Index Catholic Church The Origins of Christianity

The Origins of Christianity

Jesus did not just leave behind a collection of teachings and commandments -- he left a community of his followers, who had been with him through all his public life, who were witnesses to the way he died and to the fact that he rose again from the dead. He promised them that they would receive the Holy Spirit, who would enable them to understand the meaning of all that Jesus said and did in his life on earth, and inspire them to spread the word about him throughout the world.

This community of Christ's followers formed the basis of the larger, more structured organisation that we now call the Church. In terms of its structure, it responded to the circumstances and the needs of the times. In terms of its teaching, it used the language and the concepts available at the time, to explain as clearly as possible its understanding of Christ -- who he was (and is), what he did and what he said.

The essence of the faith of the early followers of Jesus is summed up very neatly in the Letter to the Hebrews: 'At various times in the past, and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son' (ch 1, vv 1-2). Not just in what he said, but also in himself as a person, Jesus reveals the fullness of the truth, which God had been leading up to, so to speak, with all the writings contained in what we now call the 'Old Testament'. He reveals the truth about the meaning of our life, the essence of what it is to be human, our relationship with God and the way we must live if we want to be happy.

Because of this, the Church has always felt an absolute need to remain true to the teaching of Christ. It can be explained in various ways, it needs to be applied to the varying circumstances of the times, but it cannot be altered. This applies above all to our primary source for the words and deeds of Jesus: the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and also to the teachings of the first generation of his followers, as we find in the other books of the New Testament (the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St Paul and others, and the Apocalypse).

This also applies to a lesser extent to the teachings of later generations of Christians, because we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in its explanation and its interpretation of Christ, and in its moral teaching based on Christ's words and on the rest of the New Testament. This teaching has to be applied to new situations and new problems that arise in the course of history (such as nuclear weapons and genetic engineering, in our own time, for instance). But the new answers must be consistent with the earlier teaching -- they must be a genuine development, not a deviation. This is not because Christians are naturally conservative and unwilling to change, but because either Christ revealed the full truth about God and human beings, or he didn't. If he did, then we have to remain true to his teaching, whether or not it happens to be fashionable, convenient or politically correct. If he didn't, then the whole of Christianity falls to the ground. It has to be one or the other; there's nothing in between.


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A parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark.
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