In spite of this chapter’s title, the ‘basics of Christianity’ were not and are not eternal and unchanging, at least not historically speaking. Christian believers, both medieval and modern, might claim otherwise, but there is a difference between belief in a doctrine of faith and what the historical narrative tells us. One is not necessarily better than the other; they are simply two different things. Our goal in this chapter is to introduce some basic concepts of historical Christianity as they developed in the medieval church, and to place those ‘basics’ in their historical context. Grasping these concepts will help the reader to understand what follows in the rest of this book. Whether these next few pages serve as review, or as a first introduction to Christianity, keep in mind as you read that historical Christianity developed and changed throughout the Middle Ages, and continued to change, subject to constant amendment by various groups of Christians up to the present day.
The ‘basics’ of Christianity include its doctrines on the creation of the universe, the creation and fall of humankind, Satan, the angels, heaven and hell, redemption, the incarnation of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, the nature of Eve and Mary, and the Last Judgement.
I. The creation of the universe
Christianity borrows many of its doctrines from the Hebrew Scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament. According to the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis 1:1 (chapter 1
, verse 1), ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. This idea seems simple enough, but the earliest Christian theologians questioned it. Did God create everything in the universe out of something else? Or was everything created out of nothing? Even in pre-Christian times, Greek and Jewish philosophers had struggled with the concept of creation. The Greek philosopher Plato (429–347 BC
) suggested that nothing comes into existence without a cause. He posited a ‘demiurge’ – from a Greek word meaning artisan or craftsman – who had not necessarily created everything out of nothing, but took what existed in a state of chaos and created order from it. Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–AD
50), a Hellenistic Jew, saw Plato’s ‘first cause’ as the creator God in Genesis. The
Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (c.
215) tried to keep the biblical idea of creation from initial chaos, citing the book of Wisdom 11:17: ‘Your all-powerful hand, which created the world out of formless matter.’ In the late second century, Theophilus of Antioch was arguably the first Christian thinker to deny the existence of the chaotic state of matter before creation, arguing instead that God had created the universe ex nihilo
, from a Latin phrase meaning ‘out of nothing’. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) – whose influence as a Christian writer spanned the Middle Ages and beyond – borrowed from these earlier thinkers and created a doctrine of creation that would have a long hold on the medieval church. Augustine supported the idea of creation ex nihilo
, even claiming that God had created time itself, which meant that there was no such thing as ‘before creation’. God had always been. He summoned ex nihilo
all that existed. He was not compelled to create the world, but the created world was still sustained by him for every instant of its existence.1
Augustine’s concept of creation stuck, and was even confirmed in 1215 by the church’s Fourth Lateran Council.
II. The creation and fall of humankind
The book of Genesis goes on to include the origin of humans. This fascinating tale of creation – of the universe, of Adam and Eve – has been complicated by a learned tradition of explaining or even explaining away some of its stories. For example, there are two biblical accounts of creation (Gen. 1 and 2:1–4, and Gen. 2:5–23), which became harmonised into a single narrative. According to this narrative, God created the visible universe during six ‘days’, though Augustine and other early thinkers did not believe these could have been the 24-hour days experienced by humans. On the sixth day God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves.’ The first man, Adam, was created from dust and received life from God’s breath. He was placed in a wonderful garden, a paradise, where he had control over the rest of creation and enjoyed a sort of human perfection, free from suffering and death, though he was lonely since he was the only one of his kind. In response to his need, God created a companion, Eve, from Adam’s rib. The paradise of Adam and Eve, with its innocent nakedness and its freedom from pain, toil and hunger, was the image of human life as it could have been.
Genesis 3:1–21 explains why humans no longer live in a paradise, and why they must suffer and die. God had instructed Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, but, tempted by a serpent, they disobeyed God and ate the fruit. Because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve lost their health and
immortality. Whether or not there had been sexual activity in paradise, there certainly was after the expulsion, and it was so shameful that Adam and Eve covered their nakedness, which had not troubled them before their sin of disobedience. Eve bore children in physical pain and Adam gained food by hard physical work. God expelled them from the garden and condemned them to suffer pain, hard work, death and the other ills that are so prominent in the lives of their descendants. The consequences of their sinful rebellion were summed up in the notion of a ‘Fall’ from God’s grace, which led theologians to develop two related doctrines: one on original sin
, and one on free will.
According to the doctrine on original sin, when Adam lost his privileged status in paradise, this punishment was passed on to all of his descendants, meaning the entire family of humankind. In short, human life, with all its troubles, was the way it was because of the first parents’ sin of disobedience, which damaged all succeeding generations. Augustine was one of the main promoters of this doctrine, but he was opposed by a group of theologians collectively known as Pelagians. A monk named Pelagius (c.354–c.430) and his followers posited that the human descendants of Adam and Eve were not affected by original sin. They argued that even if Adam had not sinned, he still would have died, and that Adam’s sin only affected himself, not the whole human race. Augustine’s ideas won out, however, when the Councils of Carthage (418) and Ephesus (431) condemned the Pelagian teachings as heresy.
Connected to the doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of free will. If God is omniscient, then he must have known what decision Adam and Eve were going to make regarding the forbidden fruit. If that were true, then how freely did Adam and Eve make their decision? Were they simply pre-destined to act out some divine plan? If the latter is true, then how could Adam and Eve, and subsequent generations, be held accountable for their actions? Here again, Augustine was the theologian who exercised the greatest influence on this doctrine, though his writings can seem contradictory. He claimed that humans absolutely have free will, but also that God, because he is omnipotent, has power over human will. A theologian named Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) attempted to reconcile some of Augustine’s teachings. Concerning God’s omniscience – which would give him foreknowledge of all human actions – Aquinas argued that God existed outside of time, making past, present and future all equal in God’s view. God sees everything at once, in a single comprehensive act, like a person looking down from a high mountain at a traveller below, who can see the inevitable path the traveller will take, even though the traveller maintains her free will to make choices.
III. Satan, the angels, heaven and hell
In the events leading to the Fall of Adam, one of the indispensable players in the Christian story made his debut. Even though Adam and Eve had chosen to disobey, that was not the entire story of the world’s evils. The Christian tradition traces evil not only to human psychology and choice, but also to a person, a bitter enemy of humans: Satan (from a Hebrew word meaning ‘the adversary’), or the devil (from a Greek word meaning ‘the slanderer’). Satan had taken the form of a serpent in paradise. He had tempted Eve with the promise that eating the fruit of the forbidden tree would make her and Adam like gods, who could differentiate between good and evil.
Satan became a central character in the Christian understanding of the moral universe, yet his appearance in Genesis was abrupt and seemed to require an explanation. In fact, the name Satan does not appear in the book of Genesis (the first appearance of the name is in 1 Chronicles 21:1). Genesis simply describes a serpent; later theologians interpreted the serpent to be Satan. Out of other bits and pieces in the Bible, medieval theologians gradually accounted for Satan’s existence in the following way. In addition to the visible world, God had created an invisible world populated by spiritual beings, called seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels. These were eventually regarded as the nine choirs who sang God’s praises. Christian tradition has a great deal to say about the lowest spirit beings, the archangels and angels, because their activities were described in both the Old and New Testaments, where they appeared as messengers from God to human beings. Indeed, the Greek word for a messenger was angelos. A few of the angels had names known to humans (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael), but the overwhelming majority were anonymous. Before the creation of the visible world, some angels rebelled against God, led by a highly placed angel named Lucifer, which meant ‘the bearer of light’. The usual explanation for their sin was their pride and unwillingness to serve their creator. After a tremendous battle in heaven, the forces of loyal angels led by the archangel Michael defeated the rebels and cast them out. Thus there was a Fall in the heavenly realm that paralleled Adam’s Fall in the world of material creation. The defeated angels were transformed into devils and their leader Lucifer became Satan, the adversary of God and of humans.
Each kind of being – angel, human, devil – had its natural place in the created universe, with three interrelated zones to accommodate them, arranged like a three-storey building. The top floor was heaven, where God lived with the choirs of angels and holy, deceased human beings, known as saints. The middle floor was the earth, where humans lived. The lowest floor
was hell, the underworld, where Satan, the devils, and the damned human beings lived. There was a constant flow of traffic between the middle zone and the other two. While this idea is supported biblically, over time, theologians also debated and developed doctrines concerning heaven and hell. For example, twelfth-century theologians reading Aristotle’s works on the make-up of the universe attempted to figure out where, exactly, heaven was located. They also developed doctrine on a place called purgatory – whose biblical roots are still a matter of debate – where sinners who were not quite bad enough to go to hell could purge their sins and eventually be admitted into heaven.
IV. The process of redemption
Even though Adam had sinned and been severely punished, God did not abandon humanity entirely. He planned to offer human beings a way back to his favour, though it would take centuries to work it out. God had a plan to reveal himself again to fallen humanity and to save at least some humans from their inherited sin. In the generations after Adam’s Fall, his descendants had gone from bad to worse. In Genesis 6:9–9:17, God sent a flood to destroy all but Noah, a just man, and his family. After the flood, God made a covenant, that is, an agreement, that he would never again destroy the natural world by flood. The symbol of God’s covenant with Noah was the rainbow. That covenant included all mankind, but the subsequent stages of God’s plan narrowed in on a specific people, the Israelites or Hebrews (known to later generations as the Jews), who were God’s ‘chosen people’.2
God subsequently made a covenant with Abraham, the father of the Israelites, in which he promised that he would be their God and they would be his special people, who would worship only him. He would give Abraham’s descendants a promised land, where they could be a nation (Gen. 15–17). The sign of that covenant was the circumcision of every male child. After the covenant with Abraham, the Israelites – descended from Abraham’s grandson Jacob, whom an angel renamed Israel – migrated during a famine into Egypt. There they lived as slaves until God gave them a deliverer named Moses, who led them out of Egypt and into the land of the Canaanites (roughly modern Palestine), which God had promised to them so long ago. Moses received God’s third covenant on Mount Sinai, where he was given the Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets by the finger of God himself. The ‘Law of Moses’, which was far more complex, specific and demanding than just the Ten Commandments, filled most of the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Even after their escape from Egypt, the Jews continued to be persecuted by occupying forces, for example, by the successors of Alexander the Great, and later by the Romans. One of the chief promises of God was that he would raise up a messiah, an ‘anointed one’, to save the Jews. Most Jews today believe that this messiah has not yet come. In the Christian tradition, however, the messiah was born in an eastern province of the Roman Empire, during the reign of Augustus Caesar. This was Jesus.
The life and teachings of Jesus were recorded four times, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospels of Luke (2:1–7) and Matthew (2:1) both claim that Jesus was conceived without a human father, but by supernatural means in the womb of a virgin named Mary, and was born as a human being at Bethlehem. In looking back, Christians have seen many ‘messianic’ texts in the Old Testament, that is, texts that seemed to them to predict the coming of Jesus. In Christian understanding, the coming of Jesus created a new and final covenant between God and all mankind, which replaced the Mosaic covenant with the Jews.
V. The Incarnation
That God’s son became a human being is the doctrine of ...