Christianity is one of the world’s most global religious traditions and is also the largest. Although it is associated with the culture of Europe and America, the numerical balance tipped in the late 20th century with the growth of the Christian population in other parts of the world. In the 21st century, the majority of the world’s Christians are in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
With such a diverse population in continuous existence for more than 2,000 years, general descriptions can only have limited value. The obvious central and essential element in Christianity is Jesus Christ, the leading figure of the tradition. The particular forms, features, and role of Christ vary considerably; where there is some agreement, the membership has aggregated into denominations. Disagreements as to the necessary features of Christianity between self-professed Christians can constitute issues on the actual scope of Christianity. Divisions have developed over matters of perception, culture, and doctrine as well as practice. Where there are issues of peer acceptance, self-definition may be a wholly inadequate basis to objectively determine who is a practicing Christian.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Christians see the replication and the realization of all the salvific events in Jewish history. For Christians, Jesus’ death and resurrection take salvation beyond the chosen community of Israel to the Christian community, which is charged with proclaiming a universal salvation. If the history from Abraham to Jesus is the history and preservation of divine promises to humans, with Jesus we have the history of fulfillment of the divine promises.
According to Christian scriptures, the followers of Jesus were first referred to as “Christians” in first century CE Antioch (see Acts of the Apostles 11:26). Etymologically, the term Christian is derived from the Greek term Christos meaning “the anointed one.” As such, Christ and Christian initially refer to the anointed, and in this context, it includes Jesus and his followers. Jesus and his immediate disciples, who knew him during his lifetime, were Jews and familiar with Judaic teachings and traditions. In that tradition, anointing is conferred on one who is appointed priest, prophet, or ruler. In the person of Jesus, it is the belief of Christians that he is anointed as all three, and he is proclaimed to be the promised Messiah or in Hebrew, Mashiach (“the Anointed One”). This entry outlines briefly the 2,000-year history of Christianity from its beginnings to the present day and concludes with a discussion of its place in the contemporary world.
Christianity in Pax Romana
The Roman Empire provides the larger immediate historical context for the life and times of Jesus and has profoundly affected the history of Christianity. It was the context and actions of Roman rule that were essential to the death of Jesus, became the foundation for the spread of Christianity, and resulted in the preeminence of Rome as the touchstone in Christian history. Of particular interest is the Roman authorities’ reliance on order and law as the infrastructure that permitted the operation of cultural and philosophical plurality in its realm. A related Roman gift was the establishment of routes, which were necessary to exercise power, ensure communications, and maintain peace in the empire.
In the context of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem was a tiny outpost. Enforcement measures to maintain the peace included a deterrent component and were designed for social effect as much as individual penalty. Scourging and crucifixion were used with some regularity and would not have been particularly remarkable events at the time. Enforcement with a firm hand complemented the availability of Roman military might and supported the need to maintain order in a large empire. Latin was used for legal proceedings and legislative purposes. Education and commerce were more usually conducted in Greek, and the small local Jewish community where Jesus lived would have spoken Aramaic, which is a dialect of Hebrew, while studies of Judaism and biblical works would be conducted in classical Hebrew.
Our knowledge of the circumstances obtaining there in the first century CE are based on archaeological analyses and the writings of persons such as the Jewish historian Josephus and fragments of texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Just as no information concerning Moses and the Exodus has been uncovered in Egyptian archives, to date, no mention of Jesus of Nazareth has been found in Roman records of the first century CE.
Among the earliest written Christian accounts are the letters of the disciple Saul (Hebrew) or Poulos (Greek) or Paulus (Latin) or Paul (English). He appears to have been educated in Greek and Latin; as a rabbinical student, he would have known Hebrew and also spoken Aramaic. Multilingual capabilities would permit Paul to communicate his thoughts in relevant languages. However, even when the translator is perfectly competent, translation risks inaccuracy from untranslatable terms and the absence of equivalent meaning for words. Consequently, our understanding of the writings of first century CE works involving multiple translations across various languages and cultures requires complex analyses and inquiry. An awareness of this complexity is relevant to reading the Christian writings across 2,000 years and several cultures.
Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the disciples initially accepted the task of conveying the message of their teacher to a Jewish audience who were familiar with Aramaic and Hebrew. However, very early, the disciples found a more receptive audience among those who were not Jews and those less familiar with Hebraic traditions. To a Hellenized audience, linguistic and cultural translation from Jesus’ Hebraic concepts into the Greek language and philosophical categories was unavoidable. It appears that considerable effort was expended to distill and maintain the integrity of the message that was to be conveyed across histories and cultures.
Historical events beyond the early Christian communities contributed to the spread of Christianity. Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus as described in the Gospels, some of the Jewish community attempted a revolt against Roman rule. The Roman legions responded by destroying the Temple and dispersing the Jewish community of Jerusalem.
The earliest Christian writings include the correspondence of Paul, who was converted to Christianity after the death of Jesus and was not taught by him personally. As the disciples who were Jesus’ companions before his death aged, it became apparent that some form of transmission was necessary if the message was to continue beyond that generation. These writings sought to express the essential message of the death and resurrection of Jesus to divergent audiences. There were several such Gospels ascribed to different authors. Of these, four were included in the canonical scriptures and are known as the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
One of the 12 apostles—Peter—was accepted as the leader, and the disciples who were with Jesus before his death were given special stature. “The Twelve”—as they came to be known—exercised a supervisory role and were consulted on matters pertaining to the teaching of Jesus. Paul and eventually others were accorded the title of apostle even though they were not known to the others before Jesus’ death. Lines of succession in office traced back to the 12 apostles became the marks of authority.
In the first century CE, the group of disciples grew in number and distribution following the routes established by the Romans. In the process, the group evolved from a Jewish sect to becoming a religion that was initially the target of enforcement agencies that sought to eradicate the problem. As with other oppressed groups, vocalizing expressions of faith could lead to unintended consequences. Additionally, some of the early disciples may have been illiterate. In such circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect the disciples to rely on symbols to convey their faith. The earliest such graphic symbol appears to be a simple line drawing of a fish. For the more verbally adept person, the Greek term for fish, icthus or icthys, may have also served as an anagram to stand for Iesus Christus Theos or Thyus, which would translate to “Jesus Christ is God.” The cross or the crucifix was apparently not the earliest symbol of Christianity.
As described in the Christian scriptures, the nascent group of followers had several discussions as they tried to discern the content and meaning of the message for emergent contexts. A disagreement between the disciples regarding the requirements to be made of non-Jews who sought membership highlights some of the issues. For the Jews, circumcision signified a man’s participation in the covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses (see, e.g., Genesis 17:13–19). For Greek sensibilities, the same procedure was repugnant as it constituted a mutilation of the body, damaging God’s creation. Some, including the leader Peter, thought it necessary for non-Jews to become Jews before they were eligible to become Christians and made them undergo circumcision. Paul opposed this interpretation and advocated the acceptance of non-Jews directly to Christian membership without requiring circumcision. In what has come to be known as the Council of Jerusalem and as described in the letter of Paul to the Galatians (Galatians 2) and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15), Paul’s view prevailed and Peter agreed that to be a Christian, it was not necessary to become a Jew or be circumcised.
The articulation of Christian beliefs and the continuing efforts at clarifying the understanding to maintain the integrity of the message can be traced from accounts in Christian scriptures and other sources. Much of the ongoing discussions were summarized at meetings such as the Council of Jerusalem, which are eventually reported either in canonical scriptures or other conciliar documents. As with the Council of Jerusalem, until the Second Vatican Council in 1965 CE, the agenda for the Councils was determined by the major disagreements of the day. Proceedings of the Councils resulted in the development of doctrinal statements known as symbols of faith or creeds. Two of the better known such creeds in current use are the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. Symbols of faith were also crafted by individual authorities in different parts of the empire.
Councils and movements have used the term ecumenism from the Greek Oikumene — literally “all the people of the world”—when they intend or wish to be seen as inclusive. An ecumenical council, then, is ostensibly one in which all the people of the world participate. Which councils and movements are accepted as ecumenical vary according to individual Christian communities and within a single tradition. For instance, the Council of Ephesus in 449 CE was termed the Latrocinium (Latin) or Robber Council, and its decisions were subsequently overturned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.
For various reasons, in the first few centuries CE, the Christians as a minority and frequently oppressed community had been a relatively select group who established standards to be met before someone could obtain membership. For instance, a soldier or diplomat of the Roman Empire could not be accepted into the Christian community. The oath of office required these persons to pledge allegiance to the Emperor as God, which was understood to be in direct conflict with an allegiance to the Christian understanding of God.
From about 300 CE, circumstances for Christians began to change. Armenia was among the first to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and when the Roman Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity personally and adopted it as the official Roman religion, it became established and grew in popularity. The ascension of Constantine as Emperor of Rome and his conversion to Christianity mark a major change for Christianity. For instance, being a soldier and a diplomat was no longer an impediment to membership in the Christian community. Standards for admission to the community generally changed sufficiently to make a marked difference from the ascetic lifestyle. Ascetics and their followers or associates with more particular lifestyles and foci eventually developed into monastic communities.
Communities who had particular social or functional directions also formed. These subsequently came to be known as religious communities. Along with the development of the community, liturgical practices and organizational structures also evolved and adapted to various cultural and national circumstances. Some features include a more developed annual cycle of liturgical celebrations, with Easter assuming dominance in the annual calendar. Linkages to existing patriarchates and the 12 apostles have remained common to all.
Constantine’s move to the city of Byzantium in 330 CE and its renaming as Constantinople accorded it the status of capital of the eastern empire. With Rome continuing as the capital of the western empire, the Christian communities were not immune from conventional social tensions and perceptions. By the middle of the fifth century, Christians had established bases in Jerusalem, Antioch (now in Syria), Alexandria in Egypt, and Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, in Turkey), and Rome. The leader in each of these five centers was recognized as of greater organizational significance and given the title of Patriarch. The Patriarch of the Church in Rome is the pope.
Christian communities were also established in regions beyond the Roman Empire. For instance, according to some traditions, the disciple known as Thomas traveled as far as India. In South India, there exists a community of Christians known as the Mar Thomites, who trace formal connections with the church in Antioch. At least two liturgical rites in South India, the Syro-Malabar Rite and the Syro-Malankara Rite, trace their origins to one of the 12 apostles named Thomas and are associated organizationally with the church in Antioch in Syria.
Reliance on differing philosophical and cultural bases appears to have contributed to some of the doctrinal and disciplinary disputes in the communities. Councils did not always result in amicable solutions and on occasion heightened tensions. Some tensions persisted for hundreds of years. For instance, a tension between understandings and practices in Christian communities in Constantinople and Rome evolved until a major division occurred in 1054 CE when the then successor to the office of Peter the apostle, Pope Leo IX, and the Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople mutually declared the other to be excluded or excommunicated from the community of the true followers of Jesus Christ. The Great Schism or division resulted in the emergence of the Orthodox Christian community, who were not in communion with the church in Rome. This division was eventually reversed officially in December 1965 CE when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of the Orthodox Church based in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) mutually nullified the excommunications of 1054 CE. Official positions of course do not describe the complete reality, and tensions between Christian communities continue to be evident. Also, schisms and healing of divisions have occurred at various times and over varying periods for a variety of reasons.
The spread of the Christian message through Europe and the West followed political and social realities such as the prevalence of Roman order. Initially, Christianity in the West meant Roman Catholicism, which subdivided into other denominations following the period of the Reformation. Several Christian monarchs found a common cause when faced with the expansion of the Turkish and other empires where the dominant religion was not Christianity. Subsequently, denominational affiliations and social and political realities affected each other. The association of Jerusalem with Abraham continues to provide fertile occasions for conflict between empires with different religious affiliations. An example of the close link between western European empires and the form and distribution of Christianity was seen in conflicts over Jerusalem. In the East, Christian communities that had been more closely integrated with local cultures acquired correspondingly different organizational and operative features. The consequence of various cultural and social features distinguishing the East from the West European Christian communities was that many of these communities were not participants in the same conflicts.
Eastern Christians who maintained their association with Rome are historically known as Eastern Catholics, as distinguished from the Eastern Orthodox Christians. The term Catholic has come to be associated with Christian communities linked to the Patriarch of Rome. Accordingly, there have been Orthodox and Catholic Patriarchs in the same geographical location. The process of reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholic communities, officially marked in 1965 CE, has not yet resolved such terminological and organizational issues. Arguably, the reconciliation may mean there is no longer any substantive significance to a distinction between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. The determination of the Patriarchate in a unified community has yet to be resolved.
In Europe, the centralized organizational structure of the Roman church was susceptible to local practices in a manner that did not arise in the Eastern Christian communities. When abuses of power were not effectively addressed in the hierarchical organization operating in Europe, the authorities faced greater criticism. Unauthorized practices sometimes placed unacceptable burdens on local Christians. Additionally, continuing threats from external forces occupied the attention of authorities. Where there were concerns for survival and the ability to practice the faith, distinctions between matters of faith and more social matters became blurred. The availability of new information as well as the emerging technology changed the intellectual landscape and provided new communication channels and a wider voice for calls to reform the church.
The development of mass-produced movable metal type for use in a printing press process revolutionized duplication of printed materials. Johannes Gutenberg’s first major production runs (about 1440 CE) were ecclesiastical indulgences. Indulgences at that time were certificates issued by the Church authorities that people voluntarily purchased. The certificate entitled the person who purchased it to a remission of a specified amount of time—for example, 365 days of penance due for sins committed in this life. Penance is understood as restitution for offenses committed. The concept survives in Roman Catholicism without the issuance of certificates and with the financial component replaced by a performance of specified actions such as prayer. For example, one can now gain a plenary indulgence if one celebrates the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. After the printing of indulgences, Gutenberg’s first major production was about 200 copies of the Bible in about 1455 with subsequent improvements. The mechanization of the printing process marks a social change in Western Europe, which led to consequences that are still operating.
The sale of indulgences and the purchase of jobs working for the church authorities—also known as the sin of simony—are two examples of practices that earned supporters and critics. For some, the raising of funds was seen as pragmatic and necessary for the work to be done, while for critics, the same fund-raising activities were impediments to participation in the community. The practicalities of the situation can also be seen in the example of the Bishop of Worcester in England who at one point was an Italian who lived and worked in Rome, Italy, but was paid by the community in Worcester whom he had never seen. In the king’s view, the bishop was providing a service as the ecclesiastical diplomatic agent of the King of England to the pope in Rome and so was entitled to be paid from England. Critics could equally object to the arrangement as an abuse in requiring a payment by local people who did not obtain personal services in return. This was not the only example of the exercise of the king’s power and its effect on papal authority and access to resources.
By 1496 CE, the call for reform was the principal topic of daily conversation. By 1500 CE, if the need for reformation of the Western church was generally accepted, there was little agreement as to the solution. The discussions were fed by the availability of information, ideas, and solutions propagated by deployment of printing presses and a plurality of voices. In these discussions, the general presumption was the continuation of the Roman Church, which was thought to be eternal. Reformation meant the elimination of abuses, the suppression of those minority groups who deviated from the established community, and the restoration of the authority of the church. It was then and still is the expectation that the clergy are to be the conscience of the community and to be held responsible for reforms to curb the competing powers, including those of the king. It was in this task that the church appeared to have failed.
Western European Christian Denominations: The Reformation and Its Aftermath
Erasmus was the preeminent humanist of his time. His teachings and actions in making paraphrased versions of the Bible easily available helped set up a contrast between what the ideal called for and the reality. In doing so, he laid a foundation for later reformers, which he later regretted. The better known person who followed was Martin Luther (1483–1546 CE), a Roman Catholic Augustinian monk and biblical scholar who also sought to raise the standard of practice in the Church. He eventually became known for a list of 95 theses against indulgences, which he nailed to the door of the local church. It was not his intention to separate from the Roman church, but his efforts at protesting the failure to stem abusive practices and calls for reform by about 1517 CE provided the focus for an unintended revolution.
Luther’s denunciation of the indulgences got the attention of the people, which attracted a response from the church authorities. Through discussions with his opponents, his focus on the indulgence was redirected and escalated into a challenge to papal authority. His position was then alleged to be the same as that of John Hus, who had previously been denounced at the Council of Chalcedon and who, when he refused to recant, was excommunicated.
Luther’s treatment by his superiors propelled him into the position of leader of a revolution in Germany supported mostly by peasants. His initial support among the more powerful authorities was diminished when the revolution became a direct challenge to papal position and a threat to unity in the Church. However, with the majority of the people preferring to sever connections with Rome, at a meeting in Speyer in 1529, several princes delivered a protest against the proceedings of the emperor of Germany and the Catholic princes. The name “Protestant” is derived from this protest. Germany was divided, and a league of Protestant nations formed, changing the political landscape by introducing a third political power alongside Rome and the Catholic princes. The Turks also presented a threat. The interaction between these four prominent political powers influenced the emergence and continuity of the Protestant Christian denominations.
While Luther’s triggering issue was with Roman Catholic practice, subsequent discussions and disagreements were between reformers. So, although the Roman Church also reformed, the period of the Reformation provided a variety of denominations that sought to distinguish themselves from each other. Philip Melanchthon, for instance, provided alternative views, and his followers came to be known as Philippists. Less well-known reformers include Flavius Illyricus, Bucer, and Oecolampadius.
A central point of contention between Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and other reformers was the differing meanings ascribed to the expression “This is my body,” attributed to Jesus, who offered bread to his disciples at his last supper with them before he died. On this issue, for instance, Luther accepted the Roman Church’s teaching that in the liturgy, the bread did really become the body of Christ—the “real presence” view. Calvin and others rejected that view. Further distinction developed when some preferred to explain the expression to mean that the body of Christ was communicated “with” the bread rather than “in” the bread. Besides differing views over the real presence issue, denominational distinctions also involved varying views on a belief in saints, the relationship between church and state, the views of what constituted simplifying, what was essential, whether or not the Bible could be read in the vernacular, how much weight was to be given to the writings in the Bible, and what if any extra-biblical sources were acceptable as authorities in faith.
The distribution of different western Christian denominations originally part of the Roman Church in Europe was largely determined by the location of its leader and the ruler’s choice. Additionally, an emerging sense of nationality and political interests operated alongside religious interests in different ways across Europe. While Lutherans were to be found mostly in northern Germany, the south continued to be in association with the Church in Rome. In Denmark and Sweden, the political interests were more significant than the religious. In England, under King Henry VIII, the Reformation was political, with the King resisting ecclesiastical reform, though the legendary account focuses on the refusal of the pope to grant Henry VIII a divorce, thus precipitating the break with Rome. According to some views, the English position appeared to be the same as that of the Roman Church, with the king replacing the pope as supreme ecclesiastical authority and preferring but not requiring clerical celibacy. Official positions sometimes arguably did not represent practice. For instance, even where some denominations rejected the elevation of some Christians to be martyrs and saints, they did consider their leaders and those of their own denomination who were brutally executed to be exemplary persons. Similarly, where some would only accept the biblical writings as the authority (Latin sola scriptura), they still had to contend with the views of translators and the absence of a single version of the writings.
Within a year of Luther’s death, German Lutherans were almost destroyed by the Emperor Charles V who was free to attend to domestic matters as a result of a temporary lull in the wars with the Turks and the French. Following the battle of Muhlberg in 1547 CE, under the Augsburg Interim settlement, he permitted marriage for the clergy and the administration of communion under both species of bread and wine in Eucharistic celebrations. The effect of the settlement was to divide the Lutherans, and when war with the Turks erupted again, they managed to gain the help of the French and achieved the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 CE. Principally providing physical safety to Protestant states, the agreement also included the principle later known by the Latin phrase cujus regio ejus religio, which meant that the people were to follow the religion of their ruler. Alternatively, they could either keep the peace or leave the kingdom. Later social realities effectively inverted the operation of the principle, as in England, with the ruler required to follow the religion of the people or abdicate. Until the Edict of Nantes in 1598 CE, the principle of one religion in one kingdom (in French, un roi, une loi, une foi) prevailed everywhere in Europe.
Following the Edict of Nantes, which permitted subjects in France to follow a different religion from that of the ruler, the trend continued with the growing sense of nationalism. For instance, the Dutch Reformers obtained the support of Catholics in opposing the Spanish rule in Holland. Subsequently, and to varying degrees and at various times, nations developed predominant rather than exclusive Christian denominations. Other major western European Christian denominations include the Huguenots in France, followers of Zwingli and the Calvinists centered in Berne and Geneva in Switzerland, Roman Catholics in France and Spain, the Reformed Church in Holland, and Presbyterians in Scotland. Even where a separation between church and state was alleged, in practice, rules still sought and obtained control over the kingdom through control of the Christian churches.
The Roman Church held the Council of Trent, which took place in various stages and in different places between 1545 and 1563 and addressed issues raised by the reformers. While the Roman Church insisted on the use of the Latin translation of the Bible—the Vulgate—in its liturgies, in practice, Catholics were involved in translating the scriptures into other languages. The availability of the Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican Library contributed to the task of translation. The decrees of the Council of Trent were determinative of the life and structure of the Roman Church and its ecclesiastical interaction with the traditions of western reform Christianity up to the last Vatican Ecumenical Council II.
The European Renaissance and the Age of Reason (about 1650 CE to 1800 CE) that followed provide the more recent backdrop to current realities for Christianity in the West. Philosophers such as René Descartes (1596–1650) advocating reason as the normative value encouraged scientific investigation and a secular society in competition to the Christian denominations. Some of these ideas gained acceptability within Christian denominations. For example, Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), an Augustinian monk, made a systematic study of plant breeding in the monastery garden and developed a mathematical formula that has led to his recognition as the father of the science of genetics.
European groups and ideas translocated to the New World and imposed themselves on the Aboriginal peoples. The European doctrine of terra nullius as applied to the land they encountered across the Atlantic provided a justification to continue European forms of Christianity, initially by the authority of European monarchs and subsequently independently of them.
In Canada and Australia, for instance, the head of state has been Queen Elizabeth II, who is a constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom and also head of the Church of England—known as the Anglican Church in Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States. French Catholics also established control in parts of Canada and the United States; the southern territory of the United States was dominated by Spanish Catholics in the West and Portuguese Catholics in the East. European Catholic and Protestant denominations initially settled in different parts of the continent and subsequently moved to other parts. Quakers initially settled in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, and the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam, now known as New York. Minority Christian denominations in European lands found new opportunity in the New World. Lutherans from Sweden, Huguenots from France, Baptists from England, and Presbyterians from Scotland moved across the Atlantic.
The dominance of the Age of Reason (ca. 1648–1800) explicitly or implicitly shifted the starting point of belief for consideration and acceptance of Jesus as Lord to that which is materially verifiable. With the attitude that all prior history unless it was demonstrably reasoned, was inferior, ambivalence in religious matters and an interest in social order became more prevalent. For instance, people such as Benjamin Franklin in the United States stated that he was agnostic about the divinity of Jesus because he had not studied it. However, he did not see harm in believing that Jesus is God if the consequence is the implementation of Jesus’ teachings.
The impetus of the Reformation encouraged an interest in returning to a genuine faith in Christ, which continued through the 20th century. The success of George Whitefield’s revival sermons after his arrival from England in 1739 and that of others may be noted among the new movements. Jonathan Edwards was another who sought to motivate his hearers to seek salvation by detailing the consequences for those who do not have personal faith in Christ. Whitefield (1714–1770) was a personal friend of John Wesley (1703–1791), also a revivalist preacher who differed with him on the doctrine of predestination. The group founded by Wesley eventually became the Methodists.
An additional development was the reliance on science, which for some meant an alternative to reliance on Christ and a religious skepticism. The coexistence of skeptic and true believer along with traditional church communities required toleration for each other at least in some sense. The 20thcentury World Wars, the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, the Pax Americana, and the establishment of the state of Israel transformed the political landscape. A formerly dualistic competition between the Christian-dominated nations of Europe and the Islamic-dominated nations to the east became an unprecedented competition for Jerusalem between political powers aligned with the three Abrahamic religions.
The Ecumenical Movement and Other Recent Developments
One of the most significant developments in the 20th century in the experience of Christian churches has been the rise of an ecumenical movement (Greek Oikumene), in which churches seek reconciliation, reunion, and restoration of oneness; the hope is to reverse centuries of history marked by separation and withdrawal of churches from one another—a sad history of confronting, competing, and criticizing each other in a bitter rivalry that descended to name-calling, insult, and even to internecine warfare. The ecumenical movement sought to change the goals and methods for churches to relate with each other and to seek an appropriate form of unity that would enable both an immediate common Christian work and an eschatological hope for the restoration of the broken unity of Christian believers, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).
The ecumenical movement acquired a diverse complexion. This concern for dialogue between differing religious traditions involved a Jewish- Christian dialogue, which was complemented by a three-way process with the addition of the Islamic traditions. Even within the Christian context, ecumenism meant dialogue between Christian traditions. In the North American context, ecumenism may be seen in the formation of the Canadian Council of Churches in 1944 and the World Council of Churches in 1948.
But this search for ecumenism carried with it a profound dilemma. From the outset, the defining goal of ecumenical discussions was the creation of more unified churches. From the formal founding of the World Council of Churches, many leaders of the movement used the phrase “full structural unity” to define its aim. Idealists even dreamed of restoring full world communion. Yet, paradoxically, this hope emerged at just the same time as profound challenges in 20th-century culture shook traditional foundations and assumptions, including the core tenets of religion itself. In this situation, churches were prompted to reevaluate and re-enunciate their own special traditions—their roots of certitude in the faith. In this way, key differences in tradition between churches were sharpened just at the time when the Christian movement entered into a serious effort to achieve ecumenical unity. “Full structural unity” came to be seen as remote wishful thinking or even as a detrimental threat to tradition. This was fully acknowledged by the World Council in the Toronto Statement of 1950, which stated explicitly that ecumenism was not a search for a “super-church.” The ecumenical atmosphere remained at best cautious—for various reasons, the Roman Catholic Church has never joined the World Council as a full member—and at worst, argumentative and even antagonistic.
The common interest in the Bible, the work of producing more current vernacular translations of biblical texts, and the study of the texts using modern analytical methods brought scholars of various traditions together. At the same time, interpretive and editorial attempts to improve earlier renderings that have been a continuing issue from the earliest times, as can be seen in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, have not abated. The variations have not been helpful for those who seek to obtain a uniform interpretive result and to reduce strains between various Christian communities.
For the Roman Church traditions, the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII (1965) with the agenda of aggiornamento or updating provided an occasion to restate central doctrines and revive ancient practices. The process involved a wide consultative process, including scholars from within the Roman church and beyond, which helped forge new channels of communications and appreciation of common themes. The dialogical processes that formed at that council complemented the ecumenical discussions within the Christian communities and with the other Abrahamic religions. While the focus remained on issues arising out of the European and American histories, there was an incipient recognition of other traditions within and beyond the Abrahamic religions.
With continuing change at the end of the 20th century, the predominance of capitalism, and an awareness of global issues, such as environmental concerns, new discourses emerged. Otherwise secular institutions such as the World Economic Forum based in Davos, Switzerland, describe a perceived crisis of values. Calls have been heard for an emerging reintegration of economy and religion and a reconstitution of society that includes environmental considerations. While the configuration of Christianity with its interpretive and structural diversity has evolved, in many essential respects, its adherents have retained continuity in their reliance on the founding image of Jesus, known as the Christ.
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