When Did Christianity Begin
When Did Christianity Begin
When did Christianity Begin is part of a series of articles regarding the history of Christianity. In this episode, we take up where we left off in my last post, Roman Catholic, about the year 630, and continue on to the year 787.
History About Christianity
In 638 AD (Anno Domini [The Year of the Lord]) Emperor T'ai-Tsung of China officially recognized Christianity as an accepted religion, and commanded that the Bible to translated into his language, saying, "This teaching is beneficial to all people." At the same time, missionaries were converting the English from two directions: The Celtic Christians coming south from Lindisfarne, and Roman Catholics coming north from the Continent. By 664, King Oswy officially declared Britain to be Roman Catholic.
The Eastern Church, headquartered in Constantinople (Byzantium), faced an existential danger with the rise of Islam. Muhammad (575-632) founded this religion in Mecca about the year 615, and by the time of his death all of Arabia had embraced Islam (become Muslims). His successors encouraged jihad, or holy war, against all non-Muslims, and within 100 years built an empire from Spain to India—by conquering Christian lands, where Christians had to convert to Islam or have their heads cut off. This was quite different from Christianity, in which conversion was to be accomplished by preaching, not coercion—voluntary faith, not compulsory faith. In former strongholds of Christianity such Syria, Iraq, North Africa, Persia, Egypt, Armenia—and even Israel (the Holy Land)—churches were destroyed or turned into mosques. These wars of conquest are the seed of the conflict between Christians and Muslims that was to go on until the present day.
The Muslim conquests in Europe reached France, where they were defeated by Charles "The Hammer" Martel (688-741), king of the Franks—and driven back into Spain. Martel instituted the use of horse-mounted, heavily-amoured cavalry: later to become known as Knights. He was able to win because of the invention of the stirrup, which made it possible to stay on one's horse during heavy fighting.
Martel went on to conquer Germany, and with the help of an English monk, Boniface, convert the Germans to Roman Catholicism. The alliance between France and the Roman Catholic Church saved the Church and helped create the papal power that was to dominate Europe for 1000 years. Italy was under attack from Lombardy in the north and Byzantium in the south when an historic deal was struck: Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin the Short king of France in exchange for the Franks driving out the invaders of Italy, which they did. Thus, for the first time, a king was proclaimed by the Church (rather than conquest or heredity). And a 200 mile long Papal State was formed in Italy.
It was about this time that the greatest fraud in human history took place: the Donation of Constantine. This was a forged document that the Roman Catholic Church produced suddenly—and claimed it had been hidden 400 years for safekeeping. The document was supposedly written by Constantine the Great, and states that the Pope in Rome is to reign supreme over all Christian churches and over all the kings of Europe. This forgery hoodwinked the world for 800 years.
The three holiest Christian cities of the East were by now lost to the Muslim invaders: Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Christians were no longer able to safely make pilgrimage to the Holy Land. How did this happen? As the Arabian hordes swarmed out of the desert, Byzantium and Persia had recently devastated each other in war; so Christian lands were weak militarily. They were also not united as a Church, with many divisions among them doctrinally. And the unorthodox among them were being persecuted by the Byzantines, and thus not willing to fight for Byzantium. The Muslims reached the gates of Constantinople itself before they were turned back in 677, after the Byzantines invented a devastating new weapon: flame-throwers.
The Church in the Latin West
Meanwhile, the Christian Church in the 7th and 8th centuries began to crystallize its doctrines, by the authority of Scripture and traditional teachings of the earliest Church Fathers, true to the catholic (universal) faith. It was heresy (teachings by those inside the church at variance with orthodoxy) that often would provoke the Church to clarify its doctrines. The two cardinal dogmas of the Christian faith were defined as the worship of God in Trinity; and the belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—divine and human in one.
A Christian was defined as one who imitates Christ. But it is the mercy, grace and will of God that brings humans to Him. Christians could become beautiful not because of their merits, but because God was the artisan who crafted them.
The Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The writers of Scripture did not write their own words, but words of knowledge and authority received by them from the Spirit of God. Therefore, the true author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, who dictated the words to the writers. Thus, the Bible has the same authority as Christ himself, and Christ cannot be understood by those who are ignorant of the Scriptures.
It was assumed that while the essential meaning of the New Testament is clear, it can only be rightly interpreted in the light of the traditions established by the Church Fathers. The Church had authority because it represented the consensus of a single and universal Christian community. Therefore, the unity of the Church was fundamental to Christian faith. And it followed that apart from fellowship in the one catholic Church, salvation was not possible. The twelve apostles were the forerunners of bishops, and the seventy disciples sent by Christ were now represented by priests. Through baptism, all Christians participate in ministry. This was all put together in the institutional, hierarchical Catholic Church of those who acknowledged the authority of Rome.
There was substantial resistance to the idea of the primacy of Peter from those who believed authority should proceed from the whole apostolic college, but the Latin West acknowledged a papal monarchy—that the church in Rome was mother and teacher—whose authority was to be sought on all questions of faith and morals, and her instructions to be obeyed.
A sacrament is a ritual in which God is active. Baptism is first among sacraments. It was taught during these centuries that one cannot be a Christian without baptism; hence the baptism of infants was widely practiced, should they die before reaching the age of accountability. Missionaries baptized adult converts. This represented a compact (peace between two parties) with God, by which sins were forgiven; and a holy angel was assigned to protect you. As infant baptism grew commonplace, the significance of baptism to forgive sins waned and the idea of penance grew in importance. This involved confession to a priest, who would then determine the acts of compensation required for offenses, and grant absolution (forgiveness). It became the consensus of early medieval theologians (those who study God and His relation to the world) that forgiveness was not possible outside the Church. So, in the 7th and 8th centuries a system of the sacraments—baptism, penance, and other rituals designed to convey divine grace through earthly means—came to be defined.
From this framework of sacraments evolved praying on behalf of the dead. For this to make any sense there had to be created an intermediate state between heaven and hell—and so it was: Purgatory. This was no place for the blessed saints—they went straight to heaven—nor for great, hardened, rebellious sinners—they went straight to hell; but a place for those who died guilty of milder sins. These would be examined and purged in a transitory fire—over which the Church on Earth had authority.
It was a small leap from here to pray to the dead—to outstanding saints who could act as patrons for the living.
Among the prominent churchmen of these times were Bede, Alcuin, Isidore of Spain and Boniface—all of whom helped define orthodoxy (generally approved universal doctrines) in the Latin West.
Isidore (560-636) was Archbishop of Seville over 30 years. He was known as the most learned man of his age and is known today as the "last scholar of the ancient world." Isidore was the first Christian writer to create an encyclopedia of universal knowledge—which remained popular for 1000 years. In it he wrote that the Earth is round. Isidore said, "The Pope is the chief priest who appoints all other priests."
Bede (672-735) was a monk, scholar, author, and only Englishman ever named a "Doctor of the Church." He is also known as the "Father of English History." Bede called St Peter "patron of the entire Church" and "first pastor of the Church" as well as "prince of the apostles." He said, "The primacy was given to Peter for the purpose of commending the unity of the Church" and "The Lord commanded St Peter to take care of His entire flock, that is, of the Church."
Boniface (672-754) was also from England. He is the Patron Saint of Germany, and known as the "Apostle to the Germans." Boniface said, "God descended to men, so that men might be able by obedience to ascend to God" and "The righteousness of the believer is not a state that is reached, but a process of growth."
Alcuin (735-804) was yet another Englishman. He was a scholar, poet and abbot, but is most famous for becoming the teacher of Charlemagne, his family, and his court. Alcuin defined orthodoxy as "introducing nothing novel" meaning nothing not found in Scripture and in the writings of the Church Fathers. He defined heretics as "those who take pleasure in making up new terminologies for themselves and who are not content with the dogma of the holy fathers." Alcuin announced, "We take our stand firmly within the borders of the apostolic doctrine and of the Holy Roman Church, following their established authority."
The Church in the Greek East
By the 7th century, linguistical barriers, liturgical (public worship rituals) differences, and political divisions had isolated the culture, mind and spirit of the Greek Eastern Church from those in the West. Catholic orthodoxy in the East had its own identity, doctrines, and theology. There were some in the Greek East who felt that their Church had a special destiny, illuminated by the rising sun. Christ had come and will come from the East; the Garden of Eden was in the East; the Christian Church began in the East; Abraham came from the East; Israel was in the East; the Magi had come from the East; Orthodox Greeks prayed facing East. More importantly, all Christian dogma and liturgy had its origin in the East; and most importantly: the New Testament was written in Greek, which was considered a superior language for precise expression of the conceptual distinctions of theology.
Maximus Confessor (580-662) was a giant among Eastern theologians, and has been described by historians as the "Father of Byzantine Theology." His principle idea was the doctrine of deification, as the theme of the Christian faith.
Maximus said, "The purpose of the Lord becoming man was our salvation." He taught that the dogmas of the Church were divinely revealed truth, and as such were changeless. "The word of truth is such that it is uniform and unshakable by its very nature, and it cannot be subjected to differences of viewpoint or to temporal changes. It is always the same, teaching and advocating the same thing, because it transcends all addition and subtraction." Maximus added that a heretic was a "discoverer of novel dogmas." While persons must be forgiven if repentant of following false doctrines through ignorance, as is required by the gospel; forgiveness is prohibited to those who are false teachers.
Scripture is the supreme authority of Christian doctrine. The foundation of faith was the authority of the apostles. The apostle Paul was considered the greatest of these in the Eastern Church. The understanding of spiritual matters was best left to those who dealt with the word of God "mystically" and this gift of discernment was given only to those "worthy" of the Holy Spirit. The apostles had instructed their successors, and these had instructed their successors. Heresies lacked the authority of Scripture and the Church Fathers. Orthodoxy was "in accord with Scripture and the tradition of Church Fathers." The authority of Scripture, therefore, was the authority of Scripture properly interpreted, in harmony with the Church Fathers. "We do not invent new formulas, but we confess the statements of the fathers." All that was orthodox had to be apostolic. Anyone who contradicted this was to be excommunicated.
Maximus taught that man was only able to perceive that God is, not what God is. God was to be worshipped not on the basis of what He is—as this is unknowable—but for the magnificence of His handiwork; providence for His creation; and His loving-kindness toward humankind. Theology is not a science but a divine revelation. When speaking about God one should be careful to stick to the revelation of Him.
The council of Constantinople (681) made orthodox the doctrine that Jesus had both human will and divine will—but that the two wills never conflicted with each other. This is similar to the Trinity, which is, that there is one God who has three distinct manifestations of Himself—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. All three are the same in their will and essence, but each is distinguished by special properties and functions. Christ was one person but both human and divine. Thus the divine Christ came to dwell in the flesh and walk the Earth. These are mysteries that cannot be fully grasped or explained by humans. Therefore, for Christians to question revelation because we can't grasp it in relation to our experiences in this temporal world, is not proper. These are matters to be accepted by faith, not matters of which to demand empirical evidence.
Salvation was achieved through this union of the human and the divine in Christ—and by this union in believers, who are flesh inhabited by the Holy Spirit. "The Savior, as man, had a will belonging to His human nature in sublime conformity to His divine will and to that of His Father," said Maximus. His human will was completely subject to His divine will; yet when He was hungry or thirsty, it was His human will that desired food or drink, which His divine nature did not need. Jesus carried out divine actions in a bodily way and human actions in a divine way. I would think we should strive to the same.
John of Damascus (676-749) was another towering figure in the Eastern Church. He was an Arab Christian monk and priest, who was an expert in theology, philosophy, law, and even music. His hymns are still in use today in Orthodox monasteries around the world. John said, "If Christ had not been capable of being sad, he would not have liberated human nature from sadness." We were saved by the God-man, fully divine and fully human and altogether one. The eternal Son, begotten by the Father, died for us not in His divine nature but in His human nature. For the divine was and is incapable of suffering or death. Perfect God became perfect man. The difference between His humanity and ours was that His was free of sin in its origin and in its life. Christ "Keeps the characteristic and distinctive property of the divine Sonship of God, by which He is distinguished from the Father and the Spirit. He also has, according to the flesh, characteristic and distinctive properties distinguishing Him from His mother and from all other human beings."
John may have been even more influential in the West, since his writings were among the few of the Greek fathers that were translated into Latin during the Dark Ages.
By the year 800 AD, fasts and feasts were imposed by law throughout Christendom. The feasts were multitudinous, celebrating important events in the lives of Jesus, Mary and the saints. These were made festive for hungry peasants by the fact that the Church or the king would supply the food and drink. Whatever pagan holidays and rituals that had not been extinguished were simply usurped by the Church. The Church baptized you, married you, and buried you (hatch, match and dispatch). The Church was at the center of life.
By this time the Church demanded universal membership for those who wished to be included in the political, business, and social community. There was little regard for individualism, or individual rights. Church and state were decidedly intermingled. To be a heretic was to be a traitor. Churches were, without exception, the tallest buildings in every town. The Mass had evolved into a mysterious ceremony of music, incense, relics, vestments, and Holy Communion. Preaching declined and few understood the language anyway. So, it was icons (sacred art) that provided most of the teaching to the peasants. The only way to be saved from the fiery furnace of Hell was to stay in the good graces of the Church. Through the sacramental mystery of baptism, believers became members of the holy Church, worthy of forgiveness, united to the holy Catholic Church, in the chosen flock.
The most interesting story of these two centuries was the battle over icons in the Eastern Church. I wrote of it as part of this article, but it made this piece too long. I deleted that entire section (what was 1/3 of this article) and published it by itself as Orthodox Icons.