Christianity is an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the New Testament. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with about 2.4 billion adherents, known as Christians. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, and the savior of humanity whose coming as Christ or the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament.
Although Christianity has its roots in the Torah of Judaism, the origin of Christianity is considered to be the middle of the first century as the apostles began to spread the message throughout the Roman Empire. Over the past two thousand years Christianity has gone through numerous theological and organizational developments, producing many denominations (an estimated 40,000 worldwide) and non-denominational (or inter-denominational) associations.
Christianity can be divided into three major groups – the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant Churches.
The Roman Catholic Church – By far the largest Christian branch with 1.2 billion members.
The Eastern Orthodox Church– (Russian, Greek … etc.) – Began following a split with Rome in the 11th century. With approximately 250 million followers the Eastern Orthodox church is the third largest branch of Christian churches following the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
The Protestant Church – The second largest branch of Christianity with 800 million members. It began in the 16th century when Martin Luther and others took issue with the Roman Catholic Church on a number of issues.
The following chart shows how the three branches break down through the church age.
Christian theology is expressed in ecumenical creeds. These professions of faith state that Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and was resurrected from the dead in order to grant eternal life to those who believe in him and trust in him for the remission of their sins. The creeds further maintain that Jesus bodily ascended into heaven, where he reigns with God the Father, and that he will return to judge the living and dead and grant eternal life to his followers. His ministry, crucifixion and resurrection are often referred to as “the gospel”, meaning “good news” (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον euangélion). The term gospel also refers to written accounts of Jesus’s life and teaching, four of which—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are considered canonical and included in Christian Bibles.
Christianity began in the Middle East and quickly spread to Europe, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Egypt. By the end of the 4th century ithad become the official state church of the Roman Empire. Following the Age of Discovery, Christianity spread to the Americas, Australasia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the rest of the world through missionary work and colonization. Christianity has played a prominent role in the shaping of Western civilization.
Christians share a certain set of beliefs that they hold as essential to their faith, though there are many important differences of interpretation and opinion of the Bible on which Christianity is based.
Concise doctrinal statements or confessions of religious beliefs are known as creeds (from Latin credo, meaning “I believe”). They began as baptismal formulae and were later expanded during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries to become statements of faith.
Many evangelical Protestants reject creeds as definitive statements of faith, even while agreeing with some or all of the substance of the creeds. The Baptists have been non-creedal “in that they have not sought to establish binding authoritative confessions of faith on one another.” Also rejecting creeds are groups with roots in the Restoration Movement, such as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Christian Church in Canada and the Churches of Christ.
The Apostles’ Creed remains the most popular statement of the articles of Christian faith which are generally acceptable to most Christian denominations that are creedal. It is widely used by a number of Christian denominations for both liturgical and catechetical purposes, most visibly by liturgical Churches of Western Christian tradition, including the Latin Church of the Catholic Church, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Western Rite Orthodoxy. It is also used by Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists. This particular creed was developed between the 2nd and 9th centuries. Its central doctrines are those of the Trinity and God the Creator. Each of the doctrines found in this creed can be traced to statements current in the apostolic period. The creed was apparently used as a summary of Christian doctrine for baptismal candidates in the churches of Rome.
Its main points include:
- belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Holy Spirit
- the death, descent into hell, resurrection, and ascension of Christ
- the holiness of the Church and the communion of saints
- Christ’s second coming, the Day of Judgment and salvation of the faithful.
The Nicene Creed, largely a response to Arianism, was formulated at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in 325 and 381 respectively and ratified as the universal creed of Christendom by the First Council of Ephesus in 431.
The Chalcedonian Definition, or Creed of Chalcedon, developed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, though rejected by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, taught Christ “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”: one divine and one human, and that both natures, while perfect in themselves, are nevertheless also perfectly united into one person.
The Athanasian Creed, received in the Western Church as having the same status as the Nicene and Chalcedonian, says: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.”
Most Christians (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Protestants alike) accept the use of creeds, and subscribe to at least one of the creeds mentioned above.
The central tenet of Christianity is the belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah (Christ). Christians believe that Jesus, as the Messiah, was anointed by God as savior of humanity, and hold that Jesus’ coming was the fulfillment of messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. The Christian concept of the Messiah differs significantly from the contemporary Jewish concept. The core Christian belief is that through belief in and acceptance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, sinful humans can be reconciled to God and thereby are offered salvation and the promise of eternal life.
While there have been many theological disputes over the nature of Jesus over the earliest centuries of Christian history, generally Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate and “true God and true man” (or both fully divine and fully human). Jesus, having become fully human, suffered the pains and temptations of a mortal man, but did not sin. As fully God, he rose to life again. According to the Bible, “God raised him from the dead”, He ascended to heaven, is “seated at the right hand of the Father” and will ultimately return to fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the Resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment and final establishment of the Kingdom of God.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary. Little of Jesus’ childhood is recorded in the canonical Gospels, however infancy Gospels were popular in antiquity. In comparison, his adulthood, especially the week before his death, is well documented in the Gospels contained within the New Testament, because that part of his life was believed to be most important. The Biblical accounts of Jesus’ ministry include: his baptism, miracles, preaching, teaching, and deeds.
Death and Resurrection
Christians consider the resurrection of Jesus to be the cornerstone of their faith (I Corinthians 15) and the most important event in history. Among Christian beliefs, the death and resurrection of Jesus are two core events on which much of Christian doctrine and theology is based. According to the New Testament Jesus was crucified, died a physical death, was buried within a tomb, and rose from the dead three days later.(Jn. 19:30–31; Mk. 16:1,6)
The New Testament mentions several resurrection appearances of Jesus on different occasions to His twelve apostles and disciples, including “more than five hundred brethren at once” (1Cor 15:6) before His Ascension to heaven. Jesus’ death and resurrection are commemorated by Christians in all worship services, with special emphasis during Holy Week which includes Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are usually considered the most important events in Christian theology, partly because they demonstrate that Jesus has power over life and death and therefore has the authority and power to give people eternal life.
Christian churches accept and teach the New Testament account of the resurrection of Jesus with very few exceptions. Some modern scholars use the belief of Jesus’ followers in the resurrection as a point of departure for establishing the continuity of the historical Jesus and the proclamation of the early church. Some liberal Christians do not accept a literal bodily resurrection, seeing the story as richly symbolic and spiritually nourishing myth. Arguments over death and resurrection claims occur at many religious debates and interfaith dialogues. Paul the Apostle, an early Christian convert and missionary, wrote, “If Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless.”(1Cor 15:14)
Paul the Apostle, like Jews and Roman pagans of his time, believed that sacrifice can bring about new kinship ties, purity, and eternal life. For Paul the necessary sacrifice was the death of Jesus: Gentiles who are “Christ’s” are, like Israel, descendants of Abraham and “heirs according to the promise”.(Gal. 3:29) The God who raised Jesus from the dead would also give new life to the “mortal bodies” of Gentile Christians, who had become with Israel the “children of God” and were therefore no longer “in the flesh”.(Rom. 8:9,11,16)
Modern Christian churches tend to be much more concerned with how humanity can be saved from a universal condition of sin and death than the question of how both Jews and Gentiles can be in God’s family. According to both Catholic and Protestant doctrine, salvation comes by Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation does not occur without faithfulness on the part of Christians; converts must live in accordance with principles of love and ordinarily must be baptized. Martin Luther taught that baptism was necessary for salvation, but modern Lutherans and other Protestants tend to teach that salvation is a gift that comes to an individual by God’s grace, sometimes defined as “unmerited favor”, even apart from baptism.
Christians differ in their views on the extent to which individuals’ salvation is pre-ordained by God. Reformed theology places distinctive emphasis on grace by teaching that individuals are completely incapable of self-redemption, but that sanctifying grace is irresistible. In contrast Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Arminian Protestants believe that the exercise of free will is necessary to have faith in Jesus.
The Trinity is the belief that God is one God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. It is considered an essential doctrine of mainstream Christianity. From earlier than the times of the Nicene Creed, 325 CE, Christianity advocated the triune nature of God as a normative profession of faith. According to Roger E. Olson and Christopher Hall, through prayer, meditation, study and practice, the Christian community concluded “that God must exist as both a unity and trinity”, codifying this in ecumenical council at the end of the 4th century.
According to this doctrine, God is not divided in the sense that each person has a third of the whole; rather, each person is considered to be fully God. The distinction lies in their relations, the Father being unbegotten; the Son being begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and from the Son. Regardless of this apparent difference, the three “persons” are each eternal and omnipotent. Other Christian religions including Unitarian Universalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism and others do not share those views on the Trinity.
Unitarianism, or Nontrinitarianism refers to theology that rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. Various Unitarian views, such as adoptionism or modalism, existed in early Christianity, leading to the disputes about Christology. Unitarianism later appeared again in the Gnosticism of the Cathars in the 11th through 13th centuries, and by groups with Unitarian theology in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and in the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, and in some groups arising during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century.
Christianity, like other religions, has adherents whose beliefs and biblical interpretations vary. Christianity regards the biblical canon, the Old Testament and the New Testament, as the inspired word of God. The traditional view of inspiration is that God worked through human authors so that what they produced was what God wished to communicate. The Greek word referring to inspiration in 2 Timothy 3:16 is theopneustos, which literally means “God-breathed”.
Some believe that divine inspiration makes our present Bibles inerrant. Others claim inerrancy for the Bible in its original manuscripts, although none of those are extant. Still others maintain that only a particular translation is inerrant, such as the King James Version. Another closely related view is Biblical infallibility or limited inerrancy, which affirms that the Bible is free of error as a guide to salvation, but may include errors on matters such as history, geography or science.
The books of the Bible accepted by the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches vary somewhat, with Jews accepting only the Hebrew Bible as canonical; there is however substantial overlap. These variations are a reflection of the range of traditions, and of the councils that have convened on the subject. Every version of the Old Testament always includes the books of the Tanakh, the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The Catholic and Orthodox canons, in addition to the Tanakh, also include the Deuterocanonical Books as part of the Old Testament. These books appear in the Septuagint, but are regarded by Protestants to be apocryphal. However, they are considered to be important historical documents which help to inform the understanding of words, grammar and syntax used in the historical period of their conception. Some versions of the Bible include a separate Apocrypha section between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The New Testament, originally written in Koine Greek, contains 27 books which are agreed upon by all churches.
Modern scholarship has raised many issues with the Bible. While the Authorized King James Version is held to by many because of its striking English prose, in fact it was translated from the Erasmus Greek Bible which in turn “was based on a single 12th Century manuscript that is one of the worst manuscripts we have available to us”. Much scholarship in the past several hundred years has gone into comparing different manuscripts in order to reconstruct the original text. Another issue is that several books are considered to be forgeries. The injunction that women “be silent and submissive” in 1 Timothy 12 is thought by many to be a forgery by a follower of Paul, a similar phrase in 1 Corinthians 14, which is thought to be by Paul, appears in different places in different manuscripts and is thought to originally be a margin note by a copyist. Other verses in 1 Corinthians, such as 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 where women are instructed to wear a covering over their hair “when they pray or prophesies”, contradict this verse.
A final issue with the Bible is the way in which books were selected for inclusion in the New Testament. Other Gospels have now been recovered, such as those found near Nag Hammadi in 1945, and while some of these texts are quite different from what Christians have been used to, it should be understood that some of this newly recovered Gospel material is quite possibly contemporaneous with, or even earlier than, the New Testament Gospels. The core of the Gospel of Thomas, in particular, may date from as early as 50 AD, and if so would provide an insight into the earliest gospel texts that underlie the canonical Gospels, texts that are mentioned in Luke 1:1–2. The Gospel of Thomas contains much that is familiar from the canonical Gospels—verse 113, for example (“The Father’s Kingdom is spread out upon the earth, but people do not see it”), is reminiscent of Luke 17:20–21 and the Gospel of John, with a terminology and approach that is suggestive of what was later termed Gnosticism, has recently been seen as a possible response to the Gospel of Thomas, a text that is commonly labeled proto-Gnostic. Scholarship, then, is currently exploring the relationship in the Early Church between mystical speculation and experience on the one hand and the search for church order on the other, by analyzing new-found texts, by subjecting canonical texts to further scrutiny, and by an examination of the passage of New Testament texts to canonical status.