Christianity Essay, Research Paper
Christianity, the most widely distributed of the world religions, having substantial representation in all the populated continents of the globe. Its total membership may exceed 1.7 billion people.
The central element of Christianity is the person of Jesus Christ. Although Christians do not all agree on a definition of what makes Christ distinctive or unique, they agree that his life and example should be followed and that his teachings about love and fellowship should be the basis of human relations. In Christian teaching, Jesus is the supreme preacher and exemplar of the moral life, but for most Christians that, by itself, does not do full justice to the significance of his life and work. What is known of Jesus, historically, is told in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. Other portions of the New Testament summarize the beliefs of the early Christian church. Christians teach that God is almighty in dominion over all that is in heaven and on earth, righteous in judgment over good and evil, beyond time and space and change; but above all they teach that “God is love.” Early Christianity found in the words of Jesus evidence both of the special standing men and women have as children of such a heavenly Father and of the even more special position occupied by Christ. Baptism has been from the beginning the means of initiation into Christianity. The other universally accepted ritual among Christians is the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, in which Christians share in bread and wine and, through them, express and acknowledge the reality of the presence of Christ in communion with one another. Another fundamental component of Christian faith and practice is the Christian community itself?the church. The community of faith in the church is the primary setting for Christian worship, although Christians of all traditions have placed a strong emphasis on private devotion and individual prayer.
Almost all the information about Jesus himself and about early Christianity comes from those who claimed to be his followers. This information often raises more questions than it answers. What is known is that the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi, or teacher, attracted a following of those who believed him to be a new prophet. Their recollections of his words and deeds recall Jesus’ days on earth and the miracle of his resurrection from the dead on the first Easter. These Jewish Christians became the first church, in Jerusalem. From this center Christianity radiated to other cities and towns in Palestine and beyond. An important source of the alienation of Christianity from its Jewish roots was the change in the membership of the church that took place by the end of the 2nd century. At some point, Christians with Gentile backgrounds began to outnumber Jewish Christians. The work of the apostle Paul was influential in this change. He formulated many of the ideas and terms that were to constitute the core of Christian belief. The early congregations were based on an orderly transmission of leadership from the first apostles to subsequent ” bishops.” When differing interpretations of the Christian message arose, official church councils during the 300s and 400s produced definitive formulations of basic doctrines, which are still accepted by most Christians. Christianity also had to settle its relation to the political order. Some of the Roman emperors persecuted the Christians, whom they saw as a threat to unity and reform. Despite the persecutions, Christianity had grown considerably by the 300s. Emperor Constantine the Great decided to accept the new religion. The conversion of Constantine assured the church a privileged place in society. Some Christians began to feel that standards of Christian conduct were being lowered and that the only way to obey the moral imperatives of Christ was to flee the world. Christian monasticism began in the Egyptian desert and spread to many parts of the Christian empire during the 300s and 400s. In 330 Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. While Western Christianity became increasingly centralized under the pope of Rome, the principal centers of the East developed autonomously. The emperor at Constantinople held a special place in the life of the church. It was he, for example, who presided over the general councils of the church. A major crisis emerged in the 700s over the use of images, or icons, in Christian churches. The intense conflict threatened the Eastern church at its most vital point?its liturgy. Eastern Christianity was, and still is, a way of worship and on that basis a way of life and a way of belief. Eventually the icons were restored. During the 600s and 700s Eastern centers were captured by the dynamic new faith of Islam, with only Constantinople remaining unconquered. Distinctive features of the Christian East contributed to its increasing alienation from the West, which finally produced the Great Schism, traditionally dated from 1054, when Rome and Constantinople exchanged excommunications. The separation of East and West has continued into modern times, despite repeated attempts at reconciliation. Some of the most dynamic development took place in the western part of the Roman Empire, which witnessed the growth of the papacy and the migration of the Germanic peoples. The most powerful force remaining in Rome was its bishop, who became the leader of the Western church as waves of invading tribes swept into Europe and as the political power of Constantinople in the west declined. Finally in 800 an independent Western empire was born when Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. Medieval Christianity in the West, unlike its Eastern counterpart, developed into a single entity. Church and state clashed repeatedly over the delineation of their respective spheres of authority. Church and state did cooperate by closing ranks in organizing Crusades against the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem. However, the Crusades did not permanently restore Christian rule to the Holy Land, and they did not unify the West either ecclesiastically or politically. A more impressive achievement of the medieval church during this period was the development of Scholastic philosophy and theology, particularly the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who wove the disparate parts of the tradition into a unified whole. In 1309 the papacy fled from Rome to Avignon, where it remained until 1377. This was followed by a period during which there were several claimants to the papal throne. The schism was resolved in 1417, but the papacy never recovered its former authority. Religious reformers denounced the moral laxity and corruption that they perceived in the church, and they called for radical change. Profound social and political changes were also taking place in the West, with increased national consciousness, the rising strength of cities, and the emergence of a merchant class. The 16th-century Protestant Reformation may be seen as the convergence of such forces in calls for reform in the church. German religious reformer Martin Luther was the catalyst that precipitated the new movement. His personal struggle for religious certainty led him to question the medieval system of salvation and the very authority of the church. His excommunication by Pope Leo X proved to be an irreversible step toward the division of Western Christendom. The Reformation succeeded where it gained the support of the new national states. In response both to the Protestant challenge and to its own needs, the church summoned the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which formulated doctrines and legislated practical reforms. However, new divisions continued to appear. Historically, the most noteworthy were probably the ones that arose in the Church of England. In the 1600s and 1700s it became evident that Christianity would be obliged to define and to defend itself in response to the rise of modern science and philosophy. The increasing secularization of society removed the control of the church from areas of life, especially education, over which it had once been dominant. The gradual separation of church and state represented a departure from a system that had held sway since the conversion of Constantine the Great. The 1800s were preeminently the time of historical research into the development of Christian ideas and institutions. This research indicated to many that no particular form of doctrine or church structure could claim to be absolute and final, but it also provided other theologians with new resources for reinterpreting the Christian message. By the last quarter of the 20th century, the missionary movements of the church had carried the Christian faith throughout the world.