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Defining Christianity

Updated Thursday 22nd October 2009

Accompanying Diarmaid MacCulloch’s series exploring Christianity, Professor John Wolffe expresses his own personal opinions about the places and events which have helped to shape the world’s most popular religion.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Jesus of Nazareth’s parting ‘great commission’ to his followers, as reported in Matthew’s gospel, provides a good starting point for a critical reflection on this television series on the history of Christianity. The imperative to go to ‘all nations’ is well illustrated by Diarmaid MacCulloch’s travels, starting in Jerusalem, like the Christian Church itself, but then journeying as far east as China and Korea and as far west as the United States and Mexico, with numerous stops in between. In an ideal world however, he would have travelled even more widely, taking in for example, the ancient churches of Ethiopia, the long history of Christianity in south India, the distinctive Scottish Presbyterian tradition both at home and abroad, the profound impact of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries on the islands of the Pacific and the growth of Pentecostalism in twentieth-century Latin America.

It’s inevitable that much has had to be left out, but these examples serve to reinforce the underlying message of the series that Christianity is, and always has been, a global religion, and one that’s proven itself remarkably, but often confusingly, adaptable to an enormous variety of cultural and social settings. For much of its history, it’s also co-existed and interacted alongside other religious traditions, from Judaism and classical paganism in its origins, Buddhism and Hinduism in its expansion into Asia, Islam in the Mediterranean world, militant atheism in Soviet Russia to perverted neo-paganism in Nazi Germany. While historical contexts of Christian religious monopoly have certainly existed, the series shows that these instances have been less common than is often supposed.

While Jesus’s commission might at first sight seem straightforward enough, the process of implementing it and interpreting it has, as the series well shows, produced numerous divisions. Above all, how should we view Jesus Christ himself? The centrality of Christ has both held Christianity together and bitterly divided it, largely because of repeated efforts at reconciling the twin concepts of a being who is simultaneously both human and divine. What’s more, although all Christians acknowledge Jesus’s ultimate authority, who mediates that authority today? Is it the text of Scripture, the teachings of a church hierarchy, your own conclusions or the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit? These questions and others besides have been major sources of tension and conflict.

How does an understanding of the history of Christianity help us better to evaluate its significance and future prospects in today’s world? Well, it’s important to remember that although programmes 5 and 6 cover the same timespan, from the eighteenth-century to the present, they reach very different conclusions due to their European and non-European perspectives. Moreover, constraints of space have precluded detailed treatment of other important narratives within the same timeframe. For example, one would have covered the renewal of Roman Catholicism in the nineteenth century, its reform in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and the impact of John Paul II’s papacy at the end of the twentieth century. Another key narrative is that of the diversification of religious life in the West, emphasising not so much secularisation, as the arrival of other faiths into previously Christian strongholds both with the migration of major world religions and the advent of new religious movements.

Whilst it is broadly true that Christianity is continuing to decline in Europe even as it grows in Africa, Asia and Latin America, even that generalisation can conceal fascinating complexities and diversities. On the one hand evangelical and Pentecostal churches in London still draw congregations of many hundreds, while on the other the Christian integrity of some growing churches in the developing world can be compromised by their social or political connections. In the end, although God may sometimes appear to be in the dock, the jury is unlikely to ever reach a clear verdict.

 

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