Who have been the key people in the development of the religion?
by Kendra Hotz
once asked his disciples “who do you say that I am?”
(Matt. 16:15). That question has driven most of Christian theology
for two millennia, for Jesus is undeniably the most important person
in Christianity. The history
of Christian theology, in fact, consists chiefly of efforts to interpret
who Jesus is and how he reconciles humanity to God.
Apostle Paul offered some of the earliest written efforts to answer
this question in letters he sent to churches throughout the Near
East and in Rome. Paul had converted to Christianity after a dramatic
encounter with the resurrected Christ during a journey from Jerusalem
to Damascus. Paul’s most important contribution to the development
of the Christian faith was his steadfast insistence that Jesus Christ
had come to offer salvation to all of humanity, Jews and Gentiles
the period of persecution, many Christians looked to the martyrs
as heroes of the faith whose example of steadfast trust in God could
inspire others to hold fast to their faith during times of hardship.
When the period of persecution ended with the conversion of the
emperor Constantine, many began to look to the ascetics in the same
way. The ascetics were men and women who devoted themselves to lives
of prayer and contemplation. Some of them lived solitary lives and
others lived in communities. Asceticism eventually developed institutional
form and communal, monastic life became the norm.
of Egypt and Macrina were two important 4th-century ascetics. Anthony
chose a solitary life in the desert outside of Alexandria, Egypt,
but he became famous for his changeless faith, and people sought
him out for spiritual guidance. Macrina was the sister of two prominent
theologians, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. She never married
and instead established an ascetic community within her parents’
household. The community attracted women from both the highest social
classes as well as those widowed and orphaned by famine. The example
of ascetics like Anthony and Macrina inspired generations of Christians.
to the Apostle Paul, Augustine is probably the most influential
theologian for western Christians. In response to
the Donatists who believed that only the morally pure may serve
as priests, Augustine taught that God’s grace is extended
to sinful humanity through the church even though its ministers
are also sinful. In response to Pelagius, who believed that God
offers redemption to those who cease to sin through a strenuous
exertion of their free will, Augustine taught that human beings
cannot free themselves from sin apart from the grace of God. He
articulated a theology of culture that encouraged Christians not
to shelter themselves from “worldly learning,” but to
seek out the best of secular learning and to appropriate it for
the late 8th century, Europe had been utterly fragmented under the
feudalism that grew up in the absence of the centralized authority
of the Roman Empire; its population had been decimated by the Plague;
literacy rates, even among the clergy, were very low; and there
was no centralized legal or monetary system.
(747-814) forged a “Holy Roman Empire” that temporarily
brought some measure of unity to Europe’s civil authority.
Charlemagne established parish schools to increase literacy and
regularized legal codes and monetary units across much of Europe.
A generation later, these reforms led to a renaissance in education,
law, and theology. The fact that Charlemagne had been crowned emperor
by the pope, however, led to centuries of dispute in the West about
the degree to which the church should exercise power over civil
Aquinas, a 13th-century theologian, wrote a summary of theology
that offered a new model for how faith and reason are related. He
argued that God conveys truth to us both through revelation (the
Bible) and through reason. These two forms of knowledge complement
and complete one another. By observing nature we can learn many
truths about such things as medicine and ethics, but we can also
learn truths about God, such as that God exists and is good. These
truths are repeated in the Bible, which adds to them what we must
know for salvation. These truths about salvation—such as that
Jesus Christ is the Son of God—are not available through reason,
but are also not contradicted by it. The Roman Catholic Church has
embraced the theology of Thomas Aquinas as a faithful articulation
of its beliefs.
Luther, along with many other 16th-century Protestant Reformers,
significantly influenced the development of Christianity. As a young
monk he had often been frustrated by his inability to cease sinning.
After an extended study
of the book of Romans, Luther came to the conclusion that salvation
cannot be earned in any way; it comes as the free gift of God’s
grace to undeserving humanity. Good works do not
merit salvation; instead, good works flow out of human gratitude
for the unmerited grace of God. He also taught that Christians persist
in their sinfulness—they are, as he put it, simultaneously
sinful and justified (or redeemed)—and are never perfected
in this lifetime.
Wesley was an 18th-century Protestant in England who became convinced
that a faithful life requires more than intellectual assent to Christian
beliefs. A faithful life also requires heartfelt love of God and
neighbor. He sought to reform the Church of England through the
use of small groups devoted to Bible study and prayer. Wesley’s
movement became known as “Methodism.”
Day, an early 20th-century Roman Catholic activist, was the moving
force behind the Catholic Workers Movement and founding editor of
“The Catholic Worker,” a newspaper that advocated Catholic
social teachings. In the midst of the Great Depression, she advocated
for workers’ rights and a fair living wage. Day opened Catholic
Workers Houses that offered shelter and hospitality to the dispossessed.
She advocated for women’s suffrage and civil rights for African
Americans. Day was a pacifist who believed that a just society could
ultimately only be achieved through non-violent means.
Barth, a 20th-century Swiss theologian, became one of the founders
of Neo-orthodoxy, a response to the theological liberalism of the
19th century. In contrast to a theology that emphasized the power
of human reason and God’s presence in creation, Barth
argued that human reason cannot reveal God, but that humanity may
only come to know God through a radical act of divine grace.
He insisted on God’s transcendence, on the “infinite,
qualitative difference” between God and creation. Barth wrote
in the context of Nazi Germany and became the primary author of
“The Barmen Declaration,” that called the German church
to repent of its support for Hitler’s regime.
20th-centry saw a paradigm shift in Christian theology as feminist
theologians offered fundamental critiques and reconstructions of
the tradition. Rosemary Radford Reuther, for instance, has written
extensively on central Christian symbols, analyzing how they have
been used to oppress women and how they might be reconstructed in
liberating ways. She has offered fresh interpretations of the doctrines
of God, Christ, and creation, and has highlighted the connections
between the ecological movement and women’s liberation.
Luther King, Jr., brought deep Christian commitments and theological
sophistication to his work in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Biblical language and images filled his speeches and sermons, motivating
African Americans to rally for their rights, and moving the hearts
of many white Americans to stand with them. He brought the traditions
and cadences of preaching in the black church into his public ministry,
calling Americans to organize for justice and to repent of the sin
©2006 Kendra Hotz
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).
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.