Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Like marriage, for instance, Christianity can be regarded as a social phenomenon, for such it is, but it is only that among other things. If cognizance is to be taken of what it is, in itself and as a whole, then it must be recognized as being, in the first place, what is called a religion (as marriage is, primarily, a relationship ).

As a belief system , Christianity may be defined as the existential recognition that (in the New Testament phrase) "Jesus is Lord," or, in the theological formulations of the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon (325, 381, and 451 C.E.), that the Divinity is a unity with three particular faces (the Father, Son, and Spirit), and that Jesus is "God incarnate" (both fully Divine and fully human).

As an ethical ideal , Christianity may be described as the practical recognition that (in Jesus's words, in the four Gospels) "the Kingdom [of God, or of heaven] has come [or, is here, in the midst]," meaning, in him , and in the attempt to extend its boundaries, in the life of the disciple and of the world.

As a social institution , Christianity may be delineated by the dominical sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist as well as by the spiritual and organizational "fellowship" (to use St. Paul's expression in his Epistles) to which they give entrance and sustenance.

These three customary approaches to the phenomenon of religion correspond to Paul's "abiding" trio: faith, hope, and charity (love), of which "the greatest" is the last (1 Cor. 13:13). This early description of the spirituality at the heart of the new religion represents the classic analysis, based upon participant observation.

However, seen historically rather than structurally, Christianity began as one of a number of Jewish movements that thought it had found the Messiah ("anointed with the Spirit [of God]"; Greek, Christos ). The hope was as utterly dashed, religiously, as it was politically, by the death of Jesus through the accursed method of crucifixion. The hope was revived by his (equally unexpected) postresurrection appearances; but its content and its consequences demanded immediate and continuing transformation on the part of members of his "Body." Those who "followed [participated in] the Way," and that which united them, were quickly contextualized by contemporary pluralism, respectively, as "Christians" and as "Christianity." Indeed, Christ soon came to be used as a proper name, rather than an honorific title or cosmological value judgment, even by Christians themselves.

With the spread of the faith, the meanings subsequently given to the concept were increasingly influenced by the direct and indirect experience of those who "profess[ed] and call[ed] themselves Christians." In the millennium (500-1500) following the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, Christianity primarily meant that sphere (those aspects) of life in which the writ of Christ ran. Although measured largely in terms of canon law, it was nevertheless comparable to Jesus's own nongeographic use of Kingdom (and to a similar understanding of Islam ). This spiritual (or Spiritual) emphasis was facilitated by the contrasting use of religion as the way of life (religio ) of those following a particular Rule (regula ), such as that of St. Benedict (d. 550).

During the last half millennium, the concept of Christianity has wobbled uneasily (depending upon users' own evaluations of the phenomenon itself and of life in general) between a theological system, seen as a variety of ontological or historical hypotheses (a "philosophy"), on the one hand, and, on the other, a (functional or dysfunctional) support for the lifestyles of particular individuals or groups (a "prop"); or between a shorthand term for a somewhat utopian love of the neighbor ("toleration"), on the one hand, and, on the other, a passionate zeal for the honor due uniquely to the Christ ("fundamentalism").

Recent scholarship has tended to place Christianity within a category of "world religions." Precise definition of what is meant by "religion," "a religion," and each particular religion may never be possible, either for adherents or for those who seek an alternative viewpoint. Judaism and Islam have, however, long had their own understandings of the Christianity that was common to Christians. To the Jews, they were "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5, 28:22; Hebrew, Nozerim ); thus they were described in terms of their leader's hometown. To Moslems in the Arab world, they continue to be Nasrani , a word that is used 15 times in the Qur'an* and is also derived from the locality of Nazareth.

Indeed, the preference continues for communal expressions that denote (for instance) Nestorians or Melkites or Jacobites, or Copts or Abyssinians or Armenians, or Greeks or Romans or "Christians" (i.e., Protestants), in the Moslem world, as in Asia and as in popular usage generally. Representing a "Middle Eastern" viewpoint, such a list usefully puts Westerners in mind of the churches to the east even of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. Their history is less well known but at least comparable with that of those churches originating from within the Roman Empire. The Armenians became the first Christian "nation" in 301, for instance—a dozen years before the Roman Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan (313).

Such items also demonstrate an exemplary care in the bestowal of accolades—and a matching attention to empirical observation. Indeed, when the eschatological concepts of Christ and Christianity (the Anointed, the Kingdom) are given their validity as ultimate value judgments, then concurrent social realities, such as tribal identities, also can be given their due recognition in this way.

Edward I. Bailey


The Gospels, especially St Mark ; the Epistles, especially I & II Corinthians and Philemon ; the Oxford English Dictionary

K. S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1937)

T. R. Morton, The Twelve Together (Glasgow: Iona Community, 1956)

J. E. L. Newbigin, A South India Diary (London: SCM, 1951); local ephemera (many Christian fellowships publish a monthly magazine).

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