CHRISTIANITY

From Agepedia

Jump to: navigation , search

CHRISTIANITY; the religion instituted by Jesus Christ. Christianity, as it now exists in our minds, has received, from the influence of the priesthood, of national character, of the spirit of the time, and the thousand ways in which it has been brought into contact with politics and science, a quantity of impure additions, which we should first separate, in order to understand what it is in reality. There could be no better means of attaining a correct understanding of it, than to investigate, historically, the religious principles which Jesus himself professed, exhibited in his life, and labored to introduce into the world, if the investigator could avoid giving the coloring of his own views to his explanation of the records of the origin of Christianity. But the most honest inquirers have not entirely succeeded in so doing. Even the Christian theologians of the present ageless divided, in some countries, for instance, in Germany, by the spirit of creeds and sects, than by the difference of scientific methods and philosophical speculationsdispute respect ing the principle that constitutes the basis of the religion of CHRIST, which, in other respects, has been unanimously adopted. (See the articles Religion, Revelation, Rationalism, and Supernaturalism.) This principle appears, by its effect upon the numerous nations, differing so greatly in intellectual character and cultivation, which received Christianity at first, to have been a universal truth, adapted to the whole human race, and of a divine, alluniting power. The Jews believed in a living God, the Creator of all things, and, so far, had just views of the source of religion. The Greeks, besides developing the principle of the beautiful in their works of art, had laid the foundations of valuable sciences applicable to the business of life. The Romans had established the principles of law and political administration, and proved their value by experience. These scattered elements of moral and intellectual cultivation, insufficient, in their disunited state, to bring about the true happiness and moral perfection of man, in his social and individual capacity, were refined, perfected and combined by Christianity, through the law of a pure benevolence, the highest aim of which is that of rendering men good and happy, like God, and which finds, in the idea of a kingdom of heaven upon earth, announced and realized by Christ, all the means of executing its design. His religion supplied what was wanting to these nationsa religious character to the science of Greece, moral elevation to the legislative spirit of Rome, liberty and light to the devotion of the Jewsand, by inculcating the precept of universal love of mankind, raised the narrow spirit of patriotism to the extended feeling of general philanthropy. Thus the endeavors of ancient times after moral perfection were directed and concentrated by Christianity, which supplied, at the same time, a motive for diffusing more widely that light and those advantages which mystery and the spirit of castes had formerly withheld from the multitude. It conveyed the highest ideas, the most important truths and principles, the purest laws of moral life, to all ranks ; it proved the possibility of perfect virtue, through the example of its Founder; it laid the foundation for the peace of the world, through the doctrine of the reconciliation of men with God and with each other; and, directing their minds and hearts towards Jesus, the Author and Finisher of their faith, the crucified, arisen and glorified Mediator between heaven and earth, it taught them to discern the benevolent connexion of the future life with the present The history of Jesus, and the preparations of God for his mission, afforded the materials from which Christians formed their conceptions of the character and tendency of their religion. The first community of the followers of Jesus was formed at Jerusalem, soon after the death of their Master. Another, at Antioch, in Syria, first assumed (about 65) the name of Christians, which had originally been given to them by their adversaries, as a term of reproach; and the travels of the apostles spread Christianity through the provinces of the Roman empiie. Palestine, Syria, Natolia, Greece, the islands of the Mediterranean, Italy, and the northern coast of Africa, as early as the 1st century, contained societies of Christians. Tlieir ecclesiastical discipline was simple, and conformable to their humble condition, and they continued to acquire strength amidst all kinds of oppressions. (See Persecutions.) At the end of the 2d century, Christians were to be found in all the provinces, and, at the end of the 3d century, almost one half of the inhabitants of the Roman empire, and of several neighboring countries, professed this belief. The endeavor to preserve a unity of faith (see Orthodoxy) and of church discipline, caused numberless disputes among those of different opinions (see Heretics and Sects), and led to the establishment of an ecclesiastical tyranny, notwithstanding the oppressions which the first Christians had experienced from a similar institutionthe Jewish priesthood. At the beginning of the 4th century, when the Christians obtained toleration by means of Constantine the Great, and, soon after, the superiority in the Roman empire, the bishops exercised the power of arbiters of faith, in the first general council (see Nice), 325, by instituting a creed binding on all Christians. Upon this foundation, the later councils (q. v.), assisted by those writers who are honored by the church as its fathers and teachers (see Fathers of the Church, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, &c), erected the edifice of the orthodox system; while the superior portion of the ecclesiastics, who were now transformed into pr' jsts, and elevated above the laity as a privileged, sacred order (see Clergy and Priests), were enabled, partly by their increasing authority in matters of church discipline, partly by the belief, which they had encouraged, that certain traditions from the apostles were inherited by them only (see Tradi tions), to preserve the prerogatives at first granted them out of love and gratitude, but afterwards much extended by themselves, and to make themselves, gradually, masters of the church. (See Bishops, Patriarchs, Popes, Hierarchy.) Their views were promoted by the favor of the emperors (see Theodosius the Great) (with slight interruptions in the reign of Julian and some of his successors), by the increased splendor and various ceremonials of divine worship (see Mass, Saints, Relics, Iconoclasts), by the decline of classical learning, the increasing superstition resulting from this increase of ignorance, and by the establishment of convents and monks. (See Convents.) In this form, appealing to the senses more than to the understand ing, Christianity, which had been introduced among the Goths in the 4th century, was spread among the other Teutonic nations in the west and north of Europe, and subjected to its power, during the 7th and 8th centuries, the rude warriors who founded new kingdoms on the ruins of the Western Empire, while it was losing ground, in Asia and africa, before the encroachments of the Saracens, by whose rigorous measures hundreds of thousands of Christians were converted to Mohammedanism, the heretical sects which had been disowned by the orthodox church (see Jacobites, Copts, Armenians, Maronites, JYestorians) being almost the only Christians who maintainedthemselves in the East. During this progress of Mohammedanism, which, in Europe, extended only to Spain and Sicily, the Roman popes (see Popes and Gregory VII), who were advancing systematically to ecclesiastical superiority in the west of Europe, gained more in the north, and, soon after, in the east of this quarter of the world, by the conversion of the Sclavonic and Scandinavian nations (from the 10th to the 12th century), than they had lost in other regions. For the Mohammedans had chiefly overrun the territory of the Eastern church (see Greek Church), which had been, since the 5th century, no longer one with the Western (Latin) church, and had, by degrees, become entirely separate from it. In the 10th century, it received some new adherents, by the conversion of the Russians, who are now its most powerful support. But the crusaders, who were led, partly by religious enthusiasm, partly by the desire of conquest and adventures (1096-1150), to attempt the recovery of the holy sepulchre, gained the new kingdom of Jerusalem, not for the Greek emperor, but for themselves and the papal hierarchy. (See Crusades.) The confusion which this finally unsuccessful undertaking introduced into the civil and domestic affairs of the western nations, gave the church a favorable opportunity of increasmg its possessions, and asserting its pretensions to universal monarchy. But, contrary to the wishes and expectations of the rulers of the church, the remains of ancient heresies (see Manichaans, Paulicians) were introduced into the West, through the increased intercourse of nations, and by the returning crusaders, and new and more liberal ideas were propagated, springing from the philosophical spirit of examination of some schoolmen (see Abelard, Arnold of Brescia), and the indignation excited by the corruptions of the clergy. These kindled an opposition among all the societies and sects against the Roman hierarchy. (See Cathari, Albigenses, Waldenses.) The foundation and multiplication of ecclesiastical orders (q. v.), particularly the Franciscans and Dominicans, for the care of souls and the instruction of the people, which had been neglected by the secular priests, did not remedy the evil, because they labored, in general, more actively to promote the interests of the church and the papacy, than to remove superstition and ignorance ; and bold speculations, which would not yield to their persuasion, were still less likely to be extirpated by the power of the inquisition (q. v.), which armed itself with fire and sword. The great difference of the Christian religion, as it was then taught and practised, from the religion of Jesus Christ, the insufficiency of what the church taught to the religious wTants of the human mind and heart, was apparent to many, partly from their knowledge of the spirit of Jesus, derived from the Bible, which was already studied, in secret, by curious readers, in spite of the prohibitions of the church, and partly from the bold eloquence of single teachers and chiefs of sects. Ecclesiastical orders also desired to pursue their own course (see Knights Templars, Franciscans) ; offended princes forgot the great services of the papal power in promoting the cultivation of nations in the first centuries of the middle ages; and the popes themselves made little effort to reform or conceal the corruption of their court and of ahe clergy. They even afforded the scandalous spectacle of a schism in the church (see Schism, Popes, and Antipope), which was distracted, after 1378, for more than 30 years, by the quarrels between two candidates, who both asserted their right to the papal chair. This dispute was settled only by the decrees of the council of Constance (1414-1418), which were very unfavorable to the papal power. The doctrines of the English Wickliffe (q. v.) had already given rise to a party opposed to the popedom; and the revolt of the adherents of the Bohemian reformer (see Huss, Hussites), who was burnt at Constance on account of similar doctrines, extorted from the council of Bale (1431 43) certain compacts, which, being firmly maintained, proved to the friends of a reformation in the head and members of the church (proposed, but without sue cess, at the council of Bale), what a fin and united opposition to the abuses of the Roman church might be able to effect. We refer the reader to the article Reformation, and the articles relating to it, for a history of the causes, progress and consequences of this great event, But that this great change in the church has revived primitive Christianity in the spirit of its Founder, the most zealous Protestants will not assert, any more than the reflecting Catholic will deny the necessity of such a reform, and the real merits of Protestantism in promoting it. (See Trent, Council of, Roman Catholic Church, and Protestantism.) The forms under which Christianity appears, in our days, are very different. The example of the south of Europe proves how easily this religion naturalizes itself, but, also, how much it loses, under the influence of sensuality and an overactive fancy, of the simple grandeur, the moral power and pure spirit of its original character. Protestantism removed from the northern nations many of the burdens with which the predominance of the earthly nature had oppressed the spirit of religion. By opening the Bible to all, it aroused the spirit of inquiry, but also gave rise to an immense variety of sects, springing from the different views which different men were led to form from the study of the sacred volume. The present moral and political condition of Christian Europe, though affected by so many influences foreign to religion, bears the stamp of a cultivation springing from Christianity, and this has been impressed upon its colonies in distant lands, among which the U. States of North America alone have advanced to the principle of universal toleration. But if we look among our contemporaries for Christianity as it dwelt and operated in Christ, we shall find it pure m no nation and in no religious party, but we perceive its features in the conduct of the enlight ened and pious among all nations, who love Christ, and are penetrated with his Spirit. How Christianity will develope itself in North America, where all sects are tolerated, what will be the result of this immense variety of opinions and creeds, is, as yet, a matter of speculation. The general views of the great body of Protestant sects in this country, however, have so much in common, that they may still be considered as forming one great family among the principal divisions of the Christian world. Whether this will be true after a considerable time has elapsed, is at least doubtful, as the Unitarians and Trinitarians seem to be taking essentially different directions.