All posts by Stephen Bedard

Doing Church History – Review

Doing Church HistoryEvery once in a while, I come across a book that I wish I had when I began my seminary studies. Doing Church History by Gordon Heath is one of those books.

This book is not an introduction to church history but, as the title suggests, an introduction to doing church history. This short book (I read it one sitting) helps to situate the student so they are prepared to study church history.

Heath helps to integrate theology into history. Why did the Reformation take place? Was it God or social forces in Europe? It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be both. Heath helps the reader to ask the right questions.

Heath also guides us through different kinds of history. History is not one monolithic thing. There are different types of history with different types of goals. We need to know what we are doing and the nature of our sources.

Heath’s section on sources is quite helpful. He distinguishes between primary and secondary sources, but also shows that the lines can be blurry. Is Eusebius, when he is writing about the first couple of centuries of the church, a primary or a secondary source?

One of the things that I appreciated is that Heath writes with a clear and engaging style. The reader doesn’t have to wade through pages of intensely academic jargon. But at the same time, Heath presents content that emerges from his own scholarly career.

If you are just starting to learn about church history or are entering seminary/Bible college, I highly recommend Doing Church History. As someone who has studied church history for years, I also enjoyed the book.

From Jesus to Christianity – Review

From Jesus to ChristianityA book that has sat on my shelf for some time is From Jesus to Christianity by L. Michael White.  Since I am interested in both the New Testament and the early church, it was right up my alley.

In truth I found the book disappointing. White is a knowledgable scholar and a good writer. But the picture he presents of the early church is not the only perspective.

As someone who has studied this stuff for years, there are many scholars who have different interpretations.

White presents both the New Testament and other writings in their context. But instead of presenting the New Testament first and then the others, he dates some of the New Testament books later than the others.

He actually dates a number of books into the second century. I don’t demand super early dates for the books, but I see no reason for the second century. This is not just my opinion, many scholars keep the New Testament into the first century.

White makes it sound like his interpretation is the standard view, while it is definitely not. I’m not just talking about conservative evangelicals.

I would hate for someone to read this book and think it the only interpretation of the evidence. It is not without value but it is far from the best account of Christian origins I have read.

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.

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.