Christianity, Development of

Christianity, Development of

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Volumes have been written about the development of Christianity. The Christian Church has influenced Western society and world events to a degree that would be difficult, if not impossible, to estimate.

The Early Church

For its first three centuries the early Church can perhaps best be described as an underground Jesus movement. Persecuted much of the time, the Church nevertheless made huge strides in its Great Commission. In Matthew 28, the Bible says Jesus met with his disciples and gave them their marching orders:

All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.

Whether or not Jesus really said these words doesn't matter a great deal. The early Church believed them with such conviction that within only a few years they were given the name Christians, "followers of the Christ" (Acts 11:26), by the people of Antioch, and they were accused of "turning the world upside down with their preaching" by the authorities of Thessalonica (Acts 17:6).

Fueled by martyrdom, beginning with Stephen's death, described in Acts 7; led by patriarchs such as Peter, the acknowledged leader; and spread by missionaries such as Paul, Barnabus, and Timothy, the Church was able to take advantage of a unique social situation.

Rome ruled the world, and a common culture and language held sway. Pax romana, the peace of Rome, was enforced by the sword but at least ensured governmental stability. The saying was true that "all roads led to Rome." Infrastructure that would not be duplicated for a thousand years allowed armies to move quickly to outposts of the Western world; such roadways also allowed for the freedom of secure movement for willing missionaries.

It was a time when "diversity" and "inclusion" were watchwords, as long as Rome and the Caesar were acknowledged and put in their proper place at the top of the pecking order.

All of this made it possible for the educated, urbane, extremely talented Saul of Tarsus (see Paul, Saul of Tarsus) to move freely (at least when he wasn't in jail) about the entire Western world, planting churches and writing one-third of the New Testament during his downtime (awaiting trial after being arrested for preaching a "divisive" doctrine).

It was certainly not easy to be a Christian in those days. Waves of persecution broke upon the shores of the early Church. But in spite of it all, men such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen were able to forge the basis of modern theological Christian thought by writing, debating, accusing, and finally arriving at a kind of consensus, usually derived by declaring that their opponents were heretics.

On April 30, 311 CE, everything changed. Galerius, ruler of Rome and persecutor of Christians, had a change of heart. Convinced a severe illness he was experiencing was a punishment for his sins, he issued a decree, as recounted by Justo L. Gonzalez in his Story of Christianity:

With all the laws which we have decreed for the good of the state, we have sought to restore the ancient rules and traditional discipline of the Romans. We have particularly sought to have Christians, who had abandoned the faith of their ancestors, return to the truth... and we were forced to punish [them].... But there are many who persist in their opinions.... Therefore, moved by our mercy to be benevolent towards all, it has seemed just to us to extend to them our pardon, and allow them to be Christians once again, and once again gather in their assemblies, as long as they do not interfere with the public order.... In return for our tolerance, Christians will be required to pray to their God for us.

The prisons were opened and Christians poured out, bearing the marks of their torture but thankful for what they perceived as answered prayer. But the best was yet to come. Constantine was waiting in the wings. Rome, marked by violence and civil war, was about to get a new emperor who would, as the result of a dream, transform Christianity from a persecuted to a very powerful religion.

Gathering his army in Gaul, Constantine crossed the Alps and marched on Rome. Emperor Maxentius had a stronghold there, following the sudden death of Galerius. No one will ever know what might have happened if Maxentius had simply hunkered down behind the strong walls of Rome and waited for Constantine to go away. Instead, he ignored the advice of his military leaders and took his cue from his religious augurs. Marching forth to war, he met Constantine on the plains surrounding Milvian Bridge.

On the eve of battle, Constantine had either a dream or a vision. Arguments abound as to what it was he really saw. Eusebius later wrote he had a vision in the sky of a cross and the letters IHS, which Constantine took for the Latin in hoc signo, "By this sign [you shall conquer]." Other historians say Constantine saw a superimposition of the Greek letters chi and rho. Since they are the first two letters of the name "Christ," this might have been interpreted as a Christian symbol.

Whatever happened, Constantine won the battle and became emperor of Rome. His conversion was not immediate. It took years. But when Constantine signed the Edict of Milan in 313, officially ending Christian persecution, Christianity was on its way to eventually becoming the state religion of Rome.

Now there were great questions that needed to be answered. What would happen when a simple religion begun by a carpenter and practiced by fishermen found itself surrounded by pomp and ceremony and power? Christianity had "gained the whole world." Now would it be able to keep its soul?

The Imperial Church

The effects of Constantine's conversion, if he ever did really convert, cannot be underestimated. He began traditions still felt deeply throughout Christianity.

Most evident was his church-building program. From simple meeting places, sometimes outdoors, other times in people's homes, Christians now found themselves worshiping in the prototypes of the great European cathedrals with their naves, atriums, and sanctuaries. After Constantine's time it was considered almost obligatory for rulers to build memorials to themselves by constructing basilicas. From Rome to the newly renovated and expanded Eastern capital of Constantinople, and on to the Church of the Nativity in the Holy Land, a wave of church building began that continued for centuries.

More subtle, but perhaps more important, was the work of theologians during Constantine's reign. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-c. 339) almost single-handedly popularized a way of thinking that persists to this very day, even though church scholars rarely acknowledge the fact. His History of the Church did more than recount what happened during the first few hundred years of the Church. He presented the idea that Christianity was the ultimate goal of all human history, and that the Church was God's plan and humankind had finally reached the final pinnacle of success. And he associated that goal with the work of the Roman state. He believed God had used Rome all along. Church and state were intimately linked together in God's eternal plan.

Lest we scoff at this, seeing what happened to Rome, it might be good to remember that the United States of America was seen by many of its founders in a similar role. The Pilgrims came to the shores of the New World proclaiming they had found the "New Jerusalem."

The idea that God worked through national politics of power was not a new one. Only one witness, that of Israel during the time of David, needs to testify to illustrate that. But this was the first time Christianity was seen in this light by people of power. With Christianity now the "going thing" in the religious/political world of the West, the next six hundred years saw great change. Monks began going into the desert to contemplate God, and the monastic movement began. Men such as Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine hammered out a theological framework that would last for centuries. The Bishop of Rome became, by default, the Western Pope. A missionary named Patrick went to Ireland.

But while all this was happening, the Eastern Church was drifting away. Culture, language, and theology all conspired to divide East and West, Rome and Constantinople. When the split finally came on June 16, 1054, it was because of a long history of differences. But on that day Cardinal Humbert, representing the Roman Catholic Pope Leo IX (who had just died, but no one in the East knew it yet), walked into the Cathedral of Saint Sophia and placed upon the altar a sentence of excommunication declared upon the ruler of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the "heretic" Michael Cerularius, and anyone who followed him. The split was final and stands to this day. Now the universal Church consisted of two churches, known as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, both claiming to be the "One Body of Christ on Earth." And that was only the beginning.

The Protestant Reformation

The fall of Rome around 400 CE did not hinder the growth of Christianity. Perhaps Edward Gibbon, in his book, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in 1788, said it best:

While that great empire [Rome] was invaded by open violence and undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigor from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruin of the capitol.

With Saxons, Vikings, Visigoths, and Franks nibbling away at the borders, and Attila the Hun, the "Scourge of God," eyeing Rome itself, the empire fell apart. But the Church, for all its faults and power struggles, served as the glue to hold together at least a semblance of order. The Church ran the schools. The Church provided a social framework of common thought to bring some sense to the collapse of what was considered to be God's handiwork. Faulty, fallible, and flawed though it was, the Church was still there when the early Middle Age, a period known as the Dark Ages, finally came to a close.

By the end of the fifteenth century, reform movements were abroad. Christopher Columbus had "sailed the ocean blue" and discovered new worlds. The feudal system was coming to an end. Johannes Gutenberg's printing press was spewing forth ideas brought to the West by Byzantine scholars fleeing the Muslim invasion of Constantinople. The wisdom of ancient Greece had been rediscovered. People were chafing at the bit, and the Church really needed reforming. Sometimes there were two popes, even three, claiming power. Intrigue ran amuck at the highest levels of Church hierarchy. Souls were up for sale to the highest bidder. Johann Tetzel would ride into town to raise money for a new cathedral singing, "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs!"

The religious, intellectual forest was dry and ready to burn. Only a spark was needed.

That spark fell into the dry tinder on October 31, 1517. An obscure German Monk named Martin Luther had been struggling with the idea of "justification by faith." How does justification take place? Luther had been taught the phrase meant God brings "justice" to the sinner by punishing him. But Luther came to the conclusion that the "righteousness" he sought so strongly was free, a gift given not to those who had faith enough to receive it, but to all those to whom God wishes to bestow it.

When Luther first understood this he was moved to write:

I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase "the justice of God" no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.

Compiling a list of ninety-five theses—ideas about which he wanted to debate the established Church—he nailed them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Little did he understand what commotion he would cause. The world has never recovered. Challenge followed challenge, debate followed debate. The level of both heat and light elevated as it caught the public's attention.

Things came to a head at a church meeting, in this case a Diet (meaning "assembly") of the Empire, held in the town of Worms in 1521. Luther wasn't the only item on the menu. There was plenty of political maneuvering going on. But at least the world would forever be treated to the wonderful thought that Protestantism began with a "Diet of Worms." There, when confronted and told he was challenging the entire established order of the universe and all conceivable suburbs, Luther stood alone and cried, "My conscience is a prisoner of God's Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one's conscience is neither just nor safe. Here I stand. God help me. Amen."

He left the assembly, never to return. His followers formed their own church. Others, in turn, left them to start their own. Disagreements caused still others to do the same. Anabaptists and Mennonites broke fellowship with Lutherans and Calvinists, and so on. They weren't called "Protesters" for nothing.

It is intriguing to study Luther's Ninety-five Theses because, considering the amount of reform the Catholic Church has undergone in the last few hundred years, it is conceivable that if Martin Luther were alive today, he would still be Catholic.

The Church Today

Christians still say, without crossing their fingers behind their backs, that there is "One, Holy and Apostolic Church." But most know that there are at least three major divisions—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant—and many more subdivisions. Within each of those subdivisions there are further divisions of conservative and liberal. Nevertheless, at least the theological spirit is willing when Christians of all brand names, types, and descriptions stand together in ecumenical gatherings to sing the great hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers":

We are not divided, All one body, we, One in hope and doctrine, One in charity.

It is easy to criticize the Church, given its checkered history. It is a very flawed institution. It has sponsored pogroms and crusades, wars and inquisitions. It has persecuted Jews, enslaved blacks, exterminated Indians, burned "witches," and held back women.

However, it has also funded relief institutions, educated millions of people, built hospitals, and undergirded countries otherwise destined for extinction. The Church has inspired some of the world's greatest art and music while saving countless lives.

It has provoked frustration and inspired brilliance. It has disappointed and miserably failed while at the same time fulfilling and gloriously succeeding. It is bane to some and blessing to others. If the Church is the "instrument" of God, it has shown God to be sometimes totally tone deaf. But at other times it has made wonderful music.

One cannot expect people who have been severely hurt by the Church to view it with compassion. But right or wrong, there have been those who served it with pure convictions. Like all human institutions it is flawed, sometimes terribly so. But in every generation there are those prophets who try to bring it back to its Great Commission.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.