The Christian religion is not a single nor monolithic entity, but a cascade of divergent segments with great differences, even contradictions, between them. Christianity is anything but a smooth transition from a New Testament source to modern denominations. There have been serious disconnects from the Apostolic age through today.
On one hand, if there was any legitimacy to the founding of the Roman Catholic Church, then the subsequent rebellion of, and excommunication by Rome of the Reformation founders renders Protestant Christianity powerless to save. And on the other hand, if the Protestant Reformation was justified by the wickedness and apostasy of Rome, then the Roman Catholic Church forfeited their right to claim to be Christ’s one-true-church. If Rome made herself a harlot by selling indulgences or forgiveness of sins, then the Protestant daughters are children of that harlot and hardly able to claim authority derived from Christ’s ordination of apostles. Modern Evangelicals would be regarded as heretical and either forcibly converted or killed in the first fifteen-hundred years of “Christianity.”
If the divergent Christian positions asserted by various Christian sects are taken at face value, then within the billions who have believed in some form of Historical Christianity almost all will be damned because they have failed to believe in the “correct” version offered by competing groups. Because of the divisions between denominations, most believers are unwilling to consider the views held by others who practice a very different form of Christianity than themselves. Members of each Christian denomination believe that they practice the only true or correct form of Christianity, of which Jesus Christ approves. However, the divisional creeds of Christianity are largely the result of institutions who maintain loyalty from their parishioners by denouncing every other brand of Christianity as false, incomplete, or devil-inspired. Further, Christians are criticized by leaders of churches when they are willing to consider “heretical” ideas that cross boundaries of Catholic, Protestant, Jehovah’s Witness, Salvation Army, Evangelical, or Mormon. Such present day dynamics ought to lead every Christian into a more open dialogue about the history and present status of Christianity, and also cause them to carefully consider all that claims to be part of the broad expanse of “Christianity.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO CHRISTIANITY?
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
MAJOR PERIODS IN CHRISTIAN HISTORY
The Apostolic Age
This began at 33 a.d., and lasted until shortly ater 100 a.d. Christ originally sent twelve messengers to spread the news about Him. They organized congregations of believers throughout the Mediterranean World, the Indian sub-continent and beyond. These were diverse bodies of believers, and depending on which of the twelve organized them, reflected different priorities. But they were all “Christian” and all followed Christ’s teachings. During this time, the body of scripture used by the Christians consisted of the Hebrew Old Testament, primarily the Septuagint. The leading figures knew or met Christ, and spread their testimony of Him. Paul was a towering figure, writing two-thirds of the letters which would later become “books” in a new addition to scripture, The New Testament.
The Ante-Nicene Period
This began shortly after 100 a.d., and lasted until the Council at Nicaea in 325 a.d. Justin Martyr lived from 110-165 a.d. and wrote in this “sub-apostolic” period. His writings give a glimpse into how Christianity functioned in its earliest days. In his First Apology, he provides a description of Christian worship. They met in homes, having no church buildings. Before being considered a Christian, a candidate was baptized “in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” 2 Meetings began with a prayer and “saluting one another with a kiss.” Then sacrament is prepared and administered using bread a “cup of wine mixed with water” which is blessed by “giving praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.” 3
The early Christians recognized there was an obligation for “the wealthy among us [to] help the needy.” Therefore, after reading scripture and “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets” donations were collected. “And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want.” 4 The reference to the “president” is to the one who conducted the meeting that week.
These simple observances were resilient enough to preserve Christianity after the death of the apostles and before any great hierarchical magisterium arose. It was the power of baptism, the sacrament, scripture study, and financial aid among believers that gave Christianity its power. But it was diffused, and therefore incapable of destruction. When Justin Martyr was slain, the scattered Christians continued unaffected. It was just like when Peter and Paul were slain, and before them, James
was killed. The power of Christianity reckoned from the vitality of its original roots. These roots were in Christ, His message, and teachings, which were employed to relieve one another by the alms shared from rich to poor.
During this period, the testimonies of the Apostolic Fathers were collected and began to be regarded as scripture. By the 300s these writings were respected, but they would not acquire an official status as a “New Testament” canon until the council of Trullan in 692 a.d.
2) First Apology, Chapter LXI: Christian Baptism.
3) Ibid., Chapter LXV: Administration of the Sacraments.
4) Ibid., Chapter LXVII: Weekly Worship of the Christians.
Early Christianity included diverse and sometimes conflicting groups, all calling themselves “Christian.” But conflicts grew in intensity over the centuries that followed. When the Roman Emperor Constantine saw the value in adopting Christianity, he did not realize Christianity was internally fighting over fundamental beliefs. Accordingly, in 324 a.d. Constantine forced an agreement among Christian leaders in Nicaea. The result was the Nicene Creed. This creed marked the beginning of a new era referred to as Historic Christianity. The consolidation of Christianity into a universal, or catholic, tradition followed Constantine’s decision to make it the state religion of Rome. Though splinters remained, the state religion used coercion against the unorthodox groups, and did its best to kill of other versions.
In 1054 a.d., a split between Rome and Constantinople resulted in the division of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Christian Church, respectively. The division remains today, almost a millennium later. When they parted company, they also parted in beliefs, practices, and claims to authority. The Orthodox tradition prized the vision of God, mystic, or gnostic knowledge as superior, while Rome prized rational theology, reason, and philosophical knowledge, trusting it as the superior route to truth.
The Great Schism
In 1517 a.d., Martin Luther posted a list of 95 abuses the Roman Catholic Church was practicing (known as “The 95 Theses”) which led to his excommunication in 1521 and ultimately to a rebellion in Germany against Roman Christian hegemony. Although he did not intend to found a church, the Lutheran Church claims Martin Luther as its founder. Among other things, the Roman Catholic monopoly on possession of and reading scripture was overthrown by Luther when he translated the New
Testament into the common language. The movable type press, invented by Johannes Guttenburg in 1440 a.d., made widespread printing and distribution of the scriptures possible. It was the alignment of Luther’s religious rebellion, the availability of the printing press, and Germany’s desire for independence from Rome that allowed the Protestant Reformation to begin.
Living at the same time as Luther, John Calvin aided in the Protestant fires against Rome. Luther and Calvin initially agreed with each other, but fell into disagreement over the interpretation of the Eucharist. John Knox also lived at the same time, and led the reformation in Scotland. He is credited as founder of the Presbyterian Church. He was troubled over the authority given a woman king by Catholic Bishops and questioned the “divine right” to rule in those circumstances. He wondered at the duty to serve and obey an idolatrous sovereign, asking John Calvin to counsel him on these topics.
Much of the Protestant Reformation grew out of the abuses inherent in combining church and state. When a state religion claims it is true and approved of God, then anything resisting the state religion is by definition both false and in rebellion against God. It was easy for “Christianity” to torture, kill, imprison, and abuse their victim-proselytes for more than a millennium. That was part of governing. What began with Martin Luther, has continued to divide and multiply Christian denominations with different groups placing different emphases on parts of the New Testament.
One of the most recent Christian developments is the innovation dubbed “Evangelical Christianity” which began in the 19th Century. Credited with laying the foundation for this innovation are John Wesley,
George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. Billy Graham made it spread internationally.