Books: The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith

Roger E. Olson, a church historian and theologian at Baylor University, is conducting an illuminating dialogue on his blog concerning the book The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith is Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, and he identifies himself as a former evangelical who has now joined the Roman Catholic Church, partly because of the issues he raises in his book.[1]

Obviously, Smith has given his book a provocative title. That action appears to imitate the sad and blasphemous trend championed by such enemies of the Bible as Bart Ehrman (with titles like The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus: The story Behind who changed the Bible and why) and atheist Christopher Dawkins (The God Delusion). In saying that, I do not question the Christian faith of the author, just his wisdom.

At least outwardly, Smith wrote this book to attack what he calls biblicism. You probably want to know what he means by that term. I’m sorry you asked, because the answer is way too long. (Smith tends to unload everything in the truck in an apparent attempt to overwhelm the reader or critic.) Rather than giving you a data dump from the book, I will summarize each point in my own words.

Biblicism, according to Smith[2], consists of ten assumptions about the Bible — which I have greatly simplified — including its interpretation and its application:

  • Divine Writing: The words of the Bible are exactly what God wanted to say to us.
  • Total Representation: The Bible alone contains all that God has to say to us.
  • Complete Coverage: The Bible addresses every issue relevant to Christian faith and life.
  • Democratic Perspicuity: Christians can correctly understand the plain meaning of the Bible’s content simply by reading.
  • Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand the Bible is to accept the text’s most obvious literal sense, sometimes considering the original cultural context and sometimes not.
  • Solo Scriptura [a needless variant of the Sola Scriptura phrase (“The Bible alone”) of the Protestant Reformers]: Theology may be derived directly from the biblical text without regard for conclusions reached in church history.
  • Internal Harmony: All of the Bible’s statements about any theological subject may be harmonized.
  • Universal Applicability: What the Bible says to God’s people at any time is universally valid for all Christians, unless later revoked.
  • Inductive Method: Careful study of the entire Bible will allow the reader to discover the correct beliefs and practices.
  • Handbook Model: Using the Bible, the reader can assemble a complete handbook for Christian belief and practice on many subjects, “including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.”[3]

What is Smith’s complaint?

Smith believes the assumptions sketched above — collectively called “biblicism” — are held by as many as one hundred million American Christians.[4] Since he rejects all ten assumptions, Smith is greatly disturbed by that prospect.

Smith identifies the biggest problem with the form of Bible interpretation called biblicism to be “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (chapter 1). Smith says, “The very same Bible — which biblicists insist is perspicuous [clear] and harmonious — gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest.”[5] In the remainder of this post, I will abbreviate “pervasive interpretive pluralism” as PIP.

Concerns about Smith’s critique

When I look at the specific way Smith has worded the assumptions that he says amount to biblicism, I find myself in agreement with only one of them, possibly two. So, my biblicism score is low even though my respect for the Bible could not be greater! Here are some other concerns.

First, I consider it disingenuous that Smith hammers evangelical Protestantism for PIP when the same theological diversity can readily be found within the ranks of his new faith, Roman Catholicism. Smith admits as much but buries the admission in the massed chapter notes at the back of the book (page 180, note 9). Smacks a bit of currying favor with his new management!

Second, I am a lot less concerned about PIP than Smith is. When I am reading Douglas Moo’s fine commentary on Romans and he describes ten different views that have been held about some Bible verse through the ages, it does not lead me to run screaming into the night and wailing about disunity. Sorry. As I read the Gospels, there seems to have been a divergence of viewpoints even among the twelve who walked with Jesus. Peter and Paul had some disagreements. Why does this diversity cause Smith such panic?

Third, the use of many quotes from evangelical doctrinal statements and other position papers to establish a baseline of belief seems misguided. It has unfortunately been a longstanding trait of human beings, Christian or not, to oversell their ideas. Reading a long doctrinal statement is often like reading the platform of a political party. Doctrinal statements are not the Bible, and they serve a limited purpose.

Fourth, Smith defines biblicism in such a way that it seems unlikely to fit very many of the people who call themselves evangelicals. I agree with Roger Olson that fundamentalists are Smith’s primary target. Yet Smith speaks as if the definition fits a much larger group of people (“perhaps as many as a hundred million” page 6).

Fifth, I must agree with Smith about the lame idea of using the Bible as a handbook for everything (cooking, exercise, health, cosmology, etc.). Some Christian publishers and bookstores are a scandal in that they offer so much theological junk!

Sixth, I don’t understand why anyone would think the Bible is easy to understand, no matter who said so! Even the Apostle Peter said some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). When I have Peter’s comment on the subject, not even Calvin and Luther can change my mind.

All in all, Smith has made a few cogent points, but I see a swarm of problems. As we work further into the book it will be interesting to see if the magic solution is to allow some higher authority — say, for example, the Roman Catholic Church — to get rid of PIP by telling us the one authoritative interpretation for each Bible passage. No thanks!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011) xiii.

[2] Smith, Impossible, 4–5.

[3] Smith, Impossible, 5.

[4] Smith, Impossible, 6.

[5] Smith, Impossible, 17.

Books: Salvation and Sovereignty by Kenneth Keathley

Salvation and Sovereignty by Kenneth Keathley is an outstanding book, but it is a challenge for anyone not prepared to deal with the twists and turns of Calvinistic theology. If you want to learn about Calvinism and its limitations, this book is outstanding.

For starters, don’t judge this book by the cover, which lacks any appeal whatever. The publisher let the author down; that is a common experience.

Aside from clear writing about a complex subject, the special value of this book is that it tries to explain how Molinism (see below) combines with Calvinism to make a biblical and sensible explanation of salvation and sovereignty. At the end of the day, I don’t buy it, but there was never much chance the author could bring me to the somber shores of Calvinism no matter what boat we sailed on.


Let’s take a minute to introduce Molinism (also known as “middle knowledge”). The Jesuit scholar and priest Louis Molina (1535–1600) originated a way of applying God’s comprehensive knowledge to the issues of sovereignty, human freedom and salvation. It’s a bit of a head-spinner, so hang on!

Molinism hinges on the words could, would and will. First, God knows everything that could possibly happen; he knows all possible worlds that could be created. Second, God knows everything that would happen; he knows which worlds — out of all the possible worlds — would accomplish his purposes. Third, out of all the possible worlds that would accomplish God’s purposes, he chooses one and creates that one world. In that one created world, God knows everything that will happen.

Now, let’s stop and ask one simple question: where is any of that stated in the Bible? If you answered “Nowhere!” to that question, then give yourself a reward. Keathley says: “Scripture never states explicitly that God utilizes middle knowledge to accomplish his will. But when all the disparate components of the biblical witness are brought together it becomes clear that Molinism is a reasonable proposal.”[1] The kind of philosophical reasoning such as that in the previous paragraph is typical of the sixteenth century, and here we are talking about it in 2011. See my previous post for more on how that happened.

Back to the story of Molinism — the key to the Molinist argument is a kind of trick typical of this kind of philosophical theology. Because God knows everything that would happen in the possible worlds that would accomplish his purposes, he also knows how humans would behave in those worlds. But because God has not yet selected which world he will ultimately create, the human beings in those worlds are acting freely in making their decisions. That being so, there can be no accusation that anyone other than those people are responsible for their behavior. They have complete free will, so this (hypothetical) fact upholds human freedom. It also means they are responsible for the sins they commit.

Next we get to the final step where God picks the world that best suits his purposes. Once he chooses that world and creates it, he has picked a world where nothing can happen other than what he has chosen. He knows what will happen in that world — our world, by the way — so God is shown to be sovereign over every detail of that world. Yet he cannot be responsible for the sin in that world because the humans inhabiting it freely chose such sins before he chose to create that world.

This clever scheme upholds both human freedom and divine sovereignty. So, I guess it is time to break out the champagne and celebrate. Not so fast! Many Calvinists and Arminians have rejected middle knowledge, each because it makes concessions to the other side of the argument. Some on each side are still trying to work out the issues.

I see several problems with this theory of middle knowledge, at least in the form Keathley describes:

  1. The system is still deterministic enough to leave God responsible for sin.
  2. The created world lacks any life-like dynamism because all the choices were made before the world was created.
  3. The system fails to account for the real-time emotions, actions and contingencies that God initiates in the scenes described by the Bible. A good example is the suffering of Jesus and his resulting prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–44).

Objection 1: Molinism leaves God responsible for sin

Consider my first objection, that Molinism makes God responsible for sin. When God picks world 321 — just one among the infinite possibilities — along with all the specific actions and choices its contains over the course of time, and then creates that world, God is in fact determining that all the actions and choices contained in world 321 will occur without fail. When you think about it, that means God is determining all the murders, instances of sexual slavery, genocides and so on that will occur in the pre-selected “life” of that created world. So, how does Keathley get around this problem?

Keathley treats the would-stage — the specific world 321 that God has not yet created — as if it were an independent compartment sealed off from that world when it is actually created by God at the will-stage. In effect, each person in world 321 is created already responsible for their as-yet-future sins. If not, then God would be responsible for effectuating their lives while already knowing he has determined that they will sin.

How did God pick world 321 for creation? Keathley explains: “William Lane Craig suggests that God ‘chose a world having an optimal balance between the number of the saved and the number of the damned.’ In other words, God has created a world with a maximal ratio of the number of saved to those lost.”[2] Keathley appears to argue that God did the best he could; he made the least bad choice, though Keathley never says so straight out.

Keathley illustrates this view using the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. General Dwight Eisenhower genuinely desired that none of his troops perish, but he ordered the invasion knowing that some were doomed to death by that decision.[3] To demonstrate Molinism more fully, Keathley later expands that illustration by imagining that General Eisenhower knows exactly what will happen to each soldier in every possible invasion scenario and picks the invasion plan that will result in the least fatalities overall.[4]

Keathley seems to think this least-lost scheme puts God in a favorable light. In fact, the only thing Keathley has done is to maintain what he calls God’s “meticulous command of the minutest details,”[5] which he considers to be a firmly established biblical doctrine. So, in Keathley’s understanding of Molinism and his understanding of the Bible, determinism is alive and well.

Objection 2: Molinism gives us a world without dynamism

Once God decides to create world 321, nothing can happen in the unfolding of that world’s human lives other than what he has already foreseen and determined will occur. Such a world has all the real-life possibilities as a movie on a DVD: that is, it has none! Nothing is going to happen in that world except what the laser has already cut into the grooves of the DVD.

You remember Abraham’s famous string of requests for God to spare Sodom from destruction (Genesis 18)? It reads like a dynamic interchange between the living God and a man concerned for his kinsman. But no, it already happened as part of world 321  a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Once God decided to enact world 321, then Abraham would play his part in due time, just like in the movies. The DVD of world 321 does not change. It can’t!

Objection 3: Molinism mocks contingency and emotions

The Bible is filled with contingent situations, usually marked with the word “if.” Read in Jeremiah 18:5–10 how God shapes his actions to match the repentance or stubbornness of those nations he threatens with judgment. Read in Ezekiel 18:1–32 how God interacts with individuals based on their obedience or disobedience. These chapters express simple contingency where God blesses or curses based on the faith or rebellion of those he is dealing with.

But remember that, in Keathley’s Molinism, world 321 — my designation for the specific world God chose to create — comes into existence with all its questions settled in advance. How can “if” possibly mean anything in world 321? The ugly truth is that in such a world God is not free; never mind the fact that man is not free either.

Molinism also seems to mock emotions. Consider the powerful emotions Jesus expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–44 and Mark 14:32–34). It is even more wrenching in the Greek original than in English translation. Jesus said, “Abba, Father . . . everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Does the Father really have a choice here? Jesus says he does, but how is that possible in the pre-determined world 321? How can Jesus feel such strong emotions here and in other cases if he has known for 13.5 billion years — or 7,000 years for you young-earth folks — what was going to happen?

Quick Summary on Keathley’s Molinism

Maybe I’m missing something, but for now it seems that Keathley has only traded problems. He does a terrific job of respectfully showing the shortcomings of standard Calvinism. Keathley appropriately notes that while Calvinism stresses God’s sovereignty above all else, Molinism stresses God’s omniscience the most. Molinism is indeed preferable. Unfortunately, both roads still lead to determinism.

A Final Word

I would add that Keathley does a great job discussing ROSES, the new replacement for Calvinism’s famous TULIP. I may address that another day. He also has some useful insights from historical theology. If you like philosophical theology that has a high view of Scripture and is very well written, this book is for you. I really enjoyed it.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010) 41.

[2] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 153.

[3] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 153.

[4] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 160.

[5] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 23.


A Short History of the Western Church – Part 3 (end)

If you have not read the previous segments of this history, I recommend you start at the beginning, here.

Note that as we approach our own times some readers will find that the history of their denomination or church may move away from that shown in this final segment. This segment was originally designed to help people in my home church — Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas — learn our particular spiritual heritage.

At the end of the second segment of this history, available here, we paused at the beginning of the nineteenth century in America. That is where our story will resume below.

Religious Change in America

After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, our focus shifts to America, where Protestants prospered in a religiously pluralistic society in which they viewed denominations as “voluntary organizations that believers create and join according to their convictions and preferences.”[1] But immigration was rapidly changing the national mixture of faiths. Gonzalez says, “The Catholic Church (which, at the time of independence, was a small minority) had, by the middle of the nineteenth century, become the largest religious body in the nation.”[2]

We should not ignore the sad fact that one issue held back America and the progress of the gospel: slavery. Eventually this led to Civil War followed by an oppressive Reconstruction. Afterward the greatest wave of immigrants came. Davies notes, “Europe lost 25 million emigrants to the USA in the last quarter of the century.”[3]

Poisonous German Ideas

As important as the flow of people across the Atlantic was the westward flow of ideas. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a burst of scientific and engineering triumphs as well as the spread of the theory of biological evolution. German scholars produced a stream of ideas that questioned the historical accuracy and reliability of the Bible: Jesus was just a great man ? they said ? and certainly could not have risen from the dead. Miracles either had a natural explanation or were just products of inspired imagination. There was enormous faith in man, his future and perfectibility.

Of these developments Gonzales says, “Protestant Liberalism was an attempt to couch Christianity in the mold of those ideas, and gained wide acceptance among the intellectual elite of the United States.”[4] Seeing this as a threat to the very core of Christian faith, an anti-liberal reaction developed that came to be known as “fundamentalism.” The fundamentals may be considered to include the following essential doctrines: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the miracle-working power of Christ.[5]

The Rise of Fundamentalism

But fundamentalism did not arise in a vacuum. One driving force may be found in the fellowship and Bible teaching enjoyed by Christian leaders who met annually for 1–2 weeks at the Niagara Bible Conference, held mostly at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, from 1875 to 1900.[6] Such meetings have been widely copied over the years and often given the name “the prophecy and Bible conference movement.”

But fundamentalism had another strong support, the independent Bible institutes. Sandeen says, “During the last two decades of the nineteenth century the unordained Dwight L. Moody [1837–1899] was the most influential ‘clergyman’ in America.”[7] From 1873–75 Moody presented evangelistic sermons to over 2.5 million people in England and Scotland. The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago was established in 1889 and has profoundly influenced evangelical Christianity in America. Across the country, in 1907, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles was also important.

Historian George Marsden has said that fundamentalism was rooted in the eighteenth century idea that truth is available and can be obtained through the inductive method — when used to analyze the Bible.[8] To this Marsden added the nineteenth century experience that combined individualism, revivalism, the centrality of the Bible, personal comitment and inward holiness. Finally, he summarized fundamentalism as an “anti-modernist coalition” that was resistant to religious and cultural change. [9]

Perhaps the most crucial publication of early fundamentalism was the Scofield Reference Bible, which emerged in 1909. It provided helpful notes and cross references along with the interpretive framework of J.N. Darby’s views about the different ways God had interacted with man through the ages, a system known as “dispensationalism.” C.I. Scofield (1843–1921), a Dallas minister from 1882–1895 and 1902–1907, was not famous before the reference Bible came out, but he certainly was afterward.

The Modern Church: World War I (1914-1918) to 1970

From the viewpoint of those who consider the Bible completely trustworthy and accept supernatural acts by God through Christ, the most notable Christian development following World War I was the degree to which American denominations struggled with the penetration of Protestant Liberalism into denominational seminaries. The Presbyterians and the Baptists experienced denominational splits over the matter, and the issue still simmers today.

However, Bible-believing Christians had new options. Sandeen says, “Dissatisfaction with the denominations certainly grew stronger with the progress of Liberalism, but the really decisive factor seems to have been the development of nondenominational institutional structures which could function in the same manner as the denomination.”[10] By this he means the Bible institutes and the new seminaries and churches that formed in loose relation to them.

One such seminary was Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) which began in 1924. DTS was formed by Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), who had served from 1914–1923 on the faculty of the Philadelphia School of the Bible. DTS was founded as an institution centered on the Bible. The seminary stands in the stream of theology known as the Protestant Reformation, and within its American successor the early fundamentalist movement.

Sandeen notes that since 1950, the more moderate wing of the fundamentalist movement has called itself Evangelicalism and “has manifested an unexpected vitality and appeal.”[11]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984) 2:242.

[2] Gonzalez, 2:243.

[3] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 782.

[4] Gonzalez, 2:256.

[5] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970) xviii.

[6] Sandeen, 134.

[7] Sandeen, 172.

[8] Cited by John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 43.

[9] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

[10] Sandeen, 240.

[11] Sandeen, xiii.

A Short History of the Western Church — Part 2

In my previous post, I spoke candidly about the unfortunate ignorance of Christians in America in relation to the history of the church in the West. The Roman Catholic Church (abbreviated RCC) figures prominently in that history. Below is the second part of this synopsis of history.

The Reformation Church — Luther (b. 1483)
to World War I (1914–18)

In his masterful history of Europe, Norman Davies has said, “The religious revival, clearly visible at the end of the fifteenth century, was largely driven by popular disgust at the decadence of the [RCC] clergy….Europe was full of tales about simoniac bishops [bishops who sold a church office or preferment], nepotistic popes, promiscuous priests, idle monks, and, above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Church.”[1] This laid the foundation for a challenge to the RCC’s grip on all religious power in western Europe. It was not long in coming.

In 1517 a young monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546) was driven to fury at the appearance in Germany of a friar selling paper certificates guaranteeing relief from punishment in Purgatory, that being a supposed place of temporary suffering after death to finish paying for sins committed in life (according to RCC theology). Luther nailed a 95-point protest against them to the door of the local church. That started a fire which has not yet been quenched.

The “Protestant Reformation” effectively began in 1517 as a protest against certain corrupt practices of the RCC. This quickly expanded into a much broader re-evaluation of RCC theology in relation to the explicit teaching of the Bible. Instead of finding spiritual authority based in the RCC and its pope, the Protestant reformers believed the Bible to be the paramount source of such authority (sola Scriptura, “the Bible alone”) and also looked to the early church fathers and early councils. Contrary to the RCC view that salvation required meritorious human works and infusions of grace from Mary and the church sacraments, the reformers looked to the Bible to discover salvation by God’s grace (sola gratia, “grace alone”) through a commitment of personal faith (sola fide, “faith alone”) exclusively in Christ (solus Christus, “Christ alone”).

John Calvin

Though the Protestant Reformation began with Luther and his followers, the next towering figure to advance the cause was a scholar named John Calvin (1509–1564). Davies says, “A fugitive Frenchman, more radical than Luther, Calvin was the founder of the most widely influential branch of Protestantism.”[2] His theological summary Institutes of the Christian Religion, appearing in 6 editions from 1536 to 1559, has powerfully influenced the development of Christianity in both Europe and America.

Davies discusses one of the effects of the Protestant Reformation by saying, “Until the 1530s, Christendom had been split into two halves — Orthodox and Catholic. From the 1530s onwards, it was split into three: Orthodox, Catholic [RCC], and Protestant. And the Protestants themselves were split into ever more rival factions.”[3]

Counter-Reformation: The RCC Fights Back

The reaction of the RCC to these developments was somewhat slow in developing, but in time demonstrated its ferocity. Protestant historians call this reaction the Counter-Reformation. The RCC’s Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563, combined both doctrinal definitions and institutional structures to meet the Protestant challenge. A brotherhood known as the Jesuits (formally the Society of Jesus) was formed in 1539, and they became the spearhead of the intellectual attack on the Reformation.

But this was not to be a peaceful clash of ideas, rather a deadly struggle. Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, took stern measures against the spread of Protestantism in the Low Countries (the modern Netherlands and Belgium). Gonzalez says, “Tens of thousands died for their faith. The leaders were burned, their followers beheaded, and many women were buried alive.”[4]

On St. Bartholomew’s Eve, 1572, more than 20,000 French Calvinists (called Huguenots) were murdered in a single day in surprise attacks throughout France. The RCC Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585) and king Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) each ordered a celebratory hymn of praise to God when they separately received the news of the massacre.[5]

Lows and Highs: Widespread Wars and a Bible

These religious wars were capped by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which killed 8 million people in Germany and left the country a wasteland. But the bloodletting did not end until the civil war in England concluded with the overthrow of the monarchy by the Puritan forces under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). One effect of the struggle in England was the emigration of thousands to the Colonies where they might worship as they chose without so much interference.

During the century of war (roughly 1550 to 1650) the King James Version of the Bible appeared in 1611. This English translation gradually became the most widely accepted and best loved of all. Along with Shakespeare’s plays, it has had a profound influence on the development of English language and literature.

Due partly to exhaustion, the religious warfare ended around 1650 and there followed a quiet period often called the “Age of Reason.” This period roughly extends from 1650 to 1789. “After the Wars of Religion, one can see that the exercise of ‘the Light of sweet reason’ was a natural and necessary antidote.”[6]

INTERLUDE: If we look at the sweep of European events, we can see that the period of RCC dominance led to a corrupt and power-hungry Church. The Protestant Reformation broke the exclusive grip of the RCC and eventually led to the Religious Wars fueled by the Counter-Reformation. Then came a quieter period of recovery in which principles of humanism and reason (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”) came to the fore. As we will see, these non-religious values yielded The Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. Human reason proved no better master than corrupt religion.

Revolutions and Visions of the End

The fuse of conflict was relit in America as the Colonies revolted in 1775 and prevailed in 1783. Just as the new United States of America was ratifying its Constitution, French revolutionaries took the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789 beginning The Terror and the reign of the guillotine. “The French Revolution plunged Europe into the most profound and protracted crisis which it had ever known. . . . For Europe as a whole, it provided an object lesson in the danger of replacing one form of tyranny with another.”[7] This was the age of Napoleon (1769–1821). It ended at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, after millions were dead.

While the madness of The Terror raged in France, God was doing something astounding in William Carey (1761–1834), an Englishman known as “the Father of Modern Missions.” Though no one in his Baptist group had expressed concern for the unsaved in other lands, Carey inspired others to form the first missionary society and then left for India as its first missionary in 1793. Within five years he had learned Bengali and translated most of the Bible. Then he set up his own press to print it. Among many accomplishments, Carey edited translations of the Bible into 36 languages.[8]

Perhaps one of the most unanticipated effects of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was the revival of interest in Bible prophecy. Ernest Sandeen states, “The violent uprooting of European political and social institutions forced many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near.”[9] This resulted in many conferences and publications among Christians in England. Among these were meetings by Christians who had taken the name Brethren and who gathered in the 1830s at Plymouth under the leadership of J.N. Darby (1800–1882). In time Darby’s views would jump the Atlantic.

This history will conclude with Part 3.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 484.

[2] Davies, 490.

[3] Davies, 495–6.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984),  2:96.

[5] Gonzalez, 2:107; also Davies, 502 (“the Pope celebrated a Te Deum and the King of Spain ‘began to laugh.’“).

[6] Davies, 577.

[7] Davies, 677.

[8] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 192.

[9] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), 5.


A Short History of the Western Church — Part 1

Unfortunately, the Christian church in America is woefully ignorant of its history. This deficit in knowledge hurts Christian evangelism because we do not have any clear idea of what we are asking people to join, other than a faith-relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus formed a community of faith (Matthew 16:18). English translations of the Bible use the word “church” to refer to that community, and the church has a history!

By “church” I mean the collection of all true believers in Jesus. The extent to which this group overlaps with the institutional Church (mark the capital letter “C”) has varied greatly. The Roman Catholic Church (abbreviated RCC) is the primary institutional Church for most of the history covered here. Also, this history focuses mainly on Europe, because that is the channel of our spiritual heritage in America.

Outline of Church History

  1. The Early Church – Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)
  2. The Political Church – Constantine (306–337) to birth of Luther (b. 1483)
  3. The Reformation Church – Luther (1483) to World War I (1914–1918)
  4. The Modern Church – World War I (1914–1918) to 1970

Synopsis of Church History

The Early Church – Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)

Several factors characterized the early church: persecution (usually to death), rapid expansion, and the struggle with heresies and secular philosophy.

Even though Jesus had been executed by Roman capital punishment, the Christian movement was initially too insignificant to get attention in Rome. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost in the year 33 resulted in a tremendous influx of new believers (Acts 2:41). But violent opposition soon developed as well. Many believers died for their faith, but the church grew even faster during persecution.

The Apostle Paul, having been falsely accused by the Jews, appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:11), and that brought the message to the heart of the Roman empire (Acts 28:16, 31). The rapid expansion of the church and its failure to practice emperor worship brought it into early and frequent conflict with Roman authority. Persecution drove many Christians out of Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Roman general Titus in the year 70.

Of greater danger to the faith than death were the inroads of Greek philosophy. In certain instances we are still struggling with accommodations made to shape the Christian faith into a philosophically-pleasing package during this early period. For example, the idea that God has no emotions entered Christian thought during this period.

The Political Church – Constantine (c. 274–337) to Luther (b. 1483)

The Roman emperor Constantine (c.274–337) brought an end to most persecution and favored Christianity above all religions. While this was a positive development, it also brought about many changes. Under imperial favor, church life became much more formal and church buildings more monumental. One may reasonably say that from this time until Luther challenged the established order in 1517, the church became entangled with political power. The true church was overshadowed by the institutional Church, which was often a major element of regional political power. This is still true today in some ways.

Of course, all great changes produce a reaction. The popularization of Christian faith (both professed faith and true faith) under Constantine caused some believers to retreat from the tumult. This led to a tremendous increase in monastic movements and their monasteries. They still exist.

Heresies, Councils and Augustine

Many heresies plagued the church during this period, including Arianism and Pelagianism. In short, Arianism taught that God the Father was greater than Jesus or the Spirit, and Pelagianism taught that man could achieve salvation by worthy human works. The church rightly rejected these views during councils held in the fourth century. These councils also reached a final consensus concerning the exact books recognized by the church as inspired by God, now collected for us as the Bible.

Augustine (354–430) of Hippo, in North Africa, was the most influential theologian of this period. His views became the theological foundation of both the RCC and later the Protestant Reformation (see below).

Rome fell to the barbarians in 455, and one historian credits the barbarian invasions of Europe for bringing about the great upsurge in the authority of the Bishop of Rome, now known as the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.[1] A second factor that led to this result was the fall of other Christian centers in Africa and the Middle East to the invading Moslems during the seventh and early eighth centuries. There is no doubt whatever that the RCC was the only dominant religious institution in Western Europe until the sixteenth century.

Eastern Church and Western Church Split Apart

While most Christians in America fit into the stream of Western Christianity, it should be remembered that Eastern Orthodox Christianity, originally centered in Constantinople (on the European shore of the Bosporus in modern Turkey), developed in parallel with the RCC. A formal split occurred in 1054, after a long accumulation of theological and political differences, and the Eastern Orthodox Church is still powerful today in its historic regions.

Characteristics of Medieval Christianity

The two focal points of Medieval Christianity were monasticism and the papacy.[2] During much of this period the RCC popes were totally involved in matters of political and financial power, while many of the monks had withdrawn from such worldly matters to devote themselves to lives of contemplation and service. For example, Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) founded the Franciscan order under a rule that its members could own nothing. Other monastic orders took less stringent vows.

John Wycliffe (c.1329–1384) was a man ahead of his time. Almost 200 years before the Protestant Reformation roared onto the stage of history, the Oxford-educated Wycliffe advocated many of the same reforms in RCC theology and practices that would later be advanced by others. Wycliffe taught that the Bible was the only authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice. Perhaps the contribution for which he is best known is the idea that the Bible should belong to the people, not to the Church and its priests, and that the Bible should be in the language of the people, not Latin. Influenced by Wycliffe’s views, his followers completed a translation of the Bible into English by about 1392.

Part 2 will cover the period from the Protestant Reformation to World War I.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984), 1:242.

[2] Gonzalez, 1:301.