Christianity as we find it today is divided into three major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.1 From Protestantism many other branches have grown, most out of a desire to recover anew an authentic original Christianity disclosed in scripture. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have always sought to keep reform movements from disrupting continuity with the past and unity in the present. That is in large measure what both of the latter mean in identifying themselves as versions of "Catholic" Christianity, though their emphasis upon unity and continuity allows for considerable variation from personality, culture, geographic circumstance, and historical situation. The history of the development of these traditions from the earliest Apostles of Jesus to the present day is a long, involved, and interesting story that we will not begin to go into here. There are many good and readable accounts readily available.2
Unlike the lack of a commonly agreed canon of scripture among Buddhist traditions, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics all agree to the canonical status of the twenty-seven books of the (Greek) New Testament as the primary scripture of the Christian revelation, and they basically agree over the constitution of the canonical Old Testament. The Old Testament is the Christian name for the scriptures ofJudaism, the religious tradition in which Christianity first emerged. The so-called apocryphal books of the Old Testament over which the three branches of Christianity have historically disagreed have not significantly contributed to differences in doctrine or practice. The Old Testament for the three traditions has always been subject to interpretation in terms of what they hold to be the clearer light of the New Testament. All three hold that therein is proclaimed the ultimate revelation of God come to restore his fallen creation to himself3 in the historical person of Jesus the Christ (3 B.C.E.-30 c.E.). In other words, at the core of the Christian conception of salvation (its conception of the means of at-onement with ultimate realityo) is a twofold conviction. The first is that, in Jesus, God (the ultimate realityo as Christians understand it) has decisively acted to overcome the breach of alienation between humankind and God. The second is that in and through that "cosmic event" God has decisively communicated himself, made known his innermost character and intention for humankind. In consequence of this twofold conviction, it is believed that atonement with God is not attainable, and essential knowledge about God is not had, apart from access to that event. All ways of being religious in Christianity are different ways of drawing near to, of participating in, and of being grounded in, the event of God's reconciliation of the world with himself in Jesus Christ.
The three branches of Christianity agree that the heart of Christianity is the receiving and communication of the revelation of God in Christ. How each conceives of the relation of revelation to scripture, though, differs. For Protestants (traditionally at least) scripture, especially New Testament scripture, has been the document of the Christian revelation; it contains the first and last word concerning the essentials of Christianity to those who read it and hear it in faith, seeking the guidance of the Spirit of God.4 Protestant traditions differ among themselves as to how these matters are explained in scripture-for example, whether scripture is to be regarded as an integral part of the revelation itself or as the primary witness to the revelation. Eastern Orthodoxy conceives the revelation of God in Christ to be an unchanging divine mystery passed down, starting with Jesus' original apostles, from one generation to another in the church at large. They understand the revelation to be embodied in a living practice and implicit understanding-called Holy Tradition-partially made explicit in scripture, doctrine, and liturgy, but never wholly made explicit in any one. Revelation is not for them-at least not first of all-an explicit intellectual content.5 Scripture for Eastern Orthodox Christians is an authentic expression of this Holy Tradition and is to be read and interpreted accordingly. Roman Catholicism conceives the revelation of God in Christ (or rather, the Church's understanding of that revelation) to be a largely explicit legacy from Jesus' original apostles that has developed and unfolded to the present day in the teaching of the hierarchy of the Church under the guidance of the Spirit of God.6 Scripture for Roman Catholic Christians is the expression of this legacy closest to its very source and is to be interpreted accordingly.
The central story of Christianity, the story central to Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism, centers on the person ofJesus, the Christ (from christos, the Greek word for Messiah, the inaugurator of the Kingdom of God to come, foretold by the Old Testament prophets)-his life, teachings, suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. Contrary to widespread supposition, however, the central character of the story is not Jesus simply as an historical person. The central character is, rather, "the person of God"-ultimate realityo, the singular transcendent ground of all that is, the infinite measure of all that is good, right, just, and beautiful, but here conceived as "person"-become present to humanity in the person of Jesus. The story is the story of God-incarnate. The story tells of the redemption God has accomplished and made available for fallen humanity in and through Jesus' life, death, and resurrection: "In him l]esus, the Christ]," writes the Apostle Paul in Colossians 1:19-20 [RSV], "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." Many different images and theological conceptions have been employed in the attempt to explain the mystery of how this is to have taken place and the manner in which it is to be appropriated. Nevertheless, all Christian traditions affirm that personal appropriation of the gift of salvation in Christ brings about at-onement with God, both now and for all eternity.
The story is called the Gospel (evangelion in Greek, meaning "good news"). Elaborated in the way we find it in the New Testament, this story encompasses Jesus' moral teachings, how he related to persons in need, how he dealt with this or that challenge, how he met suffering and death, the promise embodied in his resurrection, and so forth. Its overall message, though, is the "Good News" of God's reconciliation with fallen humanity in Jesus Christ. The proclamation (kerygma in Greek) of that message "in word and sacrament" (many Protestants dispute the phrase "and sacrament") is the principal means the Christian revelation is communicated, and its "power unto salvation" (Romans 1:16) transmitted, to those who receive it in faith. It (the kerygma) is understood to be the paradigm case, the ideal place, in which the Word of God (which is identified with Christ) "speaks" to the hearer. There the hearer is offered a new or deepened relationship of at-onement with God. Thus, above all else, it is the kerygma that awakens and deepens faith. For the Christian who is intent on having her life brought into right relationship and at-onement with God, whether formally undertaken as a religious vocation or not, the Gospel presentation of Jesus' life makes up the supreme model to follow. For other Christians unready for that intense of a commitment, the story gives a focus for their honor, praise, and worship, a touchstone of divine authorization and blessing for all that is good, worthy, and right, sustaining grace in the midst of suffering, and the hope of resurrection.
Earlier it was said that the central story of the Buddha's Enlightenment in Buddhism is not essentially historical, for in essential respects it could have happened in any time or place and that Buddhists believe that, in essence, it has happened many times before and that it will happen again. On the contrary, the central story of the Gospel for Christians is not a "once upon a time" story abstractable from its having historically happened. For them it is essentially connected with an utterly unique, once-and-for-all-time set of (allegedly) historical events, yet it is simultaneously full of significance for all times and places. The Christian claim is that in these events God has in fact, in historical time, reconciled the world to himself. As a result, there is in Christianity a preoccupation with the historicity of those events. Christians often busy themselves with efforts to verify them, learn all they can about the historical and cultural circumstances of Jesus' life and teachings, revisit the places and scenes of these events, and endeavor to find out things about them that are unknown or incompletely known. More important than all these efforts, though, is the Christian preoccupation with returning to them in a sacramental way and to their life transforming powerwhether in biblical preaching and teaching, the sacrament of Holy Communion, or a devotional reading and contemplation of the biblical story.7
This preoccupation with historicity makes Christians vulnerable to the critical investigations of modern (and so-called postrnodern) secular historical scholarship into the events of Jesus' life and the rise of Christianity (meaning not at all an investigation of faith and very possibly an investigation that could undermine or refute faith). Christians are all the more vulnerable because most liberal Protestant and liberal Roman Catholic biblical scholarship nowadays is indistinguishable from secular scholarship in this sense.8 The supposedly objective results of such scholarship are at times confusing and disorienting for Christians but also for non-Christians who would like to learn something about Christianity. Some textbooks that attempt a survey of Christianity in a context of comparison with other religions and in a presumably empathetically objective manner, rely uncritically on this scholarship and distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Christian faith, attributing the latter (i.e., the Gospel) to the "creative theologizing" of the Apostle Paul and other early Christian theologians, as if this distinction were perfectly innocent and noncontroversial. But the distinction itself, as usually developed (i.e., uprooting the Gospel and the Christ of faith from any historicity), is highly controversial as far as theology is concerned, though the unsuspecting reader would be the last to know. The point is not that the story of the Gospel is historically true, but that all traditional Christians have been and are convinced that it is historically true and consider its historicity to be ofits very essence. In the remarks that follow about Christianity I shall not presume to differentiate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.