8.08.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: You Are Here

We’ve now finished the journey. Over the course of four years, we have traveled from “In the beginning…” to this very day in 2017. We have just spent the last few months wandering through postbiblical history, figuring out how we got to the point we are at today.

You are here.

I’d like to summarize what I believe I learn from church history in the same way I summarize the trips I lead for my students in Israel and Turkey. As I look at the early Church, a church couched in the context of first-century Judaism, I see four things that stand out to me as a learner.

TEXT: The first-century Jewish world of Jesus was a world deeply committed to the Text. Teaching their children how to memorize the entire Torah at a very early age (and then much of the rest of the Tanakh), they had a working knowledge of God’s commandments we can hardly begin to understand. Without the printing press, this oral communication and commitment of God’s Word to memory would prove invaluable to an entire culture of people devoted to following God. Unfortunately, when we lost our connection to our Jewish heritage (by rejecting the Jewish identity upon which we were built), we didn’t just lose relationships with the Jewish people — we lost the written Word of God, as well. As the one Word that doesn’t return void, but always accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent (Isaiah 55), we effectively lost the power of our movement. Paul told us in Ephesians that the Word of God is “the sword of the Spirit.” I believe we lost the power of the Spirit by losing our connection to the Text, exchanging it for a fascination (maybe idolatry) with doctrine and creed.

COMMUNITY: Our Hellenistic ways always deceive us. Again, as we jettisoned our connection to a Jewish world that lived in intentional subversion to the pagan narrative, we were left with our own pagan roots, deeply entrenched in the narrative of Empire and the Roman worldview. Instead of living in intentional community, rejecting the lies of self-preservation, luxury, comfort, and leisure — we embraced (and still do to this day) these tools of the empire. The most fascinating and effective tool of the Kingdom is an inclusive community that shows the world a better way to live.

DISCIPLESHIP: One of the best ways of training up leaders was the first-century model of discipleship. Consider the fact that Jesus started no churches and went on no missionary journeys. What he did do (and then asked us to do) was make disciples. He spent three years with twelve young men — all day, every day — and he changed the course of human history. He didn’t lead Bible studies (which are great) or create awesome new conferences to teach the masses (although those are incredibly beneficial, as well). He simply went out, told twelve guys to “follow me,” and then showed them how to live as God had asked them to live. It changed everything. We don’t do this anymore.

WRESTLING: The early church community was a community devoted to the same wrestling that Jacob, the father of the Israelites, was known for. They didn’t think answers to all the questions were the point. They believed the Text was meant to be wrestled with and that life was tricky and difficult. They did not believe in formulas or self-help strategies. They believed in walking the path with faithfulness. This walk meant things could be quite complicated and messy. There are many shades of gray. However, working with God to restore the world would be worth the great wrestling match. But this, too, was something we lost. Because we had lost the Text, questions and doubts were threatening. We immediately began to identify orthodox answers to questions and discouraged dissent. In a world that was founded on a culture of chutzpah and engagement, this is an odd experiment.

So, we lost the Text, disengaged from subversively inclusive community, stopped making disciples the way our Jesus did, and discouraged wrestling.

We still don’t know our Text. We find it nearly impossible even to experiment with true community because of the idolatry of our consumerism and comfort. We run church programs and invest in programmatic ministries rather than believing discipleship could change the world. And we still discourage people from asking questions that push the boundaries or color outside the lines.

Is there any hope?

Yes!

God has placed you and I here for such a time as this. Consider the following:

TEXT: Because of the Internet, we have an unprecedented amount of Bible study tools and information at our fingertips. Unlike any other point in human history, accessibility to truth is at an all-time high. Even though many of us struggle to have a knowledge of the Text rivaling that of Orthodox Judaism, we do have the tools to pursue that kind of understanding and keep learning, learning, learning. If the disciples knew we have biblegateway.com or online lexicons to do word searches in a matter of seconds, they would roll over in their graves. There is no reason we cannot create our own kind of Essene community — people who seek to know the path and walk it.

COMMUNITY: No matter the time or place in history, if we are human, then we are capable of great community. There is no reason we cannot create subversively inclusive communities that show the lies of our culture’s idolatry for what it is, and show the way of Jesus is the best way to live, even after all of these centuries. We can create communities that teach the world how to Sabbath, forgive, and be generously hospitable to others. We can look out for the mumzers. There is nothing stopping us from these endeavors. In fact, because of our “connectivity” in our social networking world, we have tools to facilitate community like never before. It simply requires us not to settle for pseudo-community that allows us keep our Herodian idolatry of consumerism and neo-Hellenism. We have to make the sacrifices necessary for true community.

DISCIPLESHIP: I remain convinced that this model and methodology of discipleship would be just as effective in our world as it ever was in the Greco-Roman context. Total immersion is still the best context for true learning and transformation. It is not easy to fit into our world, and we certainly don’t live in a culture that facilitates these commitments, but the Great Commission still sits for us to seize — today more than ever.

WRESTLING: Maybe one of the best things postmodernity has given us is a culture that values the complexities of life and rejects the notion of black and white answers. This kind of context — often misidentified as moral relativism — is not our enemy, but an incredible opportunity. We need to recapture a world where questions are not a threat to our systems of control, but the doorway to discovery. We need to trust the process of searching, believing that if we truly do search for God, we will find Him — just as He promised us.

Will you wake up tomorrow and do all these things like a champ? No, you will not. But can you wake up tomorrow and set some realistic and obtainable goals to begin making new ground in all four of these areas? Yes, you can.

And I believe some wise man once said the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Or as the Talmud instructs us: Just as rain falls in drops and forms mighty rivers, so it is with Torah. A man studies a little here and a little there, until understanding comes like a rushing stream.

May it be so.
In our day, LORD.
Amen.


8.01.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1925 thru Today

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.


Fundamentalism and secular humanism continued to be locked in a fierce battle for “truth” for a decade. It would be worth answering the question that often goes unanswered in these conversations: What happened to the parts of Christendom that wouldn’t have aligned with fundamentalism? At this point in history, those who would have rejected fundamentalism often drifted towards theological liberalism. While the Church (in this century) would eventually learn how to have more progressive conversations and put more “options” on the table (rather than a simple bifurcated presentation of the argument), this is not that point in history. For much of [theological] liberalism, their position felt like a weak take on humanism, with Jesus slapped on the label.

The two options most 20th-century Christians had to choose from seem today like equally bad options; it also looked like Christianity, while putting up a good fight, was not going to have the staying power to outlast the run that humanism was putting together.

But that all ended with the arrival of World War II.


Any hope that humanity could usher in some utopian societal existence, whether it was by fascist, socialist, communist, or even democratic means, would come to a crashing end. Every humanistic worldview seemed to show its true self in the face of unbelievable genocide, communist oppression, and nuclear war. Simply put, humanity isn’t as great as we thought it was.

This gave Christianity a great and sudden turnaround that ushered in what I call the modern evangelistic era, and the eventual rise of the evangelical church. Fundamentalism gives way to a broader, softer version of itself in a wide representation of Protestant, American Christianity. While the beliefs that justify “evangelical orthodoxy” change depending on who you ask (even today), modern evangelicalism attempted to plant its flag and set up its defenses. It’s worth noting that we still find ourselves in this tension today. The “culture wars” of the current evangelical church are not the great Promised Land of our day, nor are they the last and final Armageddon we often want them to be. At best, they are simply the awkward phases of a modern evangelicalism that is going through a sociological “puberty” and, at worst, they are the final gasping breaths of a movement coming to a very unflattering end. We would do well to consider these things.

The modern evangelical movement was created by some of the greatest evangelists of our era. People like Billy Graham and Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade for Christ) helped the church navigate this very difficult era, giving the Church language for communicating the gospel like we had never seen. I believe history might look back on this era with a similar perspective to our view of the printing press and the Reformation. This modern evangelical push paved the way for cultural engagement like never before.

Evangelism was now in the hands of normal, everyday parishioners — not just the clergy and preachers in revival tents. The creation of the “Four Spiritual Laws” (no matter how you or I might feel about their theological accuracy) created a world where college students, coworkers, and soccer moms could articulate the movement of Jesus in simple language. The same resurgence of cultural engagement would eventually lead to what many from the 1970s call the “Jesus Movement” and the great testimonies of the movement of Jesus in people’s hearts. 

About the same time (the 1970s), the world of biblical scholarship was experiencing a new frontier, as well. While this is highly oversimplified, the work of Jacob Neusner changed the world of hermeneutics as we know it. Neusner, a Jewish literary scholar (not a Christian), was attempting to understand how modern Christian thought had influenced Jewish thought. As he brought modern Christian scholars (mostly Catholic) to the table, they found themselves learning lessons from Judaism that had gone missing some 1800 years ago. Realizing the impact this had on our understanding of the Bible, academic Christians would never again engage in scholastic research or archaeology without the aid of their Jewish brothers.

Many people have asked me, “How could we have not known this stuff for all these years?” The ridiculously simplistic answer is that we just hadn’t asked. Until the work of Neusner and others, Christendom had been too worried about doctrinal purity and theological rightness to ask basic questions about the Bible’s long-lost Jewish context. Since the turn of the century, many evangelical churches are beginning to experience the work of these scholars, finally “turning the corner” to our common knowledge.

I had professors who told me in college that new discoveries often took 20–30 years to find a presence in the Church. These new discoveries have to be vetted and then handed to the educational institutions (universities and seminaries), and then taught to the eventual pastors who would teach these things from pulpits (and through blog posts). Now, with the rise of the Internet, the distribution of this information — and all information (good and bad) — is increasing exponentially.

But that’s not the only thing that changed at the turn of the century. The world of science had also taken an unexpected turn. While the modern era produced a scientific belief that we would be able to figure out everything if given enough time (see how this fits so well with secular humanism?), the discovery of quantum science radically changed all of that. Some of the most basic principles of physics and Newtonian movement no longer applied in quantum science. The scientific world reeled in the implications of this development.

Combine this with the sociological realizations of this century, and we have a major shift in worldview. While humanism took a major hit, secularism was (and is) far from dead. In fact, since the days of the French Revolution, this might be the most shocking shift Christendom has yet to accept. While we talk about it often (“post-Christian culture”), we have not figured out how to respond well to it.

Enter: Postmodernity.

In the late 1990s, the cultural cry became, “What do we truly know, anyway?” Whether it was society or politics or science, it seemed like absolutes weren’t as absolute as we had once thought. While the Church cried out against what they perceived as moral relativism, the world moved on anyway. Some progressive evangelicals attempted to move with this cultural change, bringing the gospel back into the cultural conversation by creating what is known as the Emerging Church. Largely rejected by Evangelicalism (and, I would argue, no longer considered a viable approach to the “new day” of Christian thought — at least in its original form), the Emerging Church helped start some conversations that would set the stage for growth the Church needed to prepare for its survival.

And now, a decade or two later, we find ourselves at today. With the rise of decentralized consumerism (Uber, Airbnb, etc) and social networks changing the language of interaction everywhere, it’s hard to know exactly what lies just around the bend. Where is God calling us and what does any of this mean? Is there any hope at all for the future of Christianity? It seems like we have devolved into such a mess that it's hard to know what God would even approve of in our efforts.

Well, in fact, I believe we find ourselves (as every generation has) perfectly placed for the future.

7.18.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1800 thru AD 1925

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.


As the age of revolution changed the cultural setting for Christendom, there was a new push to get our bearings as a faith movement. For almost 1400 years, the world of Christendom had enjoyed being the privileged default of culture. If you unplugged the western world and plugged it back in, the default setting would have blinked “Christian.” But now, with the rise of the Age of Enlightenment, Christendom’s white-knuckle grip on theology, creeds, and doctrinal truths did not age well. As the world became more and more knowledgable, more and more educated, more and more literate — simply affirming creedal beliefs wasn’t holding a candle to the scientific method.


But before we talk about science, one has to talk about the this new culture of independence and the impact it had on our own shores in America. The movement of culture away from Christianity had a positive effect for Christendom as a whole. In an effort to regain what was being lost, Protestant believers fell into what is often referred to as the Second Great Awakening (the “First” Great Awakening is usually attributed to the rise of Methodism in the mid-1700s, which we discussed previously). This great time of ‘revival’ was ushered in throughout North America and Europe through what we commonly know as “camp meetings.”

These revivals became a time for denominations to come together and enjoy fellowship, worship, and preaching. Such a focus and desire to experience true confession and repentance would lead to great times of spiritual revival and movement. Many attribute the rise of Pentecostalism to these experiences where the Holy Spirit seemed to be poured out in abundance. What is widely accepted as the first camp meeting was held in Kentucky in 1801 and would set the stage for an invigorated and passionate movement of Protestant parishioners.

This same awakening, coupled with the cultural movement of America toward freedom and independence, led to the jettisoning of denominationalism. As many denominations were attempting to hold onto their imperial moorings through the use of creeds and belief statements (think of a more colonial version of ‘church membership’), entire groups began kicking against colonialism as it was experienced in the North American church. The Stone-Campbell movement (also known as the Restoration Movement) was started when Barton Stone, a recently ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, was asked to sign the Westminster Confession before he could receive the Eucharist. Appalled by the use of Confession and doctrine in this way, Stone joined others with similar encounters to restore a sense of the faith experienced in revivals (a faith they associated with the early church in the book of Acts) to Christianity in America.

It is not a coincidence that other movements started at this time, as well. Driven by the same disgust in the direction of Christianity, Joseph Smith received his calling (Mormonism) at this point in history, and we see the work of Ellen G. White, John Darby, and Charles Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Note that all of these movements are capitalizing, albeit unintentionally, on a newfound culture of freedom and independence to start new, revived expressions of a faith they felt was corrupted and dying.

On the scientific front, things are not turning out well for any form of Christendom trying to hold on to the doctrinal confessions and creedal understandings of their faith. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin began his famous work and Karl Marx was pursuing new political ideals; both seemed to work against a Christian worldview. While many of these ideas were critiqued within the Christian worldview, some critical thinkers in Christianity were affirming certain components.


The need for social vigilance was championed by people like William Booth, the Methodist pastor who founded the Salvation Army. Booth would become one of the lead thinkers shaping Christianity’s social consciousness around the turn of the century, giving rise to what we would call the social gospel. While the term has a negative connotation in most conservative evangelical circles, the movement was simply trying to recapture the practical and misplaced emphasis on caring for the poor and marginalized in our increasingly industrialized world where the gap between the rich and the poor was rapidly increasing. These were some of the same things that modernity — in all of its socio-polical growth pains — was trying to articulate, as well.

The secular aspect of this cultural growth curve is known as secular humanism, and after we finished fighting World War I (it’s interesting how war always hinders progress), Christendom in North America turned its attention to fighting these secular ideals. Like a lit powder keg, the famous Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, led to eruption of Christian “fundamentalism.” Christians immediately saw themselves in a culture war with secular humanism. The problem is that this rings incredibly reminiscent of the mistakes we made with Copernicus and Galileo. It seems we may be in danger of misidentifying our “enemy” and the truth we should be fighting to preserve.

But with all the splintering and division of Christianity, it becomes harder and harder for us to learn from our mistakes.

7.04.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1650 thru AD 1800

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.


As the Age of Enlightenment continued, our secular growth curve continued, as well. If the theories and science proposed and proved by men like Copernicus and Galileo rocked the very foundations of our assumptions about the universe, it was only just setting the stage for what we call today modernity (or the “modern era”).


This growth curve would continue through the contributions of men like Isaac Newton and John Locke. Famous for his “laws of motion,” Newton is considered the modern father of mechanics and all of my engineering students have Newton to thank for so much of the field they enjoy. While this was not his only major contribution (for instance, Newton did incredible work in the field of color and the light spectrum, among other things), Newton changed the way we think about physics — therefore setting the stage for technological advancement like never before.

Locke is often referred to as the “Father of Liberalism.” While many in my circles in the rural northwest see the word liberal as something close to a swear word (I jest, I jest), it would be foolhardy to make assumptions about Locke. In its most basic and earliest forms, liberalism referred to a line of political philosophy that believes in liberty and equality. Locke’s influence, for instance, on the Declaration of Independence is unmistakable, and one of the reasons American democracy even works (on its good days) is because of the tension and balance held between liberalism and conservatism — one philosophy bent toward complete freedom and the other philosophy bent toward maintaining a constant ethic. Outside of our modern American context, Locke greatly impacted other major thinkers and players in the next century.

This secular growth curve should not convince us there was a lack in the theological department, by any means. The Protestant Reformation was finally cooling down. The Edict of Nantes (signed in 1598) had determined Protestants were granted civil liberty and equality, meaning they no longer had to run around as heretics under the oppression of the Holy Roman Empire. This freedom of thought had two results.

On the positive side, this newfound freedom allowed people to think for themselves, study, publish, and teach others their theological beliefs, theories, and systems. The negative side would be that Protestantism no longer had a central system holding it together. As Europe became more and more splintered and migration went on the rise, we would see mass division and splitting of Christian thought that seemed to increase exponentially for the next 200 years. Not that such diversity is a bad thing, but it has its struggles, as does anything else.

One of those new movements was led by John Wesley. While certainly not the first to do so, Wesley argued adamantly against the premises of Calvinism. Having broken away from the Anglican faith, Wesley became the father of what we know today as Methodism and the Methodist Church. Wesley preached vehemently about personal repentance, confession, and the power of our personal will to be transformed and to pursue the holiness of God. Christianity has been unbelievably impacted by his influence on Christian thought and practical applications of theology.

But we can’t forget all of this progress is happening in a world that is quickly changing. The writings of John Locke influenced another major secular voice in the eighteenth century: Voltaire, a French writer and philosopher who was widely praised for his satirical attacks on the Catholic Church (and some would say on established religion in general). Using his wit and cutting sense of humor, he argued for the freedom of religion and speech. His thoughts and writings shaped tremendously the ideas we know as the separation of church and state. Voltaire was quick to point out (accurately, I might add) the danger of religion when mixed with the power of the state.

Much of this had a major impact on public and educated opinion, and much of this opinion ended up changing culture in a way that radically affected history. The movement in France would ultimately lead to the French Revolution and ushered in what we now call the “post-Christian” era. The Church would continue to see a decline in its influence, both politically and culturally, as well as a loss of privilege over the centuries to come (something much of the Church is still in denial about to this day).

As far as my American context (as most of my readers are such), it would behoove us to realize that the great migration to America has been happening during this period. The cultural tenor has certainly set the stage for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. With thinkers like Locke and Voltaire, the pump had been primed for the ideals that led to European revolution, and the independence on our shores, as well.

6.29.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1550 thru AD 1650

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.


When I first studied Church history, the Reformation was taught as this unbelievable time of change. For obvious reasons, this period of history was seen as the hinge point for the modern era. It was one of the major peaks in the history of Christendom.

I know it feels like I was setting up a “but” statement, but I actually agree with these statements and I’ve come to see those statements from even a bigger and wider angle than what I believe was being taught to me. Originally, this period of Church history was taught to me in light of the progression of Protestant, Christian development.

But this development did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, this period of Christendom was accompanied by an unbelievably tumultuous time of cultural change that immediately followed it. Without the Reformation, I don’t believe Christianity would have survived the 200 years after it — a statement that has very little to do with what most of us would call theology or Church ecclesiology.


Even as I say that, I wonder if we can separate the two worlds (Church history and non-Church history). It is incredibly difficult to imagine a “pre-French Revolution” world (coming next in our discussion) in which there was no separation in thought between church and state, between faith and science, between poetry and pragmatism. So I suppose one might even be able to make the case (as in the Hannam book I mentioned earlier) that the Reformation actually led to and/or catalyzed what we refer to as the Age of Enlightenment.

The late sixteenth century brought us two people who had a large impact. John Knox is known as the man who founded the Presbyterian Church, which happened to be the flavor of Reformation in Scotland, seemingly overthrowing the presence of Catholicism and Anglicanism there. While those from a Presbyterian background would probably appreciate a much larger treatment of Knox’s contributions, it could be simplified into the style of government the Presbyterian Church is named after. Unlike other movements in the Protestant era, Knox brought an approach to church polity and governance known as the “presbytery” — a group of representatives who would lead the church as a governing body, rather than a hierarchy of papacy, priesthood, or the like.

In reference to the preceding paragraph, it’s hard to quantify the affect this would have on the thinking that would eventually lead to a political style of governance based on a democratic republic. While many of these ideas are based on Roman systems of governance, the impact of John Knox on the application of representative leadership is undeniable.

Another name in the mix during the Age of Enlightenment is Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus had this crazy idea that our universe was not revolving around the earth; he proposed the idea of a universe revolving around the sun. Using his expertise in science and mathematics, Copernicus was just trying to be honest with his findings.

While most of us read this portion of history with a smirk, we often fail to realize the impact this had on the world of theology. In this period of history, the Church’s theology rested on a geocentric understanding of the universe. Using the idea that the earth is the center of the universe, the theology of the “heavens” was such that differing levels of the heavens — and ultimately God’s dwelling place — could be found at further levels of these concentric circles of universal existence. While most of us would see this as a simple scientific adjustment and part of the learning process — the Church in this day did not. The prominent belief was that the proposal of Copernicus (and what we call heliocentrism) was threatening the very existence of God. His teaching was deemed by many to be heretical and an attack on the teachings of the Church.

As a side note, I hope my readers are realizing the relevance of this conversation to our own century of Church history. It’s a world where new scientific understandings threaten our understanding of theology and the Bible. Instead of jumping to hasty conclusions, we may want to take a lesson from this chapter of history. If we don’t, the next few centuries may not look back on our day with much kindness, but might see us as incredibly foolish, just as we do the sixteenth century.

But I digress. We will cross that bridge in due time.

While it’s probably not a shocker to most of my readers, science will not backtrack and affirm the status quo of the Church; quite the opposite, in fact. Galileo is one scientific giant who would champion the cause of Copernicus and, through the use of telescopes and other mathematics, prove (in many ways) the validity of the heliocentric universe. While this incredibly uncomfortable growth in the Church took more than a century, it happened nonetheless.

The Church accepted (albeit quietly) that their thinking was flawed, made adjustments to their theology (albeit not gracefully), and moved on.


Blaise Pascal is a Christian philosopher who helped make some radical advances in science and mathematics. In a lot of ways, Pascal would set the stage for what we understand as Newtonian physics. Through the work of men like this, the Church was able to move — even if it was an awkward movement — through the Age of Enlightenment. This growth curve would not end any time soon, and the hard work of Christian evolution through this era is only the beginning. In many ways, we are still in the awkward growth phase of this era. To this day, we continue to have a hard time appreciating the world of faith and science; often seen as enemies, we have never truly recovered from the adversarial tone struck during the Age of Enlightenment.

And so we continue to study this growth in an effort to appreciate our own place in the story.

6.26.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1300 thru AD 1550

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.


So Christendom emerges from the period of the Crusades in horrible shape: completely beaten up, completely broken. Having spent everything they had on war and conquest, they now turn their sights toward rebuilding. In order to do this, they need to find a way to get resources.

Well, in a world that is largely illiterate, where the educated are priests and leadership, studying the Text that is written in an archaic, foreign language is difficult. It becomes simple to manipulate the truth that the masses depend on you to communicate. With a little shaping here and a little gloss there, the narrative of God quickly becomes something that can enslave people in a system of fear, guilt, and control. At its best, you had priests and Church leadership who were maintaining a commitment to sound doctrine, modeling a self-sacrificial life, and instilling a message of hope into people who needed the gospel so badly.

At its worst, we saw the rise of the Age of Indulgences. While the entire conversation is incredibly complex and usually oversimplified (as even I am about to do for the sake of brevity), the general understanding of the problem is relatively accurate. As parishioners came for their typical interaction with the sacraments, the Church leveraged this need to help control the general populace.

To understand this conversation, one needs a basic understanding of sacraments. To the orthodox faith of the Middle Ages, people believed you would interact with the many different practices of the Church in order to experience the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. You might remember the liturgy and order we spoke of when we talked about the contribution of Gregory the Great. The Church had identified seven sacraments to serve as corporate practices for experiencing the dispensation of grace. For these early thinkers, there is nothing magical about the sacrament itself, other than its service as a conduit to receive the grace of God into your life. Things like baptism, the Eucharist, confession, marriage — these all allow the grace of God to flow into your life.

You can imagine, as people come to engage these sacraments and anticipate the reception of God’s grace in their lives, it is a short leap for the Church to start manipulating this system for their ends. At some of its worst moments, the Church was even offering forgiveness at a monetary price. Come to confession and absolve your sins by going through the appropriate motions — and offering the appropriate gift.

In short, we are seeing a rabid abuse of Church leadership and priesthood.


Not all the educated were prepared to turn a blind eye to these abuses. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are littered with names of those who stood up against this corruption and fought to reveal the gospel as it ought to be seen. Two popular names in the world of scholasticism are Wycliffe and Hus.

John Wycliffe — Wycliffe was known for consistently attacking the imperial privilege of the Church at large. He hated the separation between the clergy and the laypeople and thought the gap should be dissolved. While he railed against the pomp of the high Church system, he also argued that the Text should not be held captive in an ancient language. He wanted the Scriptures to be accessible for all and thought they should be translated into the common vernacular for people to understand in services. In a lot of ways, Wycliffe paved the way for the Reformation.

John Hus — Sometimes referred to as the true father of the Reformation, it’s hard to see Hus apart from the work of Wycliffe. Hus led an informal resistance to the papacy and was eventually executed for leading what history knows as the Bohemian Revolt. There were two successful regional Crusades against the reigning papacy. While his methods may be subject, his thinking deeply shaped the thought process in western Europe and definitely laid the groundwork for what we know as the Protestant Reformation.

Part of the issue in this period of Catholic history was the geopolitical context. With a new sense of what I call “medieval nationalism,” the power structures in the world were shifting entirely. No longer was the world ruled by one giant papacy; as Christendom tried to figure out how to hold onto their outdated systems of governance, the world changed around them. People were seeing their allegiance aligned more with the powers of the state and country than they were with a foreign church. People associated with being French or German as a more immediate identification than they did with being “Catholic.”

This made it easier and easier to reject foreign papacy and rule. The papacy of Avignon actually shifted the seat of power away from Rome and into France for a period of seven popes, leading to what would later be called the “Western Schism” — when the Western Church was spilt between western and eastern Europe.

The Church continued to suffer from divisions and schisms.

In light of the many abuses of religious power, the Protestant Reformation was simply waiting for good leaders. How “good” these leaders were is left to historical debate. I will leave my personal opinions out of it; so much material has been written about the Reformation and I encourage you to do your own study. Needless to say, people like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin led reformations away from the Catholic Church in their respective lands, each with their own nuances to their understanding of theology.

At this point, we begin to split over the smallest of nuances. No longer held together by a common hierarchy or papal leadership, we were free to disagree over the smallest details, often fueled by our nationalistic identifications. However, each national identity will get a denominational affiliation: Germans would be Lutheran, the French might be Calvinistic Reformers, and the Swiss would follow Zwingli.

Their many opinions splintered the faith of Christendom, and we don’t have time for that full conversation. However, as far as the good this movement did, it is hard to overstate. The invention of the printing press allowed the widespread distribution of the Text in the language of the common person. The Reformation changed the face of education and cinched up the gap between the educated and the uneducated, especially in reference to theology — both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

And while this might seem like an unbelievable amount of change for the world to endure, the change is only beginning.

5.30.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1000 thru AD 1300

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.


We left our last discussion with the world of Christendom having been rocked to its core. With the departure of the Eastern Church, the danger is that it would raise a whole new sense of papal rejection. If folks can just tell the pope no, then what does that mean?

Well, as the saying goes, nothing brings a people together like a common enemy.

To be fair, I’m not going to wade into the spicy conversation surrounding the Crusades and present myself as a historian or expert. I know talking about this period of history can be incredibly charged emotionally — as it should be. I know some historical reconstructionists have attempted to put a “positive spin” on the Crusades and what the intentions were behind them. I will be attempting no such explanation. For me, this chapter of Christian history is dark and marked with all sorts of problems, which most of us have simply kept out of sight and out of mind.

I remember the chapter in Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller where he spoke about his experience at the reverse confessional. He talked about how they set up a confessional booth at Reed College and — instead of receiving confessions from others — they offered confessions on behalf of their faith, both current and historic. I have not stopped hearing the kickback from readers or thinkers who say, “But why would I/they apologize for something that happened centuries ago?” This question shows our blatant disconnection from our faith and where it comes from. This disconnection stops us from being able to think critically about how we could ever get to that place. And a dark history disowned by the descendants of it will be bound to repeat itself. Some would say we are on the verge of such an era right now.

But I won’t try to present myself as an expert — only as a learner, a student of history, and a fellow thinker.

It’s my belief that in our desperate need to unify Christendom, we seized an opportunity that arose at just the right time. Shortly after the East-West Schism, the Islamic movement was making its way to capture Palestine. While there is no way I am going to give you a history of the Islamic faith here, it would be helpful to know that as Mohammed was doing the work of canonizing his teaching and creation of the Qur’an was underway, there were three dominant worldviews at play within Islam. There was what we might have called a progressive movement — which wanted to live peaceably with everyone. There was a moderate movement that saw itself as the correct faith, and others as largely apostate, but did not seek to convert them by force. There was also a radical branch of the faith bent on violent overthrow of the pagan idolaters.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We studied Judaism of the second temple period and its different sects. We have seen the same movements grow and disappear within Christian history, as well. (I cannot move on without recommending Battle for God by Karen Armstrong, a wonderful look at the history of the three faiths and the rise of radical fundamentalism in each.)

I find this helpful because most people choose which groups they want to represent their own faith story. While Christians would (typically) never define themselves by the fringe, radical edges of fundamentalism, we consistently do the opposite to the “other” in the conversation. I would say the movement of Islam toward capturing Palestine did not represent the Islamic faith as a whole (not even close). It did have a lot of traction at this point in history, though, and it did provide a perfect opportunity for the Church in the west to find a common enemy and use it as a scapegoat to bring unity to a struggling kingdom.


This is my unauthoritative (and probably oversimplified) opinion on this point of history. I am no expert in the Crusades, so I will not try to explain my way through it. Let’s just say that these few centuries were an absolute mess, and the mess seemed to galvanize an unfortunate unity in Christendom.

But before we move on to the next chapter of history, it would be worth pointing out that not everyone is out fighting in the Crusades.

They never are. We let the poor, the uneducated, and the commoners do that work for us.

Simultaneously, as the Crusades are being fought, we witness the rise of “scholasticism” and an ever-widening gap between those who have and those who have not. This is a gap we are well acquainted with today; we often talk about the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the world. In the Middle Ages, this gap was driven more by education and academic privilege. While the middle and bottom classes were fighting in the Crusades, the cream of the crop was being taught and educated at a level we simply hadn’t seen before. With the rise of science and the accomplishments it brought, a university system that we still understand and rely on today began to take shape. Apprentices were taught not only how to read and write (which was an incredible advantage, by the way!), but they were also instructed in the blossoming fields of mathematics, science, theology, and the arts — most of which was driven by the Greek philosophers of the Hellenistic era.

One of the most revered names in Church history is often that of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, without a doubt, changed the face of Christian history by bringing into a logical order the many fields of education. Aquinas showed how the world of mathematics and science could blend with the world of philosophy and theology, and the western world would never be the same. The way we understand our education system today is largely shaped by the perspective brought to us through the work of Thomas Aquinas. Many would call him the father of logic and reason.

I’ll resist my desire to be critical until we conclude our study of history, but I’m hoping my western-minded readers will notice that somewhere around a millennia before this, we lost some things that were absolutely crucial to the health of the Church. While I realize we are all still enamored with the pillars of Hellenism today, I hope we learned enough to critically examine just how lost we are 1,000 years after the Judaic movement of Jesus. But I digress.

Or do I? We shall see.