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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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CHRISTIANITY . When the name ‘Christian’ (see preceding art.) had come to be the specific designation of a follower of Jesus Christ, it was inevitable that the word ‘Christianity’ should sooner or later be used to denote the faith which Christians profess. The word does not occur in the NT, however, and first makes its appearance in the letters of Ignatius early in the 2nd century. But for 1800 years it has been the regular term for the religion which claims Jesus Christ as its founder, and recognizes in His Person and work the sum and substance of its beliefs.

Christianity presents itself to us under two aspects objective and subjective, past and present, world-historical and personal. It is a great fact of universal history, but also a truth of personal experience. It is a revelation given from above, but also an appropriation effected from within. We must think of it therefore (1) as it was historically revealed to the world; (2) as it is realized in the life of the individual.

I. Christianity as a Historical Revelation . In dealing with this part of the subject two opposite mistakes must be avoided. (1) First the mistake of those who confound history with dogma, principles with institutions, and read back into Christianity as a Divine revelation the later creeds and rites and orders of the Church. It was inevitable that the Christian religion in the course of its history should clothe itself in outward forms, but it is not to be identified with the forms it has assumed. In dealing with the subject, we are limited, of course, by the plan of this work, to the Biblical material. But apart from that, the view taken in the present article is that, in seeking to discover Christianity in its essential nature, we must accept the NT as our authority and norm, inasmuch as there alone we find the historical record of the life and self-witness of Jesus Christ, and also the writings of that Apostolic group which moved in the immediate light of His manifestation as that was given not only in His life on earth, but in His death and resurrection and their extraordinary spiritual results.

(2) On the other hand, we must avoid the error of those who, when they insist on going ‘back to Christ,’ and demand the substitution of the Christ of history for the Christ of dogma, assume that nothing that is supernatural can he historical, and that the Christ whom we find in the NT the Christ of the Incarnation and the Resurrection and the Atonement, the Christ who wrought miracles and claimed to be the Son of God, and was so accepted by those who had known Him in the flesh and subsequently knew Him in the Spirit is not the Jesus of history at all. To this it can only be said here that the reality of alleged supernatural facts, like the reality of any other alleged facts, depends upon the evidence, and is not to be ruled out by any presuppositions. Further, that while from the nature of the case there is a difference between the teaching of Jesus during His earthly ministry and the teaching of the Apostles regarding the risen Christ, the evidence of our Lord’s own consciousness and history, even as we find it in the Synoptic Gospels, points to the correctness of the Apostolic conclusions about Him. We therefore hold that whatever Christianity is, it is not what certain modern writers describe as ‘the religion of Jesus,’ but something very different; and that as it is not to be confounded with churchly dogmas and institutions, it is just as little to be identified with an ethical theism based on the beauty of Christ’s character and the pure precepts of His Sermon on the Mount. The men who were first called Christians (Acts 11:26 ) had never seen Jesus or listened to His teaching, and the gospel that laid its grasp upon them and won for them this distinctive name was neither a hare repetition of the Master’s teaching nor a mere exhibition of His perfect life. On the contrary, it was such a gospel as meets us in the Epistles of St. Paul and the sermons reported in Acts the gospel of One who not only lived a spotless life and spake as never man spake, but died for our sins and was raised again for our justification, and was thereby declared to be the Son of God with power. It is in accordance, therefore, with the original application of the name ‘Christian’ that in seeking for the meaning of the word ‘Christianity’ we should make full use of the Apostolic testimony regarding Christ.

1. As a religion appearing in history, Christianity had its historical relations and its historical roots . ( a ) It was related to all the old ethnic faiths , and to every religious experience of vision and longing, of striving and despair, that the soul of man had ever known. The modern study of Comparative Religion is enabling us to realize this as it has never been realized before; but the NT makes the general truth perfectly plain. God speaks to man in the visible world ( Romans 1:20 ), He writes His law on the natural heart ( Romans 2:15 ), He never leaves Himself without witness ( Acts 14:17 ). And on their part men grope through the darkness after God ( Acts 17:27 ), being dimly conscious of the truth that they are also His offspring ( Acts 17:28 ). And so when Christ comes, He comes not only as the Light of the world ( John 8:12 ), but as the true Light which Iighteth every man that cometh into it ( John 1:9 ) a statement which implies that even apart from His historical manifestation in Judæa, the heavenly Christ was the Light and Life of all men, and that there is a sense in which a soul may be ‘naturally Christian’ as Tertullian said.

( b ) But while Christianity was and is related to all the ethnic faiths, it was deeply rooted in the soil of the OT . In the pagan religions we find many anticipations of Christianity, but in Judaism there is a definite and Divine preparation for it. Law and prophecy, priesthood and sacrifice all contributed directly to this result. St. Paul declares that ‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ’ ( Galatians 3:24 ). The Evangelists draw attention again and again to the fact, so evident to every discerning reader of Scripture, that the prophets were heralds of the Christ who was to come. The author of Hebrews shows us that the ministries of Tabernacle and Temple were examples and shadows of Christ’s heavenly Priesthood. In the Fourth Gospel we find Jesus Himself affirming that ‘salvation is of the Jews’ ( John 4:22 ); and in that very sermon in which He sets forth the manifesto of His own Kingdom, He proclaims that He came to fulfil and not to destroy the Law and the Prophets of Israel ( Matthew 5:17 ).

2. But notwithstanding its historical connexions with the past, Christianity was a religion absolutely new . The pagan faiths, so far from explaining its origin, serve rather to reveal the world’s great need of it. St. Paul seized on this truth when he saw in the altar at Athens inscribed ‘To an Unknown God,’ an unconscious appeal to the Christian missionary to declare the God and Father of Jesus Christ ( Acts 17:22 ff.). And even Judaism no more accounts for Christianity than the soil accounts for the mighty tree which springs out of it. While carefully relating Himself to Judaism, Jesus no less carefully discriminated between the permanent and the passing in its institutions. He claimed the right not only to give a fresh reading of its ancient laws ( Matthew 5:21 ff., Matthew 5:27 ff.), but even to abrogate certain laws altogether ( Matthew 5:33 ff., Matthew 5:38 ff., Matthew 5:43 ff.). He set Himself not merely above ‘them of old time’ ( Matthew 5:1-48 passim ), but above Moses ( Matthew 19:7 ff. ||, Matthew 22:24 ff. ||, John 6:32 ff.) and Solomon ( Matthew 12:42 ||), Abraham ( John 8:53 ff.) and David ( Matthew 22:41 ff. ||). It was this freedom of Jesus in dealing with the old religion that astonished His hearers: ‘He taught them as having authority, and not as their scribes’ ( Matthew 7:28 f.). Moreover, His attitude of independence towards Judaism is illustrated by the opposition of the Jewish leaders to Himself. His condemnation and crucifixion is the standing proof that He and His religion did not grow out of Judaism by any process of natural evolution. St. Paul sets the immense difference between the two faiths in the clearest light by his contrast, so fully worked out in Rom. and Gal., between the Law of Moses and the grace of Christ. And very soon in the history of the early Church there came that inevitable crisis which decided that though Judaism had been the cradle of Christianity, it was not to be its nursing-mother (cf. Fairbairn, Christ in Modern Theology , p. 52); that Christianity was not a mere spiritualized Judaism, but a new and universal religion recognizing no distinction between Jew and Greek, circumcision and uncircumcision, and seeing in Christ Himself the ‘all in all.’

3. When, with the NT as our guide, we seek for the essential features of objective Christianity, the following characteristics present themselves:

( a ) It is a revelation of God through the life and in the Person of Jesus Christ . Upon this the vast majority of those who call themselves Christians are practically agreed. ‘God was in Christ’ ( 2 Corinthians 5:19 ); and in the human face of Jesus there so shone the brightness of the Eternal Glory ( 2 Corinthians 4:6 ) that he that hath seen Him hath seen the Father ( John 14:9 ). In His teaching Jesus revealed God to us as our Father in heaven; in His own tenderness and pity and boundless love for men He showed us what the heavenly Fatherhood really means. And so, as we read the Gospels, the assurance grows that in looking on the face of Jesus Christ we are seeing right into the heart of the invisible God.

There are those, however, who, while fully admitting all this, yet hesitate to recognize in the historical Jesus a personal revelation of the Divine nature in human form. For them Jesus as the Revealer has the worth of God without being Himself God. But this is not the Christ who is presented to us in the NT; and if we fall short of the NT view of Christ, our Christianity will not be the Christianity of the NT. If, on the other hand, we take the Gospels and Epistles as our authorities, we must hold upon their evidence not only that ‘God was in Christ,’ but that He so dwelt in Christ that Christ Himself was God; and that historical Christianity is nothing less than an immediate revelation of the Divine nature through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

( b ) Christianity is the religion not only of the revelation of God but of the redemption of man . The paganism that reared altars to an unknown God proved impotent to redeem human life from the dominion of evil (see Romans 1:21 ff.), while the visions of the Divine that came to true Israelites only made them more deeply conscious of their sin and need (cf. Isaiah 6:5 ). The purpose of Jesus is announced in His very name; He came ‘to save his people from their sins’ ( Matthew 1:21 ). His own testimony runs: ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost’ ( Luke 19:10 ). St. Paul sets Christ before us as the Divine Reconciler and Redeemer. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself ( 2 Corinthians 5:19 , cf. Romans 5:10 ); He sent forth His Son that we might have redemption through His blood, and might receive the adoption of sons ( Galatians 4:4-5 , Ephesians 1:7 ). And it is the witness of the whole NT that Christ accomplished His work of seeking and saving, of reconciling and redeeming, by taking our sins upon Him, by suffering with men and for them, by dying at last on the cross the Just for the unjust, by rising from the dead and sitting down at God’s right hand to dispense those spiritual gifts and powers whereby we are enabled to overcome the world.

( c ) It follows from what has just been said that Christianity is the religion of perfected character . Whatever may be the case with other faiths, Christianity permits of no divorce between religion and morality. It is not from the pains of sin merely that Jesus comes to redeem us, but from sin itself. In keeping with this He sets up an ideal standard of personal attainment ‘Ye shall be perfect,’ He says, ‘as your heavenly Father is perfect’ ( Matthew 5:48 ). Unlike the religions of the pagan world, Judaism was based upon a moral law of wonderful purity and breadth. But the law which Jesus gave and which His Apostles enforced is broader and loftier beyond comparison a law for heart and mind as well as for the outward life, forbidding unreasonable anger equally with murder ( Matthew 5:21 ff.), and unholy desire no less than adultery ( Matthew 5:27 f.). Moreover, Christ not only enjoined this heavenly standard of character, but exemplified it personally. It is not a theoretical ideal that He sets before us, but one that has been realized in a human life. The ethics of Jesus are the ethics of His own example; ‘the mind of Christ’ is the Christian’s indwelling law ( Philippians 2:5 ).

( d ) Christianity is the religion of a regenerated society . It has the promise not of personal perfection only, but of the establishment of a Society pure, blessed, and world-wide. ‘The kingdom’ was the characteristic word of Jesus in proclaiming His message; and so both Mt. and Mk. describe His gospel as ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ ( Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35 , Mark 1:14 ). And as the rule of a Divine King is the first implication of the word, the second is the harmonious relation of the subjects of the Kingdom to one another. Love is the rule of the Kingdom ( Matthew 5:43 ff. ||, John 13:34; John 15:12; John 15:17 ); and love from its very nature is the fulfilling of all social law ( Romans 13:8; Romans 13:10 , Galatians 5:14 ). The Church which Christ established is the organization of this social Kingdom for moral and religious ends ( Matthew 16:18 f., Matthew 18:17 ). And when Christ’s people shall have been joined together in a perfect harmony of brotherly love and mutual co-operation, even as they are severally joined to Him who is their Head ( Romans 12:5 , 1 Corinthians 12:27 , Ephesians 1:22 f., Ephesians 4:15 f., Ephesians 5:23 ), there will come the realization of that perfect Society which is variously shadowed forth in the NT under the figures of a Kingdom from which there have been cast forth all things that cause stumbling ( Matthew 13:41 ), a glorious Church without spot or wrinkle or any such thing ( Ephesians 5:27 ), a Holy City, the New Jerusalem, ‘descending out of heaven from God’ ( Revelation 21:10 f.).

II. Christianity as a Personal Experience . Christianity is not only a revelation in history, but a reality of personal life. Without Christians there would be no Christianity. What is it then that constitutes men Christians, and so translates the historical fact of the revelation of Jesus Christ into the religion which has lived through the centuries and surrounds us to-day?

1. Here faith is the fundamental thing. Just as Christianity, regarded as a historical revelation, may all be summed up in the fact of Christ, so, when it is considered as a personal reality, it may all be included in the faith that lays hold of and appropriates Christ. The whole effort of Jesus during His earthly ministry was directed to this end to secure faith in Himself. And when His death and resurrection and the experiences of Pentecost had revealed Him to His followers in His fuller glory, faith in Christ crucified and risen became the first demand of the Christian preacher ( Acts 2:36 ff; Acts 3:15 f., Acts 8:37 , Acts 11:20 f., Acts 13:38 f. etc.). So much was this the case, that before the disciples were called ‘Christians’ they were called ‘believers’ ( Acts 5:14; Acts 10:45; Acts 16:1 , 1 Timothy 4:12 ), while others were distinguished from them as unbelievers ( Acts 14:2 , 1 Corinthians 6:8 and passim ). And as Christ had shown Himself to be not the revealer of the Father only, but the bringer of redemption to sinful men, faith in Him came to mean specifically trust in Him as One who was able to meet the sinner’s greatest need the need of redemption from sin. So St. Peter called upon the Jews in Jerusalem to repent and be baptized ‘in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of sins’ ( Acts 2:38 ). So St. Paul in like manner, when the Philippian jailor cried out in the night, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ replied, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved’ ( Acts 16:30-31 ) words which contain in brief the essence of the Apostolic testimony as to the way of salvation. And when we would learn from the NT how the Christianity of those who have trusted in Christ is to live and increase and be perfected, we find that it is faith again, still clinging to Christ, that is the vital principle of the life which faith has begun. Through faith Christ dwells in our hearts ( Ephesians 3:17 ). This is the secret of that abiding in Christ which secures His abiding in us ( John 15:4 ), and results in the fruitfulness that makes us worthy to be called His disciples ( John 15:8 ).

2. The next principle of the Christian life is obedience . Between faith and obedience there is no opposition any more than between the roots of a tree and its fruits and flowers. And yet, in the one case as in the other, the secret spring of life and its outward manifestations may be distinguished and separately considered. The root of Christianity, as we have seen, is the religious principle of faith; but from that root there grows an ethical practice bringing life into conformity with all Divine laws. The actual conduct of professedly Christian people has always served as the world’s rough test of Christianity. As applied by the world, it is a rude, imperfect test; for the obedience wrought by faith is a product far too fine and subtle to be fully judged by ‘the world’s coarse thumb and finger.’ The law by which a Christian walks is a law that it needs a Christian mind to appreciate. But though often roughly applied, the test of obedience to God is an unfailing gauge of what claims to be Christianity. It was Christ Himself who said, ‘Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven’ ( Matthew 7:20-21 ).

3. The third great principle is love . For Christianity is social as well as ethical and religious. It is a Divine Kingdom whose subjects stand in a definite relation not only to their King but to all their fellows. Now love is the proper attitude of every Christian to all those of whatsoever name for whom Christ died; and love binds men together as they are bound by nothing else. Even worldly kingdoms are beginning to learn, through the gradual infiltration of Christian ideas into the general mind, that neither force nor mutual self-interest is the true bond of society, but the brotherhood of love. How to produce and secure such brotherhood remains the difficulty for the statesmen of the world. But Jesus, who first gave clear utterance to this great social law, also furnished the sufficient motive for giving effect to it within His own Kingdom. His love to them inspires His disciples to love one another ( John 13:34; John 15:12 ), and also to love all men after the example of the Divine ‘philanthropy’ ( Matthew 5:43 ff. ||; cf. Titus 3:4 , Romans 5:8 ). And so the faith in Christ which in the ethical sphere blossoms into obedience to God, fills the social sphere with the bloom and fragrance of a universal love to man. Thus once more we are brought back to Him who is at once the object of Christian faith and its ‘leader and perfecter’ ( Hebrews 12:2 ). And whether we think of Christianity as revealed or realized, as a historical manifestation of the Divine or a present human experience, we may justly say that it is all comprehended in Jesus Christ Himself.

J. C. Lambert.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Christianity'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​c/christianity.html. 1909.
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