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.

5.22.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 700 thru AD 1000

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.


The next item that leads to major disagreement and arguments in the Byzantine Church is the use of images and icons. Often referred to as the Iconoclastic Controversy, this period of history would eventually put an end to the Byzantine period (at least as it is concerned with the papacy and the Holy Roman Church; some would extend the Byzantine Empire all the way to the Ottoman period, but I don’t find this useful for our purposes here).

The controversy stemmed from a major difference in mindsets — the eastern worldview versus the western worldview. If you’ve never heard of this discussion before, you could listen to my podcast on it. The two worlds interact with information and experiences in a completely different way. Neither one is more right or more wrong — they are simply different. As the Greeks rose to power and the western world came to dominate Europe and eventually spread over the globe, this controversy was bound to happen.


The relevant difference between the worlds for our conversation here is how they communicate truth. The westerner communicates truth with words, definitions, and prose. One can see this world at work clearly in the early stages of Christendom as we form creeds and doctrinal statements to be circulated throughout the empire. However, there is another side of the world that communicates truth using pictures and images. This is the eastern world of the Bible. In the world of the Bible, we had preserved the Text in a culture that was committing it to memory, and we had an education system that was dedicated to the preservation of the Text. When one maintained the Text and used images to convey its truth, this wasn’t nearly as problematic. But once we kicked out the Jews, we needed to figure out how to preserve the Text we were in danger of losing.

Now I certainly don’t mean the Text in its physicality. The monastic movements were working hard to preserve the physical (written) Text, but we have to remember we are dealing with a world that hadn’t seen the invention of the printing press. How do you preserve the Text in a world that has no distribution of printing (and is mostly illiterate)? The western world wrote down what the Text said; we’ll call it doctrine. The eastern world drew images and pictures to help them remember the content; these were called icons.

And the western world did not like icons.

One can understand the confusion. Most of my readers are likely western minded, and if they found themselves lost in an Eastern Orthodox church on a Sunday morning, they might be shocked to see people enjoying incense and praying at stations where they kneel in front of a picture or statue — an icon. To the westerner, this seems to be idolatry. The kneeling congregant is obviously worshipping the icon. But this is a misunderstanding of the eastern worldview. No eastern worshipper sees themselves as worshipping the icon. They are worshipping the God who lies behind the story the icon represents.

While a westerner listens to a lecture (sermon) and reads a book (the Text), the easterner hears a different kind of lecture (narrative) and reads a different kind of book (icon). In fact, the easterner could just as easily accuse the westerner of drifting away from the eastern world of the Bible and engaging in a new kind of doctrinal idolatry.

Nevertheless, this controversy took its toll on Christendom; the next 250 years would be a battle to hold a splintering kingdom together in unity. With the ending of the Byzantine papacy, the Holy Roman Church would find moments of hope in new leadership throughout this era. People like Boniface would help unite order under a struggling papacy, as would many others.

One of the more influential names is that of Charlemagne. One could look at Charlemagne with either critical eyes or eyes of admiration, but one thing is sure, Charlemagne is often called the Father of the West for uniting the Western Church unlike anybody had since the days of Constantine. Charlemagne led the Church on the path of productive renaissance, urging intellectual and spiritual revitalization. While the Middle Ages is certainly seen as a dark time (more on that later), the work of Charlemagne may be seen as a catalyst for the progress made during that era. (It was really the setup to the scientific revolution; for more on this, one could read this book by Hannam.)

Eventually, though, this unity and progress would not hold under the growing tension between the East and the West. With an empire as big as Rome itself, the West was finding it impossible to control their eastern brothers as they attempted to kick against the goads of western progress. At the turn of the first millennium, the great East-West Schism took place, tearing Christendom into what would be known as the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. As the Western Church banked on the power of the papacy and what they saw as God-ordained authority, they made demands of their eastern brothers. These demands were refused and denounced.

The fact that half of the Christian empire simply denounced and tore away from the papal-led church left the West in shock and terror. To many, it seemed as though Christendom could never survive.

5.16.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 500 thru AD 700

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 this (mostly) Gentile Christian empire finishes their councils, and Rome falls. The Roman Empire shifts from an imperial political state to what some would call the “Holy Roman Empire” and a[n imperial] religious state. To be sure, all of these labels are unfair to use, since the ancient world knew nothing about the separation of church and state, and to insinuate that the Roman empire of the Caesars was not religious would be ludicrous. However, I hope the reader understands my point: we shift from Emperors to Popes, from Rome to Christendom.

This newly established kingdom, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire, played its role in the history and growth of Christianity. It indeed had some bright, shining moments, but none of this could cover up some of the darker problems of the era.

Toward the beginning of Byzantine history, Justinian expanded their rule to its largest extent in history. This chapter is full of dark stories of Christian faith combined with the empire’s sword. People were forced to affirm holy creeds and Christian doctrines. If they did not, they were offered the opportunity to convert. If they refused, they were persecuted, sanctioned, or even executed. Christianity’s anti-semitic history continued in this era; there were corners (sometimes very large corners) of the empire where we would beat or kill Jews who did not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.

How things change when you find yourself at the handle end of the sword.

We could (and maybe should) go on and on about this, but that paragraph will serve to sum up the darker chapters of this history for now. There were also some important developments in the Christian faith, sometimes connected and sometimes disconnected from the imperial efforts of the Byzantines.

Again, since we had cut the Christian faith away from from our Jewish heritage, we lost contact with a faith — and more importantly a practice — that had defined God’s people for centuries and centuries. Having spent over a century perfecting our doctrine and theology (something Gentiles have been very, very concerned with) and focusing on orthodoxy (right belief), we now needed to ask questions about orthopraxy (right practice).

Since Gentile Christians did not believe in following Torah, they were missing the “playbook” on what it meant to walk the path of faith. (In fact, Augustine had written a horrible edict commanding the African Christians not to even entertain Jewish relationships. He penned a seven-point document that forbade doing business with Jews and lighting candles for Sabbath, in addition to commanding the consumption of ham on Easter, etc.)

In this setting, the monastic movements shined. While many flippantly critique the monastic movements as being secluded and isolated (somewhat reminiscent of the Essenes), we owe much of what is good in our Christian faith to their faithfulness. They were committed to trying to preserve the physical Text, becoming people of service (they continued the work of what we would call hospitals and clinics), and being devoted to their faith. When we needed to know what it meant to create space for God in this new world, these movements helped many spiritually blind folks see. They were experts in prayer and discipline, corporate spiritual practices, and service. Because they struggled with isolationism, great thinkers like Gregory of Nissa and Basil taught some very important things about community.


As history turned the corner into the seventh century, Gregory the Great (who would be the pope) came along and became what some have referred to as the father of medieval spirituality. Gregory brought the world of Christendom its first large-scale taste of liturgy (church order) through things like Gregorian Chant and a public, corporate practice of worship — many elements of which can still be found in Catholic mass today.

While there are always ways to look at history through overly rosy lenses or overly critical lenses, it’s important to note the things this era brought us. Unfortunately, this period of history did very, very little to undo the imperial abuses of Christian freedom; in fact, quite to the contrary, they only systematized the chronic power struggle that had (and would) ruin the trajectory of our Christian story.

However, the next century would be spent learning to create space for a God we (maybe) largely misunderstood. I am a firm believer that this allowed God to continue to work through the story of Christianity, in spite of itself. As God told the Hebrews in the Tanakh more than once, there is always a remnant. There will always be a group of people who are trying to follow the Creator to the absolute best of their ability. And because of that — be them Jews, Christians, or pagans — God will always be looking for partners.

But we will continue to have a hard time getting along, and it won’t be long before we find more problems to argue about in our next chapter of history.

5.10.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 300 thru AD 500

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.


The tension between this growing movement and the empire of Rome continued until just after AD 300. Persecutions would intensify and subside at different points along this curve, usually in response to political necessity and upheaval. The early Christian movement happened to be the second fastest growing religion in the Roman empire for two centuries. The fastest growing religious movement was that of Mithra (a Roman offshoot of what is typically called “Zoroastrianism”). Emperors were sometimes known to claim to be Mithra incarnate, and the last emperor who made such a claim was Chlorus, the father of Constantine. His birthday happened to be December 25, and the Constantinian Dynasty (started by Chlorus) enacted an imperial Advent celebrating his birth — but I digress.

Most people familiar with this period of history will know that Chlorus’s son Constantine changed the course of Christian history. While the story is generally understood, the details are quite muddy depending on exactly who is telling the story and what their ultimate goal is. Constantine found himself battling over a strategic bridge; should this bridge be captured, many said the fall of Rome would be imminent. As history tells the story, Constantine seemed to be backed up against enormous odds. According to his testimony, as Constantine considered the possibilities of retreat, surrender, or certain death, he had a vision where the Christian God showed him a shield with the Greek letters “chi” (Χ) and “rho” (Ρ) on it. He understood the meaning of these inscriptions to be, “In Christ you will conquer.”

The stories differ (one record is from Lactantius and the other is from Eusebius), but it seems that Constantine was “converted” that day, before the battle. He put this new chi rho symbol on the soldiers’ shields and they went on to victory. Constantine would credit this great Roman victory to the Christian God who delivered him from certain death.

Historians are all over the map on the truth of Constantine’s testimony. Many think the story is completely legitimate. Some say Constantine was a political genius and knew the writing was on the wall as Christianity continued to take a toll on the crumbling Roman empire, with now more than 80% of the empire being Christian. According to this theory (which happens to be my own opinion), Constantine took an opportunity to seize the momentum of popular opinion and attempted to synchronize the paganism of his father’s Mithra worship and the growing Christian momentum. Others claim there is some truth in the middle, that Constantine had some experience, maybe even misinterpreting the vision, and then later struggled to figure out what this change in worldview meant politically for an already divided Roman empire.

Nevertheless, this moment in Roman history changes the course of the Church forever — and as I see it, certainly not for the better. Many folks will flippantly state that Constantine made Christianity the state religion; this is simply not true. Constantine made it legal in the Roman empire to be a Christian. There were no more penalties and persecutions for Christians. It wasn’t until much later in the century that Theodosius would enact new legislation to give incentives to those who claimed the Christian faith (practically making Christianity the “imperial religion”).


This newfound freedom meant Christians didn’t have to run for their lives anymore. Great, right? Maybe. The problem was that ever since the breakup of Jews and Gentiles, the Christians had fallen prey to that pesky Gnostic Crisis. While they struggled to stay alive, these larger theological issues stayed on the back burner. But now that folks were free to return to lives of “normalcy,” these issues took center stage. The different effects of Gnosticism drove the Christians in this almost-completely-Gentile movement to argue about the nature of Jesus. Was he man? Was he God? Was he somehow both? As they struggled to find answers to questions the Bible wasn’t asking, they needed to make a decision on what we would later call “orthodoxy” before the movement completely splintered.

This led to almost two centuries of councils — church meetings where the movement sought to make decisions on how to move forward. While this medium had worked before (think Jerusalem Council), I think it was set up for a rougher road now that the movement was divorced from the Jewish backbone of truth and Text. While there were seven major councils in all, there are four that seem to stand out historically. I will attempt to close this era of history by simplifying (and oversimplifying) them and their major decisions here.

COUNCIL OF NICAEA (AD 325): The divinity of Christ. Ordered by Constantine himself, this council convened to deal with the teaching of Arianism (among other topics). Arianism is the belief that Christ is separate from God the Father. Out of this council, they drafted the Nicene Creed, which declares Christ is of one substance with the Father.

COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (AD 381): The humanity of Christ. Ordered by Theodosius I (mentioned above), this council convened mostly to deal with the teaching of Apollinarism, the belief that Christ was not truly human. They eventually expanded the Nicene Creed, making adjustments that expounded on their previous ideas. They added Apollinarism to their small, but growing, list of heresies.

COUNCIL OF EPHESUS (AD 431): The singularity of Christ’s personhood. Theodosius II called this council to deal with the teaching of Nestorius, who taught (although history is divided on whether or not it was him) that Christ was actually two distinct ‘persons,’ existing as God in one and man in the other. The council declared that Christ was in fact one person at all times; they also declared no one was allowed to publish any teachings rivaling that of the orthodoxy declared in these councils. Furthermore, they discussed the teaching of Pelagianism, which rejected the idea of original sin and complete human depravity (taught in Augustinian theology). The Church sided with Augustine and rejected Pelagianism.

COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON (AD 451): The fullness of divinity AND humanity in Christ. Convoked by Marcian, this council dealt with the teaching of Eutychian heresy, declaring that Christ, while being one person, was not completely God and completely man simultaneously. Known as the “Hypostatic Union,” the council’s declaration spoke to the fact that Christ was both 100% God and 100% man simultaneously.


If all of this sounds just a bit ridiculous, as if we’ve lost the plot of the story, I would say yes and no. These theological issues are actually very significant. However, it does seem as though we’ve lost the plot of God’s great narrative entirely. This might not have been necessary if — again — we hadn’t lost touch with our Text and the methodology of relationship with God (as we’d understood it for 1000 years prior through Judaism), and if we hadn’t let Gnostic ideas invade our faith. This is the beginning of a downhill slide I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from. (But I have hope!)

It’s not long after this when Rome falls. This was not a surprise; the original strength of the empire had disappeared even before Constantine. The Romans were in constant flux and political instability. Eventually the Roman empire loses the vastness of its reach and becomes what history knows as the Byzantine Empire.

5.02.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: AD 100 thru AD 300

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 off with that repeated question: What happened? Many students ask me this question, not just in reference to the history of Christendom, but in reference to our Judaic roots. We come from an incredibly Jewish story, following a Jewish rabbi and his Jewish talmidim. How did we become so separated from our Jewish foundation?

There are many in scholarship who weigh in on these opinions. From a historically respectable perspective, I have found two opinions to be most plausible (based on what we know), and one of those opinions I hold personally.

The first opinion is based on an understanding of a much more defined schism between the Jewish and Gentile Church (read: Paul and James). As we discussed before, I don’t miss the undeniable tension between the Church in Jerusalem and the Church of Asia, but I also hold to the record given to us in the book of Acts and believe the Apostolic leaders were able to come to an agreement and mutual understanding (binding and loosing, if you will, as described in the records of Acts 15 and elsewhere). This option believes that this Christian movement, which began in Jewish rank and order, was much more bent on the proclamation of their subversive “gospel” and this created unwanted (especially in Asia) political tension. The Jewish Exception outlawed (in part) aggressive proselytization, and this new Jesus movement was challenging that status quo and upsetting the empire. This theory proposes the Jewish religion jettisons its Jesus following believers, who are mostly Gentile in nature. 


There are certainly pieces in history to support this theory, but I don’t think this is what we actually see happening, especially in light of recent scholarship. The late David Flusser suggested decades ago that early Christianity was predominantly a Jewish movement that didn’t see such internal tensions until much later. One of the largest criticisms of his theory was the lack of evidence for Jews and Gentiles worshipping together. In the last twenty years, as archaeological efforts have increased in modern Turkey (biblical Asia and Asia Minor), we are finding more and more evidence to suggest Flusser was correct.

So instead, I cling to the theory that the schism happened later, just after the turn of the century. When Trajan and later Hadrian were emperors, they led some of the most aggressive (although maybe not the most brutal) persecutions of the Jews. Historians have long wondered why the target of these persecutions seemed to have such a Jewish focus. The Jews weren’t the largest imperial threat to Roman power — it would seem the Christians were. Many have suggested (rightly so, in my opinion) that the Christians were in fact so Jewish that they were seen as an indistinguishable part of Judaism.

From what little pieces of history we have, and though most of Judaism originally stood behind their Gentile converts and theosabes (except in those rare “Synagogue of Satan” places), these same Gentiles seemed to turn their backs on their Jewish brothers and sisters when Rome came looking to extinguish Judaism. Choosing to fall back on their uncircumcised roots, they left their Jewish counterparts out to dry and created a schism that we never healed. Following the Hadrianic persecution and the Bar Kochba revolt, this helps explain why the writings of the early church are so anti-semitic in their teachings (just one or two generations removed from the apostles).


But this schism will have more than relational implications. Now that the Jews are gone, this Jesus-following body has lost their connection to the Text. They no longer have walking libraries of Torah and Jewish narrative to teach and lead them. The moment this anchor was pulled up, Gentiles were left to lean on the only thing they knew intimately. Unfortunately, the worldview that dominated the Hellenistic culture was Gnosticism (you may want to review our discussion on Colossians).

This conflicting worldview led to all kinds of corrupted teachings and beliefs (even if we assume the presence of New Testament writings and the Didache, the early church’s manual for passing on the Apostle’s teaching to new converts). Almost immediately, there were arguments for the rejections of different writings. A man by the name of Marcion was arguing for the rejection of the Tanakh and most of the gospels, with a full acceptance of the letters from Paul, much of the gospel of Luke, and some other letters. If that sounds familiar, it’s because much of evangelical Christianity continues to approach the New Testament in the same way. Marcion was eventually declared a heretic and his arguments rejected, but he had brought up the need for this Gentile movement to declare which teachings would be authoritative, and the movement went forward.

From this we received the Muratorian Canon, which is what our New Testament is based on. This canon had only 22 of the 27 letters in it, and the larger conversation surrounding it would later lead to the reordering of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christians (with an undeniable anti-semitic bent).

This unfortunate new world probably would have brought other issues to the table had the Gentile Christian movement not been at odds with the empire of Rome. As they continued to deal with the persecution that came and left and came and left, they were forced to bind together and cling to the essentials for the survival of their faith. It is a dark shame that we weren’t able to do this with the company and leadership provided by our Jewish brothers and sisters. We will be left to wonder what could have been. Would the “Age to Come” have arrived and Jesus’s return been realized, just as the writers of the New Testament were claiming? Maybe so.

For now, they run for their lives. They stand and they die. But it’s all about to change.

4.26.2017

CHURCH HISTORY: Telling a Story

We left our last conversation (and finished our study of the Scriptures) with this nagging question: What happened?

Now that we are done with our study of the God-breathed Text, we are entering a very sticky and dangerous realm of my own personal thoughts and opinions. While my thoughts and opinions have certainly been at work in the previous discussion, I have taken solace in the fact that we were working on a discussion centered around the life-giving biblical narrative. But this question is incredibly important, and as a Bible teacher who works with college students, I’m deeply convicted that if we don’t wrestle with these questions, we have done a great disservice to our study of the Text.

One of the things we talk about at Impact Campus Ministries is what we call “Message, Mode, and Milieu” — an idea introduced to us through the dissertation work and leadership of my personal friend, mentor, and former ICM president, Bill Westfall. When we speak of Message, the idea we are trying to communicate is that we need to have an understanding of “the whole story of God and His invitation to join” that story. There is no way we can adequately address this invitation if we don’t have an understanding of what happened in between the world of the Bible and the world you and I traverse today.

Because of this, I would like to wrap up our study by engaging that now. It is important to know a few things.

1) I am not a historian or an expert in the field of church history. Have I studied church history considerably? Yes. Am I an expert? Not at all. I am indebted to the work of real experts, some of whom I’ve been able to study with personally, and some I have only read from a distance. Please don’t quote me as a source in this regard. I am simply trying to take some of the things I have learned and think critically with all of you. Nothing more; nothing less.

2) Every historian, whether they are an expert or not, tells a story. There simply is no such thing as an unbiased rendering of history. Each one of us sees history through the lens of our own culture, language, experience, opinion, and conviction. I want you to know up front that I will be taking the parts of history I believe tell the story in the most useful manner for our culture in this place and in this time. It is completely intentional and biased. But please, do not ever believe anyone who doesn’t affirm that. All renderings of history have a story to tell, and all historians are storytellers. We should not run from that, but embrace it. And we should allow it to challenge us to think critically about our past(s).

3) My intent with this last portion of our study is not “the history of the church.” I will not even begin to deal adequately with any portion of church history in a comprehensive way. I will not be doing a study on the reformers, or the desert fathers. I simply want to take a broad look at where we’ve been and how our Christian world has been shaped. This means I will be overgeneralizing at times. I will try my best not to do this in a misleading or disingenuous way, but I want to stay within the scope of my intent here.

In this regard, there are many, many great sources for church history. I would recommend books like Constantine’s Sword and Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. These recommendations do not mean I agree in full with these works or their many nuances, but they are a great way to get started.

Now, as I pointed out, the early Christians seemed to believe the return of Christ was imminent. Were they wrong? I don’t believe they were.

As I said earlier, I believe Jesus taught us about a proper three-part understanding of the coming of the Age to Come. I do not believe there is a fixed date for which Jesus’s return is set. On the contrary, I believe God is inviting us to partner with Him in restoring a broken world. At some point, as this “redemptive arc of history” is bent closer and closer to the intent of God, God will snap the last few pieces into place — maybe just as the apocalyptic prophets paint the picture, or maybe differently.

This understanding runs congruent with the Jewish understanding Peter seems to promote in 2 Peter 3.
You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
Apparently the “day of God” is not fixed, but stands in relation to us. Our obedience somehow speeds up its coming. And just as we saw in the end of our study of the New Testament, this commitment and radical obedience by the early believers was working. I don’t believe they were wrong to think the coming of Christ and the new heaven and new earth — prophesied by Isaiah, re-announced by Peter, Paul, and John — were speedily approaching.

But then something happened…

We seemed to lose the plot. I want to look at what that something might have been. Join me as we begin to walk through the last 2000 years.

4.20.2017

REVELATION: The End is a New Beginning

John now works his apocalyptic vision toward its ultimate closing.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
John continues to draw from the imagery of Ezekiel (in this case, chapter 47), using the image of an angel showing the prophets the apocalyptic conclusion to his vision. The allusions continue, as what John sees is very similar to what Ezekiel saw. Ezekiel also saw a river and trees that bore fruit for the healing of the nations. Allusions to the Psalms and to Jeremiah abound, as well. It seems as though everything God’s people longed for is still — according to John — something to long for, and still in process.

It’s coming, John says.


I think it’s also worth noting here that John is deliberately bringing us full circle back to the beginning of the story of God. There are plenty of direct and indirect allusions to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. Some have suggested John is mirroring the creation imagery in his vision. This would make sense, as we’ve seen in the rest of Johannine literature that John loves to work around with the Creation story motif. Could it be John is bringing us back to where it all began? Remember, in the beginning, Genesis said God separated light from darkness — but the “source” of that light (the sun) wasn’t created until day four. Could John be alluding to these beginnings by suggesting that there is light, but no sun? It seems likely.
The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
“Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.”
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”
Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
John (in the vision) is overwhelmed by the things he sees. He falls to worship, but the angel calls to him to make sure his worship remains pure. Is this a call for the readers of this vision, as well? Possibly. The language used by the angel here mirrors that of other visions, in particular at least three different sections in Daniel (chapters 8, 9, and 12). And there may be hints at the closing of Isaiah (chapter 65, and others might even suggest chapter 40).
John’s message continues: It’s all coming true. It’s all coming to pass. You must overcome! You must persevere.
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
They must hang in there. John gives them words from Jesus, a testimony for the churches. They must not give in to uncertainly or despair, for the reward of staying true to their convictions will not only be the opportunity to drink freely of the water of life, but to see the culmination of thousands of years of faithfulness on behalf of their ancestors. God’s great redemption project is finding its true and complete fulfillment! But not if they give up.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
While many get worked up about these verses (which are important, no doubt), what is often missed is the fact that these words are taken (surprise!) from earlier writings. Deuteronomy had similar prohibitions. Even the wisdom of the Proverbs used similar words to talk about the record.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
And with that prayer of anticipation, John closes his apocalyptic vision.

And we close our study of the Scriptures. But we simply can’t end the conversation here, for this conversation raises historical questions that nag us as twenty-first-century readers. As the Bible ends, the persecuted people of God are standing strong against the empire of Rome. They are watching Rome crumble in the face of a subversive movement and a commitment to peace, love, and compassion. Multiple times throughout the New Testament, we heard the writers exclaim or allude to the fact that they believed the world would see the return of Jesus within even a generation or two.

Were they wrong? How could we have gone through such trying times and watch the fall of the most powerful empire in the world and not see the end of this story? How did we get to where we are today?

In short, what happened?