Ten Reasons to Read About Church History

10 Reasons to Read About Church History

Funnily enough, I think Church History is really important. In this blog that I wrote for IVP Books UK, which I reproduce below, I spell out ten reasons why Christians should engage with the history of our faith.

Whether Church History is what gets you out of bed in the morning, or you’ve always thought it was just dusty old books and grumpy old men, there’s much we can learn from the long history of the Christian faith.

Whilst not always pretty, as history exposes sin and human weakness, the fact of the matter is that we trust and hope in a historical faith. We can study Church History because there is a history of the Church. Yet we live in a time where, particularly in an evangelical context, we are perhaps more ignorant of Church History than at any other point since the Reformation. To our detriment, we simply engage too little with the history of the Church.

Here are ten reasons why it’s worth studying.

1)    Church History is surprisingly accessible, full of men and women like you and me.

Many fear approaching Church History because it feels like the record of an alien time, and of ancient people. Yet the story of the Church is the story of God’s people, men and women like us from throughout history. Christ came to offer salvation to all of humanity, and history reveals that billions, from all faiths, backgrounds and nations, have taken up that call. As we explore Church History, we find people just like us. We find the downtrodden and oppressed, the rulers and the powerful, and everyone in between! Human nature doesn’t change. All have sinned, and fallen short of God’s standard. But all who accept Christ’s offer of salvation are redeemed. The historic Church is made up of brothers and sisters from across the globe. This is our family history!

2)    God promised to keep His Church, and history shows that He is faithful.

Though the Church is made up of men and women, it is kept by the sovereign God of history. Christianity is a historical faith, and our Scriptures are historical texts. In the New Testament, God promises to keep His Church. He promises that the Church will endure, until Christ returns.

As we explore Church History, we see not only that this promise was kept, but just how wonderfully God kept it. In times of trial, error and loss, God has been faithful to His people. When we look at the long story of the Church, we see that glorious truth again and again.

3)   Church History displays God’s sovereignty over all of creation past and present.

God’s sovereignty is total. Scripture tells us this and history, again, shows this to be wonderfully true. What a blessing to know a God who keeps His people, and who holds all of creation in His hands! When we dig into the history of the Church, we see again and again how God worked to raise up men and women for the moments required. We see a history not of heroes, but of weak and feeble people being used by a powerful and mighty God. Church History is incredible because it allows us, time and again, to see the evidence of God at work.

4)    Church History encouragess us to give God glory for what He has done.

As we unpack Church History, we are struck time and again by God’s incredible power, grace and faithfulness. Humanity is never the hero of the story of the Christian faith and history confirms that. It is God alone who time and time again pours out His blessings on His Church, and it is right that we glorify Him for this. In Revelation 7, John is shown a vision of the throneroom of God. Around the throne he sees a host of angels, and they cry out (vs12):

Praise and glory,

and wisdom and thanks and honour

and power and strength

be to our God for ever and ever.

Amen!

These angels are praising the glorious God of all the nations, of all history and of all creation. When we turn our eyes to Church History, we are shown a glimpse of God’s glory in His wonderful dealings with His people. Our response ought to mirror the angels of Revelation 7 – praise and glory to this wonderful God!

5)    Church History, like Scripture, encourages us to look, and learn from those who have gone before us.

In 2 Timothy 3:14 Paul urges Timothy to continue in what he has learnt because he knows those from whom he learned it. He is encouraged to look back to the model of his mother, grandmother and Paul himself. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul urges the Corinthian church to imitate him, just as he imitates Christ. A pattern emerges in Scripture of learning from those who have gone before us, of looking to wiser older brothers and sisters as models for living a life worthy of our calling.

Exploring Church History allows us to learn from those who have gone before us. A hero of mine is Eric Liddell, the 1924 Paris Olympic gold medallist. Though he was not perfect, through reading biographies of this athlete, I have been encouraged to (amongst other things) prioritise my daily time in God’s Word, and use my gifts for His Glory and not my own. Throughout Church History God has raised up men and women who model godly characteristics to us. These saints are not perfect, but there is so much we can learn from diving into their stories.

Lessons from Church History

6)    Church History challenges our Chronological Snobbery.

C S Lewis famously coined the term ‘chronological snobbery’ – and what he described is rampant today. We think that simply because we come after those before us, we are superior. We are better developed, better equipped, better understanding. It’s foolish to think we have all the answers simply by virtue of living when we do, but it’s an easy mindset to adopt.With our modern ministries, global parachurch organisations and slick social media, it’s all too easy to think we’ve got the Christian life sorted. We can happily think we’ve got all the answers.

A look back through Church History encourages us to consider these things afresh. We see issues and challenges that we too face, and often we can learn how to respond to them. We see faithful Christians living in this fallen, hostile world, and there is much to learn. Many wise Christians have gone before us, it would be an error to ignore them.

7)    Church History helps us to learn from our mistakes.

Though there is much wisdom to gleam from our long Christian history, undeniably, the Church has been involved in great sin throughout the years. Every church is made up of sinful men and women, and this sin can so often multiply. The horrors of the crusades or the persecution of minorities in communities across the Christian world, are just some of the many obvious transgressions. Though at times the Church was a great force for good with regards to the despicable practice of slavery, at times it supported and endorsed this endeavour. More locally, stories of abuse of power and manipulation can rock church families for decades.

A better understanding of Church History, the good and the bad, will equip us to resist repeating the errors of our forebears.

8)    Church History reminds us that the Great Commission was for all of God’s people.

In The Story of The Church (4th ed.), Harman and Renwick write (xiii) “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” This was a commission for all Christ’s Church. It was a command to go out with the Gospel to all the world.

This Great Commission was as true for the first hearers as it was for the earliest Christian communities, the faithful churches of the Middle Ages, and the revivalist preachers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And it is true for us. This great missional activity of the Church ties all believers together, throughout history, and so as we go out into our own contexts we can take courage, and learn, from those who have done just the same long before us. Church History encourages us in this task, challenges us to avoid error and sin that would hinder us, and helps us look back to the God who is truly in control.

9)    Church History is diverse – so explore!

From biographies of Christian athletes like Eric Liddell, to stories of faithful congregations resisting the errors of Medieval Rome, to the first generation of the post-Apostolic Church; there is so much to explore, so many lives to unpack, so many challenges to heed. Great sermons have been written, theological stands have been made.

 There is so much to Church History, that whatever your background or interest, there is something for you. My encouragement is to explore, and then to dig into areas or periods that truly grip you. God teaches us through His Word, and Church History helps us to see these truths applied across the life of those who make up God’s Church.

10) Church History is fascinating.

From radical communities in the Roman Empire, to humble preachers in the courts of kings and emperors, Church History is diverse, surprising, and fascinating. Humanity is often best (and worst) seen in the context of church, and two thousand years of Church History mean that there are countless lives and events to explore. The story of the Church is a fascinating one, and one that is worth unpacking, exploring, and diving headfirst into!

There is so much to explore in the long history of the Christian Church. This post is an encouragement to spend time exploring it for yourself. When we engage with Church History, we are struck by one of the famous truths expounded by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Soli Deo Gloria. As we look back at the long history of the Church, there is one simple conclusion: to God alone be the glory.

If you want to explore Church History, I thoroughly recommend The Story of the Church as a great introductory book on the subject. You can find my review of this book here. It’s available from IVP UK here.

Book Review: The Story of the Church, 4th Ed. by Allan M. Harman and A. M. Renwick (IVP 2020)


The fourth edition of The Story of the Church is a much revised presentation of A M Renwick’s work, with several new chapters. Revised by Allan Harman, this book presents an account of the last two thousand years of Church History. Though this is in itself an immense undertaking, Renwick and Harman offer the reader a successful survey of the history of the Church, through an evangelical lens. This new edition takes note of current opinions or individuals involved across the debates on which it touches, and has produced a readable, entertaining volume.

A Successful Survey of Church History

In the prologue, Harman concludes (xiii) that “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing [sic] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have  commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” With this as the goal of the work, The Story of the Church is a success. Though of course a project of this scope cannot cover all aspects of church history and mission, this book offers a fantastic summary of the long history of the Christian faith. Broken down into twenty-six short and manageable chapters, this is an incredibly readable and engaging history. Though at times Renwick and Harman sacrifice critical evaluation in order to continue through the narrative at pace, the work offers a thorough survey of the major narrative of world Christian history.

From the “veritable revolution” (2) of the early progress of the Gospel in the ancient world, through the reformations of the sixteenth century to the “proliferation of parachurch organisations” (212) of recent years, this history does a wonderful job of sketching the main issues and events of Christian history. A particular strength of The Story of the Church lies in how the author(s) connect developments in Church History with the wider narrative of political and social world history. The messiness and intricacy of church history is helpfully exposed, and the story repeatedly leads the reader to conclude: it is only by God’s grace that the Church endured this or survived that.

A good Church History ought to be informative and readable, but it is a true success when it illustrates the faithfulness and sovereignty of the God of the church. The Story of the Church does this well. It is God who kept key figures going, or who transforms sinners into servants. It is God who keeps the Church alive in places and periods of persecution. This testimony is seen throughout the pages of Scripture, and this book illustrates those truths in the pages of history well.

A Few Omissions

Although this is a brilliant history, there are at least two points that could perhaps have been better addressed throughout. The book offers a largely (until the final few chapters) Euro-centric presentation of Church History. Whilst early figures in the African church (such as Tertullian or those at Alexandria) are discussed, examination of later developments outside of Europe such as the early Jesuit missions or the spread of Christianity into Asia are only briefly mentioned. The Story of the Church does offer a brilliant examination of the recent and current state of the global church, and whilst it cannot be denied that a great deal of major events in Church History did take place in Europe, it feels as though, at times, this book tells the story of the European Church and not the global Church.

Added to this, the discussion around slavery was perhaps the biggest question that this book left unanswered. William Wilberforce is mentioned several times in chapter twenty ‘Modern Missionary Expansion’, but even the abolitionist battle with which he was so closely involved was given scant treatment. This reviewer would have liked further consideration of this topic beyond Wilberforce, and an acknowledgement of the positive and negative role of the Church within that history.

A Strong Finish

Despite these two minor quibbles, the book is excellent, and the fourth edition has largely (save for one or two more archaic words and phrases) updated and revised what was already a comprehensive introduction to Church History. Despite being an ancient historian, it was the latter chapters in this work that particularly jumped out at me. The Story of the Church consistently emphasises the issues and battles of each period of Church History, and as these were unpacked in the last century or so a helpful background to our modern church context was brilliantly sketched out. This picture brought its own challenges: there is still much for us to do and learn.

Particularly striking was the repeated discussion (227; 243-244) of just how many people still do not have the Scriptures in their own language. Though over 3000 languages have a translation of the Bible or at least parts of it, some 440 million people, speaking over 3800 languages, still do not. The vital work of Wycliffe Bible Translators was highlighted, and the challenge to support this endeavour was strongly made.

As the developments of the last century or so were discussed a further challenge came to the fore. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an explosion in para-church groups and a drive for ecumenicalism. Whilst in many ways these have been positive developments, Harman offers a note of caution (212). “The proliferation of para-church organisations poses its own problems for the church, for there is the danger that they may assume many of the functions of churches and also draw people away from involvement in their local church setting.” We live in a period of Church History unlike any other. Para-church and missional organisations have exploded into life and have richly engaged with Christians and non-Christians across the world. In the excitement of all this though, we must be careful not to drift away from Christ’s primary (earthly) home for the believer: the local church. Whilst it is good to support and work with these wider organisations, the local church must be our priority. The challenge in these final chapters is simply this: is the local church family still our priority? We must not forget that it ought to be.

Conclusion

This is a cracking book of Church History, and though there are a few things I would challenge throughout, the fourth edition is most welcome. We live in an age of Christian life where Church History is all too often neglected. The accessibility and readability of The Story of the Church offers us an introduction to the discipline that can help address that problem. Whether Church History has been of interest to you, or never appeared on your radar, you could do much worse than grabbing a copy of this edition and exploring the rich history of the Christian faith.

And it is worth echoing some of the closing words of Harman in this edition. There is still much for us to do, and the story of the Church is not over. Indeed, it continues until Christ’s return. So we can live confidently, knowing that we are in and under our sovereign God.

“Ultimately, the future of the church depends not on men but on God. He has promised in the Scriptures that he will never forsake it (Ps. 94:14), but will be with his people until the consummation of this present age (Matt 28:20).” (253.)

Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

TWR360 | Blog

Much mystery surrounds the life of this prolific writer. Born in the mid second century (c.155AD), Tertullian lived for most of his life in Carthage in North Africa. A bright and articulate man, he wrote dozens of works during his lifetime, of which a great number have survived. Though his teaching was broad and articulate, his hard line and rigorist tendencies have led to an awkward position in the history of Christian thought.

Life

Though the circumstances of his birth and childhood are largely unknown, Jerome claims that Tertullian was the son of a centurion based in North Africa (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 53), and this was likely a non-Christian household. Certainly he was well educated during his youth, indicating that perhaps his parents had means enough to provide a quality schooling. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.2.4) described Tertullian as “well versed in the laws of the Romans,” and his own writings betray an educated man practiced in rhetoric and oratory.

Tertullian’s own writings provide further glimpses into his life. He notes in the opening of his tract On Repentance (1.1) that he was once “blind, without the Lord’s light,” suggesting a pagan past and adding weight to the argument that he was born to pagan parents. Tertullian also alludes to his conversion, with a short section in his Apology (50.1) hinting that he came to faith as an adult.

Regardless of the exact circumstances of his conversion, it is clear that Tertullian wholly embraced his new faith, recognising it for the truth that it is. Though Jerome labels him a presbyter (De Vir. Ill. 53.1), he doesn’t seem to have entered an office of the church, yet openly identifies as one of the laity who often preached on Sundays, suggesting that he was a lay elder within his local church leadership (See Exhortation to Chastity 7.3, On Monogamy 12.3, On the Soul 9.4). His new faith prompted him to put his extensive education to good use, and he began to write. Thirty-one of his works have survived to us, though he likely wrote a great many more.

Works

Though a sizeable number of his works have survived to reach us, even Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that works of Tertullian had already been lost (De Vir. Ill. 53.5). Tertullian made comment about a vast array of matters, from monogamy, fasting, marriage and empty spiritualism to the soul, baptism, prayer and resurrection. His works were clearly extensive! He also bears the notable title of being the first (surviving) church father to write in Latin rather than Greek.

He is perhaps most famous though for two parts of his literary career. His many writings against the heretical followers of Marcion, Valentinus and others showed his desire to contend for a true and Biblical Christian faith. It was in one of these polemical texts, Ad. Praxeam (Against Praxeas) that Tertullian coined the word ‘trinitas‘, the first writer to use this word to describe the Biblical truth of who God is – one God, three persons. Trinity.

His most famous work though defended his faith not against heretical insiders, but against powerful outsiders. Tertullian’s Apology, a fifty chapter masterpiece, is a defence of the Christian faith, addressed to those ruling over the Empire. An early and excellent example of the apologetic genre, Tertullian’s Apology confronts the main accusations levied against this young faith, and contends that Christians are in fact the best of citizens, serving the greatest of Gods. Accused of sedition, sectarianism, cannibalism and much more, Tertullian argues that Christians are in fact gracious, loving and obedient. They pray for their rulers and fellow man, and serve rightly in society, defying only what is unholy and unjust.

Legacy

Tertullian has occupied an interesting position in Christian history. Despite his orthodox teaching and Biblical faithfulness, his at times harsh writing tone and the hard line he takes on controversial issues means that he’s sat uncomfortably in the narrative of church history. There are two points to make here.

Though he writes against a wide variety of heretical views, Tertullian has often been considered to have shifted from orthodoxy to Montanism. The so called New Prophecy of Montanus was a spiritualist heresy that appeared in the late second century and demanded a rigorous, almost ascetic approach to the Christian life. Though many consider Tertullian to have shifted into this sect, I believe a close reading of his writings suggests a less clear conclusion on the matter. Though Tertullian was a rigorist in his approach to the life of the Christian, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I believe we ought to take the line of Christine Trevett, who took a more nuanced position that Tertullian was “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). His inclination might be towards the practices of this movement, yet his theological disposition remained resolutely Pauline.

The second point to note is that his teaching is largely protestant in disposition. Some have labelled him as ‘the first protestant’ – and he certainly fits awkwardly within a Catholic teaching of early Christian history.

Conclusion

Though much of the man remains a mystery, his writings offer a window into who and what he was. No doubt a stern and even harsh teacher, Tertullian maintained the authority of Scripture, the value of the local church, and the supremacy of Christ alone throughout his life and writings. He holds an uncomfortable position in Christian history, and he is by no means perfect in every word he writes. Yet he is a valuable author for several key theological developments, as well as an articulate and consistent defence of the true faith. He was an interesting man who perhaps ought to be read more widely and whose works remain of significant value.

Book Review: The Great Awakening (Joseph Tracy)

Just a short review today, but one that comes with an encouragement to pick up a classic from recent church history. (Recent for an ancient historian that is!) This is, once again, an adaptation of the review I gave for Free Church Books.

Banner of Truth have produced a beautiful new hardcover edition of Joseph Tracy’s classic work: The Great Awakening.

This reprinting is beautifully done, and it offers the reader a great edition of the first history of the 18th century revivals of New England. Tracy was the first historian of these events, and as his work walks the reader through this great spiritual awakening, the transformative nature of our wonderful God is evident. Tracy explores revival on both sides of the Atlantic, but his focus is on America and New England in particular. The story of these revivals is the story of thousands of conversions, as God moved powerfully through these young American communities.

Controvery and error is not neglected, and the work is wonderfully structured to highlight the error of sinful man, and the wonder of a saving God. Whilst this work may not be easy or quick reading (being, as it was, first penned in 1841), Tracy’s volume stands as testament to the work of God in the lives of countless believers some three hundred years ago.

I would heartily recommend Banner of Truth’s edition as a great way of exploring a period of church history that is so often acknowledged, but little understood. These revivals were a period of great spiritual awakening, and are a wonderful testament to our God as the Lord of History. The book focuses on the work of many great preachers, but through it all it is clear that souls are saved not by their words, but by their powerful, gracious God.

You can pick up a copy from Banner of Truth here.

A response to the Francis Chan soundbite: The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church

Back in January a video of the Christian author and preacher, Francis Chan, made the rounds on social media. In it, Francis makes the claim that for the first fifteen hundred years of Church History, people literally believed that the body and blood of Christ were being partaken during the Lord’s Supper. I include the video below in case you’ve missed it.

I’d like to briefly say that this post is not a dig against Francis by any means. I appreciate his books and teaching, and would thoroughly recommend books such as Crazy Love as a great read for young and mature Christians alike. This post is aimed at challenging something I believe to be factually wrong, and promoting a false teaching.

This claim, aligning Christian belief for the first 1500 years of Church History with elements of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, is in fact incorrect. Whilst Francis has much to say that is helpful, this particular claim is simply wrong.

Below are extracts from key early church thinkers and writings, that refute Francis’ claims. But behind such claims is, I believe, a bigger problem with the current engagement of evangelical Christians with Early Church history. And so at the end of this post is a short addendum and a link to some earlier posts. Evangelical Christians all too often lump the Early Church in with the Catholic Church, or assume that after the Apostolic era ended, the Catholic Church simply appeared. We’re often too easily afraid of the difference between catholic and Catholic.

But first, a short reponse to Francis Chan, from the mouths of members of the Early Church themselves.

Early Church understandings of The Bread and The Wine.

Athenagoras (c.133 – 190) says to eat the flesh of man is an abomination:

But if it be unlawful even to speak of this, and if for men to partake of the flesh of men is a thing most hateful and abominable, and more detestable than any other unlawful and unnatural food or act; and if what is against nature can never pass into nourishment for the limbs and parts requiring it, and what does not pass into nourishment can never become united with that which it is not adapted to nourish,–then can the bodies of men never combine with bodies like themselves, to which this nourishment would be against nature, even though it were to pass many times through their stomach, owing to some most bitter mischance”

Athenagoras, On the Resurrection of the Dead, 8

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 211) says Christ called the wine, wine:

In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? As shamelessly as we? Was it not with decorum and propriety? Was it not deliberately? For rest assured, He Himself also partook of wine; for He, too, was man. And He blessed the wine, saying, ‘Take, drink: this is my blood’–the blood of the vine. He figuratively calls the Word ‘shed for many, for the remission of sins’–the holy stream of gladness. And that he who drinks ought to observe moderation, He clearly showed by what He taught at feasts. For He did not teach affected by wine. And that it was wine which was the thing blessed, He showed again, when He said to His disciples, ‘I will not drink of the fruit of this vine, till I drink it with you in the kingdom of my Father.’

Clement of Alexander, Paedagogus, 2.2

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) spoke of the bread and wine being shared out as bread and wine:

There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, 65.

In the Didache (written c.96), the bread and wine are pictures of unity, and there to stir us to give thanks:

First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.. And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through.

Didache, 9.

Tertullian (c.155 – 220) reminds us that Christ told us the bread was a representation:

the bread by which he represents his own proper body…

Tertullian, Against Marcion, 1.14

Finally, Origen (c.184 – 253), in his commentary On Matthew, says that bread is bread, and has no higher substance. But that the Lord’s Supper ought to point us to something greater, to the True Living Bread, to the one we are remembering. Christ.

… it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever, no worthless person being able to eat it; for if it were possible for one who continues worthless to eat of Him who became flesh, who was the Word and the living bread, it would not have been written, that ‘every one who eats of this bread shall live for ever.’

Origen, On Matthew, 11.14

Origen points us away from the physical bread and wine, and takes us to the true satisfaction found in Christ. The Early Church clearly taught that the Lord’s Supper was an opportunity to meet as a church family and remember what it was the Lord has done for us. It clearly taught that we meet to give thanks to our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not eat of Him, nor would they suggest such a thing, but wonderfully, through His death and resurrection, we are now in Him.

Francis Chan has been right on many things, but on this he is wrong. The Early Church drew on truth they gained from Scripture, that the Lord had instituted this meal so that His church would gather and remember what He did for them. I have included the words of Early Church writers here to counter the claims made in the above video, but to see real and lasting truth, simply turn to the Gospel accounts of that Upper Room, and Paul’s thoughts upon what happened there, to read the divinely inspired words of Scripture on this matter. Transubstantiation is not a biblical teaching, and neither is it backed up by the history of the Early Church.

The later move towards Transubstantiation

As is clear from the above extracts (of which there are many more) the place of the Lord’s Supper in the Early Church is clear – transubstantiation has no Biblical or early Christian basis, rather the Biblical understanding – that this was a picture of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross – was accepted. Indeed even the quickest of glances at the historical record reveal that this idea was a later doctrinal creation of the Catholic Church. It was not until 831 that Paschasius Radbertus published the first treatise clearly advocating for the doctrine of transubstantiation, and it wasn’t until 1215 that it was officially adopted and promulgated as the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church church at the Lateran Council of that year.

Addendum: why we need to study Church History well.

Francis Chan’s comments show the need to approach Christian history with discernment. He makes two claims in his video that would be refuted by almost every single academic, whether Christian or not. As seen above, the claim that the church believed the bread and wine became the literal body and blood for the first 1500 years is clearly incorrect, but secondly, Francis claimed that for the first 1000 years there was but one church.

This is simply not the case. As I show in my blog on Catholicism, the Catholic Church came to the fore in the sixth century. And both before and after this, Christendom was divided geographically, or by leadership or cannon. Groups such as the Gnostics, Donatists and Arians claimed to be the true church, in the first three centuries of Church History alone!

There has only ever been one true church, God’s elect and redeemed church. But that’s never been shown in one strain, denomination, or label. However hard we might try. Sinful people simply make it too hard to achieve such global unity.

We need a better understanding of Church History, and the Early Church in particular. Find out more below.

Why do we need to bother with the Early Church? Find out here.

What about Catholicism? Check this post out.

Was there one church only? See this post for examples of the heresy and schisms that plagued even the earliest years of Christian history.

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.

Outcasts. The social stigma facing Early Christians.

To become a Christian is a huge decision. It’s life changing. It’s transformative. It’s hopeful.

And in the Roman world, it was a really, really hard thing to do.

When the Christian accepted Christ, he was rejecting the other gods of the Roman world. He wasn’t just adding in another god to a crowded pantheon, he was rejecting the rest in favour of this one true God. This was because the radical call to Christian belief was completely at odds with the whole Roman understanding of their world. There was a real stigma attached to accepting Christ, because it involved rejecting the gods of Rome.

The scholar Larry Hurtado lays this out clearly in his 2016 book on the Early Church.

“Practically everyone was presumed to honour the gods, and your own gods were supplied as part of your birthright.”

Hurtado, Destroyer of Gods, 2016, 78.

To become a Christian, to accept only one true God, is to turn your back on your whole prior understanding of yourself. Such a statement rings true today, but the stigma attached to this choice in Roman times was wide reaching. Religious belief defined every civic event, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief determined every legal and social process, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief shaped how the family interacted. The household gods (known in Latin as the lares), intimately personal to every household, were now in stark opposition to the new faith of the convert. And so the family religion, the makeup of how the very family unit defined itself? The Christian rejected that.

The Christian went from socially ‘in’ to a societal outcast overnight. The stigma around these believers was so real and so painful because their belief was so offensive to the Roman worldview. How dare these Jesus-followers reject the gods of their fathers? How dare they claim that their God is the only way?

They did it because of the wonderful answer Jesus made to that very question.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6.

The Jesus these early Christians followed was the only true God, and trusting in Him was the only way that any man or woman throughout the Empire could be right with this God.
The same is true today. The Christian life is hard, trusting in Christ requires the believer to turn his or her back on the world. It can make us societal outcasts. It can make our families, friends, even our spouses reject us and deride us. But at the end of the day it is wonderfully worth it because it is the only way we can be right with God. Jesus Christ is the only truth we can be sure of in a world of fake news and post-truth. Jesus Christ is a God who is wonderfully unchanging. And though following Him can be as hard in the twenty first century as it was in the first, it is just as worth it.

Ignatius: Focussed on Unity

Ignatius was headed for his death.

And that is one of the first things we know for sure about him.

He’s another one of the Early Church figures about whom it is almost impossible to piece a biography together. Born in the early first century (c.AD 35) Ignatius rose to the position of bishop in Antioch, a church leader in one of the important Early Church centres.

His death came about in AD 107, as he was taken to Rome and executed for the charge of atheism. One of the most common charges levied against early Christians, atheism – denying the Roman gods – could be punishable by death, and for Ignatius, it was.

Traditionally Ignatius is seen as one of the disciples of the Apostle John, whether or not this was the case, it seems that he likely succeeded Evodius as the second or third bishop of Antioch. In this role, he spoke and wrote extensively against heretical divisions, sending letters to churches throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Quite why Ignatius was taken to Rome for his execution is unknown, when persecution arose Christians were normally punished locally by the imperial provincial authority. Despite this peculiar circumstance, we know he endured a long journey to Rome, where he then met his death. On his way to the imperial capital he wrote many of his extant letters and it is these that provide most of his legacy. Letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia and other cities throughout the empire have survived. His letters often dwell on the themes of unity, submission to church leaders and fellowship through the Lord’s Supper.

Ignatius sought to encourage a unity built around a mutual encouragement and growth in the Gospel. He spoke against those who would seek to divide the church through falsehoods and lies, and encouraged a united submission to the undershepherds Christ had raised up. His letters betray his primary concern as he went to his death in Rome: the faithfulness and unity of the Church. His letters urge his readers to “follow the lead of the bishops” to “take heed to often come together to give thanks to God” and to “revere the deacons” among many other commands. Ignatius has a picture of a global Church gathered in local churches; under the authority of local church leadership, serving and growing in the glorious Gospel of Christ.

Eventually he went to his death, and as with so many of the other Early Church martyrs, his focus in death as in life is a challenge to us all.

Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”

Ignatius of Antioch

In death as in life, Ignatius looked towards and rejoiced in Christ. In his ministry he encouraged his flock to do the same, and in his own life he sought nothing more than to attain to Him.

His life reflects the words of Paul to the Philippians, written during Ignatius’ own lifetime.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Philippians 1:21.

Paul, and a little later Ignatius, saw life as being rightly lived when it was lived for Christ. And death? With death comes the great reward for the Christian is to be united with Christ for all eternity. Ignatius reflected this Pauline ambition, to live in such a way that Christ was glorified, and to die with the wonderful and certain hope that today he would be with Him in paradise.

Was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the biggest confusions surrounding Early Church history is the term ‘catholic.’ Little ‘c’? Big ‘C’?

It was only a few months ago that I realised: I’d never stopped and thought about the point in time when ‘the Church’ became ‘the Catholic Church’.

Of course, the Catholic Church itself claims its ordination of papal authority in Christ’s designation of Peter as “the rock on which I build my church” (Matt 16:18). This blog doesn’t want to engage with the ideas of Catholic theology predicated on this verse – if that’s a question for you may I recommend one of the blogs below:

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-did-the-pope-come-from


https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-dont-protestants-have-a-pope/

Rather, this blog is asking: was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the Pope’s titles is the Bishop of Rome. He is seen in Catholic belief as the one man with supreme authority over the Earthly Church. Such authority, however, only arose in the fifth century. Up until then, the Bishop of Rome was merely another high ranking Church official writing and speaking into Church debates of the day. Other notable episcopal sees included Antioch and Alexandria, indeed, the Coptic Church places its papal authority in the Alexandrian see in a manner not dissimilar from those of the Roman Catholic tradition. (See my recent blog on Clement for an example of how Alexandria was a major centre of Christian teaching and learning.)

For the first few centuries of its existence then, the Church was not Catholic. But it was catholic. Or at least, it strove to be. Groups of Christ followers meeting together as small parts of the universal body of Christ here on earth. It’s why we still use ‘catholic’ in our creeds today and why we can partner with Christians all over the world in prayer and mission.

Often we approach the Early Church with the fear that we are really studying the Catholic Church, and the possibility of learning in a conservative evangelical context is simply impossible. We musn’t let the terminology of ‘catholic’ put us off for the wrong reasons. Many of the so-called Church Fathers ( such as Justin or Polycarp), who are claimed as Catholic saints and teachers, were writing simple Gospel truth for their peers.

Whilst many later teachings of the Catholic Church are hinged on an interaction with and interpretation of the writings of these Early Church Fathers, the reality is there was no Catholic Church when they were writing. Rome was not the authoritorial centre of the Christian world. In AD 312 the Emperor Constantine legalised the Christian faith, but even after this it took over a century for Rome to come to the fore. We must not fear these formative years of the Church. Because there is so much we can learn from godly men and women who lived out their faith under the Roman Empire. Nor must we surrender the writers and writings of this period because of the terminology with which we discuss them in the twenty-first century.

The word ‘bishop’ is another that can confuse us. But this again is a simple matter of language and terminology. The word comes from the Greek, ἐπίσκοπος; which literally means overseer or supervisor. We find that Paul uses the word many times, notably in his description of the overseers Timothy ought to select to help lead the church in 1 Timothy 3:2. The bishops we see in this early period of church history are not the lofty ceremonial positions we have today in many denominations. They were pastors, elders and church leaders. Some, such as those of Rome or Alexandria, had significant power or authority, but more often than not they were humble figures leading small Christian communities.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church at Smyrna in the early second century, in it he wrapped up the ideas of bishops, ‘catholic’-ness and the church in one another.

“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8.

Whilst he uses the language of bishops and catholic churches, he is mirroring the picture of Biblical church order. An overseer (or overseers), leading a body of believers, under the authority of Christ, as a local part of the wider Church of Christ. A beautiful picture of the church as ordained by Scripture.

This is the terminology we use to discuss the Early Church.

So we shouldn’t be scared of the Early Church. We should recognise their sinfulness and their error. But there is also a lot we can learn from reflecting on the Early Church as they sought to live for the Gospel in the Roman world.

Find out more on why we should bother with the Early Church.

The Birth of Apologetics

Christian Apologetics are big business. Books, conferences, televised debates: speakers and evangelists can live their whole lives devoted to a career of apologetics in defence of the Christian faith.

But when did all that start? It wasn’t in the twentieth century with the careers of C S Lewis or John Lennox. Nor did it come from the great revival preachers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Apologetics was born in the Early Church. The genre of Apologetic writing, literal defences of the faith, was born in the second century as the fledgling Christian faith stood up to the might of the Roman world. Because the Church was facing a hostile world where the powers of Rome; political, religious and social, all hated what these new Christians stood for. Justin Martyr, introduced in my last blog (see it here), wrote one of the first Apologies. His work is addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “on behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them.”

Justin was addressing the Emperor because this abuse was found throughout the nations, and the faith needed to be defended, because the accusations that these Christians faced were simply unfounded.

Tertullian wrote his famous Apology about fifty years after Justin. It too, was addressed to political rulers, to “The Rulers of the Roman Empire,” and it was a work that sought to force these rulers to “openly inquire into and sift before the world the real truth in regard to the charges made against the Christians”

Both these works, some of the earliest examples of apologetics to survive to us address the culture of the day and provide a defence of the faith in light of the challenge of the zeitgeist of the day.

The amazing thing about these apologies is that they were written with two real goals in mind. To defend the faith against the attacks of the day, and to defend the faith with the truths of the Gospel. Tertullian’s Apology includes a brilliant explanation of the Gospel. He grounds it in the history of the empire, freely admitting Christ lived recently “no further back indeed than the reign of Tiberius,” before turning to discuss Christ’s divinity.

He appeared among us, whose coming to renovate and illuminate man’s nature was pre-announced by God— I mean Christ, that Son of God. And so the supreme Head and Master of this grace and discipline, the Enlightener and Trainer of the human race, God’s own Son, was announced among us, born…

Tertullian, Apology, 21.

Tertullian addresses the accusations of the Roman government of the day by pointing it back to the Jesus these Christians believed in. By showing His divinity, lordship and salvation work on the cross, Tertullian answers the accusations of these enemies of the Gospel, by pointing them to the Gospel.

These days, rightly, apologetics often manifests itself in answering questions about science, ethics and historical authenticity. But a brief glance back to the writings of the Early Church reminds us that at the heart of good apologetics lies a radical call to faith in Christ, and an emphasis on the Gospel that drives all the defences we make.