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.

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