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HISTORY of Christian Theology
We begin our course of inquiry by evaluating various preliminary concepts needed to put the people, events and ideas that we will study into a broader picture to provide increased understanding. First, we will begin by reviewing the human quest for meaning, the origin of religion and the role of fear in religion. Then, we’ll consider how the human factor interplays with religion and how Christians have determined truth over the ages.

Polytheism

Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism had a much greater impact on western ideas than most people realize.

Let’s explore polytheism at the time of Christ beginning with Hinduism, the earliest recorded world religion, with its core beliefs in: 1) the law of karma; 2) the cycle of existence consisting of creation, dissolution and re-creation; and 3) potential release from the illusion of existence through reintegration with the ultimate reality or spiritual essence. We then move on to Buddhism that broke off of Hinduism and many of Hinduism’s basic tenets, but denies the existence of any spiritual essence. Buddhist theology is based on the premise that all existence is suffering which comes from desire, which leads to attachment to transient things. A Buddhists’ objective is to escape the cycle of transmigration through a release of all desire so that the flame of attachment can be extinguished to realize the peace and stillness of non-existence (“nirvana”). We will then move on to a brief review of Egyptian Paganism and Greco-Roman Paganism. We will end this section with a review of Zoroastrianism’s dualistic theology that acted as a bridge between eastern and western thought. Indeed, Zoroastrianism had a much greater impact on western ideas than most people realize.

Greek Philosophy

Plato

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

We will then move on to see how Greek philosophical ideas formed the foundation of western society. Socrates (Died 399) inspired his students with his method of inquiry to discover truth. Plato (428/423 – 348/347 BC), one of his students, formulated a systematic metaphysical philosophy that dominated western perspective of reality for over two millennia. His influence was so great that the renowned British mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead observed: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” He introduced the concept of an eternal realm of the ideal essence or form of ideas and things in this material world. At the center was the form or essence of all good and piety, the First Principle, the Good or the One, from which all else was derived. The unchanging concepts of math, the world, a horse, a circle, beauty, virtues―everything―always existed in the mind of the Good. This imperfect temporal existence was fashioned from these eternal forms and is simply a reflection of this more real perfect intelligible world. This concept, referred to as realism, was the basis for understanding everything until the rise of nominalism nearly two thousand years later. Christian theologians adopted many of these Platonian ideas because they seemed to explain their doctrine.

Aristotle (384-322 BC), Plato’s student, agreed with many of Plato’s ideas but believed that these eternal forms did not exist in some nebulous eternal realm but was the essence inside all created things that drew them to fulfill their respective purpose or good. Aristotle’s philosophy was more biological than Plato’s mathematical approach, and became the foundation of science until the Age of Enlightenment. The distinctive characteristic of humans was a rational mind, so our telos (ultimate purpose) was to use it to control our emotions and appetites in order to live a balanced life. Stoicism, which greatly influenced the Greco-Roman world including Christianity, was greatly influenced by Aristotle’s ideas.

Plotinus (204-270 A.D.) organized Plato’s and Aristotle’s teachings into a cohesive systematic worldview. At its center was the One or the Good, consisting of all good, which did not act and was not affected by anything, so it was without body, parts and passions. The next level was the Divine Mind out of which eternally flowed the world of forms. This world of forms was like the universe’s soul consisting of everything including each individual human. Plotinus’s system became known as Neo-Platonism which also influenced some Christians.

Jesus and His Jewish Roots

torah licensed Adobe Stock photo - do not take and useMuch earlier, Abraham and Moses introduced monotheism to recorded history. Unlike Plato’s First Principle, the Jewish God was a being who acted. Judaism also introduced the revolutionary idea that this one all-powerful God, the creator of the universe, would condescend to enter into a covenant with His people to be bound to bless them if they remembered Him and kept His moral law. Additionally, He extended mercy and provided the means for atonement when they strayed. The central location of this redemptive arrangement was the tabernacle, later the temple, where the presence of God was found in increasing levels as intensity the closer one approached the Holy of Holies which contained the ark of the covenant. The ark contained the law written on stone tablets covered by the mercy seat, where God sat, above the law. After the last temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and the Jewish people were scattered around the Greco-Roman world in what is known as the diaspora, the presence of God was found in the Torah (the five books of Moses known as the law). Rabbinical Judaism emerged as the study of Torah became the focus of worship. An allegorical understanding of Torah was influence by some Platonic ideas, particularly from Philo of Alexandria who was a contemporary of Jesus.

Jesus revolutionized the world with his new covenant (testament) based on love.

Jesus revolutionized the world with his new covenant (testament) based on love. He taught that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son (Jesus) to redeem the world from sin, and those who believed in him and followed him would participate in the life of God (Eternal Life). (John 3:14-21). He ordained twelve apostles to lead his followers. Before his crucifixion, he taught his disciples a new commandment to love one another (John 13:34) and prayed that they would be one with each other and with God as Jesus and his Father were one in love (John 17:21-23, 26). After he died on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead and charged his apostles to preach the message of redemption and his resurrection to all the world (Matt. 28:18-20). They were true to this command and the movement grew, particularly after Paul was miraculously converted and spread this message to the gentile (non-Jewish) world. Paul taught that the grace of God extended to all humans, that gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism in order to be Christian, and that could become fellow-citizens in the household of God by having faith in Christ and being born again through baptism.

Jesus last supper

Early Christian Controversies

The predominate orthodox theology during the second and third century was a subordinationist view of Christ being an intermediary between God the Father and humanity.

This is generally referred to as Logos Christianity.This new Christian sect grew despite persecution and was eventually adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire. As the religion grew, numerous splinter groups sprang up creating a crisis of orthodoxy. Platonism influenced all of the various forms of Christianity, orthodox and gnostic, in varying ways and degrees. The predominate orthodox theology during the second and third century was a subordinationist view of Christ being an intermediary between God the Father and humanity. This is generally referred to as Logos Christianity. It was replaced by Trinitarian Christianity as the orthodox theology at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

Christological controversies regarding the incarnation of Christ raged over the next hundred and twenty-five years until it was officially resolved at the Council of Chalcedon with some groups such as the Coptic Christians in Egypt refusing to accept its decision. By then, the theology of Orthodox Christianity in the East settled down to basically remain what it is today with its overarching goal of human deification through union with the Divine that is summed up in the ancient saying, “God became man so that men may become gods.” It also emphasized access to the life-giving flesh of Christ through the veneration of icons of Jesus, Mary and the saints, where one could see the Light of Tabor, referring to the light shining from Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

Augustine

The goal shifted from becoming like God to seeing God, which is referred to as beatific vision.

AugustineHowever, in the west, Christian theology continued to evolve with significant developments from the teachings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The goal shifted from becoming like God to seeing God, which is referred to as beatific vision. Since Augustine, the goal in western Christianity has been to be saved in order to go to heaven and see God. Sin and justification became major issues in the west along with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, which to this day is not accepted in the eastern Church. The interplay between grace, works and predestination became deep doctrinal issues that have been debated in the western Church to this day.

Medieval Developments

Monasticism has been the major force in the development of Christian theology since the third century. One of the most influential monks was Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, who introduced the concept of the substitutionary theory of Christ’s atonement, which has been largely followed in the west ever since. Around this same time, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) formulated his theory of the moral influence theory of the atonement that later influenced the development of liberal Protestantism in the nineteenth century. However, the most renowned scholar of the middle-ages was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) whose teachings have repeatedly been declared by Popes as the correct Catholic philosophy.

MaryDuring the late middle-ages, the Church increased its emphasis on its seven sacraments, especially the eucharist, as the means of bestowing grace and not simply being symbols of grace so that the wafer became an object of worship. Mary also increased in importance and the doctrine of her immaculate birth was introduced.

In the early 1300s, William of Ockham (also Occam) (1285-1347) used his metaphysical razor to cut off Plato’s realism for being an excessive way to describe reality, allowing nominalism to take hold and grow to later become the predominate way to view the world. Near this same time, Miester Eckhart (1260-1328) introduced his radical Christian mystical idea of the shared eternal origin of the spark or essence of God and humans that even preceded the existence of God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit. John Wycliffe (died 1384) started the Lollardy movement in the 14th century that denied transubstantiation of the eucharist, stressed the importance of scripture, and rejected the system of the papacy that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. In the 15th century Jan Hus (1369-1415) not only concurred with Wycliffe’s writings but also attacked the legitimacy of indulgences and the Catholic practice of not offering wine to the congregation as part of the eucharist.

The Protestant Reformation

However, the greatest shakeup in Christianity occurred on All Saints Day, October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his invitation to debate indulgences to the Cathedral’s door in Wittenberg, Germany. Little did he realize that his epiphany regarding the distinction of law and gospel would split the western Church, leading to the Protestant movement with it various divergent theologies. His main thesis claimed that we are saved by faith alone in the grace of God, the fullness of the gospel is found in the Bible alone, and authority was found in a priesthood of all believers and not with the ordained officials of the Church. He emphasized that Christians should believe and hold onto the promise of grace that was conferred through the sacraments such as baptism and the eucharist.

However, the greatest shakeup in Christianity occurred . . . when Martin Luther nailed his invitation to debate indulgences to the Cathedral’s door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) started the Reformed Protestant movement in Switzerland that concurred with much of Luther’s new doctrine except Zwingli claimed the eucharist did not contain the actual flesh of Jesus but was only a symbol, and he took a more austere approach in implementing their beliefs. John Calvin (1509-1564) followed a generation later with his book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, that methodically laid out the theology of the Reformed branch of Protestant theology. His major contributions were the doctrine of double predestination (everyone is predestined to either go to heaven or hell) and that those predestined to go to heaven could know that they were saved by having a born-again experience. The Reformed movement spread rapidly creating various new denominations such as Presbyterians in Scotland, Puritans, Baptists and Quakers.

Early Modern Philosophers

“I think, so I am.”

The secular side of society was not left behind by this revolution of religious ideas. In the mid-seventeenth century the young philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) introduced doubt into western philosophical thought contributing to a crisis regarding the authority of traditional sources. Spinoza questioned the reality of the Judeo-Christian God as the creator of the world in favor the pantheistic idea that God is part of the physical world. This doubt fomented and soon afterwards, the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) introduced one of the most distinctive perspectives of the modern worldview, individualism, when he declared, “I think, so I am.” Certainty was found in the individual, not some arcane treatise from antiquity.

Francis BaconFrancis Bacon (1561-1626) introduced the scientific method based on the premise that all learning is derived from inductive reasoning based on observations. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) revolutionized society’s understanding of how the physical world functioned with his scientific discoveries and by claiming that God created the universe with immutable physical laws and then stepped back to let it run itself. John Locke (1632-1704) applied the scientific method of using empirical observations to determine the strength of philosophical and theological ideas. David Hume (1711-1776) used Locke’s standard to declare that it would take a miracle to believe a miracle. The Age of Enlightenment was born with skepticism of all prior authority but with new optimism based on freedom, the value of individuals and human ability. Deism became the modern religion of the age. Deism rejected miracles and the established religions with their rites and creeds in favor or a generic natural religion of a creator who did not interfere with world but rewarded good behavior in the afterlife.

The Age of Enlightenment was born with skepticism of all prior authority but with new optimism based on freedom, the value of individuals and human ability.

The Turn to Emotions

In the late seventeenth century, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), a German Lutheran theologian, became concerned with the dry scholasticism found in the Lutheran church of his day and the allure of the skepticism found outside the Church. After he had a life changing spiritual experience, he founded what became known as pietism, stressing increased piety through an emotional connection with God. The Moravians, a Lutheran spinoff religion, led by Count, Nikolaus Ludwig, Graf von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), was involved with this pietist movement and left a much greater legacy on the developments of Christian theology than most people realize. Moravians stressed a deep emotional connection with the humanity of Jesus. The Moravians instigated a major missionary effort that spread around the world. The legacy of this now nearly forgotten religion is found in the liberal theology of established Protestant religions and in the evangelical movement.

revival sermonIn the eighteenth century, the American Anglican priest, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), sparked a revival and the first great awakening in with his direct, thoughtful sermons which demanded that his audience make a choice to accept Christ or suffer in hell. George Whitefield (1714-1770) added a dynamic presentation to this approach and held throngs of thousands of bystanders captivated for hours in open-air locations throughout England and the Americas.

After the young Anglican priest, John Wesley (1703-1791), and his brother Charles travelled to America as missionaries, John was shocked to see Moravians on deck of their ship in the midst of a treacherous storm singing and praising God while he trembled in fear. He stayed in contact with the Moravian movement after returning to England and experienced the life altering power of God’s grace at one of their meetings. Afterwards he followed his friend George Whitefield’s example and breached God’s love and grace to the outcasts of society in the fields where they lived. His movement and methodical approach became the Methodist religion, out of which sprang the holiness movement that taught that a believer could experience perfection here and now by surrendering their all to God, which movement became instrumental to the creation of Pentecostalism and twentieth century evangelicalism which has now become mainstream Protestantism. The separation of church and state in the United States led to a proliferation of religious options and a second great awakening led primarily by independent Wesleyan route preachers and revivals on the frontier in the early nineteenth century.

The separation of church and state in the United States led to a proliferation of religious options and a second great awakening led primarily by independent Wesleyan route preachers and revivals on the frontier in the early nineteenth century.

Immanuel Kant and the 19th Century Revolution in Religious Ideas

Back in Europe, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) developed the most renowned and influential philosophy of the modern period. He synthesized the two branches of philosophy at the time (rationalism and empiricism) into one cohesive philosophy based on human understanding. He argued that science and religion are not incompatible because they both rest on the same foundation of individual human understanding. Hegel (1770-1831) was a very influential philosopher in his day and espoused a philosophy based on historical consciousness that reflected the optimist colonization attitude of his day. He believed that the Protestant modern industrial world was the apex of human and divine development.

. . . humans can connect with the infinite through their emotions, and that one can access God’s consciousness through knowledge of Jesus’s exemplary life.

The Romanic philosopher and theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), introduced liberal theology that said humans can connect with the infinite through their emotions, and that one can access God’s consciousness through knowledge of Jesus’s exemplary life. He wrote the influential book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, to his intellectual friends in the Romanic period to help them understand that the emotions they felt from their involvement in the arts was actually a religious experience. David Strauss (1808-1874) wrote his controversial book, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, that used scholarly tools to show that Jesus was a historical person, but not divine. The search of the historical Jesus became an important element of liberal theology.

Around this same time, Joseph Smith (1805-1844) Published the Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before he was twenty-five years old. In spite of relentless persecution, he led his growing number of followers to form various communities including one of the largest and most modern cities west of the Appalachians before he was assassinated at age 39. He introduced several revolutionary theological concepts including: The shared eternal nature of divine and human existence. The covenant theory of the atonement of Christ. The shared essence of spirit and physical element. Priesthood authority and temple work. The paradox that this imperfect world is God’s perfect plan for our growth and development.

The Danish theologian, philosopher and social critic, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), challenged the religious ideas of his day that used reason or emotions to prove the existence of God. Instead, he stressed the necessity of a leap of faith.

Masters of Suspicion

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) doubted the existence of any divine influence and said that man created God in man’s image. His ideas greatly influenced Karl Marx (1818-1883) who said that religion was the product of a false consciousness and simply served as opium for the masses to help them forget their pathetic state. Consequently, religion needed to be eliminated so that individuals would be able to recognize that the solution to all their problems was found through an egalitarian economic system that would only be possible by overthrowing the current capitalist system.

Marx … said that religion was the product of a false consciousness and simply served as opium for the masses to help them forget their pathetic state.

Darwin ape satire illustrationnietzscheCharles Darwin’s (1809-1882) treatise, On the Origin of the Species, sent shock waves throughout modern society by providing a scientific explanation for the origin of the various species of life that did not require any divine involvement. The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), declared that God is dead, and the intellectuals of his day had killed him. With the death of God, nihilism was born. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was greatly influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas and claimed that religion was an illusion, the “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity.” (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, pg 55, 1927).

20th Century Theologians

The Protestant theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), has been called by Catholic and Protestants as the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Barth explains that if we start with the human part of the interaction with the divine, we will never reach God. He agrees with Kierkegaard that God gives humans the possibility of revelation and the revelation. He also provides a possibility of universal salvation. Gustavo Gutierrez (born 1928) combined Marxist ideas with theology to create what is known as Liberation Theology that conflates political liberation with religious salvations and emphasizes the role of religious institutions in liberating the poor from economic oppression.

We will be introduced to numerous other ancient, medieval, modern and post-modern philosophers and theologians who provide interesting and provocative ideas and how they influenced and were impacted by world events.

 

go to previous:

Introduction

go to next:

The Human Quest for Meaning

 

IMAGES:

The Last Supper, oil on panel by Juan de Juanes, c. 1562. Museo del Prado. [PD]

The Annunciation, painting by Carl Heinrich Bloch, c. before 1890. [PD]

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban, portrait, oil on canvas, by unknown artist, c. 1731, National Portrait Gallery, London. [PD]

Religious Camp Meeting, Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank, c. 1839. Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts. [PD].

“A Venerable Orang-outang”, a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine, 22 March 1871 [PD].

Friedrich Nietzsche [CC].

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