A History of the Christian Church – Review

History of the Christian ChurchOne of the required texts when I studied Church History at McMaster Divinity College was A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker. I read it back then and just reread it recently.

I would say it that it is a pretty good introduction to Christian history. It definitely has its limitations though. One is that it is dated. The edition that I have only goes to the 1970s. Having said that, most of us read history for events much farther back than that.

The other problem is that it never gets very deep into any particular event. This is because of the natural limitations of being a one volume treatment of church history. If you are going to look at twenty centuries of history in one volume, you are limited at what you can say.

In this book, you will get the basics of the early church, the opes, the Reformation and so on.

Having said that, it is a very readable and accessible history. It is a good introduction to church history for those with little background. It provides the big picture and can be a good jumping off point for further study.

If you are looking for a nice one volume church history, A History of the Christian Church is a good place to start.

 

Billy Sunday Warns America

Before there was a Billy Graham, there was a Billy Sunday. Billy Sunday (November 19, 1862 – November 6, 1935) was an influential evangelist in the first third of the 20th century.

This short video from 1929 will give you a taste of his preaching.


What is Fundamentalism?

The term ‘fundamentalism’ is thrown around a lot, usually as an insult. If you encounter a religious person who is more conservative than what you would like, you might accuse them of being a fundamentalist.

However, fundamentalism has a specific meaning, at least originally, that many people are unaware of.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were a difficult time for traditional Christianity. Whereas before the enlightenment, the church controlled the academy, now there were a rapid series of intellectual attacks on Christianity.

No longer was the Bible seen as the revealed Word of God. Now it was an ancient religious book to be read like other ancient books. Scholars were to sort through and remove the superstitious elements that had obscured any historical kernel that may exist.

Some Christians embraced the new scientific, literary and philosophical ideas while others reacted to it. This led to what is known at the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church that met in Niagara in 1910. They compiled five fundamentals of the Christian faith.

  • Inspiration of the Bible
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Atonement for sins through the cross
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Reality of Jesus’ miracles

Ironically, many Christians today who would never identify as fundamentalist, would affirm each of these five fundamentals.

Fundamentalism evolved beyond these original elements. It came to represent a posture toward society. They saw true Christianity as being under pressure from the secular world and that there was a need to erect barriers for protection. This included suspicion toward secular education.

It is this posture that led to an expansion of the definition of fundamentalism. Therefore we can speak of Muslim or Jewish fundamentalists who would have little theologically in common with Christian fundamentalist but who still separate themselves from those they see as dangerous.

In the mid-20th century, there was the rise of figured like Carl F. Henry and Billy Graham who called for more of an openness and cooperation with those who believed different. This was the birth of modern evangelicalism. But that is a post for another day.

Christian fundamentalists continue to exist and isolate themselves from others. They see not just the secular world, but even many evangelicals with suspicion.


Episode 34 – The Apostle’s Creed and the Didache

History of ChristianityThere are two ancient Christian writings that are attributed to the Twelve Apostles, even though they unlikely wrote them. One, the Apostle’s Creed is well known, the other, the Didache, less so.

And yet both of these writings give us a helpful glimpse into the life and beliefs of the early church.

My Recommend Audiobook is:

Church History in Plain Language

With more than 315,000 print copies sold, this is the story of the church for today’s listeners. Dr. Bruce Shelley makes church history come alive in this classic audiobook that has become not only the first choice of many laypeople and church leaders but the standard text in many college classrooms.

What separates Dr. Shelley’s work from others is its clarity of language and organization. It treats history as the story of people, and the result is that history reads like a story, almost as dramatic and moving as a novel. Yet there is no fiction here. Dr. Shelley was a respected scholar whose work was painstakingly researched and carefully crafted for historical accuracy.

The fourth edition of Shelley’s classic one-volume history of the church brings the story of Christianity into the 21st century. This latest edition, now an audiobook and revised by R.L. Hatchett, contains information concerning Gnosticism and its ongoing relevance, the theology of the early church and Reformation, and most extensively, the rapid global extension and transformation of Christianity since 1900.

You can download this audiobook for FREE with a FREE trial of Audible.

Billy Graham and the New York Crusade

One of the most influential figures in what we know as evangelicalism was Billy Graham. There is no preacher today who has the influence that Graham back in the mid-20th century.

This video is from Billy Graham’s 1957 New York Crusade.


The Venerable Bede

The Venerable Bede is important for both his role as a Christian historian and a historian of the English people. This episode of In Our Time gives a nice introduction to this figure.


What is Pentecostalism?

Pentecostalism takes its name from the event at Pentecost as described in Acts 2. In that passage, there was coming of the Holy Spirit that was accompanied by speaking in tongues. Pentecostals identify with that experience and seek it for their own life.

The origin of Pentecostalism is often traced back to Azusa Street Revival in Los Angelas under the preaching of William Seymour (1906-1915). While that was a significant event, it goes back farther.

Pentecostalism emerged partially out of Methodism. Wesleyan theology included a second act of grace called sanctification. It was believed that a Christian could experience full sanctification in this life.

A number of holiness movements emerged in the 19th century. These heavily emphasized the present work of the Holy Spirit. There was an increasing focus on the miraculous.

A.B. Simpson (1843-1919), founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, brought miraculous healing back as a major focus of Christian experience. Around the turn of the century, there were numerous claims of speaking in tongues.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw an explosion of Pentecostal groups. They were marked by diversity. Racial groups worshiped together and women had important places in leadership. Unfortunately, these progressive movements diminished over time as the Pentecostals became more organized and emulated other fundamentalist groups.

Part of the diversity was with regard to theology. There were mainly three streams of Pentecostals: 1) holiness Pentecostals, who believed in both the baptism of the Spirit and sanctification, 2) oneness Pentecostals, who rejected the Trinity and saw Jesus as the one and only God and 3) classical Pentecostals, who accepted both the Trinity and gradual but not full sanctification.

The defining theology of Pentecostals, then and now, was that there was an experience called the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was available post-conversion for all Christians. The evidence of this baptism was that of speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues was not a foreign language but ecstatic speech.

In addition to speaking in tongues, there is also an emphasis on miraculous healing and eschatology. Eschatology is often of the pre-tribulational, pre-millennial form.

It should be noted that Pentecostalism and the prosperity gospel are not synonymous. Some Pentecostals do embrace the prosperity gospel and some prosperity proponents would not identify as Pentecostals.

One study suggests that Pentecostalism represents 26 percent of world Christianity, second only to Roman Catholicism.


What is Docetism?

Docetism was a doctrine in the early years of the Christian church that claimed that Jesus didn’t have a physical body. The name comes from the Greek dókēsis which means “to seem.” It refers to the belief that Jesus only seemed to have a physical body.

This seems to be present very early on. This may be what is referred to in 2 John 2:7.

Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.

Today it is more likely to deny that Jesus is God but the earliest heresy denied that Jesus was human. It is related to some platonic ideas about body and mind.

It was understood that mind/spirit was good and body was bad. Since Jesus is good, he must be all spirit and not body at all. In modern language, Jesus was almost a hologram. He looked perfectly human but underneath the image, there was no muscle or bone.

Docetism is related to Gnosticism. Gnostics also denied that Jesus had a physical body, just as they denied that God (the Father of Jesus) created the physical world. But Docetism and Gnosticism are not synonymous. Gnosticism is much bigger.

But that is a post for another day…


Heresies: Now and Then

Heresies have been connected to Christianity from the beginning. Because this is a historical more than theological blog, I’m defining a heresy as a smaller group breaking off from the main group with significantly different doctrines.

Some time ago I taught a course on what are often called cults or sects. I was amazed at how many connections there were between these newer religious movements and heresies in the early church.

Gnosticism – Christian Science

Gnosticism is more of a movement than a group, as there are many types of Gnosticism. It was very much influenced by Platonic philosophy and the idea that matter is bad and spirit/mind is good. Gnostics taught there was secret knowledge (Greek: gnosis) that revealed that matter was an illusion and that we were really spirit. It it was incredibly influential in the early church.

In the 19th century, Mary Baker Eddy started a movement called Christian Science. Christian Science emphasizes healing but it is not the same kind of healing that we see in Pentecostal churches. Eddy taught that healing came from understanding that we are spirit and not body. We can be “healed” of cancer by understanding that not only does the cancer not exist, neither does our body.

Arianism – Jehovah’s Witnesses

Arianism is named after Arius, a church leader who spoke out against the Trinity. He taught that Jesus was different from the Father, specifically that Jesus was a created being. This was so influential that the famous Council of Nicaea was called to deal with the Arian question.

In the 19th century, Charles Taze Russell began the movement that would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They rejected the Trinity and believed that Jesus was not God but was a created being, specifically the Archangel Michael.

Modalism – Onenness Pentecostals

This is also called Modalistic Monarchianism. This early heresy also rejected the Trinity but in a different way than Arius. Modalists affirm the full deity of Jesus but focus more on the oneness of God. This means that the one God can at times manifest in different modes, whether the Father, the Son or Spirit, but without any plurality within the Godhead.

Oneness Pentecostals began in the early 20th century. It emerged out of reflection of the baptismal formulas: baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, and baptizing in the name of Jesus. It was concluded that the name of the Father, Son and Spirit was Jesus. There was one God named Jesus, who was revealed in the Old Testament as the Father.

Ebionites – Unitarians

The Ebionites were early Jewish followers of Jesus. They accepted Jesus as the messiah but rejected the idea of the Trinity or the deity of Jesus.

When I talk of Unitarians, I mean the original form coming out of the Enlightenment and not the more recent version after their merger with the Universalists. The original Unitarians were successors of the Puritans and the Congregationalists. They accepted most Christian teachings but concluded that Jesus was a human messiah rather than God incarnate.

I have tried to figure out the ancient equivalent of the Latter-day Saints. I’m leaning toward Pelagianism, but I need to do more research.

The basic conclusion is that there is nothing new. Heresies now began as heresies then.

Rekindling the Word – Review

Rekindling the WordWhen historians look at their sources, they are very interested in how close they can get to the events. It is not always as simple as the oldest sources being the most accurate, but it is a factor.

Carsten Peter Thiede, in Rekindling the Word, argues for some early dates for certain Gospel fragments. Much of the book deals with the Magdalen papyrus of Matthew’s Gospel. This fragment has been dated to a variety of centuries, but Thiede argues for a first century date. This would be remarkable if true. Unfortunately, Thiede’s position is definitely a minority and it is likely that it is later.

Thiede also agrees with the claim that a portion of Mark’s Gospel was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This would also give us a valuable first century Gospel fragment. In this case, the controversy is not the date but the identity. Most scholars reject that the fragment in question is from Mark.

I wasn’t really convinced by Thiede’s claims. However, the book was quite interesting in terms of Gospel origins, the role of Peter and how manuscripts were created. Anyone interested in Christian origins will appreciate Rekindling the Word, even if they don’t agree with Thiede’s conclusions.

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