Christian History begins in Acts with the ascension of Christ. Right before he is seen by his disciples going back into the clouds his disciples ask him, “Are you going to establish the Kingdom of Israel now?” Whenever I read this I laugh out loud. But I also recognize its rich significance. That was a question any person in their sandals would ask. After all that was what it was all about for the Jewish people. They had a great story about their origins as a nation and where it was all heading. For them it was the reestablishment of the Davidic Kingdom. A new era that would surpass all the wonders of Solomon’s Kingdom in all of its glory.
But then Jesus was so patient with his friends. After he makes them aware that they are not to know the time or periods they were asking about he speaks of the beginning of the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. He spoke of a time when they would begin in Jerusalem, being filled with the spirit, they would bring that same message Peter spoke at Pentecost, and the same spirit that fell, to the ends of the earth.
The beginning of the church saw multiple types of persecution. They were as Christ spoke of in Matthew 10, to be dragged into the synagogues and before the government of Rome. This persecution lasted long into the 3rd century until the conversion of Constantine. The shift that took place may be understood by referring to the early church as the apostolic age, and then from Constantine until the fall of Rome as the Imperial era of the church. There were various blessings and damages done by this new era of the church. The church benefited from the ceasing of persecutions and began gathering for important decisions about the nature of heretical text and sacred inspired text that the church used from the earliest times. Given that these gatherings of Bishops began in the time of Constantine the major consensus was that the large amount of Gnostic text had been something done within the lifetimes of those present at the gatherings. Gnostic gospels distorted the eyewitness accounts of those 1st century apostles who recorded and shared the message of what they had seen and heard. These early gatherings did not give the church the bible, they merely guarded what for centuries had already been regarded as authoritative and true accounts of historical eyewitnesses.
The untold stories of the Cannon Communities of early Christianity are now being hijacked by the resurgence of gnostic belief in pop-culture movies and books. Common people have begun to get their education of history from the History Channel, Youtube videos, facebook timelines. New Gnostic text are constantly being discovered though near not as often as apostolic texts. The new finds are published and added to the growing “evidence” for a new narrative about the origins of the Christian faith. That story begin told can be summarized as something beginning with Constantine, who is responsible for the growth and widespread popularity of Christianity because he made it so by his own conversion and the subsequent conversion of the entire empire to the new faith. Actually this is not true. If anything his conversion and acceptance of Christianity may have been more of a political move to protect his own power. The growth trend happening in the apostolic age was reaching its height by the time of Constantine. Also his conversion may also begin to be seen as something sincere. But lets not get overly sidetracked with Constantine.
When Rome fell the church did not. It remained. So even if Constantine did help get the church going, (which is a garbage theory) It was not dependent on the state. Many of the the damages brought about by the imperial church effected the church negatively throughout the middle ages. However the new era of the church was not “dark” as many have suggested. It most obviously can not be seen as “dark” simply for the sake of Augustine of Hippo who lived in the 3rd and 4th Centuries of the church. He was influenced heavily by the monastic movement that began before his time, as a response by those who despised the new damages done by the Constantine era of imperial power behind the church. Augustine is just a bit of glue aiding us to see the benefits of the devote monastic communities. But then on the other side Augustine is the rise of medieval education. Augustine is really a primary origin point for the creation of Universities as we know them. It was not the Greeks, though they did schools. No lasting universities give evidence for any actual universities existing and Greek and roman times.
Not only did men like Augustine, influenced by the monastic communities begin to have a profound effect on the development of European culture. But “the high church” can also receive some credit. They were not always corrupted by power and greed. The monastic communities had occasional victories in the church at large when men like Gregory the Great were elected Pope. The church began as early as the 5th century seeing many reforms. If anything the Reforms begin here rather then the 14th century. Even the reformer John Calvin recognized Gregory as a good Pope. These illustrations point out that this new era was again, not something “dark”. Though it had its share of issues, calling it “dark” robs us of understanding that it was the church that assisted all of Europe in recovering their own multiculturalism lost under the Roman empire. No longer were peoples creativity bound by a ruling elite who sucked up all the production of the lower cast. Rome had fallen, along with it the ruling elitists. Feudalism is often looked as evidence of a “dark” era rather then an era of state rebuilding and individual progress.
This bring us up to about the 10th & 11th century. The bridge between the early medieval period and the later are the events of the Muslim Empire and the Christian Crusades. The rise of what many Christians regard as the cult of Mohammed did not shy away from its involvement in the state. The expansion of the Muslim empire came by force and had stretched deep into Spain before the Europe’s response. Of course in order to get Europe to respond at all some campaigning needed to be done. Petitions had already been sent to Rome for aid to be sent to those seeking safe access to the Holy Land. The desire for Christian tourism or pilgrimage was very common and encouraged. Just as it is today very important to many Christians to one day go to the place where God was made incarnate. There was a flurry of responses over the following centuries. Again, Europe was not a centralized government as it would have been under the Roman empire. It was necessary for someone, somehow, to promote the war against the Islamic empire before it took control of all of Europe. The church was at that time the most centralized source of public influence and took it upon itself to organize feudal Lords, Barron’s, Kings, and Knights to take up the call to defend Europe and reclaim territories as far as the Holy Land. It is unfortunate for the Christ-like reputation of Christianity that the church needed to use its influence to help organize armies to go up against the Muslim Conquest.
There were no doubt troubling elements within the church of the middle ages. Though this era can not either be refereed to as dark because the situation as a whole was very dark and called for a drastic step for the sake of all of secular Europe. Though it is often referred to as the “Christian Middle Ages” most common people remained pagan and superstitious. There also at this time remained a devote remnant. The era of the Crusades was not simply Europe vs. Islam, but Church Tradition, and Papal Authority vs heretical movements such as the Waldensian’s or Catharians. These “heretical groups” were also on the receiving end of a holy war influenced by the power of the church to organize armies. All of these events are unfortunate for the reputation of the church as something following the example of Christ. Though Europe’s response to the growing Islamic Invasion has found justification by many.
This brings us to the dawn of the “Reformation era”.
Many wonderful characters illuminate the 14th-16th century; Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Ulirch Zwingli, and a good many more. There men of the reformations fought valiantly for the minds and lives of Europeans. Their influence is massive, so much so that when people think of church history these names are often the first that any good protestant would think of.
If you are Catholic however then these names, though they are known, are not hero’s. After all they themselves were not successful in bringing a reform to the Catholic church. When the protestant movements began to break forth from the church the Catholic church went on later to make some necessary reforms. But the reformation era was crucial.
What was at the core of the motives of men like Luther, Calvin, Hus, Wycliffe, and Zwingli was to see scripture in a place of higher authority then tradition or papal authority. It becomes clear when these human authorities of mans tradition and mans hierarchy become corrupt that something else needs to be the source of authority. For the reformers it was not their version of truth, or in other words, their own traditions regarding scripture. The work of Luther, and Calvin did later become tradition that led to later schisms with the Lutheran and Reformed churches. But for the actual lives of the reformers, their aim was to see the church with the bible at the center, and Christ’s sacrifice at the central event of theology. No further mass was needed to bring propitiation for sin.
The reformers did more for Europe then challenging the church and creating the protestant movement. Their influence in the church touched much more then the church itself. Remember that the church was for more engrained in the public life. The church had in fact helped to rebuild the entire civilization of the west after the fall of Rome. So the reformers challenge of the church was in part the beginning of a reform to the state. Overlords and Kings began to face new challenges. If the people of Europe were willing to see the hierarchy of the church challenged and its influence undermined by scripture then maybe following the OT model, Kings and overlords could be challenged with the rule of Law.
Retracing our steps we can see that the church was a growing and thriving source of education and social reform capable from the earliest days of the church to step out and lead a broken civilization. The middle ages saw many such advances, the whole modern enlightenment principle of ‘human progress’ was already in full swing long before the “enlightenment” or “modern era” began. In fact the whole idea of moral or human progress was not something disconnected from those who could be considered religious. The church faced the challenge of helping rebuild Europe, and they gave it universities, science, many new technologies, the rule of law, capitalism, implemented democracy, and abolished slavery. All of this developed long before the enlightenment or modern era.
What many Christians do at this point in their grasp of history accept that the reformers did a great thing and now we move on to today and try to implement their passion for truth in our own pursuit of it. But that would be to dismiss the enlightenment altogether as something that does not have any effect on the modern christian mind. It is however, very important to realize that we are all children of the enlightenment. Much of what we may think is common sense is actually accepting for better or worse what began in the enlightenment era. I have already written a good deal on the enlightenment. But here I wish to show how the church behaved in the modern era. Early on among the Lutheran community there developed another schism. Just as many Philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, or Kant had discussed the importance of reason as a means of discovering truth versus experiment so the Lutheran community did. The early schism was an attempt to get away from the head and into the heart of things were man may touch and feel his way toward the truth of God. This lead into the Moravian and eventually Wesleyan missionary movements and churches. These movements also saw schisms on the issue of public versus private outer-workings of the faith. Not only that but the modern era working all around the church was more and more scary for those who drowned themselves in theology but had nothing to say about the new work of Charles Darwin. The church had turned inward and became a private sphere only concerned with theology, gospel, and saving souls for heaven. They lost touch with bringing the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. The missions movement has been massive and the world is being evangelized with the message of salvation for eternity in heaven. But not here on earth, not bringing sense to the mess we are facing here and now. The current missions movement and evangelicalism we find ourselves in today has also developed another schism. Instead of working to convince men and women of the soundness of our gospel we have bought into trying to entertain, give a good speech, and proclaim the gospel and call it a day. There is very little persuasion in our proclamation. And today we have a kingdom of God theology where our faith is all heart and no head, all private and not public, and all proclamation and no persuasion. We fall short because we have given in to the modern tide and have a fractured Christian inheritance.
Knowing history may help us begin to recover what true nature of Christ centered Kingdom living is. It is not something in the heavens we might one day escape to, nor is it a utopia on earth were man is the center of all things. But it is Gods redemptive rule of all of his creation.