In our last segment, we talked about the doctrine of original sin and how it led to the belief in Western Christianity that the primary fact about our relation to God and God’s relation to us is that we do not live our lives as God wants us to. In other words, we are all sinners, and it’s not because that’s what we choose, it’s because we are born that way. We are born so that we can’t help it. The reason we’re born that way is because God made us be born that way. But even though God made us that way, God still holds us responsible for it.
Today we’ll talk about how and why Western Christianity was so ripe for such a belief.
The Origin of Christianity: Jesus
The religion of Christianity stems from a man named Jesus, who lived about 2000 years ago. As a young man, Jesus gained quite a reputation as a teacher, miracle worker, and healer. He traveled around, mainly over the area of Galilee, and people were astonished at the things He did. He healed people of real physical sickness and disease. He was a captivating teacher. He drew huge crowds of people everywhere He went. He chose twelve men to accompany Him on His travels and assist Him. These men were known as disciples.
The leaders of Judaism, though, didn’t like Jesus. They felt He didn’t follow Jewish laws and customs; they felt the things He said about God were not true. They felt He was an enemy of God and was misleading the people.
Jesus didn’t like them, either. He accused them of being the ones who were saying wrong things about God and misleading the people. Over a period of time, the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders intensified, and eventually it reached the boiling point, and the Jewish leaders convinced the Roman authorities to execute Jesus.
However, a few days after He had been killed, some of His followers went to his tomb and found it empty. Heavenly beings told them Jesus had risen from the grave, and it wasn’t long until Jesus Himself appeared to them, in His own body, still bearing the marks of His execution.
He stayed with them for several weeks, and then He ascended up into heaven, and heavenly beings told the people who witnessed it that He would one day return.
Here was the situation—the people who had seen Jesus in the flesh after He had been killed and buried were confused about all this to the point that they didn’t know what to do. They basically laid low for a while, not knowing what to do or what to think. But then one day, something happened. They had a renewed sense of energy, and something compelled them to go out and start telling other people about Jesus. And so they did.
Christianity in the Earliest Days
They talked, most of all, about the fact that Jesus had been killed, but yet in His own body, had risen from the grave. But these weren’t the only people talking about Jesus. There were other people who had known Jesus, other people who had seen Jesus in the flesh after He had been killed. These people were going around talking about it, too.
The religion of Christianity was beginning. It was a religion based on Jesus and His teachings and what happened to Him, and it was quite different from the other religions then current in that part of the world.
It was a religion centered in small groups of people who got together regularly in peoples’ houses. Some of these groups were connected with each other, some were not. This religion that centered around Jesus spread like wildfire and quickly attracted many followers.
Making Sense of Jesus
Imagine for a minute the position these people were in. Many of them had known Jesus during His life, they had seen Him perform miracles, they had heard Him teach, they had heard the things He said about Himself, they knew what happened to Him, and many of them had seen Jesus in the flesh after He had risen from the dead.
But then Jesus was gone. He ascended into heaven and was gone. And then people were left scratching their heads wondering, “Who was this person?” “What did all this mean?” They started thinking about it, started trying to put it all together and make sense out of it.
And remember, there were lots of these little groups of people spread out over a wide area. They’re all thinking about it, and they come up with many different ideas about who Jesus was and what it all meant. And so the situation, in the early days of Christianity, was that you had lots of little groups of people believing all kinds of different things about Jesus, interpreting who He was and what it all meant differently.
The Beginning of Organized Christianity
Some of the larger of these groups located in the more important cities began communicating with each other and cooperating with each other, and they began to form a kind of rudimentary organizational structure among themselves. These were people who shared common, or at least similar, beliefs about who Jesus was and what it all meant, and they began developing ties with each other.
But on the other hand, there were other groups with different ideas about who Jesus was and what it all meant. These groups began forming ties with groups who saw things similarly to them.
So what you had in the early days of Christianity was different factions of people who believed different things about who Jesus was and what it all meant. Each of these different factions formed loose ties and organizational structure with people who saw things they way they did. This was the beginning of organization in Christianity. It’s important to realize this was not one big umbrella organization, it was a whole bunch of separate organizations that all believed different things.
That was the situation in Christianity for almost 300 years.
The Beginning of “The Church” and Institutional Christianity
But then something happened. Christianity existed, for the most part, within the bounds of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was huge, it was far-flung, and that was back when transportation and communication were slow. The Roman Empire was so big and spread out over such a huge area that it was hard to hold it all together. There was nothing that unified it. There was nothing the people in the different parts of the Empire had in common. Because of that, the Empire was weakening. It couldn’t hold itself together.
In the early 300’s, a man named Constantine was the Emperor. Constantine was having trouble holding things together, and he was looking for something that would unify the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire. Somehow or another, he became exposed to Christianity. There’s disagreement among historians about exactly how that happened, but somehow Constantine was exposed to Christianity, and he liked it.
He had an idea. If everyone in the Roman Empire followed the religion of Christianity, that would give a unifying factor to the Empire. It would give everyone something in common.
That was a good idea, but Constantine saw a problem with it. Christianity itself was not unified. As we talked about earlier, Christianity consisted of a number of factions, each believing different things. There was no agreement in Christianity. There were all different kinds of Christians believing all different kinds of things.
If Constantine wanted to use Christianity to unify the Roman Empire, he would first have to unify Christianity. He felt he could do that. He called together the leaders of some of the larger and more important Christian groups in the big cities, ones who had similar beliefs, and he told them if they would get together and decide on “official” Christian beliefs, he would use his power as Emperor to back them up. He would, in essence, make Christianity an official arm of the Roman government, and they would be at the top it.
They took Constantine up on his offer, and what is called “the church” was born. Constantine created an organization as a part of the Roman government that would become known as “the church.” He made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and he installed the leaders of these Christian groups as the ruling hierarchy of the church. Constantine patterned the authority structure of the church on the authority structure of the Roman Empire. Even today, the Roman Catholic church, as well as some Protestant denominations, still have authority structures patterned on the authority structure of the Roman Empire.
The Church Decides Correct Beliefs
Next, Constantine began calling what are called “councils.” Councils were meetings of the leaders of this new, emperor-sponsored church. Their purpose was to decide on correct beliefs. They would meet, make decisions, then publish their decisions, and that would be official Christian belief. Constantine would use his power as Emperor to enforce what the councils decided.
The first order of business was that out of all the different versions of Christianity that were out there, these church officials had to choose one. They chose one that was closely associated with a man named Paul. Paul had become a Christian shortly after the time of Jesus, and he traveled far and wide throughout the Roman Empire converting others. Paul wrote many letters, some of which had survived.
Paul’s Version of Christianity Wins Out
And so out of all the different versions of Christianity that were out there, they chose one closely associated with Paul and said that was the “correct” version. That’s why, out of the 27 books in the New Testament, 13 of them—almost half—are attributed to Paul.
From now on, this would be the “official” version of Christianity promoted by the “official” church, and it would be enforced by none other then the Emperor himself.
The Church Becomes a Powerful Institution
The leaders of Constantine’s church liked their new-found importance and position of power within society. They started building buildings and holding official services at which they themselves officiated. Christianity became contained within “the church,” which was itself an official institution of the Roman Empire. Christianity had come a long way. It used to be scattered little groups of people meeting in peoples’ houses. Now it was in the power structure of the Roman Empire.
The Church Needs a Source of Power
But of course Constantine did not live forever, and other emperors took his place. Plus, the Empire itself was weakening. As the Empire weakened, so was the church in danger of weakening. The hierarchy of the church realized it needed something to sustain itself. In the past it had depended on Constantine, but later emperors weren’t necessarily as enamored with the church as Constantine had been. The church hierarchy realized they needed some basis of power independent of the Roman Empire. They needed to bypass dependence on the Empire.
To use a metaphor, they needed a product to sell. They needed something to sell that only they had. It should be something people needed over and over again, so as to ensure a steady stream of repeat customers. They found what they needed from a man named Augustine and his idea of what’s called “original sin.” We talked about Augustine and original sin in the last segment, and if you haven’t listened to that, I’d encourage you to do so.
Forgiveness of Sins as the Product The Church Could Sell
The church hierarchy realized that in Augustine’s idea of original sin, they now had what they needed. They had a product that all people needed. They could simply tell everyone, “Every single one of you is a sinner through and through, and because of that you’ll spend eternity in hell. But we have the keys to the kingdom of heaven. We have the only way you can avoid an eternity in hell.”
Forgiveness Comes Only from The Church
And so they introduced a double cure for original sin—a cure in two parts. The way they did that was they divided the guilt of original sin into two parts. One part was that you inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve for eating the fruit just as if you had been there with them. The other part of guilt was that you were guilty of the sins you yourself committed. They decided that each part of that guilt would send you to hell, so in order to avoid hell, you must do something about both parts.
But of course they had the cure. First, you had to be cleansed of the guilt of the sin of Adam and Eve eating the fruit. Their cure for that was baptism. Baptism, they said, was like a washing that cleansed you of the guilt you inherited from Adam and Eve. They developed a service of baptism, and there, in the church, from them, was the only place you could get a valid baptism.
But then there were all the sins you yourself had committed. And they also split that into two parts. First, those sins had to be forgiven, and second, you had to pay a penalty for them. They developed the idea that they were the ones with the power to forgive sins. They also developed the idea that they were the ones who could tell you what penalty you had to pay for your sins. You had to get forgiveness of your sins from them, and they were the ones who could tell you what you had to do to pay for your sins—this is what would eventually become known as “doing penance.” And of course, just like they said they were the only ones who could do a valid baptism, they were the only ones who could declare your sins forgiven and the only ones who could tell you what you had to do to pay for them.
Baptism, Forgiveness, and The Church
Baptism was a one-shot thing. You only had to get that once. But since you sin over and over again your entire life, you would need to keep coming back again and again throughout your life in order to get forgiveness and be told what you had to do to pay for your sins. And if you didn’t, well, you’d spend eternity in hell.
This gave the church tremendous power. They held your eternal destiny in their hands. The church was your only hope of not spending eternity in the torments of hell. The church was the only place you could get the cure for original sin, and it was something you needed over and over again throughout your entire life.
This allowed the church hierarchy to break free from dependence on the Empire. Now they could flourish regardless of what happened with the Empire. Constantine had given them their start, but Augustine had given them the staff of power that transcended even the power of the Roman Empire.
It’s All About Sin
This was the pivotal time in Christian history. This was the time when the relation of human beings to God was officially defined, and it was defined in terms of sin. This was the time when the purpose of Christianity was officially defined, and it was defined in terms of getting forgiveness. This was the time when Christianity became contained within church, and when Christianity became all about church. This was the time when Christianity became institutionalized and also the time when the concept of clergy arose in Christianity arose.
In other words, this was the time when the whole course of Western Christianity would be set. Everything since then in Western Christianity followed the path that was set in those years, 300 to 400 years after Jesus, when Christianity became institutionalized.
The Difference Between Protestants and Catholics
That was the real beginning of Christianity as we know it. Now of course you might think, “Well, he’s talking about ancient Catholic Christianity, but the Protestants broke off from all that during the Reformation. Protestant beliefs are a lot different.” No they’re not. They may be expressed a little bit differently, and they might not outright say the church is the only thing that can keep you out of heel, but in that concentration on sin and forgiveness, the Protestants did not break from the Roman Catholics. And also, Protestants never really broke with Roman Catholicism about the importance of the institutional church. They just looked at church a little differently. In the final analysis, Protestants were just as much about sin and forgiveness as the ancient Roman Catholics were.
Do we have to be bound by that today, or dare we go back to before all that happened, and see if we can pick up there on our quest to start over with Christianity?
If we want to go back to before all that happened, the best place to go is to the Scriptures—to the Bible. And so in the next segment, we’ll talk a little about the history of the Scriptures, and that will set the stage for beginning to delve into the Scriptures in the segment after that.