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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
CHRISTIANITY is the name given to the religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth, which is professed by more than one-fourth of the human race, including the foremost nations of the world. As an abstract name for a fully developed religion, it was not, and could not be, in use from the beginning. Only gradually, as the Christian community reached self-consciousness, and more especially as need arose from without of distinguishing its adherents from those of other religions, was a distinctive name adopted.
It is not the object of this article to sketch in outline the history of Christianity, to rehearse its doctrines, describe its triumphs, or vindicate its claims. But in a Dictionary of this kind it seems desirable to inquire into (1) the history of the name itself; (2) the proper connotation of the name and the best mode of ascertaining it; hence (3) the significance of the changes which have passed over Christianity in the process of its development; and (4) the essential character of the religion named after Christ and portrayed in the Gospels.
i. History of the name.—This is fully discussed in the preceding article.
ii. Connotation of the name.—The difficulties which arise when we attempt to mark out the correct connotation of the word are obvious, and the reason why some of them are insuperable is not far to seek. A definition should be simple, comprehensive, accurate; whereas Christianity is a complex multiform phenomenon, one which it is impossible to survey from all sides at the same time, and accuracy cannot be attained when a word is employed in many different senses, and when that which is to be defined is regarded from so many subjective, diversified, and sometimes incompatible points of view. The essence of a great historical religion—with a record extending over some two thousand years, taking different shapes in many diverse nationalities, itself developing and altering its hue and character, if not its substance, in successive generations—cannot easily be summed up in a sentence. Whilst, if an attempt be made to describe that element of permanent vitality and validity in the religion which has remained the same through ages of growth, unaltered amidst the widest external and internal modifications and changes, the character of such a description obviously depends upon the viewpoint of the observer.
A religion may be viewed from without or from within, and an estimate made accordingly either of its institutions and formularies and ceremonies, or of its dominant ideas and prevailing principles. To the Roman Catholic—who represents the most widely spread and influential of the sections of modern Christianity—its essence consists in submission to the authority of a supernaturally endowed Church, to which, with the Pope at its head, the power has been committed by Christ of infallibly determining the Christian creed, and of finally directing Christian life and worship in all its details. The Catholic Church, according to Möhler and the modern school, is a prolongation of the Incarnation. To the Orthodox Church of the East, the paramount claim of the community on the allegiance of the faithful depends on its having preserved with purity and precision the formal creed, fixed more than a thousand years ago, from which, it is alleged, all other Christians have more or less seriously departed. The Protestant regards his religion from an entirely different standpoint. He may be of the ‘evangelical’ type, in which case he will probably define Christianity as the religion of those who have accepted the authority of an inspired and infallible Bible, and who trust for salvation to the merits of the death of Christ as their atoning Saviour. If he claims to be a ‘liberal’ Protestant, he will describe Christianity as a life, not a creed, and declare that all attempts to define belief concerning the Person of Christ and other details of Christian doctrine are so many mischievous restrictions, which only fetter the free thought and action of the truly emancipated followers of Jesus.
Under such circumstances, can any considerable measure of agreement as to the real essence of Christianity be reached, or a truly scientific definition be attained? The acceptance of the supernatural authority of a single community would put an end to all discussion, but those who appeal to such authority are not agreed amongst themselves. As an alternative, it has been usual of late to fall back on history as the sole possible arbiter. The historian can only recount with as much impartiality as possible the sequence of events in a long and chequered career, and leave the warring sects and parties to settle their differences as to what true Christianity is, without making any attempt to judge between them.
Both these methods—the purely dogmatic and the purely historical—virtually give up the problem. A better course than either may be adopted. The historical method must be employed at the outset; a careful induction must lay the basis for subsequent deduction and generalization. Christianity is an organism possessing a long and complex history, not yet finished. That life-history is better known and understood now than ever, from the upspringing of the earliest germ onwards, and the laws which have regulated its growth and the principles operating in its development, can be determined in broad outline by the scientific historian without much fear of contradiction. But the analogy between the growth of the Christian religion and that of an animal or vegetable organism in physical nature, fails in certain important respects. On the one hand, the growth of Christianity is not yet complete, the great consummation is as yet invisible. On the other, the origin of the religion of Christ cannot be compared with the deposit of a tiny and indeterminate and almost invisible germ. Before the period covered by the NT writings had passed, what may be called the formative and normative stage of the religion was complete. Sufficient advance had been made to enable any critical student to arrive at a standard by which the true character of subsequent developments may be judged. Criticism, for the purpose of determining the facts of history, must not be excluded from any scientific inquiry, as it virtually is by those who invoke the infallible authority of a Church or a Book. But, on the other hand, criticism must not be merely subjective and arbitrary, else religious truth is simply that which every man troweth, and Christianity nothing more than what individual Christians choose to think it. By a candid and careful comparison of the religion in its simplicity and purity with the various forms it has assumed in the course of centuries amongst various nations and races, an answer may be obtained to the question, What is Christianity? which is neither purely dogmatic on the one hand, nor purely empirical on the other. As Dr. Hort said of the Church, ‘The lesson-book of the Ecclesia is not a law-book but a history,’ so the history of Christianity becomes a lesson-book for all who would understand its real essence.
The question thus opened up is emphatically modern. As the name ‘Christian’ was not given till those outside the pale of the Church found it necessary to differentiate the believer in Christ from the adherent of other religions, so the need of a scientific definition of Christianity was never felt by faith, nor could one be formed, till the standpoint was occupied from which the young science of Comparative Religion has taken its rise. We have therefore to ask, What was precisely the nature of the religion founded by Christ as recorded in the Gospels and Epistles? Has it remained in substance the same without fundamental change? If, as is obvious, it has markedly altered during a long period of growth and expansion, has its development been legitimate or illegitimate? That is, has the original type been steadfastly maintained, or has it been seriously perverted? Is a norm fairly ascertainable and a return to type from time to time possible?
iii. Changes in Christianity in the course of its development.—During the lifetime of Jesus, discipleship was largely of the nature of personal attachment; it implied confidence created by the teaching, the character, and the works of the Master. Even during this period, however, not only was there room for reflexion and inquiry to arise, but eager inquiry was inevitable. The appearance of a unique personality who spoke as no other man spoke and wrought works such as none other man did, irresistibly suggested the question, ‘Who art thou, what sayest thou of thyself?’ Jesus Himself occasionally prompted such inquiry, and was not satisfied with an undefined loyalty. Once, at least, He pointedly asked His disciples, ‘Who say ye that I am?’ (Matthew 16:15). Again and again in the course of His ministry a sifting took place, as the Master made more exacting demands upon the allegiance of His followers, and showed that a cleavage must take place between those who really understood the drift of His teaching and were prepared at all costs to obey it, and those who did not. The tests which were applied were for the most part practical in their character, ‘Whosoever doth not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:27). But the ‘offences’ which caused many to forsake Him as a teacher were often occasioned by His departure from traditional and familiar teaching, His assertion of superiority to the highest Jewish law (Matthew 5:21-48), and His claims to a unique knowledge of the Father (Matthew 11:27) and such a relation to Him, that His disciples were called on to believe not only the words that He spoke, but in Himself. Christ’s ministry ended, however,—and, considering its brief and tragic character, it was bound to end,—without any clearly formulated answer to the question as to what constituted true discipleship, and how His followers were to be permanently distinguished from the rest of their nation and the world.
The question now arises, whether the normative period of the religion ends with the death of Christ, May it be said that when His life is over, the work of the prophet of Nazareth is complete, His words have all been spoken, His religion propounded—it remains that His followers obey His teaching? This position has often been taken, and is usually adopted by those who reject the supernatural element in Christianity. Lessing is the father of those who in modern times think it desirable to return from ‘the Christian religion’ to ‘the religion of Jesus.’ Harnack on the whole favours this view, as when he urges that ‘the Gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, has to do with the Father only, and not with the Son’; or again, that it is ‘the Fatherhood of God applied to the whole of life—an inner union with God’s will and God’s kingdom, and a joyous certainty of the possession of eternal blessings and protection from evil.’ But he elsewhere rightly admits that ‘a complete answer to the question, What is Christianity? is impossible so long as we are restricted to Jesus Christ’s teaching alone.’ The more powerful a personality is, ‘the less can the sum-total of what he is be known only by what he himself says and does’; we must therefore include in our estimate the effects produced in his followers and the views taken by men of his work. See art. Back to Christ.
Further, if the miracles of Christ, and especially the great miracle of His Resurrection, be accepted, the whole point of view is changed. The disciples, during the short period of His ministry, were slow and dull scholars; only after the outpouring of the Spirit were they able to understand who their Master was and what He had done. Hence the Church with a true instinct included the Acts and the Epistles in the Canon, as well as the Gospels, and to the whole of these documents we must turn if we would understand what ‘Christianity’ meant to the Apostles and the first generation or two of those who followed Christ. Without entering into controversy such as would arise over exact definitions, we may say broadly that Christ became in thought, as He had always been in practice, the centre of His own religion. It circled round the Person, not so much of the Father as of the Son, yet the Son as revealing the Father. Personal relation to Christ continued to be—what it had been in the days of His flesh, but more consciously and completely—the all-important feature in the new religion. Significance attached not so much to what Christ said—though the authority of His words was supreme and absolute—as to what He was and what He did. His death and resurrection were seen to possess a special significance for the religious life of the individual and the community, and thus from the time of St. Paul and the Apostles onwards, but not till then, the Christian religion was fairly complete in its outline and ready for promulgation in the world.
But it is clear that the real significance of some features in the new religion could be brought out only in the course of history. The first great crisis which tested the infant Church arose over the question whether Christianity was to be a reformed and spiritualized Judaism or a universal religion, for the whole world and for all time. The controversy recorded in Acts 15, aspects of which emerge so frequently in St. Paul’s letters, was fundamental and vital; the very existence of Christianity was at stake. It was chiefly to the Apostle Paul that the Church owed her hardly won freedom from the bonds of Jewish ceremonial law and the national and religious limitations identified with it. Henceforward in Christ was to be neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but He Himself was all and in all.
The next two changes are not so clearly definable, though they are hardly less important and far-reaching. They were never brought to a definite issue before a council or assembly, and they do not come within the limits of the NT period. None the less they were fundamental in their character. They concern respectively creed and practice, doctrine and organization. In the first flush of enthusiasm which belongs to the earliest stage of a religions movement, the emotional—which means very largely the motive or dynamical—element is both pure and powerful. Belief, worship, spontaneous fulfilment of a high ethical standard, religious assurance and confident triumph over the world—all seem to flow forth easily and naturally from the fresh springs of a new life. But, as man is now constituted, this happy condition cannot last very long. A stage succeeds in which the white-hot metal cools and must take hard and definite shape. Faith passes into a formulated creed, the spirit of free, spontaneous worship shrinks within the limits of reverently ordered forms, the general sense of brotherhood narrows down into the ordered relationships of a constituted society, charismatic gifts are exchanged for the privileges which belong to certain defined ranks and orders of clergy; and, when the whole process is over, whilst the religion may remain the same in appearance, and to a great extent in character, it is nevertheless seriously changed. In Christianity such processes of development were proceeding, gradually but on the whole rapidly, during the latter half of the 2nd and the opening of the 3rd century. By the middle of the 3rd century the transmutation was well-nigh complete.
If at this stage the question, What is Christianity? were asked, a twofold answer would be returned. So far as its intellectual aspects are concerned, the substance of the Christian faith is summed up in certain forms of words accepted and accounted orthodox by the Church. So far as external position and status are concerned, the test of a man’s Christianity lies in his association with a definitely constituted community known as the Church, possessing an organization of its own, which, with every decade, becomes more fixed and formal, less elastic in its constitution, and more exacting in its demands upon those who claim to be regarded as true Christians.
Such changes as these are in themselves not to be regarded as marking either an essential advance or a necessary retrogression. All depends on the way in which they are carried out. In human life, as we know it, they are inevitable. The mollusc must secrete its own shell if it is to live in the midst of a given environment. At the same time, in the history of a religion, such a process is critical in the extreme. The loss of enthusiasm and elasticity may be counterbalanced by increased consolidation, by the gain of a greater power of resisting attacks and retaining adherents. If the complaint is made that the expression of belief has become stiff and formal, the reply is obvious that genuine faith cannot long remain vague and indeterminate. The Christian must know what is implied in worshipping Christ as Lord, must learn the meaning of the baptismal formula, and must belong to a specific community, which for the sake of self-preservation must impose conditions of membership and translate abstract principles into definite codes and prescriptions. If a community is to exist in the presence of a hostile world, or to do its own work well as its numbers multiply, it must organize; and thus ecclesiastical orders, rules, and formulae inevitably arise.
But the mode in which such processes are carried out varies considerably. The formulation and consolidation may be inefficiently done, in which case the young community is in danger of falling to pieces like a rope of sand. Or the organization may be excessive, in which case formalism and fossilization set in. One of the chief dangers arises from the influx of unworthy or half-hearted members, those with whom religion is a tradition, not a living personal energy. ‘When those who have laid hold upon the faith as great spoil are joined by crowds of others who wrap it round them like an outer garment, a revolution always occurs.’ And especially when at such an epoch it is sought to define the essentials of a religion, there is the utmost danger lest secondary elements should be confused with the primary, lest an orthodox creed should be substituted for a living faith, and outward conformity with human prescriptions take the place of personal allegiance to a Divine and living Lord.
Whatever be thought of the way in which this all-important change was effected in the first instance,—that is to say, the transition from Christianity viewed as a life to Christianity viewed as a system of dogmatic belief and ecclesiastical organization,—few will deny that before long the alteration was so great that it may be said the religion itself was transformed. By the orthodox Roman Catholic this transformation is considered to be Divinely ordered; the process is regarded as one of steady advance and improvement—as a perfect child might pass into an equally admirable youth and man. According to Newman’s theory, the original germs of doctrine and worship were developed normally and legitimately as determined by the criteria he specifies—Preservation of type, Continuity of Principle, Power of assimilation, Logical sequence, and the rest. Loisy, who is severely critical of the documents of the NT, holds the same view of the development of an infallible Church. To the eyes of others the change effected between the 2nd and the 6th centuries appears to be one of gradual but steady degeneration. In their view a living religion has hardened into a technical theology, vital union with Christ has passed into submission to the ordinances of a fast deteriorating Church, and the happy fellowship of believers in a common salvation and the enjoyment of a new life has almost disappeared under the heavy bondage of ceremonial observances and ecclesiastical absolutism.
The substitution of the worship of the Virgin Mary as an intercessor with her Divine Son for reverent intercourse with Christ Himself; the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass by an officiating priest for the benefit of the living and the dead, instead of a simple observance of communion with Christ and fellow-disciples at the Lord’s Table; the obtaining of absolution only after private confession to a priest Divinely appointed to dispense it, in place of free and direct forgiveness granted to the penitent believer in Christ,—changes like these made in a religion are not slight and superficial. To some they represent a transition from crude infancy to vigorous maturity; to others they indicate deep-seated degeneration and the utter perversion of a pure and spiritual religious faith. An organism in process of growth depends upon its environment without, as well as its own living energies within. The history of the Christian Church does not present a complete parallel to this. No true Christian can believe either that it was left to a chance current of events, or that it was simply determined from without by natural causes. But the external factors which largely influenced the development of Christianity—Jewish beliefs and precedents, Greek philosophy and intellectual habitudes, Roman polity and law, the superstitious ideas and observances of paganism—must be taken into account by those who are studying the nature of the change which came over Christianity in the first thousand years of its history.
The point at issue in the 16th cent. between Roman Catholics and Protestants, one which still divides Christendom, concerned the real nature of this development. Had the growth of fifteen hundred years in doctrine, worship, and organization simply made explicit what was implicit in the New Testament; or were the accretions to the original faith excrescences, exaggerations, or more serious corruptions; and how was a line to be drawn between false and true? The Reformation was a protest against abuses which had become ingrained in Catholicism. The need of ‘reform in head and members’ had been felt and acknowledged long before, and only when repeated efforts to secure it peaceably had proved futile was it seen that a violent cataclysm like that brought about by Luther was necessary before effectual improvement could be attained. The Reformers claimed to be returning to original principles—to the New Testament instead of the Church; to justification by faith instead of salvation by baptism, absolution, and the Mass; and to direct acknowledgment of the Headship of Christ instead of blind submission to the edicts of His vicar upon earth. Luther, who had intended only to remove some obvious abuses which disfigured the creed and practice of the Church he loved, found himself cutting at the very roots of ecclesiastical authority and institutional religion. But, consciously or unconsciously, the movement of which he was partly the originator, partly the organ and servant, meant a resolute effort to return to the faith and spirit of primitive Christianity.
This effort was not final, of course. It is easy now to condemn Luther’s procedure as illogical and indefensible, to say that he should either have gone further or not so far. Doubtless the result of the conflict between Romanism and Protestantism in the 16th cent. was not ultimate: the issues raised by Luther went deeper than he intended, but they were not deep and far-reaching enough. To every generation and to every century its own task. But the whole Reformation movement showed that Christianity as a religion possessed remarkable recuperative power; that the organism could throw off a considerable portion of what seemed its very substance, not only without injury to its life, but with marvellous increase to its vigour; and that the essence of the religion did not lie where the Roman Catholic Church had sought to place it. Subsequent history has confirmed this. ‘Evangelical revivals,’ great missionary enterprises, remarkable extensions of the old religion in new lands and under new conditions, unexpected manifestations of new features and resuscitation of pristine energies, have during the last two or three centuries illustrated afresh the same power of recovery and spiritual reinforcement, and raised afresh the question as to what constitutes the essence of a religion which is so full of vitality and so capable of developing from within unanticipated and apparently inexhaustible energies. The Christianity of to-day embraces a multitude of systems and organizations, it includes most varied creeds and cults, it influences societies and civilizations that are worlds apart, and the question is perpetually recurring whether there be indeed one spirit and aim pervading the whole, and if so, where it lies and what it is.
This question becomes the more pressing when the future is contemplated. Many are prepared for still more striking developments in the 20th century. The spectacle of two or three great historical Churches on the one hand preserving the kind of stability which is gained by outward conformity to one doctrinal creed and ecclesiastical system, and, on the other, an almost endless diversity of sects and denominations, with a tendency to fissiparous multiplication—cannot represent the τέλος, the ideal, the goal of the Christian religion. Christianity cannot be identified with one Church, or with all the Churches. Whilst many of these are enfeebled by age, the religion itself is young with a perpetually renewed vigour, and not for centuries has it shown more certain signs of freshly budding energy. Each new age brings new problems. As they arise, the power and permanence of a religion are tested by its ability to grapple with and to solve them, and by its success or failure is it judged. The problems of the present and the near future are mainly social, and the complaint is freely made that Christianity has proved itself unable to cope with them. But the principles and capabilities of a religion cannot be gauged by those of its representatives and exponents at a particular epoch. The assailants of Christianity as it is are often the allies of Christianity as it should be and will be. History has too frequently suggested the question which the poet asks of the suffering Christ—‘Say, was not this Thy passion, to foreknow | In death’s worst hour the works of Christian men?’ What new regenerative influences, swaying the whole of society with wider and freer quickening power, will be developed in the 20th cent. none can tell. But the present state of Christendom, no less than a survey of two thousand years of history, is anew compelling men to inquire, What, then, is the essence of Christianity?
iv. Essential character of Christianity.—The interpretation of the facts thus hastily sketched appears to be this. Christianity in the concrete has been far from perfect, that is obvious; its serious and widespread corruptions have often proved a scandal and a stumbling-block. But neither has its history manifested a mere perversion of a great and noble ideal. Again and again in the darkest hour light has shone forth, and at the lowest ebb a new flood-tide of energy has arisen, making it possible to distinguish the real religion in its purity and power from its actual embodiment in decadent and unworthy representatives.
What we see in Christian history, as in the personal history of Christ upon earth, is the progressive development of a Divine Thought unfolding itself in spite of virulent opposition, under pressure of extreme difficulties, struggling against the misrepresentations of false friends and imprinting its likeness upon most unpromising and unsatisfactory material. When it first appeared on the earth, embodied in the Person and the Work, as well as the teaching, of Jesus Christ, the Divine Idea shone with the brightness of a new sun in the spiritual firmament. It was not developed out of Judaism, the Jews were its bitterest opponents; it was not indebted to Greek philosophic thought or to Roman political science, though afterwards it made use of and powerfully influenced both; it had nothing in common with the current superstitions of Oriental religions; it did not owe its origin to some cunningly devised religious syncretism, such as was not uncommon at the time when Christianity began to infuse life into the declining Roman Empire. A new idea of God, of man, and of the true reconciliation of man to God, formed the core and nucleus of the new faith. In the earliest records this idea appears as the germ of a nascent religion, a sketch in outline which remains to be filled up. In the history of nineteen centuries its likeness is to be discerned only as an image reflected in a dimly burnished mirror, in a troubled and turbid pool. None the less the dominant idea remains; as St. Paul expresses it, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God is seen in a face—the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Lecky, writing simply as a historian of European morals, describes it thus (Hist. Eur. Mor.11 [Note: 1 designates the particular edition of the work referred] (1894) ii. 8 f.)—
‘It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers, and all the exhortations of moralists.’
Whether the spectacle of an ideal human character alone has done this remains to be seen, but it is possible with care to distinguish between the glory of the Divine Thought and the imperfect medium through which its light has filtered. We see truth manifested amidst crudities and insincerities, amidst falsehoods which are bad and half-truths which are often worse; a pure and lofty character struggling, mostly in vain, for adequate expression; a kingdom not come but coming, of which we cannot say ‘Lo here’ or ‘Lo there,’ for it floats only in the midst of men as they move, in their hearts as they ponder and feel and hope—not as an achievement, not as a possession, but as a magnificent conception, an earnest longing, and a never fully attained, but ever to be attained, ideal.
In what, then, lies the perennial and imperishable essence of the ever changing phenomenon called Christianity? The unknown writer of the Epistle to Diognetus wrote in the 2nd century—
‘What the soul is in the body, this the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through the divers cities of the world. The soul hath its abode in the body, and yet it is not of the body. So Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world.’
If for ‘Christians’ we read ‘Christianity,’ where is the soul, or vital spark, of the religion to be found? Nearly all are agreed that the centre of the Christian religion is, in some sense, the Person of its Founder. De Pressense closes an article on the subject by saying, ‘Christianity is Jesus Christ.’ But it is the sense in which such words are to be interpreted that is all-important. The relation of Christ to the religion called by His name is certainly not that of Moses to Judaism, or that of Confucius to Confucianism. But neither does He stand related to Christianity as do Buddha and Mohammed to the religions named after them. Not as a prophet of Nazareth, a religious and ethical teacher, however lofty and inspiring, does Christ stand at the centre of history. As Dr. Fairbairn has said, ‘It is not Jesus of Nazareth who has so powerfully entered into history; it is the deified Christ who has been believed, loved, and obeyed as the Saviour of the world.… If the doctrine of the Person of Christ were explicable as the mere mythical apotheosis of Jesus of Nazareth, it would become the most insolent and fateful anomaly in history.’ And as the secret is not to be found in the ethics, neither does it lie in the ‘religion of Jesus.’ Harnack is the modern representative of those who take this view when he says:
‘The Christian religion is something simple and sublime; it means one thing and one thing only: eternal life in the midst of time, by the strength and under the eyes of God.’
That is a fine definition of Theism, not of the historical Christianity which has done so much to regenerate the world. Nor can the essence of any religion be said to lie in its life, if by that be meant temper and conduct. These are fruits, and by their healthiness and abundance we judge of the soundness and vigour of the tree. But the life of a religion in the proper sense of the word lies far deeper.
The chief modern definitions of Christianity have been ably summarized and reviewed by Professor Adams Brown, who, in his Essence of Christianity, has produced an illuminating study in the history of definition which goes far to solve the problem before us. Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Ritschl are epoch-marking names in the history of Christianity during the last century, and their attempts at definition probably meet better than most others the conditions demanded by modern inquirers. Schleiermacher’s view is thus summed up by Professor Adams Brown—
‘Christianity is that historic religion, founded by Jesus of Nazareth and having its bond of union in the redemption mediated by Him, in which the true relation between God and man has for the first time found complete and adequate expression, and which, throughout all the changes of intellectual and social environment which the centuries have brought, still continues to maintain itself as the religion best worthy of the allegiance of thoughtful and earnest men.’
Hegel represents Christianity as the absolute religion, because in it is to be seen worked out in history the eternal dialectic immanent in the Being of God Himself, the ultimate principle of the Godhead, the Father, being revealed in the Son, the principle of difference, returning again in the synthesis of redemption. Finally, in the Holy Spirit Father and Son recognize their unity, and God as Spirit conies to full consciousness of Himself in history. Christianity, he says, is essentially the religion of the Spirit. Ritschl lays more stress on the idea of the Kingdom of God, but he follows in the steps of Schleiermacher when he defines Christianity as—
‘the monotheistic, completely spiritual, and ethical religion, which, based on the life of its author as Redeemer and as founder of the kingdom of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God, involves the impulse to conduct from the motive of love, aims at the moral organization of mankind, and grounds blessedness on the relation of sonship to God, as well as on the kingdom of God’ (Justif. and Reconc., English translation p. 13).
Dorner is one of the best representatives of the many who lay chief stress upon the Incarnation as the ‘central idea and fundamental fact’ of Christianity, and who find in mediation through incarnation its archetypal thought. Professor Adams Brown himself considers the chief difficulty in framing a definition of Christianity to lie in the attempt to reconcile its historical and its absolute character, its natural and its supernatural elements—the two contrasted tendencies which mark respectively (1) its resemblance to other faiths, and its realization of their imperfect ideals; and (2) its difference from all other religions as the one direct and supreme revelation from God Himself. His own solution may be indicated in the following sentences:—
‘Christianity, as modern Christian thought understands it, is the religion of Divine sonship and human brotherhood revealed and realized through Jesus Christ. As such it is the fulfilment and completion of all earlier forms of religion, and the appointed means for the redemption of mankind through the realization of the kingdom of God. Its central figure is Jesus Christ, who is not only the revelation of the divine ideal for man, but also, through the transforming influence which He exerts over His followers, the most powerful means of realizing that ideal among men. The possession in Christ of the supreme revelation of God’s love and power constitutes the distinctive mark of Christianity, and justifies its claim to be the final religion’ (Essence of Christianity, 309).
These definitions are cumbrous, and no one of them is fully satisfactory. It is, however, clear that Christianity can never be properly defined if it is regarded merely as a philosophy, a system of ideas; or as a code of ethics, providing a standard of conduct; or as an ecclesiastical system, embodying rites and ceremonies of worship and institutions which are understood to be channels of salvation for mankind. It is a religion, that is, its root or spring lies in the relations which it reveals and establishes between God and men. It was the interpretation of the Person of Christ, the significance found in Him and His work, that changed the whole view of God and of human history, first for the Apostles and afterwards for all who followed them. Christ was to them doubtless a Lawgiver, His command was final. He was also an Example, perfect and flawless, the imitation of whom formed the highest conceivable standard of life. But unless He had been much more than this, the Christianity of history would never have come into being; and if it had had no other gospel for men than the most sublime human prophet could bring, it would not have regenerated mankind as it has done.
A religion may be described objectively or subjectively, from without or from within. As an objective religion in the world, Christianity is an ethical and spiritual monotheism of a high type, the highest that has been known in history, when its character and effects are fully estimated. So far there is general agreement. But the logical differentia has yet to be specified, and here opinions vary. If the characteristic and distinguishing doctrinal teaching of Christianity be considered, it may be said that the Incarnation is its central idea. But this must never be interpreted apart from Christ’s whole work, including His death and resurrection, and the main purpose of that work, the Redemption of mankind, that Salvation and Reconciliation which He has made possible and open to all. Opinions may differ as to the exact mode in which this has been effected, but the Cross of Christ is its central feature. Christianity without a Saviour is a face without an eye, a body without a soul.
If the Christian religion be regarded from within, as a subjective, personal experience, its essence lies in a new life, conceived in a new spirit and animated by a new power. This power is directly imparted by the Spirit of God, but on the human side it arises from the new conceptions of God given by Christ and the new relation to Him established through the redemption and mediation of His Son. If the religion be viewed on its racial and social side, it may be described as having for its object the establishment of a brotherhood of mankind based on the Fatherhood of God and the Elder Brotherhood of Christ; a view of man which implies the inestimable individual worth of each, and the ultimate union of all in a renewed Order of which Christ has laid the foundation, given the foretaste, and promised the complete consummation and fruition.
The secret of the power of Christianity lies in the conviction which it engenders that—granted the fundamental principles of Theism—God has Himself undertaken the cause of man; that He enters into man’s weakness, feels with his sorrows, and, chiefly, that He bears the terrible burden of man’s sins; all this being assured by the gift of His Son and the work which the Son Himself has accomplished and is still carrying on by His Spirit. The metaphysical nature of Christ’s Person may not be capable of being adequately expressed in words; the full scope of His redeeming work may be variously understood and may be incapable of being condensed into a formula; while Christians may widely differ as to the way in which the benefits of that work are best appropriated and realized and distributed by His Church in the world. But the essence of the religion lies in its conception of the spiritual needs of man, the ends for which he exists, his sin and failure to realize those ends; in its proclamation of Christ, the once dying and now ever living Lord as Himself the Way, through whom sin may be forgiven and failure remedied; and above all, in the moral and spiritual dynamic which is supplied by faith in the great Central Person of the whole religion, and the life in Him which is rendered possible for every believer by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
As to the claims of Christianity to be the only permanent, universal, and final religion for mankind, no vindication of them can amount to actual demonstration. But the argument would take the direction of inquiring whether history thus far confirms the high claim of Christianity to suffice for the needs of man as man. Is Tertullian’s phrase anima naturaliter Christiana borne out by facts? Has Christianity, not in its miserably imperfect and often utterly misleading concrete forms, but in the idea of its Founder and the best attempts made to realize it, shown the ‘promise and potency’ of a universal religion for the race? Such an argument would have to take full account of criticisms like those of Nietzsche and his school, who complain that Christianity in its tenderness towards the weak and erring, in its hallowing of sorrow and its preoccupation with the evil of sin, profoundly misunderstands human nature and man’s position in the Universe; that it amounts, in fact, to a worship of failure and decay. These criticisms have not been widely accepted as valid, and they can easily be met—they were, indeed, substantially anticipated by Celsus and refuted by Origen. But such objections are sure to recur, together with kindred difficulties arising from a naturalistic view of man which claims to be supported by physical science. They can be effectually repelled only by practical proof that the teaching of Christianity accords with the facts of human nature and meets the needs of human life more completely than any other system of philosophy or religion.
On the other hand, the triumphs which Christianity has already achieved; the power it has manifested of being able to satisfy new and unexpected claims; the excellence of its ideal of character, one which cannot be transcended so long as human nature continues to be what it is; the success with which it has brought the very highest type of character within reach of the lowest, as attested by the experience of millions; the power of recovery which it has exhibited, when its teaching has been traduced and its spirit and aims degraded by prominent professors and representatives;—these, with other similar characteristics, go far towards proving the Divine origin of Christianity, and its claim to be the perfect religion of humanity, sufficing for all men and for all time.
It is certain, however, that if the true spirit of the Christian religion is to be rightly displayed generation after generation, and its work rightly done in the world, there must be a constant ‘return to Christ’ on the part of His Church. The phrase, of course, must be adequately interpreted. Much has been said concerning the ‘recovery of the historical Christ’ as characteristic of our time, and the expression represents an, important truth. Christ is seen more and more clearly to be ‘the end of critical and historical inquiry’ and ‘the starting-place of constructive thought.’ But it is the whole Christ of the NT who is the norm in Christian theology, the object of Christian worship, the guide of Christian practice. The Christ of the Epistles cannot be separated from the Christ of the Gospels. The modern attempt, fashionable in some quarters, to distinguish between the Synoptic Gospels on the one hand as historic, and the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles on the other as dogmatic, cannot be consistently maintained, and does not adequately cover the facts of the case. The Sermon on the Mount does not reveal to us the entire Christ, nor the first chapter of St. John, nor the Epistle to the Romans; but there is no inconsistency between these representations of the Christians’ Lord. There is no contradiction between the Christ of the Synoptic Gospels and the Christ of Apostolic experience and the Christ of historical Christianity, except for those who reject the element of the supernatural, which, as a matter of fact, pervades the whole. The Christ of the NT is the object of Christian faith, as well as the Founder of the Christian religion in its historical continuity. To Him it is necessary for His Church—compassed with ignorance and infirmity and not yet fully purged from its sins—continually to ‘return,’ generation after generation, if His religion is to be preserved in its purity and transmitted in its power. The vitality of Christianity in the individual heart and in the life of the community depends upon the closeness of personal communion with Christ maintained through His indwelling Spirit. ‘To steep ourselves in Him is still the chief matter,’ says Harnack in one place. ‘Abide in me and I in you,’ was His own word to His first disciples, and it must ever be obeyed, if the characteristic fruit of that Vine is to be seen in abundance on its dependent branches.
What the Christianity of the future might be and would be, if this command were adequately fulfilled, none can say; the capacities of the religion have been as yet only partially tested. In Christ, as St. Paul taught, are ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’—the treasures of all-subduing love, of assimilating and transmuting power, of uplifting and purifying grace for the nations—‘hidden’ (Colossians 2:3). And the treasure is still hidden, because His followers, its custodians and stewards, do not adequately make it known—have not, indeed, adequately discovered it for themselves. But if in every generation there be, as there should be, a renewal of the very springs of Christian life by fresh recourse to the Fountain-head, then new claims, new needs, new problems, will only afford occasion for new triumphs of Christ and His Cross—the message of Divine self-sacrifice to the uttermost in redemption, as the one means of salvation for a sinning and suffering world.
Literature.—From amongst the vast number of books which bear on the subject of this article, a very few recent volumes and articles may be mentioned here:—R. S. Storrs, The Divine Origin of Christianity, 1885; A. Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums, 1900 [translation by T. B. Saunders, What is Christianity? 1901], and Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten, 1902 [translation by J. Moffatt, The Expansion of Christianity, 1905]; A. M. Fairbairn, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology, 1893, and Philosophy of the Christian Religion, 1902; W. Adams Brown, The Essence of Christianity, 1903; see also the article on ‘Christian, The Name of,’ by P. W. Schmiedel in the Encyc. Bibl. i. 752 ff., and that on ‘Christianity’ by T. M. Lindsay in the Encyc. Brit.9 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred]
W. T. Davison.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Christianity'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/c/christianity.html. 1906-1918.
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10