Church History (part 3 of 3)

  • Christianity in the Modern Era

    Looking at the fractured nature of Christianity these days, it can be hard to see where all these different strands have come from. On the one hand, Christianity is a developmental religion, with doctrine constantly being updated and made relevant to whatever the issues of the day are. As such it has a reforming streak to it, but whenever there is a reform, there is a backlash against it. The tension between conservatism preserving the historical faith as handed down through generations and radicalism seeking to reinterpret the faith to make it fit has been characterised as a tension between ‘order’ and ‘prophecy’. Established authority and yesterday’s truth are challenged by new ideas and tomorrow’s concerns – creating tension today.

    The Enlightenment reforms Christianity from outside
    There were reformers before Luther, but the 95 Theses provides a handy starting-point for the Reformation as a period in history. No such one-off event can be targeted for the Enlightenment. Broadly put this was a movement that is often called the Age of Reason and which became the dominant force in Western cultural thinking in the eighteenth century. Many of the great thinkers of the Modern Era are Enlightenment scholars – Leibniz, Kant, David Hume, Voltaire, Hegel, Isaac Newton and the like. The Enlightenment is a retrospective term given to this movement – like many such groupings it’s easy to think of the Enlightenment as some sort of club or group. For the main these thinkers acted alone, shaping society along the same general lines.

    The principle aim of ‘enlightened’ thinkers was the subjugation of all truth-claims to human reason. The evolution of the scientific method and the growth in technology implied that everything could be understood by reasoned inquiry. It was no longer acceptable to resort to mystery – there had to be a reason behind events and that reason had to be discernible. There was a reaction to this mechanistic view of the universe. The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, as typified by various popular poets, was an attempt to reclaim the mysterious and supernatural. Unfortunately the main proponents of the Romantic world-view were the original moral relativists and, in many ways, were regarded as subversive themselves due to their lax morality. Christianity was faced with a choice – rationalism or an ‘abandonment of decency’ and for the main opted for rationalism over romanticism.

    The Enlightenment was the first major societal philosophy to impact Christianity since the Arian controversy tried to impose Greek philosophy on Christian theology and it had a profound effect. Anything that could not be rationally explained was often discounted. Doubts were cast over the miracle stories in the gospels, the sacraments of the church and principal doctrines like Hell. Many Enlightenment philosophers regarded Christianity as belonging to a bygone superstitious age and of little use in the rapidly changing society that was moving from a land-locked agricultural economy towards urban industrialisation. However, it took many decades (even centuries) for rationalist philosophy to filter down from the academic and scholarly classes into the general mindset of society and in the meantime there were numerous developments within Christianity.

    John Wesley (1703-91)
    Known mainly for being the founder of the Methodist church (although Methodism only separated from within the Church of England after his death), John Wesley was one of the first people to recognise the need to preach the gospel within Christendom. Wesley’s desire to see inhabitants of a ‘Christian country’ genuinely saved is a vital distinction that has had a lasting effect certainly on British evangelicalism and other non-conformist branches of the Church.

    In his youth John Wesley belonged to a small group known as the ‘holy club’ along with his brother and another noted evangelist of the time, George Whitefield. This group came to be known as ‘Methodists’ and there are many hypotheses about why. The most common theory is that they followed a particular method of Bible study or prayer or some such. Like many names for groups in history the origins are obscure, but the name has stuck.

    Wesley was an impassioned open-air preacher following his own ‘conversion experience’ and travelled throughout the UK and to North America, where he effectively founded a new church outside of the Anglican Communion by appointing two bishops. It was only later in the UK, after Wesley’s death, that the Methodists became independent, although they retained virtually all the theological views of the Church of England. Wesley himself only criticised the Anglican church on the basis that it was neglecting some Scriptural truths, such as justification by faith, which in his view needed restoring to their proper place. Wesley thus headed a ‘renewal’ movement, not a reforming movement as such.

    John Wesley’s brother Charles wrote over 7000 hymns, including ‘Love Divine, all Love’s Excelling’, and, like John, never left the Anglican communion. Charles’ hymns were deliberate attempts to render theological truth in accessible ways. The Methodists were not the first people to do this, but the popularity of Methodism due to their hymns have resulted ever since in new movements within Christianity emulating them and writing their own hymns as a way of getting their message across.

    Revivalism; Jonathan Edwards, Azusa Street, Wales 1904
    Among the many popular movements in Christianity, those associated with the Holy Spirit and direct experience of God (as opposed to encounters mediated through the established church authorities) have always been contentious. Even ten years ago, the division within the charismatic stream over the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was as much an issue of established order being challenged by something that seemed new and different. Revivalism, and the idea that the Spirit moves occasionally in a society-changing way, has taken a large role in non-conformist theology, helped on its way by the New England Revival known as the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and then the two big revivals of the first decade on the twentieth century – in Asuza Street, Los Angeles in 1905 and in Wales the year before. The Asuza Street revival gave rise to the Pentecostal Church, named after the events when the Holy Spirit was first given to the disciples on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. There are now millions of Pentecostals worldwide. The Welsh revival of 1904 stimulated growth in non-conformist denominations, revitalising many ‘chapels’ that had been founded in an earlier revival during the 1860s.

    These spiritual movements tended to emphasise personal experience and, above all personal conversion – a central part of John Wesley’s earlier theology. As popular movements, generally attracting members of the working classes, they were held in little regard by academics and theologians. Many of the phenomena recorded during the Great Awakening by Jonathan Edwards, or by contemporary newspaper reports in 1904 were, of course, contradictory to a rationalist mindset. Many of these supernatural events could not be empirically verified and were therefore dismissed. Revivalism was seen as an attraction for the illiterate and the uneducated.

    As a brief aside, it’s worth noting that the spiritual element of the revival movement, with its associated phenomena, seemed to fade away quite quickly in Wales. This is perhaps due to a number of historical reasons. Firstly a generation of believing young men was decimated by the carnage of the First World War. Secondly, the activists speaking out about the terrible working conditions found in the mining and steel industries were socialists, not Christians. The working class who had been so attracted to a spiritual movement that promised them something more felt disappointed – Christian faith had not met their immediate needs and they looked elsewhere. Thirdly, there was a growth of intellectualism, studious scrutiny of the Bible and theology, which effectively cut out those with limited education. Within twenty years a dynamic movement, which attracted a large number of converts from among the working class, had become an institutionalised middle class affair.

    19th century mission as a modern endeavour (imperialism)
    Christianity meanwhile was spreading beyond Europe and America. In the centuries after the Reformation many of the European nations had established ‘colonies’ across Africa and Asia. The British Empire was one of the largest and as the Empire exerted its considerable influence, large missionary organisations began to grow. Recently there has been much unfair criticism of Christianity for engaging in this ‘cultural imperialism’ and it is unfortunate that in many missionary endeavours, the attempt was made to ‘civilise’, i.e. Westernise, the ‘natives’ as much as to introduce them to Christianity.

    In the more robust cultures like Japan, which were able to resist Western Imperialism, Christianity has always been regarded as an unwelcome outside influence. There are very few Japanese Christians as a result. In Africa, where the native tribal cultures were comparatively weak and easy to conquer, Christian mission allied to colonisation was far easier, except in those regions of Northern Africa where Islam had taken hold. In the latter half of the twentieth century, as many former colonies gained independence, there was often a sense of embarrassment at the way native cultures were treated by the colonial powers. Christian missionaries have been regarded as one of the ways African or Asian culture was subjugated. This is a bit unfair and is almost hyper-revisionism. Very often it was Christian missionaries who introduced the first education and healthcare. In India, missionary William Carey is acknowledged as being instrumental in the development of written sub-continental languages due to his translation of the Bible into the vernacular.

    However, it must be recognised that the ‘Golden Age of Christian Mission’ was thoroughly modern, in that it was based on the precepts that under-gird what we now refer to as modernism, especially the idea of conquest. There was a tendency to view Christianity, in its ‘scientific’, systematic form, as a natural ‘civilising’ force, being the product of the most advanced human societies on the planet.

    Two modernist trends – the growth of liberalism versus fundamentalism
    As Protestant Christianity entered the twentieth century, it was already beginning to diverge into two main streams. In many wings of the Protestant Church ‘Enlightened’ philosophy and the scientific modern worldview either held sway as Liberal Christianity or met a reaction – a denial of rationalism and a concern for the rediscovery and promotion of the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith. Fundamentalism is often characterised as being anti-intellectual, and indeed many leading fundamentalists have joyfully mocked academics and theologians as not being able to grasp ‘simple Biblical truth’. Generally though, fundamentalism looked for a return to basics, a renewal of Christianity and a rejection of scientific rationalist theology. Unfortunately, many fundamentalists were unable to disengage from the modern worldview. So, the principal arguments revolved around the burden of proof.

    One key battleground was about the Bible. For a long time doubt had been cast as to the historical accuracy of the New Testament, with a distinction being made between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the ‘Christ of faith’. Many New testament scholars recognised that the New testament was a product of the believing church, therefore, they argued, the accounts of Jesus’ life were being retrospectively reviewed by the gospel authors. To put it another way, the early Christians believed Jesus was the Son of God and that must have coloured their writings. These doubts about the historical integrity of the gospels in particular, combined with a rationalist principle, which denied the literal truth of supernatural stories, meant that a new means of interpreting the Bible was called for.

    In the early twentieth century a German scholar called Rudolf Bultmann began talking about ‘demythologising’ Scripture. According to Bultmann and other thinkers like him, the real truth of the Bible was not found in a literal understanding, but in what the accounts implied. For example, the account in John’s gospel of the transformation of the water into wine is loaded with symbolic images. The contents of the Jewish water jars that can only provide external cleansing are transformed into wine, representing the good things of the messianic Kingdom. The statement that the best has been kept till last could be read as John’s way of saying that the teaching of Christ has thus surpassed the old Jewish way of doing things.

    Many other classic doctrines were demythologised – the resurrection and the end of the world being the prime examples. A common theme in what came to be known as ‘liberal’ theology was the idea that human progress would eventually lead to the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on Earth. This whole progressive scheme was derailed by two world wars – it was hard to see human progress leading to a Heavenly utopia given the slaughter of the Somme or the creation of Auschwitz and the Final Solution.

    Fundamentalism grew in the first half of the twentieth century as a reaction to liberalism. In contrast to the progressive view espoused by liberals, it remains quite pessimistic, seeing the world and human society as under judgement and claiming the Biblical witness is that things will just get worse. The fundamentalist position on Scripture is that the Bible is wholly true (inerrant) and should be interpreted literally and universally, divorcing the Bible from the culture in which it was written and seeking to apply it to contemporary culture. So, for example, the instructions in Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian church regarding the role of women are taken to be universally binding and women are excluded from preaching.

    The problem with fundamentalism is that it can be viewed as a product and result of modernism. The landmark case that defined fundamentalism as a force took place in the USA, when a number of self-declared fundamentalists took the federal government to court in order to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools and won (later the court ruling was overturned). Those arguments and subsequent creationist theology follow the same vein, namely that the Bible can be proven as scientifically accurate. The discussion takes place purely on the level of literal truth as proven by science, but this is an Enlightenment position taken to the extreme. Truth to the fundamentalists lies in empirical verification and scientific study, not to experienced religious reality. In many ways, fundamentalism is not an answer to rationalism, but merely a Christian expression of the rationalist worldview.

    New streams, charismatic theology
    After the Second World War, Christianity faced the challenge of adapting to massive social change. Now we recognise that change as the culture entering the post-modern era, moving beyond scientific rationalism and authoritarian structures, if not quite dispensing with extreme individualism. In the 1970s the Roman Catholic church modernised it’s practices at the second church council to be held in the Vatican (often referred to as Vatican II). In the 1990s, the Anglican church changed the long-standing tradition of a male-only priesthood and ordained women to ministry. Along the way, a new movement that worked in and around these established churches and was labelled the Charismatic Renewal affected both the world’s largest denominations.

    The ‘charismatics’ first started to appear on the fringes of church life in the early 1960s, in radical communities like the Jesus Army. Often associated with revivalist church groups like the Pentecostals, and generally hailing from the evangelical wing of the Church, within forty years this disorganised and decentralised popular movement has become one of the most significant aspects of Christianity, affecting the whole Church. So, there are charismatic Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists and whole new church streams formed as well, of which the Vineyard are probably the most well known internationally (particularly after the events of the early 1990s that came to be known as the ‘Toronto Blessing’).

    In many respects, the growth of charismatic, experiential theology has tied in with the gradual (and ongoing) transformation of the culture from Modernity to what is temporarily called Post-Modernity. With an emphasis on simplicity, mysticism, prayer, contemplation, worship and spiritual disciplines like fasting, the charismatic version of Christianity has proved very attractive to members of the post-modern culture. This has caused a backlash from ‘Modern’ Christians, who accuse it of lacking theological depth. One example of this would be the criticism levelled at the Alpha Course outreach model for teaching a diluted version of Christianity. But the Age of Reason is passing and it would seem that post-modern humans are less willing to be convinced through intellectual argument at all. There is a holistic element to post-modernity, which requires more than systematic theology, however correct, has to offer.

    Naturally there have been some excesses. The huge growth in demonology and ‘spiritual warfare’ is a return to good old-fashioned superstition. The actions of the ‘Kansas City Prophets’ in the 1980s, which bordered on apocalyptic warnings of the imminent end and the rising of a new breed of Christian hero, undermined the credibility of the charismatic movement, and the excitement caused by the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was matched only by the disappointment when worldwide revival did not break out. But these errors of judgement aside, the development of charismatic Christianity alongside the societal moves away from Modernity point to the continuing relevance of the Christian message in a world that is leaving Christendom behind.

    Why study Church History?
    It may seem odd to leave this to the very end, but it’s my hope that this introduction, which could only ever be very lightweight and selective in it’s coverage, will inspire you to ask those important questions: Who are we? How did we get here? What’s happening next?

    Christians are blessed by having two thousand years of history. The issues faced by Christians today regarding prevalent cultural philosophies are issues faced and resolved by our fathers in the faith. Most importantly, by knowing what has gone before, there is the hope that mistakes will be avoided, that a common way can be forged between preserving what is eternal in the faith, while finding new ways to express it in the here-and-now. Church History is, put simply, the record of how Christians have sometimes got it right and sometimes got it wrong. In judging how well we are doing, it helps to know what has gone before.

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