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Christianity FAQ



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What were the most significant events in the history of the religion?
by Kendra Hotz

The events of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are the most important in the history of Christianity. They set the founding narrative through which the rest of history is interpreted by Christians. Beyond these events, however, we can identify several crucial moments that have shaped the Christian faith.

First among these is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, following a Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire. That event marked the beginning of the period of persecution and the end of the period in which Christianity was considered a sect within Judaism. The martyrs who died for their faith in the face of persecution were raised up as heroes, and the lapsi who recanted their faith in the face of persecution, and who subsequently sought forgiveness and readmission to the church, forced the church to think carefully about the nature of forgiveness and about who may receive and administer the sacraments.

The separation from Judaism, along with the emergence of competing groups claiming the name “Christian” for themselves, prompted the church to identify which of the writings in circulation among the Christian churches were authentic scripture and to form the New Testament to be read as scripture together with the Hebrew Bible. This process of identifying which writings are scripture is known as “canon formation,” and it took several centuries. Not until the year 367 do we find a public list of documents that are considered part of the New Testament that matches precisely what is in use today.

A second crucial event in shaping the Christian religion is the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the theological and doctrinal developments that followed in its wake, especially the formulation of the Nicene Creed in 325. That creed set boundaries on what Christians may and may not believe, and was crucial for ensuring some measure of unity amid the diversity of Christian belief. The Nicene Creed made it a point of orthodoxy that Jesus Christ is both fully human (a point contested by a group called the Gnostics, and later by a theologian named Apollinaris) and fully divine (a point contested by a theologian named Arius).

The council also established a precedent for calling ecumenical councils (meetings of the worldwide church) to decide matters of orthodoxy, matters that go to the heart of what it means to be Christian. The alignment of the church with the power of the Roman Empire opened an important opportunity for the faith to spread and flourish, but it also opened the church to the danger that it may simply come to endorse the prevailing culture. And, indeed, we see this mixed heritage in the history of Christianity: at times, Christians have used their positions of power to advocate for justice, but at other times they have simply substituted the values of the powerful for the values of the gospel.

The schism between the eastern and western churches constitutes a third important event in the history of Christianity, though it really is a series of events. The schism can be traced throughout the history of the church, beginning with the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, continuing through a number of disagreements about the jurisdiction and authority of the pope, and culminating in 1204 when western Christians participating in the fourth crusade sacked the holiest church in the East, the Hagia Sophia. The schism has meant that the church has been unable to call an ecumenical council since the 8th century. With the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, we find Christians once again seeking ways to restore full communion among all Christians while also honoring the deep diversity that has always marked the Christian faith.

A fourth important event, the Protestant Reformation, brought sweeping theological and liturgical changes in European Christianity. Reformers translated the Bible into vernacular languages, emphasized the centrality of preaching in worship, permitted clergy to marry, encouraged individual Christians to read and interpret the Bible, and questioned the authority of tradition. The Reformation also had important political consequences. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Europe entered a period when the church had represented the only centralized source of authority. To be Roman Catholic and to be European, a subject of the Holy Roman Empire, were virtually synonymous. We sometimes refer to this fusion of religion and culture during the medieval period as Christendom.

With the emergence of Protestantism, we find a fracturing of Christendom that coincided with the emergence of independent European nations in place of the vision of a unified Holy Roman Empire in the West. In addition, because Protestantism challenged the hierarchy between priests and people, it opened the door to democratic movements that challenged the hierarchy between Kings and subjects.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) represents a fifth important event in the history of Christianity. At this council, the Roman Catholic church entered a new period of what was called “openness,” in which it acknowledged the faithfulness of Protestants as “separated brethren,” granted permission for worship services to be conducted in local languages rather than the traditional Latin, committed itself to increased lay involvement in worship leadership, affirmed the presence of truth in non-Christian religions, and condemned anti-Semitism.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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