Christianity: The Christian Tradition Through History

Origins

Christianity has its origins squarely in the Jewish tradition. It’s central figure, Jesus Christ, is seen as the fulfilment of a Jewish prophecy. Christians, literally Christ-followers, grew as a community from those people who knew Jesus Christ personally and believed him to be the Messiah, their Lord God incarnate. See the Beliefs and Teachings section for more details.

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From this small start Christ’s followers saw it as their mission to spread the word, the Good News or Gospel, to as many people as possible irrespective of race, culture, language, or pre-existing socio-political system. This key transition, which can be seen in the New Testament writings themselves as something of a disagreement between the Apostles Peter and Paul, marked Christian theology distinguishing itself from Judaism. It also sees it taking on the form of a Global Theology separated from any particular socio-political system, but seeking to transform all socio-political systems in ways that benefitted the worst off in society.

Evolution

For the first four hundred years Christianity spread from its original home in the Middle East in every direction. It was most popular among those people who were economically active but disenfranchised, removed from having any real power. It was spread, therefore, mainly through the efforts of women and slaves. Constantly advocating for social reforms. As such it was seen as a threat by the major socio-political systems that existed at the time. Most famously the Roman Empire. The refusal to recognise any earthly ruler as supremely authoritative was understandably seen as treasonous. Nevertheless Christianity grew to a position where it was a sizable minority and widespread persecution became unfeasable. The persecutions stopped in 313.

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At the risk of oversimplification this acceptance laid the groundwork for Constantine to convert to Christianity and use the theological tradition to further cement his legitimacy and authority. By 380 Christianity was the official theology of the Roman Empire. This union laid the groundwork for Christian theology, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, to be used by various European powers to gain legitimacy and authority under the loose banner of ‘Christendom’.

This continued past the Reformation, see Sources of Wisdom and Authority, till the time when European powers; especially Britain and Spain; were not only using a particular version of Christian Theology to legitimise their domestic rulers, but also using it to legitimise their Global Imperial ambitions.

We see here a twisting of the natural position of Christianity as a Global theology. Through the Roman Empire’s union with Christian Theology a new version of Christianity emerged as a civilisational theology attached specifically to Europe as a region. These European imperial powers were continuing this tradition of Christianity as a civilisational theology. Often the Churches that these powers were tied to were either weary or critical of the Imperial conquests, but there is little doubt that it was through these empires that Christian missionaries of various denominations were able to spread their message across the world.

In the end, after the Euro-centric empire lost power and de-colonisation took place across the world. Christian theologians were given the option to shed the civilisational euro-centric baggage of empire and restate Christianity as a truly Global theology.

Current State

As a Global theological system, however, Christianity is racked with divisions. Christianity has adapted and localised, responding to the concerns of the communities that it sees itself as serving. In this process it also is shaped by the beliefs of those communities. These differences play out in sometimes contentious global bodies. 

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For example the Roman Catholic Church takes on a different cultural space in North or South America particularly on social issues such as structural inequality. The Anglican Church in recent years has been almost constantly caught up in disagreements over gender and sexuality between members of the Church in North America and Britain, who tend towards accepting women and LGBTQ people in leadership positions, and member churches in Africa, the leadership of which tends the other way. Of course it is important to highlight the fact that none of these groups are homogeneous, and just as there are many ‘Western’ Christians who are very conservative on issues of sexuality and gender, there are Christians from other parts of the world that would be considered very liberal.

Alongside these questions, The rise of the Nation-state presents a unique challenge as for the past few hundred years nationalist governments have used the legitimacy conferred by Christian theology to cement their authority through an alliance with the Church. Sometimes the local church is complicit and sometimes it is not. Examples of this and the conflicts it creates within Christian theology can be seen everywhere from Nazi Germany, to Soviet controlled Poland, to the current negotiations between the Roman Catholic Church and the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Federation. Fears that the Church could be complicit in persecutions carried out by repressive nationalist regimes often come into conflict with the desire that different Churches have to access and provide care for people everywhere across the world. Alongside this, we are seeing some groups of Christians actively pursuing power in the form of influence over governments in places like the US and Brazil. It is clear that Christian Theology has no answer of how to navigate a world where the dominant socio-theological system is nationalist.

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These questions currently do not have an answer in Christian Theology, at least not one that is widely accepted by different groups of Christians. They will no doubt persist as Christianity continues to grow around the world.

Future

Christianity is one of, if not the most influential Theological traditions the world has seen. Its recent history in the West has been one of presumed decline and increasing irrelevance. But, these assumptions have not come to pass. Christianity is still a growing force across the world, and it is changing as it grows. It may have been spread through European Empire building, but the intellectual center of gravity for the system is increasingly shifting away from the old colonial powers towards the former colonies. Christianity, like the other older theological systems, is not dying out but evolving. The challenge for Christians will undoubtedly be maintaining some sense of unity as it is simultaneously claimed by nationalist and liberal humanists, just as it is navigated and reimagined by populations who are increasingly finding a global voice and identity.

Christianity is a fully fledged Global Theology, but one with a complicated past that it is perhaps only just overcoming. The history of its association with various Imperial and Colonial powers, and its position as a civilisational theology for Europe and the West are all things that hang over it. This is combined with the concern about the rise in Christian Nationalism, alongside the rise of Nationalism more generally, and the fact that the future of Christianity is predominantly going to be found in the people who came to Christianity as colonial subjects, makes it very difficult to predict a clear future for Christian theology. However, managing these issues and differences, not to mention the differences between different Church denominations themselves is an issue that is part and parcel of being a global theology, and Christianity is on the forefront of the search for answers.

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What we have attempted to offer in these pages is a touchstone for Christian Theology; an introduction to an incredibly rich and complex tradition. We hope that it will be of some use both to Christians who are asking questions of their theology, and non-Christians who want to learn more. These pages are a constant work in progress, so please do not hesitate to ask us further questions, or make suggestions so that we can continue to update and improve our content. Please feel free to explore our other content to learn more about other theological systems and issues.

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