inflation. In February 303 the worst of all persecutions erupted under the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius. The persecutions ended and peace was reached with the Edict of Milan, a manifesto of toleration issued in 313 by the joint emperors Licinius and his Christian colleague Constantine. Disagreements about the point at which the state must be resisted led to long lasting schisms in Egypt (Melitianism) and North Africa (Donatism). (see also Index: Donatist)

ii) Christianity and classical culture.

St. Paul could quote such pagan poets as Aratus, Menander, and Epimenides. Clement of Rome cited the dramatists Sophocles and Euripides. Educated Christians shared this literary tradition with educated pagans. The defenders of Christianity against pagan attack (especially Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century) welcomed classical philosophy and literature; they wished only to reject all polytheistic myth and cult and all metaphysical and ethical doctrines irreconcilable with Christian belief (e.g., Stoic materialism and Platonic doctrines of the transmigration of souls and the eternity of the world). Clement of Alexandria, second known head of the catechetical school at Alexandria, possessed a wide erudition in the main classics and knew the works of Plato and Homer intimately. His successor at Alexandria, Origen, showed less interest in literary and aesthetic matters but was a greater scholar and thinker; he first applied the methods of Alexandrian philology to the text of the Bible. (see also Index: Greek religion, Roman religion, Alexandria, School of)

Nevertheless, both pagans and Christians instinctively assumed the unity of ancient culture and pagan religion; it was hard for Christians to attack paganism without seeming negative toward the totality of classical culture as well as disaffected toward the imperial government. The urgent eschatological hope of the earliest church had built into its ethic a deep detachment from this world's goods, however beautiful they might be esteemed. This detachment emerged in one form in the evaluation of celibacy as superior to marriage, in another in a conscious renunciation of pretensions to high culture (in the manner of the not always popular or socially accepted pre-Christian Cynic philosophers with whom pagans found it natural to compare the Christians). The passionate urgency of the Christian mission admitted no distraction, an attitude that stamped any serious interest in science, history, or belles lettres with the stigma of worldliness.

The attitude of the Christians toward other religions (except Judaism) was generally very negative. All forms of paganism--the Oriental mystery (salvational) religions of Isis, Attis, Adonis, and Mithra as well as the ancient cults of classical Greece and Rome--were regarded as the cults of evil spirits. Like the Jews, the Christians (unless Gnostic) were opposed to syncretism. With the exception of the notion of baptism as a rebirth, Christians generally and significantly avoided the characteristic vocabularies of the mystery religions. The mysteries of Isis, Attis, Adonis, and (to some extent, perhaps) Mithra were basically fertility rites to ensure good crops. They answered to needs different from those addressed by the Christian gospel. A Mithraic rite with bread and water was noted by Justin Martyr as a counterpart of the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist. The spring rites mourning Attis' death and then celebrating his revival at the festival known as the Hilaria offered a parallel to the ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter as developed in the 4th century. The point where parallel can be treated as influence, however, is a delicate matter to determine. Between Christianity and the pagan cults the most prominent difference consisted in the syncretistic tolerance of the latter; initiation into the mysteries of Isis did not mean renouncing allegiance to Apollo or Attis, whereas the Christian baptism required exclusive devotion.

Many converts naturally brought old attitudes with them into the church. Amulets and peasant superstitions were long the object of critical attention by the clergy. The Christians tried to provide counter-attractions by placing Christian festivals on the same days of the year as pagan feasts. Solar monotheism was popular in late 3rd-century paganism, and soon the Western churches were keeping the winter solstice (December 25) as Christ's Nativity--the East kept January 6. Midsummer Day was replaced by the feast of John the Baptist. The church fought hard against the heathen celebration of January 1, but with little success. Only Easter (celebrating Christ's Resurrection) and Pentecost (celebrating the advent of the Holy Spirit) were feasts owing nothing to Gentile analogies for their origin; they both were derived from Jewish feasts. From the 5th century AD on, great pagan temples, such as the Parthenon in Athens, were gradually transformed into churches.

iii) Apologetics.

The Christian Apologists of the 2nd century sought to drive a wedge between the pagan religion that they abhorred and the Greek philosophy that, with occasional reservations, they welcomed. Second-century Platonism found it easy to think of Mind (nous) or Reason (Logos) as divine power immanent within the world. Philo of Alexandria had spoken of the Logos as mediating between the transcendent God and this created order. The Logos theology was developed by Justin Martyr both to make a positive evaluation of the best elements in the Greek philosophical tradition and to make the incarnation of Christ intelligible to the Greek mind. But the Apologists upset some of their fellow Christians by talking of the divine Logos as virtually a second God beside the Father and thus compromising the monotheism that the orthodox were defending against Gnostic dualism. The critics of the Logos theology, labeled Monarchians, affirmed that Father, Son, and Spirit were one God; the three names were epithets, not substantives. In the 3rd century a Roman presbyter, Sabellius, was excommunicated for this opinion, and the defenders of the Logos theology ousted the opponents of speculative apologetics. Clement of Alexandria and Origen provided the Greek churches with a Platonizing theology that was strongly opposed to the Monarchian position.


Paul's letters mention worship on the first day of the week. In John's Apocalypse, Sunday is called "the Lord's day." The weekly commemoration of the Resurrection replaced for Christians the synagogue meetings on Saturdays; the practice of circumcision was dropped, and initiation was by baptism; continuing membership of the church was signified by weekly participation in the Eucharist. Baptism in water in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was preceded by instruction (catechesis) and fasting. Persons about to be baptized renounced evil and, as they made the declaration of faith, were dipped in water; they then received by anointing and by the laying on of hands (confirmation) the gift of the Holy Spirit and incorporation within the body of Christ, thus concluding the entire rite. Only the baptized were allowed to be admitted to the Eucharist, when the words of Jesus at the Last Supper were recalled; the Holy Spirit was invoked upon the people of God making the offering, and the consecrated bread and wine were distributed to the faithful. Accounts of these rites are given in the works of Justin (c. 150) and especially in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 220).

To fall into a grave fault after baptism entailed exclusion. Excommunicated persons would continue to attend for the first part of the service, which included psalms, readings, and a sermon. Montanists, such as Tertullian, and the Roman schismatic Novatian denied the church's power to grant absolution. Even Cyprian of Carthage found Novatian easier to criticize for schism than for rigorism. But in the 3rd century a system of public penance emerged; it was allowed once a lifetime under condition of ascetic discipline. Penitents were restored to fellowship with church members by the laying on of hands. In time, less arduous and less public severities came to be required.

Before the 4th century, worship was in private houses. A house church of AD 232 has been excavated at Doura-Europus on the Euphrates. Whereas pagan temples were intended as the residence of the god, churches were designed for the community. The rectangular basilica with an apse (semicircular projection to house the altar) was found especially suitable. The Doura-Europus church has Gospel scenes on the walls. But many Old Testament heroes also appear in the earliest Christian art; Jewish models probably were followed. The artists also adapted conventional pagan forms (good shepherd; praying persons with hands uplifted). Fishing scenes, doves, and lyres also were popular. In themselves neutral, they carried special meaning to the Christians. (see also Index: religious art)

The words of several pre-Constantinian hymns survive (e.g., "Shepherd of tender youth," by Clement of Alexandria), but only one with musical notation (Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1786 of the 3rd century).

The earliest Christians wrote to convert or to edify, not to please. Their literature was not produced with aesthetic intentions. Nevertheless, the pulpit offered scope for oratory (as in Melito of Sardis' Homily on the Pascha, c. 170). Desire for romance and adventure was satisfied by apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, recounting their travels, with continence replacing love. Justin and Irenaeus did not write for high style but simply to convey information. Apologists hoping for well-educated readers, however, could not be indifferent to literary tastes. By AD 200 the most graceful living writer of Greek literature was Clement of Alexandria, the liveliest writer of Latin, Tertullian. Wholly different in temperament (Clement urbane and allusive, Tertullian vigorous and vulgar), both men wrote distinguished prose with regard to form and rhetorical convention. (see also Index: religious literature)

By the 3rd century the Bible needed explanation. Origen of Alexandria set out to provide commentaries and undertook for the Old Testament a collation of the various Greek versions with the original Hebrew. Many of his sermons and commentaries were translated into Latin by Tyrannius Rufinus and Jerome (c. 385-400); their learning and passionate mystical aspiration shaped Western medieval exegesis (critical interpretive methods).


Constantine the Great, declared emperor at York, Britain (306), was converted to Christianity (312), became sole emperor (324), virtually presided over the ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), founded the city of Constantinople (330), and died in 337. In the 4th century he was regarded as the great revolutionary, especially in religion. He did not make Christianity the religion of the empire, but his foundation of Constantinople (conceived to be the new Rome) as a Christian city profoundly affected the future political and ecclesiastical structure. Relations with old Rome were not to be cordial either in matters of church or state. Despite massive legislation (some attempting to express Christian ideals--e.g., making Sunday a rest day), he failed to check the drastic inflation that began about 250 and that soon created deep unrest and weakened the empire before the barbarian invasions of the 5th century.

Constantine brought the church out of its withdrawal from the world to accept social responsibility and helped pagan society to be won for the church. On both sides, the alliance of the church and emperor evoked opposition, which among the Christians emerged in the monks' retirement to the desert. Except for the brief reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363), pagans relapsed into passive resistance. The quietly mounting pressure against paganism in the 4th century culminated in the decrees of Emperor Theodosius I (reigned 379-395), who made orthodox Christianity an ingredient of good citizenship. Under Theodosius many pagan temples were closed or even destroyed (e.g., the Alexandrian Serapeum). But until the time of Justinian (reigned 527-565), pagans were largely unmolested by the government. Heretics were more harshly treated. Ecclesiastical censures (from 314 on) were often enforced by the civil penalty of exile. One heretic, Priscillian, was even executed for witchcraft (385), but in the face of vehement church protests. (see also Index: paganism)

The link between church and state was expressed in the civil dignity and insignia granted to bishops, who also began to be entrusted with ambassadorial roles. By 400 the patriarch of Constantinople (to his avowed embarrassment) enjoyed precedence at court before all civil officials. In the writings of Ambrose (bishop of Milan, 374-397), "Roman" and "Christian" are almost synonyms. The Arian controversy (involving a denial of the divinity of Jesus) developed into a conflict between church and state when the emperor Constantius was supporting Arianism; and Ambrose enforced upon Theodosius submission to the church as its son, not its master. With an orthodox emperor, however, most Christians thought of church and empire as virtually coterminous.

The church was significantly slow to undertake missionary work beyond the frontiers of the empire. The Goth Ulfilas converted the Goths to Arianism (c. 340-350) and translated the Bible, omitting, as unsuitable, warlike passages of the Old Testament. The Goths passed their Arian faith on to other Germanic tribes, such as the Vandals. (The first tribe to become Catholic was the Franks, in about 506, soon to be followed by the Visigoths.) In the 5th century the Western provinces were overrun by the barbarian Goths, Vandals, and Huns. The Roman Army had long drawn its recruits from the barbarian tribesmen and was itself now under barbarian generals. Theodosius I's will placed his two sons under the guardianship of the barbarian general Stilicho, who effectively ruled until they were able to assume responsibility. In the 5th century, Western emperors exercised less power than generals, and the imperial succession ended when a German leader, Odoacer, decided (476) to rule without an emperor. The end of the line of Western emperors made little difference to either church or state. In the West the position of the papacy was enhanced by the decline of state power, and this prepared the way for the popes' temporal sovereignty over parts of Italy (which they retained from the 7th to the 19th century).

The barbarian invasions destroyed Western schools. Specifically church schools were first created in late antiquity. The main preservers and transmitters of ancient culture, however, were the monks. Monasticism had begun in the Egyptian desert in the 4th century with Anthony the Hermit and with Pachomius, the first organizer of an ascetic community under a rule of obedience. Basil, bishop of Caesarea Cappadociae (370-379), rejected the hermit ideal and insisted on communities with a rule safeguarding the bishop's authority and with concrete acts of service to perform (e.g., hospital work and teaching). The monastic ideal quickly spread to the West but owed its decisive shape there to John Cassian of Marseille (c. 360-435) and Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 547). The manual work of monks often was the copying of manuscripts. Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus (c. 490-c. 585) had the works of classical authors copied (e.g., Cicero and Quintilian) as well as Bibles and the works of the early Church Fathers.


i) Western controversies.

Until about 250 most Western Christian leaders spoke Greek, not Latin (e.g., Irenaeus and Hippolytus). The main Latin theology came not from Rome but from North Africa (e.g., Tertullian and Cyprian). Tertullian wrote Against Praxeas, in which he discussed the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. But in 251 Novatian's schism at Rome diverted interest away from speculative theology to juridical questions about the membership of the church and the validity of sacraments. These questions led to a schism between Rome and the churches of North Africa, which centred on a controversy at Carthage over ideas espoused by Donatus (313). The Donatist issue, which raised questions about the validity of the sacraments, involved the theology of Cyprian (bishop of Carthage, 248-258) and dominated all North African church life. Cyprian and the Donatists said that the validity of the sacraments depended on the worthiness of the minister; Rome and North African Christians in communion with Rome said that it did not because the sacraments received their validity from Christ, not man. Thus, even if inefficacious, baptism could be validly administered by a schismatic. Much of the great theologian Augustine's energies as bishop of Hippo (from 396 to 430) went into trying to settle the Donatist issue, in which he finally despaired of rational argument and reluctantly came to justify the use of limited coercion.

The other major controversy of the Western Church was a more confused issue, namely, whether faith is caused by divine grace or human freedom. Augustine ascribed all credit to God. The British monk Pelagius protested that Augustine was destroying responsibility and denying the capacity of man to do what God commands. Both men applied inappropriate, impersonal categories of thought to the problem; and though Pelagianism was condemned, several of the extreme positions of Augustine (especially on predestination and the transmission of original sin) failed to receive the church's cordial endorsement. (see also Index: free will)

ii) Eastern controversies.

In the Greek East, the 4th century was dominated by controversy about the propositions of Arius, an Alexandrian presbyter (c. 250-336), that the incarnate Lord who was born, wept, suffered, and died could not be one with the transcendent first cause of creation who is beyond all suffering. The Council of Nicaea (325) condemned Arianism and affirmed the Son of God to be identical in essence with the Father. As this formula included no safeguard against Monarchianism, a long controversy followed, especially after Constantine's death (337). Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (reigned 328-373), fought zealously against Arianism in the East and owed much to Rome's support, which made the controversy add to the tensions between East and West. These tensions survived the settlement of the Arian dispute when the Council of Constantinople (381) eliminated Arianism in the East but also asserted Constantinople to be the second see of Christendom, as the new Rome. This assertion was unwelcome to Alexandria, traditionally second city of the empire, and to Rome because it implied that the dignity of a bishop depended on the secular standing of his city. Rivalry between Alexandria and Constantinople led to the fall of John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople (reigned 398-404), when he appeared to support Egyptian monks who admired the controversial theology of Origen. It became a major feature of the emerging Christological debate (the controversy over the nature of Christ).

The Christological controversy stemmed from the rival doctrines of Apollinaris of Laodicea (flourished 360-380) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428), representatives of the rival schools of Alexandria and Antioch, respectively. At the Council of Ephesus (431), led by Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (reigned 412-444), an extreme Antiochene Christology--taught by Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople--was condemned for saying that the man Jesus is an independent person beside the divine Word and that therefore Mary, the mother of Jesus, may not properly be called mother of God (Greek theotokosor "God-bearer"). Cyril's formula was "one nature of the Word incarnate." A reaction led by Pope Leo I (reigned 440-461) against this one-nature (Monophysite) doctrine culminated in the Council of Chalcedon (451), which affirmed Christ to be two natures in one person (hypostasis). Thus, the Council of Chalcedon alienated Monophysite believers in Egypt and Syria. (see also Index: Antioch, School of)

During the next 250 years the Byzantine emperors and patriarchs desperately sought to reconcile the Monophysites. Three successive attempts failed: (1) under the emperor Zeno (482) the Henotikon(union formula) offended Rome by suggesting that Monophysite criticism of Chalcedon might be justified; (2) under the emperor Justinian the Chalcedonian definition was glossed by condemning the "Three Chapters," which includes the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Ibas, all strong critics of Cyril of Alexandria's theology and of Monophysitism; the Syrian Monophysite Jacob Baradaeus reacted to this by creating a rival Monophysite episcopate and permanent schism; (3) under the emperor Heraclius (reigned 610-641) the Chalcedonians invited the Monophysites to reunite under the formula that Christ had two natures but only one will (Monothelitism), but this reconciled almost no Monophysites and created divisions among the Chalcedonians themselves. Chalcedon's "two natures" continues to be rejected by the Armenian Apostolic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (Syrian Jacobites).


The continuity of pre-Christian antiquity and Christian society is nowhere more apparent than in popular religious practice. Pagans were normally devoted to local shrines of particular gods. The church tried to meet this psychological need by establishing shrines of martyrs. The martyr cult, a matter of private devotion from 150 until 250, became so popular after the Decian persecution that official control was required. Invocation of Mary as "mother of God" is first attested in a 3rd-century papyrus. At Rome the shrines of Peter and Paul, where Constantine built basilicas, attracted many pilgrims. The holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, however, were preeminent. Preachers might warn that pilgrimage did not necessarily bring one nearer to God and that one must not worship the martyrs being venerated, but at the popular level such exhortations seemed sophisticated. The bones of martyrs and other holy persons were so treasured that a traffic in bogus relics was created. By 400, particular saints were being invoked for particular needs (one for health, another for fertility, travel, prediction, or the detection of perjury). When the barbarian leader Alaric's Goths sacked Rome (410), citizens asked why Peter and Paul had failed to protect their city.

Pagan critics said that the old gods, true givers of success and miracle, were offended by neglect. To meet such criticisms the churches found it necessary to provide similar assurances of success, miraculous cures, and patron saints. By the 6th century, wonder-working shrines, cloths that had touched holy relics, and pictures (icons) were invested with numinous (spiritual) power. Because of the antielitist ideology of the Christian tradition, even highly educated figures such as Augustine and Pope Gregory I the Great (reigned 590-604) were sympathetic to this popular movement. It became a means of winning the barbarian tribesmen.


i) New forms of worship.

The veneration of martyrs and the growth of pilgrimages stimulated liturgical elaboration. Great centres (Jerusalem and Rome, in particular) became models for others, which encouraged regional standardization and cross-fertilization. Though the pattern of the eucharistic liturgy was settled by the 4th century, there were many variant forms, especially of the central prayer called by the Greeks anaphora ("offering") and by the Latins canon ("prescribed form"). Liturgical prayers of Basil of Caesarea became widely influential in the East. Later, liturgies were ascribed to local saints and heroes: Jerusalem's to St. James, Alexandria's to St. Mark, and Constantinople's to John Chrysostom. The spirit of Greek liturgies encouraged rich and imaginative prose. Latin style was restrained, with epigrammatic antitheses; and the Roman Church changed from Greek to Latin about AD 370. The Canon of the Latin mass as used in the 6th century was already close to the form it has since retained.

Music also became elaborate, with antiphonal psalm chanting. Some reaction came from those who believed that the music was obscuring the words. Both Athanasius of Alexandria and Augustine defended music on the condition that the sense of the words remained primary in importance. The Latin theologians Ambrose of Milan, Prudentius, and Venantius Fortunatus provided Latin hymns of distinction. The ascription of the Roman chants (Gregorian) to Pope Gregory I the Great was first made in the 9th century. In the Greek East in the time of Justinian, Romanos Melodos created the kontakion, a long poetic homily. (see also Index: religious art, plainsong)

Architecture was stimulated by Constantine's great buildings at Jerusalem and Rome. The exteriors of these churches remained simple, but inside they were richly ornamented with marble and mosaic, the decoration being arranged on a coherent plan to represent the angels and saints in heaven with whom the church on earth was joining for worship. An enormous number of churches built in and after the 4th century have been excavated. The outstanding buildings that survive largely intact belong to the age of Justinian (6th century) and are at Constantinople and Ravenna. (see also Index: religious architecture)

The veneration of saints led to the production of a specific category of literature known as hagiography. If available, authentic tradition would be used; but if there was none, the writers felt quite free to create a biography from conventional materials and elements of folklore. The lives of saints belong to the poetry of the Middle Ages but are important to the historian as documents of social history. (see also Index: religious literature)

ii) Historical and polemical writing.

The first church historian was Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the 4th century, who collected records up to the advent of Constantine. His work was translated and continued in Latin by Tyrannius Rufinus of Aquileia. The history of the church from Constantine to about 430 was continued by three Greek historians: Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, and Theodoret (whose works were adapted for the Latin world by Cassiodorus). Ecclesiastical history from 431 to 594 was chronicled by Evagrius Scholasticus. The consequences of Chalcedon as interpreted by Monophysite historians were recorded by Timothy Aelurus, Zacharias Scholasticus, and John of Nikiu. (see also Index: historiography)

The monastic movement produced its own special literature, especially the classic Life of St. Antony by Athanasius, the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, John Climacus' Heavenly Ladder, and Moschus' Spiritual Meadow.

The Arian and Christological controversies produced important polemical writers--Athanasius, the three Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodoret. After 500, Monophysite theology had eminent figures--Severus of Antioch and the Alexandrian grammarian John Philoponus, who was also a scientist and a commentator on Aristotle. But much theology was non-polemical--e.g., catechesis and biblical commentaries. In the 6th century, "chains" (catenae) began to be produced in which the reader was given a summary of the exegesis of a succession of commentators on each verse.

In the West, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, and, above all, the incomparable scholar Jerome (translator of the standard Latin Bible, or Vulgate) gave Latin theology confidence and so made possible the massive achievement of Augustine--the exquisite prose of his Confessions and his majestic treatises On the Trinity and The City of God.


The old tensions between East and West were sharpened by the quarrels about Chalcedon. In Rome every concession made by Constantinople toward the Monophysites increased the distrust. Justinian's condemnation of the Three Chapters (Fifth Council, Constantinople, 553) was forced on a reluctant West, where it created temporary schisms but was eventually accepted. From the time of Pope Gregory I the Great the papacy--encouraged by the successful mission to the Anglo-Saxons--was looking as much to the Western barbarian kingdoms as to Byzantium.

In the 7th century the Eastern Empire was fighting for its life, first against the Persians and then the Arabs, and the Balkans were occupied by the Slavs. The submergence of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem under Muslim rule left the patriarch of Constantinople with enhanced authority, whereas the Slav invasions drove a wedge between East and West that encouraged separate developments. The attempts of the Byzantine emperors to force the papacy to accept the Monothelite (one-will) compromise produced a martyr pope, Martin (reigned 649-655); the story of his tortures did nothing to make Rome love the Byzantines. When the Monothelite heresy was finally rejected at the Sixth Council (Constantinople, 680-681), the imprudent pope Honorius (reigned 625-638), who had supported Monothelitism, was expressly condemned, which distressed Roman defenders of papal prerogatives. Greek hostility to the West became explicit in the canons of a council held at Constantinople (Quinisext, 692) that claimed to have ecumenical status but was not recognized in Rome.

From 726 on, Byzantium was absorbed in the iconoclastic (destruction of images) debate, which became a struggle not only to keep icons but also to combat the subjection of the church to the will of the emperor. The imperial attack on images was severely criticized in the West. Yet, after the Greek iconoclasts were condemned at the Seventh Council (Nicaea, 787), the bishops of the Frankish king Charlemagne at the synod of Frankfurt in Germany (794)--with the reluctant consent of Pope Adrian I (reigned 772-795)--censured the decision. A renewed upsurge of iconoclasm in the East (815-843) produced a counterreaction in the West, and ultimately the West accepted the decisions of the Seventh Council. Icons were differently evaluated in the Western churches, where holy pictures were viewed as devotional aids, not, as was the case in the East, virtually sacramental media of salvation. (see also Index: Iconoclastic Controversy)

The greatest protagonist of icons was John of Damascus, an Arab monk in Muslim Palestine, who was the author of an encyclopaedic compendium of logic and theology. Within the empire, Theodore Studites, abbot of the Studium (monastery) near Constantinople, vigorously attacked iconoclasm; he also led a revival of monasticism and stressed the importance of copying manuscripts. His ideals passed to the monastic houses that began to appear on Mount Athos from 963 onward.

The hostility between the iconoclast emperors and the popes encouraged the 8th-century popes to seek a protector. This was provided by the rise of Charles Martel (reigned 719-741) and the Franks. The Frankish kings guarded Western Church interests, and the papal-Frankish alliance reached its climax in the papal coronation of Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman emperor at Rome on Christmas Day, 800--the Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806. Charlemagne exercised immense authority over the Western Church, and the revival of church life produced controversies about predestination (Gottschalk, Erigena, Hincmar of Reims) and the Eucharist (Paschasius Radbertus, Ratramnus, Rabanus Maurus). The Christological controversy was revived with a Spanish dispute as to whether Christ was adopted to be Son of God.

In the chaos of the rapid Frankish decline, the papacy was glad to look again to Constantinople for protection. The emperor Basil I (reigned 867-886), founder of the Macedonian dynasty, could not prevent the Arabs from taking Sicily, but he was able to reestablish Byzantine control in southern Italy.

In the 10th century, however, the West passed under the control of the Ottonian dynasty in Germany. The Ottos, accustomed to the system in which great landowners built and owned the churches on their estates as private property, treated Rome and all important sees in this spirit. Bishops were appointed on royal nomination and forbidden to appeal to Rome.

The rise of Islam and the Arab campaign to subjugate unbelievers by military conquest broke upon the Byzantine Empire in 634, just as it was exhausted after defeating Persia. The will to resist was wholly absent. Moreover, the provinces initially overrun, Syria (636) and Egypt (641), were already alienated from the Byzantine government that was persecuting Monophysites in those areas. In 678 and again in 718, the Arabs were at the walls of Constantinople. In the West their defeat by Charles Martel at Poitiers, Fr. (732), limited their advance to the Pyrenees. The Monophysite Copts in Egypt and Syrian Jacobites (followers of Jacob Baradaeus) soon found that they enjoyed greater toleration under Muslim Arabs than under Chalcedonian Byzantines, just as in later times the Greeks were to discover more religious freedom under Turkish than under Latin rule. In the 8th century the Muslims were more a military than a theological threat, and a considerable time passed before Christian and Muslim theologians engaged in serious dialogue. (see also Index: Coptic Orthodox Church)


The Monothelite and iconoclastic controversies produced herculean theological endeavours: the criticism of Monothelitism by the monk Maximus the Confessor (580-662) was based upon subtle and very careful considerations of the implications of Chalcedon. The great opponents of iconoclasm, John of Damascus and Theodore Studites, also composed hymns and other theological treatises. Greek mystical theology had an outstanding representative in Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), abbot of St. Mamas at Constantinople, whose doctrines about light visions anticipated the hesychasm (quietistic prayer methods) of Gregory Palamas in the 14th century. But the most learned theologian of the age was beyond doubt the patriarch Photius (see below The Photian schism ).

Iconoclasm was not an anti-intellectual, anti-art movement. The iconoclasts everywhere replaced figures with the cross or with exquisite patterns. The ending of iconoclasm in 843 (the restoration of orthodoxy), however, liberated the artists adept in mosaic and fresco to portray figures once again, spurring a new revival of decoration. Music also became more elaborate; the kontakion was replaced by the kanona cycle of nine odes, each of six to nine stanzas and with a different melody. The kanon gave more scope to the musicians by providing greater variety. Byzantine hymns were classified according to their mode, and the mode changed each week. Besides John of Damascus and Theodore Studites, the great hymn writers of this period were Cosmas of Jerusalem and Joseph of Studium. (see also Index: religious art)

The so-called Dark Ages in the West produced virtually no sculpture or painting--other than illuminated manuscripts, of which marvelous specimens were made (e.g., the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels). The Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks did not construct noble buildings but knew how to write and to illuminate a book. In the age of Charlemagne exquisite calligraphy was continued (e.g., the Utrecht Psalter), with intricate ivory and metalwork of superb finesse. Great buildings also began to emerge, partly based on Byzantine models, such as the churches at Ravenna. The Ottonian renaissance in Germany encouraged even more confidently the erection of church buildings, producing such masterpieces as the surviving cathedrals at Hildesheim and Spires and setting out a characteristically German style of architecture.

The barbarian kingdoms soon produced their own Christian literature: Gregory of Tours wrote the history of the Franks, Isidore of Seville that of the Visigoths, and Cassiodorus that of the Ostrogoths. Isidore, utilizing his vast reading, compiled encyclopaedias on everything from liturgical ceremonies to the natural sciences. The outstanding figure of this incipient "nationalist" movement was the English monk Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed in 731 and whose exegetical works came to stand beside Augustine and Gregory I the Great as indispensable for the medieval student.


The Arian barbarians soon became Catholics, including, by 700, even the Lombards in northern Italy. There remained immense areas of Europe, however, to which the Gospel had not yet been brought. Gregory I the Great evangelized the Anglo-Saxons, who in turn sent missionaries to northwestern Europe--Wilfrid and Willibrord to what is now The Netherlands, and Boniface to Hesse, Thuringia, and Bavaria. In consequence of Boniface's work in Germany, a mission to Scandinavia was initiated by Ansgar (801-865), and the mission reached Iceland by 996. In the 10th century the mission from Germany moved eastward to Bohemia, to the Magyars, and (from 966) to the Poles. By 1050 most of Europe was under Christian influence with the exception of Muslim Spain. (see also Index: monasticism)

In the Byzantine sphere, early missions went to the Hunnish tribesmen north of the Caucasus. The Nestorians, entrenched in Persia, carried the Gospel to the Turkmen and across Central Asia to China. In the 9th century the mission to the Slavs began with the work of Cyril and Methodius, who created a Slavonic alphabet and translated the Bible into the Slavonic language. Although their labours in Moravia were undermined by Frankish clergy, it was their achievement that made possible the faith and medieval culture of both Russia and Serbia.

The Benedictine Rule--initiated by Benedict of Nursia--succeeded in the West because of its simplicity and restraint; more formidable alternatives were available in the 6th century. By 800, abbeys existed throughout western Europe, and the observance of Benedict's Rule was fostered by Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious. These houses, such as Bede's monastery at Jarrow (England) or the foundations of Columban (c. 543-615) at Luxeuil (France) and Bobbio (Italy), became centres of study and made possible the Carolingian renaissance of learning. In this renaissance the 8th-century English scholar Alcuin and his monastery at Tours occupy the chief place. Around monasteries and cathedrals, schools were created to teach acceptable Latin, to write careful manuscripts, and to study not only the Bible and writings of the Church Fathers but also science. Scribes developed the beautiful script that was known as Carolingian minuscule. The Carolingian renaissance was short-lived, however, and decay began to set in (850-950) and was not checked until the foundation of the monastery at Cluny (France) in 909.

Monasticism in 9th-century Byzantium was centred upon the Studites, who came to be a faction against the court. A remoter and otherworldly asceticism developed with the foundation of monasteries on Mount Athos (Greece) from 963 onward. A distinctive feature of Athonite monasticism was that nothing female was to be allowed on the peninsula.


i) The Photian schism.

The end of iconoclasm (843) left a legacy of faction. Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople intermittently from 847 to 877, was exiled by the government in 858 and replaced by Photius, a scholarly layman who was head of the imperial chancery--he was elected patriarch and ordained within six days. Ignatius' supporters dissuaded Pope Nicholas I (reigned 858-867) from recognizing Photius. Nicholas was angered by Byzantine missions among the Bulgars, whom he regarded as belonging to his sphere. When Nicholas wrote to the Bulgars attacking Greek practices, Photius replied by accusing the West of heretically altering the creed in saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son (Filioque). He declared Pope Nicholas deposed (867), but his position was not strong enough for such imprudence.

A new emperor, Basil the Macedonian, reinstated Ignatius; and in 869 Nicholas' successor, Adrian II (reigned 867-872), condemned Photius and sent legates to Constantinople to extort submission to papal supremacy from the Greeks. The Greeks resented the papal demands, and when Ignatius died in 877 Photius quietly became patriarch again. Rome (at that moment needing Byzantine military support against Muslims in Sicily and southern Italy) reluctantly agreed to recognize Photius, but on the condition of an apology and of the withdrawal of Greek missions to the Bulgars. Photius acknowledged Rome as the first see of Christendom, discreetly said nothing explicitly against the Filioque clause, and agreed to the provision that the Bulgars could be put under Roman jurisdiction providing that Greek missions were allowed to continue.

The main issue in the Photian schism was whether Rome possessed monarchical power of jurisdiction over all churches (as Nicholas and Adrian held), or whether Rome was the senior of five semi-independent patriarchates (as Photius and the Greeks thought) and therefore could not canonically interfere with the internal affairs of another patriarchate.

ii) The great East-West schism.

The mutual distrust shown in the time of Photius erupted again in the middle of the 11th century after papal enforcement of Latin customs upon Greeks in southern Italy. The patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, closed Latin churches in Constantinople as a reprisal. Cardinal Humbert came from Italy to protest, was accorded an icy reception, and left a bull of excommunication (July 16, 1054) on the altar of the great church of Hagia Sophia. The bull anathematized (condemned) Michael Cerularius, the Greek doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the marriage of Greek priests, and the Greek use of leavened bread for the Eucharist.

At the time, the breach was treated as a minor storm in which both sides had behaved with some arrogance. As Greeks and Latins became more estranged, however, people looked back on the events of 1054 as the moment of the final breach between East and West. (Not until Dec. 7, 1965, were the mutual excommunications of 1054 abolished, by Pope Paul VI and the ecumenical patriarch Athenagoras I.) (H.Cha.)


Differences between the Eastern and Western churches. A major factor in the consolidation and expansion of Christianity in the West was the growth in the prestige and power of the bishop of Rome. Pope Leo I the Great made the primacy of the Roman bishop explicit both in theory and in practice and must be counted as one of the most important figures in the history of the centralization of authority in the church. The next such figure was Gregory I the Great, whose work shaped the worship, the thought, and the structure of the church as well as its temporal wealth and power.

Even while still a part of the universal church, Byzantine Christianity had become increasingly isolated from the West by difference of language, culture, politics, and religion and followed its own course in shaping its heritage. The Eastern churches never had so centralized a polity as did the church in the West but developed the principle of the administrative independence or "autocephaly" of each national church. During the centuries when Western culture was striving to domesticate the German tribes, Constantinople, probably the most civilized city in Christendom, blended classical and Christian elements with a refinement that expressed itself in philosophy, the arts, statecraft, jurisprudence, and scholarship. A thinker such as Michael Psellus in the 11th century, who worked in several of these fields, epitomizes this synthesis. It was from Byzantine rather than from Roman missionaries that Christianity came to most of the Slavic tribes, including some who eventually sided with Rome rather than Constantinople; Byzantium was also the victim of Muslim aggressions throughout the period known in the West as the Middle Ages. Following the pattern established by the emperors Constantine and Justinian, the relation between church and state in the Byzantine empire coordinated the two in such a way as to sometimes subject the life and even the teaching of the church to the decisions of the temporal ruler--the phenomenon often, though imprecisely, termed caesaropapism.

All these differences between the Eastern and Western parts of the church, both the religious differences and those that were largely cultural or political, came together to cause the schism between the two. The break in 1054 was followed by further evidences of alienation--in the 13th century, in the sack of Constantinople by Western Christians in 1204 and the establishment of the Latin patriarchate there; and in the 15th century, after the failure of the union of Florence and after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.

i) Papacy and empire.

Conflict with the East was both a cause and an effect of the distinctive development of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages. If popes Leo I and Gregory I may be styled the architects of the medieval papacy, popes Gregory VII (reigned 1073-85) and Innocent III (reigned 1198-1216) should be called its master builders. Gregory VII reformed both the church and the papacy from within, establishing the canonical and moral authority of the papal office when it was threatened by corruption and attack; in the pontificate of Innocent III the papal claims to universality reached their zenith at all levels of the life of the church. Significantly, both these popes were obliged to defend the papacy against the Holy Roman emperor and other temporal rulers. The battle between the church and the empire is a persistent theme in the history of medieval Christianity. Both the involvement of the church in feudalism and the participation of temporal rulers in the Crusades can be read as variations on this theme. Preoccupied as they usually are with the history of the church as an institution and with the life and thought of the leaders of the church, the documentary sources of knowledge about medieval Christianity make it difficult for the social historian to descry "the religion of the common man" during this period. Both the "age of faith" depicted by neo-Gothic Romanticism and the "Dark Ages" depicted by secularist and Protestant polemics are gross oversimplifications of history. Faith there was during the Middle Ages, and intellectual darkness and superstition too; but only that historical judgment of medieval Christianity is valid that discerns how subtly faith and superstition can be blended in human piety and thought.

ii) Medieval thought.

No product of medieval Christianity has been more influential in the centuries since the Middle Ages than medieval thought, particularly the philosophy and theology of Scholasticism, whose outstanding exponent was Thomas Aquinas (1224/25-1274). The theology of Scholasticism was an effort to harmonize the doctrinal traditions inherited from the Fathers of the early church and to relate these traditions to the intellectual achievements of classical antiquity. Because many of the early Fathers both in the East and in the West had developed their theologies under the influence of Platonic modes of thought, the reinterpretation of these theologies by Scholasticism required that the doctrinal content of the tradition be disengaged from the metaphysical assumptions of Platonism. For this purpose the recovery of Aristotle--first through the influence of Aristotelian philosophers and theologians among the Muslims, and eventually, with help from Byzantium, through translation and study of the authentic texts of Aristotle himself--seemed providential to the Scholastic theologians. Because it managed to combine a fidelity to Scripture and tradition with a positive, though critical, attitude toward the "natural" mind, Scholasticism is a landmark both in the history of Christianity and in the history of Western culture, as a symbol (depending upon one's own position) either of the Christianization of society and culture or of the betrayal of Christianity to the society and culture of the Middle Ages.

iii) Reformation.

The latter interpretation of Scholasticism and of the medieval church itself animated the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism differed from the various protest movements during the later Middle Ages by the thoroughness of its polemic against the ecclesiastical, theological, and sacramental developments of Western Catholicism. Initially the Protestant Reformers maintained the hope that they could accomplish the reformation of the doctrine and life of the church from within, but this proved impossible either because of the intransigency of the church, the extremism of the Protestant movements, or the political and cultural situation--or because of all of these factors. The several parties of the Reformation may be conveniently classified according to the radicalism of their protest against medieval theology, piety, and polity. The Anglican Reformers, as well as Martin Luther and his movement, were, in general, the most conservative in their treatment of the Roman Catholic tradition; John Calvin and his followers were less conservative; the Anabaptists and other groups in the left wing of the Reformation were least conservative of all. Despite their deep differences, almost all the various Reformation movements were characterized by an emphasis upon the Bible, as distinguished from the church or its tradition, as the authority in religion; by an insistence upon the sovereignty of free grace in the forgiveness of sins; by a stress upon faith alone, without works, as the preconditions of acceptance with God; and by the demand that the laity assume a more significant place in both the work and the worship of the church.

The Reformation was launched as a movement within the established Christianity that had prevailed since Constantine. It envisaged neither schism within the church nor the dissolution of the Christian culture that had developed for more than a millennium. But when the Reformation was over, both the church and the culture had been radically transformed. In part this transformation was the effect of the Reformation; in part it was the cause of the Reformation. The voyages of discovery, the beginnings of a capitalist economy, the rise of modern nationalism, the dawn of the scientific age, the culture of the Renaissance--all these factors, and others besides, helped to break up the "medieval synthesis." Among these factors, however, the Reformation was one of the most important and, certainly for the history of Christianity, the most significant. For the consequences of the Reformation, not in intention but in fact, were a divided Christendom and a secularized West. Roman Catholicism, no less than Protestantism, has developed historically in the modern world as an effort to adapt historic forms to the implications of these consequences. Established Christianity, as it had been known in the West since the 4th century, ended after the Reformation, though not everywhere at once.


Paradoxically, the end of "established Christianity" in the old sense resulted in the most rapid and most widespread expansion in the history of the church. The Christianization of the Americas and the evangelization of Asia, Africa, and Australasia for the first time gave geographic substance to the Christian title "ecumenical." Growth in areas and in numbers, however, need not be equivalent to growth in influence. Despite its continuing strength throughout the modern period, Christianity retreated on many fronts and lost much of its prestige and authority both politically and intellectually.

During the formative period of modern Western history, roughly from the beginning of the 16th to the middle of the 18th century, Christianity participated in many of the movements of cultural and political expansion. The explorers of the New World were followed closely by missionaries--that is, when the two were not in fact identical. Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen were prominent in politics, letters, and science. Although the rationalism of the Enlightenment alienated many people from the Christian faith, especially among the intellectuals of the 17th and 18th centuries, those who were alienated often kept a loyalty to the figure of Jesus or to the teachings of the Bible even when they broke with traditional forms of Christian doctrine and life. Citing the theological conflicts of the Reformation and the political conflicts that followed upon these as evidence of the dangers of religious intolerance, representatives of the Enlightenment gradually introduced disestablishment, toleration, and religious liberty into most Western countries; in this movement they have been joined by Christian individuals and groups that advocated religious freedom not out of indifference to dogmatic truth but out of a concern for the free decision of personal faith.

The state of Christian faith and life within the churches during the 17th and 18th centuries both reflected and resisted the spirit of the time. Even though the Protestant Reformation had absorbed some of the reformatory energy within Roman Catholicism, the theology and morals of the church underwent serious revision in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. Fighting off the attempts by various countries to establish national Catholic churches, the papacy sought to learn from the history of the Reformation and to avoid the mistakes that had been made then. Protestantism in turn discovered that separation from Rome did not necessarily inoculate it against many of the trends that it had denounced in Roman Catholicism. The orthodox dogmatics of the 17th century both in Lutheranism and in the Reformed churches displayed many features of medieval Scholasticism, despite the attacks of the Reformers upon the latter. Partly as a compensation for the overemphasis of orthodoxy upon doctrine at the expense of morals, Pietism summoned Protestant believers to greater seriousness of faith and purpose. Valid though its summons was, the subjectivity of Pietism unwittingly played into the hands of its enemies, helping to make it possible for the rationalism of the Enlightenment to undermine traditional Christian belief.

In alliance with the spirit of the Enlightenment, the revolutions of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries aided this process of undermining Christianity. Roman Catholicism in France, Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia, and Protestantism in former European colonies in Africa and Asia were identified--by their enemies if not also by themselves--as part of the ancien régime and were nearly swept away with it. As the discoveries of science proceeded, they clashed with old and cherished notions about the doctrine of creation, many of which were passionately supported by various leaders of organized Christianity. The age of the revolutions--political, economic, technological, intellectual--was an age of crisis for Christianity. It was also an age of opportunity. The critical methods of modern scholarship, despite their frequent attacks upon traditional Christian ideas, helped to produce editions of the chief documents of the Christian faith--the Bible and the writings of the Fathers and Reformers--and to arouse an unprecedented interest in the history of the church. The 19th century has been called the great century in the history of Christian missions, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. By the very force of their attacks upon Christianity, the critics of the church helped to arouse within the church new apologists for the faith, who creatively reinterpreted it in relation to the new philosophy and science of the modern period. The 20th century saw additional challenges to the Christian cause in the form of Communism, of resurgent world religions, and of indifference. Both the relation of church and state and the missionary program of the churches thus demanded reconsideration. But the 20th century also saw renewed efforts to heal the schisms within Christendom. The ecumenical movement began within Protestantism and Anglicanism, eventually included some of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and, especially since the second Vatican Council (1962-65), has engaged the sympathetic attention of Roman Catholicism as well.


By the late 20th century Christianity had become the most widely disseminated faith on Earth. Virtually no nation has remained unaffected by the activities of Christian missionaries, although in many countries Christians are only a small fraction of the total population. Most of the countries of Asia and of Africa have Christian minorities, some of which, as in India and even in China, number several million members. The concentration of Christians, however, remains in the domain of Western culture. Each major division of Christianity--Eastern Orthodoxy , Roman Catholicism , and Protestantism --is treated in the Macropædia in a separate article where its history, tenets, and practices receive a fuller exposition than this article can give them and where a bibliography on the denominations of the division is supplied. The purpose here is to provide an overview of the principal divisions and thus to set the articles about the individual traditions into their proper context.

i) Roman Catholicism.

The Roman Catholics in the world outnumber all other Christians combined. They are organized in an intricate system that spans the structure of the church from the local parish to the papacy. Under the central authority of the papacy, the church is divided into dioceses, whose bishops act in the name and by the authority of the pope but retain considerable administrative freedom within their individual jurisdictions; the principle of "collegiality" articulated by the second Vatican Council has expanded that freedom. Similarly, the parish priest stands as the executor of papal and diocesan directives. Alongside the diocesan organization and interacting with it is a chain of orders, congregations, and societies; all of them are, of course, subject to the pope, but they are not directly responsible to the bishop as are the local parishes. It would, however, be a mistake to interpret the polity of the Roman Catholic Church in so purely an organizational manner as this. For Roman Catholic polity rests upon a mandate that is traced to the action of Jesus Christ himself, when he invested Peter and, through Peter, his successors with the power of the keys in the church. Christ is the invisible head of his church, and by his authority the pope is the visible head.

This interpretation of the origin and authority of the church determines both the attitude of Roman Catholicism to the rest of Christendom and its relation to the social order. Believing itself to be the true church of Jesus Christ on earth, it cannot deal with other Christian traditions as equals without betraying its very identity. This does not mean, however, that anyone outside the visible fellowship of the Roman Catholic Church cannot be saved; nor does it preclude the presence of "vestiges of the church" in the other Christian bodies. At the second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church strongly affirmed its ties with its "separated brethren" both in Eastern Orthodoxy and in the several Protestant churches. As the true church of Christ on earth, the Roman Catholic Church also believes itself responsible for the proclamation of the will of God to organized society and to the state. This role brought the church into conflict with the state throughout church history. Yet the political activities of individual churchmen must not be confused with the fundamental obligation of the church, as the "light of the world" to which the revelation of God has been entrusted, to address the meaning of that revelation and of the moral law to the nations, and to work for a social and political order in which both revelation and the moral law can function.

Both in democratic and in totalitarian societies, whether Fascist or Communist, during the 20th century, the relation of the Roman Catholic Church to the state continued to engage the attention of political leaders and of prelates and theologians.

(1) Doctrine.

The understanding that Roman Catholicism has of itself, its interpretation of the proper relation between the church and the state, and its attitude toward other Christian traditions are all based upon Roman Catholic doctrine. In great measure this doctrine is identical with that confessed by orthodox Christians of every label and consists of the Bible, the dogmatic heritage of the ancient church as laid down in the historic creeds and in the decrees of the ecumenical councils, and the theological work of the great doctors of the faith in the East and West. If, therefore, the presentation of the other Christian traditions in this article compares them with Roman Catholicism, this comparison has a descriptive rather than a normative function; for, to a considerable degree, Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy have often defined themselves in relation to Roman Catholicism. In addition, most Christians past and present do have a shared body of beliefs about God, Christ, and the way of salvation.

Roman Catholic doctrine is more than this shared body of beliefs, as is the doctrine of each of the Christian groups. It is necessary here to mention only the three distinctive doctrines that have achieved definitive formulation during the 19th and 20th centuries: the infallibility of the pope, the immaculate conception, and bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. On most other major issues of Christian doctrine, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are largely in agreement, while Protestantism differs from both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism on several issues. For example, Roman Catholic theology defines and numbers the sacraments differently from Orthodox theology; but, over against Protestantism, Roman Catholic doctrine insists, as does Eastern Orthodoxy, upon the centrality of the seven sacraments--baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, extreme unction, penance, matrimony, and holy orders--as channels of divine grace.

(2) Liturgy.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of the sacraments is a summary, in liturgical form, of that which is affirmed by Roman Catholic liturgy. The church is not primarily an organization, nor is it a school of doctrine. It is the place where God approaches humanity through grace and where humanity approaches God through worship. Hence the focus of Roman Catholic piety is the Eucharist, which is both a sacrament and a sacrifice. Other forms of corporate worship and of private devotion radiate from this point of central focus. The obligations of church membership are also derived from the sacramental system, either as preparations for worthy participation in it or as expressions of the obedience sustained by it. Instruction in these obligations and in the implication of the faith for the moral and intellectual life is the responsibility of Roman Catholic educational institutions all over the world. The missions of the church and its institutions of mercy, like the schools, are largely in the hands of religious orders.

ii) The Eastern churches.

Separated from the West, the Orthodox churches of the East have developed their own way for half of Christian history. Each national church is autonomous. The "ecumenical patriarch" of Constantinople is not the Eastern pope but merely the first in honour among equals in jurisdiction. Eastern Orthodoxy interprets the primacy of Peter and therefore that of the pope similarly, denying the right of the pope to speak and act for the entire church by himself, without a church council and without his episcopal colleagues. Because of this polity Eastern Orthodoxy has identified itself more intimately with national cultures and with national regimes than has Roman Catholicism. Therefore the history of church-state relations in the East has been very different from the Western development, because the church in the East has sometimes tended toward the extreme of becoming a mere instrument of national policy while the church in the West has sometimes tended toward the extreme of attempting to dominate the state. The history of ecumenical relations between Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism during the 20th century was also different from the history of Protestant-Roman Catholic relations. While keeping alive their prayer for an eventual healing of the schism with the Latin Church, some of the Orthodox churches have established communion with Anglicanism and with the Old Catholic Church and have participated in the conferences and organizations of the World Council of Churches. (see also Index: Eastern Christian church, papal primacy, church and state)

Doctrinal authority for Eastern Orthodoxy resides in the Scriptures, the ancient creeds, the decrees of the first seven ecumenical councils, and the tradition of the church. In addition to the issues mentioned in the discussion of Roman Catholicism above, the chief dogmatic difference between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thought is on the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son, or the Filioque.

But "orthodoxy," in the Eastern use of the term, means primarily not a species of doctrine but a species of worship. The Feast of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of Lent celebrates the end of the iconoclastic controversies and the restoration to the churches of the icons, which are basic to Orthodox piety. In Orthodox churches (as well as in those Eastern churches that have reestablished communion with Rome), the most obvious points of divergence from general Western practice are the Byzantine liturgy, the right of the clergy to marry before ordination, though bishops may not be married, and the administration to the laity of both species in the Eucharist at the same time by the method of intinction.

The rediscovery of Eastern Orthodox liturgy and piety by Western Christians is an interesting by-product of the ecumenical contacts of the 19th century and of the Russian Revolution. Russian Orthodox scholars and theologians emigrated to the West, especially to France and the United States, where they became active participants in the dialogue among the separated churches.

iii) Protestantism.

Formulating a definition of Protestantism that would include all its varieties has long been the despair of Protestant historians and theologians, for there is greater diversity within Protestantism than there is between some forms of Protestantism and some non-Protestant Christianity. For example, a high-church Anglican or Lutheran has more in common with an Orthodox theologian than with a Baptist theologian. Amid this diversity, however, it is possible to define Protestantism formally as non-Roman Western Christianity and to divide most of Protestantism into four major confessions or confessional families--Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Free Church.

(1) Lutheranism.

The largest of these non-Roman Catholic denominations in the West is the Lutheran Church. The Lutheran churches in Germany, in Scandinavian countries, and in the Americas are distinct from one another in polity, but almost all of them are related through various national and international councils, of which the Lutheran World Federation is the most comprehensive. Doctrinally, Lutheranism sets forth its distinctive position in the Book of Concord, especially in the Augsburg Confession. A long tradition of theological scholarship has been responsible for the development of this position into many and varied doctrinal systems. Martin Luther moved conservatively in this reformation of the Roman Catholic liturgy, and the Lutheran Church, though it has altered many of his liturgical forms, has remained a liturgically traditional church. Most of the Lutheran churches of the world have participated in the ecumenical movement and are members of the World Council of Churches, but Lutheranism has not moved very often across its denominational boundaries to establish full communion with other bodies. The prominence of Lutheran societies in the history of missions during the 18th and 19th centuries, after the relative inactivity following the Reformation, gave an international character to the Lutheran Church; so did the development of strong Lutheran churches in North America, where the traditionally German and Scandinavian membership of the church was gradually replaced by a more cosmopolitan constituency.

(2) Anglicanism.

The Anglican Communion is not only the established Church of England but also the Christian denomination of many believers throughout the world. Like Lutheranism, Anglicanism has striven to retain whatever it could of the Roman Catholic tradition of liturgy and piety, but after the middle of the 19th century the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism went much further in the restoration of ancient liturgical usage and doctrinal belief. Although the Catholic revival also served to rehabilitate the authority of tradition in Anglican theology generally, great variety continued to characterize the theologians of the Anglican Communion. Anglicanism is set off from most other non-Roman churches in the West by its retention of and its insistence upon the apostolic succession of ordaining bishops. The Anglican claim to this apostolic succession, despite its repudiation by Pope Leo XIII in 1896, has largely determined the role of the Church of England in the discussions among the churches. Anglicanism has often taken the lead in inaugurating such discussions, but in such statements as the Lambeth Quadrilateral it has demanded the presence of the historic episcopate as a prerequisite to the establishment of full communion. During the 19th and 20th centuries many leaders of Anglican thought were engaged in finding new avenues of communication with industrial society and with the modern intellectual. The strength of Anglicanism in the New World and in the younger churches of Asia and Africa confronted this communion with the problem of deciding its relation to new forms of Christian life in these new cultures. As its centuries-old reliance upon the establishment in England was compelled to retrench, Anglicanism discovered new ways of exerting its influence and of expressing its message.

(3) Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

Protestant bodies that owe their origins to the reformatory work of John Calvin and his associates in various parts of Europe are often termed Reformed, particularly in Germany, France, and Switzerland. In Britain and in the United States they have usually taken their name from their distinctive polity and have been called Presbyterian. They are distinguished from both Lutheranism and Anglicanism by the thoroughness of their separation from Roman Catholic patterns of liturgy, piety, and even doctrine. Reformed theology has tended to emphasize the sole authority of the Bible with more rigour than has characterized the practice of Anglican or Lutheran thought, and it has looked with deeper suspicion upon the symbolic and sacramental traditions of the Catholic centuries. Perhaps because of its stress upon biblical authority, Reformed Protestantism has sometimes tended to produce a separation of churches along the lines of divergent doctrine or polity, by contrast with the inclusive or even latitudinarian churchmanship of the more traditionalistic Protestant communions. This understanding of the authority of the Bible has also led Reformed Protestantism to its characteristic interpretation of the relation between church and state, sometimes labeled theocratic, according to which those charged with the proclamation of the revealed will of God in the Scriptures (i.e., the ministers) are to address this will also to civil magistrates; Puritanism in England and America gave classic expression to this view. As the church is "reformed according to the Word of God," so the lives of the individuals in the church are to conform to the Word of God; hence the Reformed tradition has assigned great prominence to the cultivation of moral uprightness among its members. During the 20th century most of the Reformed churches of the world took an active part in the ecumenical movement. (see also Index: Presbyterian churches, theocracy)

(4) Free churches.

In the 19th century the term Free churches was applied in Great Britain to those Protestant bodies that did not conform to the establishment, such as Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists (and Presbyterians in England); but since that time it has come into usage among the counterparts to these churches in the United States, where each of them has grown larger than its British parent body. Just as the Reformed denominations go beyond both Anglicanism and Lutheranism in their independence of Roman Catholic traditions and usages, so the Free churches have tended to reject some of the Roman Catholic remnants also in classical Presbyterian worship and theology. Baptists and Congregationalists see the local congregation of gathered believers as the most nearly adequate visible representation of Christ's people on earth. The Baptist requirement of free personal decision as a prerequisite of membership in the congregation leads to the restriction of baptism to believers (i.e., those who have made and confessed such a decision of faith) and therefore to the repudiation of infant baptism; this in turn leads to the restriction of communion at the Eucharist to those who have been properly baptized. In Methodism the Free-church emphasis upon the place of religious experience and upon personal commitment leads to a deep concern for moral perfection in the individual and for moral purity in the community. The Disciples of Christ, a Free church that originated in the United States, makes the New Testament the sole authority of doctrine and practice in the church, requiring no creedal subscription at all; a distinctive feature of their worship is their weekly celebration of Communion. Emphasizing as they do the need for the continuing reformation of the church, the Free churches have, in most (though not all) cases, entered into the activities of interchurch cooperation and have provided leadership and support for the ecumenical movement. This cooperation--as well as the course of their own historical development from spontaneous movements to ecclesiastical institutions possessing many of the features that the founders of the Free churches had originally found objectionable in the establishment--has made the question of their future role in Christendom a central concern of Free churches on both sides of the Atlantic.

 (5) Other churches and movements.

In addition to these major divisions of Protestantism, there are other churches and movements not so readily classifiable; some of them are quite small, but others number millions of members. These churches and movements would include, for example, the Society of Friends (or Quakers), known both for their cultivation of the "Inward Light" and for their pacifism; the Unitarian Universalist body, which does not consistently identify itself as Christian; Christian Science; Unity and other theosophic movements, which blend elements from the Christian tradition with practices and teachings from other religions; Pentecostal churches and churches of divine healing, which profess to return to primitive Christianity; and many independent churches and groups, most of them characterized by a free liturgy and a fundamentalist theology. Separately and together, these groups illustrate how persistent has been the tendency of Christianity since its beginnings to proliferate parties, sects, heresies, and movements. They illustrate also how elusive is the precise demarcation of Christendom, even for those observers whose definition of normative Christianity is quite exact. (J.J.Pe.)



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