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HISTORY of Christian Theology

timeline of major historical events

Our review of history enables us to identify various themes that reoccur over time from which we can derive various principles to guide our understanding of the truth. We enhance our study of Christian religious history by considering how the following six human influences have continually impacted religious thought and actions throughout history:

  • Religious activity is part of the human experience
  • People often try to influence deity in an attempt to control their future
  • The tension between human free will and God’s sovereignty
  • The pendulum effect – beliefs often gravitate to extremes
  • Religion is often used to justify improper behavior
  • People generally project their own values and beliefs onto others, which often distorts historical perspectives due to shifting values over time and between cultures

People from all Cultures Participate in Religious Activity

From prehistoric times, all cultures include elements of worship of some purported divine power. Regardless of whether one believes that religion is a means for ignorant people to make sense out of the unknown or is a recognition of a spiritual reality, it is hard to dispute that it is part of the human experience. Even in today’s secular world, it is not hard to spot elements of religious fervor and faith in the beliefs and actions of atheists such as climate change.

pujaReligious activities usually involve group or social behavior. Anthropologists attribute this religious social phenomenon to mankind evolving from pack animals with dominate leaders. They hypothecate that as different societies evolved, humans looked for a supernatural alpha male to obey and around whom they developed communal worship activities. However, many religious people assert that the human need for religion exists because we were created in the image of God and our fulfillment comes from our connection with our creator. They believe that we are religious social beings because we are all part of the human family and that this interrelationship is part of our eternal nature.

. . . the human need for religion exists because we were created in the image of God and our fulfillment comes from our connection with our creator.

Our separation from God and his love in this imperfect world creates a subconscious fear of abandonment and rejection. This innate fear also furthers a desire to belong and promotes conformity within a community. Unfortunately, unscrupulous persons use this trait to exercise unrighteous dominion over others. Constantine hoped that Christianity would become the glue to hold his empire together and facilitate his ability to control a diverse populace. Popes, priests, kings and abbots used religion to control their subjects during the middle ages. To this day, some societies use religion to maintain power and control over their populace.

Regardless of these negative aspects of religious history, it is clear that persons often experience supernatural phenomena during some religious activities. This was one of the major appeals to Christianity in its early history. Converts experienced an uplifting power coming from outside of themselves that transformed them. This power was not due to auto-suggestion or positive thinking or accessing additional internal will power. Instead, these early converts attributed this transforming converting power to the Holy Spirit of God resting upon them.

Justin MartyrThe philosopher Justin Martyr was converted to Christianity after watching Christians conquer the most basic human instinct of survival as they serenely accepted death in the arena, a fate he subsequently suffered. This is the same power that enabled converts to overcome all other instincts of the natural man. Many of the persons we will meet on our journey through history on this site experienced this transformative spiritual power including: Augustine, Martin Luther, Anne Hutchinson, and George Whitefield. Each were instrumental in instigating movements that inspired many followers to experience this same transformative power.

People often try to influence deity in an attempt to control their future

Egyptian sun god RaFrom time immemorial, humans have engaged in religious practices to appease an angry god or to entreat its favor. Pagan religions typically ascribed powers to various types or deity, often from elements of nature, such as the sun, wind or animals, or to mythical creatures and individuals like the Greek pantheon.

Generally, persons believed that these gods controlled or had some influence over the forces of nature and events. Accordingly, they supplicated their gods in an effort to abate their fears of death, suffering and the destructive forces of nature, or to petition a bountiful harvest or other desired outcome.

Even when a Christian believes that their prayers will not change the mind or will of God, they still usually believe that the blessing they seek is likely contingent upon them asking God for it.

Many Christian beliefs and practices have perpetuated this approach. It is common for worried Christians to pray to God, or a saint, for their injured child, during a personal life-threatening health crisis, or for assistance with some other trial. Even when a Christian believes that their prayers will not change the mind or will of God, they still usually believe that the blessing they seek is likely contingent upon them asking God for it.

Most people believe that their actions will influence their eternal destiny. The Bible says that we will be judged by our works, whether they be good or evil. Christian denominations typically proscribe immoral conduct and prescribe essential actions, whether it be baptism or a confession of faith in Christ, in order to secure salvation. The fear of eternal damnation greatly influenced medieval culture. The revivals of the Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening focused on changing one’s eternal doom by accepting Christ.

Sacrifice and asceticism in its various forms have often played a role in religious practices in many cultures throughout history. We instinctively know that the natural man is an enemy to God, so religious activity often involves an effort to renounce or control our appetites and passions. Fasting, abstinence, and even self-mortification have played a role in Christian religious life through the ages, and in many instances are examples of how some believers attempt to control their relationship with God.

Often, people from various belief systems try to influence deity in an attempt to control their future, whether it be temporal or eternal. It is a common human tendency to not trust God and his love, but to instead rely on our own efforts.

Often, people from various belief systems try to influence deity in an attempt to control their future, whether it be temporal or eternal. It is a common human tendency to not trust God and his love, but to instead rely on our own efforts. We want to trust what we can see or do and what is under our control. Our fear of loss of control rules the day, so we make up laws to follow, rites to perform, and good deeds to do in order to control our eternal salvation.

This introduces the tension between human free will and God’s sovereignty.

Tension between human free will and God’s sovereignty

Augustine of Hippo is the most influential Christian theologian outside of the Bible. In large measure this is because he was the first Christian theologian to fully develop a doctrine dealing with the tension between free will and God’s sovereignty that has become the foundation of western Christianity.

Adam and Eve in the garden

His theology begins with God’s creation where everything was good. However, God gave Adam and Eve free will, which they abused to bring sin and death into the world. Every human participated in this original sin and are condemned to hell. However, God elects some to receive his grace that transforms their heart and makes them worthy of salvation. When we feel God’s love, it lifts us up to Him so that we lose our desire to sin while we journey back to God. We still have free will, but God’s grace strengthens us. This is referred to as “healing grace,” “assisting grace” and “co-operative grace.” Thus, grace and free will co-operate, but God’s grace is irresistible to those whom God elects to give it. Augustine doesn’t answer the question of why God offers his grace to some but not everyone. He simply says it is a mystery. He viewed salvation as a journey through life where we develop habits of virtue that brings us closer to God to eventually be saved in heaven.

. . . Martin Luther’s epiphany regarding the conflict between law and gospel revolutionized the world.

Over a thousand years later, Martin Luther’s epiphany regarding the conflict between law and gospel revolutionized the world. For Luther, the law is the commandments of God that no one is capable of obeying, so it serves the purpose of terrifying us so that we will turn to God and seek his grace. The gospel is the good news that Christ has died for each of us, so if we believe in him then we have full benefit of his promise of grace and are saved by our faith alone, not good works. Indeed, using our free will to do good works is mortal sin. Luther hated the concept of free will and felt that it was an obstacle to trusting Christ’s promise of salvation. Luther expects us to do good works to benefit our neighbor, but they have nothing to do with our salvation. For him, life is a battle where we continually struggle to maintain our faith in God’s promise of salvation. If we believe, then sin is not imputed to us. We are free from the consequences of the law.

puritan manA couple of decades later, John Calvin came along and took Luther’s doctrine a step further and introduced the concept of double predestination, that God predestines those he elects to go to heaven while everyone else is predestined to suffer in hell. Calvin further teaches that each person can, indeed needs to, know that he or she is one of those individuals whom God has predestined to be saved. This certainty is realized when one receives an inner call from God, later referred to as conversion or being born again. Good works follow those who have received this call and have been converted by the Spirit of God. This eventually led followers like the puritans to focus on good works as evidence to prove to themselves and others that they had been saved.

This tension between free will and grace is primarily a western Christian issue . . .

Both Calvin’s Reformed movement and Lutherans accepted Luther’s teaching that the law had two purposes: 1) to terrorize us so that we will seek God’s grace, and 2) to direct civil authorities to maintain an orderly society. After Luther’s death, protestants adopted a third purpose of the law: to help believers know how to live a Christian life. Thus, Luther and Calvin’s sharp contrast between free will and God’s sovereignty was somewhat mollified to the point where some Protestants have gone full circle with beliefs more aligned with Augustine’s idea of co-operative grace where free will and grace dance in perfect harmony. This tension between free will and grace is primarily a western Christian issue, but it is still present in all cultures, generating various types of good works that are essential or contribute to one’s happiness and or salvation.

What we generally refer to as “good works” actually consists of three distinct types of actions:

  • One set of activity is rites, rituals, sacraments, and ordinances such as: sacrifices offered by pagans as well as by Israelites under the Law of Moses, baptism, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and Catholic confession.
  • A different type of activity consists of strict personal adherence to a set of rules and standards or life style such as: practices imposed by the Law of Moses, the oral traditions of the Pharisees, an ascetic lifestyle, the regimen of monks and groups such as the Jewish Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and devotion or penance through prayers, fasting, abstinence, and suffering including self-flagellation.
  • The third category of activities that fall under the rubric of good works are acts of kindness, service and charity that are generally offered from the heart but not necessarily, as in the case of giving donations or service out of a sense of duty or for praise.

All of these activities are often viewed together as evidence of piety, yet each has a distinct role in understanding the interplay between faith, grace and works. For example, the Pharisees and Essenes were fanatical in their personal observance of rules in order to set themselves apart from the Greek influence around them and other groups they viewed as less devout. They vehemently opposed the Sadducees who generally adopted Greek culture. Sadducees did not believe in spirits or a life after death, yet were generally comprised of the priests absorbed with the rites of the temple. Individuals gravitated to these divergent belief systems partially because it helped them feel that they controlled their future through their works. Paul was referring to both the rites and the rules of the Law of Moses when he refers to “works” in his epistles, not to acts of kindness. Yet, all aspects of “good works” were implicated in the dispute regarding grace and works between the Protestants and Catholics during the reformation.

. . . throughout its history, Christianity has struggled with the tension between the effectiveness of its rite verses the intent of the participant.
Rites or ordinances have been involved in the Judeo-Christian religion from the time Adam offered sacrifices to God. However, throughout its history, Christianity has struggled with the tension between the effectiveness of its rite verses the intent of the participant. Does baptism automatically save a child or a sinner from his sins? Does a confession of faith in Christ save a soul without a change of behavior? Is the ordinance or sacrament an outward symbol of a spiritual reality having no effect without the participant’s sincere intent? What authority is required for the ordinance to be effective?


Throughout our study of the history of Christian theology we will see how these issues dealing with the tension between human free will and God’s sovereignty have played a role in the beliefs and actions of believers and thus influencing the theology of various denominations.

The pendulum effect – beliefs often gravitate to extremes

We are social creatures who instinctively create social boundaries whether they be geographical or ideological.

It is human nature to gravitate to extremes. We see this today in social and political groups where groupthink and confirmation bias prevail. We are social creatures who instinctively create social boundaries whether they be geographical or ideological. Conflicts often occur when these borders are threatened. Therefore, a natural group dynamic develops to keep members away from the borders where they may stray, leading to entrenched beliefs and behavior, even different languages.

Great Wall of China

Religion defines one of the most common and powerful social groups, so it comes as no surprise that this human phenomenon shows its face in religious settings. The history of Christianity is full of disputes regarding the need and scope of authority, the difference between veneration of icons and idolatry, grace verse works, that unfortunately have led to violent conflict. In the early Church, the monks were extremist foot soldiers similar to the Islamist terrorist today. Monks even defeated the Roman army in Alexandria before Caesar sent over a formidable force to reclaim the city. The century of religious wars in Europe were inspired by uncompromising religious furor in addition to the political and economical forces at play.

We want to belong. Sadly, a phenomenon of modern society is universal loneliness.

Is religion the problem? No. Humans are social creatures. We want to belong. Sadly, a phenomenon of modern society is universal loneliness. The disintegration of the family and communities has left individuals adrift, disconnected from the moorings of the past that securely held society together. Today we witness people gravitating to polar opposites where groupthink replaces independent thought and pits the left against the right, creating animosity and conflict.

left against the right

The only solution to this catastrophic dynamic is to increase the ability of individuals to feel secure in their own independent identity and self-worth. This is not based on what we do or did. We intrinsically are not a lawyer, an “A” student, an athlete or a mom. This is not based on what we like or believe. We are not intrinsically a Yankee fan, a progressive, a Christian or a patriot. This is not even based on our personal characteristics. Our intrinsic value does not change because we are smart, strong, kind or tall. Self-worth and identity built on any of these perceptions is unstable.

connection with divine

happy childA solid self-worth and identity are founded on understanding one’s relationship with God and on one’s connection with the divine. Identity that transcends eternity is not vulnerable to the winds of time. We are then able to stand, independent from the whims of social pressures yet connected to everyone and the universe. We can align ourself and connect with the divine by seeking the eternal principles of love, light, truth and goodness, i.e., the light of Christ in each of us. Then, my identity is me, a flawed individual of infinite worth and potential, a child of God. Internalizing this truth is our only hope.

happy kids

Religion is often used to justify improper behavior

We all have a conscience that knows right from wrong, but we often hate to hear it tell us to stop or to change. Inertia is as real in our human psyche as it is in the physical realm. It is part of our human nature to resist internal change, and to grasp at anything convenient to help us extinguish the gnawing realization that we need to change and become a better person. So, what better mechanism is there to sooth our conscience than religion itself? If God says something is okay, then we feel justified in telling our conscience to shut up.

Throughout history people and nations have used religion to justify improper behavior. Anciently, people engaged in idolatry partially because it enabled them to feel good about themselves while they did whatever they felt like doing. Often, idolatry involved promiscuous sexual activity. In Old Testament times, there was a significant problem of sodomites intermingling idolatry with homosexual activity. People bought indulgences during the middle-ages to avoid the effort to truly repent. Horrific atrocities were committed during the crusades under the guise of divine justice. Often the most devout followers of the various religions are the most resistant to change and to following the voice of their conscience.

9 11 terrorist attackWe think our modern world has evolved beyond this influence, but it hasn’t. Today, Islamist extremists believe that they will go to heaven by killing innocent people. Some born-again Christians believe that all they have to do is profess their acceptance of Christ without allowing him to change their character. Others try to prove their worthiness through their works in an effort to feel good about themselves while ignoring their conscience telling them to not judge others. Regardless of our personal religious conviction, we need to be on guard against letting our religious beliefs placate our conscience. Please recognize that this has been a common human flaw throughout history.

Regardless of our personal religious conviction, we need to be on guard against letting our religious beliefs placate our conscience.

People generally project their own values and beliefs onto others distorting historical perspectives due to shifts in values over time and between cultures

People often fall into the trap of misjudging the past due to their own myopic perspective. One’s life experience impacts what one values. What is important to each individual varies based on his personal circumstance and upbringing. Someone trying to survive has different priorities from someone living in the lap of luxury. The customs, family traditions and religious beliefs vary from culture to culture.

Human perspective skews every stage of our historical records from the writer’s point of view, the value of what is preserved, what is translated, edited, published and eventually read.

Dead Sea Scroll

Judging the past becomes even more difficult due to historical amnesia and the lack of good historical records. Historians try to construct a narrative and so they often supply sequence, motivations and causes based on what has been preserved through the ages. Human perspective skews every stage of our historical records from the writer’s point of view, the value of what is preserved, what is translated, edited, published and eventually read.

Looking at the past through our modern lens will distort the reality of the actors’ thoughts, hopes, fears, motivations and physical obstacles. If we really are searching for truth, we need to be careful to not project our own values, beliefs and experience onto the past, but seek to understand the past from the perspective of one experiencing those events first hand.

Conclusion
We will greatly enhance our understanding of the history of Christian theology if we are aware of the role human frailties played in its development.

christ with martha and mary

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Fear and Religion

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What is true?

IMAGES:

Christians praying in Goma, DR of Congo. Steve Evans. [CC] (not altered)

Chhath Puja. It is during this phase of Chhath Puja that the devotees offer prayers to the just setting sun. Ramesh Lalwani, 2013. [CC] (not altered)

Justin Martyr Tasviri. Ulasgoc [CC] (not altered)

Figure of Egyptian sun god Ra. United States Library of Congress. Carol M. Highsmith. [No known copyright restrictions.]

Saint Augustine of Hippo. Gerard Seghers (1591-1651). Oil on canvas. Kingston Lacy Collection. [PD US]

Adam and Eve in the Earthly Paradise (detail) Johann Wenzel Peter c. 2800-1829. Oil on canvas. Pinacoteca Vaticana. [CC] (not altered).

Ahawah Children’s Home, Berlin; Passover Seder Table. Center for Jewish History, NYC [No known copyright restrictions].

Jinshanling Great Wall, Pan Long Shan Scenic Area, Hebei, China (2014). William L. Farr (own work) [CC] (not altered).

Second assault of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. Gustave Dore (1883 or earlier). [PD US].

United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center complex in New York City during the September 11 attacks. 11 September 2001, Robert J. Fisch (derivative work). [CC] (not altered).

Homeless on bench, Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. 25 May 2009, Tomas Castelazo (own work). [CC BY-SA 3.0] (not altered).

Cartello stradale della Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, LA. 2 August 2011, Sidvics (own work). [CC BY-SA 3.0] (not altered).

Enlargement of Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll. 1 January 2000, Shai Halevi on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. [CC BY-SA 4.0] (not altered).

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. 1886, Henryk Siemiradzki. Oil on canvas. [PD US].

 

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