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Turning Points in Church History – Council of Jerusalem to Edinburgh
THE COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM
This meeting of apostles and presbysters described in Acts 15:4-9 was convoked to address the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the church. Jewish Christians believed that Gentile believers had to submit to the law as well as their faith in Jesus. Paul, Barnabas, and others were sent to present the case. Paul, aware of the gravity of the crisis, took Titus, a native Greek, as a living specimen of what the Spirit of God could accomplish without circumcision. The decision of the great council was significant (Acts 15:28-29). It decided that the law, which had been impossible for Jews, should not be required of Gentiles. They need not be circumcised before eventually becoming a Christian. The principal at stake was incarnation, translating the Gospel in the mindset of the people. An example in Church history in which this principle was ignored was the spread of Christianity by the British in my country, Sierra Leone. The people resented the activities of the missionaries who were identified as part of the colonial government. The results were catastrophic. In the 1898 rebellion, white missionaries, African males (who wore trousers) and women (who wore skirts) were brutally murdered. Places of worship were desecrated. Like the Crusades, this rebellion furnishes the perfect reminder that the church can win by the message of peace and not by force. This principle was however adopted by Patrick, the Englishman captured and sold into slavery in Ireland who escaped and eventually became priest. It had tremendous impact. In the 5th century, he converted the Irish to the faith they had so freely defended throughout the centuries. In sympathy with the realities of Irish life, he was able to bring Ireland into closer relations with the rest of the western church. He planted over two hundred congregations and baptized over one hundred thousand converts.
THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON (451)
If the fathers of the 4th century quarreled over the relations between God the Father and God the Son, those of the 5th century faced the problem of defining the relationship of the two natures, the human and the divine within God the Son, Jesus Christ. The Christological controversy stemmed from the rival doctrines of Apollinaris (Word-Flesh) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (Word-Man), representatives of the rival schools of Alexandria and Antioch respectively. Word-Flesh Christology generally held that the divine and human natures were united indistinguishably. This single divine nature (extreme Monophysitism) after the Incarnation, was strongly supported by Eutcyches. Word-Flesh Christology was not in consonance with Word-Man Christology since the latter taught the two natures co-existed separately in Christ. Cyril of Antioch condemned the extreme Antiochene Christology taught by Nestorius viewing the man Jesus an independent person beside the Divine Word. Pope Leo”s Tome (response to Flavian, the archbishop of Constantinople in 449) addressed these opposing perspectives by avoiding their extremities as reflected in the teachings of Eutyches and Nestorius. He noted that Christ was fully human and fully divine, two natures united in one person. Mary conceived and gave birth to Him without the loss of her virginity. The Tome played a very significant role at the Council of Chalcedon (451) which was convoked to resolve this doctrinal controversy. Leo”s view was accepted as the orthodox doctrine of the church. His statement of the place of the bishop of Rome in the church established doctrinal basis for the papacy. Although he was not pleased with Canon 28 which dignified Constantinople, his view that Jesus was a single person with two natures has remained the standard formulation of the doctrine of Christ in most branches of Christianity.
Christendom, the centuries-long period of western history, which could be regarded as a medieval synthesis, fused what could be presently regarded as separate sacred and secular spheres of life. It was the era in European history when the interests of both church and society were considered to be the same. It was almost generally assumed that Christian spiritual realities were more fundamental than realities of the temporal world. The foundation of Christendom was terribly shaken by the French Revolution (a programme of deChristianization). Christendom shaped medieval Europe”s outlook on everyday life. With the exception of the most extreme Anabaptists, almost all Europeans embraced Christendom and believed it was natural for the Church” sphere of influence to embrace every aspect of life. This was attributed to the central role of the church in the sacramental system as the agent through which the sacraments brought God”s grace to every stage of life. It shaped political life since the political sphere co-operated with the church in fulfilling its spiritual tasks. Learning was directed to be compatible with the teaching of the church. The economy was structured accordingly as it supports the church in its mission. Social conduct also imitated the patterns God has set for the church. In other words, the church offered a foundation for everything. In spite of its failure, Christendom was a powerful ideal. Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries greatly contributed to this understanding of Christianity. Its astonishing spread marginalized Christianity. Muslims moved into Spain and were stopped, as they were about to enter France. Christians were alarmed. Cities were incorporated into what became known as the Holy Roman Empire. It is fair to state that Christendom arose to control the expansion of Islam.
THE GREAT SCHISM
The symbolic date for the separation between the Eastern Church (Constantinople) and the Western Church (Rome) is 1054. Different temperament and intellectual disposition between contemporary theologians like Tertullian of Carthage and Clement of Alexandria were traits that eventually represented the views of two distinct but complementary religious cultures. The Eastern Church sharply disagreed when the Western Church introduced into the Nicene Creed the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from the Father alone ? the traditional view of the early Church Fathers ? but from the Father and the Son (Latin: filoque). When the Roman Empire divided into two zones, Latin speaking Rome began to claim superiority over Greek-speaking Constantinople; disputes arose over church boundaries and control, for example in Illyricum and Bulgaria. Rivalry developed in Slavic regions between Latin missionaries from the west and Byzantine from the east who considered the territory to be orthodox. Islam also strained relations. Other issues which ignited the friction related to worship and church discipline, for instance married clergy (Orthodox) versus celibacy (Roman Catholic) and rules of fasting. Tensions became a schism in 1054 when the uncompromising patriarch of Constantinople, Cerularius, and envoys of the uncompromising Pope Leo IX communicated each other. No acct of separation was considered at this time. Crusades, religious wars by Christians to rescue the Holy Land sealed the schism. The Fourth Crusade (1204) was diverted to attack and plunder Constantinople during which Orthodox Christians were murdered, and churches and icons desecrated. The Holy Land was not won. Islam was not permanently checked. The insolent action of popes in establishing Latin patriarchates in the east intensified the conflict.
EDINBURGH MISSIONARY CONFERENCE IN 1910
The ten-day Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910 ended the notion that worldwide Christianity meant reaching out from Europe and its North American extensions to the rest of the globe. It was indeed the last moment when it was equated with the Christianity of Europe and North America. Edinburgh was the beginning of a new era because it symbolized a dawning consciousness for the world wide extension of Christianity in contrast to earlier expansions involving single originating and receiving cultures. It was indeed a meeting to discuss the evangelization of the world (although only Protestants attended). It is important because of its ecumenical significance. Eight commissions or theological topics were addressed. These included carrying the gospel to all the Christian world, the church in the mission field, education in relation to the Christianization of national life, the missionary message in relation to non-Christian religions, the preparation of missionaries, home base of missions, missions and government, and the promotion of Christian unity. Missions were engaged globally and positively. The end of the conference marked the dawn of the request. Edinburgh directly or indirectly led to the establishment of the International Missionary Conference, the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work, and the World Conference on Faith and Order. The last two merged in 1948 to create the World Council of Churches and the number of Christians has sky-rocketed from less than ten million in 1900 to almost two hundred million in 1997. Local indigenization is produced results. The rise and spread of Pentecostalism, the integral role of women missionaries, proliferation of Bible translations, the implications of information technology, to name a few, point to world evangelism.
From the perspective of the course, the above date is significant because it saw the fulfilment of the Great Commission as a result of the fall of Jerusalem. The church was ”weaned” from Judaism as a result of the destruction of the Jewish temple and the cessation of sacrifices, an integral part in Jerusalem worship. This was a turning point because Christianity moved outward and metamorphosed from a religion shaped by the Jewish environment into a faith moving toward universal significance in the Mediterranean and beyond. It took an independent path in the Gentile world.
The Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian Church which was called by Constantine I to solve the problem created by Arianism, a heresy first proposed by Arius of Alexandria that affirmed that Christ is not a divine but created being. The absolute equality of the Son with the Father was established. It is considered a turning point because it set Christianity on a course (the addition of concerns for worldly power to its natal concern for the worship of God) it has only begun to reluctantly relinquish. This was directed by Constantine”s conversion that gradually gave way to the pilgrim reality of the church. In other words, the doctrinal declaration and the alteration of the church”s relationship with the world were unique.
It was at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 convoked to resolve the doctrinal controversy between Antioch and Alexandria over the person of Christ that the fathers accepted the formula proposed by Pope Leo I that Jesus was one person consisting of two natures. The significance was the more stable institutional character given to the church. It was significant because of its clarification of orthodox Christian teaching and the way in which that clarification was accomplished. The three fold triumph ? sound doctrine over the error over the error of the church, Christian catholicity over cultural fragmentation and of discriminating theological reasoning over the anti-intellectual dismissal of philosophy and a theological capitulation of philosophy ? conspire to make Chalcedon a turning point.
The long-standing controversy between the Western and Eastern Church came to a head in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and the Greek Patriarch, Michael Cearularius, broke off relations with an exchange of anathemas. Although friction was ignited by events way back to the early church history and sealed by later events like the Crusades, the Great Schism of 1054 marked by the symbolic date of the separation. It was regarded as a turning point because it brought to a head centuries of deteriorating cultural disengagement, ecclesiastical suspicion and theological differences between the east and the west, symbolising the eventual isolation of the eastern churches through the centuries.
Would the ”wild boar” recant at the Diet of Worms in 1521? Bound by the Scriptures and with the conscience captive to the Word of God, Luther did not. What a significant moment in the history of Protestantism when Europe and the church would never be the same. Luther”s life and main doctrines, including the theology of the cross, were very crucial. This was not because of his spiritual credentials but rather the vision of God which gripped him to communicate through sermons, tracts and treatises. In other words, 1521 or related events represented a turning point as a result of Luther”s work in the broader social and cultural changes in the work in the 16th century. Although some aspects of his life were not illumined by the Divine Logos, Luther”s vision of God was timely and correct.
Caesaropapism (doctrine of state control over the church) was evident when the English Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy, the significance of which could be seen in the lasting alteration of the situation of the Church of England. As the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, Henry VIII”s marriage with Catherine of Aragon was annulled, enabling him to marry Anne Boleyn. The break from Rome effected by the support of the archbishop of Canterbury and the English Parliament was a turning point because of the general effect of England in particular and Christianity in general. There was an evident rise of self-consciously local, particular and national forms of Christianity. Although it was not the intention of the first Protestants to break up western Catholicism, there were small-scale alternatives to the universal Catholic Church. In other words, protests against the Catholic Church led to the Protestant churches, which subsequently opened various roads to reform eventually bringing a multiplicity rather than a unified voice against Catholic error.
The founding of the Jesuits in 1540 could be regarded as significant because it was the most remarkable factor in the Catholic reform and worldwide outreach. The role of the Jesuits in winning Protestant regions back to Rome and solidifying those who swung like a pendulum in their loyalty to the Catholic Church cannot be overemphasized. The enduring effects of mid 16th century reform of the Catholic Church, the founding of the new orders, redirection of the papacy and Council of Trent could be regarded as branches of a major turning point because of the lasting effects on world Christianity. Catholic reform inspired a wide range of practicalized steps that ushered in a translation of the world wide potential of Christianity by restating the Christian message in the custom of the people.
The conversion of the Wesleys in 1738 is significant because it was the most dynamic force in transforming the religion of the Reformation into modern Protestant evangelicalism. It is evident that Pietism (a movement originating in the Lutheran Church that stressed personal piety or reverence for God over religious formality and orthodoxy) and early Methodism were part of a larger movement of renewal. This new piety was a turning point because doctrines of God”s grace that had grown stale in the English church were renewed or revamped. This renewal or revitalization gave rise to modern evangelicalism out of the legacy of Reformation Protestantism.
The secular event, the French Revolution of 1789, is significant because it ushered in actions which struck at the very privileges of status of the Roman Catholic Church. In attempting to remodel the world, the National Assembly passed ambitious laws which faded the supernatural God in French life. It was a turning point because it embarked on a programme of violent deChristianization signalling the gradual decline of Christendom (the period when interests of church and society were regarded as the same in Europe).
Even though Catholics were not invited, the significant ten-day Edinburgh Missionary Conference (a faith for the entire world) could be regarded as the beginning of the twentieth century ecumenical movement, a high tide of western missionary expansion. It was a turning point because it symbolized an awakened consciousness concerning the worldwide extension of the faith. Never again would ”world wide Christianity” be equated with the Christianity of Europe and America. Earlier expansions of Christianity generally involved single originating and single receiving cultures. The trend became indigenization of Christianity in countless regional cultures.
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