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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses Christianity from a historical and religious standpoint, tracing its origin in first century A.D./C.E. Judea to the present day, while introducing its main divisions and sects.

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Hello, and welcome. Most of the world's religions have gone through significant changes, branched off into different denominations, migrated throughout the globe, sometimes in the name of conquest, sometimes in the name of freedom.

Well, Christianity shares all of these traits, and it has its own unique story as well. Today, we're going to briefly outline its history, look at some of its founding principles, and we also want to get an idea of its geographical distribution.

Historically, Christianity emerged from within the first Western Abrahamic monotheistic religion, Judaism. And in fact, in the early years, Christianity was a sect within Judaism. The date of the emergence of Christianity, however, is very difficult to pinpoint, mostly because the Gregorian calendar that we use today is entirely based on the events surrounding the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Therefore, our lens of time, if you will, is already refracted and greatly influenced by an orientation of Christian thought. The fact that our global timeframe and reference base is the Christian calendar speaks to the vast influence of Christianity. And when you look more closely, you see that these practical elements point to the religious and metaphysical thought and experience that is part and parcel of the Christian theme.

"Standing on the bare ground-- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space-- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."

This is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a New England Christian theologian, philosopher, and writer from the mid-19th century. There are many atemporal strands within Christianity, and every epic, every century, has its own manifestations of them.

If there was a first manifestation, an original birth of the timeless, a Christian might say that it was the person of Jesus of Nazareth, an immaculate conception through the Virgin Mother Mary. His followers were disciples who were committed to his teachings and the belief that he was the Savior and the Son of God, the Jewish messiah who had been prophesied or foretold in the Hebrew scriptures.

And he was referred to as Emmanuel, which means God with us. And more often, he was called Christ, the Greek word for messiah or anointed one, thus the name Jesus the Christ or Jesus Christ.

Followers believed that as the Son of God, he came to reconcile humankind to God. As God himself in human form, his life, death, and resurrection served to bridge the worlds of the human and the divine. According to the doctrine of original sin, which was elaborated well after the death of Jesus Christ, he came for the remission of sins, to offer everlasting life to all who believed in him as Christ, Lord, and Savior.

And his willful suffering of death on the cross for this purpose represents a magnitude of significance for many that is impossible to quantify. The Bible stories tell of his resurrection three days later, and it took centuries for its symbolic importance to be formed into doctrine.

And finally, the work of fully integrating the non-rational imminent transcendence of his life, his death, and his resurrection, well, these are the projects, the divisions, the heralds, and the unfolding stories of Christianity through time.

The death of Christ is generally given the year 30 AD, Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. However, now we use CE for Common Era. For the first few centuries, believers in the divinity of Christ would have to meet in private as it was forbidden by Roman law. It wasn't until the fourth century under Emperor Constantine that Christians were allowed to practice freely. Christianity was officially legalized in 313 under the Edict of Milan.

For many hundreds of years following that, church councils were meeting to discuss and resolve disputes around issues of creed, and doctrine, and practice. And the central point of contention among the groups had to do with the Filioque. It's a portion of the Nicene Creed, which is recited as prayer to express the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity points to God's unitary nature in the three persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Filioque says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Another version says that it proceeds only from the Father. This was one of the central disagreements for many centuries. And finally, there was a decisive split called the East-West Schism in the 11th century.

Eastern Orthodox in the East, Russian and Greek, and Roman Latin, Roman Catholicism in the West. To this day, it forms the central division or branches of Christianity. In the East, the Eastern Orthodox Church has the greatest number of adherents, approximately 300 million. And worldwide, there are over 1 billion Christians that identify themselves as either Catholics or some denomination of Protestantism, which we'll go over in a minute.

Speaking of time, that was probably a lot less than a minute. Well, anyway, in 1511, a German monk and former Roman Catholic priest was dismayed and angered and driven to revolt against what he felt to be the injustices of the Roman Catholic Church.

He spoke about things concerning the sale of indulgences, little tokens that one could buy as a way of getting into heaven. This was becoming very widespread, and Luther saw the church taking advantage of the average person and abusing their power.

The average person didn't have access to a Bible in their own language. Latin was a scholarly language and most folks spoke only German. So another part of his movement to reform the Church was to translate and distribute the Bible in the language of the lay person.

Luther believed that in addition to availing oneself to the rewards of heaven, one had to first establish a personal relationship with God and Christ by faith alone, sola fide. He felt that this was the original message of the Gospels and that it had gotten polluted by the Roman Catholic greed and politics.

And so in the early 16th century, the Protestant branch of Christianity shot out and flourished first in northern Germany, then England with the Anglican church, which separated from the Roman papacy under Henry VIII in 1536. The Protestant Reformation, the Reformation, was well on its way to being more than just a reforming institution.

In the following several hundred years, new branches and churches would sprout up. And a full autonomy, and standalone authority, and initiative, and innovation were to take place.

Of course, this didn't diminish the breadth and the strength of the Roman Catholic Church. With the age of exploration and colonization came large-scale Christian conversions. As a result, South America is now predominantly Roman Catholic. The US, on the other hand, is traditionally very diverse, but retains its Protestant heritage with approximately 48%.

Of course, the US also has a significant number of Roman Catholics as well, 22%, which leaves plenty of room for other voices. Canada is predominantly Roman Catholic. And Catholicism also has a significant number of adherents in Asia.

Back in Europe, there is, for the most part, a split between the North and South, protestants in the North and Catholics in the center and in the South. However, most Europeans today are non-practicing.

So now we can review. Christianity emerged within Judaism. The first monotheistic Western Abrahamic tradition of Judaism gave rise to Christianity. And Christianity wasn't officially legalized until 313 under Emperor Constantine.

We noted some of the historical shifts and conflicts within Christianity that gave rise to divisions and separations, notably the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic Church. And then within Roman Catholicism, there were further separations and branchings off. And we noted the Protestant Reformation, which is the most significant, which has also sprouted and branched off into many other denominations.

We went through some doctrines of the Trinity and the Filioque as points of contention that gave rise to some of these splits and conflicts. And now, it helps define some of the different denominations of Christianity, in fact. And we looked at the number of practicing and non-practicing Christians that are distributed throughout the globe.

Notes on “Christianity”



Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts. Jone Johnson
Lewis, 3 Sept. 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.




Terms to Know

Anyone who accepts Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, as Lord, and as Savior.

The Reformation

A movement, which culminated in the establishment of Protestantism, started by dissident Roman Catholics seeking to reform the Church.

The Trinity

In Christianity, the term used to describe God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost).