Politicians study political history in order to be better rulers. Military men study military history to be better military tacticians. In almost every field an understanding of its history helps practitioners be better at what they do. Yet many Christians ignore any historical information outside of that in the bible itself.
One way to view the history of Christianity is as a series of movements. Wordnet defines a movement as “a group of people with a common ideology who try together to achieve certain general goals.” As the world changed, and as Christianity encountered different challenges groups of people with common ideologies worked to achieve certain ends. There are individuals who stand out in their contributions to Church history, but their influence is only to the degree of their impact and that, in my opinion, is reflected in movements.
Christianity began with a movement, set up by the preaching of John the Baptist, then manifested in the ministry of Christ himself. Jesus the Christ walked on this earth ministering for the most part exclusively to Jews, teaching and preaching the kingdom of God. In the process he performed many mighty miracles. The culmination of this initial movement was Jesus Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Christianity was born
Before he left Jesus charged his trainees, a.k.a. disciples, to continue his work. The movement of Christianity in the first century started in Jerusalem and began working its way to the rest of the world from there. This initial movement by the disciples was extremely powerful.
Since then there have been many movements in the Christian Church including, but not limited to, apologism, Hellenization, the nationalization of Christianity into Christendom, scholasticism, the ecumenical movement, ,the reformation movement, the Anabaptist movement, the restoration movement, the great awakening, the pentecostal movement, and the charismatic movement. In fact there are so many movements that it may be impossible to document them all. I have a book called The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. It is over 1200 pages dealing with movements primarily just in the last couple centuries.
Every church split or new denomination is the result of some movement. For example Oneness Pentecostalism is a denomination that is the result of a movement within the Pentecostal movement to define God as Unitarian versus the Trinitarian stand of other Pentecostals. But while the number of movements may be mind-boggling it’s still important to have an overview, some understanding of how Christianity developed into different forms over the centuries.
In all honesty, in going back to the first century we don’t know very much about some of the things that happened from very early on. This is especially demonstrated in the first centuries. But, for example, we do know that there were certain men defined as heretics and a group of men responded to these heretical doctrines. This could be defined as a movement of apologism and one of the earliest movements within Christianity. Apology has a classical meaning that is different than apology in modern terms. In modern times an apology is when someone says they are sorry for something. An apologist for our discussion is one who gives a response or answer in defense of something, and in this movement in the early centuries after Christ men responded to what were pronounced as heretical teachings. Marcion was a teacher who declared among other things that the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament were different gods. Gnosticism was an early movement in the world thousands of years ago. Gnostics tried to combine the best elements of various religions into one mystical religion that all could adhere to. When Christianity sprang up some Gnostics began preaching a Gnostic Christianity. Apologists responded to these kinds of heretical teachings from about the early second century on.
As part of the spread of Christianity into the known world it became inevitable that people would try to understand it and practice it in terms of their culture. The dominating culture of the world in early Christianity was Greco-Roman culture. While Greece was no longer in power, the conquering Romans had assimilated much of Greek culture. The process of Christianity spreading into this culture and incorporating some of its features is called Hellenization.
One powerful influence in this culture was philosophy. Philosophy was not just a secular enterprise. Philosophy encompassed more than just abstract thought, but was an attempt to explain life, and the afterlife. Philosophy included corresponding practices that would enable one to live a better life, and have a better afterlife. Pythagoras is modernly known as the discoverer of the Pythagorean Theorem, but Pythagoras really was a philosophical cult leader where the followers attempted to use mathematics as a way to understand life and God. The development of Christian Systematic theologies is the result of philosophical influences.
The idea of an immortal soul is not a principle of Judeo-Christian origin; it was part of Plato’s philosophy. Origen and Augustine, both powerfully influenced by Plato, promoted theology with Plato’s philosophy incorporated in it. As a result there are Christians who believe they are born with an immortal soul and other Greek concepts despite the fact that these concepts are not in the bible.
Greek and Roman cultures also accepted a multitude of deities from various places around the world, and it was expected in these cultures that all would tolerate many religions. It was a way of life to incorporate various pagan teachings into your religion. The celebration of Christmas is a Christian attempt to have a celebration at the same time of the pagan festival that celebrates the birth of the sun god. As Christianity became nationalized followers went from small intimate settings in Christian homes to the practice of having huge elaborate temples like the pagan religions in their culture. These are a few examples of helenization.
Some important points in looking at movements include understanding that not every movement that happened in the church was the will of God, and that even movements that appear to be led of God were not necessarily perfect, that is, not everything that happened within the movement was necessarily correct. For example, any protestant can say the Reformation was a movement of God to get people back to true Christianity, but the reformation did not produce one uniform theology. The reformation led to tens of thousands of churches and denominations. It doesn’t make sense that God caused all these divisions.
There is an expression; “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” [Edmund Burke] If you know the example of the doctrine of the immortal soul as an influence of Greek philosophy you can be wary to watch for it in your theology. I can’t tell you how many Christian believers I have met who think that their church is the only church that really adheres to the bible, that they are the best practitioners of first century or biblical Christianity. Yet they don’t know many of the practices of the church at other times and places. They don’t know the community aspects of the early church, how much time they spent together living, eating together, sharing possessions. They may have never heard of love feasts as a regular occurrence on Sunday besides the morning service, that foot washing was incorporated as a ritual in some churches, or that the Nicene creed was completely reversed at the third council of Sirmium in 357 AD but was inconspicuously reversed again when the doctrine of the trinity was later developed. They don’t know that there is a history of charismatic experiences throughout the centuries. A good example that relates to modern times in the debate over biblical interpretation is that many people think that the literal acceptance of 7 24 hour days is what the early church believed. They can be shocked when someone tells them that there is no evidence that was the dominant belief in anything but the fundamentalism of modern centuries. These things make having an understanding of history of the church and its movements crucial. In future articles we will look at aspects of some of the movements within the church.
© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.