Exposition of Romans 5:3–5 Our hearts have the Holy Spirit

It is one thing to praise God when you cruise in sunny skies with a fair breeze, but what about during life’s storms? The vital point is that God has not left us to muddle though trouble on our own.

Only God can bless his own in the midst of trouble. How does he do it?

(ESV) Romans 5:3-5  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

If the previous section (5:1–2) boasted of our having God’s approval in the context of grace and peace, the present section (5:3–5) boasts about God’s loving purpose in the context of suffering. It is certainly paradoxical to boast “in our sufferings,” but Paul assures believers that even there we may expect to triumph because of “the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).

The initial phrase “more than that” (5:3) adds the context of trouble to the previous context of blessing (5:1–2). Because of what Christ has done for us, we have a reason to boast — again, not “rejoice” — no matter what our circumstances may be. The Greek noun which ESV translates as “sufferings” is thlipsis, which here (5:3) means “trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction, tribulation.”[1] This can be just about anything that puts pressure on a person; indeed, the ANLEX lexicon says thlipsis means “literally pressure.”[2]

For the unbeliever consider that trouble produces nothing but misery. The reason a believer may boast is that even suffering is used by God for good in that person’s life (5:3). So, we get the famous sequence: trouble to endurance to character to hope (5:4). It is plain that Paul is expressing a constructive, supernatural process that could not arise naturally from trouble. He next explains how this surprising uplift is possible.

The reason that a Christian may gain benefit even during trouble is because God is intervening in both the believer and the events. So, “hope does not put us to shame” (5:4) because biblical hope is an “expectation”[3] backed by God. “Hope” is so iffy in English usage that it presents problems.

The NET Bible does a good job on Rom. 5:5 by saying “hope does not disappoint.” If you live by faith, the eventual outcome when you stand before God will reward you. That is extremely significant to a Christian’s motivation since the Christian life involves sacrifice and service (Luke 9:23–24; Mark 10:45), and such sacrifice and service often involve trouble.

Finally we get to the cause of the uplift-within-trouble: the Holy Spirit within us is the expression of God’s love (5:5). Love has not previously been mentioned in Romans. Grant Osborne eloquently speaks of its significance:

First, this love is poured out into our hearts, meaning we realize God’s love as an inner, spiritual experience at the deepest level of our being. Second, the means by which we experience this is the Holy Spirit whom he has given us. . . . The Holy Spirit is the supreme gift that makes it possible for us to know the gift of God’s love.[4]

The verb “has been poured” is a Greek perfect tense, which Daniel Wallace says emphasizes the act of outpouring the Spirit into our hearts; the perfect also has that special idea of the present state emerging from that past action.[5] God gave us a matchless gift, the Holy Spirit who gets us through our trouble.

God gives inner strength

Some of us live blissfully unaware of how common trouble is in human experience. The ubiquity of trouble makes it vital for Christians to know how God will use it in their lives.

1. What have you been through that you did not initially think you could handle? How did God use that pressure to produce endurance?

2. What has been your own experience of endurance producing character? It is said that trouble makes us or breaks us: how does God use each outcome?

Jesus was not given a pass on trouble. “During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered.” (Heb. 5:7–8, NET). Jesus understands how to use the trouble we face to build us up!

Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] BDAG-3, thlipsis, trouble, q.v.

[2] ANLEX, thlipsis, trouble, q.v.

[3] BDAG-3, elpis, expectation, q.v.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 131-132.

[5] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 577.

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: John Calvin by Herman J Selderhuis

Since I am not a fan of Calvinism, I did not expect to become a fan of Calvin. But after reading John Calvin by Herman J. Selderhuis (IVP Academic, 2009), my esteem for the man definitely grew.

Selderhuis claims to write as neither friend nor enemy of Calvin (1509–1564), and I think he maintained that neutrality. Since Calvin maintained that we learn most about people from their letters, that was the primary source used by the author. This is not a book for you to gain a grip on Calvin’s theology, but it works well in giving insights into his personality and life experience. For example, I’ll bet you did not know that Calvin used at least four names during his life, nor that he was an illegal alien for most of his adult life!

More to the point, you can understand that being excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC from here on) would not have had quite the impact on Calvin that you might expect, because both his father and brother had also suffered that fate earlier in his life. Calvin secretly read works by Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon during his RCC education, and he was convinced that there was much to learn from Judaism and the Old Testament. He seems to have become a Christian in his late twenties, though the timing is uncertain.

It is fascinating that Calvin never had any formal theological training, a fact that we should probably celebrate. It was after Calvin’s death that the odious scholastic theology – full of speculative philosophy and tedious logic – crept into Reformed theology through Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. Calvin was gifted in explaining complex theological concepts simply.

It is astonishing that Calvin gave ten new sermons every fourteen days! That is a killing workload, yet Calvin also found the time to complete many editions of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. Calvin’s preaching featured short, clear sentences, and that was so innovative that it strongly influenced the development of modern French sentence structure.

Well, you can tell that this book has many interesting things to say about a remarkable theologian. It is unfortunate that Calvin’s biblical theology was made so speculative and philosophical by Beza and then later infused with even stronger determinism by Jonathan Edwards. I have problems with Calvin’s original views, but he did much to advance appreciation for the Bible as the basis for all Christian theology. Calvin sought to honor Christ in all things, and I applaud his intention but not all his conclusions.

I warmly recommend John Calvin by Herman J Selderhuis.

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

 

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.