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Christianity An Introduction


Alister E. McGrath



This edition first published 2015 © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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McGrath, Alister E., 1953– Christianity : an introduction / Alister E. McGrath. – Third Edition. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-118-46565-3 (pbk.) 1. Christianity. I. Title. BR121.3.M33 2015 230–dc23 2014030311

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1 2015



Preface xii List of Illustrations and Maps xiii

Introduction 1

1 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 3

2 The Christian Bible 28

3 Christian Creeds and Beliefs 54

4 Christian History: An Overview 121

5 Denominations: Contemporary Forms of Christianity 199

6 The Life of Faith: Christianity as a Living Reality 220

7 Christianity and the Shaping of Culture 251

Conclusion: Where Next? 278

Further Reading 280 Sources of Quotations 284 Index 291

Brief Contents





Preface xii List of Illustrations and Maps xiii

Introduction 1

1 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 3 The Significance of Jesus of Nazareth for Christianity 3 The Sources of Our Knowledge about Jesus of Nazareth 5 Jesus of Nazareth in His Jewish Context 7 The Gospels and Jesus of Nazareth 9 The Birth of Jesus of Nazareth 10 The Early Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth 13 The Teaching of Jesus of Nazareth: The Parables of the Kingdom 15 The Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth 17 The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth 19 Events and Meanings: The Interpretation of the History of Jesus 21 The New Testament Understandings of the Significance of Jesus 22 Jesus of Nazareth and Women 25 The Reception of Jesus of Nazareth outside Judaism 26

2 The Christian Bible 28 The Old Testament 30 Major Themes of the Old Testament 32

The creation 32 Abraham: Calling and covenant 32 The exodus and the giving of the Law 33 The establishment of the monarchy 36 The priesthood 37 Prophecy 37 Exile and restoration 38



viii Contents

The New Testament 40 The gospels 41 The New Testament letters 44 The fixing of the New Testament canon 45

The Christian Understanding of the Relation of the Old and New Testaments 47 The Translation of the Bible 49 The Bible and Tradition 51

3 Christian Creeds and Beliefs 54 The Emergence of Creeds 55 What Is Faith? 59

Faith and reason 61 Can God’s existence be proved? 63

The Christian Understanding of God 65 Christian analogies for God 66 God as Father 67 A personal God 69 God as almighty 71 God as spirit 72 The doctrine of the Trinity 74 God as the creator 78

The Christian Understanding of Humanity 82 Humanity and the “image of God” 83 Humanity, the fall, and sin 84

Jesus of Nazareth 86 Early Christian approaches to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth 87 The Arian controversy and the incarnation 88 The incarnation: The Chalcedonian definition 89 Jesus of Nazareth as mediator between God and humanity 90 Islamic criticisms of the Christian understanding of Jesus of Nazareth 91

The Christian Understanding of Salvation 92 New Testament images of salvation 93 Christ the victor: The defeat of death and sin 94 Christ the harrower of hell: Atonement as restoration 96 Christ the redeemer: Atonement as satisfaction 98 The death of Christ as a perfect sacrifice 99 Christ the lover: Atonement and the enkindling of love 100 Salvation and the “threefold office of Christ” 101

Grace 102 The Pelagian controversy of the fifth century 103 The Reformation debates of the sixteenth century 105

The Church 106 The unity of the church 106 The holiness of the church 107 The catholicity of the church 109 The apostolicity of the church 110



Contents ix

The Sacraments 112 What is a sacrament? 112 The function of sacraments 113 Debates about baptism 115 Debates about the eucharist 116

The Christian Hope 117 The New Testament and Christian hope 117 The nature of the resurrection body 118 Christian burial or cremation? 119

Conclusion 120

4 Christian History: An Overview 121 The Early Church, c. 100–c. 500 122

The apostolic age 122 Early Christianity and the Roman empire 123 Early Christian worship and organization 125 Women and early Christianity 127 The conversion of the Emperor Constantine 129 The cities and the rise of monasticism 131 The fall of the Roman empire 133

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, c. 500–c. 1500 135 The development of Celtic Christianity 135 The rise of the monastic and cathedral schools 137 The “Great Schism” between East and West (1054) 138 The crusades: Spain and the Middle East 139 Academic theology: The rise of scholasticism 141 Secular and religious power in the Middle Ages 142 Popular religion: The cult of the saints 143 The rise of the Ottoman empire: The fall of Constantinople (1453) 145 The rebirth of western culture: The Renaissance 146

Competing Visions of Reform, c. 1500–c. 1650 148 Christian expansion: Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery 149 The Lutheran Reformation 151 The Calvinist Reformation 153 The Radical Reformation (Anabaptism) 154 The Catholic Reformation 155 The Reformation in England 156 The Council of Trent 157 The Society of Jesus 158 The Wars of Religion 158 Puritanism in England and America 159 A Protestant religion of the heart: Pietism 160 American Protestantism and the Great Awakening 162

The Modern Period, c. 1650–1914 163 The rise of indifference to religion in Europe 164 The Enlightenment: The rise of rationalism 164



x Contents

Christianity in the American Revolution 166 Church and state in America: The “wall of separation” 167 The French Revolution and “dechristianization” 168 Orthodox resurgence: The Greek War of Independence 169 A new expansion of Christianity: The age of mission 170 The shifting fortunes of Catholicism 173 The First Vatican Council: Papal infallibility 175 Theological revisionism: The challenge of modernism 176 The Victorian crisis of faith 177 Pentecostalism: The American origins of a global faith 179

The Twentieth Century, 1914 to the Present 180 The Armenian genocide of 1915 181 The Russian Revolution of 1917 182 America: The fundamentalist controversy 184 The German church crisis of the 1930s 186 The 1960s: The emergence of a post-Christian Europe 188 The Second Vatican Council: Reform and revitalization 189 Christianity and the American Civil Rights Movement 191 Faith renewed: John Paul II and the collapse of the Soviet Union 192 Challenging the church’s establishment: Feminism and liberation theology 194 Christianity beyond the West: The globalization of faith 196

Conclusion 198

5 Denominations: Contemporary Forms of Christianity 199 Catholicism 199 Eastern Orthodoxy 203 Protestantism 205

Anglicanism 206 The Baptists 207 Lutheranism 209 Methodism 209 Presbyterianism and other reformed denominations 211 Pentecostalism 212 Evangelicalism 213

The Ecumenical Movement and the World Council of Churches 214 The Erosion of Protestant Denominationalism in the United States 216 Conclusion 218

6 The Life of Faith: Christianity as a Living Reality 220 Gateways to Exploring the Life of Faith 220 Christian Communities: The Life of the Church 222

Christian weddings 222 Christian funerals 223 The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols 225

Christian Worship 226 Prayer 228



Contents xi

Praise 229 The public reading of the Bible 229 Preaching 230 The reciting of the creeds 230

The Sacraments 231 Baptism 232 The eucharist 234

Rhythms and Seasons: The Christian Year 236 Advent 238 Christmas 238 Epiphany 239 Lent 240 Holy Week 241 Easter 243 Ascension 245 Pentecost 245 Trinity 245

The Structuring of Time: The Monastic Day 246 The Structuring of Space: Pilgrimage and the Christian Life 247 Conclusion 250

7 Christianity and the Shaping of Culture 251 Christianity and Culture: General Considerations 252 Christian Symbolism: The Cross 256 Christian Art 259 Icons 262 Church Architecture 263 Stained Glass 268 Christian Music 270 Christianity and Literature 271 Christianity and the Natural Sciences 275 Conclusion 277

Conclusion: Where Next? 278

Further Reading 280 Sources of Quotations 284 Index 291



The study of Christianity is one of the most fascinating, stimulating, and intellectually and spiritually rewarding undertakings available to anyone. This book aims to lay the founda- tions for such a study, opening doors to discovering more about the world’s leading religion. It can only hope to whet its readers’ appetites and lead them to explore Christianity in much greater detail.

Anyone trying to sense the modern world or the process by which it came into existence needs to understand something about the Christian faith. Christianity is by far the largest religion in the world, with somewhere between 2,500 and 1,750 million followers, depend- ing on the criteria employed. To understand the modern world, it is important to under- stand why Christianity continues to be such an important presence in, for example, the United States and is a growing presence in China.

This book sets out to provide an entry-level introduction to Christianity, understood both as a system of beliefs and as a social reality. It is an introduction in the proper sense of the term, in that it has been written on the basis of the assumption that its readers know little or nothing about the history of Christianity, its practices and beliefs. Every effort has been made to keep the language and style of this book as simple as possible.

Alister McGrath Oxford University




1.1 The angel Gabriel declaring to Mary that she is to bear the savior of the world, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; this incident is related early in Luke’s gospel. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), 1850. Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 72 × 42 cm. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 11

1.2 The birth of Christ, as depicted by Fra Angelico in a mural in the monastery of San Marco, Florence, between 1437 and 1445. Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (1387–1455) and workshop, Birth of Christ, with the Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Peter the Martyr (1437–1445). Fresco, 193 × 164 cm. Florence, S. Marco, upper storey, dormitory, cell No.5 (east corridor). Source: Rabatti-Domingie/ AKG Images. 12

1.3 Jesus of Nazareth calling Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee (1481), by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Domenico Ghirlandaio (Domenico Bigordi) (1449–1494), The Calling of SS. Peter and Andrew, 1481. Fresco. Source: Vatican Museums and Galleries/Bridgeman Art Library. 14

1.4 The Galilean ministry of Jesus (map). 16 1.5 Piero della Francesca’s depiction of the resurrection of Christ,

c. 1460–1464. Piero della Francesca (c. 1410/20–1492), The Resurrection of Christ (c. 1460–1464). Fresco (removed), 225 × 200 cm. Sansepolcro, Pinacoteca Comunale. Source: Rabatti- Domingie/AKG Images. 20

2.1 The route of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan (map). 35 2.2 The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the greatest wonders of

the Ancient World; after Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, c. 1700. Source: AKG Images. 39

2.3 The gospel of Mark: a manuscript illumination from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 698–700. Manuscript illumination, Irish–Northumbrian,

List of Illustrations and Maps



xiv List of Illustrations and Maps

c. 698/700. Mark the Evangelist. From the Lindisfarne Gospels, written and illuminated by Bishop Eadfrith in Lindisfarne monastery. Source: British Library/AKG Images. 42

2.4 The frontispiece to the King James Bible of 1611, widely regarded as the most influential English translation of the Bible. The Holy Bible, published by Robert Barker, 1611. Source: Alamy. 50

3.1 One of the most famous attempts to represent the Trinity: Andrei Rubljov’s icon of 1411, depicting the three angels with Abraham, widely interpreted as an analogue of the Trinity. Illustration: Rubljov, Andrei c. 1360/70–1427/30, The Holy Trinity (The Three Angels with Abraham) (1411). Icon painting. Moscow, Tretjakov Gallery. Source: AKG Images. 76

3.2 William Blake’s watercolor “The Ancient of Days” (c. 1821), depicting God in the act of creating the world. Blake, William (1757–1827), “The Ancient of Days,” frontispiece of Europe: A Prophecy (c. 1821). Relief etching, pen, and watercolor. Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK. Source: Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge/ Bridgeman Art Library. 80

3.3 Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam (1511–1512) from the Sistine Chapel, Rome. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). Fresco, 280 × 570 cm. Rome, Vatican, Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel), 4th image. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 82

3.4 Karl Barth (1886–1968). Source: Ullstein Bild/AKG Images. 85 3.5 Mosaic depicting Jesus Christ, in the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia,

Istanbul, c. 1260. Istanbul/Constantinople (Turkey), Hagia Sophia, North Gallery. Deesis (Christ with Mary and John the Baptist). Mosaic, Byzantine, c. 1260. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 90

3.6 A triumphal procession in Rome celebrating Titus’ victory over the Jews in ad 70; carved on the Arch of Titus, triumphal arch in the Forum Romanum erected in ad 81. The New Testament portrays Jesus of Nazareth as a triumphant victor over sin and death. Rome (Italy), the Arch of Titus, section of the left internal relief: Triumphal procession with the seven-armed candlestick from the Temple of Solomon. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 95

3.7 The Harrowing of Hell, as depicted in Jean de Berry’s Petites Heures (14th century). Harrowing of Hell, folio 166 from Jean de Berry’s Petites Heures. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, BNF Lat 18104. 97

4.1 Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. Source: Nimatallah/ AKG Images. 130

4.2 The Abbey of Montecassino. Source: Pirozzi/AKG Images. 133 4.3 A Celtic Cross from Ireland, widely regarded as a symbol of the

distinctive forms of Christianity that emerged in this region. Source: Juergen Sorges/AKG Images. 137



List of Illustrations and Maps xv

4.4 Thomas Aquinas, from the series of portraits of famous men in the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino (c. 1476), by Justus van Gent (active between 1460 and 1480). Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 142

4.5 Erasmus of Rotterdam, c. 1525/30, after the painting (1517) by Quentin Massys (1465/66–1530). Source: Pirozzi/AKG Images. 147

4.6 Portrait of Martin Luther (1528); from the studio of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). Source: AKG Images. 152

4.7 Portrait of the Genevan reformer John Calvin. Source: AKG Images. 153 4.8 Henry VIII (1540), by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543). Source:

Nimatallah/AKG Images. 156 4.9 Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (1556), by Jacopino

del Conte (1510–1598). Source: AKG Images. 158 4.10 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924), leader of the Bolshevik Revolution

in Russia. Source: AKG Images. 182 4.11 The opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council,

September 29, 1963, with Pope Paul VI (formerly Giovanni Battista Montini). Source: Keystone/Getty Images 190

6.1 A Russian Orthodox wedding at the Church of the Transfiguration, St. Petersburg. Source: © Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy. 223

6.2 Christian baptism by total immersion in the Indian Ocean in the island of Zanzibar. Source: © World Religions Photo Library/Alamy. 233

6.3 The Last Supper celebrated and commemorated in the eucharist; according to Jacopo da Ponte Bassano (c. 1510–1592). Source: Cameraphoto/AKG Images. 235

6.4 Queen Elizabeth II hands out Maundy Money during the Royal Maundy Service held at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral in 2004. The purses containing the coins were handed to 78 men and 78 women, the number selected to mark the Queen’s 78th year. Source: Phil Noble/ PA Archives/Press Association Images. 243

6.5 Santiago de Compostela, the center of a major pilgrimage route in northern Spain. Source: Andrea Jemolo/AKG Images. 249

7.1 Saint Augustine of Hippo in a monastic cell, as depicted by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1495. Source: Rabatti-Domingie/AKG Images. 253

7.2 Ground plan of York Minster, one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Note especially its cruciform structure. Source: © The Dean & Chapter of York. 258

7.3 The crucifixion, as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim Altarpiece, executed c. 1513–1515. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 261

7.4 Byzantine icon of the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, showing Mary with the infant Jesus. Source: Cameraphoto/AKG Images. 263

7.5 The south transept of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, one of the best examples of Gothic church architecture. The façade was completed in the mid-thirteenth century. Chartres (Dep. Eure-et-Loir, France),



xvi List of Illustrations and Maps

Cathedrale Notre-Dame (1134–1514; choir 1194–1221, transept after 1194–c. 1250, nave c. 1200–1220, west façade 1134–1514). Exterior: façade of the south transept. Source: Archives CDA/St-Genès/AKG Images. 265

7.6 The pulpit in St. Peter’s Cathedral, Geneva. Source: J.-P. Scherrer/ Geneva 2005. 267

7.7 The great rose window above the main portal of the cathedral of Notre Dame, Strasbourg, France, one of the finest examples of stained glass in Europe. Strasbourg (Alsace, France), Minster: Cathédrale Notre-Dame (12th–15th century). West façade (planned in 1276 by Erwin von Steinbach): Window rose above the main portal. Source: Hedda Eid/AKG Images. 269



Christianity: An Introduction, Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath. © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

At some point around ad 60, the Roman authorities woke up to the fact that there seemed to be a new secret society in the heart of their city, which was rapidly gaining recruits. They had not the slightest idea what it was all about, but it seemed to involve some mysterious and dark figure called Chrestus or Christus (Latinized form of the ancient Greek word Christos, “anointed”) as the cause of all the trouble. His origins lay in one of the more obscure and backward parts of the Roman empire. But who was he? And what was this new religion all about? Was it something they should be worried about, or could they safely ignore it?

It soon became clear that this new religion might have the potential to cause real trouble. The great fire that swept through Rome at the time of the Emperor Nero in ad 64 was con- veniently blamed on this new religious group. Nobody liked them much, and they were an obvious scapegoat for the failings of the Roman authorities to deal with the fire and its after- math. The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56–c. 117) gave a full account of this event some fifty years after the fire. He identified this new religious group as “the Christians,” a group that took its name from someone called “Christus,” who had been executed by Pontius Pilate back in the reign of Tiberius. This “pernicious superstition” had found its way to Rome, where it had gained a huge following. It is clear that Tacitus understands the word “Christian” to be a term of abuse.

Yet, muddled and confused though the official Roman accounts of this movement may be, they were clear that the movement centered in some way on that figure called Christus. It was not regarded as being of any permanent significance, being seen as something of a minor irritation. At worst, it was a threat to the cult of the emperor (or emperor worship). Yet, three hundred years later, this new religion had become the official religion of the Roman empire.




2 Introduction

So what was this new religion? What did it teach? Where did it come from? Why was it so attractive? How did it come to be so influential in its first few centuries? What happened after it had achieved such success at Rome? And how has it shaped the lives of individuals and the history of the human race? It is these questions that the present book will begin to answer.

So where do we start? What is the most helpful entry point to a study of Christianity? Looking at Christian beliefs? Exploring the history of the church? Surveying Christian art? In the end, the best place to begin is the historical event that got all of these under way. It is impossible to think or talk about any aspect of the Christian faith without talking about Jesus of Nazareth. He is the center from which every aspect of the Christian faith radiates outward. We therefore turn immediately to Jesus and his significance for Christianity, to begin our exploration there.



Christianity: An Introduction, Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath. © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Christianity is rooted in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, often also referred to as “Jesus Christ.” Christianity is not simply the body of teachings that derive from Jesus of Nazareth – ideas that could be dissociated from the person and history of their originator. Marxism, for example, is essentially a system of ideas grounded in the writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883). But Marx himself is not part of Marxism. At a very early stage, however, the identity of Jesus became part of the Christian proclamation. The Christian faith is thus not merely about emulating or adopting the faith of Jesus of Nazareth; it is also about placing faith in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Significance of Jesus of Nazareth for Christianity

As we have already noted, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is central to Christianity. Christianity is not a set of self-contained and freestanding ideas; it represents a sustained response to the questions raised by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Before we begin to explore the historical background to Jesus and the way in which the Christian tradition understands his identity, we need to consider his place within Christianity. To begin with, we shall consider the ways in which Christians refer to the central figure of their faith. We have already used the name “Jesus of Nazareth”; but what of the related name, “Jesus Christ”? Let’s look at the latter in more detail.

The name “Jesus Christ” is deeply rooted in the history and aspirations of the people of Israel. The word “Jesus” (Hebrew Yeshua) literally means “God saves” – or, to be more pre- cise, “the God of Israel saves.” The word “Christ” is really a title, so that the name “Jesus Christ” is better understood as “Jesus who is the Christ.” As a derivative of the verb “to anoint” (chriō), the word “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew term “Messiah,” which

Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity




4 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity

refers to an individual singled out or raised up by God for some special purpose (p. 23). As we shall see, this captured the early Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the culmination and fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of Israel.

Initially, since so many of the first Christians were Jews, the question of Christianity’s relationship with Israel was seen as being of major significance. What was the relation of their old religion to their new faith? Yet, as time passed, this matter became less important. Within a generation, the Christian church came to be dominated by “Gentiles” – that is, people who were not Jews – to whom the term “Messiah” meant little – if anything. The name “Jesus Christ” seems to have been understood simply as a name. As a result, even in the New Testament itself, the word “Christ” came to be used as an alternative way of referring to Jesus of Nazareth.

This habit of speaking persists today. In contemporary Christianity, “Jesus” is often seen as a familiar, intimate form of address, often used in personal devotion and prayer, whereas “Christ” is more formal, often being used in public worship.

As we have noted, Christianity is an historical religion, which came into being in response to a specific set of events, which center upon Jesus of Nazareth and to which Christian the- ology is obliged to return in the course of its speculation and reflection. Yet the importance of Jesus far exceeds his historical significance. For Christians, Jesus is more than the founder of their faith or the originator of Christianity: he is the one who makes God known, who makes salvation possible, and who models the new life with God that results from faith. To set this out more formally:

1 Jesus tells and shows what God is like; 2 Jesus makes a new relationship with God possible; 3 Jesus himself lives out a God-focused life, acting as a model of the life of faith.

In what follows we shall explore each of these ideas briefly; then we shall consider them further later in this volume.

First, Christianity holds that Jesus of Nazareth reveals both the will and the face of God. The New Testament sets out the …