There are many differences between the three main branches of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the various types of Protestants). However, as streams within the overall Christian tradition, they are akin in certain basic beliefs. These primary tenets of faith include:
The Bible is inspired and authoritative.
God exists as the eternal Trinity.
Creation: The Cosmos was created in a state of completion, but is now fallen into a state of futility due to sin.
Human Nature: People are specially made in God’s image, but are fallen through sin into separation from God and the degeneration caused by sin.
Jesus Christ is the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. He is the Second Person of the eternal Trinity. Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
The Atonement: Jesus’ death paid the penalty for human sin and opened the way to restore people to God. His resurrection validates the Father’s acceptance of his atonement.
Human Response: Faith toward God (specifically in Jesus) is what God requires for people to receive forgiveness and new life. Faith is a deep level of trusting, which results in actions which show its reality.
The Church: All who have faith in Christ are part of the Body of Christ, which is manifested in local bodies of believers, known as churches.
Holy Living: Faith shows itself in new desires which, honor God accompanied by a new power for living. The old sinful desires and tendencies can still operate, but no longer have complete control.
Death and Eternity: Death is the natural result of being separated from the Living God. Eternity follows physical death and seals a person in a state of faith or unbelief. Eternal life or eternal condemnation await everyone.
The Future: The present age will end with a catastrophic clash between the Kingdom of God and the world-system. Jesus will return to rule. The Cosmos will be remade to exclude evil.
Arianism was a theological viewpoint first proposed early in the Fourth Century by Arius, an elder of the Church of Alexandria. Mainstream Christianity condemned Arianism as a heresy because it taught that Jesus Christ is not truly divine but is instead a created being of exalted status. Arius attracted a large following through a very successful publicity campaign featuring his poem entitled Thalia (banquet) and a number of Arian popular songs written for the common people.
Arius’ fundamental premise was that God alone is self-existent and immutable. Though Jesus Christ is called the Son of God in scripture, Arius did not see him as self-existent. Arius appears to have integrated elements of mainstream Christianity with Neoplatonism, which accented the absolute oneness and perfection of the Creator. Arius combined this Neoplatonist view of God with a literalist approach to the New Testament texts. He taught that Christ was the most perfect of material creatures who was “adopted” by God as a son but who remained a dependant creature, known as “the Logos”. As such he is substantially unlike the eternal, uncreated Father and is subordinate to his will. Because God is unique, he cannot be identified with the Son; because God is immutable (unchanging), the Son, who is represented in the Gospels as subject to growth and change cannot be God. Therefore, the Son must be a creature.
According to the opponents of Arius, his teaching put Jesus on the level of a Greek demigod and undermined the gospel, since only a fully divine Christ could he redeem the entire world. In reaction to the heated debates between Arians and mainstream Christians in the years 323-324 AD, the emperor Constantine, in May of 325, summoned an ecumenical (whole church) council at the city of Nicaea. The council’s purpose was to settle what Constantine termed as “a fight over trifling and foolish verbal differences”.
The outcome of Nicea was the defeat and banishment of Arius as a heretic and the issuing of a creed by the mainstream bishops to safeguard orthodox Christian belief. The Nicean Creed states that the Son of God is “of one substance with the Father”, thus declaring him to be, by nature, all that the Father is.
Although the Council of Nicea seemed to settle the controversy, it was actually only the beginning of a centuries-long dispute. After Constantine’s death in 337, the co-emperor of the eastern portion of the Empire, Constantius II announced his sympathies with the Arian doctrines. When he became sole emperor in 350, Constantius began a suppression of the Nicean policy until his death in 361. The struggle for supremacy continued until the end of the Fourth Century when the emperor Theodosius took up the Nicean position and Arianism collapsed. Although this was the end of the Arian heresy within the empire, its doctrines continued among certain Germanic tribes (notably the Goths) until the end of the Seventh Century.
In more modern times, the Unitarian doctrine of God is very similar to Arian teachings. Likewise, the teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses about Christ is very much like Arian concepts. Both of these groups deny that Jesus had a fully divine nature, but teach on the other hand, that he was greater than a human being.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is considered a saint of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. He is also respected by many Protestants as a pivotal thinker and theologian.
Background: Augustine was born in modern-day Algeria of a pagan father and Christian mother (Monica). He described himself as an intelligent, but very bad boy. As a teenager, Augustine took a mistress, whose name is lost to history. For years his mother prayed for his soul, seemingly without effect.
After receiving the best in Roman and Greek education, he became first a Neoplatonist, then a Manichaean, much to the sorrow of his devoutly Christian mother. As a philosopher, he honed the skills of a master debater and teacher of philosophy.
In his thirties, Augustine escaped his mother’s Christian influence (so he thought) by sailing to Rome with his mistress and son. Later, in Milan, he heard and befriended the great preacher, Ambrose. After much debate and discussion, Augustine was finally converted through Ambrose’s intellectual defense of Christianity. The moment of truth is said to have arrived as he sat on a bench in Ambrose’s garden and heard a children’s rhyme, which said “Pick it up and read.” Seeing no children, but finding a portion of scripture near the bench, Augustine read what was written and surrendered to Jesus Christ. Putting away his mistress, in due time he was ordained a priest, and then Bishop of Hippo. Augustine used his impressive education and keen mind in service of Christianity during his lengthy ministry. Agustine’s accomplishments include:
The Doctrine of Total Depravity. Around the year 400, a British monk named Pelagius began traveling widely in the Roman Empire spreading the teaching that Adam’s sin was not passed down to the human race, but that each person is born innocent and able to choose goodness and live righteously. Therefore, according to Pelagius, Jesus’ salvation forgives personal sins but is not necessary to free a person from the slavery of a sinful nature.
In contrast, Augustine taught that Adam’s sin had indeed infected the entire race at the most basic level of being. This he called “original sin”. As a result all people are, by nature, lost and deserving of God’s wrath. Rather than being guilty of personal offenses, all people share in a human nature which is totally depraved. That is, human nature is infected with sin in all its component parts (body, soul and spirit). Hence all people (including babies) are born sinners and need Jesus’ salvation regardless of their relative outward moral standing.
The Doctrine of Sacramentalism. Augustine taught that the Catholic Church is “the Ark of God, outside of which there is no salvation”. In his view, the atonement provided by Jesus was entrusted to the Church, who dispenses it to those in Christ. The method by which the Church dispenses God’s saving grace is through holy acts called sacraments. Eventually, there came to be the standard seven sacraments of: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (communion), penance (confession), prayer for the sick (last rites), ordination to holy orders, and holy matrimony.
The City of God. In the last years of his life, Augustine was caught up in the beginnings of the barbarian invasions of Rome. These barbarian groups (Vandals, Huns, Goths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons and others) would eventually destroy Roman order and occupy its western provinces, bringing Rome in the West to an end around 470 AD. Augustine was troubled by people’s reaction to this unfolding disaster. Many people were asking how God could allow Rome to be destroyed by such godless people, especially since it had outwardly embraced Christianity in the previous century. Feelings of abandonment and fear were common among many believers and in the general population. His response was to write a defense of God’s power and love, called The City of God. In it, Augustine argues that God has promised to guard and prosper his Church. Though Rome may have embraced the Christian gospel at some level, God never promised to preserve Rome itself. Therefore, God was not failing to fulfill his purposes for the world. In fact, the Church was actually strengthened by the barbarian depredations and began to grow steadily in power. Augustine counseled believers to trust in God’s providence and purposes even though events seem to run counter to common thinking about God’s will.
Augustine can be seen a vital figure in the development of Christian doctrine and thinking for the entire Church. His concept of sacramentalism has been adopted by both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches. His teaching of total depravity is accepted by those traditions as well as many Protestant groups. The perspective of God’s sovereignty even over huge historical disasters is a needed perspective for believers in any epoch of history.