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Alan G. Padgett

Updating the Faith?

Looking for the essence of Christianity.

At the turning point of the century, at one of the world's most prestigious universities, a brilliant theologian and historian at the height of his powers was given the honor of addressing the entire faculty and student body. He chose as his theme the essence of Christianity. His published lectures quickly became a bestseller, sparking admiration and controversy throughout the world. The century was the 19th, the university was Berlin, and the theologian was the great Adolf von Harnack.

The question of the identity or essence of Christianity is hardly a new one, nor was it so in 1899. The earliest Christian pastors, martyrs, bishops and apologists all had to work hard at explaining the central elements of their fledgling religious movement, and the key spiritual truths of the faith, both to those who publicly spoke against their religion and to converts. Just as we do in the 21st century, so the Christian fathers and mothers of the classical age lived in a multicultural world of many religions and worldviews. Europe, Africa, and Western Asia (where the Christian religion first spread) were a complex jumble of cultures, languages, and peoples: a cultural quilt of north and south, east and west. Into this world the apostolic message defined itself over against Judaism, polytheism, mystery religions, and popular philosophies. Eventually divisions within the church also required attention to the core beliefs, holy texts, and sacred practices of the faith. Creeds, a New Testament canon, and core practices of the faith were the result of centuries-long work by women and men who followed in the way of Jesus and the apostles. Together all of these things solidified the identity of Christianity. In the midst of all this, Christian teachings expressed in hymns, sermons, and liturgies played an essential role. But do they still, or are such antiquities hopelessly out of date?

What role do theology and established doctrine play in a vibrant Christian life? What place do tradition ...

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