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.)

What have we got in Common? Hope?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Twitter is particularly good at distilling contemporary issues into a long stream of polarising and pointed (and often very emotional) soundbites. Scrolling down our feeds is, at the moment, a particularly negative past time. Whilst social media can show us at our best, it also shows us at our worst. And so in the midst of a global pandemic, as tensions about race and privilege erupt across the globe, and as one popular author is violently berated across the web for her views on biological sex, it’s easy to feel hopeless.

Our nation is divided, our world is a mess. It can feel like we’re a world at loggerheads. It’s hopeless. What have we got in common any more?

Well for some people, the answer is hope.

Nearly 1900 years ago, in the 140s AD, the writer Ignatius spoke of “the common hope” of all Christians (To the Ephesians 21). In 197 AD the apologist Tertullian mirrored this cry (Apology, 39). “We [Christians] are a body knit together as such by a common religious belief, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.”

The first Christians lived in a divided world, where society was split into rich and poor, slave and free, Roman and foreigners. It was a messy world where selfish pleasure and power were pursued above noble ideas of the greater good or the care of the needy. And it was a world where Christians were derided, attacked, scorned and even killed for their beliefs. In a hopeless situation, in a divided world, how could they speak of common hope? What could this common hope possibly be?

This hope was, and is, Jesus. The Early Church clung to this hope, the common hope of all Christians, because they saw that they needed it. In a broken world, where division and suffering was rife, they recognised that their lives were hopeless. Far from escaping such issues, they realised that they themselves were a part of the problem! The Bible calls this sin. That all have sinned, and fall short of the standards of goodness that we so desire in our noblest moments. That we all live selfishly, full of anger, tribalism, malice and vanity. Perhaps we’re reminded of our own times.

But the first Christians could hope in Jesus Christ for a better future. Because “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Christ came to Earth to bring us to God. He was the Son of God, and he died that we might live.

John summarised this hope in a single verse.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

The common hope of these earliest Christians was not that the trouble of this world would pass them by, but that they knew, with certainty and a deep, deep joy, that they were heading for a wonderful eternity. Their sins had been dealt with, they future was no longer a hopelessness but instead a glorious hope. No longer death but life. No longer their own weak efforts, but Christ.

Our own world is painfully divided, and I have no answers to the enormous problems that we face. Few, if any, do. But I know I have a hope that will carry me through these crises. I know I have a hope that will carry me through every up and down, great or small. It is a hope shared by billions throughout history, from Ignatius, to Tertullian, to Martin Luther King Jr., to me and countless others across the globe today. I have a hope named Jesus, and he will never disappoint me.

In a world where hope seems lost, why not explore the hope that Christians share? Look for Hope is a great place to start doing just that, a website full of articles and content pointing to the hope Christians hold in the midst of the very real and present struggles we all face.

Book Reviews: Coronavirus Reads. (Piper, Lennox and Healthy Faith.)

In an effort to respond helpfully and ‘Christianly’ to this global crisis, several leading Christian thinkers and publishers have released new books aimed at helping Christians and non-Christians find Gospel hope at the heart of this pandemic. Below I review two short books, written by John Piper and John Lennox respectively, that both offer very different approaches to this issue. I also include a suggestion for a third book that could help us through this time.

John Piper: Christ and Coronavirus

Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper

Piper has written a short book to help Christians respond to this global pandemic. Christ and Coronavirus is a really helpful read as we think about our own hearts in this strange and often difficult time. Split into two short sections, Piper first considers God’s sovereignty before offering six reflections as to what God might be doing through this crisis.

Part One addresses God’s sovereignty. Piper wants to stress that we trust in a God who reigns over the coronavirus. He is the rock on whom we can stand firm. And so Part One takes on a theological tone. But Piper is careful to make this a section that can be directly applied to our lives, not some academic, abstract theological idea. He gives a great analogy of technology versus taste (26-27). If we were to take a jar of honey, technology could tell us the composition, the chemical makeup – but only taste could tell us of its sweetness. The same is true of theology, we must taste the truth of Scripture as we explore God’s sovereignty to see the sweetness of this truth.

So in a few short chapters heavily dependent on Scriptural truth, Piper does exactly that. I found this a helpful read, and was encouraged that God is sovereign over all of this. At times some of what Piper wrote was hard to read, but through challenging truths such as (45) – “if we try to rescue God from his sovereignty over suffering, we sacrifice his sovereignty to turn all things for good”, Piper offers a great picture of God’s sovereignty over a fragile and broken world.

Part Two offers six answers to the question: what is God doing through the coronavirus? Again, this was a section full of helpful thoughts, although some of what Piper said jarred with me. I was left with much to mull over and reflect on, but in that came some really important truths. The wonderful if hard reality that (64) Christians will experience corruption now, but we are free from the condemnation that follows. The tough challenge of the “gift of desperation” (83): stop relying on yourselves, and trust in God alone.

This is a short book, and will certainly be a controversial read, but Piper offers some helpful thoughts to challenge us to respond to this crisis. Is our understanding of the truth of God’s sovereignty deep and rich enough that we can see the beauty of it even through this crisis? This book might be a helpful prompt to consider that.

John Lennox: Where is God in a Coronavirus World?

John Lennox: Why did God make a world with coronavirus? - The ...

If you’re in the mood for something a bit different, then perhaps you might consider John Lennox’s offering. This is another excellent book to help us respond to this crisis, and whereas Piper responds in a theological work, Lennox offers a more apologetic book. Where is God in a Coronavirus World? is thoughtfully geared towards the current crisis, and offers a wonderful presentation of the Gospel amidst the confusion of coronavirus.

What I found most helpful about this short, accessible book, was its clear presentation of the hope that Christians have. Lennox shows that not only can Christians respond to this crisis helpfully and ‘Christianly’, but actually that the answers Christians have to offer are full of a hope that is so much more sure and certain than anything the world has to offer.

Chapter 6 offers some practical advice on how we might respond to this crisis with some great, future-focussed, Heaven-looking tips, so this is a brilliant read for Christians as well as non-Christians. But I think this would be a great short book to send or give to a non-Christian friend, neighbour or family member. It helpfully spells out the sure and certain hope Christians can find in a world of uncertainty, and does so in a gentle and simple manner.

Kristi Mair and Luke Cawley: Healthy Faith

Whilst I won’t offer a review of this upcoming book, I would love to commend it to you.

Kristi and Luke have assembled 20 chapters and a whole load of extra material: appendices, prayers and other helpful sections, to help the British church think through and respond to the Coronavirus crisis. This book stands out for me because not only is it wholly written as new material speaking into this pandemic, but because Luke and Kristi have made a real effort to equip their readers with practical and Gospel-centred advice.

Primarily aimed at a Christian audience, this book includes chapters from the likes of Dan Strange, Krish Kandiah, Tom Wright, Andy Kind, Ed Shaw and many more. It’s a really helpful briefing as we think about responding to this crisis. With chapters discussing parenting, singleness, work, redundancy, humour and mental health, it’s a really helpful book for thinking through how we can respond to this crisis biblically across all areas of our lives.

I was thrilled to contribute a chapter to this book on the realities of working (and of losing work) through this crisis, and it is my hope that this book will be a real blessing. Publication is Monday, but you can preorder through the IVP website below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above books, and would heartily recommend all three if you’re looking to think through this crisis from a Gospel standpoint.

Healthy Faith: Preorder

Healthy Faith: Contents and Contributors

The Good News of Easter: is it true?

Over the Easter Weekend we ran a short series exploring the message at the heart of Easter. That Jesus Christ died, was buried and rose again. We looked at the Cross, the Tomb and the Risen God. Below our links to all three blogs, in case it would be helpful to revisit them.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Easter Sunday: A God Rises to Life

If this is all true: it really matters. A while ago I reviewed Brian Edwards’ short tract on this question. It’s well worth a read, as is this short online article by Patrick Zukeran.

If it’s true: it could change your life. If you already know this wonderful news to be true, then don’t keep it quiet.

Cyprian of Carthage: Transformed by the Gospel

Martyred in 258 AD, Cyprian was a North African Bishop who chose to follow Christ ahead of the temptations and trappings of an elite upbringing.

The ruins of Roman Carthage.

Little is known of Cyprian’s early life. But by all accounts he was a wealthy member of the Roman provincial elite. Born Thascius in the early third century, as a young man he would have had an excellent and diverse education. Thascius was taught oratory, rhetoric and grammar, and would have been well versed in the poetry and prose of the ancient world. His extant works betray a well read, well taught individual, whose command of oratory in particular shines through in his writing.

With such a privileged background, Thascius would have known the luxury and trappings of upper class provincial Roman life. Rich and varied food and drink, sexualised relationships and interactions with a variety of partners, and lavish dinner parties, drinking competitions and high society soirees. To tear oneself away from a life of indulgence and privilege is always a challenge (and is part of the reason Christ Himself taught that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:25.) But through the ministry of a humble Christian teacher, Cyprian’s life displays the saving power of the Gospel to do just that.

The Life of Cyprian, by Pontius the Deacon, is our most contemporaneous source on Cyprian’s life. Pontius was a Carthaginian churchman who served as a Deacon under Cyprian’s leadership. His work is short, but it crucially describes just how one particular priest, Caecilius (from whom Thascius took his new name), was used by God to dramatically transform this member of the provincial Roman elite into a humble servant of the True and Living God.

He had a close association among us with a just man, and of praiseworthy memory, by name Caecilius, and in age as well as in honour a presbyter, who had converted him from his worldly errors to the acknowledgment of the true divinity. This man he loved with entire honour and all observance, regarding him with an obedient veneration, not only as the friend and comrade of his soul, but as the parent of his new life.

Pontius the Deacon, Life of Cyprian 4.

Pontius makes clear the affection Cyprian had for Caecilius. Indeed, there are echoes of how Paul describes his relationship with Timothy. Paul describes Timothy as his son several times – “…I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord,” “Timothy, my true son in the faith…” (1 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 1:2). There is a spiritual tenderness. Paul led Timothy to faith, Caecilius did likewise for Cyprian. There is tenderness because at the heart of the New Birth of the Christian is a right orientation of love. God loves us, and yet we willingly reject Him. Instead, we project our love on created things, and not our Creator. Cyprian had lived for around 35 years before his conversion, loving the vices and pleasures of the Roman elites. Satisfying himself in the gratifications of the sinful flesh. Yet when Caecilius introduced him to the Gospel, his eyes were opened. His love was reorientated, upon the Father who adopted Him, the Son who died for him, and the Spirit that works within him. And that love overflows to his new family: the church. Caecilius is part of that, and his role in teaching Cyprian the Gospel meant that affection was clear to see. Indeed, from the time of his conversion, Cyprian’s love for the people of God becomes evident in the way he begins to live.


The Gospel transformed Cyprian.


From ambitious and successful provincial elite, Cyprian became a willing and humble servant of the Lord. He gave away his wealth, supporting the poor and needy. His considerable wealth was rapidly disseminated around the family of believers, and those struggling in the city of Carthage. Within two years of his conversion, Cyprian was ordained, and his heart for pastoral leadership is evident in his writings. His extant letters betray a pastoral heart for stumbling saints, struggling sinners, and needy believers. 

Cyprian was committed to encouraging his readers to keep on in their faith, to depend on God alone for their strength and salvation. One short quote, from a letter to Donatus, illustrates his practical, pastoral encouragement to depend on God alone.

“Be constantly committed to prayer and to reading [Scripture]. By praying, you speak to God, in reading, God speaks to you.”

Cyprian, To Donatus, 15.

Cyprian became Bishop of Carthage, the leader of the small Christian community there. Under his leadership the Carthaginian church endured two major persecutions. Both were costly to the Church, and to Cyprian, but it was the second which proved fatal for Cyprian himself.

Imprisoned under the orders of the proconsul of the region, Galerius Maximus, Cyprian was tried before the proconsul in open court. The death sentence was pronounced when Cyprian refused to recant. His faith superseded his allegiance to Rome, and he would not deny the sovereign lordship of Christ to save his own life. Execution by beheading was the judgement, and records indicate that on September 13th, 258, Cyprian was beheaded outside of the city.

Cyprian led the church in Carthage for only a decade or so, and his emphasis on pastoral leadership was clear and helpful. The transformation of the Gospel is evident in the story of Cyprian. His change from wealthy and lavish provincial elite, to servant hearted church leader is miraculous. The Gospel has the power to save sinners, and Cyprian’s story is of exactly that saving grace.


But Cyprian was not a perfect saint. His life was marred by the reactions and interactions to those who fell away during the intense periods of persecution. Labelled the lapsi – the fallen, these Christians faced ostracism from the community of believers. Genuine repentance was often rejected, and the affair became a dirty period in the history of the Carthaginian church. Cyprian found himself caught between groups that accepted these lapsed back into the fold, and those who could never accept them. He took a firm moderate position, at times helping the situation, at times inflaming it. Eventually, some fifty years after Cyprian’s death, this crisis escalated to a full blown eccesliastical schism. Those who could not accept the lapsed, then known as traditores (lit. those who handed over) for their handing over of the sacred texts and communion vessels of the church during the persecutions, broke away to form their own church. The two Christian groups periodically clashed, often violently, and even the then Emperor Constantine had to repeatedly step in to the conflict.

Cyprian was not the perfect church leader. By no means was he a complete role model, or morally virtuous exemplar. But he is a wonderful example of a redeemed sinner. A man whose life was so utterly transformed by the Gospel that he went from the hedonistic pleasures of Roman upper class youth, to the pastorally hearted and humble martyr for Christ. Through the gentle ministry of Caecilius, Cyprian was transformed by the powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The writer to the Hebrews tells his readers (13:8)  that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” Cyprian’s life is testament that 200 years after the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that was most certainly true. Today, some 2000 years later, Christian men and women across the globe are testament to the enduring truth of this message.

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.

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy.

Image result for irenaeus of lyons

Irenaeus was a second century Bishop and theologian. Born c.125, Irenaeus heard the teaching of Polycarp (more on him can be found here), who in turn had heard the Apostle John teaching the Gospel. Irenaeus was converted as a young man, and after taking this defining and challenging decision to follow Christ in a hostile ancient world, Irenaeus ended up in Lyons.

The then bishop of the city, the local church leader Pothinus, sent the young Christian to Rome, where Irenaeus was on mission for the cause of the Gospel. During this time away from Lyons, a fierce persecution broke out, and Pothinus was among the many Christians in and around the city to be put to death.

The Lyons that Irenaeus returned to was a different town to the one he had left only a few years before. But shortly after his return in c.180, Irenaeus was made Bishop of the small surviving church there, and it is in this role he would remain till his death in c.202 AD.

Irenaeus is remembered as a teacher, writer and theologian, whose most famous work was his Refutation Of Heresies.

Irenaeus’ Refutation primarily challenged the heresy of Gnosticism.

The gnostics arose during the first century, and operated on the fringes of Christian and Jewish groups. They taught transcendence and enlightenment, not sin and salvation. The gnostic considered the way to salvation being a personal understanding of the supreme divine, a mysterious force that they taught superseded the Christian God. Christ, sin and repentance were all concepts discarded by the gnostic, instead their writings deal with spiritual forces, transcendence and wisdom. Such wisdom made them an elite sect, only the enlightened could access their spirituality, and understand the role their gods and powers played in the world

Clearly, these gnostics had moved far away from the Gospel, and rightly, Irenaeus challenged them on this.

Irenaeus rightly taught the wonderful Gospel message, that God so loved the world He had made, He sent His one and only Son to pay the penalty that fallen, sinful men and women deserved, so that we could know Him, and life afresh. And Irenaeus taught that this was a message for everyone. That it did not matter how clever or elite or rich you were. All you had to do was come to Christ in repentance. He refuted the elitist, transcendent claims of the gnostics, instead offering a Gospel that clung to Scripture, and rested wholly on who Christ is and what He had done.

Three Things Irenaeus Taught

In response to the Gnostics, Irenaeus wrote his Refutation. I just want to pull out three things he taught within it, very briefly.

Irenaeus emphasised the importance of the Local Church. He was perhaps the first writer to speak of the catholic church – the universal church to which all Christians are members. But Irenaeus recognised that the true importance for the Christian was the Local Church. Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Lyons and Rome were all local congregations. Part of this wider body of the bride of Christ, but in themselves manifestations of that body in their local communities. He recognised this universal true church of believers, but saw that this wider church was seen in the local church. He wasn’t speaking of a Catholic Church, subservient to one particular figurehead, but instead a catholic church, Local Churches united in the Gospel the world over.

And this universality extended to the second point I want to draw out, Irenaeus urged his readers to recognise that the Gospel was for everyone. It was not the property of the intellectual or social elite, nor of the slaves and paupers. It was for everyone. Irenaeus contrasted the Gospel to Judaism. The latter preserved the purity of a single nation, but the former? Well “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28.) The Gospel is an appeal for all and to all. Jesus commanded His discples, go and make disciples of all nations! (Matthew 18:19) Go out with the Gospel said Irenaeus, and preach without reservation to all you meet.

Off the back of that: my final point. Irenaeus taught that the Gospel offer was a challenge. Christianity claimed the truth for all nations. But it claimed the truth. Not a truth, the Truth. Jesus said quite plainly. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6.) Irenaeus rallied against gnostics who taught that personal enlightenment could bring about divine peace and understanding. This simply isn’t the Gospel message.

Irenaeus reminded his readers that the Local Church held out a Gospel for all men, but not everyone would accept it. It necessitated a choice. An acceptance or rejection of the truth of Christ. A choice that each and every individual had to make, and still does today.

Language Games. Looking different: sounding the same?

The Early Church was doing something radical in the ancient world. Men and women, slave and free, different ethnicities all gathered together celebrating one God, one Spirit, one faith.

Image result for early church ephesus
Ephesus, the site of one of the earliest Christian communities.

Such radical behaviour naturally attracted criticism. The atheist Celsus, a 2nd century opponent of the faith, was particularly aggressive in his criticism of the new faith. One of his major criticisms was that the meetings and rituals of these Christ followers worryingly resembled the ‘secret associations’ of cults and dark religious groups.

The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws. And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the love-feasts of the Christians.

Origen, Against Celsus, 1.1

What was Celsus saying here? Origen (who wrote Against Celsus in response to the atheist) tells us that Celsus was trying to discredit the faith. He does this by suggesting that Christians were merely adherents to these illegal, secretive associations that carried out such debauched practices as ‘love-feasts’. Celsus makes the meetings and meals of the Christians into a dangerous series of illicit meetings…

Why did such an accusation carry weight? Because the ancient world was full of associations, guilds and societies.

Associations, Guilds and Societies

The ancient world was full of social gatherings. Guilds and associations, called collegia in Latin and thiasoi in Greek, abounded. Everyone was a member. Blacksmiths were members of blacksmiths guilds, laywers members of legal guilds. The rich were members of dinner party societies, the poor members of clubs and guilds designed to share simple meals and offer emergency provisions. These guilds were divided among social class and career. These guilds supported their members, organised social events, and even provided funds and materials for the funerals of members.

Guilds and societies were a big and common part of Roman life. These secret associations Celsus mentions were illegal perversions of these guilds. They secretly worshipped one god above all others, members were devoted to their cause, and their actions were often criticised as being illegal or repulsive.

Though all these guilds, secret or ordinary, had defined members lists, it was only these secret ones that would shun all others. Gods and goddesses were so often tied to a particular guild. Patron deities were especially revered. But no self-respecting association would disregard all other gods purely because they happened to prefer one. And no regular association would allow slaves and peasants to mix with officials and elites.

Language Games

The Early Church did both those things. They taught their members that there was only one God, and they accepted into their midst anyone, regardless of their social standing, if they professed faith in this one God.

And so it was easy for opponents of the faith to label them secret, perverted groups.

So the Church had to find a way to explain to the world what it was they were about. Christians began to use words like collegium, or thiasos, to describe how they were meeting together. We even find Early Christian churches described as philosophical schools of learning. The Church had to play language games to interact with the world around them.

The best known label for these Early Christian groups was ekklesia – the term from which we get our English word: church. In the ancient world an ekklesia was a gathering, an assembly, a meeting. The Early Church began to use words like this to make what it was doing accessible to outsiders. Because that is perhaps the biggest difference between the church and these other groups: anyone could join, everyone could be welcomed in. A profession of faith in Christ is all that was required, and anyone who met the living God could do that.

Our Church

The Early Church faced the challenge of describing what it was they were doing to a world who had never come across them before. In our own world, the terminology: church, has an established and largely understood meaning.** But we must guard against our churches resembling collegia. We must guard against a lack of welcome, a lack of engagement. The Gospel is exclusive, there is a clear in and out. But the church had the job of presenting the Gospel invitation to the world. We can’t do that if our closed up membership is looking inwards, refusing to engage with the world around them. We can do that, when, radically, believers of all ages, stages and backgrounds, gather around the Gospel in love for God’s creation.

Our mission as church is to go out. A clear and defined membership of believers, inviting everyone we meet and engage with to join God’s great salvation plan.

That invitation is just as alien to our modern world as it was to the Roman world of the Early Church. We don’t face the barrier of setting up a whole new way of ‘doing life’, but we do face a similar challenge. Christ still calls us to reject all other gods, to meet with and encourage one another, and to go out on mission to a lost world that will never understand what we are doing until we introduce them to Jesus.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus’s Great Commission is to go. It is to take the Gospel to all nations, leading repentant sinners to a saving faith in Christ. Our Lord commands us to engage with the world around us. Not to dilute the Gospel message or to conform to the ways of the world, but to go, and to take that wonderful Gospel message out to the communities and people who work and live around us.

Because the Early Church was different. And so are we today. We’re different because we aren’t living for ourselves. I’m not in church because it’s powerful or wealthy. I’m there because I’ve been saved by Christ at the Cross, and I want to join my family in praising Him, encouraging one another in the truth, and obeying His command to gather together. Church will always look weird to a world rejecting God. But if we aren’t reaching those outside Church with the Gospel, they’ll never quite understand why that is.

*Membership in the Early Church is an interesting topic: often it seems that those born into Church families were included as members. The Biblical picture is to love and raise children in the faith, but they must still stand on their own two feet. They must decide for themselves whether they will trust and obey Jesus before they can be members of the Church.

**Sometimes that meaning is negative in our world, this places even more of an emphasis on going out with the Gospel message to lost sinners in need of grace! We aren’t going out to advertise ourselves, but to tell the wonderful redeeming truth of an all loving God.

Partnership at a cost: Philemon

In his short New Testament letter to Philemon, Paul asks for something absolutely outrageous.

Philemon is all about partnership. Paul celebrates the encouragement his friend has been to him (and others) in the past “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), and looks forward to being with him for a time of fellowship again soon, “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” (vs22). But in between these two clearly tender remarks, which illustrate their close brotherly relationship in the Lord, Paul asks of his friend an outrageous request.

It is a request, an appeal. Though Paul says he could pull rank and order him to obey (vs8), he appeals, vs9, out of love. And the appeal is for the slave, Onesimus.

“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

Philemon 10-11.

Paul is appealing on behalf of this slave Onesimus, who clearly belongs to the well-off Philemon. Onesimus has fled from Philemon’s house, clearly he has wronged his master (either by running away or perhaps some other misdemeanor – the letter doesn’t make that clear). But somehow he has ended up with Paul, and now, wonderfully, he has come to a saving faith in Christ. Paul shows this in calling him “my son” – and we are told in Colossians 4:9 that he is a “faithful and dear brother.”

So Paul makes this appeal: formerly this slave was useless to you Philemon, he wronged you, but now he is in right fellowship with me and before God, and he is of use to you again, accept him back into your household. And accept him not as a slave (vs16) but as a brother. In fact, Philemon, receive him as you would receive me (vs17). 

This is an outrageous request, because Philemon and Onesimus couldn’t be more different, and in real terms: they couldn’t be more estranged.

They were not two friends who had a falling our, or siblings who had a row. This is two men at polar opposite ends of the social spectrum, and Paul asks the ‘greater’ of these two men to accept the ‘lesser’ as though they were brothers! It’s the Queen accepting the beggar as a brother, or the CEO promoting the secretary to be her partner. But more than this: Onesimus has wronged Philemon, he’s a runaway slave, Philemon is within his rights to have him put to death! In Roman times the slave was the ultimate possession of the master, and if that slave fled, crucifixion was a perfectly acceptable (and common) punishment. Onesimus had wronged his master in a serious way, there was no worldly coming back from this. And yet Paul appeals. Forgive and embrace him, says Paul. Not as a debtor, not as a slave, but as a brother. Paul is asking the important Philemon to ask a criminal social outcast to be his equal. It’s a radical call to working out his heart of partnership in a costly situation. In the social standing of the day this was the utmost folly. But Paul doesn’t care, he’s only interested in these men enjoying and living in a successful partnership for the Gospel.

Onesimus is, in a worldly sense, next to nothing. He was a possession, and one that needed to be destroyed for his crimes. Philemon was a big deal, he was a homeowner, a slaveowner, clearly a man of social standing. It’s a radical plea from Paul, but it’s made on one qualification only

Onesimus is useful to Paul, and to Philemon. How? Because Onesimus has come to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And because of that one fact, he was useful. Paul is making a pun here – Onesimus’ name means useful: in his crime he was useless, but now, made right in Christ, he is useful. And his use is incredible.

Paul thanked Philemon for the way his love “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), likewise Paul hopes that if Philemon obeys his appeal here he will “refresh my heart in Christ” (vs19). The Christian refreshes his or her brother and sister by displaying a Gospel-centred Christ-like love towards them. Any Christian, from the slave to the master, the PhD to the sixth-form drop out, can encourage their brothers and sisters, can be useful to them. God is merciful to use each and every one of us. In our church, our ragtag bunch of Christians from all walks of life, every single person is useful. Because every single person can point us back to the Gospel.

And clearly, from the outrageous nature of Paul’s request, that is the thing that matters most for any and every believer.

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Though known for his Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras is one of the least well known Ante-Nicene apologists.


Athenagoras was born in c.133 AD. Known as Athenagoras of Athens, his birthplace may well not have been in the city, but he certainly lived and flourished there. Like other Early Church figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras came from an educated background. Coming from Athens, with its rich history in philosophy and education, he’d had plenty of opportunity to engage with the Stoics, Platonists and every other school of thought on offer.

So much like Justin, Athenagoras looked into them all, and as a young man he converted to Christianity. He styles himself an “Athenian, Philosopher and a Christian” in his Plea, and this sense is certainly carried through his writings.

Though he was believed to be a prolific and well known writer, with a long list of works likely circulating round the Western Mediterranean, only a few have survived antiquity. He is known as an apologist, and his career fell shortly after the first generation of Christian apologists. He was also a scholar. His treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead is notable for being the first complete exposition of this doctrine in Christian literature. But his most famous work was his apologetic Plea for the Christians. This work was written as an ‘embassy’ on behalf of the Christians, made by a philosopher to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Lucius, his son and co-ruler. The speaker presents his case in the philosophical style, addressing the emperors eloquently and logically. The work claims the treatment of the Christians to be unjust, and by a careful setting out of the beliefs and doctrines to which these Christ-followers ascribe, he presents his case.

The work is rich in ancient literature, quoting pagan poets and philosophers as well as Christian texts and Scripture. The work states three common accusations the Christians face: atheism, cannabalism and incest. It then answers each charge, pointing to the God they believe in in answer to this opposition. Athenagoras’ Plea answers the charges by pointing to the truths that drive the Christian faith. Amongst other things, he elaborates on monotheism, on the Gospel and on love as a key motivation for the Christian believer.

His Plea also provides a wonderful quote on the character of the Early Christians he is defending and it makes for wonderful reading.

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds they exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 11.

Athenagoras is describing the church. In this mix of people, there are some unskilled, some uneducated and some old women, cast offs from society. But, he says, though they may not possess the education or the eloquence to defend the doctrines of the faith rhetorically, they live out the Gospel in their deeds. By sharing their God in the way they act, they are persuading their neighbours, friends and family of the truth. It is a wonderful snapshot of Early Church life, and a wonderful side note to the main thrust of his work: on the value each member of God’s family had. Some of the church, says Athenagoras, were not valuable to the world, and may not have been all too clever with words or rich with possessions. But they had incredible value in living Christ centered lives, loving others and living out the Gospel day in day out. The Church had educated figures such as Athenagoras, who could (and did!) write long defences of the faith. But Athenagoras reminds both his critics then and his readers now that living out a life faithful to the Gospel offers genuine witness to the transformative power of the cross.

The Gospel was good news for everyone in Roman society. And every member of the local church had the wonderful responsibility of sharing that Gospel in their words and deeds. And they didn’t need the philosophical education of the Athenian elite to do it.

Athenagoras died in around 190 AD. His exact date of death is unknown, as are the circumstances in which he died. But what is known is that he was a brilliant and in many ways respected scholar. He engaged with emperors, governors, philosophers and peasants, and he saw the hope of every man as lying in the acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.