World Religions & Cultures
Christianity
means a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. 
A follower of the doctrines associated with Him is called a Christian. 
 
Universal Christian Beliefs  
 
Dr. Marguerite Connor
I'm using the term "universal" loosely here. There are so many Christian groups that somewhere there's going to be a group that disagrees with something. But I've tried to include major concepts that are relatively common to all Christians and will be helpful in understanding literatures in English.
 
The Creeds The Bible The Trinity The Eucharist Two major holidays The Virgin Birth
 
 
Basic Creeds

While many of the different Christian churches have their own creeds (or statement of beliefs), there are two which are relatively universal, the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed.

The Nicene Creed

Written during the 4th century in an attempt to unify Christians, this creed was named after the first ecumenical council of Nicea (325). It was adopted by the Christian church in 451. Its central doctrines are those of the Person of Jesus Christ and the reality of the Holy Spirit. It is the only creed accepted by all three major branches of Christendom including Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
 
The Nicene Creed  

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and 
of all things visible and invisible. 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of 
the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very 
God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom 
all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down 
from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and 
was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He 
suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the 
Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the 
Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the 
dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. 

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who 
proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son 
together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we 
believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one 
baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the 
dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen. 

 
The Apostles' Creed

The Apostles' Creed was developed between the second and ninth centuries as a baptismal creed for new Christians.  It is the most popular creed used in worship by Western Christians.  Its central doctrines are those of the Trinity and God the Creator.  According to legend, the Apostles (Christ's 12 main followers) wrote this creed on the tenth day after Christ's ascension into heaven.  That is not the case, though the name stuck.

This is the modern English version: 

The Apostles' Creed 

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. 

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. AMEN. 

  
The Bible
Book Cover.  The cover of a gospel book encrusted with jewels and ivory cameos
presented by Pope Gregory the Great to a Lombard queen around the year 600.  (Lerner n.p.)

The Bible is the name of Christian's holy book.  "Book" is a misnomer, since it is actually comprised of many books. It has two main parts: The Old Testament, which is the books of the Jewish Pentateuch (these are the five books supposedly written by Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus Numbers and Deuteronomy) as well as more books that tell the story of the Jewish people. This is important to Christians for Jesus was a Jew, and his coming was seen as a way to spread the covenant between God and the Jews to all other peoples.  (See Contents of the Bible.)

Not all Christian groups agree on exactly how many books belong to the Old Testament (this is called being canonical), but included in all groups are the majestic poetry of the Psalms; the beautiful love poetry of "The Song of Solomon"; and the prophecies of the coming Messiah.

The Apocrypha are fourteen books of the Bible included in the Vulgate version of the Bible (the authorized Latin version of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church), but considered uncanonical by some Protestant groups.  The Deuterocanonicals are 15 books accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as canonical.  These two groups overlap, so combined there are 15 in all.  For most people other than scholars, the issue of "canon" is an obscure part of the history of the Church's struggles and need not be a problem.

The New Testament is comprised of the books that are the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. The first four books are the most sacred and important part of the Bible, The Gospels. Traditionally written by four inspired authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these books tell the story of the Angel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary, the birth of Jesus, His life and miracles, His ultimate crucifixion and resurrection, and His final ascension into Heaven.

The New Testament also includes a book about the actions of the apostles and the early church in the years following Jesus's resurrection, and the epistles (or letters) of several of the apostles, but mostly Paul, to early Christian groups. The last book of the Bible is a very mystical book called "The Revelation to John" (or Revelations), which relates a dream of the end of the world sent by God to John. 



The Trinity is a common belief with almost all Christians, and the hardest for many non-Christians to understand, especially people from polytheistic cultures.

For Christians, God has three "faces": God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. They are three-in-one and one God only.

The Father is the Creator of Heaven and Earth and all of the Universe. We use He as a bit of a shorthand and to help human conceptualize him, but he is genderless, both male and female, and beyond human comprehension.

The Son is Jesus, true man and true god, born of a woman, Mary, in Bethlehem around 2000 years ago. He is the Savior of humans, sometimes called "The Redeemer," and became incarnate to help humans "see" God.  He also was crucified to redeem the sins of humans, but triumphed over Death and rose again three days later. (see Easter).

The Holy Spirit (or in early literature, the Holy Ghost) is just that, the spirit of God.  Sometimes called "The Revealer,"¨ it is as The Spirit that God comes to people to help. According to Christians, when the Gospels were being written, the writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit. And it was the Holy Spirit which impregnated Mary. This aspect of God is often depicted as a dove, or a dove with a flaming heart or head in much Christian art.

The Eucharist
 

Cup of Suffering
(Langley 50)
This is the central rite of Christian celebration and is also called The Lord's Supper or Communion. During this ceremony bread and wine (or grape juice in some groups) are consecrated by a minister or priest and eaten by the congregation. This is done at the order of Jesus, who said at the Last Supper, "Do this in remembrance of me." 

For the Catholic Churches as well as some Protestant Churches this is regarded as a sacrament which symbolizes and effects the union of Christ with the believers. 
  
The early Christians ate meals in remembrance and believed that Christ was present in the breaking of the bread.  Early theologians accepted Christ's statements "This is my body" and "This cup ¡K is the new covenant in my blood" as the explanation of the transformation of the bread and wine into body and blood. This is called transubstantiation. 

In the 16th century, Protestant reformers offered several different views on this including the doctrine of consubstantiation. 

Two major holidays
 
  • Christmas (December 25) is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course, this is also the time of Christmas trees, cards, gifts and parties, but at heart, it is a religious holiday. Many Catholics like to go to the traditional Midnight Mass (Mass is what Catholics call their religious service) and then gather with family afterwards.
 
     
    Right: Picture showing the story of Christ's birth, from a 15th-century book.  The painting shows the dress and styles of the time when it was painted. 
      
    Topmost:  God the father watches from heaven, holding the world in his hand and worshipped by angels. 
    Second to the top: Angels announce the birth to surprised local shepherds. 
    Front: Mary and Joseph dressed in blue, the colour of divinity and heaven. 

    (Langley 49)

 
 
 
  • Holy Week starts on the Sunday before Easter on a day called Palm or Passion Sunday. This day commemorates Jesus's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of his final week on earth. 
  
    Other major days are Holy Thursday (the day of the Last Supper), Good Friday (the day Jesus died) and Holy SaturdayFinally comes Easter Sunday, the day all Christians celebrate Jesuss triumph over death and His resurrection to life.  Catholics celebrate with Mass (often at dawn) and then family gatherings. This is the major holiday for all Christians, including, of course, Catholics. 

    Left: Ressurection (Langley 51)

The Virgin Birth

Christians believe that Mary, a pious unmarried Jewish girl, was the mother of Jesus and that his "father"¨ was the Holy Spirit.  She was a virgin when her Son was born, but she married Joseph before her son was born. Joseph was a pious Jewish carpenter who in a dream was told not to repudiate his pregnant fiance. He brought up Jesus as his own son, and is called St. Joseph by most Christians.
 
Annunciation  In Leonardo da Vinci's painting Mary is sitting in a garden when Gabriel appears to her; outdoor settings were common in Italian Renaissance art.  (Hallam 60)
 
Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life, but Protestants, relying on Biblical references to Jesus's brothers, believe that she went on to have other children with Joseph.  But both groups agree that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.



Picture source:
1. Langley, Myrtle.  Religion  (Eyewitness Guides.)  New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1996.
2. Hallam, Elizabeth, ed.   Saints.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
3. Lerner, Robert E. et al.  Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture.  12th Ed.  New York: Norton, 1993.

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World Religions