History of the Christian Church: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

Jose Ottega y Gasset once said, “Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors” (1). This applies even to promulgation of church doctrine, establishment of proper church administration, and systematic theological studies. Today’s Christian church must rest firmly on the theology of its patristic fathers. From its onset, Christianity has impacted culture and society; however, culture and society have impacted Christianity as well. Culture is known to push back with force, often in an oppressive and violent manner. Today’s militant atheists are intent on eradicating Christianity from public discourse, and often file lawsuits to that end.

The early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Gonzalez writes, “All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were” (2). Their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued to await His advent. Jewish leaders considered Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. Christians were “…going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics” (3). Nationalistic and patriotic sentiment was aroused by the fear that these new heretics could once more bring the wrath of God upon them. As we will discover in this series, Jews routinely looked for someone else to blame for their woes. This resulted in protracted generations of exile from God.

From its very beginning, the Christian message was grafted onto human history. Through generation after generation, Christians have taught that Jesus Christ is the complete embodiment of God, and He is salvation for all who believe in His sacrificial death on the cross. Much history, lineage, and geography is presented throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Identity and lifestyle were especially important to the largely Jewish audience for whom the Gospel of Matthew was initially written. It attests to considerable hostility toward synagogues (6:2-18; 10:17-18), and utter rejection of Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees (12:14; 15:12-14; 21:45-46; 23). Matthew describes doctrinal infighting, the sacking of Jerusalem (AD 70), and destruction of the Temple. He notes how the early church would question God’s faithfulness (as they waited on Him), and he references apologetic debates.

John’s gospel is instrumental in establishing significant events discussed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John rightly commences with in the beginning, which refers to the first chapter of Genesis. Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4. NRSV). John describes his experience when he baptized Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s writing style is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching moved beyond parables that are featured in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; instead, Jesus taught in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings we see in the Gospel of John are not found in the other three Gospels. Further, John spends much time on the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

The Jewish Diaspora (the scattering of Jews far and wide), had a critical impact on the history of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “…for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire” (4). In addition, the Diaspora played a large role in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Diaspora has also been used to characterize the flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria shortly before the rise of Christianity. Trade flourished during the early centuries of the Christian church. This factor brought the story of redemption to new regions; but through traveling traders, slaves, and others, more than through missionaries or preachers. With this wide dispersal, syncretism crept into the Christian church, beginning with Constantine (AD 280-337) and others like him who practiced pagan rites while also attending Christian services.

Constantine’s dubious claim of conversion to Christianity notwithstanding, he provided the church with his “legal blessing,” while continuing to embrace paganism. Jews and Christians stood firm in their faith, which garnered the reputation of unbending fanatics. When the early Christians refused to light incense to the Roman gods, or to the emperor, they did so as a testament to their faith in Christ alone. Because Christians throughout the Roman Empire stayed home rather than participate in “societal” activities and street fairs which typically involved in festivals honoring the gods, Roman authorities condemned Christians as disloyal and seditious. This is one of the many reasons that Christians were persecuted, tortured, and executed by Roman authorities.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. For example, as soon as the Christian message started reaching the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter or nullify it. Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Christian church: a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin, which believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis). It would take the church nearly 100 years to rid itself of Gnosticism. These developments led to emergence of early Christian apologists, such as Justin the Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. Apologetics has survived into the twenty-first century. The church responded specifically to heresy and accusations by establishing canon, creed, and apostolic succession. At times, it was necessary to convene a synod to decide issues of doctrine and administration.

Christianity was established as an official religion at the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This was an important step in securing the civil rights of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For nearly 300 years, Christianity was functionally illegal in the Roman Empire, often subjecting Christians to persecution. This proclamation protected full rights for Christian citizens of the Empire, restoring their property, releasing them from prisons, and effectively banning government persecution of their faith. It also declared a general state of religious tolerance, allowing for the expression of virtually any spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the bad came with the good in the form of heresies, such as Donatism: the belief that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. This led to schism in the Church of Carthage from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. Arianism – the ideology that Jesus was merely human and not divine – arose practically overnight. The Roman Empire banned Arianism in 379. Shortly thereafter, the church instituted the death penalty for heresy.

In AD 425, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). This was an apologetic answer to the claim of Pelagius that salvation could be earned by good works. Augustine wrestled, however, with the origin of evil. He ultimately settled on evil being “…a looking away from God and turning one’s gaze to the inferior realm.” It was believed that a single being, of infinite goodness, was the source of all things. He said evil is real, but it is not a real or created “thing.” Rather, Augustine taught the concept that evil is a direction away from the goodness of the One. I am familiar with the suggestion that we are either walking toward or walking away from Christ. Walk is discussed throughout the New Testament. The 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451) reestablished the two natures of Jesus (human and divine). The birth of monasticism furthered the teachings of the Church and led to the promulgation of the Gospel.

Christianity’s next great challenge was Islam. Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall to the Muslims. Persecution of Christians by Muslims began AD 717 under Caliph Umar II. Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches. (This is a sad but accurate foreshadowing of Nazis forcing Jews to wear Star of David arm bands during the reign of Adolf Hitler.) When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the Muslim invasion of France in AD 732. It was the caliph’s intention to conquer Europe in the name of Muhammad.

Trouble with Islam continued. In AD 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in AD 1091. In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which culminated in the bloody defeat of the Knights Templar and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Please join me next time when I discuss the historical importance of monasticism in the early Christian church. As always, please consider replying to these posts to help foster dialog.

Footnotes
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), xiii.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 27.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 18.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Colonialism and Christianity

The following summary is from the last class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Early nineteenth century missionaries were important participants in colonial expeditions. Given that many in twenty-first century Western culture decry the era, goals, and abuses of colonialism, we must ask: Did Christianity benefit from an un-Christian impulse (colonialism)? Discuss this by answering the following questions. Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism? Does the fact that colonialism aided Christianity in its spread throughout the entire world bestow ultimate value on the colonial experiences, making colonialism worth it?

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Most people during the first century saw Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. When I consider the progressive thread of redemption throughout the entirety of Scripture, I am able to accept some of the negatives of Christianity developing alongside colonialism.

Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism?

Colonialism is the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. It is reasonable to expect abuses and negative consequences with such activity. Many Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions often taken in the name of conquest or expansion include domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to evangelism during global expansion, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity had on new populations during the era in question.

Most mission societies were not responsible for the troublesome side effects of colonization. However, as Gonzalez notes, the relationship between colonialism and missions is complex and difficult to gauge. Tradesmen, explorers, and colonizers were often accompanied by missionaries. This interrelationship was both positive and negative. I think it is no coincidence that not all churches or colonizers supported missions. Several key companies objected to spreading the Gospel in conjunction with colonialism and industrialization as they feared it would cause disagreements and protests that could hinder economic growth. The aim of colonization was to exploit the economy of each region, which usually led to making the new colony economically dependent on the colonizers; not to share the gospel or plant new churches.

From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission. Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. I agree that this helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries. This was possibly the spark that prompted a more ecumenical movement in Christianity. Missionaries stood up against the caste system in India. Protestantism helped liberate those people deemed “untouchable” and excluded from everyday society. Other missions helped rescue women from sexism and violence and spawned their education. Further, the rapid Westernization of Japan aided the work of Christian missionaries.

Although colonialism brought much abuse and controversy to new regions, does the spread of Christianity outweigh the negative?

Gonzalez tries to draw a line-in-the-sand between colonialism and missions. Missions over the centuries have reached regions not visited by white explorers, traders, or colonizers. Were these “missionary” activities better than those occurring in tandem with expansionism? Is “saving souls” worth it no matter what? Do the ends justify the means? Not an easy question to answer! Many individuals have been brought to Christ during colonization. Over the centuries, Christianity has been labeled elitist, manipulative, arrogant, destructive. Gonzalez describes the so-called “white man’s burden.” Simply stated, it means taking to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity. I cannot help but think about watching TV documentaries on countries devastated by war and extremism (such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq), or underdeveloped nations showing conditions that no one should want to endure. It’s easy to ask (from my comfortable recliner in modern America) why anyone would enjoy living in such conditions? Actually, this underlying question (nay, concern) is one of the driving forces of many efforts over the centuries to industrialize or “modernize” underdeveloped nations.

Gonzalez said modernity has produced the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, suffering the destruction of cultural patterns that had sustained them for generations. Expansionism has been blamed for growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor throughout the world (1). Indigenous populations frequently suffered a loss of culture as colonizers tried to impose their way of life on their new “subjects.” White colonizers often considered these native peoples to be savage and lacking in culture. No doubt they felt justified in attempting to bring stability to what they might have considered “barbaric” or primitive populations. This is unfortunately as much a “value judgment” as it is a desire to aid in improving the living conditions.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in accordance with the command in Matthew 28:18-20. To achieve this, missionaries have translated and distributed the Bible in many languages. Countless indigenous peoples have learned to read through the work of missions. Treaties often included clauses that made allowances for the work of Christian missions. Following the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, the presence of tens of thousands of Protestant missionaries throughout the provinces (many in positions of authority in the church) helped quash further rebellion. Corrupt governments and rampant exploitations met staunch Christian opposition.

I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Moreover, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater. At the least, many seeds of faith were planted. Of course, I believe most missionaries were primarily motivated by the Great Commission. Thankfully, all things tend to work for good for those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). To this end, I believe the pros of colonialism outweigh the cons relative to spreading the gospel.

Response from Classmates

Thanks for sharing a great post. I deduced that you feel that it was “worth it” in the end. Although I must admit that I wrestled A LOT with my answer this week, I ended up concluding that the abuses of colonialism were not “worth it,” as I don’t think that God would place inherent worth/value on sin and evil. However, I do agree that He can bring good out of all things.

You and I have both shared painful experiences from our own past throughout the coursework. As I was writing this prompt, I couldn’t help but think about how it could relate to my life, or anyone who has experienced some form of abuse. I honestly felt as though the pain that I endured was “worth it” because it led me to Christ, and my salvation is the greatest gift I could receive in this life. I also realized that Christ’s abuses were deemed “worth it” for our salvation—His sufferings in the world and horrible death on the cross gave us a shot at eternity. This is where I struggled!

However, there was a difference with colonization—the individuals who were abused during colonization were not Jesus, but rather His sheep. That is where I decided that the abuses of some to lead to the salvation of others was not “worth it.” God does not delight in sin, and calls us to spread the Gospel, not evil. One of our classmates mentioned that they don’t think that Christians should ally themselves with the “lesser evil,” but rather should uphold to what is true according to the Word. Do you think it could be dangerous to justify a lesser evil in the name of a greater good?

Meredith

My Response to Meredith

Thanks for your response to my initial discussion post. Let me begin by (re)stating the definition of colonialism: the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. I do so in order to draw a definite line in the sand between colonizers and missionaries. I would further state that those colonizers who were Christians and yet chose to cajole, cheat, manipulate, dominate, or otherwise force themselves and their beliefs on indigenous people merely to profit from associated gains are to blame, and not Christianity itself. Further to this point, I am quoting from Tiffany’s initial discussion post:

It is important to separate out Christianity from Christians, as well as those falsely speaking under the claim of Christianity, in support of this assertion. It is not that Christianity was tarnished, but that the reputation of Christianity blemished. Christianity suffers in the way Christ suffered—in that Christianity is birthed in, sustained by, and brought to culmination in Christ. He is the identity of Christianity (italics in the original).

I would argue that one of the positives of colonization was missionaries often accompanied the colonizers, making it possible for missions to have the means and companionship to travel where they might otherwise be unable to get to. Admittedly, there were more explorers and tradesmen who were motivated by expansion, wealth, and increased territory than there were Christians solely dedicated to sharing the gospel. I can tell you’re on the fence regarding the “worth it” question. You are closer to saying yes than you think. You referenced Romans 8:28: God will always use whatever circumstance or individual He requires to bring about His will.

Grudem (1994) provides insight regarding God’s will as it relates to (i) His absolute moral will, and (ii) His providential will. God’s moral will is revealed in Scripture. We know His character, His affection, His desire for us. We know how He wishes us to behave. He has provided certain “moral commands.” God also has providential (or “secret”) will (1). God is able to permit us to do something that might displease Him in the short run but which brings about His intended results in the long run. This is the very essence of Romans 8:28.

Speaking of our pasts, as I struggled a year and a half ago to stop abusing pain medication and to “forgive” myself of my past and see it as an asset for helping others (rather than a liability), I met a gentleman from Brooklyn who had spent 17 years in active addiction living on the streets. He became a born-again Christian and quit abusing crack. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention for sure. He continued: “He wants you to know that everything you’ve been through from the moment of your birth to this moment right now meeting me was ordained by Him in order to assure you became the man He needs you to be to carry out your ministry.” Whoa!

The concept of God’s providential will also speaks to His eternal plan whereby He determined (before the foundation of the world) to bring about everything that happens, and to work it together for our and His good. Grudem believes this “decree” type of will is critical because it shows us God doesn’t “make things up as He goes.” Grudem says, “He knows the end from the beginning, and he will accomplish all his good purposes” (2).

You quoted a classmate who declared that Christians should not align themselves with the “lesser evil” just because of a potential good outcome. For me, “aligning” with any evil would suggest being complicit. This is a question of personal motive. We must always remember that God works through human actions (even the horrific ones) in His providential oversight of creation. The individual making the wrong decision for the wrong reason is liable for his or her behavior, but God has absolute providence over the situation. I believe we must always remember that nothing about God, His creation, or us (as His image-bearers) is determined by chance or randomness; nor are they determined by impersonal fate or karma (determinism). God is sovereign over all.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 418.

(2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 332.

(3) Grudem, 333.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Most Important Event

The following summary is from my most recent class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

In the opening chapter of the reading for this section, Justo L. Gonzalez (2010) makes this statement: “…from the perspective of the history of Christianity, the most important event of the nineteenth century was the founding of a truly universal church in which peoples of all races and nations had a part” (302). After completing your reading, answer the following questions:

  • Was Gonzalez correct in his identification of “the most important event?”
  • If not, what would you say was the most important event for nineteenth century Christian history?
  • If so, what would you say was the state of that “universal church” by the end of the nineteenth century?

My Opening Argument

Gonzalez describes changes in the economic power of nation-states in Europe and throughout the Western hemisphere during the second half of the eighteenth century. In addition, there were great political and social upheavals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries “…that would have a serious impact on Christianity as a whole” (1). This period also featured tremedous geographical expansion of Christianity. I agree with Gonzalez that the most important event of the nineteenth century was the founding of a truly universal church—one available to all races and nations. His qualifying comment is  important: “On the other hand, however, it is necessary to point out that this took place within the context of colonialism and economic imperialism” (2). As colonialism, neocolonialism, and the Industrial Revolution took hold, personal and cultural diversity put doctrine and hierarchy at risk in the Christian church.

While Christianity must always involve a personal choice and commitment, simply doing missions will not assure universal adherence to accepted Christian doctrine. There are four marks of the Church, signifying it is (i) one; (ii) holy; (iii) “catholic” and (iv) apostolic. Each mark is critical for establishing and maintaining “consistent” Christianity. Without preservation of a single, holy, universal, and apostolic church, geographic expansion would surely have had a more devastating and lasting impact on the gospel than it did. As it is, there were periods of amazing proliferation of Christianity as a natural companion to colonialization, but there were also periods of painful, heretical, and villainous actions. Let’s look at the key “marks” of the church.

One means there is one body (the Christian church) with Christ as its head. Grudem says, “The church is the community of all true believers for all time” (3). Christ holds all authority over the church. Paul wrote, “[A]nd he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23, NRSV). Ephesians 2:19-20 says we’re fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus being the cornerstone. In this regard, the “church” is much more than the visible local church. As the Body of Christ, it must remain one regardless of dispensation or geographic disbursal. 

Holy means the church and its believers must be “set apart” and sanctified. Moreover, the church is holy because it is Jesus Christ, who teaches holiness. Grudem says, “The purity of the church is its degree of freedom from wrong doctrine and conduct, and its degree of conformity to God’s revealed will for the church” (4). The holy church must be separate from the world, but its unity requires freedom from divisions among the community of believers (the true Christians) as well. Its “holiness” is grounded in the need for proper doctrine, conscience, and considerations. This feature also helps identify “false” churches—which by definition are not a part of the Body of Christ. It’s through caution and humility that we preserve proper doctrine.

“Catholic” means it is universal. The Greek word for “catholic” (katholikos) means “throughout the whole” or “general.” The term “catholic” first showed up during the patristic era denoting universal. For example, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church (Ign. Smyrn. 8:2)” (5). Harrison says when the term began appearing in the Apostle’s Creed (and earlier in the Nicene Creed), “one holy catholic and apostolic church” expressed a sense of universality; accenting the church’s unity despite its geographic dispersion. The term “catholic” can also apply to the New Testament epistles, indicating they were intended for the entire church and not just those to whom they were addressed. This is a critical point, given the fact that the Scriptures are alive and timeless. Further, Harrison indicates that in the face of numerous heresies during the Apostolic Era, the term “catholic” was equivalent to orthodox. Of course, during the Reformation “catholic” was used to delineate between the emerging Protestant church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Apostolic means the church was founded by Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Jesus then delegated that authority to the church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20). Apostolic propriety has established key matters such as baptism, the Eucharist, authorship of the canonical Gospels, and acceptable key doctrines. The apostles founded churches and appointed their successors. This provided the means by which emphasis was on the context of the central gospel message. The apostolic feature of the church allowed for establishing its marks, purity, power, hierarchy of governance, grace, and unity.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that missions should not take precedence over the establishment of a universal church with a uniform set of core doctrines. Failure to grant preeminence to the marks of the church and its core doctrines would cause replication that would eventually lead to false churches.

Response from Austin, a Fellow Classmate

You mentioned that you “do not believe missions should take precedence over the establishment of a universal church with a uniform set of core doctrines.” Yes, I do agree we need core beliefs, but at the same time I feel there is urgency in sharing the Gospel with the unreached and that it should not be sacrificed. I could see a combination of missions and the formation of a universal church being the most important, but it’s hard to really specify which one has a great significance on Christianity. Do you think missions, or the formation of mission societies was a significant event during the nineteenth century, even if not the most significant?

My Rebuttal

Thanks for your feedback to my initial discussion post. We are closer in agreement than it might sound. The Great Commission is critical. It applies to the entire church. We are all responsible for bringing the gospel with us wherever we go; whatever our vocation. Rather than say a “universal” church is somehow more important than missions probably fails to accurately express what I meant. These two aspects of the church are “nearly” equal in importance. I give more importance to first establishing a church that displays all the marks: one, holy, universal (“catholic”) and apostolic. A sort-of prerequisite to missions. Like taking a course on “fundamental Christian principles” first, and then moving on to an advanced course on deeper issues of doctrine. I addressed this issue to an extent in Church History I (Session 5) when answering the prompt about benefits of the Reformation versus the evangelical benefits of colonial expansion: i.e., which of these two has contributed the most to the course of Christianity?

At that time, I said the Reformation yielded more positive results than colonization (“expansion” or “globalization”). I took that position for the same reason I bring to this week’s discussion. The church is commanded to go forth into every nation, spreading the Good News—teaching and baptizing, making disciples of men for further proliferation of the gospel. Colonialism  includes explorers, travelers, merchants, and missionaries (who bring their religion with them). But “good” Evangelism (one of Christianity’s most sacred and clearly established responsibilities) must be well-grounded in an accepted and uniform set of principles. Granted, Christianity has fractured into numerous denominations, which is why I believe it is paramount that the church had to first settle on a centralized or universal set of doctrines prior to setting out to share the gospel. 

Consider the deeper intellectual revolution Gonzalez (2010, 304) speaks about. The philosophy of thinking (epistemology) was drastically impacted by the Renaissance. One side-effect of the Industrial Revolution was a focus almost exclusively on empirical evidence as the best means for gaining knowledge. Nationalism took hold and led to changes in government models and the social order. In the face of all these changes, the church remained present, cutting across “national boundaries, class distinctions, and political allegiances” (6). Gonzalez said that for the first time in history a “truly universal church had been born” (7).

Gonzalez also noted, “[F]rom the perspective of the twenty-first century it would appear that the most important event in the history of Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth century was that [Christianity] moved beyond its traditional [geographical?] confines within Western civilization and became a truly universal faith(8) (italics mine). Given the fact that secularism, pluralism, and moral relativism was impacting philosophy and theology, Christendom fell on leaner times, thereby setting up the post-Christian society we see today. It is critical that Christianity have a uniform set of core beliefs and a sense of universality before there can be any accurate and efficacious proliferation of the message. 

The universality of the Christian church is extremely important. Arguably, this has not created “flawless” adherence to uniform doctrine throughout the world, but “universal faith” has created a solid foundation from which to preach, teach, disciple, and baptize people that holds true to the nuts-and-bolts of Jesus’ instructions to the church just prior to His ascension.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 301-02.
(2) Gonzalez, 302.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 853.
(4) Grudem, 873.
(5) E.F. Harrison, “Catholic,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed., edited by D.J. Treier and W.A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 163.
(6) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 312.
(7) Gonzalez, 314.
(8) Gonzalez, 316.

Let’s Go To Theology Class: The Thirty Years War

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) was the last of the European religious wars and one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts. Due to casualties, disease, and all other horrors of war, the population of the Holy Roman Empire dropped by 7.5 million during that period. To appreciate the religious significance of the war, discuss both the beginning and ending of the conflict.

Specifically, answer these questions:

  • What were the contributions to the war effort made by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics (address all three groups)?
  • What were the results of the war for Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics (again, all three groups)?
  • Who would you say won the war?

How it Began

The impetus for the Thirty Years War was the Holy Roman Emperor’s attempts to reestablish Catholic hegemony over Protestant regions. The teaching style of seventeenth and eighteenth theologians began to morph into something that was no longer based entirely on Scripture. Justo L. Gonzalez believes the approach of many church leaders became increasingly rigid, cold, and academic. No doubt this militant and dogmatic style provided a momentum during the period leading up to the Thirty Years War that was nearly impossible to stop. Gonzalez notes, “Dogma was often substituted for faith, and orthodoxy for love”(1).

Prior to the War, the Peace of Nuremberg (1532) permitted Protestants to practice their faith but prohibited spreading Protestantism. Gonzalez says, “The Peace of Augsburg, which put an end to religious wars in Germany in the sixteenth century, could not last”(2). This was true in part because freedom of religion was granted only to the rulers. Further, regions ruled by bishops often remained Catholic even if their bishops became Protestant (3).

Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism each vied for dominance in Europe. Rebellion spread quickly. Charles V (for Catholicism) and Frederick the Wise (for Protestantism) saw “[N]o higher interest than the cause of God’s truth as they saw it, and subordinated their political and personal ambitions to that cause” (4) (italics mine). Gonzalez: “[T]he peace achieved at Augsburg was at best an armistice that would hold only as long as each side felt unable to take military action against the other” (5).

The Lutherans

The war began in Bohemia after the Defenestration of Prague. Much had been happening on the fringes regarding Protestantism. Skirmishes did little to settle the matter of “official” religious beliefs in the nation-states. Books on Protestantism began to circulate following invention of the printing press. Martin Luther’s Reformation caused a division among German princes within the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, these rulers began using religion to further their political ambition. Lutherans objected violently when Ferdinand closed one Protestant church and destroyed another. Many historians claim the Thirty Years War cost the lives of nearly half of Germany’s population. No doubt true believers were growing wary of Catholic orthodoxy.

Bohemian Protestants waged was against Ferdinand, but they were defeated. Ferdinand reasserted his control over Bohemia and was also named emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Gonzalez indicates that Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans assumed that a nation-state must have a single religion to which all its subjects must adhere. Not only is this idea a factor in the Thirty Years War, it is an impetus for eventual colonization of America in the name of freedom from this very situation. According to Gonzalez, Philip of Hesse took the duchy of Wurttemberg for himself. The population of the duchy swung toward Protestantism. Gonzalez also reminds us that peace in Europe was only attained by deciding that some states would be Lutheran and some Catholic: This is the application of the concept cuju regis eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”). Lutheranism was born out of Martin Luther’s push for reform in the Roman Catholic Church. A precursor to the War was failure of the Inquistion to quell what Gonzalez calls the “Lutheran contagion.” Luther would not back down, even in the face of official opposition from the papacy.

The Calvinists

According to Tom Richey, “Calvinism, which was not established as a legal religion in the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg, spread throughout the Empire despite its prohibition, as Calvinists did not care whether their religion was legal or not. The spread of Calvinism threatened the tranquility of the Empire, as did places like Bohemia, where the ruler’s religion was different from most of the population” (6).

Gonzalez remarks that medieval foundations (the empire, the papacy, and tradition) were weakening. Calvinism, which was not established as a legal religion in the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg, spread throughout the Empire despite being prohibited. Calvinists didn’t care whether their religion was legal or not. As Calvinism continued to spread, it threatened the tranquility of the Empire. Social and political unrest was rapidly becoming the norm. Luther and Calvin were determined to see the church return to the Word of God, thereby reforming Catholicism. Calvin discovered the freedom of justification through the unmerited grace of God, which resulted in his hallmark doctrine of predestination. Gonzalez relates Poland’s distrust and disdain for the Germans, causing Lutheranism there to grow at a snail’s pace. He wrote, “It was when Calvinism made its way into the country that Protestantism began making headway” (7). Anti-Trinitarian heresies took root there. This may well have led to Poland becoming one of the most Catholic nation-states in Europe (see Gonzalez, 160).

The Roman Catholics

The Holy Roman Empire was a fragmented collection of largely independent states. The Reformation caused division between Catholic and Protestant rule. The origins of the conflict and goals of the participants were complex. Initially, the war was fought largely as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire. Mary Tudor and other notable nobles were committed to restoring Roman Catholicism in England. She became known as “Bloody Mary” because of her increasingly repressive and violent acts against Protestants. Gonzalez notes England’s official return to obedience to the pope in late 1554—Protestants were now persecuted as a matter of policy.

St. Ignatius of Loyola emerged as the new face of Catholic “reformation.” In 1540, as a response to burgeoning Protestantism, the Society of Jesus (the “Jesuits”) came to be quite a force for defeating the Protestants. The papacy put their resources to task. These early Jesuits operated under a quasi-military structure. Also, “[F]or generations the tendency within Roman Catholicism had been toward greater centralization in Rome, after the model of a monarchical government” (8). Protestantism was not similarly organized.

How it Ended

The Peace of Westphalia (comprised of a series of “cease-fire” treaties) recognized sovereign equality—the balance of power and non-intervention in affairs of the nation-states—established a variety of political kingdoms in Europe. Several earlier events caused the War to start slowing down—e.g., the Peace of Prague signed in 1634 ended Saxony’s participation. The Spain’s military fizzled out in 1640. Tom Richey said Westphalia set a “normative” state—a standard applicable to all territories—which fixed the control of churches, the right to public worship, and the so-called “confessional status” of each territory to the state it had been in as of January 1, 1624. Richey wrote, “By establishing a standard applicable to all, it also represented a convenient means of avoiding the conflicts of honour [sic] inherent in early-modern negotiations in which princes were asked to make concessions” (9). The Peace of Westphalia established an order of conditional sovereignty.

Catholic France and Protestant England emerged as the two most powerful European states. The rulers of the European nation-states could now choose their official religions. Catholics and Protestants were now decidedly equal under the law. Also, Calvinism lost its heretical or dogmatic stigma and was given legal recognition. The Thirty Years War came to an end in 1648. Obviously, both sides suffered greatly, seeming to have exhausted their military personnel and armaments. Spain began to collapse during the Thirty Years War, which seems to have continued after the Peace of Westphalia. Catholicism in France faired well as a result of War, but to no true detriment to Protestantism there. This was no small feat, and it involved France conscientiously rising above religious bigotry and hatred. In this regard, although Catholicism did not vanish in France, the Protestants were able to establish a strong religious presence as well. Yet I feel Protestantism won the day. They rose above what could have been total annihilation. Then again, the gospel has progressed over the centuries in exactly the manner God determined.


(1) Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), Gonzalez, 174.

(2) 177.

(3) 177.

(4) 173.

(5) 177.

(6) Tom Richey, “The Thirty Years War (AP Euro Lecture Notes),” The Blog @ Tom Richey.net (09/26/2016), URL: https://www.tomrichey.net/blog/the-thirty-years-war-ap-euro-lecture-notes

(7) Gonzalez, 159.

(8) 453.

(9) Tom Richey, “The Thirty Years War (AP Euro Lecture Notes),” The Blog @ Tom Richey.net

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Significance of the Reformation and Colonial Expansion

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

In his book, History of Christianity, Vol. 1,  Justo L. Gonzalez writes, “Living as we do, only five centuries after both the Reformation and the colonial expansion of Iberia, it may be too early to decide which of the two will eventually have greater significance to the course of Christianity” (489). He provides his own cautious opinion a few sentences later, but I want to know what you think. Which would you say has exerted the “greater significance to the course of Christianity” to date: The Reformation or colonial expansion?

In this final discussion prompt for Church History Part 1, we were asked to address the theological benefits of the Reformation versus the evangelical benefits of colonial expansion. Which of these two has contributed the most to the course of Christianity? Initially, it seems like an easy matter to determine. Martin Luther almost single-handedly reeled in an out-of-control papacy, helping to preserve the true tenet of Christianity: salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ alone. No man has the power to grant forgiveness of sins or to direct any amount of penance that will satisfy the wages of sin. But what of the evangelical benefits of colonialism?

Clearly, by the time of Martin Luther’s proposed changes, the church needed profound reformation. In fact, many longed for it. Gonzalez notes that many priests and monastics who wished to be faithful to their calling were finding this to be exceedingly difficult given the many lax practices beginning to plague the church. The Reformation helped bring Christianity back to its intended soteriology by challenging papal forgiveness, penance, indulgences, and promotion of purgatory. Gonzalez said this “Resulted in major divisions that exist to this day.” Luther didn’t plan to start a new church. He merely addressed in his 95 Theses numerous issues that needed to be changed within the Catholic Church, focusing on only the Word of God as the starting point and final authority. Luther formed objections to transubstantiation during communion, baptism prior to conversion, and the selling of indulgences. He essentially took on ecclesial meritocracy and attempted to tear apart the bond of church and state. The benefits of the Reformation were not limited to religion: Protestantism has given us open-ended and undisciplined argument, fostering new ideas in everyday life, reviving traditional doctrine, and questioning improper church orthodoxies.

Regarding evangelism, Christ gave us an emphatic directive in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (NRSV). He said, “‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.’ And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:15, 20). Gonzalez believes colonialism in Iberia “…resulted in the largest expansion of Christianity in both number of followers and geographic reach since its very inception.” 1 Unfortunately, the goal of some Protestant leaders in colonizing the Iberian Peninsula seemed to be domination of local culture and ideology through a hegemony of leadership, rooted in Christian theology. Christian colonists came up against Islam and Judaism in Iberia, no doubt with a lingering memory of persecution under the religious and political leaders of both faiths. There was a sort-of balancing act between Protestantism and local beliefs regarding ancient gods. This tended to push toward syncretism. It’s one thing to be enthusiastic for the gospel, but the approach must be of Christ and based on “God inside.” I believe motivation for such expansion must be sharing and teaching; not cajoling and oppressing. The latter is akin to radical Protestantism, whose spirituality is affective or “emotional” at best, and which at worst causes compliance out of fear. This leads to pseudo-pietism. Many colonists who left England wanted to escape the tyranny of a state religion that was trampling on their beliefs. Historians believe these “conquering” Protestants were looking for the opportunity to make their faith the dominant religion. Accordingly, many were rather intolerant of other beliefs, especially those inexorably linked to local culture.

As I noted above, you would think it’s easy to compare notes on the Reformation and Christianity’s colonialism and decide which of these activities afforded the most benefits to the faith as a global religion. The church is commanded to go forth into every nation, spreading the Good News—teaching and baptizing, making disciples of Christ for further proliferation of the gospel. Colonialism always brings with it explorers, travelers, merchants, and missionaries. As interaction and commerce increased between nations, so did spreading of the gospel. Even those nations who did not become predominately Christian were impacted by trade practices, monetary systems, politics, and culture imported by Protestants. Increased travel and trade no doubt led to heightened concerns over security and sovereignty, creating the need for a larger military.

I believe it is the Reformation that had the greatest positive impact on the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas. With the advent of the Dominicans and other monastic groups, piety was on the rise. Gonzalez writes, “Soon there were other similar movements, or ancient orders that now followed the example of the Franciscans and Dominicans… their main objective was preaching, teaching, and study.”  World-renowned universities (such as Paris, Oxford) benefited from Dominicans teaching as professors. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Alexander of Hales, the Friars Minor, and the Franciscans established footholds in all major universities. Additionally, at just the right moment—when the papacy seemed most out of control and operating outside the scope of accepted Christian doctrine—Martin Luther and others successfully challenged ill-advised dogma and heresy in the church.  Evangelism remains one of Christianity’s most sacred and clearly established responsibilities, but without first recognizing and correcting questionable practices and heretical beliefs the result would be similar to a framer making even a minor mistake in the angle of the footer when framing a room—this would cause the foundation wall to be out of square several inches over its expanse. Protestant Reformation corrected serious misalignments concerning salvation, baptism, the Eucharist, papal authority, deep-rooted meritocracy, and other troublesome practices in the Catholic Church that had to be brought into order with Scripture and proper church doctrine. Failure to address these matters would have caused a slow-but-steady drift away from the core doctrines of Christianity. It is for these reasons I put more emphasis on Reformation than colonialism.

A response from David, one of my classmates:

I guess there may be two points of clarification. First, whether or not some form of reformation was inevitable given the age of reason. I’m claiming that reformation was inevitable given the sort of anthropological and philosophical changes that happened ithe post medieval world. I’m not sure what a splintering of Catholicism would have looked like if it weren’t a cohesive movement, but I can imagine that all of the ideals that you listed as central principles of the reformation would have manifest. 

The second area that needs clarification is to what extent Colonialism may have sped up the processes of democratization, language unification, and globalization. A few quick examples. I was at a conference six weeks ago where donations were being made to translate smaller books into French for African Seminary students in Francophone countries. I know believers in South America that use Spanish worship songs written in Mexico. I know student groups in Germany and Finland that sing worship songs in English seamlessly. It’s possible that the movement towards primary languages (English, German, French, Swahili, Russian, Mandarin, etc.) may act as one of the fastest causes for globalization. Colonization also placed an undue emphasis on manifest destiny and exploration (although they have quite a mixed history concerning civil rights) that have probably sped up the process of uniting the church through time. 

I guess my final question is to what extent Christians see value and long-lasting impact within the history of the reformation. I certainly see its incredible impact upon Christendom in reforming both the Catholic Church and birthing hundreds of new movements, but I lament the average Christian who couldn’t put together a meaningful set of thoughts about its practical and ecclesial impacts upon the church. It seems that as people turn to reading, discussion, and a better understanding of this time period and history of the church, that their faith is invigorated and strengthened. It is up to us to continue this process! I know that I’ve been blessed by the course material and a deeper dive into the history of the church!

My rebuttal:

David,

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this week’s discussion. I concluded in my initial discussion post that the Protestant Reformation impacted Christianity more than colonialism. D.F. Wright says the Reformation cannot be separated from its historical context—political, socioeconomic, and intellectual—however, he believes the movement was “fundamentally religious in motivation.” 1 You mentioned Christianity’s waning hegemony in the West as the basis for identifying colonialism as the greater growth factor. Given the fact that hegemony is more akin to politico-military dominance, and because we can see the negative impact secularism and non-religious affiliation has had in Europe and America over the past few decades, I do not think colonialism packs enough of a punch to provide consistent and lasting results. Arguably, globalization has been a close cousin of colonialism, thereby giving “legs” to the gospel message. After all, colonialism is inextricably accompanied by travelers, tradesmen, merchants, scholars, and missionaries. But the mere “invasion” of Christianity into a nation-state does not guarantee a majority of believers, nor does it prevent a slow drifting away from the gospel as the result of syncretism, secularism, pluralism, or any number of isms. 

The Protestant Reformation provided tools for addressing the proliferation of papal abuses (theological and societal) connected with meritocracy, penance, indulgences, false foundations for papal authority and pedigree, a perverted priesthood, and the usurping of Christ’s intercessory/mediation ministry (1 Tim. 2:5). I am not nearly as concerned with a weakening of Christianity’s hegemony as I am watering down of the gospel itself. Historically, all major theistic religions have attempted to wield sociopolitical control. Islam, for example, is best described as a theocracy. As Wright notes, the Reformation was meant to help restore the proper “face” of Christianity by fighting for independence from papal authority and hierarchical succession. The Body of Christ must be grounded in election and calling rather than consecution or papal appointment. Although colonialism provides opportunity for spreading the gospel, such global initiatives are no substitute for the Great Commission. Responsibility for evangelism truly rests with the community of believers. Frankly, this is the only means by which we can control the message. To accomplish this end, we have to spread the gospel in strict accordance with Christian doctrine. Given how far off course the gospel had been pushed, the Reformation was necessary to correct egregious abuses and misconceptions. Without this realignment, evangelism (whether or not it was tethered to globalization) would have been unable to rightly deliver the Word of Truth.

Even 500 years hence, the Reformation continues to impact both Catholics and Protestants. Martin Luther changed the course of Western history for the better. I find it key that Luther had to first grapple with Romans 1:17 and come to see how it is through faith alone in Christ alone that he/we put on the righteousness of God. Luther put himself through a harrowing ordeal before coming to understand that we are of Israel not because we are of the seed of Abraham; it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise (Rom. 9:8). The Reformation yielded a theology that is theocentric. Lines had become blurred regarding the Eucharist, church hierarchy, the papacy, which led to confusion and schism. Even so, reformers did not completely agree on every issue. Luther believed in “consubstantiation.” Calvin gave too much credence to the Mosaic Law (calling it a necessary “guide” to live by as a believer), and Luther believed the Law was merely intended to show us our sins and the need for a savior.

The above notwithstanding, I also do not believe colonialism (or any version or degree thereof) can have a “lasting impression.” Much of my reading in the past has involved the history of urbanization, development of the city over time, geopolitical theories and influences, and the remarkable lack of stability in many markets and economies in history. The first five centuries of Christianity show a rather unpredictable “atmosphere” for religious beliefs given the wide scope of persecution—state-wide at times, regional or local at other times; active prosecution and persecution under some emperors versus “incidental” sanctions under others. Consider the many changes we’ve seen in Israel since it became a nation-state in 1948. Look at how democratic (or progressive) socialism is fighting to make a comeback in this year’s presidential election. (We first saw progressivism under Woodrow Wilson). Sometimes a mere change in political philosophy can wipe out decades of progress.

Finally, I must mention the likely ecumenical era we’ll see in the “final days” as the false prophet and the Antichrist attempt to push for globalization and one world religion. For what it’s worth, I see the Reformation as having a lasting impact on Christianity, and systematic theology as the means by which the community of believers can preserve doctrinal truths in the face of colonialism and globalization. What I mean is this: We cannot assure a pure gospel message simply because colonialism has led to a proliferation of believers. We have to stay the course. I believe the Reformation has aided in the fine-tuning and preservation of Christianity even 500 years later.

 


1 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: Harper One, 2010), 489.

2 Gonzalez, 489.


 

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Constantine and the Church

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Engage the perennial question: Was Constantine good or bad for the church of Jesus Christ? In making your case, note (and cite from Gonzalez, and other sources, if you would like) the ways in which Constantine affected the church’s doctrine and practice. Answer these questions as parts of your overarching answer:

  • Which effects were good, and which were bad?
  • What have been the long-term results—good and bad— of those effective changes?

Just when I thought I was already having enough fun studying theology, we were given another fascinating assignment. Beginning with the conversion of Constantine, Christianity began to move from persecution to dominance. In AD 392, the emperor Theodosius I outlawed pagan worship—Christianity effectively became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine said, “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation… This I have seen in others as well as myself” (in Gonzalez, 2010, 131). At first blush, this statement rings like a true profession of faith in the One True God, but is it? We’re asked to consider whether Constantine was good or bad for Christianity. In part, this must include consideration of whether the above statement equates to public profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. It is interesting to note that Constantine did not refer to Christ as the only god. Accordingly, the veritas of Constantine’s confession has been the subject of many discussions. Some believed it was merely a shrewd political maneuver. Constantine referred to the Christian God as “the greatest god,” the summa deus (Stephenson, 2009,169), yet he adorned the city with pagan statues from around the empire. Ravi Zacharias (2007, 10) said some scholars believe Constantine wanted to assert control over his “chosen religion” to the benefit of his empire and so insisted on the convening of a group of men to determine the content of the Bible (Council of Nicaea, AD 325). However, this was not the purpose of the Council.

Gonzalez believes it is important to determine the impact Constantine’s conversion and rule had on the Church. He states, “The truth is probably that Constantine was a sincere believer in the power of Christ” (139). He failed to place himself under the instruction of church leaders, yet he felt authorized to intervene in ecclesiastical matters. Gonzalez said Constantine considered himself “bishop of bishops” (138). Christian leaders thought that although inclined to become a believer, Constantine was not “one of the faithful” (139). Constantine was a sincere man, but he held a meager grasp of the Christian faith. For example, he thought the Christian God and the god “Unconquered Sun” were compatible. In his mind, there was room for serving other gods. He frequently took part in numerous pagan ceremonies without a thought that he was betraying the Christian God. Regardless of whether his conversion was genuine, Constantine’s beliefs and practices had a definite impact on Christianity.

Bad Effects

Paganism was still considered the “official” religion of the empire. As head of the empire, Constantine took the title of Supreme Pontiff or High Priest of that belief system. Gonzalez notes, “[A]lmost to his dying day, Constantine continued functioning as the High Priest of paganism” (141). His influence caused a drop in catechism prior to baptism. Because the ancient gods were still a part of everyday life, Constantine’s desire to “serve two masters” perpetuated pagan worship in the empire. Gonzalez states despite having done much to the detriment of paganism, Constantine “became one of the pagan gods… the Eastern church considers him a saint, thus resulting in a saint who is also a pagan god” (141). Spiritual ambiguity caused persistent violence against pagans by Christians, resulting in their rejection of Christianity. Power and prestige among church leaders caused increased arrogance and corruption in the church. Gonzalez notes that Lucius “bought” his position as bishop of Alexandria—a practice eventually known as simony. Moreover, as bishops were permitted increasing judicial powers, bribery became an issue. Perhaps this was a secular foreshadowing of priests selling “indulgences” for sins in the Catholic Church.

The laity began to see conversion as less critical or dramatic. Syncretism and superstition were on the increase as a result of merging Christianity and paganism. Many believers were buried with both Christian and pagan artifacts and symbols. Constantine’s conversion led to imperial impact on Christian worship. Incense, which was initially used to venerate emperors, began to be used in Christian services. We can see the influence of this today in Catholic, Episcopal, United Methodist, Orthodox Christian, and some Lutheran services. Ministers started wearing fancy or luxurious garments when officiating, and the church started calling ministers “priests” as in paganism. Kneeling seems to have originated with bowing before the emperor.

Ancient artifacts and bodies of martyrs were dug up, relocated, or venerated—perhaps a form of idolatry? As church membership grew exponentially, limitation on time and space led to many “new converts” not being baptized. Additionally, pre-baptismal instruction was shortened or eliminated. This is something the early church would have deemed unacceptable. Churches, worship services, and other aspects grew complex in contrast to a simpler and humbler time. An “official theology” developed, likely as a means for paying homage to Constantine for outlawing persecution of the faithful. Many believed Constantine was “chosen” by God to facilitate the merging of church and empire. This was something Christ vehemently discouraged (No doubt the congregations became inundated with “so-called” Christians. Gonzalez notes an exodus from “the imperial church” which many believed had become sinful and apostate.

Good Effects

The conversion of Constantine had several positive effects on the Christian church. Prior to this, Christians lived under the unpredictable threat of persecution. Stephenson notes that Constantine may not have been a Christian at this point (AD 312), but he began showing sympathy and concern for its followers (169). Accordingly, he forbade persecution of the Christian faith. Constantine also wanted to end factionalism within the community of Christian believers (Stephenson, 169). Under Constantine, Lactantius wrote an early apologetic titled On the Deaths of the Persecutors wherein he stated that monotheism was Rome’s “original religion, and the idea of many gods was introduced in error.” Monotheism was said to be superior to polytheism, and Christianity was expressed as the only means through which wisdom was attainable (Stephenson, 170). It is interesting to note the likely origin for celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. Sol Invictus (the personification of the Sun) was worshiped as the “greatest god” that was acceptable to all (177). Initially, December 25 was the “Day of the Sun.” According to Stephenson, on December 25, 323 Constantine declared the date as the dies natalis of Christ and exempted all Christians from having to participate in the veneration of Sol (178).

Constantine used imperial edicts to establish privileges for churches and their leadership. For example, churches were allowed tax exempt status for properties and their ministers. Further, members and others were permitted the legal right to pass property on to the church. We see this practice in operation today, allowing some denominations to amass a vast amount of assets. According to Church and State, the Roman Catholic Church is likely the wealthiest non-business entity in the world, with assets ranging from $10 billion to $15 billion and an operation budget of approximately $170 billion in the United States alone (Network for Church Monitoring, 2020). Of course, whenever accumulation of wealth become more important than seeking God’s kingdom and storing up treasures in heaven, such developments can be detrimental for Christianity

IN CONCLUSION, clearly Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is in question. First, although he made a public profession of faith, he did not undergo water baptism until on his deathbed in 337. Moreover, many of his attitudes and actions seemed to belie true dedication to Christ. He continued to participate in pagan ceremonies at times and functioned as its high priest. Constantine’s serving two masters caused the prolonging of pagan worship. Negative effects included ongoing violence against pagans by Christians, ecclesiastical and judicial corruption, early practices that mimic the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, syncretism, a lack of catechism teachings before water baptism, and at least a temporary diluting of Christianity. Constantine did, however, outlaw persecution of Christians, helped to cause a slow increase in observing monotheism over polytheism, and establishment of December 25 as Christmas Day.

I am impressed by the impact of Christian ecclesiastical history on grasping the many nuances of the Christian faith.

References

Church and State (London, England: Network for Church Monitoring), 2020.

Gonzalez, J.L., The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2010.

Stephenson, P. Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor (New York, NY: The Overlook Press), 2010.

Zacharias, R., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith we Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 2007.

Christians Under Attack: Persecution & Martyrdom Through the Centuries

FROM ITS ONSET THE Christian message impacted culture and society, and culture and society impacted Christianity. Sometimes culture—to include the governing authorities—pushed back with much force, often oppressive and violent in nature. Not surprisingly, Jewish religious leaders, having publicly rejected Christ and His message by betraying Him to the Roman Empire for torture and crucifixion, also pushed back violently against the early Christian church. In fact, the earliest persecution of Christians came from the Jews.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. No sooner had the Gospel reached the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter, modify or nullify it. Simon Magus founded the Gnostics. Although this was essentially a separate belief system, it began to infiltrate the Christian church. Gnostics believed in a great god that is good and perfect, but impersonal and unknowable. They thought the creator of the universe was actually a lesser deity—a cheap knock-off of the “one true God”—who wanted to create a flawless material universe but botched the job. Instead of having a utopia, we ended up with a world infected with pain, misery, and intellectual and spiritual blindness. The Gnostics did not believe man’s dilemma was based on the Fall. Instead, when this lesser deity created man, he accidentally imbued humanity with a spark of the “true” God’s spirit, making man an inherently good soul trapped in the confines of an evil, material body.

EARLY PERSECUTION

The early Christians were initially persecuted at the hands of Jewish leaders. These principles saw Christianity not as a “new religion,” but a sect within Judaism—a new heresy going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics. Fearing these apostates could once more bring the wrath of God upon the nation of Israel, Jewish leaders began persecuting Christians on a regular basis. Frankly, the Sadducees became jealous of the apostles as they performed healings and other signs and wonders. People began believing that Jesus was the Messiah. The Sadducees arrested the apostles and threw them into jail where they were severely beaten and told never to preach in the name of Jesus again.

King Herod arrested many early Christians on behalf of the Jewish leaders. Roman authorities systematically persecuted and murdered Christians beginning in 64 A.D. Paul and Peter were martyred in 65 A.D. by Emperor Nero. Roman general Titus (later Emperor) destroyed the temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Emperor Domitian (younger brother of Titus) waged a campaign of persecution against Jews and Christians from 81 to 96 A.D. Polycarp was martyred in 155 A.D. Christians suffered widespread persecution under various emperors through 303 A.D.

The first wave of mass persecution began under Nero in A.D. 67. Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome and is remembered as the one who set Rome aflame and then blamed the Christians for the deaths and destruction caused by the fire. He had Christians sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs. Others were dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate the grounds. Remarkably, rather than diminish the spirit of Christianity, this persecution increased the devotion and commitment to Christianity.

A second wave of persecution occurred under Domitian circa A.D. 81. Any negative events that happened—famine, pestilence, earthquakes, drought—Domitian blamed on Christians and put them to death. A third outbreak of persecution occurred under Trajan in A.D. 108. During this wave, Christians were beaten, beheaded, and devoured by wild beasts. Nearly ten thousand were put to death. The fourth cycle of persecution took place under Marcus Aurelius Antoninas in A.D. 162, followed by a fifth wave credited to Severus in A.D. 192. Christians were burned at the stake, doused in hot tar, beheaded, placed in boiling water, and ravaged by wild beasts.

The sixth upsurge of persecution took place under Maximus in A.D. 235. At this time, numerous Christians were slain without trial and buried indiscriminately in heaps (mass graves), sometimes fifty or sixty cast into a pit together. The seventh surge of persecution happened under Decius in A.D. 249. At this time, the principle person martyred was Fabian, the bishop of Rome, who was beheaded on January 20, A.D. 250. The eighth wave of persecution occurred under Valerian in A.D. 257. The ninth wave of persecution occurred under Aurelian in A.D. 274 when Felix, bishop of Rome was martyred. A tenth flood of persecution took place under Diocletian in A.D. 303, commonly called the Era of the Martyr’s. The manner of persecutions included horrific methods such as racks, scourges, swords, daggers, crosses, poisons, and famine.

MARTYRDOM TIMELINE

Stephen was the first known martyr. He was stoned to death in 36 A.D. for preaching the Gospel. Stephen’s death sparked a rash of persecutions against all who professed belief in Christ as the Messiah.

The fate of the Apostles and close disciples followed in succession.

  • James the Great, the elder brother of John the Apostle, was beheaded in A.D. 44.
  • James the Lesser, the brother of Jesus, served the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of James. He suffered martyrdom in 44 A.D. at the age of ninety-four by beheading and stoning at the hands of the Jews.
  • Philip, who served in Upper Asia, was scourged in Phrygia, thrown into prison and later crucified in A.D. 54.
  • Matthew the tax collector served the Lord in Parthia and Ethiopia where he was slain with an axe-like cutting blade in the city of Nadabah in A.D. 60.
  • Andrew, the brother of Peter, preached the gospel throughout Asia. He was crucified on a cross at Edessa in 60 A.D.
  • Peter was martyred by Nero in 64 A.D. He was crucified with his head down and his feet up, because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus Christ.
  • Simon the Zealot, who spread the Gospel throughout Africa and Britain, was crucified in 65 A.D.
  • Paul was subjected to persecution numerous times during his ministry, including scourging, stoning, and, finally, beheaded by Nero in 67 A.D.
  • Mark was martyred in 68 A.D. in Alexandria when his persecutors placed a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead.
  • Jude, the brother of James, commonly called Thaddeus, was crucified at Edessa in A.D. 72.
  • Bartholomew preached in several countries and translated the Gospel of Matthew into the language of India. He was cruelly beaten and crucified in 100 A.D.
  • Thomas, who seems to have riled the pagan priests with his preaching, was martyred in 72 A.D. by having a spear thrust into his abdomen.
  • Matthias, the man who was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle, was stoned and beheaded at Jerusalem in 80 A.D.
  • Luke was reported to have been hanged from an olive tree by the idolatrous priests of Greece in 84 A.D.

MODERN-DAY PERSECUTION

Persecution of Christians actually began at the dawn of Christianity and has persisted in various forms ever since. Stoning, burning at the stake, imprisonment, family estrangement, beheading, crucifixion, scourging, being dragged to the death, drowning, and more. History is stained with the blood of martyrs and is augmented by the testimony of those who’ve endured hardship for their faith in Jesus Christ.

Despite this being the 21st century, which should suggest we ought to be well beyond religious bigotry and cultural xenophobia, modern-day Christian persecution is still prevalent. The Bible says that Jesus has called believers out from among the world. We’re told in John 15:19, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” When Jesus sent His disciples into the world to preach the Gospel, He knew they would be attacked and persecuted for witnessing and sharing Jesus. In Mathew 10:16, Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Anti-Christian discrimination occurs in a variety of contexts throughout our culture, from the public sector to the private sector, in mainstream media and in Hollywood, in the public education system and in our universities. Often discrimination comes from activist judges misinterpreting the law (the hostility toward Christian religious freedom infects our judiciary as much as other aspects of society); other times it comes from entities misapplying the law. It also comes from what today is referred to as political correctness. Discrimination against Christians mostly stems from a hostility toward Christianity itself, and from rampant misinformation about what the First Amendment actually means regarding so-called “separation of church and state.”

Unfortunately, anti-Christian discrimination in America is becoming more blatant and more widespread every day. The cultural assumptions of our society can actually cause adverse impact in how the law is applied; culture is moving against public expression of Christian beliefs. To complicate matters, secularism and moral relativism have driven a wedge between Christian belief and public expression. Forces are at work whose sole intent is to outlaw the voicing of Christian beliefs in any public forum.

Christian expression is treated as profanity and worse in many public schools and certain federal courts across the nation. According to an article by Michael Gryboski on Christianpost.com, dated October 12, 2018, a middle school in Virginia has banned songs mentioning Jesus from its annual Christmas concert as part of an effort to be more sensitive toward the increasingly diverse population of its student body. The critical language of the First Amendment relative to religion—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—has been misinterpreted and misquoted in recent years. It is now being argued by many that the First Amendment grants freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. More troublesome than that, it’s now being argued by liberals and atheists that American citizens have a First Amendment right to freedom from Christianity. All other religions are tolerated in the interest of pluralism and inclusion.

David Limbaugh, in his seminal book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, states the following:

Ideally, the schools should strive for neutrality on matters of religion—at least in expressing a preference for one over the other. But, in reality, our children are often being inculcated with values and attitudes that conflict with or are hostile to Christianity… There has been a systematic sweeping away of all things Christian from our public schools, combined with a sweeping in of secularism (p. 4).

THE MEDIA AND HOLLYWOOD

Mainstream media and Hollywood play very major roles in bias against Christians and Christianity in our modern culture. We’re told that it is unthinkable to ridicule (almost any) political, religious, cultural, or ethnic group, yet liberals routinely disparage Christians and anything related to Christianity.  This anti-Christian proclivity typically manifests itself in unflattering portrayals of Christians in Hollywood films and television shows. Additionally, liberal news outlets tend to demonize Christian conservatives. Christians are presented as bigoted, narrow-minded, unreasonable, old-fashioned, exclusionary, and elitist. Remarkably, while the media are usually very careful not to offend or slight other religions—lately, especially Islam—Christianity receives far less deference.

OPEN DOORS USA

Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Unfortunately, Christian torture remains an issue for believers throughout the world, including the risk of imprisonment, loss of home and assets, physical torture, beheading, rape and even death as a result of their faith. Trends show that countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are intensifying persecution against Christians. It would seem the most vulnerable are Christian women , who often face double persecution—based on faith and gender. Every day there are new reports of Christians who face threats, unjust imprisonment, harassment, beatings and even loss of family or life because of their profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Some Alarming Statistics

Every month:

  • 255 Christians are killed
  • 104 are abducted
  • 180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage
  • 66 churches are attacked
  • 160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned

Every year, Open Doors USA releases the World Watch List—a global indicator of countries where human and religious rights are being violated, and those countries most vulnerable to societal unrest and destabilization. This is the 26thyear of the Watch List and it remains the only annual in-depth survey to rank the 50 most difficult countries in which to be a Christian. Today, 215 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in the countries on the World Watch List—essentially one in twelve Christians worldwide. North Korea is ranked #1 for the 17th consecutive year as the most dangerous country for Christians. During the 2018 World Watch List reporting period 3,066 Christians were killed, 1,252 were abducted, 1,020 were raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches were attacked. Islamic oppression fuels Christian persecution in 8 of the top 10 countries on the Watch List.

SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER

We have come to the point where the church sees liberalism and moral relativism for the threats they truly are. But where does that leave us? It seems that modern polarization into left and right—within both religion and politics—has been with us since after the period of the Enlightenment. It’s no secret that modernism and Protestant liberalism were shaken to their very foundation following the two world wars. The resulting postmodernism did nothing whatsoever to solve our dilemma. Christians wanted to share with the world their conviction that the Gospel was the answer to this quandary—that it was the absolute truth everyone had been looking for.

We are told in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NKJV). The Word of Christ is not merely a matter of doctrine; it is a way of authenticating life; it is morally regenerative spiritual power obtained through belief in Christ as the Messiah. It is life itself. This is why apologetics is vital. We are to preach the Good News to all nations. First Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV) [Italics mine].

Changing someone’s mind isn’t the only goal of apologetics. In fact, that’s unlikely to happen in the heat of the moment. Instead, we should think of any apologetic encounter as planting a seed that will come to fruition later. Or, even more, perhaps we’re simply helping prepare the soil so that someone else can do the planting. I don’t mean to imply that God cannot do big things when we practice apologetics. Just remember this: We often don’t get to see firsthand the unfolding of those big moments.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the idea of apologetics—the concepts and arguments. Apologetics, however, is actually a means to an end. It is a tool for helping us defend the Gospel, but it is not about getting defensive. Sometimes, talking about morality and religion can really get some people going—even to the point where you find it tough to get a word in edgewise. But allowing your skeptical friend to share their ideas or experiences is a key part of effectively navigating spiritual conversations. Unfortunately, some of us can get rather defensive and feel pressured to take on the weight of explaining the entirety of the Christian worldview when confronted with one simple objection to the faith.

Love the people you come into contact with. Ask questions and genuinely listen. Be gentle and humble.

Be like Jesus.

References

Limbaugh, D. (2004). Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

OpenDoors USA. (n.d.) Christian Persecution. Retrieved from: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/