Christians acknowledge not only a duty to announce the gospel, profess the faith, and worship God but also to live their entire lives according to God’s will. Being God’s people means following God’s law, which means walking in the way of truth (Psalm 25:4–5; 86:11) and obeying it (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:22; 3 John 3–4). The dual commandment holds good: to love God and to love neighbour (Matthew 22:37–39). To “dwell in love” is to dwell in God, who is both truth and love (1 John).
Historically, Christian ethical teaching has had two biblical foci: the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17; Deuteronomy 5:6–21) and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). The emphasis on one or the other has varied across time and space. The Decalogue, as the Ten Commandments are sometimes called, remains valid for Christians, although the divine basis grounding the covenant between God and his elect people has been broadened, according to Christian belief, by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ—a move reflected in the shifting of the chief weekly “holy day” from the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8–11; Deuteronomy 6:12–15) to Sunday, the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, when the Christian community gathers to celebrate the new covenant in his blood and the beginning of the new creation. The “second table” of the Law—honouring parents, and rejecting murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and coveting—has been held by Christians to apply universally, the core of a “natural law” extending beyond the community that has received God’s “special revelation.” In this regard, it functions at least to preserve society against the worst ravages of sin until the preaching of the gospel attains its full range and final goal.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus radicalized the Law by, for instance, making anger murderous and lust adulterous (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28) and calling for his disciples to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12), the blessings Jesus offered in the Sermon on the Mount, he declared that the qualities and powers of the impending kingdom of God were available among his followers in such a way that they would bear a distinctive witness to God before the world (Matthew 5:14–16). Christians have believed that taking the “hard way” (Matthew 7:13–14) is possible by virtue of the divine gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9–13; cf. Matthew 7:7–12).
In the epistles of Paul, the indicatives of gospel and faith serve to ground the imperatives of attitude and behaviour. Following his exposition of God’s saving actions in Christ in the first 11 chapters of the Letter to the Romans, Paul asserts, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this world [or age] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:1–2).
Christian ethical teaching and practice are intrinsic to the community of the faithful and its life. In the early centuries, certain occupations were considered incompatible with becoming a Christian. According to the Apostolic Tradition, brothel-keepers, prostitutes, sculptors, painters, keepers of idols, actors, charioteers, gladiators, soldiers, magicians, astrologers, and diviners could not become Christians. Moral instruction was provided throughout the catechumenate, and many patristic homilies reveal the ethical teaching and exhortation practiced by the preachers in the liturgical assemblies. Medieval catechesis included the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, and the lists of virtues and vices. The administration of sacramental penance on a regular basis served the formation of individual character and conduct.
Much material became codified in ecclesiastical regulations known as canon law. Whereas the earliest Christians could exercise little or no influence on civil rulers, the “conversion of the Empire” under the 4th-century emperors Constantine and Theodosius permitted bishops their say in the personal and political affairs of emperors and in the wider life of society. In Christendom, legal systems claimed foundations in Christian teaching.
Modernity brought a decline in the direct institutional role of the churches in society, but the rise of democracy encouraged church leaders to assume an advisory capacity in the shaping of public policy, seeking to guide not only the members of their own ecclesiastical communities but also the whole body politic. On the Roman Catholic part, this has occurred at the global level through the so-called “social encyclicals” of popes from Leo XIII (Rerum novarum, 1891; “Of New Things”) through John XXIII (Pacem in terris, 1962; “Peace on Earth”), Paul VI (Populorum progressio, 1968; “Progress of the Peoples”), and John Paul II (Laborem exercens, 1981; “Through Work” and Centesimus annus, 1991; “The 100th Year”). Protestant denominations have typically made pronouncements and initiated programs through their national or international assemblies and agencies. The World Council of Churches, a fellowship of Christian churches founded in 1948, has formulated what were sometimes called “middle axioms” (e.g., the notion of a “responsible society” or “justice, peace and the preservation of creation”), which were intended as common ground on which Christians and secular bodies could meet for thought and action.
A theological problem resides in the passage from the story of salvation in its broadest terms (the message of the gospel and the content of the faith, concisely and comprehensively formulated) to its enactment in particular questions and instances. For example, it is sometimes held that certain acts are simply contrary to God’s will and purpose for humankind and therefore always morally wrong; yet there is also a view that circumstances can so greatly affect cases that the good may be differently served in different situations. The difficulties that accompany the move from general principle to concrete discipline are illustrated in the report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church (1994). It is there claimed that “Anglicans and Roman Catholics derive from the Scriptures and Tradition the same controlling vision of the nature and destiny of humanity and share the same fundamental moral values.” Disagreements on such matters as “abortion and the exercise of homosexual relations” are relegated to the level of “practical and pastoral judgment,” with no account offered of intermediate processes that might allow material differences to develop. Here are not only ecclesiastical but civilizational issues that the next generation may choose to revisit in the light of the moral teaching proposed to church and world in the encyclical letters of John Paul II, Veritatis splendor (1993; “The Splendour of Truth”) and Evangelium vitae (1995; “The Gospel of Life”).
Aversion of heresy: the establishment of orthodoxy
Already in apostolic times, distortions of belief threatened the Christian community from within. The Apostle Paul needed to correct those who misunderstood the preaching of Christ’s Resurrection and the general resurrection to come (1 Corinthians 15). The First Letter of John combats those who denied the reality of the Incarnation—“that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:3). Bishop Ignatius of Antioch denounced the same “docetic” tendency—that Jesus only “seemed” (dokein) to be human—when he found heretics abstaining from the Eucharist “because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins and which the Father raised” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7:1).
Alternative understandings of Christian teaching continued to develop throughout early church history. Marcion, considered the arch-heretic of the 2nd century, rejected the Old Testament as the work of a god inferior to the God of Jesus and accepted from the nascent New Testament only those portions that he took to be uninfected by Judaism. Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in Against Heresies, ranked Marcion with the “gnostics” because at least one facet of Marcion’s error was his depreciation of the material creation. The gnostics invented complex cosmogonies in order to remove the true God from responsibility for the evils of matter, release from which was the content of human salvation. The goodness of the material creation was affirmed for Irenaeus by the reality of Christ’s Incarnation, the sacramental practices of the church (bread and wine made from wheat and grapes), and the Christian hope in the resurrection of the body.
More-subtle threats than the docetic to the humanity of Christ came from the view that the divine Logos—the “Word” or the principle of God active in the creation and the continuous structuring of the cosmos—had taken the place of the human mind or will in Jesus. Apollinaris, whose teaching denied the existence of a rational human soul in Christ, was condemned by the first Council of Constantinople in 381, and monothelitism, which held that Christ had only one will (the divine and not the human), was condemned by the third Council of Constantinople in 680–681. The orthodox teaching was that the Son is a divine person from all eternity who, in the Incarnation, took human nature completely upon himself. Only so could humankind have been saved, for—according to the dictum of Gregory of Nazianzen in the late 4th century—“what had not been assumed would not have been healed” (Epistle 101).
In the other direction, faith in Christ’s divinity was affirmed in the face of early views that made of Jesus a man “adopted” by God, whether at his Resurrection or at his baptism or even already at his conception—views that respectively pressed into service Romans 1:3–4, Matthew 3:16–17, and Luke 1:31–35. It was to exclude such views even in the subtler form they took with Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople—whose emphasis on the full humanity of Christ’s human nature seemingly divided him into two persons, one human and the other divine—that the Council of Ephesus in 431 insisted on the propriety of the popular title “God-bearer” (Theotokos) for Mary.
Even the New Testament’s affirmations of Christ’s preexistence had not sufficed to persuade some of his fully divine status (John 1:1–3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:15–17). The greatest challenge to the teaching of Christ’s full divinity was that of Arius (early 4th century), who held that the Son, though superior to all other creatures, was in fact God’s first creature. Rejecting that view, the first Council of Nicaea in 325 declared that the Son of the Father—“(true) God from (true) God”—was himself “begotten, not made” and the agent of all God’s creation. This echoed the statement in the Gospel of John (1:3) about the divine Logos, that “without him was not anything made that was made.”
The New Testament writers and the Fathers of the Church had no compunction about identifying false teaching as such. Persistence in it brought expulsion from communion. Many modern scholars have shown more sympathy with so-called heretics, suggesting at least that the controversy inspired by their dissent may have played a useful part in allowing the church to develop and formulate its doctrine. Christians abiding by historical orthodoxy, however, might argue instead that the authentic instinct of faith has never deviated in such fundamental and central matters as the divine status of Christ and the reality of his humanity.
Heresies have survived or reemerged in the course of history: Arianism continued among the Teutonic tribes until the 7th century and in 18th-century England; “adoptionism” reappeared in Spain and France in the 8th and 9th centuries; and antimaterial dualism was revived among the Bulgarian Bogomils in the 10th century and among the Cathars of France and Italy in the 12th. Keen-eyed readers of theological literature can spot contemporary equivalents to most or all of the positions and tendencies mentioned already at the beginning of the 3rd century by Tertullian of Carthage in his treatise On the Prescription of Heretics.
Apologetics: defending the faith
The First Letter of Peter tells its addressees that they must “always be prepared to make a defense (apologia) to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (3:15). The defense of the faith has been required of Christians when they faced persecution, but “apologetics” have also been undertaken in the face of intellectual attacks.
In the 2nd century, several Christian writers—Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Tertullian—defended Christianity against the popular and political charges brought against it by non-Christians. It was denounced as an unregistered and “secret” cult and was suspected of immorality (human flesh and blood were consumed at its love feasts) and disloyalty (Christians refused to participate in the civic religion). The Apologists also responded both to the Jews who claimed the Old Testament scriptures as their own and rejected the Christian interpretation of them as fulfilled in Jesus Christ and to the more philosophical criticisms addressed to the doctrine of the Incarnation.
These early apologetics came to a climax in the eight books of Against Celsus, a treatise written by Origen around 246–248 to answer the still troublesome work of a Platonist and critic of Christianity dating from about 70 years earlier and claiming to speak “the word of truth” (alêthês logos). Celsus was quite well informed about the Christian scriptures and doctrines, although he associated with them some gnostic beliefs that were disowned by the churches. He conducted his critique from the moving platform of his own eclectic Middle Platonism along with some Jewish objections to the story of Jesus. Celsus ridiculed the Christian worship of a man of recent appearance who had died a disgraceful death. In order to refute the tolerant and politically convenient polytheism of Celsus, which harmonized the notion of a supreme but distant Deity known under many names with belief in numerous subordinate local deities, Origen drew on arguments that had already been developed in Hellenistic Judaism in favour of monotheism. But Origen needed to defend specific doctrines concerning Christ. In defense of the Incarnation, he argued that the descent of Christ does not require spatial movement when “the Word out of great love for mankind brings down a Saviour to the human race,” and in support of the Crucifixion he asserted that it was a “death willingly accepted for the human race,” by analogy with “the fact that one righteous man dying voluntarily for the community may avert the activities of evil demons by expiation, since it is they who bring about plagues, or famines, or stormy seas, or anything similar.” Origen insisted that his work was not written for convinced Christians but “either for those entirely without experience of faith in Christ, or for those whom the apostle calls ‘weak in faith’.”
At the beginning of the 5th century, Augustine began his work City of God as an answer to pagan complaints that the sack of Rome—supposedly “the eternal city”—by Alaric and his Goths in 410 was due to the abandonment of the old gods in favour of Christianity. Augustine showed the inconsistency of the critics in failing to blame the civic gods for previous setbacks and in failing to give credit for the divine benefits bestowed on Christian emperors. He asserted that the true God is the ruler of all nations, bestowing both success and calamity for his own purposes. Augustine developed an entire philosophy of history, which helped shape for a thousand years the Christian understanding of church and state. His vision embraced two “cities,” the city of God and an earthly city, existing side by side through the course of history: “Two loves have created two cities: love of self, to the contempt of God, the earthly city; love of God, to the contempt of self, the heavenly” (XIV:28). The institutions of the earthly city are not without their divine rationale, for they ensure a relative justice amid the fallen condition of humankind. Yet the happiness the earthly city allows is only temporary, and its society is conflicted. Only the peace and eternity of the divine city match the Supreme Good. Nor is the pilgrim church quite to be equated with the city of God, for the latter already contains the angels and the saints, while the former will have tares mixed in with the wheat until the final judgment. Yet in the centuries of Christendom, Augustine’s treatise was used to ground the doctrine of the superiority of the papacy over the empire and as the foundation for secular political theory and practice. In a world more pluralistically conceived, it has remained possible to draw on Augustine for Christian teaching on political ethics and human destiny more generally.
When, partly as a result of the European “Wars of Religion” in the 16th and 17th centuries, doubt took over from faith as a methodological principle in philosophy and the natural sciences, some tried a new apologetic tack. This approach is represented by the “Christian Deist,” Matthew Tindal, who wrote Christianity as Old as the Creation, or the Gospel as a Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730). After a century’s critique of the notion of divine revelation in the name of “Enlightenment,” Immanuel Kant thought that Christianity could and should be fitted into “religion within the limits of reason alone,” as the title of a treatise he published in 1793 suggested.
As the 18th century passed into the 19th, a different style of apologetic was conducted by the Berlin preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). Belonging to a family of Reformed ministers and educated at Pietist institutions, Schleiermacher tapped into emergent Romanticism in his On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799). Refusing to identify religion with metaphysics or morals, Schleiermacher located its essence in intuition (Anschauung) and feeling (Gefühl), the “sense and taste for the infinite” (Sinn und Geschmack fürs Unendliche). The founder of Christianity, Schleiermacher noted in his On Religion, was remarkable as the best mediator yet of a clear consciousness of the divine being. Schleiermacher continued this apologetic theme in his comprehensive account of Christian doctrine, The Christian Faith (1821–22; 1831). In his wake, Protestant systematic theology in the 19th and 20th centuries generally sought to operate within the “plausibility structures” of “modernity.” Sometimes it got no further than apologetically oriented considerations of method.
Among Roman Catholic writers, John Henry Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) offered a major intellectual justification of the act of faith during what he viewed as a revolutionary, seismic period in the world of ideas. Modern Catholic scholars have made contemporary apologetics a component in the subdiscipline of “fundamental theology.”
Restatement: respecting language and knowledge
Restatement of doctrine has been required whenever Christianity crossed a linguistic boundary. The extension from the largely Hebraic and Aramaic world of Jesus and his Apostles into the Hellenistic world had already occurred by the time of the New Testament writings, and Greek became the language of the texts that constitute the permanent basis of Christian doctrine. That was the beginning of what the German theologian Adolf von Harnack called the “Hellenization of Christianity,” whose relation to “the historical Jesus”—the putative peasant from Nazareth—has been viewed as problematic by many modern scholars. The New Testament itself was later translated into Latin as the faith spread westward.
In some cases, however, a restatement may become necessary even within a single linguistic area. Thus, the Council of Nicaea in 325 commandeered the nonscriptural term homoousios (“of one substance”) in order to safeguard the essential relation of the Son to the Father that had been denied by Arius. During the 4th century the vocabulary in which Christian belief in the Holy Trinity was stated was gradually stabilized and refined. A similar process took place in the formulation of Christological belief by the Council of Chalcedon (451), which defined Christ as “one person, acknowledged in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”
Restatements internal to a linguistic tradition may go hand in glove with shifts in philosophical conceptions of knowledge (epistemology). A prime example is Thomas Aquinas’s participation in the rediscovery of Aristotelian categories (e.g., substance, quantity, quality, and relation), even though he exceeded and transformed them in the service of theological, ethical, and sacramental teachings that in turn shaped doctrinal conceptions and formulations in the Catholic church of the West.
Although not always distinguishing between scientific knowledge and the wider philosophical claims sometimes made by particular scientists, many modern theologians have felt a need to restate the gospel and the faith in ways that do not infringe on the knowledge brought by the natural sciences (the very rise of which may have been fostered by the Christian doctrine of creation as both regular and contingent). A prominent attempt to restate the gospel and faith in this way was the program of “demythologization” proposed by the German biblical scholar and Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). Bultmann proposed to restate the message of and about Jesus in terms of the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger: the word of the Cross summoned people to authentic existence by liberating them from the past and opening up to them a new future. In response to Bultmann’s radical program, more traditional theologians argued that the Incarnation and the Resurrection cannot be fitted into any other world view than that of which they are the cornerstone.
In the 1960s some theologians attempted to state “the secular meaning of the gospel” (the title of a book by P.M. Van Buren) by removing the last traces of transcendence from their accounts, leaving no room for communication or interaction between God and humankind (“revelation,” “grace,” “prayer”) and no expectation of any destiny beyond this world. By the late 20th century, theologians had found hope in the explanatory inadequacy at the scientific level of a sheerly physicalist theory of efficient causality. The door was opened, at least slightly, to the notion of personal purpose, which can point by analogy from the level of human affairs to a view of God and the world that matches more easily the biblical story. This notion can also provide a framework for integrating—as most academic theologians have done—some kind of evolutionary theory into the elucidation of Christian doctrine concerning creation.
Inculturation: respecting places and peoples
As the gospel has spread into new regions of the world, there has proven to be need and opportunity for fresh conceptions and formulations of the faith. The process of inculturation begins when missionaries first arrive in a region in which Christianity does not exist and the instruction of converts (catechesis) takes place. Gradually, after perhaps experiencing more strongly an initial rupture with their previous culture, those who enter the Christian faith start to give it a more local expression.
Soteriology, the theological study of salvation, has often lent itself to inculturation. An early medieval example is found in the Saxon poem the Heliand, in which the gospel story is told with Christ as the warrior chieftain leading his companions into battle against Satan, the enemy of humankind. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/34–1109), in Cur Deus homo (“Why God Became Man”), presented the atoning work of Christ as the satisfaction of God’s offended honour so that sinful men and women might be readmitted to his company.
In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Jesus has been received as the Healer from sickness and the Liberator from all other forces of evil. He has been looked to as the powerfully protective Ancestor or Elder Brother, as the Chief of Chiefs, and as the Initiation Master who introduces his pupils to the secrets of God.
The various dramatic accounts of the Saviour and salvation are stimulated by one or more of the presentations of Christ and his work in the New Testament. In turn, the gospel changes the vernacular language and culture. Liturgy and the arts are the milieux in which these transformative effects are most creatively achieved. By virtue of intercultural and interecclesiastical exchanges, some initially local contributions spread beyond their place of origin and become part of the cumulative tradition of Christianity.
Consensus: patterns of agreement
Short of dogma, considerable authority accrues to broad patterns of stating and practicing the Christian faith that have maintained themselves over time and space. They appear comprehensive and coherent, even though minor shades of difference are not excluded from their expression.
The Eastern Orthodox churches detect a “common mind of the fathers” (consensus patrum), which allows for some variety of contribution and emphasis among the Fathers. The most respected synthesis is that of John of Damascus (c. 675–749), whose defense of icon veneration also anticipated the decision of the seventh ecumenical council (Nicaea II, 787). In his “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” the Damascene first treats God, who is by nature incomprehensible. His existence and unity, however, can be inferred from the contingency and order of the created universe. He has, moreover, revealed himself adequately for our good in those things to which the Law, the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Evangelists bear testimony; humankind can thereby know that God is Trinity, though not the precise manner of the “mutual indwelling” (perichôrêsis) of the three hypostases. After his discussion of God, John treats creation, noting that the angels were created first and that the devil “was the first to depart from good and become evil.” Concerning the wider material creation, he offers a theological perspective on astronomy, meteorology, geography, and zoology. Although human beings, John argues, were made “in God’s image” (i.e., with mind and free will) and “after God’s likeness” (i.e., to go forward in the path of goodness), they fell by pride and became slaves of passions and appetites; yet God continued to care for them. In the economy of salvation, John goes on, God has sought to win humankind back; God became human and acted from within in the person of the incarnate Son. Finally, he explains that since Christ was without sin, death could not hold him. Through faith and baptism humans are in him restored to communion with God, set upon the way of virtue, and renewed in a life that, nourished by the Eucharist, will be crowned by participation in the divine glory. John’s work has remained influential in the Eastern church and was known to Peter Lombard (1100–60) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) in the medieval West.
Peter Lombard, master at the cathedral school of Notre Dame and archbishop of Paris, was author of the Four Books of Sentences. This seminal work treats God the Holy Trinity; creation, humankind, and sin; the Incarnation of the Word and the redemption of humanity; faith, hope, love, and the other virtues; the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, unction of the sick and dying, ordination, marriage); and the last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). The Scriptures and the Fathers—notably Augustine, who is quoted more than 1,000 times—are its principal sources. Peter is not as rigorous as his own teacher, Peter Abelard, in discerning the apparent contradictions in his authorities, for which a dialectical resolution is to be sought (Sic et non; “Yes and No”). Lombard’s “opinions” tend to harmonize with the chosen “sentences” of the Fathers. The Sentences, whose orthodoxy was established by the Lateran Council of 1215, became the standard theological textbook in the medieval West and the subject of many commentaries. It thus helped to shape a nuanced consensus there too, from which disputes and disputations were not absent.
Of perhaps more delayed but certainly longer-lasting effect was the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. Called Doctor Communis (“Common Doctor”) and Doctor Angelicus (“Angelic Doctor”), Aquinas was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323 and declared a “Doctor of the Church” by Pius V in 1567. In 1879, Leo XIII enjoined the study of Aquinas on all Catholic theological students. A Neo-Thomist revival marked Roman Catholic theology at least until 1960, and the Angelic Doctor was again commended in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Fides et ratio (1998; “Faith and Reason”).
The Summa theologiae begins with the questions regarding human knowledge of God—what may be known by reason and what depends on faith, and the status of language used to refer to God. The first part of the Summa goes on to deal substantively with the Trinity, creation, and human nature. The second and longest part is modeled on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and finds that much in Aristotle is congenial to Christian moral thinking. The third part—which was left unfinished—is concerned with the dogmatic topics of the Incarnation and the sacraments. Each major question is treated in several articles, which themselves begin with a subquestion, to which a plausible first answer is indicated (Videtur quod, “it seems that”). A different position is briefly stated (Sed contra, “But on the other hand”), usually in the name of a scriptural or patristic authority. Finally, Aquinas develops his own opinion (Respondeo dicendum, “I respond that”), which is basically the second position (though it may integrate valid elements from the first answer) together with replies to remaining objections.
In Protestantism, the nearest approach to a broad consensus may be found in the respective traditions that stay within the vectors set by their chief reformers and their confessions and catechisms in the 16th century—so that at least a family resemblance remains among Lutherans or the Reformed. The individualism, however, that has characterized modernity—and to which Protestantism itself has contributed—makes it harder to speak of an authoritative “common mind” in the Protestant communities at large. The difficulty is compounded insofar as Protestant theologians have tended to be more accommodating than Orthodox or Catholics to fast-moving shifts in the general culture. Nevertheless, Luther and, to a lesser degree, Calvin and Wesley are recurrently appealed to in various ways as doctrinal mentors in their respective traditions.
Theology: loving God with the mind
Even though some Christians hold governing positions which give them official responsibilities for doctrine and others work in theology as a professional vocation, all the faithful engage, with varying degrees of competence, in theological and doctrinal work. When carried out within the discipline of the historic and contemporary community of faith, this is not a private or individualistic exercise; rather, believers make a responsible personal appropriation of the gospel and apply it to their lives and circumstances. This active learning places them not simply among the taught but within the teaching church, serving their fellow members, edifying the entire body, and bearing witness to people outside.
In the early church, the outstanding theologians were almost always pastoral bishops. In the Middle Ages, however, an increasing professionalization of the theological schools took place, even as the rising universities remained under episcopal oversight. Modernity brought a gradual secularization to the academy, so that scholars in theology became assimilated to colleagues in other faculties and adopted their procedures. Theologians often found themselves working at a distance both from ecclesiastical authorities and from the spiritual life of their local congregations (even though many of them maintained a personal piety). Theology itself was divided into subdisciplines; the most serious divisions were probably that between scripture and systematics, and that between scripture and systematics, on the one hand, and “practical theology” on the other. On all sides and from all directions, it appeared difficult to bring a faithful intellectual contribution to bear in a coordinated way on performing the perennial tasks of Christian doctrine.
Nevertheless, the 20th century also produced figures who, by virtue of the volume, range, cohesiveness, and conceptual power of their classically configured theological work, may be accorded an honoured place in doctrinal history. They include Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–88) and Karl Rahner (1904–84) among Catholics, Karl Barth (1886–1968) and Wolfhart Pannenberg (born 1928) among Protestants, and Georges Florovsky (1893–1979) among Orthodox. Also of note is Lesslie Newbigin (1909–98), a bishop of the Church of South India, missionary for the Church of Scotland, apologist, and teacher reminiscent of patristic times.
Symbolics: creeds and confessions
In the various communities that claim to be part of historic Christianity, the concise and comprehensive statement of Christian doctrine that is most widely recognized is the Nicene Creed. In 1982 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches recognized that the Apostles’ Creed was the baptismal symbol (creed) used throughout the West but took the Nicene Creed as the “theological and methodological tool” to “identify the fundamentals of the apostolic faith which should be explicated.” The commission recognized that the Nicene Creed has been universally accepted as containing the essential teachings of the faith and that the faith stated by the creed is shared by some “non-creedal churches” that are wary of “fixed” or “imposed” forms. The creed “thus serves to indicate whether the faith as set forth in modern situations is the same faith as the one the Church confessed through the centuries.” It might also have been said, in reverse, that the creed summarizes the faith from which Christians start in preaching the gospel today.
Confessing the One Faith (1991), the document that the Faith and Order Commission placed before the member churches, works through each section and clause of the creed. The creed’s phraseology is elucidated in terms of “its biblical witness” and, where necessary, in terms of the 4th-century controversies that prompted the introduction of certain technical formulations. The creed’s affirmations are then explicated in the face of contemporary “challenges,” which include the problem that the original language and philosophy in which the creeds were formulated are no longer those of the present day, the issue of the affirmation and appreciation of old and new religions in various cultures, and the fact that modern secular society questions many of the affirmations of Christianity.
In response to atheism and secularism, the Faith and Order document, which is much indebted in this section to Wolfhart Pannenberg, proclaims that “the world of finite things and the secular social system both lack ultimate meaning and purpose without a transcendent reality as their basis.” The commission further asserts that the proper response to some Asian and African religious beliefs, which find the Christian doctrine of God too abstract and divorced from everyday life, is not to be found in pantheism but rather in “the concreteness of the One God…in the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” as this occurs in “the history of salvation,” which is the basis for faith in the eternal Trinity. Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity offers a consistent monotheism because it incorporates the principle of plurality and diversity within the unity of God.
Regarding “the Father almighty,” Confessing the One Faith argues that it is necessary to speak of the Father together with the Son in order to prevent the emergence of either a trivial or a sentimental view of divine fatherhood or of a view of the Father’s power as arbitrary. The term Father is to be retained because it is the name by which Jesus as the incarnate Son addressed him and because it defines the relationships within the Trinity as well as those between God and humankind. As an image, the divine fatherhood designates also the providential care and compassion of God, which may also contain motherly aspects. In relation to humankind, “God embraces, fulfils and transcends all that we know concerning human persons, both male and female, and human characteristics, whether masculine or feminine.”
Development: the maturation of understanding
It took some 350 years to get from the Apostolic Age to the doctrinal formulations of the Nicene Creed. The question thus arises whether a process of development was taking place. If so, what kinds of development were they? What was their significance, both for the substantive issues affected and for the way in which the formative period is viewed by subsequent generations of Christians? And is a principle of development allowed or established that may then be applied to other issues and at other times?
As the 2nd century turned into the 3rd, both Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, and Tertullian, in On the Prescription of Heretics, in reference to the variability, innovations, and secretiveness of the teaching of the so-called gnostics, pointed to the constant and public teaching given throughout the church, notably in the apostolic sees, and most particularly in Rome, where the church was founded by Peter and Paul. In setting out the “rule of faith,” Irenaeus combines a recital of the mighty acts of God in creation and history with the threefold structure of the divine Name in which baptism is administered (Matthew 28:19, and the baptismal profession found in the Apostolic Tradition).
The rule of faith outlined by Irenaeus and Tertullian remains the formal pattern of the Nicene Creed. However, the evolution of doctrine between their time and the 4th-century councils of Nicaea and Constantinople is suggested by the insertions that the two councils made in the older texts concerning the essential being of the Son (“God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father”) and of the Holy Spirit (“the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified”). These steps were taken in order to safeguard the established soteriological understandings and liturgical practices against rather blatant distortions of the apostolic message, and as a result of the exploration of previously unposed or unsettled questions and the intellectual and spiritual energy of successive generations in applying the inherited faith within their cultural circumstances.
This was the kind of process that John Henry Newman called “the development of an idea.” As noted in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a “great idea” takes a “longer time and deeper thought for [its] full elucidation,” but this process of “germination and maturation” will be a “development” only if “the assemblage of aspects, which constitute its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start.” “Young birds do not grow into fishes,” said Newman in that work.
Newman also thought that such a development would continue, and he left the Anglican church for the Roman Catholic Church in 1845 because he judged that the latter best embodied such a development. It would in fact be developmental grounds that provided a theological justification for the doctrines of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (defined in 1854) and heavenly assumption (defined in 1950). The declaration of these teachings was held to make explicit things that were implicit in the apostolic witness but had required centuries of devotional practice and speculative reasoning to be brought out. Newman also considered that an infallible teaching office lay in the origins and logic of a developmental Christianity—indeed with a Roman focus, although he questioned the “opportunity” of its dogmatization in 1869–70, which in substance attributed that function to the pope without a general council.
The Eastern Orthodox churches also accept a development of doctrine beyond Nicaea I and Constantinople I, embracing not only the Council of Ephesus in 431 (as do the Oriental Orthodox churches) but also the Councils of Chalcedon, Constantinople II and III, and Nicaea II. The later councils are viewed as having clarified and explicated, but not altered, the teachings of the earlier councils. Thus, Nicaea II, for instance, in deciding for the veneration of icons, was being true to the dogmas of the one person and two natures of Christ. The Eastern churches also hold to the infallibility of the church, thanks to its divine foundation and guidance by the Son and the Spirit and the pastoral oversight of its bishops in faithful succession. They do not, however, judge that the conditions have been met for the meeting of an ecumenical council after Nicaea II and the reception of its teaching by the whole body of the faithful. This has not stopped certain “doctrinal developments” from being widely regarded as legitimate and commendable. An example is the reception of the teaching of Gregory Palamas (14th century), who identified the “uncreated light” manifested at the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor with the “divine energies” by which Christian believers are savingly “deified” (an inner transformation mystically uniting God and the individual).
The Protestant reformers in the 16th century attempted to undo what they regarded as false developments (“corruptions,” in Newman’s terminology) in the Western church. They wished to go back—not so much historically as theologically—to Scripture, especially in matters of applied soteriology (though in matters of Christology and the Trinity they remained under the guidance of the councils of the 4th and 5th centuries). Modern progressive Protestants sometimes try to reclaim the notion of development to justify certain recent shifts that others would regard as deviations or degeneration.
Schism: division over substantial matters
Believing that divine truth and human salvation are at stake, Christians take the formulation of doctrine with the utmost seriousness. Ecclesiology, in which the church itself is the topic of study, is integral to the process, for it addresses the nature, identity, and location of “the church” as the body that receives the revelation, transmits the message, and incorporates believers into its community. When differences arise among Christians on substantial matters, they may fall into division for the sake, as each side sees it, of truth and salvation. As long as parties to the conflict remain within hailing distance of each other, they continue the controversy and hope nevertheless to achieve reconciliation in the truth, for it belongs to salvation that Christ’s disciples should live together in unity.
Schisms have occurred for a variety of reasons. First, certain decisions made by general councils have not been accepted by all sides in dispute at the time. Institutionally, the longest-lasting divisions of this kind have been between those churches which rejected the Christological decisions of Ephesus in 431 (denounced as Nestorians by their opponents but self-designated the Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East) or of Chalcedon in 451 (denounced as monophysites by their opponents but referring to themselves as a communion of “non-Chalcedonian” or “Oriental Orthodox” churches) and those churches that abide by Ephesus and Chalcedon, namely the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
Second, Christians have divided as a result of the breakdown of apparent consensus. This happened between the Byzantine East and the Roman West in the early Middle Ages. While linguistic, political, and cultural factors certainly played a part, irreducibly doctrinal matters were also involved. The West was uneasy with the Eastern understanding of the decisions of Chalcedon concerning the natures of Christ. The Carolingian Council of Frankfurt (794) feared that the “Eastern” Council of Nicaea II had sanctioned the veneration of images beyond due limits. The gravest matter, however, concerned the insertion of the word Filioque into the Nicene-Constantinoplitan creed, whereby the Western churches had come to confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and from the Son.” The word was introduced—probably as an anti-Arian move—by the regional Council of Toledo in 589 and later spread throughout the Frankish empire; Rome adopted it only in 1014. The Orthodox East objected formally to the unilateral alteration of the creed and materially to a teaching that seemed to them to fuse the Father and the Son into a single principle. In 1054 the bishops of Rome and Constantinople engaged in a mutual excommunication because of theological differences and the refusal of Constantinople to accept Roman claims of primacy. The excommunications, which effectively divided the East and the West, were “erased from memory and the midst of the Church” by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople in 1965, but their two churches are not yet in ecclesiastical communion.
Third, what Jeffrey Burton Russell, the noted historian of the medieval church, calls “dissent” from “order” in the medieval West generally occurred less on the intellectual plane than as an attempt at moral and institutional reform. Nevertheless, what were labeled with the rather elastic term “heresies” sometimes had doctrinal import. Reforming movements often arose in monastic or lay circles, perhaps against a background of apocalyptic impatience with the present world, and they could be domesticated by “the authorities,” so that even popes could espouse reform. Few long-lasting schisms took place along these lines (though the Waldenses and the Hussites have survived as separate bodies). On the doctrinal level, the greatest potential for disruption resided in the reformers’ claims of new inspiration by the Holy Spirit, which was sometimes mediated through new interpretations of Scripture. The role of the Holy Spirit was elevated by Joachim of Fiore (c. 1130/35–1201/02) to a re-periodization of the history of salvation, in which the impending “age of the Spirit” would follow on those of the Father and the Son.
Whether positively or negatively, some have interpreted the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century as the last of the medieval reform movements. The Protestant reformers were concerned with matters of doctrine and viewed the condition and practices of contemporary Christendom as the disfiguring outcrop of distorted understandings of God, humankind, and salvation. Liturgical features of the mass (connected above all with its sacrificial character), the intercession and relics of the saints, purgatory and indulgences—all appeared to require the reaffirmation of Christ alone (against the mediation of church or saints), grace alone (against merit), faith alone (against works, though not as the fruit of faith), and Scripture alone (as norma normans; “the norm that norms,” or “ultimate standard”) over any subordinate standards in tradition. The response of the “papal church” was neither quick enough nor far-reaching enough for the reformers, who therefore each carried out their confessional, liturgical, catechetical, and institutional programs in their respective territorial areas. Although various families of Protestant churches formed themselves (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican), they usually were not in full ecclesiastical communion with each other; the separating factors were chiefly differences over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and over the pastoral and governmental structures of the church.
The emergence of new issues is yet another circumstance that may cause division among Christians. Heavy debate has attended the relation between the Christian doctrine of creation and the cosmological and evolutionary theories of the natural sciences. Although no major ecclesiastical schisms have taken place directly over these questions, shifts in worldview fostered by the rise of the sciences may underlie some of the doctrinal tensions in modern Christianity.
At the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed that three issues in particular might cause division. First, the ordination of women to the presbyterate and then to the episcopate in the last quarter of the 20th century resulted in an “impairment of communion” within and among the provinces of Anglicanism, and it further complicated the relationships between Protestant churches on the one hand and Catholic and Orthodox on the other. Second, the question of the acceptability or not of homosexual practices is agitating many Western churches and disturbing relationships within their global ecclesiastical families. Third, a study text of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission, The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (1998), signals that “some churches” are asking whether it is necessarily “church-dividing” to “confess Christ only as one mediator among others.” Certainly, the relation between Christ—scripturally and traditionally preached by Christians as the unique and universal Saviour—and the religions into which most of humankind is grouped is an important issue.
Controversy: fighting over the faith
Controversies have always preceded schisms but have not necessarily resulted in them. After a division, the contesting parties seek to consolidate their respective positions, both among their supporters and against their opponents, so that doctrine takes on an apologetic character even between Christians and acquires—on the assumption that attack is the best form of defense—a polemical edge. As a result, the teaching of each community sometimes suffers through the exaggeration of certain features and the neglect of others.
One controversy that led to schism is the debate between East and West concerning the Spirit’s procession. The Eastern churches have long suspected that the West’s error resides in giving an “Augustinian” priority to an undifferentiated divine essence that in fact renders the distinct persons nonessential to the Godhead. The West, meanwhile, has suspected that the East, by holding to the Father (alone) as “the fount of deity,” may never have overcome the “Arian” subordination of the other two persons of the Godhead.
The other main issue between East and West has concerned the status of the see of Rome. Although the East has recognized that Rome enjoyed a certain “primacy of honour” among the other patriarchal sees of the first millennium (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem), it considers hypertrophic the development by which Rome dogmatized its own claim to universal jurisdiction and an infallible teaching authority.
In the 16th century, Luther’s pugnacity on behalf of his rediscovered gospel expressed itself in combative writings aimed at various targets. The most decisive of those aimed at Rome was the treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), which attacked the current sacramental system and left Christ himself as the sole sacrament in the scriptural sense (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16) and baptism and the Lord’s Supper as his “sacramental signs.” Luther also attacked the “enthusiasts” among the would-be reformers; at the colloquy of Marburg (1529), rejecting the teachings of Huldrych Zwingli, he proclaimed the existence of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper with a literal est (“This is my body”). Luther approved the relatively conciliatory Confession of Augsburg (1530), but the Schmalkaldic Articles of 1537 turned fiercely against Rome, which responded at the Council of Trent (1545–63), where it asserted the validity of traditional Catholic teachings in areas of conflict—salvation, sacraments, ecclesiology—and anathematized any who should hold positions that it perceived to exist in Protestantism.
The confessional documents of the Reformation churches typically combined a reaffirmation of the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines of the ancient councils and creeds with a new statement of scriptural soteriology against the current understanding and practice of the Roman Church. They also treated questions of authority, government, and discipline. In sacramental doctrine, the Reformation confessions not only state disagreement with Rome but also reveal certain differences among the various Reformation churches.
Interconfessional apologetics and polemics became built into standard works of theological instruction. A perduring example was Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (final edition 1559). From the Catholic side, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet displayed what he saw as the inconsistencies of Protestantism in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches (1688).
Nevertheless, the European “Wars of Religion” of the 16th and 17th centuries resulted, if only by reaction and at a geographically variable pace, in the growth of civil tolerance. An admixture of other cultural factors led to a certain moderation of confessional claims at the intellectual level also; exemplary in this regard would be the German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81). Eventually, the divided churches realized that the task of evangelization, in relation both to domestic secularization and to the global mission, called them to a mutual reconciliation that lay in the nature of the gospel.
An instance of emergent ecumenism, which developed into a broad movement in the 20th century, is found in John Wesley’s “Letter to a Roman Catholic” (1749) and his sermon “Catholic Spirit” (1750). Not only on the basis of the universal Creator and Redeemer common to all humanity but also on the grounds of a shared Christian faith (which he set forth as an expansion upon the Nicene Creed), Wesley invited Catholics and Protestants to join in a “union in affection” in which they might “help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom,” even if differences in “opinions,” “modes of worship,” and church government prevent “an entire external union.”
Ecumenism: speaking the truth in love
By the 20th century the ecumenical movement had become perhaps the single most prominent feature of contemporary Christian history. Doctrinal conversations were held at the multilateral level under the heading of Faith and Order and at the bilateral level between particular pairs among the global confessional families or communions. They often started as what might be called “comparative symbolics”—the matching of existing confessional statements—but they then moved into a concentration on the dogmatic topic in hand.
Although the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, which holds honorary primacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, took a significant first step by its proposal of a “league of churches” in 1920, the ecumenical movement was largely Protestant in its origins. The Roman see suspected “religious indifferentism” (as indicated in Pius XI’s encyclical of 1928, Mortalium animos [“On Religious Unity”]) and was hesitant to join the movement. But pioneering efforts in “spiritual ecumenism,” followed by mid-century convergences at the scholarly level, prepared for the official entrance of the Roman Catholic Church on the ecumenical scene with the holding of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II; 1962–65). When, after some 50 years as the principal carrier of the ecumenical banner, the World Council of Churches suffered some decline, Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Ut unum sint (1995; “That They May Be One”) reaffirmed the “irrevocable commitment” of the Catholic church to the ecumenical cause of Christian unity for the sake of obedience to Christ’s will and the truth and spread of the gospel: “that they may be one, that the world may believe” (John 17:17–23), and “all for the glory of the Father,” as John Paul noted, summarizing the meaning of the gospel passage.
The ecumenical spirit even spread to relations between Catholic and Orthodox churches on one side and the Oriental Orthodox churches on the other. Some of the Oriental Orthodox churches, most notably the Armenian Apostolic Church, had been founding members of the World Council of Churches in 1948. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church each undertook independent efforts at dialogue to mend the ancient rift that followed the Council of Chalcedon. The Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches reached theological agreement that they shared the same Christological faith despite terminological differences over “one nature” or “two natures.” Somewhat similarly, the Roman see reached agreement with the Oriental Orthodox churches that the ancient conflict over perceived differences in Christology had been largely a “verbal” matter, and the two parties even approved mutual sacramental ministry in cases of pastoral emergency. Since 1970 the Vatican and the leaders of four of the six Oriental Orthodox churches (Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Malankara Syrian [Indian]) have issued joint declarations about a shared Christian vision, and the Catholic church has held joint meetings with all six churches every January since 2004. Individual Oriental Orthodox churches have engaged in occasional dialogues with the Assyrian Church of the East and with various Protestant bodies. Despite such overtures, however, there remain traditionalists on each side who reject ecumenism.
The Filioque dispute between East and West, which originated in the 8th century, seemed on the way to resolution through theological work associated with the Faith and Order Commission study, Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ (1981): mutually acceptable understandings were approached through formulations such as “the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son” or “from the Father of the Son.” The Catholic and Orthodox churches began a bilateral dialogue after Vatican II over a broader range of dogmatic topics, although it was recognized that each of the two churches would have to modify its claim to constitute the one Church of Christ if they were to be reunited.
The Faith and Order Commission study that attracted the greatest degree of participation from the widest range of churches was Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982), whose initial reception was remarkably positive. On the touchstone question of the Eucharist, the study affirmed the “real, living, and active presence” of Christ but hardly settled the centuries-old controversies over the manner of that presence in relation to the bread and wine.
On All Saints’ Eve, 1999, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed in Augsburg, Germany, by representatives of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation. By declaring that the mutual condemnations of the 16th century did not apply to the teaching on justification as now stated together (with tolerable nuances of detail on either side), Lutherans and Catholics proclaimed what may have been the key issue of the Reformation settled, even if other doctrinal and institutional matters needed to be resolved before full reconciliation could take place.
In multilateral terms, Pope John Paul II, in the encyclical Ut unum sint, noted the considerable ecumenical progress made in the second half of the 20th century on doctrinal questions and then listed five topics that required further study: (1) “the relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God,” (2) “the Eucharist, as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, an offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ, and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit,” (3) “ordination, as a sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate,” (4) “the Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safeguarding the faith,” and (5) “the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity.” John Paul II invited “the leaders of other churches and their theologians” to engage with him “in a patient and fraternal dialogue” on the claims of the primatial Roman see to a universal ministry of unity. He felt his own responsibility “in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”
The challenge facing the established churches in remaining committed to their traditional mission while responding to changing circumstances may become further evident in the 21st century with the global burgeoning of Pentecostal and charismatic churches that have had little to do with existing institutions but display many features of historical Christianity. (See below Ecumenism.
On the basis of their religious experiences, the mystics of Christianity of all eras have concurred in the belief that one can make no assertions about God, because God is beyond all concepts and images. Inasmuch as human beings are gifted with reason, however, the religious experience of transcendence demands historical clarification. Thus, in Christian theology two tendencies stand in constant tension with each other. On the one hand, there is the tendency to systematize the idea of God as far as possible. On the other, there is the tendency to eliminate the accumulated collection of current conceptions of God and to return to the understanding of his utter transcendence. Theologians, by and large, have had to acknowledge the limits of human reason and language to address the “character” of God, who is beyond normal human experience but who impinges on it. But because of the divine–human contact, it became necessary and possible for them to make some assertions about the experience, the disclosure, and the character of God.
All great epochs of the history of Christianity are defined by new forms of the experience of God and of Christ. Rudolf Otto, an early 20th-century German theologian, attempted to describe to some extent the basic ways of experiencing the transcendence of the “holy.” He called these the experience of the “numinous” (the spiritual dimension), the utterly ineffable, the holy, and the overwhelming. The “holy” is manifested in a double form: as the mysterium tremendum (“mystery that repels”), in which the dreadful, fearful, and overwhelming aspect of the numinous appears, and as the mysterium fascinosum (“mystery that attracts”), by which humans are irresistibly drawn to the glory, beauty, adorable quality, and the blessing, redeeming, and salvation-bringing power of transcendence. All of these features are present in the Christian concepts of God as explicated in the ever new experiences of the charismatic leaders.
Characteristic features of the Christian concept of God
Within the Christian perception and experience of God, characteristic features stand out: (1) the personality of God, (2) God as the Creator, (3) God as the Lord of history, and (4) God as Judge. (1) God, as person, is the “I am who I am” designated in Exodus 3:14. The personal consciousness of human beings awakens in the encounter with God understood as a person: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). (2) God is also viewed as the Creator of heaven and earth. The believer thus maintains, on the one hand, acknowledgement of divine omnipotence as the creative power of God, which also operates in the preservation of the world, and, on the other hand, trusts in the world, which—despite all its contradictions—is understood as one world created by God according to definite laws and principles and according to an inner plan. The decisive aspect of creation, however, is that God fashioned human beings according to the divine image and made the creation subject to them. This special position of humans in the creation, which makes them coworkers of God in the preservation and consummation of the creation, brings a decisively new characteristic into the understanding of God. (3) This new characteristic is God as the Lord of history, which is the main feature of the Old Testament understanding of God: God selects a special people and contracts a special covenant with them. Through the Law (Torah) the divine agent binds this “people of God” in a special way. God sets before them a definite goal of salvation—the establishment of a divine dominion—and through the prophets admonishes the people by proclamations of salvation and calamity whenever they are unfaithful to the covenant and promise. (4) This God of history also is the God of judgment. The Israelite belief that the disclosure of God comes through the history of divinely led people leads, with an inner logic, to the proclamation of God as the Lord of world history and as the Judge of the world.
The specific concept of God as Father
What is decisively new in the Christian, New Testament faith in God lies in the fact that this faith is so closely bound up with the person, teaching, and work of Jesus Christ that it is difficult to draw boundaries between theology (doctrines of God) and Christology (doctrines of Christ). The special relationship of Jesus to God is expressed through his designation of God as Father. In prayers Jesus used the Aramaic word abba (“father”) for God, which is otherwise unusual in religious discourse in Judaism; it was usually employed by children for their earthly father. This father–son relationship became a prototype for the relationship of Christians to God. Appeal to the sonship of God played a crucial role in the development of Jesus’ messianic self-understanding. According to the account of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus understood his sonship when a voice from heaven said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In the Gospel According to John, this sonship constitutes the basis for the self-consciousness of Jesus: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).