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: What Difference Does it Make?

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

What difference do heaven, the second coming of Christ, and Hell make to you right this very moment? The emphasis, as it was for Paul in 2 Thessalonians, is on “right now.” Be honest, appropriately personal, and conversant with course sources – including Scripture – in formulating your post.

Reflecting on the above query, I immediately think of the purpose of Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians. Interestingly, Paul had visited this church only a few months prior, only to learn of lingering questions among the new believers. More troublesome, some new Christians were deliberately misleading others. Paul wrote in First Thessalonians, “…remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).

Paul noted also that new converts were initially led by the Holy Spirit, which provided them with the “gospel truth” that should have remained undeniable.  Paul said, “…when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (2:13). Paul heard of the good news from Timothy of the faith and love of these new believers. This made his distress and affliction worth enduring. Paul was most pleased, and he encouraged these new believers to “do just as you are doing” (4:1). Of course, he was speaking here of those who had remained faithful to the gospel.

It is fitting, then, that Paul also informed the new converts in Thessalonica to not pay attention to the murmurings of sudden travail and destruction at the second coming of Christ. He said, “For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness” (5:5). Paul provided some key guidelines for the last days: give thanks in all circumstances; avoid quenching the Holy Spirit; do not denigrate prophesy; abstain from evil; hold fast to that which is good. Moreover, Paul reminded the Thessalonians in his second epistle (as he first told them) the day of the Lord will not come until the unleashing of a great rebellion and the coming of the son of perdition, who will seek to be worshiped; he will take his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Paul told them to warn even their greatest enemy of the coming of the son of perdition. Kind of reminds me of the platitude, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

For me, much of what Paul warned the church about in his two letters to the church at Thessalonica is prevalent today. My “right now” has to do with the responsibility of us believers to not merely sit idle and wait for Christ, nor to close our eyes to travail and destruction and hide in our “ivory tower.” Many of today’s challenges to Christianity come from the halls of academia—in our high schools and our universities. Christianity is no longer the predominant religious influence over academia or culture it once was. The proliferation of secularism, scientism, naturalism, and moral relativism (I find most isms to be bad news) has blinded non-believers with a catch-all “just do good and you’ll be fine” vibe for life on earth. Theism (especially Christianity) is attacked as a backward, elitist belief in a fairytale invisible “God.” Atheists and agnostics shout from the rooftops that there is no absolute (ontological) truth. It is difficult today to discuss religion in the public forum as it has been relegated to a private, personal belief that should be kept to one’s self. I consider this the first wave of unbelief.

The second wave relates to an attack on our Christian sons and daughters who enter post-secondary education only to have their beliefs eviscerated. Militant atheism is determined to outlaw all discussion of religion in public, including in our high schools and universities. These “last things” (the eschatology of Christianity) carry an intense importance. Right now, we are facing a tall order: explaining what is meant by heaven, hell, and the second coming of Christ. Government officials and university professors and deans continually tie our hands and tape our mouths shut. Tertullian wrote, “And so we are also ridiculed because we proclaim that God is going to judge the world. Yet even the poets and philosophers place a judgment seat in the underworld.” [1]

Grudem says we should eagerly welcome Christ’s return. Because we long for this wonderous event as believers without knowing when it will occur, many have the tendency to procrastinate relative to sharing the gospel. But modernity has dulled our “spiritual senses” about the final days. It has served to distract us from the paramount importance of Christ’s great commission. Most believers agree on one major fact: Christ is coming back for His bride. Some even possess knowledge about what the final days will be like. Still, many Christians today remain silent. Grudem asks, “Could Christ come back at any time?” [2] Scripture says, “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:42, 44b). We do know first the gospel must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10). Jesus said we’d be hated for His name’s sake; regardless, we are commanded to go forth and preach the gospel no matter the obstacles or personal costs.

I believe the Church must speak unequivocally, honestly, and emphatically about the reality of heaven, hell, and the trials and hardships of the great tribulation during the final days. There are times when I feel overwhelmingly guilty for squandering decades of my life fulfilling the pleasures of the flesh while walking in near-complete apostasy despite what I knew to be true. Through my outrageous behavior while in active addiction, I brought shame to my family and detracted many from becoming a Christian. Today, my “right now” entails studying the doctrines of Christian theology and becoming comfortable with the absolute truth of gospel (indeed, I must present a “living” theology), then stepping into this fallen world and sharing Christ, defending to anyone who asks me what is the hope that is in me concerning Jesus Christ and Him crucified (see 1 Pet. 3:15).

Our eschatology, as Grudem notes, provides a great motive for evangelism. Grudem writes, “In fact, Peter indicates that the delay of the Lord’s return is due to the fact that God ‘is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).” [3] As Christians, we believe hell is a real place, reserved for eternal conscious punishment of those who have refused to repent and believe in Christ Jesus. As noted in the parable of Lazarus and the certain rich man, there are no second chances for believing the gospel; nor can the departed unbeliever warn his family about what is to come for those who reject Christ. There is only the right now.


[1] Tertulian, “On Hell and Heaven,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 534.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1095.

[3]Grudem, 1148.