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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
Who have been the key people in the development of the religion?
by Kendra Hotz

Jesus 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.

The 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 alike.

During 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.

Anthony 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.

Next 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 their faith.

By 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.

Charlemagne (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 authorities.

Thomas 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.

Martin 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.

John 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.”

Dorothy 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.

Karl 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.

The 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.

Martin 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 of racism.

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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