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Basic history of Christianity
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- 1 What is Christianity?
- 2 A basic history of Christianity
- 2.1 The beginning — Jesus of Nazareth and Saul of Tarsus
- 2.2 Constantine the Great and the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE); the setting down of the Orthodox Church
- 2.3 Theodosius II (402-450 CE) and Marcian (450-457 CE)
- 2.4 The Great Schism and the separation of the Roman Catholic Church (1054 CE)
- 2.5 Western Schism (1378 to 1417 CE)
- 2.6 Martin Luther and the 95 Theses (1517 CE)
- 2.7 John Calvin and TULIP/Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches (1541 CE)
- 2.8 Baptist (c. 1600 CE)
- 2.9 Anglican/Episcopalian (1534 CE)
- 2.10 Fundamentalist (1860 CE)
- 2.11 Pentecostal (c. 1900 CE)
- 3 Borderline Christians
- 4 References
What is Christianity?
The simple answer to what Christianity is is that different churches - and even different individual Christians — disagree. Almost all of them agree that Christians are follows of Jesus Christ — but beyond that they can not agree on such simple matters as how many books there are in "the" Bible. And this is important because if you get basic facts wrong about a given denomination/subreligion (of which there are dozens) you are going to probably be taken about as seriously as a creationist at a scientific conference.
Books in the Bible:
- Protestants have 66
- Roman Catholics have 73
- Eastern Orthodox have up to 78
- Outliers vary even if you ignore such things as the Book of Mormon
Fortunately there are two ways of understanding where given Christians are coming from. The first is historical: most churches formed in response to specific events that still define them. The second is theological. To understand theologians, imagine a group of nerds of the sort who will argue for years on end about which would win in a battle between an Imperial Star Destroyer and
the Enterprise a Borg cube. Then imagine that for them this is a question that is not just a matter of life and death, but more important. And then that the argument has been going on for hundreds of years. Those are theologians.
Which means that for all the (deserved) comments about sophisticated theology, there is almost nothing you can say about Christianity that serious people haven't argued through long ago, frequently (as for example with theodicy) with no satisfactory answers.
A basic history of Christianity
Note that this is a very basic set of highlights — to go into depth would take entire books. It only deals with more mainstream churches and then only superficially in an attempt to keep the length manageable.
The beginning — Jesus of Nazareth and Saul of Tarsus
In the beginning was probably a man named Jesus of Nazareth (who would have been called Yeshua in his day), a wandering preacher in Galilee. (Whether or not Jesus actually existed, claiming he didn't will be treated by most Christians as trolling). He was probably born in Nazareth (the story about Bethlehem was almost certainly a fabrication invented to fulfil a prophecy), and was born at some time around the year 0 CE (conflicting accounts make it impossible to determine when, as they are mutually exclusive).
He lived as a rabble-rousing apocalyptic preacher until he was executed by the Romans for the crime of sedition  alongside two other rabble-rousers (probably bandit chieftains rather than thieves). The accounts of the trial under Pontius Pilate and before the Sanhedrin are almost certainly fabrications as they do not match what is known about the people concerned or how the Sanhedrin worked. His death was unremarkable and indeed unremarked on by anyone writing at the time.
The first person to actually write about Jesus was Paul of Tarsus, who admitted to never having met him. His version of Christianity is sufficiently different from Jesus' (as outlined in the Gospels) that there are regular rebuttals of the idea that St. Paul founded Christianity. Indeed the central thesis of Reza Aslan's Zealot is that the Jesus that Paul preached about was more or less a fabrication. What is certainly true is that Paul did his best to convert non-Jews to follow Jesus, and this was out of step with existing practice. He succeeded, and over the next few hundred years Christianity spread out.
Constantine the Great and the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE); the setting down of the Orthodox Church
Constantine the Great was very ambitious — he had to be to become Roman Emperor. And, possibly because of his mother, and possibly because of opportunism, he was sympathetic to Christianity. And also liked power. So he gave the various churches a chance to sell out: support him, and raise him to the status of equal-to-apostles, and he'd stop the persecution of them, and indeed offer to prefer them. Which they did (the whole thing wasn't quite as nakedly mercenary as that, of course).
There was one other condition — the Christian Churches had to sort out what they actually believed, which they did at the Council of Nicaea — in the process nailing down a lot about the doctrine of the Trinity, and throwing Arius and the idea that the Son wasn't equal to the Father out of the Church — and exiling him. (On a ghoulish sidenote, Arius died by shitting out his bowels the day before he was due to be reconciled with the Church. Cholera, divine judgement, or propaganda? You decide!)
The Orthodox Churches' (including the Roman Catholic Church) claim on the Truth is based on how old they are — or, as they call it, Holy Tradition. In the Roman Catholic Church Magisterial infallibility on matters of morals and ethics is actually a whole lot more important than the much more famous doctrine of Papal infallibility (which has only ever been invoked a handful of times).
The Council of Nicea established the Nicene Creed - which lays down the Trinity, Salvation, Judgement, and Heaven — and most Churches have accepted this as a baseline ever since. An update at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE also adds the Virgin Birth, and the resurrection of the dead — all commonly understood as a basis for Christianity. The books of the Bible were settled in the West by 405 CE but not all the Orthodox churches agree. There was, however, a lot of discussion about what would be included.
Theodosius II (402-450 CE) and Marcian (450-457 CE)
Despite the Council of Nicea, Christianity continued to fragment despite the efforts of Eastern Emperors Theodosius II and his successor Marcian. "Heretical" churches such as Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syica, Armenian Apostolic, and Malankara appeared and many would survive into modern times. But as volatile as the conflict between these various churches and the Roman Catholic Church was, they were nothing compared to what was to come.
The Great Schism and the separation of the Roman Catholic Church (1054 CE)
The Greek East and Latin West slowly drifted apart in terms of theology but things came to a head when in 1053 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael I Cerularius, retaliated regarding the closure or forced conformity to Latin practices of southern Italian Greek churches by ordering the closure of all Latin churches in Constantinople. The Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) then sent a papal legate to Constantinople in 1054 to refuse Cerularius the title of "Ecumenical Patriarch" and demanded that Cerularius recognize the Pope's claim to be the head of all the churches. The result was about what one would have expected with the Patriarchs there telling him to fuck off. He told them to fuck off right back. The Crusades that started in 1095 only deepened the division, and the misadventure of the Fourth Crusade where the Latin West looted Constantinople certainly didn't help relations. Even though there are have been many Ecumenical Councils since 1095, only some Greek Orthodox churches (perhaps three of them) participated and there is no formal recognition.
When dealing with the Roman Catholic Church it is worth remembering that statements by specific Popes are generally as authoritative as anything else that's said in a press conference. Useful and interesting perhaps, but no more important than that; they know that they've had some pretty terrible Popes. Official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church - something that makes working out what Roman Catholicism teaches much easier than the nailing-jelly-to-the-wall of most other churches.
Western Schism (1378 to 1417 CE)
The Western Schism was a relatively brief time where there were two (and later three) Popes at the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This schism was more political then theological but the names of the various anti-popes were reused which can cause some confusion. For example, Pope Benedict XIII is a name used by both an antipope and a later Pope.
Martin Luther and the 95 Theses (1517 CE)
The Catholic Church at this time was corrupt. Showtime's The Borgias shows an extremely bowdlerised version, and even Borgia: Fear And Faith is simplified and bowdlerised. Martin Luther's complaints might have taken 95 theses, but can be boiled down into three points.
- You can't buy your way into Heaven, so stop selling indulgences.
- Especially stop raking money off the poor, since they can't afford it.
- The Pope does not need a palace. Especially not one like that.
It is snarky, but accurate, to call the Vatican a Palace of Sin, the sin in question being Simony or the selling of indulgences (or worse, especially in the days of Leo X). Martin Luther was, however, a moderate and generally believed in an idealised version of the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther himself (and from him most of Protestant Christianity) had a doctrine of sola fide: Salvation By Faith Alone. This was intended as a reaction to the Roman Catholic notion of Salvation By Works — where the works in question involved giving money to the Roman Catholic Church, among other things. If you were actually saved you would help people as an outward sign of this. It has, however, frequently been corrupted.
Martin Luther also threw seven books out of the Old Testament for not being in the Hebrew version of the Old Testament; these are currently known as the Deuterocanon. So you can tell a Catholic Bible from a Protestant one by the presence of books like Tobit, Judith, and two books of Wisdom. He also tried to throw out the Epistles Hebrews, Jude, and James, and the Book of Revelation for disagreeing with Protestant doctrines; this wasn't accepted.
John Calvin and TULIP/Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches (1541 CE)
If Martin Luther was at the more moderate end of the reformation, John Calvin… wasn't. Churches under his banner tend to follow doctrines sumarised in the English speaking world as the acronym TULIP, which I've outlined below in their more benevolent versions. TULIP, as a doctrinal basis, is very easy to pervert — in particular the doctrine of Total Depravity.
- Total Depravity — we are all flawed individuals and must do the best we can.
- Unconditional Election — Who is saved is God's choice. Don't bother being holier than thou. It won't help.
- Limited Atonement — Some people are going to Hell.
- Irresistible Grace — God can reach out and help anyone
- Perseverance of the Saints — people who fall away from God weren't saved to begin with.
Note that anyone who talks about Arminianism is a Calvinist; to them Arminianism is the heresy that you can work your way into Heaven rather than God having decided it all in advance.
Baptist (c. 1600 CE)
Baptists are a grouping of Protestant churches that have a belief in common: that of Believers' Baptism rather than infant baptism (or paedobaptism as they call it). As such they place an emphasis on all members genuinely committing themselves at a personal level — but it's a loose grouping with different Baptist churches saying different things only really agreeing on the core of the Nicene Creed and that individuals should choose baptism. The largest group of Baptists are the Southern Baptist Convention.
Southern Baptist (1845 CE)
There never has been a Church founded with a worse reason than the Southern Baptist Convention; it was founded in the early 19th Century as an offshoot of the Baptists that did not oppose slave owning or say that slave owners shouldn't represent them. Its doctrines, for this reason, tend to first emphasise and then corrupt the doctrine of Salvation By Faith Alone; if you treat works as important you need to do things to help those you are oppressing. Not going to happen when the church was specifically set up to prevent people feeling guilty. To give it its due, despite a monstrously racist past, it has repented, and a previous President of the Southern Baptist Convention (Fred Luter) is black.
Westboro Baptist (1955 CE)
Westboro Baptist Church is a group that is not related to any other Baptist Church except through its name. Confusing Westboro and its group of homophobic trolls with other Baptist churches only annoys people. Christians, and especially Baptists, find them even more annoying than the rest of us.
Anglican/Episcopalian (1534 CE)
The Church of England was founded because Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage and the Pope wouldn't let him. As that is possibly the silliest reason in history to create an entirely new branch of the Church (except that at the time one of the monarch's most important responsibilities was to sire a male heir to the throne), the Anglican Communion has seldom known quite what it is. There are 39 Articles of Faith, but priests are only called on to affirm them and in most pews most people won't have heard of them. It is probably the theologically broadest church, united by the idea that whatever we believe we're currently better together. They range from Anglo-Catholics who commonly agree with the Roman Catholic Church about almost everything to a mix of Conservative Evangelicals and Charismatic Evangelicals.
Methodists (1739 or 1784 CE)
The Methodists were a movement within the Church of England, founded by John Wesley, an Evangelical Anglican with Arminian principles (opposing the predestination of John Calvin). In 1739 Wesley founded the Methodist Association within the Church of England, and almost immediately managed to make them unpopular by ignoring parish boundaries and denouncing corrupt priests while doing what he believed as an Anglican priest he ought to. The separation with the Church of England didn't come until 1784 when Wesley finally got fed up of there being no Episcopalian Bishop in the United States to ordain priests and started ordaining priests himself. As such the Methodist church has almost the breadth of the Church of England (and many are straight Calvinists these days).
The Salvation Army (1865 CE)
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was an Evangelical Methodist Minister in the Holiness tradition (i.e. no dancing, no drinking). He organised people to go into the worst of the slums and minister to the worst off they could find, frequently bringing a brass band with them. It does a lot of charity work, running shelters, but has a regrettable record of homophobia. It also contributed heavily to union-busting activities against the Industrial Workers of the World, leading IWW musicians such as Haywire Mac to call it the "Starvation Army". Normally a church with only 1.5 million members would not be included in this list, but due to their charity work they have a disproportionate reputation and influence.
Fundamentalist (1860 CE)
Fundamentalism was an approach that said to take Christianity right back to what it considered the basics.
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ's miracles and the Creation account in Genesis
- The Virgin Birth of Christ
- The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
- The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross
Of course that they disagree on how to interpret the Bible undermines the idea of inerrancy. And there are many many problems with Biblical literalism. Self-described Fundamentalists ("Fundie" is often used as a snarl world) tend to be Evangelical in outlook, believing in converting people to their practice and Conservative in praxis.
Pentecostal (c. 1900 CE)
The Pentecostal Church was formed in the midst of Evangelical revivals, frequently Fundamentalist or Holiness, and Pentecostals tend to be Charismatic Evangelicals, having much more interesting church services with things like glossolalia and in years past the Toronto Blessing. Beliefs are much as Fundamentalist Christians, but the services are more interesting.
Some well known groups are frequently claimed not to be Christian by others.
Gnostics (c. 200 CE)
The Gnostics were early Christian conspiracy theorists who claimed that the true teachings of Jesus weren't those handed down via the Bible, but another, secret set.
Christianity more or less decided that it was Trinitarian at the Council of Nicea. Unitarians don't believe in the Trinity (the clue is in the name). And the running joke is that Unitarian singing is terrible because they are all reading a line ahead to see if they agree with the verse. In 1961, US Unitarians merged with Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, Universalist meaning they also don't believe in the doctrine of hell, and nowadays the UUA accepts people of any belief or no belief.
Some branches of Pentecostalism are often regarded as "Unitarian" (particularly those endorsing Jesus-only baptism, called "Oneness" Pentecostals). They obviously have very little in common with Unitarian Universalists.
Quaker (UK or Hicksite) (1647 CE)
There are numerous strands of Quakerism, but when someone from the UK talks about them they mean either the British branch, of which the nearest equivalent in America are the Hicksites. Quakers are explicitly non-Creedal, meaning that it is impossible to say what you need to believe to be a Quaker. In World War II, British Quakers, because they were non-creedal, started taking in people from other religions who had nowhere else to go, and many Friends Meetings have people with a wide range of beliefs including atheists, Jews, and even the odd Wiccan. Unprogrammed Quaker services are held as silent meditation until people feel moved to speak and "gather" the meeting on a topic, and Quakers also have their own holy book: [Faith and Practice], which is possibly the only widely shared holy book to be routinely updated with reflections and what people have learned; the latest edition was published in December 2013.
The United States has more than twenty separate Quaker books called Faith and Practice: one Book of Discipline for each Yearly Meeting.
Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints
The Mormons apparently had their holy book handed to Joseph Smith on gold plates in the early 19th century, and their beliefs are very unorthodox by Christian standards.
- Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, ISBN-10: 1908906294
- See the Evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ page for more detail.
- Who Founded Christianity — Jesus or Paul by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham
- Did St. Paul Invent Christianity? Catholic Answers
- Making Light's excellent summary
- Ex Urbe's description of the two shows
- Luther's treatment of the Disputed New Testament books
- See the Wikipedia article on Book of Discipline (Quaker).