This evening we begin what many of us have been looking forward to for some time, a study on Church history. We could spend a lot of evenings on this endeavor because this is such a vast and important subject. But, in an effort to make this more digestible, for the duration of this series over the next 5-6 years, we’ll spend the first twelve weeks of each of those years covering a specific era of church history. For this year and the next 12 weeks immediately before us we’ll be covering the period of 1AD – 500 AD. As we progress through the rest of Church history we’ll try as best we can to keep up this pace and not get bogged down, but in certain moments of history it would be wrong of us to not pause and linger over what God has accomplished. So while we’ll only be taking into history in these 12 week chunks, it will take us 5-6 years to complete an adequate overview of the entire history of Church.
Everyone excited? Then let’s begin tonight with an introduction to studying Church history and a brief overview of the stage that was set in the first century.
Bruce Shelley, in his book Church History in Plain Language begins by saying, “Many Christians today suffer from historical amnesia. The time between the apostles and their own day is one giant blank. That is hardly what God had in mind.”The Old Testament itself is a profound example of this, as it constantly teaches God’s people in their own time by pointing back to the experiences of God’s people in previous times. And when we cross over into the New Testament it’s no different as we see God still teaching His people by pointing back to His people’s experiences in the Old Testament. The old saying rings true, “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.” In a similar vein, John Piper says the following about the many examples of faith in Hebrews 11, “The unmistakable implication of Hebrews 11 is that if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will “lay aside every weight and sin” and “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). If we asked the author, “How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?” (Heb. 10:24), his answer would be: “Through the encouragement from the living and the dead” (Heb. 10:25; 11:1-40).”The study of Church history, therefore, is one of the great means of our own growth in godliness. “Like it or not, we are heirs of this host of diverse and even contradictory witnesses. Some of their actions we may find revolting and others inspiring. But all of them form part of our history. All of them, those whom we admire as well as those whom we despise, brought us to where we are now.”
We are Christians. We are those who believe in and love Jesus Christ, and rest in the fact that He truly does hold all authority in heaven and earth. This means He is the Lord of history, but this also makes us ask, specifically, where did this or that doctrine, practice, tradition, or denomination come from? Or maybe you ask a bigger or broader question like ‘How did the Church get to be in the state it’s in today?’These are questions that need answering. But in seeking answers there has always seemed to be two problems. First, on one hand many books on the history of the Church tend to be very academic, detailed, complex, demanding, and difficult to handle. This can make our history a thing that seems hard to grasp or maybe even impossible to understand. Second, on the other hand books on the history of the Church that have become popular, books that are more at the lay level may truly be clearer and easier to handle and comprehend, but they also tend to get facts wrong, see events through a biased lens, and draw wrong conclusions. Which is really just using and manipulating Church history to serve some kind of modern purpose, which ultimately ends up not doing justice to the real history of what actually took place.Throughout all that begins today and follows in years to come it is our aim to avoid these pitfalls of being too academic or too simplistic. Whether we succeed in this is yet to be seen I guess, but we shall try! It is my hope that it will be a pleasure to study this along with you, and that from studying you’ll find yourselves strengthened again and again, that you’ll have your eyes opened that we are a part of something far bigger than our own congregation and even country, that you’ll find many examples of courage and endurance in the face of opposition and struggle, and that you’ll grow in your devotion for and resolve in serving Christ.
Now, before we get to the first century set up here a just two more things to keep in mind as we begin this entire endeavor: A word on our sources and a word on tradition.
Some of you may be wondering where we’ll be getting all of our information on all of this history before us. If you’re not wondering it, you ought to. Why? Because there are a million different sources and places where one can get information about the Church and it’s history out there, and many of them are flat out wrong, serving other agendas than communication the truth of what actually took place. So where will we be getting our information from? What are our sources? By and large there are two sources for us.
First, there are written sources. These written sources include official historical documents, whether ecclesiastical or civil, from Church councils, synods, confessions of faith, liturgies, church laws, and letters from popes, patriarchs, bishops, and representative bodies. These written sources also include personal and biographical information and accounts of multiple figures within Church history: heroes and heretics, mystics and missionaries, and popes and preachers. Also within written sources for the history of the Church is the work of historians whether eye-witnesses of the accounts themselves or authors of a later time. Other written sources often forgotten about but equally important are inscriptions found on tombs, catacombs, and forgotten places that reveal what life was like for our brothers and sisters that lived long ago. Throughout history there have been many very large and well used libraries that have been destroyed or burned down to the ground that researchers and the like have been able to recover and piece together some very old documents.
Second, other than written sources we’ll be using unwritten sources as well. Church buildings, architecture, paintings, portraits, sculptures, and other monuments that teach us much about the era in which they were made. For example when we come to it and look into the formation, growth, and decline of the Roman Catholic Church we’ll refer to many works of art in Italy and Spain. For Lutheranism we’ll do the same in Germany and Scandinavia. For Calvinism it’ll be France, Switzerland, Holland, and Scotland. For Anglicanism Oxford, Cambridge, and London. For Presbyterianism Scotland, London, and North America. For Puritan Congregationalism and Baptist Congregationalism England and North America…and on and on and on.
One of the initial setbacks to the study of Church history is tradition. Tradition, among modern day protestants, doesn’t hold a high place of honor. If anything, the honor today goes to those who break with longstanding tradition while those who uphold various traditions of the Church are seen as people given over to manmade principles rather than Scripture. There is something to be seen in this for sure because tradition isn’t Scripture, it isn’t inspired by God, and it isn’t inerrant or infallible. But while tradition shouldn’t be elevated to such a high place, it shouldn’t be ignored either. Tradition, not all but some (we’ll discuss this as we progress) is helpful to us first, as we understand it’s rightful place beneath Scripture, and second, as we understand it’s role in pointing us back to Scripture. I bring this up at all because many Church historians speak of the ‘traditions of the Church’ as a synonym for the teaching of the Church. For these reasons and I’m sure more, I do not throw all tradition away and I’d encourage you to not do so as well.
Now, I’m sure there are some questions with this and we can open it up for that later, for now, we’ll finally begin with a brief overview of how the cultural climate of the first century came to be.
Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1995) page xv.
John Piper, Brothers We Are Not Professionals (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H, 2013) page 106-112.
Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 1994) page xv.
Nick Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, vol. 1 (London, England: Christian Focus Publishing, 2016) page 13.
Needham, page 13.
John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, Fruitful (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018) page 10.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1910, reprinted 1978) page 11-13.