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p. 574. Church and biblical Christianitylocked

  • Linda Woodhead


What is meant by ‘Church Christianity’ and ‘Biblical Christianity’ and where do they come from? ‘Church and Biblical Christianity’ explains that ‘Church Christianity’ is centred around the institution of the church, whereas for ‘Biblical Christianity’ the scriptures have the equivalent position of authority. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches belong to Church Christianity and are the most enduring and extensive types of Christianity having been in existence since the 3rd century. Biblical Christianity can trace its roots to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century when the Bible became widely accessible. Its sectarian nature and desire to shelter from wider society in order to retain Godly purity limited its growth.

Some of the historical divisions within Christianity, including that between the Western Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and (later) between the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant Churches, have already been introduced. Within each of them there are many further sub-divisions—schisms within schisms. Within Protestantism, for example, there are innumerable different denominations, and even within a single church like the Roman Catholic Church there are many semi-autonomous institutions—like monasteries, voluntary organizations, and different religious orders.

Understanding this huge internal variety within Christianity is less important than understanding the religion’s main fault-lines. Some of these can run right through a church, as well as between different churches. Different scholars have various schemes and typologies for analysing Christianity. The one used here is a modification of the scheme developed by Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), the pioneering sociologist of Christianity. In this modified version, three main types of Christianity are distinguished in terms of how they understand and embody authority and power, both human and divine, and how this plays out in their own structures and their stances towards wider society. This chapter considers two types, Church and biblical Christianity, and the next one looks at the mystical type of Christianity.

Church Christianity

‘Church Christianity’ is so-called because it is centred around the institution of the Church, whereas for ‘biblical Christianity’ the scriptures have the equivalent position of authority. Church Christianity embraces the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and some of the larger and older Protestant churches like the Lutheran and Anglican Churches.

Church buildings

The buildings favoured by each type of Christianity give a good indication of its characteristic features, and the churches erected by Church Christianity tell us a great deal about its priorities. Church buildings are not distinctive to Church Christianity, but they first developed with it, and have a particular importance in its life.

First-century Christians probably met in outdoor spaces, in houses, and—for those who still practised the Jewish religion—in synagogues. As Christianity developed and an emerging orthodoxy started to assert itself, it appropriated a common Roman architectural form, the basilica. This was a simple rectangular building rather like a Greek temple, which was designed for public meetings.

The basilica has provided the basic design for Western churches ever since, with a central room running west–east, a main door in the west or south side, and an altar at the east. To this basic form were added embellishments like transepts—giving the building the ground plan of a cross—and bell towers (Figure 11). As Church Christianity grew more powerful, its churches grew larger and more elaborate. The largest, called cathedrals, served as the seat of a bishop and the focal point of the regional administrative unit, the diocese.

The Church in the East, being wealthier and more powerful than that in the West, developed large and impressive buildings more p. 59

11. A plan of a church

12. A plan of Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

quickly. The most important is was Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Figure 12). As the latter shows, the typical form of Eastern churches is different from those in the West. They are often square or rounded rather than rectangular, with domes rather than towers. Both features which would later be taken over by Islam and become characteristic of mosques as well.

p. 60One thing a church tells us about the Church type of Christianity of which it is part is that gathering people together for communal worship of God is very central to its life—in contrast to, for example, Hindu and Buddhist shrines, designed for individuals to make personal offerings at their own behest. However, the form of churches shows that the worshipping congregation is not its main focus. If it was, churches could look like meeting rooms. Instead, they tend to be tall, imposing buildings with rich decoration. The interior space usually rises to the rafters, and from the outside the tower, steeple, or dome accentuates the impression of height. The effect is to draw attention away from individual and group towards that which is higher. This is reinforced by walls, windows, and ceilings decorated with heavenly images. The design carries a message: this religion looks to a world higher than this one. It demands worship, praise, obedience, repentance, and service.

As well as directing attention upwards, church architecture directs it towards a focal point at the east end of the building. The altar is located here, with the most magnificent decoration behind and above it, and it is from this spot that clergy conduct the ritual of the eucharist. Here bread and wine are consecrated (made sacred), either in front of a screen or—more common in the East and in the pre-Reformation West—behind it. People gather in front of the altar to receive the sacrament. A font, designed to contain water for baptism, may also be prominent somewhere in the building. Taken in combination with the vertical focus on transcendence, the effect is to suggest that even though God may dwell high above, He is available here on earth in the Church’s sacraments. God made flesh. This sacramental focus is a key characteristic of Church Christianity. Though it reveres the Word, and its churches may have a prominent pulpit for preaching, the altar occupies the more prominent place.

The location of churches illustrates another feature of Church Christianity: its concern to maintain close links with political power and to influence the whole of society. Wherever possible, p. 61churches and cathedrals are planted at the very heart of a village, town, or city. They are not set aside in some remote place as monasteries often are, and they nestle as close to the centre of civic power as possible. Cathedrals and abbeys are often found right next to the seat of political power in capital cities, in a way which vividly represents this variety of Christianity’s desire to bring together God and humanity.

Church Christianity imagines power as something which flows down from heaven to earth. At the top of the pyramid is God the Father, in whom all power is concentrated. His power is mediated by His Son, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. The latter are the channels of power to God’s designated representatives on earth, the clergy and political rulers. They rule over the people. The Church models its life on the heavenly hierarchy, and extends the model to the whole of society: the monarch is father of his people, the clergyman is father to his flock, and human fathers rule over their households. Thus a hierarchy of paternal order runs from heaven to earth, and the Church is responsible for the moral order of the whole of society. Church leaders and earthly rulers must work together to extend the Father’s dominion.

‘Catholic’ Christianity

Church Christianity is marked by an abiding concern with unity. The Western Church calls itself the ‘Catholic’ (‘universal’) Church, Protestant churches of the Church type often claim the same title, and, as noted in the previous Chapter, the Eastern Patriarch is called ‘Ecumenical’ (oikoumene means ‘the inhabited universe’). This concern extends to unity within the church itself, unity of Church, State, and society, and unity of the world. As the one true Church, instituted by the one true God, the Church type of Christianity believes it has a duty to bring universal truth to all.

This stress on unity was one of the reasons why this variety of Christianity proved so successful in displacing its rivals in the early centuries of Christian history. It was imbued with the same p. 62urge to expand and swallow up competitors that possesses many political and business empires, and it developed the inner unity and discipline which enabled it to do so effectively. The hierarchical ordering of the clergy—from pope, patriarch, or archbishop through bishops, priests, and deacons—ensured unity within its own ranks. The same hierarchy imposed itself geographically, with entire populations and territories brought under the oversight of dioceses led by a bishop and parishes led by a priest.

The authority of the clergy and unity of the Church are bound up with the sacraments. For Church Christianity, God is ‘really’ rather than just ‘symbolically’ present in the sacraments. The doctrines of ‘real presence’ and ‘transubstantiation’ hold that the bread and wine of the eucharist actually become the body and blood of Christ when they are consecrated by an ordained priest. The effect of this teaching is to elevate the sacraments to a very high position in Church Christianity. This elevates the clergy to a similarly high position, not because they possess any particular moral or spiritual gifts, but because they alone can consecrate and handle these holy mysteries. Such Christianity is deeply respectful of ritual and tradition. In an important sense, the Church is its own authority. That which is done by its leaders is considered highly authoritative, and the Church’s own past—its ‘tradition’—shapes the present. It is not impossible for Church Christianity to do radically new things, but the new is easier to accomplish if it can be justified in terms of the old.

One way in which such Christianity evolves is through theology, which until recently remained the preserve of a small number of specially trained monks or clergy. The high point of Church-type theology in the West came in the middle ages, when the project of formulating and imposing universal truth was expressed theologically in the movement called ‘scholasticism’, so-called because it had its origins in Christian ‘schools’—the earliest universities—of the medieval period. Scholasticism attempted to organize all existing knowledge, Jewish, Greek, and Christian, into p. 63a single system which would provide a unified intellectual account of all things—God, man, the world, and knowledge itself. It proceeded by a distinctive method: asking a question, considering many different texts that had a bearing upon it, deliberating about their overall conclusion, and arriving at an answer—before proceeding to the next question. It was a highly skilled ‘science’ that could be undertaken by only the best-educated men of the time. The most important, for the Catholic Church, was Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–74) who wrote the massive Summa Theologiae. Thomas’s project is sometimes referred to as ‘scholastic humanism’ because of the relatively positive view it took of human nature and human reason. Aquinas believed that ‘nature must be perfected by grace’ and was not fatally corrupted by sin. In later centuries Aquinas came to be treated as the official theologian of the Catholic Church, his ideas further systematized into ‘Thomistic’ manuals of unquestionable dogma. They were still being used to train clergy right up until the Second Vatican Council (1962–5), before the latter modernized many elements of the Catholic Church and called for a return to Aquinas’s original writings.

The elevation of Thomistic thought was part of an attempt to guard unity in a post-Reformation Catholic Church which was spreading across the globe. Unity is hard to preserve and has to be constantly guarded. Deviation and ‘heresy’ need to be identified and destroyed, lest they threaten not just the Church but the whole social order. Church Christianity has always expended a great deal of energy in resisting external threats like ‘the Turk’—the symbol of the steadily growing power of Islamic civilization—as well as enemies within. ‘The Jews’ were one group which proved particularly problematic, partly because many dwelt in Christian territories and were highly educated worshippers of the one true God who nevertheless rejected Christ and his Church. They were alternately tolerated, employed, admired, and viciously persecuted. Church Christianity (and some kinds of biblical Christianity) also devoted a great deal of energy to identifying, classifying, and rooting out ‘heresy’—beliefs p. 64

13. Albi Cathedral, France (1277–1512)

and practices which claimed to be Christian but deviated from the Church’s official norms. Secular rulers often cooperated with churches in attacking popular heretical movements with the sword as well as with preaching and, by the time of the later middle ages, by way of organized ‘inquisitions’. The cathedral in Albi, southern France, stands as a dominating reminder of the victory of the medieval Catholic Church over the ‘Albigensian’ heretics of that region (Figure 13).

Reformation churches

Given the Catholic Church’s love of unity, the division brought about by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was a p. 65disaster. The aim of Martin Luther and his allies was to reform the Catholic Church, not to divide it. They were protesting about what they saw as abuses of its power, particularly by the Pope and other wealthy clerics and monasteries. What they sought was a purer, simpler form of Christianity closer to what they saw in the New Testament. They wanted the Bible to be accessible to all Christians, translated out of Latin into people’s own languages, and put in their hands. But even though they eventually precipitated the most important split in Western Christianity, they always remained loyal to the main characteristics of Church Christianity, and the churches they ended up founding belong to this variety of Christianity—in contrast to some other Protestant churches deriving from the Reformation and discussed below which belong to the biblical type.

The Reformation was made possible by several different factors. One was a base in a ‘Germany’ which was not yet a nation but a grouping of independent German-speaking political units, some ruled by princes who were eager to take over the Catholic Church’s wealth and power for themselves. Another was a base of support in the towns and cities, some of which were self-governing, and many of which were as impatient with the Catholic Church’s privileges as the princes. Also important was the growth of a new class of artisans, manufacturers, and traders. As more people were freed from the land, they moved to the rapidly expanding towns and cities. Cities were harder to control than rural areas, ideas could spread more quickly, and some of the new bourgeoisie were receptive to criticisms of existing wealth and power. To this was added a charismatic leader, Martin Luther (1483–1546), a monk and theologian who could take advantage of the recently invented printing press to spread his ideas. Printing made it possible for many more people than before to read a variety of literature and join in theological disputes. Most important of all, it made the Bible much more widely accessible.

Luther read the Bible through the lens of the early Christian bishop and theologian Augustine (354–430). Whereas Aquinas p. 66emphasized the goodness of God’s creation, which needs only to be perfected by grace, Luther, drawing on Augustine, emphasized its fallenness. He spoke of the power of God, the sinfulness of man, and humanity’s desperate need of God’s salvation through the unique work of Christ. Humans could be saved only through grace, and the Church was guilty of making it seem too easy to be saved—as if one could get to heaven by good works, not to mention by buying ‘indulgences’ whose profits went straight to Rome. The papacy’s unwillingness to accede to any of Luther’s demands set him on a collision course with the Church of which he had once been a loyal member. After his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, Luther became the leader of a church which cut itself loose from papal control and distanced itself from what it regarded as its abuses and distortions. But despite its more biblical emphasis, and its more pessimistic view of human nature, the Lutheran Church retained the Church type’s emphasis on the importance of clergy, sacraments, hierarchy, tradition, and unity.

John Calvin (1509–64) was a younger contemporary of Luther who saw himself as a faithful disciple and interpreter of the senior reformer. In his Institutes Calvin gave systematic theological and ethical expression to many of Luther’s ideas, whilst also moving in new directions. For Luther the best a human being could hope for was to be justified in spite of sinfulness. Whilst agreeing that we are saved only by grace, Calvin places more emphasis on the importance of morality and law—not only as a reminder of sin, but as the basis of Godly life and society. He set about creating such a society in Geneva, a self-governing city whose leaders called upon him to help them experiment with creating a society organized by Christian principles and laws. From Luther derived the ‘Lutheran’ or ‘Evangelical’ Churches (as in Germany and Scandinavia), and from Calvin the ‘Reformed’ or ‘Presbyterian’ Churches (as in parts of Switzerland and Scotland). These were Protestant forms of Church Christianity, and in countries whose rulers embraced these churches, Roman Catholicism was displaced.

p. 67

Box 7 Extracts from Luther and Calvin

The proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner. Whatsoever is asked or discussed in theology outside this subject is error and poison. (Luther, ‘Works’)

He is said to be justified in God’s sight who is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgement and has been accepted on account of his righteousness … wherever there is sin, there also the wrath and vengeance of God show themselves. (Calvin, ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’)

Like other forms of Church Christianity, Lutheran and Presbyterian Churches maintain a close relationship with political power, and try to shape societies according to Christian principles. They retain the sacraments (reduced to two, baptism and eucharist), and continue to insist on clerical authority, not least in interpreting God’s Word. They also retain hierarchical paternalism, calling for total submission to God the Father and Jesus Christ, mirrored in a social order firmly founded on the rule of ‘fathers’—prince, magistrate, clergyman, fathers of households, masters of workshops. By closing down nunneries and monasteries, and banning worship of Mary and the saints, the Reformation actually removed the most powerful female figures from Christianity.

Much of this made early Protestantism well suited to the needs of the emerging European nation-states of the period. By giving sole support to a single church in his territory, a ruler could use it to help create a unified nation and consolidate his power. New national churches like the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Sweden—and many more—came into being as their rulers adapted Lutheranism and Calvinism, and broke free of the Catholic Church. Other countries, like France, made Roman p. 68Catholicism their national religion. No matter whether a country became Catholic or Protestant, citizens who dissented from the official ‘established’ religion often suffered severe penalties.

Biblical Christianity

The Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the centrality of the Bible edged it closer to a second main type of church, the biblical type. Besides the ‘magisterial reformers’ Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, there were other early reformers—sometimes called ‘radical reformers’—and other Protestant churches which fall much more squarely into this second main type of Christianity. Some of the earliest are the family of ‘Anabaptist’ and Baptist Churches, Independent Churches, and Congregationalist Churches. Biblical Christianity only comes into existence at the time of the Reformation, largely because it was only then that the Bible became widely available in a printed form and in people’s native languages. By modern times this type of Christianity would become highly successful, not least within the broad movements of fundamentalism and evangelicalism which are discussed in Chapter 6.

Biblical Christianity is centred on the conviction that life and belief should be in strict conformity to what is written in the Bible, not to any human authority. With the Bible as supreme authority, human beings need no priestly mediator with God, nor any sacramental channel. They can form communities of ‘the saints’ whose members are equal before God to the extent that they strive to live in strict conformity to His Word. This message could be democratic and egalitarian—since everyone could read the Bible for him- or herself—but in practice it was often qualified in certain ways, for example as endorsing male headship of women.

Whereas the Church type of Christianity casts its net over the whole of society in order to draw in every soul, and seeks alliance with temporal power to do so, biblical Christianity tends to shun ‘the world’. After all, New Testament teaching, when taken p. 69seriously, calls for a lifestyle that is impossible to live out in normal society—including complete pacifism and common ownership. In this sense, biblical Christianity is inherently ‘sectarian’, that is to say, its communities set themselves apart from society and claim to be more faithful to God’s Word than ordinary, ‘worldly’ Christians (including all who belong to the Church type of Christianity). Biblical Christians try to live as true disciples of Christ. They maintain a distance from the world in order to avoid being corrupted by it. Striking examples of such separation are provided today by the continued existence of radical Reformation-derived groups like the Mennonites and the Amish.

In contrast to the magnificence and the ornate decoration of many of Church Christianity’s buildings, biblical Christianity prefers to keep things simple. It maintains that a true relationship with God depends not on such ‘externals’, but on a pure heart and mind where God is received ‘in spirit and in truth’. This preference for plainness gave rise to iconoclastic destruction of church art and sculpture by some early Protestants. If they took over existing churches they would whitewash the murals and decapitate statues of Mary and the saints. When biblical Christians build their own churches, they often take the form of a chapel—a simple open space without adornment, and with pulpit rather than altar in pride of place. Protestants also introduced pews—necessary for sitting in a quiet and orderly fashion to listen to long sermons, rather than parading around more freely and taking part in rituals. Some ritual action, including the eucharist or ‘communion’, was retained, but was usually understood as a symbolic celebration rather than one which made God ‘really’ present in an object. Baptism retained great significance in biblical Christianity as the ritual whereby the believer—usually an adult rather than an infant—dies to the world and their ‘natural’, sinful life to be ‘born again’ as a child of God, set apart from the corrupt world. This emphasis on being born again has been carried into modern forms of biblical Christianity, even when they have abandoned strict separation from society.

p. 70Biblical Christianity is notoriously prone to schism. Once it is accepted that each individual has the right to interpret God’s word for him- or herself, it becomes much harder to maintain unity. Splits are frequent, since anyone is free to decamp and set up their own church—on the grounds that the new one will be based on stricter conformity to God’s Word than its parent body. This has often caused tension with wider societies and the governing authorities, and sometimes outright persecution. The latter was intensified in the post-Reformation era by the fact that rising national powers allied themselves either with Catholic or Protestant forms of Church Christianity. This meant that the unity of Church and State was threatened by the existence of alternative forms of Christianity. ‘Schismatic’ and ‘dissenting’ churches of all kinds had to be vigorously suppressed, and many biblical churches were forced into exile on the margins of Europe and, later, in North America. Yet biblical Christianity survived into the modern period and staged a revival in modern times.


In historical terms it is Church Christianity which has been the most successful of the religion’s three main varieties. Both the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches have been in continuous existence from the time of their embryonic emergence in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and the Catholic Church remains the largest church in the world. By contrast, biblical Christianity is a more recent type of Christianity, with origins in the early modern period when the Bible first began to become widely accessible. Its sectarian nature and desire for shelter from wider society in order to retain Godly purity limited its growth. However, as Chapter 6 will show, a partial softening of its hard edge towards the world has made it increasingly successful in modern times. This softening has brought it much closer to the third main type of Christianity, the mystical.