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Christianity, religion founded in Palestine by the followers of Jesus. One of the world's major religions, it predominates in Europe and the Americas, where it has been a powerful historical force and cultural influence, but it also claims adherents in virtually every country of the world.

Central Beliefs

The central teachings of traditional Christianity are that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; that his life on earth, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven are proof of God's love for humanity and God's forgiveness of human sins; and that by faith in Jesus one may attain salvation and eternal life (see creed). This teaching is embodied in the Bible, specifically in the New Testament, but Christians accept also the Old Testament as sacred and authoritative Scripture.

Christian ethics derive to a large extent from the Jewish tradition as presented in the Old Testament, particularly the Ten Commandments, but with some difference of interpretation based on the practice and teachings of Jesus. Christianity may be further generally defined in terms of its practice of corporate worship and rites that usually include the use of sacraments and that are usually conducted by trained clergy within organized churches. There are, however, many different forms of worship, many interpretations of the role of the organized clergy, and many variations in polity and church organization within Christianity.

Divisions within the Religion

In the two millennia of its history Christianity has been divided by schism and roiled by heresy, based on doctrinal and organizational differences. Today there are three broad divisions, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Eastern, and Protestant; but within the category of Protestantism, there is a particularly large number of divergent denominations. Because of the complexity of these differences this article will describe the history of Christianity only to 1054, when the schism between Eastern and Western churches became final. Separate articles detail the history and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Eastern Church and of the other churches of ancient origin, the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church (see Copts), the Jacobite Church, and the Nestorian Church. In the 16th cent. another major schism took place in the Western Church with the Protestant Reformation. For the Protestant churches, see Protestantism and articles on the separate churches. For the 20th-century movement that seeks to end the divisiveness in Christianity and achieve reunion, see ecumenical movement.

Early Christianity

Christianity is in a direct sense an offshoot of Judaism, because Jesus and his immediate followers were Jews living in Palestine and Jesus was believed by his followers to have fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. Following a trend of proselytization in the Judaism of that period Christianity was from its beginnings expansionist. Its early missionaries (the most notable of whom was St. Paul, who was also responsible for the formulation of elements of Christian doctrine) spread its teachings in Asia Minor, Alexandria, Greece, and Rome. Missions have remained a major element in Christianity to the present day.

For the first three centuries of Christianity, history is dependent on apologetic and religious writings; there are no chronicles (see patristic literature). Historians differ greatly on how far back the 4th-century picture of the church (which is quite clear) can be projected, especially respecting organization by bishops (each bishop a monarch in the church of his city), celebration of a liturgy entailing a sacrament and a sacrifice, and claims by the bishop of Rome to be head of all the churches (see papacy). There is evidence for these features in the 2d cent. A first problem for Christians was how to resist attempts to interpret the new beliefs in pagan terms (e.g., Gnosticism). The earliest sectarian deviations were those of Marcion and of Montanus (2d cent.). They were handled resolutely by the church; the teachers of novelty were expelled (excommunicated).

For 250 years it was a martyrs' church; the persecutions were fueled by the refusal of Christians to worship the state gods and the Roman emperor. There were persecutions under Nero, Domitian, Trajan and the other Antonines, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian and Galerius; Decius ordered the first official persecution in 250. In 313, Constantine I and Licinius announced the toleration of Christianity in the Edict of Milan, the first time in the West that a government document proclaimed a freedom of religious belief. At the time 7%–20% of the empire's population was Christian; a century later about half its 60 million people professed Christianity. In the East the church passed from persecution directly to imperial control (caesaropapism), inaugurated by Constantine, enshrined later in Justinian's laws, and always a problem for the Orthodox churches. In the West the church remained independent because of the weakness of the emperor and the well-established authority of the bishop of Rome.

Controversy and Growth

For 300 years after A.D. 275 the church in the East was occupied with doctrinal controversies—Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Monotheletism. These arguments concerned the manner in which Jesus is both divine and human. Decisions were made at a series of general councils of bishops (see council, ecumenical); at them was composed the Nicene Creed. These centuries saw a series of Christian writers of unequaled influence (the Fathers of the Church): Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostom, and Theodoret writing in Greek; St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine writing in Latin. Origen and St. Jerome had a special role in the church's work of determining and preserving the text of the Bible.

From the 3d cent. monasticism was one element of the church. It was first organized by St. Basil. In the West monasticism was central to the missionary work of St. Martin (Gaul, 4th cent.) and St. Patrick (Ireland, 5th cent.). It received definitive shape from St. Benedict and St. Gregory the Great, who thereby generated a mode of life of continuing vitality in the Roman Catholic Church.

German invasions slowed the conversion of Western Europe (e.g., that of England was recommenced in the 6th cent.). Most of the first invaders were converted to Arian Christianity, but the pagan Franks (with Clovis) adopted orthodox Christianity, a fact that probably helped to consolidate their rule. Out of this kingdom came Pepin and Charlemagne, who, by alliance with the papacy and proclamation of an empire (800), charted an ideal of the Middle Ages.

Schism between East and West

In the 7th and 8th cent. the Eastern Church lost to Islam all Asia except Asia Minor. Alienation from the West was exacerbated by the bitter struggle over iconoclasm; ecclesiastical animosity between Rome and Constantinople came to a head in the schism of the 9th cent. This schism centered on the addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed (see creed) in the West and on the western church's use of unleavened bread in the celebration of the mass and insistence on clerical celibacy. The division between East and West grew wider and attained a sort of legal permanence in 1054 (see Leo IX, Saint). Eastern and Western Christendom were already in the 9th cent. two different cultures; their one common tie was the Christian doctrine—even worship and practices were very different. From this time it is customary to distinguish Christian history in its Eastern and Western streams as that of the Orthodox Eastern Church and Roman Catholic Church.


See J. Lebreton and J. Zeiller, A History of the Early Church (4 vol., 1944–46; repr. 1962); H. Lietzmann, The History of the Early Church (4 vol., tr. 1961; repr. 1967); A. Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (1964); H. Marrou et al., The Christian Centuries (1964); J. G. Davies, The Early Christian Church (1965); H. Chadwick, The Early Church (1967); R. M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine (1970); R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970); O. and H. Chadwick, ed., The Oxford History of the Christian Church (16 vol., 1981–2010); O. Chadwick, A History of Christianity (1995); R. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion (1998); D. MacCulloch, Christianity (2010); G. Vermes, Christian Beginnings (2012); R. L. Wilken, The First Thousand Years (2012); J. J. O'Donnell, Pagans (2015); B. D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity (2018).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


a monotheistic salvation religion originating in 1st-century Palestine, from where it spread to become the dominant religion in Europe and in European overseas settlements. The evolution of the Christian community was marked by divisions concerning church order and doctrine.

As a result, contemporary Christianity is split into three broad tendencies:

  1. the Western Catholic Church, which rests on the primacy of Rome;
  2. 14 autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, dating from the 11th century;
  3. a multiplicity of Protestant bodies, dating from the 16th century and thereafter.

Accordingly, Christian organizational patterns are complex and differentiated between CHURCH, SECT and DENOMINATION (Troeltsch, 1912). Forms (a) and (b) are of the church type, while PROTESTANTISM furnishes examples of all three patterns.

Christianity rests on a belief in a personal God who is held to have created the universe and to be omnipotent, omniscient and just. Humanity, by contrast, has fallen from grace; it has sinned and is worthy of divine punishment. Thanks to the intervention of a saviour, Jesus Christ, however, salvation from this punishment becomes possible; Christians believe that Christ was the Son of God, and that his death constituted an atonement to God for their sins.

The question as to how individual believers can achieve 'S alvation’ has proved divisive within Christianity, and has major sociological significance. Notably, WEBER held that one answer to the question, the doctrine of predestination, was the driving force behind Protestant ASCETICISM (see the PROTESTANT ETHIC). Weber also held that Christianity's insistence on the ritual equality of all believers had sociological significance, preventing the emergence of CASTE-like divisions which might have destroyed the unity of the Western bourgeoisie and weakened its transformative revolutionary potential. Others have reinforced this line of argument by suggesting that the antiauthoritarian tendencies of 17th-century Protestant sects did much to foster democratic values (see Walzer, 1966).

While Christianity has had an important impact on historical development (not least the tension between church and state which has been a feature of European compared with Asian societies), today it is widely held to have a declining influence in Western societies. Nevertheless, its role in the recent transformation of Eastern Europe has been considerable and there remains sociological interest in sectarianism (see Wilson, 1967 and 1970) and in the overall nature and extent of religious belief and practices in modern societies (see, for example, Lenski, 1961), as well as in the causes, consequences and extent of SECULARIZATION (Martin, 1969).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

One billion, seven hundred eighty-three million, six hundred sixty thousand people— about one out of every three in the world today—claim Christianity as their religion. This makes Christianity by far the world's largest religion. But those people have such vastly different opinions as to its theological content that a single definition of Christianity is just about impossible.

There are, however, some common beliefs, although even these are subject to differing interpretations:

1. Jesus of Nazareth, by his death on the cross, provided redemption for humans who were separated from God because of sin. Some Christians view this literally as a historic act, part of God's new covenant with humankind. Others see the cross as a permanent symbol of the victory of good over evil. But the architecture of all Christian churches features, usually on prominent display, a cross. In Roman Catholic tradition it is a crucifix, the body of Jesus nailed to the cross, signifying Jesus' death. In Protestant tradition the cross is empty, emphasizing his resurrection.

2. Jesus, either literally or figuratively, was resurrected from the dead. 3. Baptism is the initiation into the religion.

4. A Communion meal (Eucharist, Lord's Supper, Communion, or Last Supper) involving bread and wine is a central liturgical element of worship.

5. There is one life to live on Earth, followed by an everlasting afterlife (usually in heaven or hell).

6. The Bible, consisting of both Old and New Testaments, although interpreted in different ways, is the standard by which Christians live.

7. There is only one universal Church.

It is this final point that confuses people unfamiliar with Christian history. There is a vast difference between the stately liturgy of an Orthodox High Mass, with vested clergy chanting hymns in Latin or Greek, enveloped with the smell of incense wafting heavenward, and that of the shouting, singing, foot-stomping southern revival tentmeeting. One might be forgiven for seeing no similarity between a quiet Quaker meeting, where there is no worship leader and long periods of time pass when nothing seems to be happening, and a Pentecostal song service featuring many people raising their hands toward heaven and praying aloud in unintelligible tongues. A large, mainstream church in suburban Illinois might be attended by seven or eight hundred worshipers wearing dresses or suits, dutifully following an order of service designed and printed using the latest desktop computer technology. Meanwhile, an Appalachian one-room log sanctuary might house a dozen ardent believers whose church service reaches its high point when the faithful drape poisonous rattlesnakes around their necks.

These examples illustrate the breadth of Christianity. Participants in one tradition often deny the orthodoxy of other traditions, but they all share the above-listed common beliefs based on the same Bible.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand all this is to contrast the two extremes of Christianity, while remembering that in between these two positions are many gradations embracing shades of meanings and differences.

Ever since the famous Scopes Trial held in the spring of 1925, these two contrasting interpretations have been labeled fundamentalist (conservative, religious right) and modernist (liberal, religious left). John Scopes was a science teacher in Tennessee, accused of breaking a new state law forbidding the teaching of evolution. Clarence Darrow, who faced the flamboyant prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, defended him. Scopes lost and was fined one hundred dollars. But the trial polarized Americans, many of whom thought Bryan and his fundamentalist witnesses looked old-fashioned and foolish. As far as public education was concerned, the liberals lost the battle but eventually won the war. The fundamentalist/modernist controversy, however, is still with us.

At issue is biblical interpretation. Is the Bible to be read literally or metaphorically? This is a central issue that polarizes Christianity.

Fundamentalists have developed an entire tradition of preaching, teaching, and singing around a historical, literal interpretation. The "old-time religion" of conservative Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world today, with television stations featuring The 700 Club and The PTL Club and with numerous preachers showcased on TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network). The popular Bill Gaither "Homecoming" Gospel music concert series, held in big-venue halls and stadiums,

attracts thousands of people to each show. Conservatives have organized politically into groups such as the Christian Coalition, with enough clout to field presidential candidates such as Pat Robertson. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's "Left Behind" novels top the fiction charts.

Conservative Christians belong to every denomination. They may be called evangelicals, charismatics, pentecostals, or fundamentalists. But there are traditional, or conservative, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Catholics as well as Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists. The hymns may be different, and worship traditions vary, but generally, within the framework of their tradition, conservatives read the Bible as they would a historical textbook.

The message at the heart of conservative Christianity is that human beings are born sinners. (One illustration sometimes offered, though questioned by skeptics, is that babies have to be taught how to share and be good, while selfishness and bad behavior come naturally.) The original sin of Adam, parent of the human race, has been passed on to his offspring and renders all humans unworthy of God's grace and an afterlife with him in heaven. In order for humans to enter heaven and spend eternity with God, the problem of atonement or reconciliation with God has to be addressed.

This reconciliation was achieved when Jesus of Nazareth accepted humankind's collective punishment—death and separation from God—in their place. Through this substitutionary atonement, as it is called, Jesus earned God's grace for humankind, who had been unable to earn it for themselves.

The following story is frequently told to illustrate the conservative Christian concept of substitutionary atonement:

A driver is arrested for speeding. He is brought before a judge who is wearing a black robe, the symbol of authority. The judge is sitting behind a great, elevated bench and looks down at the accused. All the trappings of the room point to the fact that this judge is in control and holds the power of life and death.

"How do you plead?" asks the judge.

The accused knows he is guilty. He was speeding and breaking the laws of the land. There is no sense denying the fact. And this isn't the first time. He's done it before.

"Guilty, your honor."

The judge pronounces his sentence. "I fine you one hundred dollars."

"I'm guilty," says the accused, "but I don't have enough money. I deserve the penalty, but I cannot pay."

"Then you must go to jail," says the judge.

The accused is made ready to be led off to jail, but before he can be escorted from the courtroom the judge halts proceedings.

"Wait!" he says. Removing his robe, the symbol of authority, he comes out from behind the imposing bench. Now he looks just like everyone else. Standing next to the accused the judge reaches into his pocket and produces a one-hundred-dollar bill. Paying the fine for the guilty party, he says, "Do you accept this payment?"

"Yes," says the relieved speeder. "I'm guilty, but I accept your payment of my fine. In the eyes of justice, the very judge who was forced to sentence me has paid my penalty. He put aside his robe of honor to do it, coming down here to stand right beside me like a brother, but my sin is now and forever atoned for."

And then the final mystery is explained to the courtroom. The judge was both father and brother to the accused—father when judgment was pronounced and brother when payment was made. And yet, somehow, father and brother are one and the same.

This story illustrates the essence of conservative Christian theology. The transaction it represents occurred at a real place and time in history, centering on Jesus of Nazareth and the cross at Calvary, where Jesus, who was Lord and judge, also became "brother" to humankind by paying their penalty.

Jesus explained the crucifixion to his disciples when he gave them bread and wine to drink. "This is my body, broken for you," he said. "This is my blood, shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

Liberal Christians read the same biblical texts, but as metaphors, not historical fact. The virgin birth does not mean that a human woman was impregnated by God from on high, but rather that to be fully human one must be open to spirit, as Jesus was. It means humans are at once physical and spiritual. Miracles mean that all is possible to those who see past the immediacy of our environment, who look for the possible even in the face of impossibility. Liberals differentiate between the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth, and, to use theologian Macus Borg's term, the "post-Easter" Jesus. By that he means that the spirit of Jesus was so powerful that his disciples realized he was still very much with them in that he was infused into their very personalities and being. Anyone who has ever heard the internal reproving or affirming voice of a parent long since deceased understands how people live on in us as long as we are alive.

In short, according to liberal interpretation, the events described in the Bible are universal and true, at once particular to each individual and all-encompassing to the entire human race. Indeed, to limit the Gospel to a story about a Christian God who somehow needs to be appeased by a bloody, painful sacrifice is to not only miss the point, it is downright blasphemous.

Some liberals view conservatives as totally misunderstanding what the biblical writers were talking about. By emphasizing individual need for salvation, they argue, conservatives wrap themselves into a religious cocoon that closes out social responsibility. This is why pro-slavery, born-again preachers could completely miss the New Testament verses that spoke of people being "neither slave nor free, but one in Christ" as they delivered their sermons. This is why the Ku Klux Klan could burn crosses "in the name of Jesus" as they hung black men just because they were not white. Liberals suggest that to cling to a literal view of the Genesis Creation story is to miss the truth of how God, the consciousness of the universe, created humans as a part of the whole—the very "dust of the earth" from which we sprang.

Indeed, conservative baggage associated with the word "God" is so prevalent that some liberal theologians have tried to find new words to use in its place— "Ground of Being," "Source," and "First Cause," to list just a few.

Liberal Catholic priests, mindful of how exclusionary the word "Father" was to feminists, especially those who might not have had positive parental experience, began to baptize "in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer," instead of "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." Conservatives from their own Church ruled such baptisms invalid.

Some swear that the name Christian can only be applied to those who believe that the facts of the Bible, especially those surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus, are historically true and accurate. Others insist this dishonors God and distorts the deepest and most profound metaphors God has given to the human race concerning what it means to be a child of God. As well, there is a vast middle ground between the extremes of conservative and liberal, and many Christians find themselves leaning sometimes toward aspects of one viewpoint, other times toward aspects of the other.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(from the Greek Christós, literally “anointed one”), one of the world religions, along with Buddhism and Islam. Christianity has a large following in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and, as a result of vigorous missionary work, in Africa, the Near East, and a number of areas in the Far East. Exact data on the number of Christians are not available; according to official church records, which usually exaggerate the number of adherents, about 1,025,000,000 people profess Christianity (1975). Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a monotheistic religion. Its main tenets are the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, the impending second coming of Christ, the last judgment, heavenly reward, and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven.

Christian dogma and worship are based on the Bible, or Scripture, which includes the Jewish Old Testament and the exclusively Christian New Testament, comprising the four gospels, which recount the life of Jesus Christ, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation). Second only to the Bible is sacred tradition, which the church raises to the level of “divine law.” Throughout its history Christianity has taken the form of rival religious movements. The only common feature that unites all Christian denominations, churches, and sects is faith in Christ, although even here there are diverging views. For example, although the majority of Christian churches teach that Christ had a double nature, divine and human, the Gregorian Armenian and Coptic churches believe that Christ had only a divine nature.

The main branches of Christianity are Catholicism, Orthodoxy, comprising 15 autocephalous and several autonomous churches (seeORTHODOX CHURCH), and Protestantism, which includes three main currents—Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism—and a great number of sects. Many of the Protestant sects, for example, the Baptists, Methodists, and Adventists, have become independent churches. Christianity also has a number of minor offshoots, notably Monophysitism and Nestorian-ism. (For a more detailed account of the development of the various trends in Christianity, seeCATHOLICISM, ORTHODOXY, PROTESTANTISM, LUTHERANISM, and CALVINISM.) All the main trends in Christianity are represented in the USSR, where there are Christian churches and seminaries for the training of clergymen.

Christianity arose in the latter half of the first century in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, originating among the Jews but spreading to other ethnic groups within a few decades. The crisis in the slaveholding system and harsh social and political oppression provoked mass uprisings of slaves, poor freemen, and conquered peoples. After Rome crushed the popular movements that emerged at the beginning of the first century, a sense of despair and impotent hatred of the oppressors swept across the empire.

Christianity was the protest, in religious form, of the slaves and the oppressed against the existing order, the slaveholding state. The most important difference between nascent Christianity and the other religions of antiquity was its complete rejection of ethnic and social barriers in matters of faith, as well as sacrifice and ritual. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul and reward after death contributed to its success. Regarding moral and material poverty as the consequence of the innate imperfection, or sinfulness, of the individual, Christianity proclaimed the spiritual salvation of all men through faith in the redeeming sacrifice of a divine savior as a guarantee of man’s deliverance from sin. The new religion offered “inner salvation from a corrupt world, the consolation that everyone so passionately longed for” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19, p. 314). Christianity, along with Buddhism, Judaism, and certain other religions, is sometimes called a religion of salvation.

Christianity evolved out of Jewish sects and currents, notably the Zealots and the Essenes. The social relations, daily life, and ideology of one of the Essene communities were brought to light by the Qumran finds (seeDEAD SEA SCROLLS). These sects served as links between Judaism and early Christianity. Greco-Roman philosophy and Eastern religions, including Egyptian, Iranian, and even Indian traditions and faiths, also played a major role in the emergence of Christianity. Engels called Philo of Alexandria (first century A.D.) an exponent of Judeo-Greek philosophy, the “father of Christianity” (ibid., p. 307). Christianity adopted Philo’s ideas about the divine logos—the intermediary between god and man, messiah, and savior of mankind. Another important source of Christian ideas was the philosophy of the Roman Stoic Seneca (first century A.D.), who spoke of the ephemeral nature of earthly existence, of a reward in the other world, and of the equality of all men, including slaves, before fate. Christian mythology developed under the strong influence of Eastern cults, notably the cult of Isis and Osiris, the god who died and rose again, and the cult of Mithras.

The first communities to acknowledge the new god-savior Christ probably arose in Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Laodicea) and at Alexandria in Egypt. (Some scholars believe that the first such communities were formed in Palestine.) Their members came from the lower levels of society. “Early Christianity was a religion of slaves and freed-men, of paupers and those without rights, of peoples conquered or dispersed by Rome” (F. Engels, ibid., vol. 22, p. 467). The communities were distinguished by a simple organization and an absence of clergy; the members organized communal meals and meetings at which sermons were preached. There was no established form of worship, and a unified doctrine was not worked out until the beginning of the second century.

Although the various early Christian groups and tendencies disagreed on a number of important questions of doctrine, they were united in their hatred of Rome, their hope for the collapse of the empire and deliverance from Roman oppression, and their faith in the imminent coming of the god-savior and the establishment of the “kingdom of god” headed by Christ. This faith permeates the oldest Christian work that has come down to us—the Book of Revelation, written in the second half of the first century. It is clear from this work, in which there is no mention of a church organization, that Christian mythology, dogma, and ritual had as yet not taken form. The Book of Revelation reflects above all the rebellious spirit of the popular masses, oppressed by the Roman state, but it also attests to the existence of another trend in early Christianity: the spirit of resistance is tempered by the idea of long-suffering, by a call to await passively the outcome of the struggle between divine forces and the antichrist and the onset of the “millennium.”

As Christianity evolved, as the social makeup of the communities changed and they adapted themselves to actual conditions, the rebellious sentiments in Christianity receded, ultimately because of the political immaturity of the mass movement itself.

In the second century, the dominant trend in Christianity called on the toiling masses to “bear their cross” without complaint and to put their trust in supernatural deliverance, or “god’s will.” The sufferings of the god-savior were increasingly stressed in doctrine, and his religion essentially became a deification of human suffering, humility, and patience. In time, suffering became a necessary condition for attaining bliss in the world beyond the grave (“We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God,” Acts 14:22).

The victory of the trend calling for conciliation with the existing order marked a new stage in the development of early Christianity. The “second coming” of Christ was relegated to the indeterminate future. This stage may be traced in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul (end of the first century and first half of the second century), emphasizing that every earthly authority is established by god and must be obeyed. Children must obey their parents, wives—their husbands, and slaves—their masters (Ephesians 6:5). A radical break with Judaism is expressed in the Epistles; for the first time the Jews are accused of killing Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and a Christian ideology is formulated. The figure of Jesus Christ takes on human traits, although the Epistles still give no details of his earthly life.

Christianity appears as a more or less fully formed religion, having its own dogma, creed, and ritual, in the writings of the first Christian apologist, Justin (c. A.D. 150), in which the biography of Christ conforms to the Gospel narratives. Justin described in detail the various Christian sacraments and formulated the creed, albeit in the most general terms. The life of Christ was fully described in the Gospels. Four of the Gospels, those attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were acknowledged to be “god-inspired” by the fledgling Christian church and were included in the New Testament, becoming the basic sacred books of Christianity.

The canonization (designation as Scripture) of the New Testament Gospels by the church in the second half of the fourth century attests to the completion of the myth-making process, namely the creation of a legend about the god-man, the son of god who suffered and died to redeem the sins of the human race. The doctrine of nonresistance to evil (“resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Matthew 5:39) and of heavenly bliss as the reward for earthly suffering is more clearly expressed in the Gospels than in the other New Testament books. Moreover, the message about the coming kingdom loses its former anti-Roman thrust in the Gospels, which call for conciliation with those holding power, the “pagan” imperial authorities. The words “render . . . unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) are put into Christ’s mouth. Eventually this doctrine allowed Christianity to become a tool of the exploiting classes.

The modifications that occurred in Christian ideology in the second and third centuries were closely related to changes in the original social makeup of the Christian communities. The crisis in the slaveholding mode of production increasingly affected the well-to-do strata of society. Even the rich began to join Christian communities in large numbers. Whereas during the first century of the existence of Christian communities all the members were considered equal and there was no special governing apparatus, from the middle of the second century the organization of the church became more complex. The well-to-do Christians, who had donated some of their money to the community coffers, acquired considerable influence. More and more often they occupied the post of bishop or deacon, charged with managing the community’s property and economic affairs.

Gradually, the governing of the Christian communities was concentrated in the hands of the bishops; not a trace remained of the former democratic principles, which had been supplanted by a monarchical episcopacy. The bishops and deacons stood increasingly aloof from the mass of believers. To justify their privileged position, a doctrine was gradually worked out according to which a special “grace” bestowed by god gave these officials the exclusive right to perform religious rites, to be the mentors of the other members of the community, and to decree principles of doctrine. In this way a church organization was formed that was divided into clergy and people. The institution of monasticism began to emerge. The strengthening of ties between separate communities facilitated the formation of a single Christian church governed by the bishops. The developing church rejected the democratic principles of primitive Christianity, seeking at first to compromise with the pagan imperial power and later to ally itself with the slaveholding state, a policy that was opposed by many Christians and that stimulated the rise of heresies (Ebionites, Novatianists, Montanists). The heretics, as a rule, advocated the principles of primitive Christianity.

With the formation of a church organization, ritual and dogma were worked out and became increasingly complex. To create a unified doctrine, certain Christian writings were designated as canon. In selecting the writings that were to be included in the New Testament the Church tended to reject works that reflected the democratic tendencies in primitive Christianity and its rebellious spirit. A new idea was introduced into church doctrine: blessedness was attainable not only by the poor, as was often stressed in the early stage of Christianity, but by all believers in Christ who performed church rituals, submitted to church discipline, and showed humility and patience. The original community gatherings and suppers were turned into worship services. Rituals became increasingly complicated, assimilating rites of the ancient religions. In this way were worked out the basic Christian sacraments, holy days, and liturgy, which have survived with slight modifications to this day.

The evolving Christian church began to wield considerable power. Seeing the church as a potential political rival, the Roman emperors harshly persecuted the Christians during the intensified class conflict of the third century, equating their refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods with political unreliability. Especially severe were the persecutions under the emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian in the late third and early fourth centuries. Later, however, having discerned the essence of the Christian ideology, as well as the nature and significance of the church’s activity, the emperors began to rely on the Christian organization to secure the submission of the masses. The church was also used in the fourth-century struggles for the imperial throne. Emperor Constantine I (reigned 306–337), who had received the support of the Christian church, declared Christianity an officially tolerated religion while himself remaining a “pagan.” In 325 the emperor called the first ecumenical council of church leaders, at which the Creed was adopted, and an alliance was effected between the imperial authority and the church. At the ecumenical councils of 325 and 381, the dogma of the trinity was firmly established. The Emperor Theodosius I (379–395) issued an edict closing all pagan temples.

Thus, from a persecuted religion Christianity was transformed into a state religion, sanctifying the social practices that had provoked the indignation and hatred of the first Christians. The “Christians, after their religion had been given the status of a state religion, ‘forgot’ the ‘naïveté’ of primitive Christianity with its democratic revolutionary spirit” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33, p. 43). The Christian church ruthlessly combatted not only paganism, but also heresy. Christianity’s triumph over the pagan religions was facilitated by its cultic borrowings from them. The saints, martyrs, and angels who came to be widely venerated were in many ways the successors to the gods of the ancient religions.

The special circumstances of the historical development of the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire led to divergences between the Christian churches of the West and East that became more marked after the division of the Roman Empire into two states in 395. The bishops of Rome, called popes from the fifth century, claimed the dominant position in the Christian world, a claim that the patriarchs of Constantinople in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) refused to recognize. The rivalry between these church organizations precipitated disputes over dogma and ritual. The division of the Christian Church into Catholic (western) and Orthodox (eastern) Churches, dated from 1054, actually occurred over several centuries, being completed in the early 13th century. By the 13th century all Europe had been converted to Christianity. Under the influence of Byzantium, Christianity spread to Russia in the late tenth century; the Orthodox Church established in the Russian state was under the control of the patriarchs of Constantinople until the 15th century.

Despite certain differences in ritual, organization, and dogma, both Catholicism and Orthodoxy had the same social role in the feudal period: both served to strengthen the feudal system by religious means, sanctioning and sanctifying the foundations of feudal society. The economic basis of both churches was large-scale ecclesiastical, chiefly monastic, feudal landownership. Christianity became the ruling ideology in European countries during the feudal period. In the Middle Ages the church gained a monopoly over education and upbringing. In the early Middle Ages, the clergy was the only literate stratum of society; Christian monasteries promoted the spread of literacy and the making of books by maintaining schools and scriptoria. Having evolved under the Roman Empire, the Christian church was the sole bearer of classical culture, but it made use of the classical heritage, in a limited and emasculated form, only insofar as that heritage would strengthen Christian dogma. As secular culture grew, the church hindered its development. Science was shackled by theological restrictions, and philosophy became the servant of theology. The church persecuted the slightest manifestation of freethinking.

The medieval movements that attacked the feudal system, encompassing peasants, plebeians, and burghers, were primarily directed against the church, which had sanctified the system. The opposition usually took the form of heresies, such as those of the Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathari, Waldenses, and Strigol’niki. The antifeudal movement in the form of a struggle against Catholicism achieved its greatest scope during the Reformation. In the 16th century, as a result of the Reformation, a number of churches broke away from Catholicism in parts of Germany and in England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Switzerland, and elsewhere, and Protestantism emerged as the third basic branch of Christianity, next to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Reflecting the interests of the bourgeoisie who opposed the feudal church, Protestantism served as the banner of the first bourgeois revolutions, including the English Civil War, and at that time played a relatively progressive role. Protestantism later lost its progressive character, and Protestant churches became supporters of the bourgeois states.

Historically associated with feudalism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy adapted themselves to capitalist society in the second half of the 19th century. Christian churches defended the immutability of capitalist private ownership and countered the spreading socialist ideas with the notion of class peace and the harmony of interests of employers and workers. The new tendencies that were emerging in church policy under bourgeois governments were forcefully expressed in an encyclical issued in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, which justified and defended the capitalist system. The Christian churches made extensive use of social demagoguery, portraying Christianity as the voice and defender of universal human interests and propounding the “Christianization” and regeneration of capitalism, a concept in which the politically backward strata of workers in capitalist countries still believe. Christian trade unions, political parties, and youth and other mass organizations were formed on a denominational basis in many countries for the purpose of splitting the class organizations of the workers and propagating the reactionary idea of class cooperation. The leadership of these organizations hindered the spread of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. In the late 19th century, when the imperialist powers were trying to divide the world, the Christian churches intensified their missionary work, which always facilitated colonial conquests.

The Christian clergy was hostile to the October Socialist Revolution in Russia and actively supported the domestic and international reactionaries in their efforts to restore capitalism. Reactionary church leaders embarked on a systematic ideological and political struggle against the socialist countries and the communist movement, falsifying its goals and ideals. In 1949 and again in 1959, the Vatican issued decrees excommunicating Communists, as well as Catholics who collaborated with them.

The shift in the balance of power in the world after World War II, the rise and consolidation of the world socialist system, and the growth of the worldwide national liberation movement have brought about a definite change in the policy of the Christian churches not only in the socialist countries (through the influence of the masses of believers, as well as members of the lower clergy), but also in the capitalist nations. The modern age has left its mark on all the Christian trends and their institutions. Despite the efforts of the ruling circles to apply Christianity in all spheres of spiritual and social life, a weakening of Christianity’s traditional influence on believers may be observed in the bourgeois countries. Christianity’s position is being undermined by the growth of the democratic and socialist movements through the influx of believers who are coming to the realization that social justice and a lasting peace can only be attained by the organized actions of the workers themselves. The present crisis in Christianity may be discerned chiefly in the growth of atheism, anticlericalism, and freethinking among the various social strata, above all, the working class.

Christian leaders have been obliged to modernize the church’s ideology, ritual, organization, and missionary work. A process is under way by which, according to Lenin, religion is being “renovated” and “purified” (ibid., vol. 45, p. 27). The present “purification” consists in efforts to adapt religious doctrine and organization more effectively to the spirit of the times, lest they conflict too much with the secular outlook and materialist views of modern man. Efforts are also being made to render the church organization more flexible at all levels and to “democratize” the complex Christian ritual. A new approach to the workers’ and national liberation movements, communism, modern scientific and technological progress, and other Christian and nonchristian churches is being worked out.

Although reactionary Christian leaders in bourgeois countries continue to defend the foundations of capitalism, there are clergymen and laymen in leftist religious currents who sincerely believe that the doctrine they profess is a stimuls for social prosperity. They hold anti-imperialist views in international relations and advocate social reform. In the socialist countries, the Christian churches are loyal to socialism. Under the influence of modern scientific achievements some Christian churchmen are pressing for a doctrinal rejection of a literal interpretation of the more fantastic ideas in the Old Testament. The church has been obliged to sanction that which the workers had already gained through intense class struggle. Thus, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, enacted by Vatican Council II (1962–65), speaks of the right of workers to unite and recognizes the legitimacy of strikes as a means of defending workers’ rights. The new phase in Christian ideology is also reflected in the church’s use of such liberal social and economic concepts as “distribution of wealth,” “people’s capitalism,” and “industrial society,” perceived as ways of wiping out social inequality.

An important place in the activity of contemporary Christian organizations is held by the policy of ecumenism, aimed at alleviating interdenominational discord, bringing the various trends in Christianity closer together, and creating a united front against atheism and materialism. The ideological documents of various Christian churches increasingly refer to the positive significance of the theological and cultural heritage of other branches of Christianity. On Dec. 7, 1965, the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church of Constantinople, in a joint declaration read simultaneously in Rome and Istanbul, revoked the anathemas pronounced against each other by the heads of these churches in 1054. Contacts between the various churches have become markedly stronger. The World Council of Churches unites about 270 Protestant and Orthodox organizations (1975). Meetings between Catholic and Protestant church dignitaries are held in various countries (the first such meeting since the Reformation took place in 1966 in the Federal Republic of Germany), and theological discussions are regularly conducted between representatives of the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate.

An analysis of the modernization of contemporary Christianity shows that as much as Christianity may have been “renovated” at each new phase of historical development, it has not changed essentially as a doctrine of social consolation. Moreover, new tendencies in the mass Christian organizations of a number of countries have confirmed the correctness of the Marxist-Leninist aim of combining a reasoned disclosure of the unsoundness of Christian doctrine and a full exposé of the ideology and the policies of reactionary clericalism with collaboration with believing workers on resolving pressing social and political questions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the Christian religion
2. Christian beliefs, practices or attitudes
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