Is Christianity One and Universal?


By Tunji Olaopa

The title of this piece might, at first glance, appear obvious to many. Yet, it is one of those questions that we take for granted without a second thought. And this would seem to have some sort of backing in experience. After all, anywhere you go in the world, Christianity has the same form and language. And despite the denominational variants that fragments the Christian faith across the world, there is still a sense in which one might be tempted to agree that Christianity is one and hence universal. Many believers will point at the authority of scripture itself. Did the book of Ephesian chapter four and verse five not declare that “there is only one Lord, one faith and one baptism”? Thus, whatever the historical differences, one theology encompasses all forms of the Christian faith all over the world.

And yet, there is a lot that underlies that question that undermine the smug assurance that Christianity is one or even universal. It is just sufficient to dwell on the historical trajectory that gave birth to the emergence of Christianity as a world religion to understand that it did not achieve that fame for nothing. There is no doubt that Christianity has a global force that is only matched by Islam. With the same symbology and iconography that speaks to the birth, death, resurrection and saving grace of Jesus Christ, Christianity binds together more than 29% of the world population (approximately 2.3 billion people). Beginning as a movement within Judaism, Christianity started life after the death of Jesus. Its emergence was within the context of conflict between Judaism and the Roman rule over Israel. At a theological level, the conflict between Israel and the Roman empire was historical and theological. Judaism rejects the polytheism of the Roman culture. Its own monotheistic theology proclaimed the existence of one universal God that supervises the entire universe.

But more significantly, the Hebrew scripture has a teleological understanding of history that sees it as a trajectory unfolding to reveal the intention of God to humankind. God’s rule, through his anointed one—the Mashiah/Messiah—would be to end all injustices and hardship in the world. And Roman rule was perceived in that light while the Jews awaited the appearance of the anointed one. Judaism itself was distinguished by its principle of exclusivism founded on religious custom and tenets—circumcision, eating of kosher meals, respecting the sabbath, and the notion of Israel as the chosen race. And on these several Jewish sects were divided. Between the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots and the Herodians, there was a simmering conflict on how to interpret Jewish customs, how to interpret the arrival of the messiah, and the relationship of Judaism to non-Jews. Jesus himself has a lot of runs-in with the religious gatekeepers of Judaism over the proper interpretations of religious laws and customs. Indeed, his death, foretold according to scripture, was instigated by his theological redirection of Jewish beliefs.

Before and after his death, the social and political crisis of the Jewish nation, especially against the rule of Rome, further led to the growing fascination with the Christian message and movement. Christianity shares the monotheistic tenet with Judaism but rejects its exclusivism and particularity. While scattered abroad by the proclamations of the Roman Emperor Hadrian which excluded all Jews from Jerusalem, Christianity had access to the Gentiles and broke with Jewish particularity. And it was precisely the mission of the Gentile that not only guaranteed the universal expansion of Christianity but also some of its most significant internal conflicts and schism. To reach the Gentiles and non-Jewish population, Christianity had to necessarily become adaptive, tolerant and syncretist. This already laid the foundation of how the trajectory of the way the scripture is to be interpreted from within the contexts of the recipient cultures and worldviews accepting the Christian message. There are cultures that would find the idea of a transcendent God of the Christians a strange notion. It was certainly strange to the Greeks and the Romans. Thus, right from its earliest history, Christianity was already founded on a foundation of conflict, especially between the Jews and the Gentiles.

For instance, one immediate conflict that surfaced after the death of the Apostles was on the locus of ministerial authority. Who has the authority to lead the church? Should that authority be given to the bishop and presbyters? Or should it belong to those with charismatic gifts? It was easy to proclaim the bishop as the final ministerial authority based on the argument that bishops stand in direct line of succession to the Apostle. And Peter was regarded as the first bishop of Rome. It was not only before such a decision on ministerial authority would clash with the perception of the Gentiles about where authority ought to reside. But by the time the question of the proper locus of scriptural authority intruded on Christianity, the existing schisms were ready to explode. Again, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was the instigation. It led to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible—the Mosaic Law or Pentateuch—and its exclusivism could no longer remain the final word of God. The issue was then what books to accept for inclusion in the Old Testament. Does Ecclesiaticus and the other books classified as the “Apocrypha Books” qualify for inclusion? How should Christians relate to either the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) or the Hebrew version? The same controversies attended the emergence of the canonical New Testament, which began with the Gospel of Mark, and then Matthew and Luke before John. The Pauline Letters came later.

The split between Rome and Alexandria—called the Great Schism—was already become clearer especially in terms of ministerial and theological authority and interpretation of scriptures. Thus, for instance, the Donatist controversy deepened the schism between the Roman churches and the (North) African churches. The controversy, from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD, concerned the doctrinal understanding of the validity of the sacraments. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage and Donatus Magnus, the Berber Christian bishop upheld the view that sacrament could only be effective if administered by clergy faultless in ministry. The Roman church rejected this claim on the basis of the counter-argument that the sacrament derives its validation from God and not human. However, the most significant of the controversies whose effect had a lasting influence that led to the doctrinal and theological fragmentation of Christianity between East and West concerns the very nature of Jesus Christ.

The controversy was generated in the fourth century by Arius, the presbyter from Alexandria. The question—which worsen the split between the eastern and western Christianity—is whether Christ could be considered one in essence with God. The Council of Nicaea in 325 ruled against Arianism, and the Council of Constantinople in 381 proclaimed Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. These two Councils did not only eliminate Arianism, but they deepen the schism between Christianity in the East and in the West. The other dimension of the Christological debate was the one between monophysitism and dyophitism. Starting with Apollinaris, the bishop of Laodicea, the Alexandria church proclaimed the monophysite oneness of Jesus: “There is no distinction in Holy Scripture between the Word and His flesh; He is one energy, one person, one hypostasis [individuality], at once wholly God and wholly man.” However, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople championed a dyophysite position that proclaimed the two-nature of Christ, as God and man. This dyophysite position, which shocked many Alexandrian and Eastern Christians (particularly in Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia and Armenia), was condemned by the Council of Ephesus under St. Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon issued a proclamation denying monophysitism and upholding the dual nature of Jesus as human and divine. The rejection of the Chalcedonian edict led finally to the schism that brought into existence the Roman Catholic churches, the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Oriental Orthodox churches.

It thus becomes obvious that underneath the seeming catholicity of Christianity lies a simmering theological disjuncture on the very nature of Jesus that is supposed to give that unity its coherence. And as a divine factor, one immediately sees the role that Jesus Christ could play in the ideological superiority drive of Eurocentrism and its racist dynamics. Despite the fact that Christ was born and raised and completed his ministry in the Middle East, he was conveniently considered white and European in the racist historical and theological framework. It therefore becomes easy to see how the bible could be conveniently deployed to ground slavery and racist endeavors. That simply implies that when reading the bible, people come to it from different perspectives colored by theological and cultural differences. Despite this assertion, we must recognize the logic of the unity of faith that binds Christianity together across its many contexts. The various variants of this religion, with their theologies and doctrines, only attest to the dogmatic resilience and adaptability of Christianity over time and space, and its capacity to retain its core element and message around the person and divinity of Jesus Christ and His love for humanity.

*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos & Fellow, Institute of Strategic Management (