The Church History In A Nutshell or A History of Nutty Churchmen
I think I would just like to say a few words on teaching churches Church History. Yesterday, I was given the opportunity to teach the adult Sunday School lesson. By some miracle I managed, with five pages of notes to teach all of Church History in 30 minutes. Of course, I used only 3 sentences or so for about the 1200 years before the Reformation (during the Crusades), but hey, it worked, heh? My starting point was the physical split of Christianity from Judaism in Jerusalem (the destruction of the Temple), with a focus on Tertullian, Justin Martyr, a few Roman emporers, and the canonization of the New Testament. With a general consensus coming together about the NT, debates started to foster over Christology, the Arian Controversy. I found it no coincidence that one of the men responsible for listing all of the NT books (in an Easter letter in 367 A.D.), Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt was involved the struggle to recognize Christ as both fully human and divine. That brought me to the next part of church history I covered, the rise of Emperor Constantine. I believe that Constantine represents a fundamental redefinition of Christianity, Christianity went from a religion of conversion, baptism of blood and water, to accepting the premise that politicians who did Christians favors were essentially Christian, even if they had not been baptized (aka committed to the faith). Athanasius would run into trouble with Constantine’s grandson (himself an Arian/denier of Christ’s divinity) and would be exiled into Rome (enemy territory at the time). Athanasius, according to his On The Incarnation, believed that Jesus was King who became a citizen, even that Sweet Old Baby Jesus in the crib, to save the world. Believing Jesus was King of Creation (divine) meant conflict with the rulers of this age. Athanasius had friends in what we call modern-day Turkey, the Cappodocians. “The Cappodocians”: (Basil of Caesarea [where Eusebius was from], his brother Gregory of Nyssa, their sister Macrina, and Gregory of Nazianus their friend): Basil as well as Gregory of Nyssa are famous for their works on the Trinity. Macrina, Basil and Gregory’s older sister, was known for living a life of holiness and discipline. Gregory of Nazianus, because he believed like Athanasius that Christ Jesus is Lord, was one of the earliest Christian thinkers to write about the evils of slavery, using his sermons on the book of Ecclesiastes. God’s ownership of creation (Jesus’ lordship) meant that no one single human being had the right to own another human being.
I would have gone over the Middle Ages, but for the sake of time, and because I have little interest in it, I could only sum it up this way: Rome fell to the barbarians, I mean Germans. For more than 1200 years of Christianity being united under the Emperors and Bishops of Rome; Less than a century before the Reformation happened, the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, and Russia declared itself the Third Rome, a center for Eastern Christianity [Russian orthodoxy now being protested for its support of Putin]. This history included the history of the Crusades. Many people see the Crusades as Christians attacking other religions, and demonize that part of history as an excuse not to follow Christ. Not necessarily true, Christians went to war with other Christians as well (East versus West), particularly in the 4th Crusade where a pope from Rome called for an invasion of Constantinople.
The Reformation starts w/ a German monk Martin Luther who began teaching on Paul’s Letter to the Romans in 1515, and subsequently 2 years after All Saints Day (October 31, 1517), he posted his 95 Theses (as a result of his studies) in protest of Pope Leo X raising funds for building through promises of rescuing souls from purgatory. There had been Christians [executed by church authorities] before Martin Luther who fought for the right for countries to have the Bible translated in their own language (rather than the Latin Vulgate), but Luther’s Theses set off a firestorm, as he persuaded his colleagues and townspeople across Germany of his arguments. Luther’s writings and sermons meant not only a Reformation outside the Catholic Church, but also inside of it as well.
With changes on the horizon in universities and churches, the Spainards wanted to initiate a new age of discovery. Catholicism in Spain was having a Reformation of its own a couple of decades before Luther’s Theses. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had earned the right, with permission from the Pope, to name men to the church positions. At one point, a friar was forced to take the position as the royal confessor. Christopher Columbus, a citizen of Spain was also a Catholic Christian during this time. The same year Columbus left to discover a path to India (the Americas he found), it was decreed that Jews who lived in Spain had to convert, as well as the Spanish Christians who sympathized with Martin Luther, or be condemned to exile [the Inquisition as we know it now]. The Protestant & Catholic Reformations spread from Germany to Switzerland (John Calvin), and into England and Scotland (John Knox). Because of the new invention of the publishing press, the Bible was translated into native languages, printed, and distributed to the masses. With more Christians being empowered to read the Bible for themselves, they could further develop their relationship with God.
As a result, there were a number of Christians, men like Menno Simons, who began to see Jesus’ words and deeds in the New Testament as divine. If Christ is God, his teachings were from God, and his teaching must take precedent over church authorities and tradition. Menno Simons taught that Christians must be baptized by immersion as a symbol, a public confession of Christ and commitment to the local church. Simons, like Tertullian before him, believed that believers should not engage in warfare or violent revolution, but be left free to be obedient to Christ. Christians who shared Simon’s views on baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper (as a symbol) eventually made their way to England, and eventually, the Thirteen Colonies in America. At this point in history, in the Americas, in Asia and Africa, Christians from Europe laid claim to ownership over the human beings and lands. The issue of owning and enslaving humans eventually meant churches in the United States becoming divided. In the middle of the 19th century, several years before the Civil War, a Baptist missionary agency refused to commission a candidate from Georgia because he owned slaves. How could he be a witness for Christ if he did not affirm Jesus’ Lordship over ALL of creation? That event would lead to the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists were not alone, however, this rift played out in Methodism, Catholicism, and Presbyterianism all the same.
Whether it was persecution by the Roman Empire, Athanasius’ defending the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, or the Discovery of the New World that involved Christians enslaving others, at the center of church history is the Christian struggle to understand the Lordship of Christ. Church History IS NOT just about learning facts and events from rote memory, OR is about simply learning from history in order not to repeat it (as the cliché goes); instead, it is an invitation to see how God works in unique ways through the centuries, as He calls us to repentance and redeems the world.
Sources: The Story of Christianity: Volumes 1-3 by Justo L. Gonzalez; The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins; Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans by Gayraud S. Wilmore; and, Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts edited by Patricia Cox Miller