Mikhail Sergeev. Model of Religious Cycle: The Case of Christianity

Давид Попиашвили

Давид Попиашвили. Тайная вечеря


In modern times there have been numerous attempts by scholars to theorize about religion. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Western thought produced major theories on the subject, which are still debated in American universities as classical illustrations of scholarly work in the field.

My theory of religious cycles is different from those scholarly projects. First, it is not my intention to discover the origin of religion or reduce it to other forms of social activity.

Second—and this is the cornerstone of my approach to religion—any religious system, either archaic or modern, Eastern or Western, theistic or not, in my view, is primarily a semantic structure that creates a net of meanings whose origin is not available to ordinary human beings.

In as much as religion generates a semantic field, its most important task is to preserve the true meaning of its original teachings and to transmit it to the following generations. In order to accomplish this task, religions that have been created after the invention of writing, develop sacred scriptures which are complemented by the sacred tradition whose main purpose is to interpret the primary texts. No matter how explicit or detailed, the scriptures are never exhaustive and call for interpretation because of the peculiar nature of religious experience that is rooted in the transcendent.

Both sacred scriptures and sacred tradition constitute the backbone of a religious system whose development depends on the proper interaction between the two components. In the course of its evolution, and independently of its doctrines and practices, a religious system goes through a certain number of stages or phases. Based on a particular correlation between scriptures and tradition, I distinguish six such stages: early or formative, orthodox, classical, reformist, critical, and post-critical. Each phase brings about a new paradigm in the interplay between the two most important factors in the development of religion.

The early or formative phase in the evolution of religious system contributes to the formation of its scriptural canon and the establishment of its sacred tradition. The orthodox phase cements the traditional foundations of religion by fighting heretical movements and their alternative scriptural interpretations. The classical phase reformulates sacred tradition by adding new interpretations to the canon. Reformists, on the contrary, purify tradition from the accumulated interpretations in order to get back to the core of sacred teachings and restore the original faith.

Each phase in the evolution of religion offers its own answer to the misbalance of sacred scriptures and sacred tradition that result in the structural crisis of religion. Structural crises, which challenge sacred tradition, are usually resolved by the appearance of new branches or divisions within the existing religions. In contrast to structural crises that question tradition, systemic crisis of religion shakes up the foundation of the system itself, namely its sacred scriptures. Systemic crisis marks a fundamental challenge to religious authority that can be overcome only by the introduction of new religious systems with their own scriptural texts. During this critical phase, mother-religions usually produce their offshoots in the form of new religious movements. The appearance of Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism, the rise of Christianity in the midst of Judaism, and the emergence of the Bahá’í Faith from Islam all provide fitting examples of such transformations.

After the critical phase religious systems do not deteriorate but renew and reconfirm their foundations. The birth of a new religious movement from its mother-faith sparks competition between the two, which is vital and healthy for both traditions. As a result, age-long religions flourish alongside their younger counterparts by reorganizing their sacred tradition and restoring the authority of primary scriptures.


                          Chart 1 – Model of religious cycle

That was the case with Judaism, which, after the Roman army destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, completely reinvented itself. By the end of the first Christian century the rabbis formed the Hebrew scriptural canon and later established a new interpretation of the Mosaic Law in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Those rabbinic reforms created the necessary conditions for the survival of the Jewish people in the post–Biblical times of the second exile that lasted for almost two thousand years.

Another case in point is the evolution of Hinduism after the appearance and spread of Buddhism in India. To the challenge of Buddhism, Hindus responded with the rise of Orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, the creation of famous Hindu epics, and the flourishing of bhakti devotional cults. After centuries of mutual influence and competition, Hinduism completely displaced Buddhism from India and since the twelfth century has remained the sole national religion of the Indian people. To sum up, the post–critical phase of religion, which is the last in the cycle of its evolution, does not necessarily signify the demise of the system as a whole. It is often followed by the resurrection of the old faith, which survives under new circumstances of competition and cooperation between the old and new religious movements.

In the following section of the paper, this model of religious cycles will be applied to the evolution of Christianity – the largest and most widespread religion of the world.

                                       The Cycle of Christianity

The evolution of the Christian faith serves as the perfect illustration of my theory of religious cycles. The history of Christianity is typically divided into three periods:  early, medieval, and modern. The early period, which lasted for the first four centuries and was crucial for the development of the Church, represents the formative phase of Christianity. The medieval period, which resulted in the split of the Christian Church into two coexisting branches of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, saw the rise of Christianity’s corresponding orthodox and classical phases. Finally, during the modern period, two new movements were initiated – Protestantism and the Enlightenment – which marked the reformist and critical phases of the Christian religion. In this section we will mostly discuss the initial four stages of Christianity while the analysis of the Enlightenment as its critical stage will need a separate and thorough discussion.

During the first four centuries of its existence, the Christian faith came a long way since its inception in Palestine to becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century it had successfully formed its organizational structure, formulated its creed, canonized its scriptures, routinized its ritualistic practices, and was already embraced by the majority of the population of the Empire [1, p. 53].

Chart 3 – Religious cycle of Christianity

The establishment of a scriptural canon was, perhaps, the most important among those accomplishments, since the development of scriptural texts constitutes an essential part of the formative age of any religion. It took nearly four centuries for the Church to achieve consensus with regard to the sacred scriptures. The Christian Bible was compiled in the course of intense ideological strife that produced numerous heresies condemned by the Church leaders. The books that have been finally included in the Bible reflected the orthodox Christian doctrines, which were reasserted by becoming part of the canonized texts.

The first recognized historical attempt to create scriptural canon was made by a second century Christian theologian, Marcion of Sinope. Marcion’s views were close to Gnosticism, a widely spread heresy of the time. Gnostics taught that a malevolent god created the world, and Jesus came to save humanity from it by delivering special mystical knowledge. According to Marcion’s doctrine, it was the Jewish god who was an evil, angry, and ever – punishing god of creation while Jesus represented a different kind of deity – the Christian god of love, wisdom, and compassion. In his version of the New Testament, Marcion included only one gospel, the Gospel of Luke, and several letters of the Apostle Paul.

It was in response to this and similar views that the leaders of the Church decided to incorporate the Hebrew Scriptures into the Christian canon in order to emphasize the continuity of Judeo–Christian tradition and to assert the essential oneness of the God of both Testaments. By the end of the first century CE, the Jewish rabbis had already settled on the Hebrew scriptural writings of the Tanakh, which later found their way into the Christian Bible as the Old Testament. As for the New Testament, Biblical scholars agree that its books were mostly completed in the first two Christian centuries. The Revelation, which is the last book of the Christian canon and, as the Christian tradition contends, was written around 95 CE by the Apostle John, was also one of the latest to be accepted as part of the sacred scriptures. For a long period of time Revelation remained a very controversial text, which many Christians were reluctant to include into the canon [3, p. 517]. By the end of the fourth century consensus was finally achieved, and in 367 CE, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, in his Easter Letter listed all twenty – seven books of the New Testament as authoritative and canonical [3, p. 19].

After the boundaries of the Old and New Testaments were fixed and the scriptures canonized, Christianity moved to the next phase, which consisted in the formation of sacred tradition. To be sure, the Christian tradition developed right from the beginning of the new era. The prophetic teachings of its founder, the missionary journeys of the apostles, and the establishment of the church communities in the Roman Empire all attest to that. Hence, the well known saying that the scriptures are the written tradition and the tradition is the living scripture.

However, the proper development of the sacred tradition is impossible without the written texts whose interpretations become foundational for the growth of tradition. Furthermore, whoever is in charge of the interpretation also controls the sacred tradition. In the early Christian Church it was the function of general ecumenical councils to produce interpretations that were considered authoritative and binding upon all Christians. As the formal head of the Church, the Emperor convened and presided over those councils, which included representatives from both the Eastern and Western Churches. From the fourth to the eighth centuries, numerous councils took place to debate and reach an agreement on various controversial doctrines in Christianity.

The first such council was convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE in the city of Nicaea. The issue at stake was Arianism – a teaching that denied the divinity of Christ. Arius (256–336 CE) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt, who argued that since there is only one God, Jesus Christ did not share his Father’s nature and was essentially distinct from him. The decisions of the council outlawed the Arian heresy, confirmed the divine nature of Christ, and issued the Creed of Nicaea to that effect.

The second ecumenical council took place in 381 CE in Constantinople and was summoned by the Emperor Theodosius who is known in the history of Christianity for establishing the faith as the state religion of the Roman Empire. The decisions of the council promulgated the doctrine of the Trinity, according to which God is one in essence that manifests itself in three distinct persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this way, “Every divine action begins with the Father, proceeds through the Son and is completed in the Holy Spirit” [2, p. 174].

The third ecumenical council, which took place in Ephesus in 431 CE, settled the problem of the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. The next council of Chalcedon in 451 CE adopted a series of documents that reaffirmed the Trinitarian theology, according to which Jesus possessed “two natures [that existed] without confusion, without change, without division or without separation” [2, p. 183]. The fifth and sixth ecumenical councils, which took place in Constantinople in 553 CE and 680–81 CE respectively, fought against the heresies of monophysitism, monergism and monotheletism, in other words, the beliefs that Christ had a single nature, single energy, or single will. The sixth council issued a decree, which confirmed that in Jesus Christ “there are two natural wills and modes of operation without division, change, separation or confusion…His human will follows without any resistance or reluctance but in subjection, his divine and omnipotent will” [2, p. 186].

Finally, the seventh ecumenical council, which marked the completion of the Orthodox Christian tradition, took place in the city of Nicaea in 787 CE and it dealt with the issue of iconoclasm. The aim of the iconoclastic movement was to suppress the worship of sacred images or icons and the relics of saints. The iconoclasts were convinced that those objects were not as holy as the cross, the Bible, or the elements of the Lord’s Supper, and that the worship of them would lead believers into idolatry. Responding to iconoclastic charge and drawing inspiration from the theological defense of icons by eighth – century Christian thinker John of Damascus (c. 676–749 CE), the council sided with the Damascene by differentiating between worship and veneration and by permitting the adoration of sacred images in the same way as the Bible and the cross.

The decisions of seven ecumenical councils became foundational for Orthodox Christianity, which is also known as the “Church of the Seven Councils.” At the same time, the tension and division between Eastern and Western Christendom, which went back to the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) with its decision to grant more administrative authority to Constantinople, grew stronger over the following centuries. The fall of the Roman Empire, political separation between its Western and Eastern parts, and cultural and linguistic differences – along with various doctrinal and administrative factors, including diplomatic misunderstandings–  contributed to the eventual breakaway and mutual excommunication between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. While the actual split occurred in 1054 CE, the most significant disagreement, from a religious standpoint, was over the interpretation of scriptures, the authority of sacred tradition and, more importantly, about who had the legitimate power to alter or transform it.

For the Orthodox Christians, the ultimate authority lies in the decisions of the ecumenical councils and for that reason they froze the sacred tradition and rejected any subsequent change or alteration that came from elsewhere. Since no ecumenical councils could conceivably be convened after Orthodoxy and Catholicism had parted ways in the eleventh century, no modification to the tradition was possible either. As for Catholicism, it developed a sacred tradition of its own, which Catholics only partially shared with the Orthodoxy.

The beginning of the Catholic tradition dated back to the last centuries of the Roman Empire when the bishops of Rome laid a claim to their superiority over the rest of the Christian leadership. As Catholic Church historian Thomas Bokenkotter notes, “Pope Damasius (366–84) at a council in 382 [already] seems to have claimed formally the possession of a primacy over all other churches in virtue not of conciliar decisions but of the Lord’s promise to St. Peter” [1, p. 78]. Damasius’ successor, Pope Siricius (384–99 CE) went even further by implicitly assuming “[i]n his letters…now called Decretals…the right to make decisions, with universal application in matters both doctrinal and disciplinary” [1, p. 78].

In the fifth century, Pope Leo I (440–61 CE), as Bokenkotter writes, “formulated a doctrine of papal primacy that was to…guide the policy of all subsequent Popes. Leo [argued that] Peter was “the Rock” on which the Lord built his Church; his successors, the Popes, were merely his temporary and mystical personifications.” On the basis of this premise, Leo contended that “the Pope had the plenitude of power over the universal Church: He was its supreme ruler, its supreme teacher, and its supreme judge. All other bishops only shared in his responsibility for the whole Church” [1, p. 79]. It is important that the rise of papal power occurred in parallel with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which led to the weakening of civil authorities. In the midst of social and political turmoil, the Christian Church was the only institution that maintained order and stability. Naturally, the Popes promoted and strengthened the system of papal monarchy that was based on the Roman imperial model. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604 CE) “established the Popes as de facto rulers of central Italy [and] strengthened the papal primacy over the churches in the West” [1, p. 92].

The alliance between the papacy and the Franks, which resulted in the establishment of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century, paved the way for the Popes to claim both spiritual and temporal authority by virtue of them crowning the kings. Even more so, in the ninth century Pope “John VIII (d. 882 CE) advanced the cause of papal primacy by successfully asserting the right of the Popes not only to crown but also to choose the Emperor” [1, p. 100]. Pope Gregory VII seems to have achieved the highest point in these theocratic aspirations in the eleventh century when in “his famous Dictatus papae (1075) [he defended] an unqualified view of papal authority, [including] the right to punish and even depose disobedient rulers, for the papacy was to the Empire as the sun to the moon” [1, p. 105].

By the time Christianity suffered a split in 1054 CE, both Orthodox and Catholic Churches had already successfully developed their corresponding sacred traditions while remaining very similar to each other in many other respects. And it was the Catholic tradition – which represented the classical phase of the Christian religion – that the Protestant reformers would later rebel against. We should remember, however, that attacks against the high concentration of Popes’ power and the resulting abuses of sacred authority were initiated well before the dawn of the Reformation.

The doctrine of papal “absolute and universal supremacy” in religious affairs rested largely on the so–called “Pseudo–Isidorian Decretals, which were drawn up around 850 [and] contained a clever mixture of forged and authentic papal and counciliar documents [that] falsified the history of papal relations with the other churches” [1, p. 111]. Part of this collection was the “Donation of Constantine” –  the text in which Emperor Constantine supposedly granted to Silvester I (d. 335 CE), then head of the Roman Church, supremacy over all other Church leaders and even the secular rulers in Western Christendom. With the revival of classical learning during the Renaissance, this and many other religious texts, including the original Greek writings of the New Testament, came under the scrutiny of scholars. Armed with the new methods of linguistic and literary analysis, they reconstructed historical timelines, recovered the original meaning and confirmed or denied the authenticity of translated works. Those scholarly efforts contributed to the eventual deconstruction of the Catholic tradition, which was finally rejected by Protestant reformers. An Italian humanist scholar, Lorenzo Valla (1407–57 CE), proved, for example, that the “Donation of Constantine” was a forgery thus challenging papal claims to unqualified power.

Another factor that contributed to the rise of the Reformation was the persistence of heresies, which presented a challenge not only to the Catholic dogmas but also to the medieval Church hierarchy and organization. The Waldensians or the followers of Peter Waldes in the twelfth century, for instance, rejected the authority of the clergy and promoted a simple lifestyle of preaching in order to purify Christianity. Many Waldensian beliefs would later become part of the Protestant movement.

When the Protestant Reformation was finally sweeping Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it signaled the beginning of the third phase of the Christian religion, which may appropriately be called reformist. It was a response to the structural crisis of Christianity and it aimed at resolving this crisis by coming back to its scriptural roots. The central tenet of Protestantism was the justification by faith alone. Martin Luther (1483–1546), the founder of the Reformation, arrived at this key belief as a result of undergoing a severe spiritual crisis.

An Augustinian monk and a priest, he was suffering from the lack of certitude about his own salvation. He learned from the Catholic theology of the day that as a sinner he deserved punishment. In his own reinterpretation of scriptures, Luther came to a different conclusion about God’s justice, as it is written in the Gospels that the “one who is righteous will live by faith” [4, Rom. 1.17). According to Luther, instead of punishing sinners God justifies them by granting faith, which they do not deserve on their own merits. As a gift from God, faith became for him the only true sign of salvation and certitude.

With this new interpretation Martin Luther overcame his doubts and restored his trust in God. He then searched for the source of faith. It could not have been the Catholic tradition of indulgences and self–sanctification by means of good deeds. It could only be the grace of God, which was accessible through Christ and revealed in scriptures. In the end, Martin Luther came back to the scriptural basis of Christianity in order to renew and reinvigorate this religion.

Sola scripturabecame the motto of the Reformation and Luther himself produced the German translation of the Bible from its original languages. It was the first full translation of scriptures into any European language since the Latin translation of St. Jerome in the fourth century that the Catholic Church had been using for more than a millennium. By rejecting the supremacy of the Popes or the infallibility of ecumenical councils, Martin Luther invested all the authority into those Biblical texts. He questioned the existing Christian interpretations and ended up creating a sacred tradition of his own.

The doubt in the existing sacred traditions marked the structural crisis of Christianity. Like any structural crisis of religion, it was resolved by the formation of a new mode of interpretation within the existing religious system. The eighteenth–century European Enlightenment, which initiated the age of modernity, posed an entirely different challenge.

The Enlightenment thinkers questioned the very foundation of the Christian religion – its scriptural texts. The Enlightenment initiated a systemic crisis of Christianity that in the next two centuries affected all major cultural and religious traditions and as a result turned into a global crisis of religious consciousness. While remaining an inalienable part of Christian history, it extended well beyond European or Western civilization, and as such, it should be discussed separately.


Remarks in Conclusion

I began this paper with the hypothesis that religions share a common pattern in their historical development. In order to trace those commonalities, I formulated an abstract model of religious cycles, which was based on the idea that any historical religion – a religion centered on written scriptures – represents a semantic system whose evolution depends on the interpretation of its key texts.

Chart 3 – Religious cycle of Buddhism

The development of a religious system, then, can be understood in terms of the interplay between its revelatory and interpretive elements, or, in other words, between its sacred scriptures and sacred traditions. Based on a distinct correlation between the first and the second, I distinguished six common phases in the evolution of religion, namely, its formative, orthodox, classical, reformist, critical, and post–critical stages.

In the course of its development a religious system undergoes two types of crises that shake its structural or systemic foundations. The structural crisis poses a challenge to the sacred tradition or scriptural interpretations within an established religion and results in the formation of new and alternative confessions or denominations within the system. The systemic crisis represents a challenge to the foundation of the religion itself by way of questioning its sacred scriptures. Such a crisis is usually resolved with the inception of new religions in the midst of their mother–faiths.

In this paper I discussed the evolution of the Christian religion but when applied to the world’s other spiritual traditions, my model of religious cycles reveals astounding similarities among various faiths. To begin with, traditional religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam follow a nearly identical pattern in their development by passing through all six stages, from the formative through the post–critical. In all those cases the establishment of new sacred traditions was related to the creation of additional scriptural texts or at least alternative interpretations of the existing scriptures. Also, in all of those cases different sacred traditions that corresponded to various stages of religious evolution did not cancel each other out but instead co–existed, stimulated, interacted with, and often enriched each other.

The systemic crisis of religion usually leads to the rise of new religious movements and their eventual split from and rivalry with their mother–faiths. However, even a crisis of such proportions does not result in the disappearance of older, spiritual ways of life. After giving birth to new faiths, older religions not only recuperate but even experience a revival of their own traditions and successfully compete with younger challengers. Two cases in point – the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism, and also the one between Judaism and Christianity. In the language of theology, we might say that God never forgets his previous commitments and always keeps his part of the bargain while creating new covenants with humanity.

Chart 4 – Religious cycle of Islam

Finally, the evolution of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam was such that the systemic crisis of those spiritual traditions occurred almost simultaneously, starting with the eighteenth century when European thinkers formulated the ideology of the Enlightenment, which in the following two centuries spread all over the globe. The systemic challenge that affected those three religions reached its peak in the twentieth century, and as a result, our contemporary spiritual condition can be characterized as a total crisis of religious consciousness, which is well attested to in modern art and literature.


 Phases of Religion: A Comparative Table




                            Buddhism                        Christianity                                Islam


Formative Phase:






(until 9th-10th c. BCE)



Oriental Orthodoxy

(Armenia, Ethiopia, Eritrea)


Kharijite Islam

(North Africa, Oman)




Orthodox Phase:





Theravāda Buddhism

(Thailand, Cambodia Myyanmar, Laos)



Eastern Orthodoxy (Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe)


Shi’ite Islam

(Iran, Iraq, Bahrain)


Classical Phase:




Mahāyāna Buddhism

(China, Japan)



(Europe, Canada, Latin America)


Sunni Islam

(Indonesia, Africa, Middle East)



Reformist Phase:




Vajrayana Buddhism

(Tibet, Mongolia,



, Protestantism

(Germany, England, Scandinavia, America)


Wahhabi Islam

(Saudi Arabia)



Post-critical Phase:




Soka Gakkai – Society for the Creation of Values




Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses

(USA, Europe,

Latin America)





  1. Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition in World Religions




Sacred Scriptures



Sacred Tradition






Primary scriptural texts or sruti, which consist of the Vedas and Upanishads


Secondary scriptural texts or smrti, which consist of sutras,

epics and puranas








Hebrew scriptures or Tanakh, which include Torah, Prophets and Writings



Rabbinic texts of Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash








The Tripitaka canon, which includes Vinayana Pitaka (rules of monastic life), Sutta Pitaka (discourses of the Buddha), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (works on psychology and metaphysics)




The decisions of the Buddhist Councils and additional sutras written by the founders of various Buddhist sects






The Bible, more specifically, the New Testament, which includes the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation



The writings of the Fathers of the Church and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils










The Qur’an and the Hadith, which is the record of the deeds of the Prophet



The development of Islamic law and jurisprudence known as the Sharia Law




  1. Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. (Doubleday: 1990).
  2. Dowley, Tim, ed. Introduction to the History of Christianity. (Fortress Press, 1995).
  3. Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 7th ed. (McGraw–Hill, 2007).
  4. NRSV. The Complete Parallel Bible. (Oxford University Press, 1993).




Об авторе Международный литературный журнал "9 Муз"

Международный литературный журнал "9 Муз". Главный редактор: Ирина Анастасиади. Редакторы: Николай Черкашин, Владимир Спектор, Ника Черкашина, Наталия Мавроди, Владимир Эйснер, Ольга Цотадзе, Микола Тютюнник, Дмитрий Михалевский.
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1 отзыв на “Mikhail Sergeev. Model of Religious Cycle: The Case of Christianity

  1. Интересная работа, полезная для изучения в современных условиях сосуществования религий.

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