December 2018 / January 2019 - Vol. 101
Christianity: Fundamental Teachings
                                                          cover for
A landmark book in inter-church efforts to draw closer together
by the Joint Commission of Churches in Turkey

Report by Barbara G. Baker

A joint commission of Turkey’s major Christian denominations has published an historic book of concise Christian doctrine, receiving the unprecedented endorsement of all the nation’s Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Syriac and Protestant Churches.

According to Armenian Bishop Sahak Masalyan, keynote speaker at the formal book launch in Istanbul of the English edition in February, the “most spectacular aspect” of the book is in fact its first page of endorsements, which he declared “akin to a miracle.”

This book “expresses the shared beliefs of the churches in Turkey. We approve its publication and recommend that it be widely read,” the statement says.

Undersigned are the ecclesiastical leaders of all mainstream branches of the Christian faith in Turkey: the Orthodox patriarch, Armenian archbishop, Syriac metropolitan, chairman of the Catholic bishops, and the church leader chairing the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches.

“For churches that have ostracized each other for centuries, leaving a legacy of deep divisions and resentments,” the back cover explains, “to sign their names to such a work is no small step toward Christian unity.”

Entitled simply Christianity: Fundamental Teachings, the slim 95-page volume was first released in Turkish in 2015 by the Bible Society of Turkey. Its purpose is spelled out clearly in the preface: “To help every Christian in Turkey understand their own faith doctrines … held in common by all Christian churches.”

Turkey was key to the history of the global Christian church through many centuries. Its significant cities such as Ephesus were visited by the apostle Paul, himself born in Tarsus, and several New Testament books are named after its towns and regions.

Istanbul, until 1453 known as Constantinople, became the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and home of the medieval world’s largest church, Hagia Sophia, now a mosque and national museum. It was also where the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches broke communion during the Great Schism of the 11th century.

Today, Turkey’s tiny Christian communities add up to less than 100,000 citizens in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, among a population of 80 million.

But with refreshing candour, Bishop Masalyan declared: “We owe the birth of this book to the Turkish state.”

He went on to explain that, back in 2002, complaints had reached Ankara that some of Turkey’s school textbooks contained misinformation about non-Muslim religious beliefs. In response, government officials asked representatives of Turkey’s Churches to participate in a joint commission to prepare basic texts to explain Christian beliefs for the country’s schoolbooks. Over the next year the incorrect texts were replaced with accurate information written by the Christians themselves.

But as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew observed in his address at the book launch celebrations, the government-launched project had brought the various church representatives “closer to each other, to discover and recognize the fundamental beliefs that unite us … to realize that much more unites us than divides us.”

So the churches agreed to set up an 11-member joint commission, including representatives of all five Christian denominations, who were determined to produce a concise but complete book outlining the basic common doctrines of Christianity upon which they could all agree.

“They were not merely theologians who had sound knowledge,” explained Masalyan, who authored the final draft of the text, “but active ‘shepherds,’ pastors, religious teachers and catechists.” For a decade, they worked together to write and rewrite, critiquing and revising again and again, until by 2015 all the church leaders had endorsed the final text for publication.

In 12 concise chapters, the book explains fundamental Christian teachings: ranging from the nature of God and the doctrine of salvation in Jesus Christ to the inspiration of the Bible, the activity of the Holy Spirit, and the role of the church.

“You cannot find another page like this in church history,” the bishop stated, referring to the “thorny” problems of “theological addictions” which had disrupted church unity down through the ages.

“Through this book, we declared to the whole world with a mighty voice that, without hesitation, we see every church and believer who approves of the fundamental principles and doctrines of faith in this book as fellow heirs of salvation in Jesus Christ, considering them as our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters,’” Masalyan emphasized.

Once the Turkish edition was printed, a sub-commission including native English speakers was set up to translate it into meticulous but fluent English, to make it available to the wider Christian world.

“Our common wish is that through the English translation, this book may be like a stone thrown into a lake, its waves reaching out to the most remote parts of Christendom,” the bishop concluded.

[original source: WorldWatch Monitor]

text from first chapter of Christianity: Fundamental Teachings

An Overview of Christianity

Christianity is a monotheistic religion. Because Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Jewish faith, Christianity accepts the Hebrew prophets and Holy Scriptures.

The Bible is the inspired Word of God, comprised of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible tells us that God is holy. God wants people to be good and righteous like Himself. According to Christianity, this desire of God expressed itself in many ways over the ages, until the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus Christ by being born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ is called the "Son of God" because He is of the same substance as God. The fact that the person of Jesus Christ is perfect man and perfect God is the greatest and fullest revelation of Christianity. He is more than a prophet; He is the incarnate Word of God. Unlike many other religions, Christianity is founded on the truth of who Jesus is rather than just on what He said. His saviorhood springs from his unique divine nature.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind and that through His resurrection from the dead He overcame death. In this way, Jesus Christ, as the bridge of peace between sinful humankind and God, is the only mediator. Through Jesus Christ, God intervened in world history to save sinful humankind. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Salvation is made possible through Jesus Christ. That is why it is necessary to believe and be baptized (Mark 16:15-16). Jesus, before ascending into heaven, commanded the apostles to go throughout the world teaching others all that He had told them, making the nations His disciples and baptizing them (Matthew 28:18-20). So the apostles went out into the world preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The followers of Jesus were called "Christians" for the first time in Antioch (Acts II:26). This word means "Christ-one, follower of Christ, believer in Christ." The word Christ is derived from the Greek word Christos, which means Messiah. The first three hundred years of Christianity saw great persecution and opposition from the Roman Empire. After Emperor Constantine the Great established freedom of belief in the Edict of Milan issued in 313 AD. Christianity began to spread more easily and rapidly. Rather than confronting the cultural, ethnic and national values of the peoples it reached, Christians usually chose to pursue common ground in issues that did not conflict with Christianity. This characteristic gained it a universal identity.

Christianity accepts the principle of secularism because of its approach to separating religious and worldly affairs. As a movement rejecting religious formalism, Christianity aims to speak to the spirit of man and pursues inner purity. This has enabled it to maintain a more flexible structure in terms of a morality based on love, mercy and forgiveness.

Since the Christian Church is understood as "the mystical (spiritual) body of Christ," it has had a well-organized hierarchal structure from the beginning. However, this structure does not represent class divisions, but rather functional differences.

The clergy - including bishops (overseers, ministers), presbyters (monks, priests, elders, leaders, pastors), deacons (servants, helpers) and their subordinates and superiors - direct the administrative affairs of the church. (Those with titles such as pope, patriarch, metropolitan or archbishop are all bishops, and these titles are based on the region and office of the bishop. This is similar to the way that army officers of the same rank might be given different assignments and titles.) Though the titles may differ among denominations, a certain kind of division of labor can be observed in all of them.

Denominational differences stem from differences in biblical interpretation and from divisions that have occurred throughout history for political reasons. Through great religious councils attended by its senior clerics, Christianity has determined its foundational doctrines and expressed them permanently in creedal formulas. Those church communities that did not accept these creeds have defined themselves using different names. Nevertheless, there are no great differences among their basic doctrines. As efforts for church unity advance, these divisions are being understood more as administrative and historical difficulties than as insurmountable problems of faith. Denominations may be divided into two main categories:

Historical and Traditional Churches
These churches believe they were established by Jesus' apostles and that their authority comes from them in the form of an unbroken chain of hierarchy. This authority is based not only on written documents, but also on oral tradition. They accept that, to understand the Bible correctly, interpretations passed down to us from the first century are required. The Church is the only authority to preserve the best interpretation of the Bible and to pass this on to future generations. These churches constitute the majority of the world's Christian churches. The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches, along with some Anglican and Lutheran Churches, are in this group. They demonstrate great similarity in their doctrines and practices. Issues of church
administration and religious authority, especially the authority of the Pope, are the main points of contention among them.

Post-Reformation Churches
These churches grew out of movements seeking religious renewal in sixteenth-century Europe. They accept the Holy Bible as their only undisputed authority. With this doctrine, since no authority is accepted above the written scriptures, new churches have emerged in proportion to the freedom and variety of Biblical interpretations. The churches, which comprise this most disunited and divided section of Christianity, are categorized by the general name of Protestantism. However, the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Pentecostals, which make up the largest of these churches, share the same foundational doctrines as the historical churches, namely: The Holy Trinity, the divine nature of Jesus and the other affirmations of the Nicene Creed.

Worship: Though Christian worship has many different forms, its basic components can be summarized as follows: individual and public reading of the Bible, preaching of the Bible and choosing Biblical subjects for hymns are the primary forms of worship. In this way, the Word of God has been the cornerstone of Christian worship in countless languages, cultures and artistic expressions throughout history. Biblical prayers, Psalms and Prophetic passages are repeated and memorized. During worship, musical instruments and anything good or artistic from human civilization may be utilized.

Fasting is practiced for personal discipline and spiritual maturity.

Christians joyfully celebrate two great religious festivals: the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrated at Christmas, and His resurrection from the dead, celebrated at Easter. In addition to these, most churches celebrate saint-days and the memory of various historical events.

As recorded in the New Testament, Jesus Christ commanded the observance of two special ceremonies or rites: baptism and communion. All churches, even while interpreting them somewhat differently, consistently perform these two ceremonies.

A Final Word
The most important condition for unity and peace is to maintain an attitude that prioritizes principles that unite rather than divide us. One of the most effective ways to move toward unity is to determine, express and declare our mutual beliefs in Christ. With this small book, we have aimed to do just this. Without hesitation, we see every church and believer who approves of the fundamental principles and doctrines of faith in this book, as fellow-heirs of salvation in Jesus Christ, considering them as our "brothers" and "sisters."

Although the common foundation of faith expressed in this book may not yet be enough for the perfect and ideal Christian unity (namely, communion), they nevertheless constitute a serious step forward that should not be minimized in any way. The historical texture and ecumenical richness of Istanbul has made such an enterprise possible. Therefore, we ask God to bless this sincere effort as we dedicate this book, with the participation and approval of our city's principle churches, to the unity of all believers, with the hope that it will prove a source of inspiration for all those who read it.

(c) The Joint Commission of Christian Churches in Turkey, 2017

This book is available on Amazon and through the Istanbul website of the Bible Society of Turkey

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