There are a lot of things in the Christian religion which don’t appear to make sense on first sight. The fundamentals can be found in the bible – e.g. salvation by the grace of God alone through faith, but a lot of other things only make sense with some understanding of church history. From the birth of the church in the Acts of the Apostles, as recorded in the New Testament, through the schisms which rent the church asunder for various reasons, through to the church in the present day, we can learn so much about the work of God.
Questions such as, “Where did the Bible come from?” and “Where does the word Trinity come from?” are answered early on in the history of the church, with the various councils which rubber-stamped the canon of Scripture and threw out Arius and his followers. Who were men like Arius, Marcion and Pelagius? What was wrong with their teachings?
We find out the origins of the Roman Catholic Church, with the rise of the Papacy, and its split with the Eastern Orthodox church, which can be seen developing through fall of the Roman Empire and the dark ages in Europe. We see the slow decline of the primacy of Scripture in the church going hand in hand with the rise of corruption and heresy. In this climate, non-Scriptural teachings relating to teachings such as purgatory and indulgences arise.
Yet, at the height of the Roman Catholic Church’s power on earth, God is working to bring the church back to his word. Men such as Wycliff and Tyndale appeared on the scene, each with an urge to translate the bible into the language of the common man. They would pave the way for Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Who would’ve thought that an Augustinian monk in Wittenberg, a lawyer from France along with many others would bring about a reformation of the church? From their actions, the word of God was restored to its rightful place in his church. This return to Scripture instigated massive changes in these reformed churches, and in the countries where the reformation of the church took place. The translation of the Scriptures into English would influence the development of this language, in its grammar and usage, just as it was beginning to spread around the globe. The Reformation would cause a huge backlash in the Roman Catholic Church, culminating in the Council of Trent and its opposition to the doctrine of justification by faith alone being set in stone.
Despite God’s blessing on the church, the church was quick to forget and only a few hundred years after the Reformation, the reformed churches in England are in dire straits again. Again, God uses a few men, men such as George Whitfield and John Wesley to revive the church, and to bring men and women back to God and his word. Many historians believe if this revival had not happened, the kingdom would’ve fallen and England would’ve undergone violent revolution and become a republic, likes its neighbour France. This period of history would also be a time of prolific hymn-writing by people such as Isaac Watts, John Newton and Charles Wesley.
Most of the Reformed, or Protestant, churches, by their very nature, were fragmented. By now there were a myriad number of Protestant churches, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, to mention just a few. Whether this was a good thing or not is open to question. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, most were firmly evangelical, so rooted in the word of God and prospering. By the middle of the twentieth century, many had abandoned the word of God as their prime authority in an attempt to be more like the world around it, instead of changing the world around them. At the same time, these churches saw decline in membership and attendance, with many eventually closing. Today, is still no different. Statistics show that evangelical churches are generally holding their own, whereas more theologically liberal churches are in decline. Indeed, the church in Europe in general is in decline, whilst the church in the rest of the world is thriving.
This is just a brief whistle-stop tour through, mostly English, church history. From this, some things will still not make sense. Most of it is not the entire truth, indeed some of it might be misleading without further reading.
Will we spend the time to learn more about the history of the church, how it has shaped the church and the world around us, both temporally and spiritually, and learn from the mistakes made in the past? Or will we just learn nothing and repeat the mistakes?