Christianity is a mono-theistic religion that believes in a personal God who became human in Jesus Christ, a real historical figure, in order to communicate directly with humanity and who continues to be present to humanity for the rest of time as the Holy Spirit. The three-fold character of God is termed ‘the Trinity’.
This complex understanding of God was gradually understood by the followers of Jesus Christ over about the following 300 years, particularly as they reflected on the agreed set of Christian scriptures. Commonly known as the Bible, these consist of two distinct sections. The recorded accounts of the life of Jesus – the ‘gospels’ – and letters of advice and instruction from first century Christian leaders – the ‘epistles’ or ‘letters’ – make up the greater part of what is called the New Testament. The Old Testament consists of much established Jewish scripture because Jesus was born and lived a Jew and is seen by Christians as the fulfilment of God’s promise to the Jewish people.
Through a series of Councils of leaders of local Christian communities and the statements of beliefs – creeds – that they developed, the principal elements of Christian theology took shape as the leaders reflected on the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.
In the process some Christian communities did not accept elements of some creeds or Council statements and became independent Christian traditions. Some have survived to this day but the number of their members is relatively insignificant, given that it is estimated that there are in excess of two billion Christians today, amounting to 25-30% of the total world population.
Today Christians belong to very many different Churches or traditions. It is estimated that there are over 1500 in North America, although the number in Britain is much smaller, but these may be grouped into four broad categories. All share key beliefs in common but there is a wide range of detailed beliefs. What follows is an overview of Christian beliefs. Some individual Churches and traditions may not embrace every element as described.
‘Christian’ was a name given to the followers of Jesus Christ by elements of society in the Roman Empire because of his importance in their belief and practices. Their central belief was that Jesus was divine – was God. This they believed had been shown in many ways during his life but decisively by the fact that he “was crucified, died and was buried....On the third day he rose again [= he met, conversed and eat with people on several occasions over a period of 40 days until] he ascended in to heaven and is seated at the right hand of [God] the Father.” Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and Ascension into heaven is central to Christianity. However the precise understanding of the meaning of these terms and the significance of the belief can vary between different Christian traditions.
The quotation above is taken from what is called the ‘Apostles’ Creed’ – a statement that developed over about 700 years after the death of the generation of Christians who had actually known Jesus. It is probably the most widely accepted creed or statement of beliefs accepted by the Christian traditions found in Britain today. It is three parts – God the Father – Jesus Christ – Holy Spirit and Christian beliefs, echoing the Christian belief in the Trinity.
The Apostles’ Creed - Commentary
God the Father is the first person of the Trinity
I believe in God, the Father almighty, ‘Father’ indicates the personal character of God
Creator of heaven and earth. ‘...almighty, creator...’ asserts the power of God and role as creator; ‘heaven and earth’ conveys the totality of the range of creation, embracing all that is.
Jesus, God the Son, is the second person of the Trinity.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. ‘Son’ signifies one with God or “God made man” - NOT a separation or subordination.
He was conceived This asserts that he had no human father
by the power of the Holy Spirit the belief that he is divine and born of the Virgin Mary Mary is his human mother – he is human “Jesus is true God and true man” - Council of Ephesus, 431
He suffered under Pontius Pilate - emphasising the historical reality
and was crucified, died and was buried. Asserting the nature and fact of his death.
He descended to the dead ie visited human beings who have died on earth but who still ‘are’, still exist but are not in heaven.
On the third day he rose again Crucified on Good Friday – risen from the dead Easter Sunday
He ascended into heaven ‘Heaven’ is the eternal presence of God, after human death
and is seated at the right hand of the Father - an anthropomorphic visioning of the relationship within the divine oneness of God
He will come again Jesus spoke of a ‘last judgement’ in Mt25:31-46
to judge the living and the dead. Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, taking place at the end of time.
God the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity
I believe in the Holy Spirit The on-going presence of God in the world
the holy catholic Church ‘Church’ is the community of Christians
‘catholic’ means universal
‘holy’ means sharing in the holiness of God
NB 'catholic' does not mean the institution of the Catholic Church led by the Pope, the bishop of Rome
the communion of saints ‘saints’ includes all followers of Jesus Christ ‘communion’ means the union/unity of all ‘saints’ – those alive on earth and those who have died and passed to eternity Since Christianity believes that all are made in the image and likeness of God, so the ultimate meaning of this is the entirety of humanity, every single person.
the forgiveness of sins ‘sin’ is a failure to love God and neighbour, near and far and ‘sins’ are actions or omissions that demonstrate sin. ‘Forgiveness of sins’ is the love of God for a person transcending a person’s ‘sins’.
the resurrection of the body signifies belief in eternal life in a form [body] that has
life everlasting - continuity with life on earth before death. Thus, having come into existence [birth], a person will never cease to be, to exist, but will continue to ‘be’ for all eternity, with God, in heaven.
GOD is one Trinity
GOD is three persons: God the Father
God the Son
God the Holy Spirit [Holy Ghost]
in one substance [Gk: homoousion]
which allows for distinction while maintaining unity.
JESUS CHRIST is “true God and true man” Council of Ephesus 431
has two natures, one human and one divine
has “one substance [homoousion] with the Father” Council of Chalcedon 451
HOLY SPIRIT is manifest primarily through the Church but different traditions understand this in different ways. Most acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit in the composition of the Christian scripture, the Bible. Many affirm that the Holy Spirit works through the leadership of Church communities while some, particularly in the Protestant tradition, hold that the Holy Spirit works directly through individual Christians.
Among the main Christian scriptural references to the Holy Spirit are:
- The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost [Acts 2:1-47]
- Each person is a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ [1 Corinthians 3:16]
- ‘Fruits of the spirit’ are ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ [Galatians 5:22]
- ‘Casting out demons, speaking in tongues, picking up serpents and drinking deadly things without being harmed and healing people by the laying on of hands are the signs of those who believe and are baptized [Mark 16:15-18] and some Christian traditions, particularly Pentecostalist, associate this with baptism in the Holy Spirit.
History of Christianity
Jesus attracted followers [= disciples] and appointed 12 to be apostles – leaders who would go out in his lifetime and afterwards to preach the ‘gospel’ [= ‘good news’ – God’s love for all persons].
A missionary faith from the outset, the faith, life(style) and teaching of the apostles and disciples attracted followers so an institutional structure developed. Bishops [episcopoi Greek – ‘overseer’] were appointed to lead local Christian communities by the apostles. As the numbers and outreach of Christians increased, so the bishops appointed ‘priests’ [Greek presbuteroi _] to lead the central act of Christian worship [then termed ‘Eucharist’ from the Greek _eucharistein meaning ‘to give thanks’] on behalf of the bishop in communities unable to travel to the Eucharist celebrated by the bishop.
Christian unity was maintained by each bishop remaining in communication with fellow bishops and in particular with the bishops of the five patriarchs – Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. As stated earlier, in the first centuries Christian leaders sought to understand how to express their beliefs derived from the teaching of Jesus. They did this by periodically coming together at what are called ‘Councils’ to agree on how beliefs might be expressed. Although they generally achieved a very wide measure of agreement, every Council was followed by some Christians disagreeing with the creed or agreed statement and thus becoming independent of the main Christian tradition. In this way Christianity began to divide into a series of faith communities or traditions but one main common tradition continued for the first thousand years of Christian history.
The first major division: 1054
Serious differences of belief, such as how or indeed whether Jesus was both human and divine, were the cause of some of these divisions. However the difficulty in expressing a shared belief in the two principal languages spoken by Christians – Greek and Latin – was always a major difficulty. Each Council reached agreement in one language but the agreed statement then had to be translated, explained and understood in the other language. This caused great tensions in view of the significance of the matters being determined, such as the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
This is generally understood to be the cause of the ‘Great Schism’ [split] of 1054 when the western Latin-speaking and the eastern, Orthodox Greek-speaking traditions split into the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. A related issue of authority within Christianity is also considered to have contributed to the split. Efforts to resolve the differences by appealing to recognised authority revealed the western Church expected the whole of Christianity to recognise the Bishop of Rome, successor of the apostle Peter, as the supreme authority while the eastern Church recognised the authority of the bishop of each patriarchate. These irreconcilable differences led to the schism.
The Orthodox Church was centred on Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. It continued to grow in numbers, particularly in east and south-east Europe, Russia and the Caucasus, adopting the prevailing local language. Following the growth of Islam, the occupation of Constantinople and collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, most Orthodox Christians, apart from Russian Orthodox Christians, lived within the Ottoman Empire and were isolated from the controversies in Christian faith and practice elsewhere until the ending of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. For much of this time the Greek Orthodox Church was the pre-eminent tradition. In Russia the Orthodox Church was a significant element in Russian life.
Originally part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Moscow Patriarchate was established in 1447. The Russian Orthodox Church continued to be closely identified with the state, in various ways, until the twentieth century when it experienced both persecution and toleration. The collapse of communism in 1991 has enabled it to establish a new relationship with the state. In 2010 there is a ‘communion’ of 14 administratively independent Orthodox Churches, each with its own geographic territory and led by a synod [council] of bishops chaired by the Primate, together with various other Christian traditions that regard themselves as Orthodox. Orthodox Christians are to be found throughout the world including in Britain. For example, there are both Greek and Russian Orthodox cathedrals in London. Other Orthodox communities with cathedrals in London include the Eritrean and Ukranian Orthodox Churches.
The second major division: The Reformation
The western, Latin-speaking Catholic Church continued to be the pre-eminent Christian tradition in the rest of Europe until the sixteenth century. Through these centuries periodically it was inclined to lose a clear focus on proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ but at different time individuals, such as Francis and Dominic in the twelfth century, challenged this tendency. Both started ‘religious orders’, groups of followers who lived according to the precepts or ‘rule’ of their founder, orders still known today as Franciscans and Dominicans.
Catholic Christianity was the religion of the overwhelming majority of people across Europe and the parish church was their local focus. Here every Sunday, commemorating the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, all assembled to attend Mass, the more commonly used term in the Catholic Church for Eucharist. They heard the priest recite prayers and readings in Latin and followed the ‘liturgy’ or order of service which culminated in the ‘consecration’ of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and its reception by the priest and other members of the congregation in ‘holy communion’.
However Catholic Christianity gradually lost its clear focus for various reasons including poorly educated clergy ill equipped to lead local parishes and bishops playing increasingly significant roles in state affairs. Individual reformers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were ineffective but this was all to change within about 30 years in what became known as the Reformation. In continental Europe the principal issues centred on scripture, which was just becoming translated from Latin and published using new printing presses, and what it taught about ‘salvation’ (eternal life with God in heaven) and the Church and in particular the Eucharist.
Key figures in the Reformation
The first challenge came in 1517 from Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany, who challenged a method of fund-raising to pay for the new basilica in Rome which implied ‘buying’ divine forgiveness. He continued to develop his thought and argued that salvation came through personal faith alone, widely known as “justification by faith”. Concerning the Eucharist, he taught that there was a real presence of Christ within the elements of bread and wine.
In the following decade Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich also proclaimed the pre-eminence of scripture in determining doctrine and Church discipline but believed that the Eucharist was no more than a sign of the presence of Christ, the elements remaining bread and wine.
The third leading reformer was John Calvin who was invited back to Geneva with his reform agenda. This also included an emphasis on scripture and the doctrine of ‘predestination’, that is a belief that, because of the absolute sovereignty of God, the final salvation of some of humanity is foreordained from eternity by God.
Among the followers of Calvin was John Knox who was instrumental in the Church in Scotland becoming ‘reformed’ in the Presbyterian tradition, based on the precepts of Calvin. Thus the private interpretation of scripture resulted in a variety of conflicting beliefs that continued to increase, resulting in an increasing number of Protestant denominations, the name protestant coming from their challenge to and ‘protest’ at the Catholic Church, down to the present day.
The Reformation in England
The Reformation in England took a slightly different course because its origins were political, not theological, focusing on the authority of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Henry VIII was a committed Catholic, even receiving the title “defender of the faith” for a critique he wrote of Luther. However the Catholic Church required all matters of Church discipline involving a Catholic sovereign to be referred to the Pope for adjudication, to avoid undue influence being exercised by the sovereign on bishops within the realm. Thus Henry’s request for an ‘annulment’ (a Church dispensation different in character if not effect to a divorce) was referred to the Pope but he was, at the time, subject to pressure from the King of Spain, who was also challenging Henry VIII. Hence Henry VIII broke from Rome but retained most of the custom and practice of the Catholic Church.
However protestant influences were soon felt, the more so under the reign of his young successor Edward VI. He was followed by Mary who Catholic, sought to reverse the protestant tendencies and re-establish the Church of England as part of the Catholic Church. When her short reign ended, Elizabeth I sort to establish a comprehensive “settlement” of the complex situation by establishing an all-embracing protestant Church of England. Thus it retained the traditional ecclesiastical structures and orders – bishop, priest and deacon – established Creeds and the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, while at the same time making freer use of scripture, English in place of Latin, and latitude in doctrinal interpretation and ritual.
The Counter Reformation
These major challenges to the Catholic Church led to its calling bishops to the Council of Trent. Meeting for three sessions over 20 years it clearly stated Catholic doctrine, set higher standards for clerical education and discipline and asserted the authority of the Pope. In contrast to the Protestant emphasis on scripture as the sole authority, the Catholic Church also cited the authority of the living tradition of the Catholic Church as proclaimed by the magisterium, widely interpreted to mean the Pope and principal bishops in Rome. Often called the ‘Counter Reformation’, this response by the Catholic Church ended any hopes of reconciliation with the ‘reformed Churches’ which spread across much of northern Europe. The Catholic Church has experienced no further significant rupture since the Reformation.
The century following the Reformation was marked by further division within Protestantism alongside considerable religious persecution, one Christian tradition on another. Where the king was Catholic, as in France for example, there was persecution of ‘Protestants’. Conversely where the king was Protestant, as in England, there was persecution of Catholics. Persecution was usually highly political and could change with a change of monarch or their religious allegiance. One consequence was the migration of persecuted Christians from all traditions to America where there was religious liberty and freedom from persecution.
The Church of England has given rise to a wide range of Christian developments. One such was that led by John and Charles Wesley who travelled widely around the country preaching forgiveness and eternal life to all through faith in Jesus Christ, a very popular message at a time of considerable industrialisation. Eventually they broke from the Church of England and established the Methodist Church which itself broke into various other traditions, most of which reunited in 1932. However one that remained independent and continues to flourish is the Salvation Army, established at the end of the nineteenth century. A feature of some forms of Methodism was ‘baptism in the holy spirit’ which is later to contribute to the development of Pentecostalism.
There have been a number of distinct periods of religious (ie Christian) revival in the United States. During one at the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a widespread belief that all established churches had lost the simplicity of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. Hence a number of new churches were founded, independent of any established Christian tradition. Some of these developed from a mood of ‘millennarianism’ and ‘adventism’, [believing that the world would shortly end] arising from evangelical Protestantism, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Jehovah’s Witness movement was also influenced by this mood, while the Christadelphians and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormons) also arose about this time.
A century later, among some poor and disadvantaged Americans, began what is termed Pentecostalism. With roots going back to the Methodist ‘baptism in the holy spirit tradition’, it began to come to prominence in California as a result of another religious revival prompted by apocalyptic thoughts arising from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In the twentieth century it expanded across America and across the world with some of its largest congregations in Latin America and South Korea.
Christianity may be appreciated as falling into various headings. What follows is one simple approach and far from exhaustive.
Consists of 14 Churches each covering a defined territory, with a degree of autonomy [autocephalous] but in communion with [ie recognise the authority of] the Patriarchal Sees of the East such as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. ** Catholic Church**
Is one Church comprising 23 different Rites [ways of worshipping] all of which are in communion with [ie recognise the authority of] the Pope - Is one Church which is led locally in each diocese by its bishop - Each diocese [geographical area led by a bishop] is regarded as a local Church. - Each bishop is “in communion” with the Bishop of Rome and hence with all other bishops worldwide.
Calvinist, Presbyterian and Reformed
The Reformed Ecumenical Council
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) was created in 1970 by a merger of two bodies, one representing Presbyterian and Reformed churches, the other Congregational churches. It has 218 member churches in 107 countries around the world, with some 75 million members. Churches represented in the WARC include Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed and United churches which have historical roots in the 16th century Reformation. www.reformedchurches.org/
Lutheran World Federation
Consists of 140 member Churches, 10 ‘recognized Churches and congregations’ and one recognized council. There are a small number of Lutheran bodies that are not members of the LWF. http://www.lutheranworld.org/lwf/
Baptist details missing
Methodist details missing
The Anglican Communion of Churches hs some 80 million members and consists of 44 different Churches made up of 34 provinces, 4 United Churches and 6 other Churches that arose from the Church of England www.anglicancommunion.org
Ten or more different church traditions and associations
celibate male in Catholic and Orthodox traditions
male in Anglican tradition but a few Churches have female bishops
title of leader in some churches apart from Catholic and Orthodox
celibate male in Catholic tradition - but married convert Anglican clergy may be priests in England and Wales
male in Orthodox tradition
male or female in Anglican tradition
- title of many leaders/preachers in all churches apart from Catholic and Orthodox
Christianity in Britain
- Church of England Established (ie state) Church in England and member of Anglican Communion
- Church of Scotland Established (ie state) Church in Scotland in Presbyterian tradition
- Church in Wales Member of Anglican communion. There is no established Church in Wales.
- Church of Ireland Member of Anglican communion.
- Episcopal Church in Scotland Member of Anglican communion.
- Catholic Church One universal Church that transcends national boundaries
NB Roman Catholic Church is a historical term given [by some Anglicans] to the Catholic Church to distinguish it from a group within the Church of England called Anglo-Catholic.
Prayer and Worship
Linked to traditions – sacraments – ministers/church leaders – features of church buildings