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October 28, 1997

What is Christianity?

by Ted Mashburn, Ph.D.

I. History of the Christian Church in 10 Minutes:

According to the book of Mark, it all started with a message, the gospel, i.e. good news. This message was proclaimed by a carpenter, who, according to the religious establishment, was from the wrong side of the tracks, was not theologically trained, had a funny accent, and in fact, did not believe the scriptures, did not worship properly, ran with the wrong crowd, drank too much, blasphemed God and ultimately was executed as a criminal. (Not a very hopeful beginning for a world religion, is it?)

That seemingly would have been the end of the matter but proved ironically to be only the beginning. A group of believers, claiming to have experienced a resurrected Jesus, took his message and their experiences to villages and cities throughout the Roman Empire. They amassed such a following of dedicated people, i.e., people willing to suffer and even to die for their beliefs, that Constantine, the Roman Emperor, eventually converted to Christianity and with him ultimately the Roman Empire.

Christianity became institutionalized and thus begins the history of the Christian Church. Initially, while the Roman Empire was united, the Christian church was also. Beginning around 300 CE, however, the empire began to divide politically and this brought out differences within the church.

Picture in your mind a map of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea; draw a line between Italy and Greece through the Adriatic Sea, extend it northwards through what used to be Yugoslavia and extend it southwards through Western Libya. To the right of that line, you have the East with its capital, Constantinople, and to the left, you have the West with its capital, Rome; institutionally speaking East became the Orthodox church, and West, the Roman Catholic.

From the outset, language was a difference between Eastern and Western Christianity. The East was Greek and the West Latin. By 400 CE, some theologians in the West, e.g. Augustine, could barely read Greek and Christians in the East paid little attention to Latin theology.

There were other differences: the East used leavened bread in the Eucharist, the West unleavened; the East allowed married men to become priests, the West did not; they disagreed on the moment in the liturgy in which the bread and wine became Christ's body and blood; and Rome believed in purgatory while Eastern Christians were unwilling to require all Christians to believe it. In general, Christians agreed to disagree on these matters.

The issue of authority became a different matter. In the West, Rome emerged as the undisputed leading church. There were political reasons; the absence of an Empire after 476 allowed the Bishop of Rome an unlimited amount of freedom as compared to his counterpart in Constantinople, who continually had to knock heads with the Byzantine Emperor until 1454. It didn't hurt that the Western emperor Valentinian III ordered all western bishops to submit to the Bishop of Rome's authority in 445. Theologically, Rome traced its authority back to its first bishop Peter, of whom Jesus said in Matthew, "...you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it" (16:18)

Christians in the East understood things differently. They assigned preeminence to 5 patriarchs (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch) and insisted on a council of the church as ultimate authority. They were prepared to acknowledge Rome as first among equals but refused to accept the pope as sole head of the church. After all Peter had only been one of the apostles and Peter had led the church at Jerusalem and Antioch before he ever went to Rome.

Tensions between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople fluctuated between cool and formal to outright hostility. It came to a climax in 1054 when each leader excommunicated the other, thus resulting in the formal split of Christianity into Roman Catholic and Orthodox.

With the rise of Islam from the 7th century on, Orthodox Christianity diminished; it lost nearly all of its Middle Eastern churches and was forced to move through Eastern Europe and into Russia. The story was different in the West. The Papery continued to flourish. In the absence of political leadership, energetic popes assumed temporal as well as spiritual power. They negotiated with invading Germanic tribes, erected defenses for the city, fought diseases, fed the hungry, and built up vast holdings in money, property and art. But there was a downside to the temporal power. Ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidders (simony), a practice I might add which would make Democratic (and Republican) coffee parties, sleep-overs and fund-raisers wane in comparison. Indulgence, a kind of expensive ticket to get souls out of purgatory, were sold (that's the 16th century version of televangelists and those cards and letters to which appeal is constantly made). Corruption reached a climax in the papacy of Alexander VI (15th century), whose sexual promiscuity, alleged murders and intrigue are now legend. His successor, Julius II was so militaristic that the great humanist Erasmus wrote a satire in which Peter meets the Pope at the gates of heaven and says to him "...you are as remote as possible from Christ..."

Little wonder then than on April 18, 1521, a monk named Martin Luther, a university lecturer in New Testament, stood before Emperor Charles V and the nobles of Germany, who were insisting along with the pope that he retract some of his theological views and uttered the following declaration: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to thee Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything...I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen"

By refusing to retract Luther signaled the beginnings of what has come to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

Churches within the German States of the Holy Roman Empire formally broke off relations with Rome and became Lutheran. This caused extreme hostilities between Christians in the German States and would have resulted in all out civil war. But a treaty was hastily signed (the Peace of Nuremburg in 1932) so that Catholic and Protestants could go off to Vienna and fight Turks, Muslim.

But Reformation was in the air and it spread rapidly: Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland, Knox in Scotland, Menno Simons and the Anabaptists in Holland. Some really interesting and strange events occurred. The church in England broke with Rome because: (a) Henry wanted a boy; (b) Henry committed a sin; (c) Henry wanted to commit a sin; or (d) all of the above. It appears that the Spirit spoke to one, John of Batenburg in the Netherlands, and told him among other things that he was Elijah, that anyone unconverted ought to be killed and that polygamy was to be practiced. Is this the 16th century Jim Jones or David Koresh?

Two further points can be made about Protestants. Since the 16th century, it has continued to spread and has continued to divide. The spirit of Protestantism was captured in Luther's famous Sola Scripture, Sola Fide, only Scripture, only Faith, which means that any person can pick up his or her Bible and with the aid of the Holy Spirit come to salvation. Not only have Protestants done that, they have also come up with some very interesting views hence Quakers, Christian Scientists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, 7th Day Adventists, Mormons, and I could go on but I won't. But there are over 900 Protestant denominations in the U.S. alone!

By the end of 1995, thee were nearly two billion Christians inhabiting planet Earth: 968,825,000 Roman Catholics, 395,867,000 Protestants, 217,948,000 Orthodox, 70,530,000 Anglicans, and 275,583,000 other Christians.

II. Christian Distinctives: Similarities and Differences

What I would like to do is to talk about some of the major beliefs in Christianity and show similarities and differences between Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.

Authority: Before we can talk about what a Christian believes, we must identify the basis upon which a Christian believes. That is to say, why do Christians believe what they believe? What is the authority for Christian believing?

All Christians would affirm the Bible as authoritative. Protestants would stop there. Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics would cite tradition as an authoritative source, i.e., the on-going teaching, practices and worship of the church. The Orthodox look with particular reverence upon the creeds of the first seven ecumenical councils (327-787 CE). Roman Catholics do not stop there; they accept the teachings of the councils throughout the history of the church and understand the Pope as being invested with particular grace which enables him on special occasions to be free from all error on matters regarding faith and morals, i.e., what to believe and how to act. This is the 1870 doctrine of Papal Infallibility.

Bible: The Bible for Protestants is made up of some 66 books, Old and New Testaments. Roman Catholics affirm those 66 books as well as some 13 other books (the apocrypha) as fully authoritative. Orthodox accept but do not count the apocrypha as authoritative as the other 66.

God: All Christians are monotheists, that is to say they believe in one God. The Nicene Creed of 325 states, "We believe in one God the Father all- sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible."

Trinity: Christians believe in one God but affirm that this one God consists of three divine persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This doctrine was hammered out in the 4th century and continued to be explicated through the 6th century. It is a profound mystery. But it attempts to explain the believer's experience of God; the human manifestation of God = Jesus the Christ; and the continuing dynamic presence of God on the earth = the Holy Spirit.

Needless to say, monotheistic religions like Judaism and Islam question the monotheistic claims of Christianity.

Incarnation: This is one of the most profound, distinctive and controversial claims of Christianity. It says that God became human. Early believers struggled over how to articulate this; people disagreed; people disagreed over what the Bible said about this. These disagreements at times became very passionate, even violent. The wording and implications of this doctrine caused councils to be convened; churches to split; heretics to be banished. The ecumenical councils finally left us with a paradox. Jesus is fully human and fully God.

When you reflect on this doctrine, it really is enormously appealing. For it affirms that God loves humans so much, he became one of us. In a sense, it is the reverse of creation. In Genesis, humans are created in God's image; in the incarnation, God is manifested in human image.

Sin and Salvation: All Christians affirm that humans have a problem. It involves doing things displeasing to God, which are called sins. But it does deeper than that. It involves a basic estrangement from God; being apart from God; a lack of communion with God illustrated so wonderfully by the image of Adam and Eve hiding from God because they were ashamed or even by the passionate confession of Paul's continuing struggle ("those things I want to do, I don't; those things I don't want to do, I do" Roman 7). This human nature of rebellion, failure or estrangement, Christians affirm, is overcome by God's initiative. Through the work of Christ, God does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. Christians refer to this as the atonement.

Traditionally, Roman Catholic and Orthodox teaching affirms that a believer must actively receive this gift of God. There are things a person must believe, do, and have done to them with aid of the church in order to be saved. For Protestants, salvation is by grace alone; there is nothing one can do to contribute to salvation, simply believe in God's grace.

Today, theologically speaking, I'm not so sure that there is great deal of difference between these two positions.

Sacraments: In Roman Catholic and Orthodox thinking, sacraments are visible signs through which the invisible grace of God is communicated to the individual. There are seven sacraments which correspond to the significant moments and needs of life: Baptism -- birth; Confirmation -- coming to age of responsibility; Marriage; Holy Orders -- dedication of one's vocational life to God; Extreme Unction -- anointing of an individual prior to death. Two other sacraments need to be repeated frequently: Confession -- i.e., repenting of sins and resolving to do better; and the last and most central sacrament, the Eucharist. It is the re-enactment of Jesus' last meal with his disciples in which he gave them bread and wine and said, "This is my body" and "This is my blood." This means for Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans that the bread and wine become Christ's body and blood. God is present in the Eucharist.

Protestants, on the other hand, reduce the number of sacraments to two: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Many Protestants are non sacramental, i.e., they do not understand certain visible signs as imparting grace. Hence Catholic sacraments in much Protestantism become Holy Ordinances. Baptism signifies repentance, burial of the old self, and an identification with Christ's resurrection. The Lord's Supper represents a remembrance of Christ's sacrifice.

I think the issue of the sacraments represents one of the fundamental difference between Catholic and Orthodox on the one hand, and Protestants on the other. The church sanctuary is most revealing at this point. Walk into a Catholic church and what is at the center? The table of the Eucharist signifying, I believe, that communication with God comes about primarily through practice, participation in a mysterious union, obedience and belief. Walk into a Protestant church and what is at the center? The pulpit, signifying that communication with God comes about primarily through proclamation, hearing the word, and faith in accepting the word. Central to Protestant worship is the belief that God's will is made known to his people through proclamation with little or no ritual or liturgical formulas.

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Most Christians affirm the concepts of heaven and hell, though they differ as to the exact meaning of these. On the one hand (make that the left) Christians would understand heaven as being in the presence of God and hell to be the absence of God. On the other (right) hand, Christians would understand heaven to be a place up there, streets paved with gold, clean water, and a government which works. Hell would be the place of eternal fire.

Purgatory is a different matter. Roman Catholics understand purgatory as an intermediate stage in which those who have died in a state of grace are given an opportunity to purge themselves of the guilt of their sins before entering heaven. Orthodox teaching is not entirely clear on this matter. Some accept it, others reject it, and the remainder say don't worry about it. Protestants reject it as having no scriptural basis.

III. Liberalism vs. Fundamentalism

Liberalism and fundamentalism represent different ways of understanding the Christian tradition. Liberalism relies primarily on methods of historical- critical research developed in the last two centuries to understand scripture and tradition. In essence, what this means is that reason becomes the primary authority. At a practical level, this means that many events in the scripture are taken symbolically, not literally; some are understood to be total fabrications, more on the order of fairy tales, not history qua history. Many of the great doctrines of the Christian faith are re-interpreted so as to make contemporary sense. To take one example: Rudolf Bultmann, the greatest New Testament theologian of the first half of this century, does not take Jesus' resurrection to be the account of a body coming out of a grave and rising through the spheres to a localized heaven. Why? Because, as he puts it "dead men don't rise." Resurrection, for Bultmann then, has to do with the rising of faith in the earliest followers of Jesus. That is to say, the real resurrection is about a group of disorganized, frightened followers coming to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, attempts to conserve and to preserve Christianity as it has been practiced through the centuries. Authority is understood to reside in the scriptures and/or the traditions. Hence, a literal approach to interpretation is used. If doctrines and/or practices conflict with human reason, so much the worse for human reason. For Protestant fundamentalists, the scriptures are inspired, infallible and inerrant. The only way to understand and to interpret them is through faith and obedience. Catholics would feel similarly toward the teaching office of the church. Orthodox would feel that way towards scripture and tradition (the ecumenical councils).

These positions have created deep divisions within Christianity. Fundamentalists don't believe liberals are Christian; while liberals believe fundamentalists are simply misinformed. These attitudes span Christian denominations. You have fundamentalist Catholics, fundamentalist Presbyterians, yes and even one or two fundamentalist Baptists. The same goes for liberals. I would venture to say that these positions evoke the greatest hostilities since the crusades.

These attitudes span the different world religions. Just this week I read in the paper where an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem has informed his people that Reformed and Conservative Judaism is not really Judaism at all. To me, these divisions pose the greatest challenge to Christianity today. How can Christian believers speak the word of grace and reconciliation to a world, when they can't even accept each other?

IV. Karl Barth's Proposal or The Essence of Scripture

Karl Barth, who arguably was one of the top three Christian theologians of the 20th century, argues that all religion, Christian denominations included, must stand in judgment of the revelation of God in Christ. By that I take him to mean that no Christian denomination has an absolute corner on truth. In fact, Christian denomination must constantly be in the process of reflection, trying to understand the revelation of God, and reforming themselves where their understanding and/or practice falls short.

With that I am going to step out on a limb (I fear saws/axes are being sharpened at this very moment) and give you my spin on the message of the Bible. I won't say that I am right; I reserve the right to change. In that respect, I am reminded of Cardinal John Henry Newman's great line on change, namely "To live is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often." But I will say that my attempt is incumbent upon each Christian. That is, every Christian must attempt to make the gospel story his or story. One can only live so long on borrowed faith; at some point the faith must become a personal faith. With that, here is the message of scripture as I understand it.

1. Moses And The Law

Let's return to Mt. Sinai. For there, as Eli Wiesel puts it, for the first time in history God comes down and has an audience with man. What does God tell Moses? You would think that God would have given a lecture on theology, after all that is his field, isn't it? He could have spared humans much mental, physical and spiritual anguish had he simply answered all of the big questions which I studied in seminary. Who is God? What is his nature? How was the world created? What about Jesus? Heaven and hell? When will God return? What will happen to the world?

It is interesting, even instructive to me, that essentially God says only two things about himself, theology proper, "I am above all other things." And "Be careful when you try to understand me." After that he devotes the majority of his words (80 percent to be exact) to human relations, ethics. Don't kill, steal or lie; be faithful to your parents, your marriage partners, and to your contracts; watch your desires, your thoughts, they can get you into trouble; and hey, by the way, take a break, have a good day; shabaat shalom.

That's amazing, isn't it? It seems that God is more concerned with humans learning how to live together than he is with them understanding who he is. It is as if God is saying, the real problem you've got to address on earth is living together responsibly. Do that and who knows, you may understand a great deal about me.

The sad fact of the matter appears to be that we humans, we believers, still don't get it.

When Moses came down from Sinai, the problems really began. People were doing what we have continued doing since that time, namely, creating our own Gods; raising temporal things to the status of ultimacy; or to interpret the symbol of the young calf-worshipping sex, money and power. That problem in different ways continues to plague us today.

In any event, years passed by and a rich tradition developed replete with writings, beliefs, practices and buildings. It is called religion. As happens in all religions, there developed a dominant tradition, conservative in nature, concerned with the institutional aspects of religion; its primary focus was the temple and sacrificial system. But there also emerged other voices within this tradition and outside of it; disturbing voices; minority voices; radical voices. Let's listen to how they brought balance to the dominant tradition.

2. The Chosen Mentality

Many came to believe that God loved and accepted the Israelites more than any other people. In fact, some came to believe that this meant they could kill, steal and do all kinds of wicked things to people who were not chosen. Then up pops the voice of Ruth, which says clearly that the Moabites, bitter enemies of the Israelites, were beneficiaries of God's concern; that is to say, they could come to the party also. And just to add an exclamation point to the whole episode, a Moabite becomes the great grandmother of the greatest king in Israel's history, David. God must surely have a great sense of humor.

Not only that, the plot really thickens here, through the voice of Jonah, God reaches out to the Ninevites and to others. Remember those wonderful closing words God speaks to Jonah. "Should I not pity that great city of Nineveh which has more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hands from their left, and also much cattle?" In other words, God loves and accepts not only those who believe that they deserve God's love and acceptance; He loves and accepts those who don't even know that they need it. Is that grace or what?

3. Evil And Suffering

Israelite Sunday School teachers taught that if a person loved God and obeyed his commands, then that person would be blessed and blessed materially. In other words, a pious person would possess a big house, condo at the Red Sea, a cute wife, lots of male children, and have Microsoft stock to boot. That worked fine until up popped Job, who not only questioned that teaching, but sued God, took him to court, on grounds of unfairness and injustice. We know who won the case but don't forget, God even says that the Sunday School teachers were wrong. The real point is that suffering and blessing (don't forget the epilogue) are twin mysteries in life. We don't understand why some bad things happen; we don't understand why some good things happen; it's just life; accept it and move on.

4. Rituals

People sometimes get stuck in a groove. They do things over and over and tend to forget the meaning of what they are doing; they may even abuse the meaning of what they are doing. It has probably happened to all of us; it happened in Israel. The sacrificial system, the appropriate means of worshipping God, was meant as a tangible, external expression of an inner attitude. Some people forgot about the attitude and simply felt that if they offered the proper sacrifices in the proper manner at the proper place, then peace with God was attained. Some even did terrible things but assumed that going through the motions assured that things were okay with God, until Isaiah blew the whistle. "Stop bringing meaningless offerings. Do you really think God likes blood of bulls and fat of lambs. The way you are acting really gives God a stomachache. You want to offer a real sacrifice? Stop doing wrong; do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Take care of those unable to take care of themselves. Then come back and we'll talk about sacrifice (Isaiah 1:13-17).

5. Religion/Theology

It took humans a while; it wasn't easy; there were ups and downs. But they finally got a handle on religion and on God which consisted basically of laws and practices. Granted, they didn't follow these laws always but at least they knew what to do and were fairly comfortable with their understanding of God, humans and the world. Then up pops the disturbing, agnostic voice of Koheleth in Ecclesiastes. Here are the main points of his sermon.

a. There really is no meaning in life.
b. We can't prove if there is heaven or hell.
c. We are not as special as we tend to believe.
d. The best way to worship is to be quiet.
e. Nobody knows God's will; those who claim to know it best really know it least.
f. The only meaning life offers is what you make out of it.

6. The Pharisees, Jesus And The Way Of Love

By the time we get to the New Testament, the Pharisees are in charge. For them relationship with God was based upon keeping the law; I should say laws. The Pharisees believed that the law was inspired, infallible, inerrant, etc. The problem was understanding it. "Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy." What does that mean for Shlomo out in the fields trying to make a living? So the Pharisees took up the difficult task of interpretation. They set down rules and regulations which would prevent a person from breaking torah. It is called putting a fence around torah. There were some 613 or 621 rules which should be followed in order to keep the torah.

Into this religious atmosphere Jesus came and offered a radical alternative. (1) He said that the law was never meant to tie you down, it was meant to free you. So he healed on the Sabbath and allowed his disciples to pick corn and got into a lot of trouble because of it. (2) He said that you can't quantify spirituality. Religion is not something you do, it is something you are. A real religious person is one who does not think she is religious; a religious person is one who cares for others, one who is disciplined, who maintains a balanced life (they are neither fools nor fanatics); a religious person is honest, they strive to do God's will, and they try to build bridges, not barriers. (3) He said the kingdom of God contains some unusual folks: tax collectors and prostitutes. (4) Jesus really didn't discriminate as many religions do. He ate with everybody. But he really liked sinners; he found, I believe, something redemptive in them. (5) He said all those laws could really be boiled down to two: love God and love your fellow humans; do that and you fulfill the law. (6) He said that God was always bigger than people were prepared to think. (7) He said that the way of love is much more demanding than the way of law. The way of love means sacrifice. You may have to give away all that you have; not only are you not to commit wrong actions, you are not to have wrong thoughts, wrong attitudes. And perhaps the most radical proposal of all, you are supposed to love your enemies; that's right, pray for people who hate you; do good to those who do evil to you. Those actions are evidence of love. And love is tough stuff; it wins by losing; it wins by dying; it wins by giving up. It always wins because it is eternal. God is love and Jesus incarnated that love in his life, ministry and death. (8) Jesus said that meaning in life was to be found and to be lived within the great paradoxes of life. In order to be first, one had to be last; to receive, one had to give; to rule, one had to serve; to be rich, one had to be poor; and finally to live, one had to die. (9) Jesus seldom spoon-fed people. He told stories, asked questions, and made provocative comments all with the intentions, I believe, of evoking reflection and commitment from the hearers. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (10) He said, if you are not against me, you are for me. (11) If you want to have a real party, invite those who can't help you, those you don't wish to impress, those whom few others would invite. (12) He said if you really want to be pious and religious, if you really want to worship, don't tell anyone -- WOW! That surely stands in marked contrast to all of the "cheer leading for Jesus" rallies today, doesn't it? The only rally for Jesus in the gospels, I remember, turned the next week into the cry "crucify him." I'm not sure what to make of that. (13) Jesus said if you really want to give, don't be calculating; don't even take a tax deduction. (14) And finally, somebody (actually two disciples from John) asked Jesus if he really were the Messiah. Do you remember what he said? That is something you must decide. Things haven't changed a great deal since then, have they?


Dr. Ted Mashburn is professor of religion at University of Mobile.


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