Who needs Church History? YOU DO!

Church History is a fascinating subject. From the rapid growth of the first century to the prevalent darkness in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the contrasts of liberalism and fundamentalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Church has experienced God’s grace with varying degrees of visibility.  Always the object of God’s mercy and kindness, the Church has appeared to both love and hate the world, to both love and hate the unregenerate, and to both love and hate the very God who bought her from the enslavement of adulterous idolatry.

The Church is an invisible formation of sinful humans; which God uses as living stones in His miraculous construction. The Church is imperfect in her mortal and visible state, but one day She will be arrayed in a glory that was not Her own. The Church shall be presented before Christ as His holy and blemish-free Bride, and such an end is marvelous indeed.  All of Church history is moving Her from one measure of glory to another, and thanks be to God that He is the provider and sustainer of His Church.

The nitty-gritty of Church history has exposed me to some extraordinarily high highs and some shamefully low lows.  The first moment in Church history that captured my attention was a mixture of both.  The Council of Nicaea met in 325 AD in order to discuss the triune Godhead[1] and particularly the hypostatic union[2] of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ.  The council meeting itself was an odd concept. Those men who led the assembly were the objects of great persecution only a short time before. In fact, the very same governing officials who were calling for the convention were the ones who had led the charge against them. This new arrangement (not new to human history, but new to these Church fathers), combining the Church inseparably with the state, was all-too-well embraced by these Christian leaders.  Noll said,

“Nicaea was a turning point that set Christianity on a course that it has only begun to relinquish, and that only reluctantly, over the past two or three centuries.  That course was the addition of concerns for worldly power to its birthright concern for the worship of God.”[3]

While Nicaea certainly did produce some high quality theology, this point in Church history also marked the beginning of a struggle for worldly power and shameful exploitation of such authority by many of the mortal leaders of the most holy terrestrial institution – the Church.

There were perennial moments of both wonder and embarrassment from Nicaea onward, but it seems that one period rises above the rest on the skyline of Church history when it comes to a recapturing of the essence of Christianity.  The Protestant Reformation occurred during a time of deeply rooted corruption and far-reaching opposition.  This reformation of the visible Church had many contributing factors and countless men and women as its champions, but it is nearly undisputed that a single monk with a single mallet swung the first significant blows in the event that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther grew up in Germany under the tutelage of the Roman Catholic Church as well as his stern mother and father.  Like any good Roman Catholic of his day, he exhibited both a diligent effort and a healthy distaste for various aspects of religious life.  This lawyer who had become an Augustinian monk finally traveled to Rome in anticipation of gleefully absorbing what he thought would be a hallowed city with devout men serving the holy God and His consecrated Church.  Instead, and to his extreme dismay, what Luther found was a debased city with corrupt men serving themselves in the name of God, and that at the expense of His Church.  Luther was heart-broken and furious at the sight of such a mockery, but his grand protest was actually intended to be something altogether different than what it turned out to be.

Luther composed ninety-five arguments against Papal indulgences, which was a corrupt use of Church authority to raise money for selfish gain.  Luther could not have known the impact he would make by nailing that text to the chapel’s wooden door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.  None of the most astute theologians, sociologists, politicians, psychologists or historians could have possibly understood how great the impact of this event would be.  It essentially marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

The arguments contained in Luther’s 95 theses were symptoms of a viral incompatibility, and Luther could not have known how the technology of his day would be harnessed to spread these ideas so far and wide.  Luther wrote to one publisher of his theses, “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.”[4]  While Martin Luther may have intended a theological debate among learned church clergy, what he got was a firestorm that recalibrated the visible Church and set Her on a new trajectory for the future.

The Church continued on this persistently reforming path of orthodox growth for more than a few centuries, and then came liberalism in 1865.  Liberal theology, that is soft and/or hetero-orthodox positions on core Christian doctrines, began to dominate pastoral training institutions as well as pulpits, and the Church has suffered great loss because of it.  “J. Gresham Machen called it a new creedless faith with no relation to biblical Christianity in his popular Christianity and Liberalism (1923).”[5]  Where once the character and nature of God was disputed vehemently among theologians and the cost for error was death, there now stands a plethora of theological leaders unwilling to acknowledge that such things even warrant a discussion at all.  The God who has revealed Himself in special and particular terms has been relegated to the realm of the wholly unknowable. Mankind is left with a god of his own invention who bears no resemblance at all to the God of Scripture, except that it occasionally is labeled with His name.

Before looking more deeply at these points in Church history, and the many others that string along to connect them, I knew that theology was important.  I knew that ecclesiology, soteriology, Christology, missiology, and the relationship between Church and state were significant matters deserving thoughtful investigation.  However, I have seen the fleshing out of what can be the result of erroneous views in one or more of these areas.  The Church today is in dire need of an ongoing reformation – not a single event, but a continual discussion about what it looks like to live out the Faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.

Such a reforming posture seems already to be the stance of many in the visible Church today, but many more are presumably asleep at the wheel.  This generation of pastors, teachers, elders, professors, and leaders (and all those who come after them) would do well to equip Christians to find their place in Church history.

By God’s grace, when Christians recognize their place in God’s plan of redemption they become commendable for eternal glory. But, in God’s providence, when Christians recognize their moment in God’s plan of human history they may become men and women of whom the sinful world is not worthy.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Godhead is a theological term used to refer to the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit in one ontological being.

[2] Hypostatic Union is a theological label used to refer to the joining together of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. He was and is both God and man; one person with two natures.

[3] Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. doi:WorldCat database. (p. 55).

[4] “How Luther Went Viral. (Martin Luther).” The Economist (US) 401 (2011): 8764. Accessed April 9, 2014. Academic OneFile.

[5] Cairns, Earle Edwin. Christianity through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1996. (p. 459).

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