Cover Story

Assault and light

Expansion, corruption, reformation, persecution: Is there a biblical pattern here?

Issue: "2000: The Millennium," July 31, 1999

With the near approach of the year one thousand," Charles Williams wrote in The Descent of the Dove, "Christendom everywhere expected the end. It did not come. The first millennium ... closed and the second opened with no greater terror than the ordinary robberies, murders, rapes, burnings, wars, massacres, and plagues, and the even less noticeable agonies of each man's ordinary life." In the year of our Lord 1000, an important part of ordinary life in Europe was the Christian church. With the "conversion" of Constantine in the early fourth century, the persecuted church had become the tolerated church and then, before long, the official religion of the Roman Empire. The invasions of the "barbarians" from the north and east produced chaos in the empire but extended Christianity through the conversion of the European tribes, and the "center" of the church shifted for the third time-from the Jewish Christian world of the eastern Mediterranean, to the Greco-Roman world of Rome, to the converted tribes of northern and central Europe. Not only had the Christian church spread widely by the year 1000 but it also had divided. Several smaller churches, usually designated as "Nestorian" and "Monophysite," had developed in the aftermath of the christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries; these maintained adherents in Asia and Africa. A much larger division, soon after the beginning of the new millennium (1054), was the culmination of centuries of tensions and produced the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Medieval missions, flowing in various directions, had won most of western and northern Europe to the Catholic church, but just before the close of the first millennium Russia converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and, in time, became the largest of the Orthodox national churches. While Eastern Orthodoxy remained relatively stable, drawing its sustenance from the creeds and tradition as well as from the Bible, Catholicism entered a period of vigorous development through the competing efforts of rulers and popes. Great cathedrals rose toward heaven, adopting the new Gothic style, while "scholastic theologians" made theology "the queen of the sciences" on earth. Islam and the Crusades
European energy, the desire for earthly and spiritual adventure, and concern to free the Holy Land from the "infidel" Muslims motivated generations of western Christians to several centuries of largely fruitless military "crusades." Since the seventh century, Islam had posed a definite threat to the church. Finally turned back in western Europe, it continued to hold sway in Spain, across North Africa, and in large parts of Asia. The lasting result of the crusades was bitterness between Christians and Muslims, and even between Eastern and Western Christians. Few Christians felt the call to evangelize the Muslims until Raymund Lull (c. 1232-1316) attempted to turn the church's interest from a military to a spiritual mission. Early reform efforts
Meanwhile, reform movements within Catholicism led to the founding of two new 13th-century orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The former, followers of "the poor little man" of Assisi, spread joy and peace and love for all God's creation, whereas the latter developed preachers to combat heresy and extend the faith. Both orders produced notable scholars, and Dominican Thomas Aquinas became in time the major teacher of the Catholic church. Another 13th-century reform movement, led by Peter Waldo, was refused recognition by the papacy and became a separate church, greatly persecuted in its mountain centers of Italy and France. Waldensian views, nonetheless, spread-anticipating many of the concerns of the Protestant Reformation. The 14th century (Barbara Tuchman's Distant Mirror) saw the "Hundred Years' War" between France and England, "the black plague" that killed a third of the population of Europe, the "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy to Avignon at the borders of France, and "the Great Schism," in which there were two (and at one time three) competing popes. Soon after the Council of Constance restored unity to the papacy, the conciliar movement weakened and powerful popes were carried away by the spirit of the Renaissance. The leaders of the church abandoned spiritual concerns; official theology more and more lost contact with the daily lives of Christians. Increasingly, voices cried against evils in church and state. In England John Wycliffe emphasized the unique authority of the Bible and translated it into the language of the English people. His insistence on the centrality of preaching and the necessity of God's grace in the salvation of sinners earned for him the description "the morning star of the Reformation." In Prague John Hus, inspired by Wycliffe's teaching, preached biblical sermons to great congregations in Bethlehem Chapel and began to reform the church in Bohemia, until his life was cut short at the stake by the Council of Constance in 1415. Dominican friar Girolamo Savanarola criticized papal practices and brought the Renaissance city of Florence to repentance and acknowledgment that Jesus Christ was king of the city, until his enemies in church and state conspired to burn him at Piazza Signoria in 1470. Just 13 years later Martin Luther was born in Germany. Luther and Zwingli
Through his struggles to make the Catholic sacramental system work, Luther experienced a torturous pilgrimage. He despaired of ever meeting God's requirements until, as Bible professor at the newly established university in Wittenberg, he discovered the true meaning of Romans 1:17. When he realized that the righteousness of the gospel is not only God's holy standard but is also a gift that God provides to undeserving sinners, Luther felt that he had been "born again and entered heaven through wide open doors." About the same time in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was making his way, through study of the Scripture, to the same understanding of God's way of salvation. Zwingli went beyond Luther in his practice of reform, seeking to incorporate in worship only those things that God commands in Scripture, and broke with Luther over the nature of the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper. The failed Colloquy of Marburg ended hope for Protestant unity, and Zwingli died in battle as the Swiss Protestants fought the Catholics. Zwingli and his successor and son-in-law, Heinrich Bullinger, are seen as founders of the Reformed movement within Protestantism. Luther's teaching spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. More radical Protestants, often called Anabaptists, emerged, critical of both Luther and Zwingli for not going far enough in their reforms, and called for a restoration of New Testament practices. Some of the more extreme Anabaptists captured a city in Westphalia and attempted to create an exclusive community, until they were conquered by Catholic forces. The shattered movement was rescued and returned to the practice of pacifism by former Dutch priest Menno Simons. "The most perfect school of Christ on earth"
Meanwhile, the Reformed movement was gaining strength through the leadership of the Frenchman John Calvin in Geneva. Calvin wrote the immensely influential Institutes of the Christian Religion (in successive editions from 1536 to 1559) and put his version of reform into practice in the city of Geneva, which the Scotsman John Knox declared "the most perfect school of Christ on earth." Knox lived in exile in Geneva during the reign of English Queen Mary Tudor. This fiercely Catholic daughter of Henry VIII was determined to reverse the Protestant direction taken by the Church of England under her father and especially during the short reign of her half brother Edward VI. Several hundred Protestants became martyrs at the hand of "Bloody Mary," and others, like Knox, fled to the Continent. Eventually Knox made his way back to Scotland, where he led the Reformation movement in the absence of Mary Queen of Scots. When Mary returned, a great struggle ensued between the stern Presbyterian preacher and the young Catholic queen. Mary, after a series of miscalculations and public scandal, fled to England (where she was imprisoned and eventually executed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I). Knox lived on until 1572, the year of the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, when thousands of French Protestants, the Huguenots, were killed. Queen Elizabeth brought stability to England and sought to settle the English church in a via media between the extremes of Catholicism and radical Protestantism. During her reign and those of her Stuart successors, James I and Charles I, tensions rose between Anglicans and Puritans, leading eventually to civil war. Some English Puritans forsook the mother country to seek to build a fully biblical "city on a hill" in New England. In 1598 France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had given some protection to Protestants. The Huguenots suffered greatly, as did both Protestants and Catholics, during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) that devastated central Europe. Asian church shrinks
After many promising advances during the first millennium, the church in Asia shrank to ancient centers in Persia and southern India. In the 16th century the Jesuit Francis Xavier and other Catholic missionaries began to evangelize Asia. The Christian church in Africa was restricted almost exclusively to Egypt (where Coptic Christians suffered under Muslim control) and Ethiopia (where an early Christianity predated and survived the Muslim conquests). With the expansion of European powers into Africa, Western missionaries, both Catholic and Protestants, came-sometimes promoting colonialism but just as often championing the freedom and dignity of the Africans. Meanwhile Eastern Orthodoxy, largely isolated from Western influences, suffered under Muslim domination of many of its historic centers, including Constantinople, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Eastern church did not share the trauma and benefits of the Protestant Reformation, although briefly, in the early 17th century, Cyril Lucaris, whose theology was decidedly Calvinistic, was the Patriarch of Constantinople. International revival
Attacks from outside and spiritual deadness within took their toll on the Protestant churches, but new life came through an international revival. The Pietist and Moravian movements brought renewal (and controversy) to churches on the Continent and touched England and the American colonies, where New England Puritan Cotton Mather felt "a warmth from the fire of God which flames in the heart of Germany." After a false start in Georgia, John Wesley and his brother Charles preached and sang their way across England and beyond, joined by their Calvinistic friend, George Whitefield. The Wesley movement produced a new Protestant church, the Methodist; and Whitefield united the scattered revivals in the American colonies into a "Great Awakening." New England pastor Jonathan Edwards set forth the "distinguishing marks" of a true revival and later wrote books of theology while he served as a missionary to the Indians. A Second Great Awakening in America in the early 19th century extended Christianity to the western frontier and brought many into the churches in the East. The emotionalism of the "camp meetings" in the West and the "new measures" of Charles Finney created controversy and divided churches and Christians, as "revivalism" replaced "revivals" in American evangelicalism. Later in the 19th century, theological liberalism first threatened and then undermined Protestant orthodoxy, although Roman Catholicism held fast to its traditions. In 1870 the First Vatican Council formally declared the pope to be infallible. The "Disruption" in Scotland produced the evangelical Free Church of Scotland. The "Réveil," which began in French-speaking Switzerland and spread to France and the Netherlands, and a parallel movement in Germany brought new hope to conservative Protestants on the Continent. The 19th century, "The Great Century" of the history of the expansion of Christianity, saw Protestant missionaries circling the globe to plant the church in almost every nation. Begun the preceding century by the Pietists and Moravians of Germany, the missionary movement gained greater strength when the English shoemaker and preacher, William Carey, led his Baptist churches to "expect great things from God and attempt great things for God." Soon the "Haystack Prayer Meeting" at Williams College in Massachusetts produced the first contingent of American foreign missionaries. Before the end of the century, the Christian church was planted on all continents and in many countries of the world. Witnesses for the persecution
The 20th century brought persecution and great suffering to Eastern Orthodoxy as Marxism controlled Russia and the surrounding countries. But as the century ended, it was communism that had fallen and the churches were displaying signs of vigor. While it struggles to adjust to the new situation in its homelands, Orthodoxy, with its strong sense of tradition, has begun to appeal to some people shaken by the compromises of Western Christianity. By mid-century the Roman Catholic Church had modified its stance against modernity, and the Second Vatican Council opened the church to new influences and attitudes, which leaves unsure its direction in the coming millennium. The optimistic liberalism of many Protestant theologians, shattered by the two world wars, was replaced for some by a neo-orthodoxy shaped mainly by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Barthianism continues to have great influence but also has aroused strong opposition from both liberals and conservatives. As the Christian church in Europe and North America struggles to hold its own or even, in some places, to avoid almost total annihilation from secularism, Christianity is increasing rapidly in other parts of the world. The strength of the church in parts of Asia (especially Korea) and in many parts of Africa indicates another step in the history of Christianity. The "center" in the next century may well move to the south and to the east. As the new millennium dawns there are many questions as to the future of Christianity. But, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will."

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