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Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in the world, with more than 2 billion followers. The Christian faith centers on beliefs regarding the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While it started with a small group of adherents, many historians regard the spread and adoption of Christianity throughout the world as one of the most successful spiritual missions in human history.
Some basic Christian concepts include:
- Christians are monotheistic, i.e., they believe there’s only one God, and he created the heavens and the earth. This divine Godhead consists of three parts: the father (God himself), the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.
- The essence of Christianity revolves around the life, death and Christian beliefs on the resurrection of Jesus. Christians believe God sent his son Jesus, the messiah, to save the world. They believe Jesus was crucified on a cross to offer the forgiveness of sins and was resurrected three days after his death before ascending to heaven.
- Christians contend that Jesus will return to earth again in what’s known as the Second Coming.
- The Holy Bible includes important scriptures that outline Jesus’s teachings, the lives and teachings of major prophets and disciples, and offer instructions for how Christians should live.
- Both Christians and Jews follow the Old Testament of the Bible, but Christians also embrace the New Testament.
- The cross is a symbol of Christianity.
- The most important Christian holidays are Christmas (which celebrates the birth of Jesus) and Easter (which commemorates the resurrection of Jesus).
WATCH Jesus: His Life on HISTORY Vault
Who Was Jesus?
Most historians believe that Jesus was a real person who was born between 2 B.C. and 7 B.C. Much of what scholars know about Jesus comes from the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
According to the text, Jesus was born to a young Jewish virgin named Mary in the town of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem in modern-day Palestine. Christians believe the conception was a supernatural event, with God impregnating Mary via the Holy Spirit.
Very little is known about Jesus’s childhood. Scriptures reveal that he grew up in Nazareth, he and his family fled persecution from King Herod and moved to Egypt, and his “earthly” father, Joseph, was a carpenter.
Jesus was raised Jewish, and according to most scholars, he aimed to reform Judaism—not create a new religion.
When he was around 30 years old, Jesus started his public ministry after being baptized in the Jordan River by the prophet known as John the Baptist.
For about three years, Jesus traveled with 12 appointed disciples (also known as the 12 apostles), teaching large groups of people and performing what witnesses described as miracles. Some of the most well-known miraculous events included raising a dead man named Lazarus from the grave, walking on water and curing the blind.
READ MORE: What Did Jesus Look Like?
Jesus used parables—short stories with hidden messages—in his teachings.
Some of the main themes that Jesus taught, which Christians later embraced, include:
- Love God.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
- Forgive others who have wronged you.
- Love your enemies.
- Ask God for forgiveness of your sins.
- Jesus is the Messiah and was given the authority to forgive others.
- Repentance of sins is essential.
- Don’t be hypocritical.
- Don’t judge others.
- The Kingdom of God is near. It’s not the rich and powerful—but the weak and poor—who will inherit this kingdom.
In one of Jesus’s most famous speeches, which became known as the Sermon on the Mount, he summarized many of his moral instructions for his followers.
READ MORE: The Bible Says Jesus Was Real. What Other Proof Exists?
Jesus’s Death and Resurrection
Many scholars believe Jesus died between 30 A.D. and 33 A.D., although the exact date is debated among theologians.
According to the Bible, Jesus was arrested, tried and condemned to death. Roman governor Pontius Pilate issued the order to kill Jesus after being pressured by Jewish leaders who alleged that Jesus was guilty of a variety of crimes, including blasphemy.
Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, and his body was laid in a tomb. According to scripture, three days after his crucifixion, Jesus’s body was missing.
In the days after Jesus’s death, some people reported sightings and encounters with him. Authors in the Bible say the resurrected Jesus ascended into Heaven.
READ MORE: The History of Easter
The Christian Bible
The Christian Bible is a collection of 66 books written by various authors. It’s divided into two parts: The Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Old Testament, which is also recognized by followers of Judaism, describes the history of the Jewish people, outlines specific laws to follow, details the lives of many prophets, and predicts the coming of the Messiah.
The New Testament was written after Jesus’s death. The first four books—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—are known as the “Gospels,” which means “good news.” These texts, composed sometime between 70 A.D. and 100 A.D., provide accounts of the life and death of Jesus.
Letters written by early Christian leaders, which are known as “epistles,” make up a large part of the New Testament. These letters offer instructions for how the church should operate.
The Acts of the Apostles is a book in the New Testament that gives an account of the apostles’ ministry after Jesus’s death. The author of Acts is the same author as one of the Gospels—it is effectively “part two” to the Gospels, what happened after Jesus’s death and resurrection.
The final book in the New Testament, Revelation, describes a vision and prophecies that will occur at the end of the world, as well as metaphors to describe the state of the world.
READ MORE: A Tour of the Biblical Treasures at D.C.'s New Museum of the Bible
History of Christianity
According to the Bible, the first church organized itself 50 days after Jesus’s death on the Day of Pentecost—when the Holy Spirit was said to descend onto Jesus’s followers.
Most of the first Christians were Jewish converts, and the church was centered in Jerusalem. Shortly after the creation of the church, many Gentiles (non-Jews) embraced Christianity.
Early Christians considered it their calling to spread and teach the gospel. One of the most important missionaries was the apostle Paul, a former persecutor of Christians.
Paul’s conversion to Christianity after he had a supernatural encounter with Jesus is described in Acts of the Apostles. Paul preached the gospel and established churches throughout the Roman Empire, Europe and Africa.
Many historians believe Christianity wouldn’t be as widespread without the work of Paul. In addition to preaching, Paul is thought to have written 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament.
READ MORE: Inside the Conversion Tactics of the Early Christian Church
Persecution of Christians
Early Christians were persecuted for their faith by both Jewish and Roman leaders.
In 64 A.D., Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a fire that broke out in Rome. Many were brutally tortured and killed during this time.
Under Emperor Domitian, Christianity was illegal. If a person confessed to being a Christian, he or she was executed.
Starting in 303 A.D., Christians faced the most severe persecutions to date under the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius. This became known as the Great Persecution.
Constantine Embraces Christianity
When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, religious tolerance shifted in the Roman Empire.
During this time, there were several groups of Christians with different ideas about how to interpret scripture and the role of the church.
In 313 A.D., Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity with the Edict of Milan. He later tried to unify Christianity and resolve issues that divided the church by establishing the Nicene Creed.
Many scholars believe Constantine’s conversion was a turning point in Christian history.
The Catholic Church
In 380 A.D., Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholicism the state religion of the Roman Empire. The Pope, or Bishop of Rome, operated as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholics expressed a deep devotion for the Virgin Mary, recognized the seven sacraments, and honored relics and sacred sites.
When the Roman Empire collapsed in 476 A.D., differences emerged among Eastern and Western Christians.
In 1054 A.D., the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox church split into two groups.
Between about 1095 A.D. and 1230 A.D., the Crusades, a series of holy wars, took place. In these battles, Christians fought against Islamic rulers and their Muslim soldiers to reclaim holy land in the city of Jerusalem.
The Christians were successful in occupying Jerusalem during some of the Crusades, but they were ultimately defeated.
After the Crusades, the Catholic Church’s power and wealth increased.
READ MORE: Why Muslims See the Crusades So Differently from Christians
In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther published 95 Theses—a text that criticized certain acts of the Pope and protested some of the practices and priorities of the Roman Catholic church.
Later, Luther publicly said that the Bible didn’t give the Pope the sole right to read and interpret scripture.
Luther’s ideas triggered the Reformation—a movement that aimed to reform the Catholic church. As a result, Protestantism was created, and different denominations of Christianity eventually began to form.
Types of Christianity
Christianity is broadly split into three branches: Catholic, Protestant and (Eastern) Orthodox.
The Catholic branch is governed by the Pope and Catholic bishops around the world. The Orthodox (or Eastern Orthodox) is split into independent units each governed by a Holy Synod; there is no central governing structure akin to the Pope.
There are numerous denominations within Protestant Christianity, many of which differ in their interpretation of the Bible and understanding of the church.
Some of the many denominations that fall under the category of Protestant Christianity include:
- Assemblies of God
- Christian Reform/Dutch Reform
- Church of the Nazarene
- Disciples of Christ
- United Church of Christ
- Christian Science
- Seventh-Day Adventist
Although the many sects of Christianity have differing views, uphold separate traditions and worship in distinct ways, the core of their faith is centered around the life and teachings of Jesus.
Christianity Fast Facts. CNN.
The Basics of Christian History. BBC.
Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Harvard Divinity School.
Life and Teachings of Jesus. Harvard Divinity School.
Legitimization Under Constantine. PBS.
Christianity - Dogma, Definition and Beliefs - HISTORY
2. ( n. ) A formally stated and authoritatively settled doctrine a definite, established, and authoritative tenet.
3. ( n. ) A doctrinal notion asserted without regard to evidence or truth an arbitrary dictum.
dog'-ma (dogma, from dokeo, "that which seems," "an opinion," particularly the opinion of a philosopher):
In the decadent period of Greek philosophy, the opinion, or ipse dixit, of the master of a philosophical school came to be quoted as authoritative truth also, the opinion of a sovereign imposed as law upon his subjects: a decree or ordinance of the civil authority. The word never appears in English Versions of the Bible, although it is used 5 times in the Greek New Testament, but with the one exception of Acts 16:4, in a sense widely different from that which ecclesiastical usage has given to it from the 2nd century downward. "Dogma" is used in the New Testament,
(1) of Roman laws: "a decree (Greek dogma) from Caesar Augustus" (Luke 2:1) "the decrees of Caesar" (Acts 17:7) = the whole body of Roman law
(2) of ordinances of religious law: "the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Ephesians 2:15) "the bond written in ordinances" (Colossians 2:14) = the Mosaic ordinances as expressing the moral law which condemned the sinner, and whose enmity Christ abolished by His death. It is a significant revelation of the spirit of Greek theology that all the Greek commentators understood by ordinances in these two places, the gospel as a body of dogmas which had removed the commandment or bond that was against us (see Lightfoot, Colossians, at the place)
(3) of the decrees of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:20), which Paul and his companions delivered to the Gentilechurches (Acts 16:4). Here we have one element that entered into the later ecclesiastical meaning of the word. These dogmas were decisions on religious matters, imposed by a more or less authoritative council of the church as a condition of admission to its membership.
There is however one important difference. These decrees relate to moral and ceremonial matters, but from the 2nd century downward, dogma means especially a theological doctrine. In Greek theology "doctrine" and "dogma" meant the same thing. Each had its origin in the opinion of some great teacher each rested upon revelation and claimed its authority each meant an exposition of a particular truth of the gospel, and of the whole Christian truth, which the church adopted as the only right exposition. Each word might be used for the teaching of a philosopher, or of a heretic, although for the latter, "heresy" became the regular term. On the one side stood the doctrines or dogmas of the majority or the "Catholic" church, and on the other side, those of the heretics. So long as the "Catholic" ideal of orthodoxy and uniformity of belief held the field, there was no room for the distinction now made between "doctrine," as a scientific and systematic expression of the truth of the Christian religion, and "dogma," as those truths "authoritatively ratified as expressing the belief of the church." This distinction could only arise when men began to think that various expressions of Christian truth could coexist in the church, and is therefore quite modern and even recent. Dogma in this sense denotes the ancient conception of theology as an authoritative system of orthodoxy, and doctrine, the modern conception, outside the dogmatic churches, where theology is regarded as a scientific exposition of truth.
Harnack, History of Dogma, I, chapter i Drummond, Studies in Christian Doctrine, 1-7.
What Are Dogma, Doctrine, and Theology?
Many people are curious about the difference between dogma and doctrine. I'm asked about it surprisingly often.
It would be nice if the Church had an official dictionary I could use to answer this question, but it doesn't.
Instead, it uses terms in documents and most of the time it expects you to already know them. Sometimes it gives you a partial definition, or at least clues about what a word means, but in general it leaves the writing of dictionary-style definitions to the writers of Catholic dictionaries.
Recently I wrote a study of the terms "dogma," "doctrine," and "theology." You can read it here, but in this post I'll give you with the results in an easy-to-read form.
What Is Theology?
The broadest of the three categories is theology. The name "theology" is derived from a couple of Greek words (theos and logos) which combine to mean "the study of God."
You could study God in different ways, though. You might study him based on what he has revealed in his word, which is found in sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition.
Or you could study him in other ways, such as using philosophical reasoning without divine revelation--the way that Plato and Aristotle did.
To keep the philosophical study of God separate from theology, it is customary to add a qualifier and say that theology is the study of God based on divine revelation.
That's the standard, brief definition of what theology is (see, for example, the glossary at the back of an English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
You'll note that it does not say anything about who is studying God. You don't, for example, have to be the pope or even a bishop to do theology.
Some people--theologians--do it professionally, and others do it informally.
In the broadest sense, any person who is reasoning about God based on divine revelation is doing theology--though that's very far from saying that they are doing it well, as the enormous amount of theological confusion that is out there illustrates.
Precisely because of that theological confusion, God has given the Church a teaching authority--the Magisterium (from the Latin, magister = teacher).
This leads us to the next concept . . .
What Is Doctrine?
The term "doctrine" comes from the Latin word doctrina, which simply means "teaching."
As used today, though, the word means a bit more than that. Ideas developed by a faithful Catholic theologian may represent Catholic theology but that do not make them Catholic doctrine.
For that the intervention of the Magisterium is needed, so a basic definition of the term is that a doctrine is a proposition (or set of propositions) taught by the Magisterium of the Church.
In some cases the term "doctrine" may be used to refer to things that have been infallibly taught by the Magisterium. It may even be used as a synonym for "dogma," but it is easy to show that this is not always the case.
For example, the Code of Canon Law provides that:
Can. 749 §3. No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.
All dogmas are infallibly defined, as we will see, so this reveals that there can be doctrines that are not infallible and thus that are not dogmas.
What Is Dogma?
The Greek word dogma originally meant "opinion," but it has come to mean something much more specific.
The current understanding of "dogma" arose in the 1700s (so be warned that earlier documents, such as the writings of the Fathers or Medievals like St. Thomas Aquinas tend to use the term in the broader sense of just a theological opinion).
Cardinal Avery Dulles explains the present meaning of the term:
In current Catholic usage, the term “dogma” means a divinely revealed truth, proclaimed as such by the infallible teaching authority of the Church, and hence binding on all the faithful without exception, now and forever. [The Survival of Dogma, 153].
There are two essential elements here: First, a dogma must be divinely revealed. That is to say, it must be found explicitly or implicitly in the deposit of faith that Christ gave the Church. This is found in sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition. If something is to be a dogma, it must be in one of those two places--or in both of them.
Second, a dogma must be infallibly taught by the Magisterium as divinely revealed.
This is an important qualifier, because the Magisterium is capable of infallibly defining certain things that aren't divinely revealed. According to Church teaching, the Magisterium is able to infallibly teach both things that have been divinely revealed and truths that have a certain kind of connection with them, so that they may be properly explained and defended.
For example, suppose a particular pope or ecumenical council tried to infallibly define a particular teaching but that later a question arose about whether he was really a valid pope or whether it was really an ecumenical council.
If the Magisterium did not have the ability to infallibly settle that question then the status of the previous definition would be uncertain, which would defeat the point of infallibly defining it.
To resolve this kind of situation, God gave the Church the ability not only to define dogmas but also the fact that a particular man was a valid pope or that a particular council was ecumenical.
These facts were not revealed by God as part of the deposit of faith that Christ gave the Church, though. They're facts that deals with later history, after the close of public revelation.
Still, they are facts that are necessary to properly defend a dogma, and so they are called "dogmatic facts" (facts connected with dogmas).
This is just one kind of example of non-revealed things that the Church can infallibly define. There are others.
The point, though, is that the Church can infallibly define certain things that are not divinely revealed and thus things other than dogmas.
Thus for the Church to define a dogma, it must not only infallibly teach that a particular point is true but that it is a divinely revealed truth.
From Theology to Dogma
The Church is not in the habit of leaping straight to the dogma stage. It tends to define dogmas only rarely, and usually only when there is a controversy about them that needs to be settled.
Most of the time it leaves particular matters at the level of non-infallible doctrine.
Or it leaves it as a matter freely discussed by theologians but not taught by the Church--ie., at the level of a theological opinion.
Historically, the progression often works like this:
1) A theologian or theological school proposes a way of understanding the revelation God has given the Church.
2) If it deems this a valuable and important contribution to the understanding of divine revelation, the Magisterium may begin to teach this authoritatively, raising it to the level of non-infallible doctrine.
3) Particularly if a controversy over the teaching arises at some point in Church history, the Magisterium may choose to settle the matter infallibly by defining the matter.
4) The Magisterium may infallibly define the matter with or without defining that it is a divinely revealed truth, but if it does the latter then then it elevates the matter to the level of dogma.
By the Way . . .
Incidentally, if you're interested in this type of information, you might want to check out my Secret Information Club.
If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.
I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.
The very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is an “interview” I did with Pope Benedict on the book of Revelation. What I did was compose questions about the book of Revelation and take the answers from his writings.
He has a lot of interesting things to say!
If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:
Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.
In the meantime, what do you think?
Jimmy Akin Jimmy was born in Texas and grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
The context of the late medieval church
The Protestant Reformation occurred against the background of the rich ferment of the late medieval church and society. It has been difficult for two reasons to gain a proper understanding of the relationship between the late Middle Ages and the Reformation. One reason is the tradition of the sectarian historiography of the period. Catholic historians had an interest in showing how much reform occurred before and apart from the activities of the Protestant reformers of the 16th century. Protestant historians, on the other hand, portrayed the late medieval church in the most negative terms to show the necessity of the Reformation, which was characterized as a movement that broke completely with a corrupt past.
The second reason for difficulty in understanding the period is that the 15th-century critics of the church were not “Pre-Reformers” they neither anticipated Protestantism nor acquired their importance from the Reformation. The events of that period were also not “Pre-Reformation” happenings but had an identity and meaning of their own.
The existence of reform efforts in the 15th-century church from Spain and Italy northward through Germany, France, and England has long been acknowledged. Some of these were directed against abuses by the papacy, the clergy, and monks and nuns. The pious, for example, abhorred Pope Innocent VIII (1484–92), who performed marriage ceremonies for his own illegitimate children in the Vatican, and Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503), who bribed his way to the throne of St. Peter and had fathered eight children by three women by the time he became pope. The public was also increasingly aware of and angered by extravagant papal projects—patronage of art and architecture, wars of conquest—for which funds were exacted from the faithful.
The distaste for the papacy increased at a time of rising nationalist spirit. The popes, who had long intervened in European political affairs, faced setbacks when European monarchs acquired new power and asserted it against both the papacy and the local clergy.
During this time of rising national consciousness, a generation of theologians appeared who remained entirely within the context of medieval Roman Catholicism but who engaged in fundamental criticisms of it. Thus William of Ockham (died 1349?) spoke up as a reformer within the Franciscan order, which he hoped to return to its original strict rule of apostolic poverty. Ockham argued that Pope John XXII was a heretic because he denied that Jesus and the Apostles were possessionless. Ockham saw the papacy and empire as independent but related realms. He believed that when the church was in danger of heresy, lay people—princes and commoners alike—must come to its rescue. This meant reform.
Another English theologian, John Wycliffe, also challenged the church’s abuse of power and questioned its doctrines. Wycliffe encouraged reform of the church and its teachings and granted uncommon spiritual authority to the king. His primary source of inspiration for reform was the Bible. Wycliffe gave impetus to its translation, and in 1380 he helped make it available to rulers and ruled alike.
In Bohemia, Jan Hus, who became rector of the University of Prague, used that school as his base to criticize lax clergy and the recent prohibition of offering the cup of wine to communicants. He also exploited nationalist feelings and argued that the pope had no right to use the temporal sword. Hus’s bold accusations were judged heretical and led to his death by burning at the Council of Constance in 1415.
Alongside a piety that combined moral revulsion with nationalism, Christian humanism was a further sign of unrest in the late medieval church. In Italy Lorenzo Valla (1407–57) used philology and historical inquiry to expose a number of forgeries, including the Donation of Constantine, which purportedly granted control over the Western Roman Empire to the pope. In Germany Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) studied Greek and Hebrew, the biblical languages, and was involved in an international controversy that pitted intellectual freedom against ecclesiastical authority. Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536), the most famous and important of the Northern or Christian humanists, used his vast learning and his satiric pen to question the practices of the church. Because of his philosophy of Christ, which stressed a focus on the Bible and rejected much medieval superstition, Erasmus, a lifelong Catholic, was accused of laying the egg that hatched Luther.
While these reformers attacked people in high places, they also regarded the Catholicism of ordinary people as needing reform. Such practices as pilgrims visiting shrines or parishioners regarding the relics of saints with awe were open to abuse. The pestilences and plagues of the 14th century had bred an inordinate fear of death, which led to the exploitation of simple people by a church that was, in effect, offering salvation for sale.
Despite instances of anticlericalism and polemics against the church, most of the faithful remained loyal and found the church to be the vehicle of their eternal salvation. Nothing is more erroneous than the notion that, early in the 16th century, Europe was ripe for a reform of the church.
Paul and the early churchSaint Paul ©
It has been suggested that the work of Jesus Christ and the impact of his death and resurrection would not have made any lasting impact on the world were it not for the missionary work of Paul.
The account of Paul's conversion to Christianity is contained in the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles.
Before his conversion Paul had been known as Saul and had been violently opposed to the Christian faith as taught by Jesus and after his death, by his disciples.
Saul experienced a dramatic conversion, known as the Damascus Road conversion, when he was temporarily blinded.
He found himself filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately began preaching the Christian gospel.
Paul's concept of Christianity
Paul's teaching centred on understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a central turning point in history.
He understood the resurrection to signal the end of the need to live under Jewish law.
Instead Paul taught of living in the Spirit in which the power of God was made to work through human flesh.
Some of his letters to fledgling churches throughout the Roman Empire are contained in the New Testament and outline Paul's theology.
He insisted that Gentiles had as much access to the faith as Jews and that freedom from the Law set everyone free.
It was this teaching which was essential for the development and success of the early church which would otherwise have remained nothing more than another Jewish sect.
What is dogmatic theology?
Dogmatic theology gets its name from the Greek and Latin word dogma which, when referring to theology, simply means “a doctrine or body of doctrines formally and authoritatively affirmed.” Basically, dogmatic theology refers to the official or “dogmatic” theology as recognized by an organized church body, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Dutch Reformed Church, etc.
While the term dogmatic theology is thought to have first appeared in 1659 in the title of a book by L. Reinhardt, the term became more widely used following the Reformation and was used to designate the articles of faith that the church had officially formulated. A good example of dogmatic theology is the doctrinal statements or dogmas that were formulated by the early church councils who sought to resolve theological problems and to take a stand against heretical teaching. The creeds or dogmas that came out of the church councils were considered to be authoritative and binding on all Christians because the church officially affirmed them. One of the purposes of dogmatic theology is to enable a church body to formulate and communicate the doctrine that is considered essential to Christianity and which, if denied, would constitute heresy.
Dogmatic theology is sometimes confused with systematic theology, and the two terms are at times used interchangeably. However, there are subtle but important differences between the two. To understand the difference between systematic theology and dogmatic theology, it is important to notice that the term “dogma” emphasizes not only the statements from Scripture, but also the ecclesiastical, authoritative affirmation of those statements. The fundamental difference between systematic theology and dogmatic theology is that systematic theology does not require official sanction or endorsement by a church or ecclesiastical body, while dogmatic theology is directly connected to a particular church body or denomination. Dogmatic theology normally discusses the same doctrines and often uses the same outline and structure as systematic theology, but does so from a particular theological stance, affiliated with a specific denomination or church.
Dangerous Religious Beliefs #5: Jesus, Mohammad and Other Prophets Were a Special Kind of Human that You Can Never Be
Many of the world’s main religions love to teach that there is something special or magical about their prophet, as opposed to other religions, spiritual paths and traditions, and also as opposed to YOU! This is another example showing that most organized religion is based on separation, not connectedness. Jesus is the ONLY son of God – you are not. The false notion is that all the prophets are not leaders you can emulate, but rather godly beings who you need to put on a pedestal and worship. You can never be as good as they were, because you’re just a dirty little sinner. All this, of course, is in direct contradiction to what Jesus actually said, if we are to believe the Gospel of John 14:12:
“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.”
Greater works than Jesus – I wonder how the Christian censors let that one through!
The essentials of Christianity
We have so far seen, in its origin and growth, the essential independence of Christianity of all other religious systems, except that of Judaism, with which, however, its relation was merely that of substance to shadow. It is now time to point out its distinctive doctrines.
In early Christianity there was much that was transitory and exceptional. It was not presented full-grown to the world, but left to develop in accordance with the forces and tendencies that were implanted in it from the first by its Founder. And we, having His assurance that His Spirit would abide with it for all time, to inspire and regulate its human elements, can see in its subsequent history the working out of His design. Hence, it does not trouble us to find in primitive Christianity qualities which did not survive after they had served their purpose. Natural causes and the course of events, always under the Divine guidance, resulted in Christianity taking on the form which would best secure its permanence and efficiency. In Apostolic times, supreme authority as to faith and morals was vested in twelve representatives of Christ, each of whom was commissioned to proclaim and infallibly interpret His Gospel. The hierarchy was in an inchoate condition. Special charismata, like the gifts of prophecy and tongues, were bestowed on individuals outside the official teaching body. The Church was in process of organization, and the various Christian communities, united, doubtless, in a strong bond of charity, and in the sense that they had one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, were to a large extent independent of one another in the matter of government.
Such was the fashion in which Christ allowed His Church to be established. It has greatly changed in outward appearances during the ages. Has there been any corresponding change in substance? Are the essentials of Christianity the same now as they were then? We affirm that they are, and we prove our assertion by examining the main points of the teaching, both of Christ and His Apostles. We must look upon the matter as a whole. We cannot judge of Christianity properly before the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Gospels describe a process which was not consummated till after Pentecost. The Apostles themselves were not fully Christians till they knew through faith all that Christ was &mdash their God and their Redeemer as well as their Master. And as Christianity furnishes a regulative principle for both mind and will, teaching us what to believe and what to do, faith no less than works must characterize the perfect Christian.
The teaching of Christ
Taking, then, first of all, Christ's own dogmatic and moral teaching, we may divide it into (a) what He did not reveal but only reaffirmed, (b) what He drew from obscurity, and (c) what He added to the sum total of belief and practice.
(a) The Jews, at the time of Christ, however worldly-minded, were at any rate free from their ancestral tendency to idolatry. They were strict monotheists, believing in the unity, power, and holiness of the Supreme Deity. Christ reaffirmed, purified, and confirmed the Jewish theology, both moral and dogmatic. He asserted the spiritual nature of the Godhead (John 1:18 4:24), and insisted on the importance of worshipping Him in spirit, i.e. with more than merely external rites. And he exacted the same right dispositions of heart in the whole of God's service, showing how both guilt and merit depend on the will and intention (Matthew 5:28 15:18). He recalled the original unity and indissolubility of the marriage-tie. He brought into prominence the immortality, and hence the transcendent importance, of the human soul (Matthew 16:26), as against the heresy of the Sadducees and the worldliness of the Jews in general. In all these points He fulfilled the Law by showing its real and full significance.
(b) But He did not stop here. Taking the great central precept of the Old Dispensation &mdash the love of God &mdash He pointed out all its implications and made clear that the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God, so imperfectly grasped under the law of fear, was the immediate source of the doctrine of the brotherhood of men, which the Jews had never realized at all. He never tired of dwelling on the loving kindness and the tender providence of His Father, and He insisted equally on the duty of loving all men, summing up the whole of His ethical teaching in the observance of the law of love (Matthew 5:43 22:40). This universal charity He designed to be the mark of His true followers (John 13:45), and in it, therefore, we must see the genuine Christian spirit, so distinct from everything that had hitherto been seen on earth that the precept which inspired it He called "new" (John 13:34). Christ's clear and definite teaching, moreover, about the life to come, the final judgment resulting in an eternity of happiness or misery, the strict responsibility which attaches to the smallest human actions, is in great contrast to the current Jewish eschatology. By substituting eternal sanctions for earthly rewards and punishments, He raised and ennobled the motives for the practice of virtue, and set before human ambition an object wholly worthy of the adopted sons of God, the extension of their Father's Kingdom in their own souls and in the souls of others.
(c) Among the doctrines added by Christ to the Jewish faith, the chief, of course, are those concerning Himself, including the central dogma of the whole Christian system, the Incarnation of God the Son. In regard to Himself, Christ made two claims, though not with equal insistence. He asserted that He was the Messias of Jews, the expected of the nations, Whose mission it was to undo the effects of the Fall and to reconcile man with God and He claimed to be Himself God, equal to, and one with, the Father. In support of this double claim, He pointed to the fulfilment of the prophecies, and He worked many miracles. His claim to be the Messias was not admitted by the leaders of His nation had it been admitted, He would doubtless have manifested His Divinity more clearly. Most modern rationalists (Harnack, Wellhausen, and others) acknowledge that Christ from the beginning of His preaching knew Himself as the Messias, and accepted the various titles which belong in the Scripture to that personage &mdash Son of David, Son of Man (Daniel 7:13), the Christ (see John 14:24 Matthew 16:16 Mark 14:61-62). In one passage &mdash and very significant one &mdash He applies the name to Himself &mdash "But this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3).
In regard to His Divinity, His claim is clear, but not emphasized. We cannot say that the title "Son of God", which is repeatedly given to Him in the Gospels (John 1:34 Matthew 27:40 Mark 3:12 15:39, etc.), and which He is described as taking to Himself (Matthew 27:43 John 10:36), necessarily of itself connotes a Divine personality and in the mouths of several of the speakers, e.g. in the exclamation of Nathaniel, "Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God", it presumably does not. But in the confession of St. Peter (Matthew 16:16) the circumstances point to more than a mere amplification of the Messianic title. That title was at that time in habitual use in regard to Jesus, and there would have been nothing significant in Peter's expression and in Christ's glad acceptance of it, if it had not gone further than the common belief. Christ hailed St. Peter's confession as a special revelation, not as a mere deduction from external facts. When we compare this with that other declaration narrated in the same Gospel (Matthew 26:62-66), where, in answer to the high-priest's adjuration, 'I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us if thou be the Christ the Son of God", Jesus replied, "Thou has said it" (i.e., "I am" see Mark 14:62), we cannot reasonably doubt that Christ claimed to be Divine. The Jews so understood this and put Him to death as a blasphemer.
Another prominent feature in the theology of Christ was His doctrine about the Paraclete. When, in St. John's gospel (14:16-17), He says "And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you forever, the spirit of truth", it is impossible to believe that what He promises is a mere abstraction, not a person like Himself. In verse 26, the personality is still more marked: "And the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father shall send in my name, He will teach you all things". (Cf. 15:26, "But when the Paraclete shall come whom I shall send you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father" etc.) It may be that the full meaning of those words was not realized till the Spirit did actually come moreover, the revelation was made, of course, only to His immediate followers still, no unbiased mind can deny that Christ here speaks of a personal influence as a distinct Divine entity a distinction and a Divinity which is further implied in the baptismal formula He afterwards instituted (Matthew 28:19).
Christ took up the burden of the preaching of His precursor and proclaimed the advent of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, a conception already familiar in the Old Testament [Psalm 144:11-13], but furnished with a wider and more varied content in the words of Christ. It may be taken to mean, according to the context, the Messianic Kingdom in its true spiritual sense, i.e. the Church of God which Christ came to found, wherein to store up and perpetuate the benefits of the Incarnation (cf. The parables of the wheat and the tares, the dragnet, and the wedding feast), or the reign of God in the heart that submits to His sovereignty (Luke 16:21), or the abode of the blessed (Matthew 5:20 etc.). It was the main topic of His preaching, which was occupied in showing what dispositions of mind and heart and will, were necessary for entrance into "the Kingdom", what, in other words, was the Christian ideal. Regarded as the Church, He preached the Kingdom to the multitude in parables only, reserving fuller explanations to private intercourse with His Apostles (Acts 1:3).
The last great dogma which we learn from the life, preaching, and death of Christ is the doctrine of Redemption. "For the Son of Man also came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a redemption for many" (Mark 10:45). The sacrificial character of His death is clearly stated at the Last Supper: "This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins" (Matthew 26:28). And He ordained the perpetuation of that Sacrifice by His Disciples in the words: "Do this in commemoration of me" (Luke 22:19). Christ, knowing the counsels of His Father, deliberately set Himself to realize in His own person the portrait of the suffering servant of Jahveh, so vividly painted by Isaias (chapter 53), a Messias Who should triumph through death and defeat. This was a strange revelation to Israel and the world. What wonder that so novel an idea could not enter the Apostles' minds till it had actually been realized and further explained by the Divine Victim himself (Luke 24:27, 45). Thus, first of all in action, Christ preached the great doctrine of the Atonement, and, by raising Himself from the dead, He added another proof to those establishing His Divine mission and His Divine personality. But, naturally enough, He left the more explicit teaching on these points to His chosen witnesses, whose presentment of Christianity we shall presently examine.
To turn now to what is new in the moral teachings of Christ, we may say, once for all, that it embodied ethical perfection. There may be development of doctrine, but, after the Sermon on the Mount, there can be no further evolution of morals. God's own perfection is set as the standard (Matthew 5:48). Duty was the principal motive in the Old Dispensation in the New this was sublimated into love. Men were taught to serve not on account of the penal ties attached to non-service, but on principles of generosity. Before, God's will was to be the aim of the creature's performance now, His good pleasure also was to be sought. "What things are pleasing to Him, these do I always" (John 8:29), and by action even more than by word Christ taught the lesson of voluntary self-sacrifice. Never till His time were the Evangelical counsels &mdash voluntary poverty, perpetual chastity, and entire obedience &mdash preached or practised. From no previous moral code, however, exalted, could the Beatitudes have been evolved. Meekness and humility were unknown as virtues to the heathen, and despised by the Jew. Christ made them the ground-work of the whole moral edifice. To realize what new thing Christ's ethical teaching brought into the world and put within the grasp of everyone, we have only to think of the great host of the Christian saints. For they are the true disciples of the Cross, those who imbibed and expressed His spirit best, who had the courage to test the truth of that Divine paradox which forms the substance of Christ's moral message "He that shall wish to save his soul shall lose it, but he that shall lose his soul on my account shall find it" (Matthew 16:25 cf. Mark 8:35 Luke 9:24 17:33 John 12:25). That was the course He Himself adopted &mdash the way of the Cross &mdash and His disciples were not above their Master. Self-conquest as a preliminary to conquering the world of God &mdash that was the lesson taught by Christ's life, and still more by His passion and death.
The teaching of the Apostles
Does the Christianity presented to us in the rest of the writings of the New Testament differ from that described in the Gospels? And if so, is the difference one of kind or one of degree? We have seen that Christianity must not be judged in the making, but as a finished product. It was never meant to be fully set forth in the Gospels, where it is presented mainly in action. "I have yet many things to say to you: but you cannot bear them now", said Christ in His last discourse. "But when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will teach you all truth . . . and the things that are to come he shall show you" (John 16:12, 13). We may presume that Christ Himself told them these many things when "He showed himself alive after his passion, by many proofs, for forty days appearing to them, and speaking of the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3), and that they were rendered permanent in the minds of the Apostles by the indwelling of the Spirit of Truth after Pentecost. Accordingly, we must expect to find in their teaching a more formal, more theoretic, and more dogmatic exposition of Christianity than in the drama of Christ's life. But what we have no right to expect, and what rationalists always do expect, is to find the whole of Christianity in its written records. Christ nowhere prescribed writing as a means of promulgating His gospel. It was comparatively late in the Apostolic Age, and apparently in obedience to no preconceived plan, that the sacred books began to appear. Many Christians must have lived and died before those books existed, or without knowledge of them. And so we cannot argue from the non-appearance of any particular tenet to its non-existence, nor from its first mention to its first invention &mdash fallacies which often vitiate the erudite researches of the rationalists.
The main heads of the Apostolic preaching, as far as we can gather from the records, vary with the character of the audiences they addressed. To the Jews they dwelt upon the marvellous fulfilment of the prophesies in Christ, showing that, in spite of the manner of His life and death, He was actually the Messias, and that their redemption from sin had really been accomplished by His sacrifice on the Cross. This was the burden of St. Peter's discourses (Acts 2 and 3) and those of St. Stephen and all who addressed the Jews in their synagogues (cf. Acts 26:22-23). Once convinced of the reality of Christ's mission and the seal God set upon it by His Resurrection, they were received into the Christian body to discover more at leisure all the implications of their belief. In regard to the Gentiles, the same striking fact of the Resurrection was in the forefront of the Apostolic teaching, but more stress was laid upon the divinity of Christ. Still, St. Paul, whose peculiar mission it was to approve the new revelation to those that sat in darkness and had no common ground of belief with the Jews, did not consider that his Gospel was anything different from that of the others. "I have laboured more abundantly than all they: yet not I, but the grace of God with me: for, whether I, or they, so we preach, and you have believed" (1 Corinthians 15:10-11).
This definiteness and uniformity of content in the Apostolic message, and this sense of responsibility in regard to its character, is still more strikingly emphasized by the same Apostle in the next Epistle, wherein, rebuking the Galatians for giving heed to innovators "who would pervert the Gospel of Christ", he exclaims: 'Yet, though we ourselves or an angel from heaven preach a gospel other than that we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:7, 8). There is no trace here of uncertainty or ignorance as to what Christianity meant, or of any tentative groping in search of truth. Even then, when theological science was in its infancy, we find the Apostle exhorting Timothy to keep to the very phrases in which he has received the Faith, "the form of sound words", avoiding "profane novelties of expression" (1 Timothy 6:20 2 Timothy 1:13). Once again "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:14). And those traditions were directly communicated by Christ Himself to His Apostle, as he tells us in many passages &mdash "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you" (1 Corinthians 11:23), and again "For I delivered unto you first of all what I received" (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Many rationalists have professed to discover in the apostolic writings various kinds of Christianity mutually antagonistic and all alike illegitimate developments of the original Gospel. We have Pauline, Petrine, Joannine Christianity, as distinguished from the Christianity of Christ. But those theories which ignore Catholic tradition and supernatural guidance, and rest on the written records alone, are gradually being abandoned, helped to their disappearance by the critics themselves, who have little respect for each others' hypotheses. We may take the Apostolic messages as one self-consistent whole, any apparent discrepancies or want of coherence being amply accounted for by the different circumstances of their deliverance.
This preaching, therefore, reduced to its simplest form, was: The Resurrection of Christ as a proof of His Divinity and Incarnation, a guarantee of His teaching and a pledge of man's salvation.
On the historic fact of the Resurrection the whole of Christianity is based. If He was not truly slain, Christ cannot have been man if he did not rise again, He cannot have been God. St. Paul does not hesitate to stake everything on the truth of this fact: If Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith also is vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God" (1 Corinthians 15:14-15). Consequently, God's providence has so arranged matters that the proofs of Christ's Resurrection place the fact beyond all reasonable doubt.
But if St. Paul is so emphatic about the foundation of the Christian Faith, he is also careful to erect the edifice upon it. It is to him that we owe the statement of the doctrine of grace, that wonderful gift of God to regenerate man. Christ had already taught, in the allegory of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-17), that there can be no salutary action on the part of the faithful without vital communication with Him. This great truth is expanded in many passages by St. Paul (Philippians 2:13 Romans 8:9-11 1 Corinthians 15:10 2 Corinthians 3:5 Galatians 4:5-6) wherein regenerate man learns that he is God's adopted son and united with Him by the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. This privilege is what man gains by Christ's redemption, the benefits of which are applied to his soul by baptism and other sacraments. And St. Paul is not only the chief exponent of this doctrine, but he alone of the Apostles promulgates anew the mystery of the Blessed Eucharist, the principal fountain of grace (1 Corinthians 11:23, 24 cf. John 4:13-14).
We need not pursue farther the development of doctrine amongst the Apostles. The Christianity they preached was received from Christ Himself, and His Spirit prevented them from misconceiving or misinterpreting it. On the strength of His commission they insisted on the obedience of faith, they denounced heresy, and with skill, incredible had it not been Divine, they preserved the truth committed to them in the midst of a perverse, subtle and corrupt civilization. That same Divine skill has remained with Christianity ever since heresy after heresy has attacked the Faith and been defeated, leaving the fortress all the more impregnable for its onset. The Christianity we profess today is the Christianity of Christ and His Apostles. Just as they were more explicit than He in its verbal formulation, so the Apostolic Church has ever since laboured to express more and more clearly the treasures of doctrine originally committed to her charge. In a sense, we may believe more than our first Christian ancestors, inasmuch as we have a more complete knowledge of the contents of our Faith in a sense, they believed all that we do, for they accepted as we the principle of a Divinely-commissioned teaching authority, to whose dogmatic utterances they were ever prepared to give assent. The same essential oneness of faith and the same variety in its content for the individual exist side by side in the Church today. The trained theologian, deeply versed in the wonders of revelation, and the young or the uneducated who know explicitly little more than the bare essentials of Christianity, knowing the One True God, and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent, believing in the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Church, are equally Christians, equally possessed of the integrity of faith.
The Book of Confessions presents the following beliefs for the Presbyterian faithful to follow:
- The Trinity - We trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.
- Jesus Christ Is God - We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God.
- The Authority of Scripture - Our knowledge of God and God's purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ.
- Justification by Grace through Faith - Our salvation (justification) through Jesus is God's generous gift to us and not the result of our own accomplishments.
- The Priesthood of All Believers - It is everyone's job—ministers and lay people alike—to share this Good News with the whole world. The Presbyterian church is governed at all levels by a combination of clergy and laity, men and women alike.
- The Sovereignty of God - God is the supreme authority throughout the universe.
- Sin - The reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ exposes the evil in men as sin in the sight of God. All people are helpless and subject to God's judgment without forgiveness. In love, God took on himself judgment and shameful death in Jesus Christ, to bring men to repentance and new life.
- Baptism - For both adults and infants, Christian baptism marks the receiving of the same Spirit by all his people. Baptism with water represents not only cleansing from sin but also a dying with Christ and a joyful rising with him to new life.
- The Mission of the Church - To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares his labor of healing the enmities which separate men from God and from each other.
Sacraments - The Christian Reformed Church practices two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism is performed by a minister or ministry associate, by sprinkling water on the forehead but may also be done by immersion. Adults who are baptized are called to make a public confession of faith.
The Lord's Supper is offered as bread and the cup. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood of Christ but are a certain sign that participants receive a full pardon for their sins through communion.
Worship Service - Christian Reformed Church worship services include meeting in the church as a covenant community, Scripture readings and a sermon that proclaim the Word of God, celebrating the Lord's Supper, and dismissal with a command to serve in the outside world. An authentic worship service has an "intrinsically sacramental character."
Social action is an important facet of the CRCNA. Its ministries include radio broadcasts to countries closed to evangelism, work with the disabled, ministries to aboriginal Canadians, work on race relations, World relief, and a host of other missions.