All posts by Stephen Bedard

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.

Were the Earliest Christians Antisemitic?

JudaismThe Christian church has had an unfortunately bad relationship with the Jewish synagogue at various times in their history. But is Christianity antisemitic at it’s core? The earliest Christianity can be found in the documents of the New Testament.

There have been many accusations of antisemitism regarding the New Testament. Are these claims true?

The first thing we need to remember is that all of the earliest Christians, including their leader Jesus of Nazareth, were Jews. Christianity was initially based in Jerusalem led by James, also a Jew.

Yes we see some conflict between followers of Jesus and other Jews, such as the work of Saul of Tarsus, the later Apostle Paul. But this wasn’t about one religion vs another religion. Christianity was still a sect of Judaism. This was about conflict among different interpretations within Judaism.

In the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, we begin to see the parting of the ways in the letters to the seven churches. There is a reason for this. Not only had more Gentiles entered the church, there were other things going on.

Judaism had certain rights as a legal religion within the Roman Empire. At first the Christians, as Jews following Jesus, benefited from this. Then certain things happened. There was the Jewish War of 67-70 AD. This was also a time when the Christians were getting on the bad side of the Romans. It was in the Jewish best interest to distinguish themselves from the Christians.

As we get into the second century, there is a growing anti-Jewish sentiment among some Christians. This can be seen in the Epistle of Barnabas (not actually written by Barnabas).

Sadly, antisemitic feelings continued to grow within the church. Some terrible things have been done to the Jews in the name of Jesus. But whatever happened later in history was not reflective of the earliest Christians.

Interview With Martin Luther King Jr

Much of the world rightfully celebrates the life and remembers the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. But what many people often forget is that King is not just a part of social history but is also church history.

King was a Baptist pastor and theologian and his faith informed much of what he did. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his faults but his impact is still felt in a positive way.

Here is a BBC interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1961.


A History of Christianity – Review

History of ChristianityOne of the first books that I read was Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity Vol. 1. It helped to spark my interest in church history. I recently reread both volumes of this respected history.

The first thing that readers need to know is that it is dated. Latourette only wrote it until about 1950. Another writer added a chapter until 1975.

Still, this two volume set is a very good overview of church history from the first to the twentieth century. Even though each volume is quite long, the author is only able to give fairly short summaries of major events. This is still a good introduction to help readers to know what areas interest them.

One of the strengths of this history is that it includes some very diverse aspects of history. He covers Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant history. I found this history covered more Roman Catholic events than most.

More than that, it includes a wide geographic range as well. Instead of focusing on just western Europe or the United States, he looks to many other areas of the world. This gives the reader a much broader understanding of the church.

The olde date of this book is a drawback but I still recommend Latourette’s A History of Christianity.


Paul: A Biography – Review

Paul A BiographyOne of my favourite writers on early Christianity is N.T. Wright. I have read many of his books and when I was asked what I wanted for my birthday, I knew it was Paul: A Biography.

Wright has written many books on Paul but this one is unique. In some ways it is a bridge between his academic and popular level work. It is not a theology of Paul or a commentary on his letters, although it contains elements of both. As the title suggests, it is a biography of Paul.

Some New Testament scholars may not like his blending of information from Paul’s letters and Luke’s Acts. The trend is to take Paul’s seven “authentic” letters seriously, discounting the other letters and Acts.

However, Wright is writing a biography and any biographer would take into account all of the available information and that is what he does with Paul. If we were dealing with any other ancient figure (other than Jesus), no one would question this approach.

Those interested in Paul will love this book. Wright gives an overview of Paul’s life based on Acts and then inserts information from the letters and the context of those letters where appropriate. This is an essential resource for anyone interested in early Christianity.

The best thing about this book is that is not just for New Testament scholars. It is written in a readable style that the layperson will enjoy and understand. Yes, Wright pulls in from his considerable scholarship but it is not overwhelming.

Paul: A Biography is book that I intend to go back to again and again.