Essay by Gary Knapp, 1996. Reproduced from “NIV Classics Devotional Bible”. It clearly has several shortcomings* but I found it interesting and even inspiring in parts. It’s sort of a response to the recent debate in which Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens engaged in some joyous Catholic bashing.
When Jesus Christ gathered his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, he spoke about an event of primary importance to the accomplishment of God’s eternal purpose. There Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). During the brief period of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he spoke of three essential prophecies. First, he spoke of his own death and resurrection. Second, he prophesied about his future return to earth with all of its tumult and glory. And third, he spoke of the building of the church.
The first he fully accomplished with all of its profound effect on human history and individual lives. The second is yet to come. And the third is in process today, with each believer involved in some way with Christ in this work.
Of course, the building of the church has not been without its tumult as well. In fact, like all construction projects, the process of building the church has caused quite a disturbance. Church history can be read both as a document of this upheaval and as a record of the loving kindness and patience of the purposeful God. Scripture assures, however, that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27). These verses richly describe the church’s future.
The apostle Paul fully embraced the demanding work of building the church. “By the grace God has given me,” he wrote, “I laid a foundation as an expert builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10). Then he seriously cautions those who would follow to build on the foundation “which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). His warning echoes through the 1900 years of history: “Each one should be careful how he builds” (v. 10). And so the age of the church began. While some built with gold, silver, and costly stones, others built with wood, hay, and straw (v. 12). And when Christ returns, everyone’s “work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light” (v.13).
In the meantime the church is the repository of the documents, writings, and records of some of the labourers who have gone before. The following briefly traces the path of church history through five main eras of the Christian church, using authors and sources for milestones and landmarks along the way.
The Early Church Era
Little but legend has remained of the history and fate of Christ’s original disciples. After the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, the defining event of the first century, as far as the church is concerned, was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus in A.D. 70. At that time the believers joined the Jews in their dispersal and the church at Jerusalem was no more. Any records or artefacts of the church’s first years were burned by the Romans with the rest of the city. The surviving founders of that inaugural church were absorbed into the ancient world, and the single Christian church composed predominately of Jews disappeared. This was followed by 400 to 500 years of organizational, liturgical, and theological development.
The second generation of Christians immediately met opposition in various arenas. Written between A.D. 70 and 100, The Epistle of Barnabas attempts to show Christ in types and figures of the Old Testament. In its stridently polemical attack on Judaism, it succeeds in finding convincing testimonies for the Christian faith in the Old Testament. Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 116) encountered a different source of conflict: Roman paganism. He was condemned to be devoured by wild beasts during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan. While travelling to his death in Rome, Ignatius wrote seven letters that show he wanted nothing to stand in the way of his martyrdom. He is the prototypical martyr. His letters also show the development of early church structure, speak of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, emphasise the physical resurrection of Christ, and describe the church as catholic in reference to her universal quality. The first theological writer for the church was Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 175-195) who lived in southern France. The title of his primary work, Against Heresies, indicates his field of work. While refuting the gnostic heresies, Irenaeus cited the Old Testament, the four gospels, and other apostolic writings as the canon of Scripture. He also affirmed both creation and redemption as acts of God.
While wrestling with influences that threatened the young church, these and many other individuals developed the beliefs and practices that are still the structural constitution of the church today. Soon these began to be codified for the benefit of all believers. The profession of faith called the Athanasian Creed was named after Athanasius (c. 295-373). This great defender of faith strove against the teaching of Arius who advocated that Christ was not eternal but was created by the Father. This view threatened to turn the faith into a philosophy mixed with pagan thought. In A.D. 325 Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea to settle this issue. In The Three Orations Against the Arians (c. 335), Athanasius emphasised the necessity for the Word to be as eternal as God if he was to form the divine image in man. The creed named for him is composed of two parts devoted respectively to the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. Adherence to these, it declares, is necessary for salvation.
Other early documents include The Didache, a summary of moral principles, instructions on the organization of Christian communities, and rules on worship. It contains the oldest recorded Eucharistic prayers, and orders on baptism, fasting, prayer, as well as the treatment of bishops, deacons, and prophets. The Epistle to Diognetus, a document from the second or third century, explains why paganism and Judaism cannot be accepted, describes Christians as the soul of the world, and declares that Christianity is the unique revelation of God and of God’s love.
No event or precise date formally ends the church’s early era, though one shining individual illuminates the transition to medieval times – Augustine of Hippo (354-430). This son of a pagan father and Christian mother in North Africa is a figure of major importance to the church. In his Confessions (c. 397) he presents a Biblical understanding of a person’s life under grace. In his City of God (c. 413-26) he is the first to give a Biblical view of history, time, and the state. He established the doctrine of the church, gave a clear statement concerning the person of Christ, and made the grace of God a major theme of theology in the West.
The Medieval Era
The centuries between approximately A.D. 500 and the commencement of the Protestant Reformation are frequently referred to as the Dark Ages. But for the church of God, they were anything but dark. In reality, some of the brightest minds of the day applied themselves to her theological and ecclesiastical advancement. And had it not been for the cache of documents protected within the walls of European and Middle Eastern monasteries, and the diligence of monastic scholars and copyists, the treasury of knowledge, art, and philosophy of the classical ages would have perished. It is difficult for Protestants to appreciate this era. Indeed the church’s testimony did slowly dim as these centuries wore on and the ecclesiastical bushel basket of Romanism descended over her lamp. Yet we must not forget that it was at this time that the monk Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) asked and answered the question posed by his most famous work: Why Did God Become Man? It was Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.547) who wrote The Benedictine Rule, which not only established a balanced way of life for the monasteries that were to prove so vital to the preservation of human culture, it also became the basis of organizational thought until modern times. Another leading monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), made the act of loving God the foundation of his life and teaching. How precious it is still to find this tendency in a believer. It is he who wrote our beloved hymn “Jesus the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my soul.” Bernard also challenged Christians to lead lives of true devotion to God and was a forerunner to our Reformers. The philosopher, theologian, and mystic Bonaventura (1221-1274) was more akin in thought to Augustine and the Protestant Reformers than he was to to his contemporaries in Rome.
Not all Reformers were Protestant, but it was the Protestants who were most successful. The Spanish poet and monk John of the Cross (1542-1591) suffered greatly with his benefactor Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) for joining her in attempting to reform the monastic system. The result was some of the world’s great poetic literature and the record of a true Christian mystic. The Dutch writer, scholar, and Renaissance intellectual Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466-1536) wrote, “It has long been my cherished wish to cleanse the Lord’s temple of barbarous ignorance and to adorn it with treasures from afar, such as may kindle in generous hearts a warm love for the Scriptures.” The grat work of his life was an edition of the Greek New Testament text (1516) which became a touchstone for successive generations of scholars and a source for Bible translations in the common vernacular. These translations went far to fulfil the cherished wishes of Erasmus. Two women must also be mentioned: Julian of Norwich (c.1342-c.1413), whose Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love became the first book to be published in English by a female author, and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), an illiterate Florentine nun who worked for ecclesiastical reform and became prominent among the church’s mystics.
Readers of history know that the medieval era was a difficult time in the human drama. And it was at this time that the full weight of the hope of humanity was carried by the Christian church.
The Reformation Era
If the earth’s gravity had shifted as much as the church’s theology did during the Reformation, the globe may have spun off its axis. Combine this with the political, cultural, and social changes that were simultaneously operating in Europe and the result is a true revolution.
In fact the religious, political, cultural, and social realms were quite interconnected. This is seen clearly in the person of John Calvin (1509-1564), the French Protestant Reformer who laboured in Geneva, Switzerland. His major work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, is considered one of the most influential in world literature. While labouring to organise evangelical churches, Calvin developed a highly adaptable model of church government. Meanwhile, social institutions were deteriorating. Many new institutions developed under the influence of Calvin’s model and his “presbyterian” example even extended to influence modern democratic political theory. When John Calvin’s contemporary, the Biblical translator, religious reformer, and writer William Tyndale (c.1492-1536), left England to commence his work he said to a learned man, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than though dost.” Considering that the Bible had been exclusively in a Latin translation for 1000 years and that Tyndale’s ploughboy was an illiterate, the fact that Tyndale succeeded reveals not only his genius but also the harvest of cultural transformation caused by his English translation of the Bible. It is not commonly known that many of the finest passages of the King James Version of the Bible were taken unchanged from Tyndale’s seminal work. These passages are treasures of the English language to this day.
The Reformers were struggling to free the human spirit from the bondage of religious darkness, but antiquated social systems and illiteracy were being overthrown as well. Simultaneously, the political world was in upheaval while emergence from its dominance by the church at Rome. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was Archbishop of Canterbury and a leader of the English Reformation. As such he became embroiled in the manuevers of Henry VIII to rid England of the influence of Rome. Cranmer himself renounced allegiance to the Pope, directed that the pope’s name be erased from every prayer book in England, and pronounced the King of England head of the English church. Cranmer was a brilliant editor, translator, and composer of prayers and formulae. His labour produced the Book of Common Prayer (1548), which is in use to this day in churches of the Anglican Communion. Political and religious shifts in England caused Cranmer to be condemned as a heretic, thus he joined the many martyrs of his time when he was burned at the stake in 1556.
An example of the quality of the people of God enlisted to accomplish the Church’s reformation is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), one of the great minds in Western intellectual history. A Frenchman, Pascal was an eminent mathematician and physicist and one of the greatest mystical writers in Christian literature. At 19 he invented the first practical calculating machine. Later he verified the the theory of atmospheric pressure and formulated the mathematical theory of probability, a fundamental element of modern theoretical physics. Pascal was an adherent of the Roman Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism. His Provincial Letters (1657), a classic in the literature of irony and satire, demanded a re-emphasis on Augustine’s doctrine of grace within the Catholic church. Yet God also gave the church John Bunyan (1628-1688), the impoverished son of a tinker who authored The Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison. One of the most famous religious allegories in the English language, The Pilgrim’s Progress became the most widely read book in English after the Bible.
Another descendant of peasants grew up to be perhaps the most crucial figure in modern European history – Martin Luther of Germany (1483-1546). We have noted that there were reform-minded individuals working in the church for centuries. But this German theologian appeared at the confluence of the flow of history to directly initiate the Protestant Reformation and thereby influence politics, economics, education, and language as well. Luther held the chair of Biblical theology at the University of Wittenburg in 1512. This was his final station in his journey toward understanding that God’s free grace is the unique source of salvation. On October 31, 1517, he published his Ninety-five Theses, which opposed certain beliefs and practices of the Catholic church. With Luther as its leader and innovator, the Reformation burst forth. Luther was a preacher, theologian, linguist, educator, and political theorist. God places his treasure in earthen vessels and Martin Luther was the gifted and versatile man of the hour chosen to usher in a truly new era in human history.
The Post-Reformation Era
When the English mystic poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote, “I will not cease from Mental Fight,/Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand/Till we have built Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant land,” he may indeed have been prophesying of the hopes of the post-Reformers. These individuals toiled to establish the truth of the Gospel in their homelands and also to spread it to the entire world. They were preachers, missionaries, hymn writers, and revivalists. They included William Law (1688-1761), a preacher of the Church of England whose book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life on Christian ethics and mysticism influenced John Wesley and George Whitefield; the iconoclast George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Society of Friends who stressed the priesthood of all believers and advocated a simple life-style; and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who presided over the revival known as the Great Awakening, which engulfed all New England.
Hymns like “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “For the Brad and For the Wine” by Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), and “In the Deep, Deep Winter” by Christina Rosetti (1830-1894), and the rich African-American spirituals still ring in our churches and feed our devotion to God. Native-Americans are indebted to the sacrifice of missionary David Brainerd (1718-1747). The faithful in China still stand on the foundation laid by James Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) and the China Inland Mission. And the world is a far better place for the labour of William Booth (1829-1912) and his Salvation Army. The Quaker John Woolman (1720-1772) and the former slaves Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) insisted that the church heed her Scriptures and her conscience in the fight for the abolition of slavery.
The great lights of this era, like John Wesley (1703-1791), George Whitefield (1714-1770), and Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), must share their place on history’s pages with countless other saints. The sacrifices of these lesser-known servants of God salted and preserved the the earth and its inhabitants by spreading and establishing the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as the unique source of salvation and the strengthening fibre of the human race.
The Modern Era
As we pass into the next millennium, we leave behind a century marked by two world wars, which all the world hopes never to repeat. Oswald Chambers (1874-1917), who laboured for the Lord at the huge encampment of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Zeitoun, Egypt, during World War I, sought to minister the hope of the message of Jesus Christ “in the full blaze of the intellectual problems and actual difficulties of the times in which live.” Modern times have posed this challenge to all Christians. This century has seen Karl Barth (1886-1968), the Swiss theologian teacher and writer who was driven to reconsider his liberal theological training when his teachers supported German militarism. He challenged German National Socialism with a series of pamphlets entitiled Theological Existence Today and was forced to flee Germany in 1935. We witnessed the testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who refused to cooperate with Hitler’s interference in church affairs. With Barth and others, he helped found the Confessing Church in Germany, began an illegal seminary, and early-on identified himself with the resistance against Nazism. As a result this German theologian was arrested and became a modern Christian martyr.
Peter Marshall (1902-1949), a Scottish emigrant to America, rose up to serve as chaplain to the United States Senate; and the Roman Catholic convert Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote eloquently about modern society from within the walls of a Trappist monastery.
Our age has been filled with writers, preachers, and scholars, like F. F. Bruce (1910-1990), the Scotsman who was the preeminent evangelical scholar of the post-World War II era; Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), who together with his wife Edith founded an international study and ministry community in the Swiss Alps and wrote a total of 23 books, and Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), whose classic evaluation of spirituality, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, examined the church from the first through the nineteenth centuries.
But our era has also witnessed the contributions of activists as well. Pre-eminent among these was Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68), the son of a Baptist minister who was catapulted into national prominence as a leader for civil rights. He led a massive civil rights campaign, organized drives for black voter registration, desegregation, and better education and housing throughout the South. Dag Hammarskjold (1905-61), the Swedish economist and diplomat, was elected secretary-general of the United Nations and was posthumously awarded the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize. His legacy to the church and the world is his book of meditations, Markings. And William Temple (1881-1944) effectively lead the Anglican Communion with a passionate concern for national and social righteousness.
The Church of God is a steadfast presence in a capricious world. As this century marred by conflict closes, we hope for more than peace. We hope for Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and pray that he will continue the cleansing of his church “by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:26-27).
*Notable Omissions: The establishment of the Biblical canon (!), significant Popes, denominationalism, Coptic and other Orthodox churches, Indian and other Eastern churches, altruistic Societies and Orders. It focuses mainly on theologians and mystics in the Catholic or Evangelical traditions, and omits embarrassing bits of history like the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, and the Renaissance. Missing also are luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Wren, Thomas à Kempis, Francis of Assisi, Patrick of Ireland, Damien of Molokai, William Wilberforce (Amazing Grace), Teresa of Kolkata, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Balthasar, Schuon, Torrance, Kierkegaard, Moody, Finney, Billy Graham.