This series contains the following titles:
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (1): History and the Believer
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (2): End of Apostolic Era
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (3): Marcion
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (4): Montanus
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (5): The Christological Debates
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (6): Sola Scriptura
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (7): The Reformation
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (8): The Gathered Church
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (9): The Evangelical Revival
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (10): Rediscovered Hope
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (11): The Recovery of Church Truth
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (12): Conclusion
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (1): History and the Believer
According to Henry Ford, the renowned American carmaker, “history is more or less bunk.” He claimed that the past was irrelevant and that only the present mattered.
Bookshops and libraries prove the above statement to be in error; they provide ample evidence that we cannot get enough of it. History fascinates us; for some, it is the lives of great men and women, their triumphs and their failings, the way in which, for better or for worse, they wielded great power. For others, it is the smooth and inscrutable operations of the political machine, the struggle between idealism and self-interest, the loyalties and the betrayals that have shaped our world. And for others, the charm of history is not found on the large canvas, but in the intricate and intimate details of the lives of ordinary people. Whatever it is that draws us to history, we read and study it because we believe it to be more than mere “bunk.” We are convinced that it does have something relevant to say to our own time.
To believe that history is irrelevant, the story of a dead past that should be buried and forgotten, is reprehensible in any context. It is a particularly incomprehensible view for the believer. As Christians, history has special importance for us for we know history to be more than the effects of blind and random chance. We see, or we should see, a value in the past that goes beyond a recognition of a humanity shared with our forebears. The most cursory examination of our Bibles will confirm that we have a God to Whom history matters.
Our God is a God Who has intervened in history. The God revealed to us in the Bible is not the remotely transcendent deity imagined by some. Though God “inhabits eternity” (Isa 57:15), He has created a universe bounded by time as well as space. But He did not create time and abandon it to randomness. Rather, He intervenes in it, reveals Himself in it, and, in the Incarnation of Christ, entered it. The shape and texture of history come from God and reveal His wisdom and might just as surely as every other facet of His marvelous creation.
God is also interested in history. This would be a difficult conclusion to avoid even for someone encountering the Bible for the very first time. Beginning at Genesis, he would find book after book devoted to historical record, to the actions and events of generation after generation of the people of God. Archaeologists and historians have wondered at the accuracy of this record and those who study the writing of history accord Scripture a special place. They all recognize what can not easily be denied – that history matters to God, and that He has given it a special prominence in His revelation.
The God Who intervenes and Who has so great an interest in history, also instructs us through history. It was this great purpose of history, and the attitude that it demands from us that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 10:11: “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” As believers, we have an obligation to be instructed and admonished by those who have gone before, to live as those who “are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). This imperative means that faithful history cannot be an airbrushed picture of idyllic bliss; it must be accurate and honest. There can be a tendency, when historians describe events that distress us, to shoot the messenger, to blame the historian for the story he is telling. To do so is to misunderstand the true purpose of history. We ought not to feel any glee in recording or reading the weaknesses of others. A quick glance at Biblical history will remind us that “for our admonition,” God has provided comprehensive and accurate accounts of the past – the good as well as the bad.
For the believer, Biblical history is of the greatest interest and importance. It has been recorded for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and its accuracy and its implications are thus safeguarded for us. But, after that must surely come an interest in church history. By this, we mean not the history of any institution – whatever the institution, these are likely to make depressing reading – but the history of how the people of God have sought to maintain testimony for Him throughout the centuries that have passed since the birth of the Church at Pentecost. That account, too, is not without its depressing elements, but it is also a stirring and cheering story of the unchanging, unwavering faithfulness of God to His people, and the faithfulness of His people to Him.
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (2): End of Apostolic Era
Some time in 62 AD, a group of men gathered at Miletus, on the shores of the Aegean Sea. They had traveled the 50 miles from nearby Ephesus at the summons of the man who now stood in their midst. He was not a physically impressive figure – short, bowlegged, and scarred from much mistreatment. For all that, the men listened hungrily to his words. This man, after all, was Paul, the apostle who had endured so much hardship that the gospel might reach them, who had been instrumental in their salvation, and who had instructed them in the truth of God.
But as they listened to Paul’s words, the reminiscent smiles faded, their faces displayed disbelief and then, with welling tears, deep grief. Their beloved guide and mentor was telling them, with a clarity that left no room for misunderstanding, that they would see his face no more. The words seemed incomprehensible. How could it be that the apostle was going to be taken from them? How would they, how would the other churches survive without his support and guidance?
The apostle understood how they were feeling and had the answer to the questions that burgeoned in their minds. Reminding them that he had declared to them “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), he directed them to the ongoing source of their preservation and guidance: “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (v 32). The full implications of this great commendation may not have immediately penetrated the grief of the Ephesian elders but, in days that lay ahead, they would surely have begun to understand the value of the resources to which Paul had directed them. True, the apostle would be gone and they would no longer be able to hear his voice or seek his advice, but they had assets of even greater value. They had the same God, and they had “the Word of His grace.” This was sufficient to edify and to preserve both them and the flock.
There is a great poignancy and tenderness about the event recorded in Acts 20. But it could hardly have been unique. Many churches must have experienced a similar grief and sense of loss as the apostolic era began to draw to an end. And such believers must surely have turned with renewed eagerness to the Word of God as their most vital support and guide. It is certainly significant that the three apostolic writers of Scripture each emphasize the importance and the value of Scripture in their final writings.
Peter, like Paul, is careful when he writes, “Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me” (2Peter 1:14). It was a foremost priority that those who had benefited from his ministry would be “able after [his] decease to have these things always in remembrance” (v 15). So he reminds them again of the reality and the certainty of the “power and coming of Jesus Christ” (v 16). He attests to the authenticity of these events, based on what he saw (v 16) and what he heard (v 18). But this assurance might well have served to deepen the gloom of his readers. After all, they had in Peter a wonderful link with the events of the incarnation. But he himself had warned them that this link was about to break. Could anything possibly take the place of the apostle and his experiential knowledge of Christ? Peter’s answer is “Yes.” In fact, the resource to which he points them supersedes and surpasses even his firsthand testimony: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (v 19). For Peter, it is the certainty of Scripture that stands out. The believers would soon be without any surviving witnesses of Christ’s life and death, but they would not be in any real sense impoverished. They had the record of the apostles, and they had a more sure word of prophecy. Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has a reliability beyond the impressions of our senses.
We have already seen Paul’s concern that the Ephesian elders be directed, in his absence, to the Word of God. In his final writing he displays precisely the same concern. As part of his final charge to Timothy, Paul reminds him of the value and reliability of Scripture “given by inspiration of God” (2Tim 3:16). He also stresses the comprehensiveness and sufficiency of Scripture – it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2Tim 3:16-17). In the Bible there is provision for every exigency of the Christian life. No other formation was required – no additional education or training was necessary for Timothy’s preparation to “every good work,” and none is necessary for ours. It is noteworthy that it is Peter, the apostle, who had so much firsthand experience with Christ, Who prefers revelation above that experience. The learned Paul, who had an education that Peter – or any of us – could only dream of, emphasizes that Scripture, and Scripture alone is comprehensively sufficient.
John, in the book of Revelation brings to a close not only his writings, but Scripture itself. John stresses not so much the certainty or the comprehensiveness of Scripture but its completeness: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev 22:18-19). God’s revelation cannot be added to, for we have all that we need; it cannot be taken from, for we need all that we have. In Scripture we have “the whole counsel of God” and nothing more or less than that could be sufficient to direct His people through the centuries of testimony.
The vast majority of the Church’s history took place after the departure of the apostles. Yet, it is not a history of an impoverished Church left to grope her way in a vague and uncertain twilight. God’s people had – and have – God’s Word. In the completed canon of Scripture we have a spiritual wealth of certainty, comprehensiveness, and completeness.
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (3): Marcion
The Word of God is vital to the health of His Church. Only by it can she be instructed, directed, and safely guarded through a hostile world. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that very early in her history she faced a serious attack on Scripture. On the results of this conflict much depended. Would the people of God be left with a mutilated Bible, arrogantly trimmed to suit the fancies of one man or a group of men? Or would they go on in testimony, garrisoned and guided by the whole counsel of God, Scripture in all its wealth and fullness?
The attack came in the teachings of Marcion of Sinope. Marcion came from Pontus, a Roman province in what is now Turkey. Around the year 140, he came to Rome where he began to spread a novel – and heretical – teaching that attacked both the Church and Scripture. In doing so, he developed tendencies that had already been at work during the lifetime of the apostles and which had been addressed in the epistles.
One of these tendencies was gnosticism. This belief system was a syncretism between Greek philosophy and Christianity and is addressed, particularly, by the epistles to the Galatians and the Colossians. The most important teaching of the gnostics was that matter was inherently evil. As a consequence, they denied the truth of the incarnation, arguing instead that the physical body of the Lord Jesus was an illusion and that He remained at all times an incorporeal spirit (a view known as doceticism). Marcion added a new twist to this teaching, arguing that the Bible spoke of two Gods: the God of the Jews Who had created matter and the God of the New Testament Who was utterly transcendent, loving, and compassionate. This view had major implications for Marcion’s view of Judaism, the Old Testament, and the gospels.
As the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles make clear, tensions between saved Jews and Gentiles within the church were nothing new – they had been a recurring problem throughout the first century. Now, in Marcion’s teachings, this tension rose, once more, to the surface.
Marcion has been described as a “theological anti-Semite.” And, that anti-Semitism was most clearly seen in his view of Scripture. As the Old Testament spoke of a Jewish God, Marcion entirely repudiated its authority for and relevance to the Christian church. Nor did he stop there. He recognized that much of the New Testament was based firmly on Old Testament Scripture, and set about to “purify” Scripture of this inheritance. He thought very highly of the writings of Paul, but rejected the authority of the other apostles because, as he saw it, their Christianity was corrupted by their Jewish background and inclination. Moreover, the gospels were also not to be trusted; they had been tampered with by Judaizers intent on distorting the life and the message of Christ.
In the light of this there was nothing to be done but to produce a “purified” version of Scripture. This Marcion did. He produced a canon of his own. This consisted of two parts. The first was “The Gospel,” a “de-Judaized” version of the gospel of Luke. The second was called “The Apostle,” and comprised a cleaned up version of the first ten Pauline epistles.
Marcion’s arrogance was staggering. On no authority but his own, he had launched a full-scale attack on the text of Scripture. Only what he deemed suitable could be allowed to take its place in the canon of Scripture, never mind that the end result was a grotesque distortion of both the nature and the content of Scripture.
The response of the churches to this onslaught was decisive. It also provided ample proof of the truth of 1 Corinthians 11:19: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” Marcion’s attack on truth led directly to truth being more clearly defined and most doughtily defended. His deformed and stunted canon is, in fact, the first such list that we have. There was a virtually unanimous agreement among the churches about which books ought to be regarded as the authoritative Scripture. In spite of this, indeed because of it, no one had previously seen the need to list which books were Scripture. Now, in response to Marcion and his teaching, that commonly accepted canon was explicitly stated and defended. This earliest surviving orthodox canon is usually called theMuratonian Canon, after L. A. Muratori the antiquarian who discovered it in 1740. In addition “anti-Marcionit”’ prologues to each of the four gospels were written, setting out the reasons for their inclusion in the canon of Scripture. They also vigorously defended the importance of the Acts of the Apostles, which was entirely discarded by Marcion.
The response to Marcion’s ideas had a broader and more general implication. His teachings enjoyed considerable success and the evidence available to us suggests that he attracted a large number of followers. As a result, those doctrines that he particularly attacked had to be defined with greater care, and the Scriptural truth about these subjects was set out with greater and more scrupulous accuracy.
Despite its widespread condemnation, Marcionism showed a surprising vitality and continued as a sort of alternative church for several centuries. Even when Marcionism proper died out, some of his ideas endured, and Marcion-like heresies have continued to crop up throughout the history of the church.
The contemporary relevance of this second century attack on Scripture is all too sadly evident. Though many of the claims made by so-called Higher Critics of a past century have been revealed as the unscholarly and unscientific falsehoods that they undoubtedly were, there are not wanting those who would leave us with less than “the faith which was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). We need not look as far as the blasphemous excesses of the “Jesus seminar,” where theologians meet to decide, with a supreme arrogance which would be ludicrous if it were not so appallingly blasphemous, to decide which of the words of Christ recorded in the gospels were actually spoken by the Lord Jesus. We find a Marcion-like tendency wherever any portion of God’s Word is placed off-limits, wherever all of the Bible is not allowed its appropriate place of authority. And we need to guard against it in our own lives. While we would never dream of mutilating our Bibles, never dream of drawing a red pen – or a penknife – through the words of Scripture, we need constantly to guard against ignoring or disregarding any portion or part of the Word of God. We need it all, and if we wish to bear faithful testimony to Christ, we must be prepared to take heed to “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (4): Montanus
In the previous article in this series we saw how Marcion’s heresy had attempted to prune the Bible, to leave God’s people shorn of the Word of God in its fullness. That offensive was repelled, but Satan is nothing if not a flexible enemy. Marcion’s assault had scarcely been beaten back before the direction of the attack shifted dramatically. It was not now a subtraction from Scripture that troubled the churches, but addition to it by prophets who claimed that their utterances had an authority equal to that of the Word of God.
It is clear from the New Testament that prophecy had played an important part in revealing the will of God in the first decades of the church age. Before the canon of Scripture was complete, those with the gift of prophecy were used by God to communicate with believers. However, that gift was time limited. Even in the earliest of the books of the New Testament, we are told that prophecy was “about to cease,” rendered superfluous by the arrival of “that which is perfect” (1Cor 13:8-10), the complete Word of God.
Church history confirms this – the gift of prophecy appears to have scarcely outlived the apostolic era. Thus, the emergence, towards the end of the second century, of a self-proclaimed prophet who presented his utterances as the authentic Word of God was met by widespread concern and condemnation.
The prophet in question was a Phrygian named Montanus. Soon after his conversion from paganism, he moved among the churches in Asia Minor, claiming to be a prophet in receipt of direct revelation from God. These prophecies came, he claimed, through the inspiration of the Paraclete. This title drew on Christ’s promise regarding the Holy Spirit in John 14:16: “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter [Paraclete].” However, Montanists seem eventually to have regarded the Paraclete as a separate entity from the Holy Spirit. The manner of his prophecies was spectacular – first, he fell into a trance and then progressed to an ecstatic frenzy, in which he spoke as God. These utterances, he claimed, superseded the content and teaching of Scripture. Those records of his prophecy that are recorded suggest that Montanus himself was not especially interested in doctrinal innovation, though he did lay great emphasis on the importance of an ascetic mode of life.
Crucially, though, Montanus taught that Scripture could be added to. He soon built up a following of others who claimed to be inspired with revelations from God. Most prominent among these were two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who travelled with Montanus. As his teaching spread, it quickly became clear that Montanism was an attack, not just on Scripture, but also on the authority of the leaders of individual churches. As the seriousness of this challenge became clear, Montanus and his leaders were excommunicated as heretics. A contemporary report suggests that Montanus and Maximilla ultimately hanged themselves. After their deaths, the heresy that they had initiated continued to grow, with ever more prophets offering ever more extravagant prophecies and ever less Scriptural teaching. So, for example, one prominent follower argued that “the Paraclete published through Montanus more than Christ revealed in the Gospel, and not only more, but also better and greater things.” Montanism would ultimately become more than a niche heresy. It even counted among its members Tertullian, who had been a prominent orthodox theologian in the early church. It continued to trouble the church up to the sixth century when the emperor Justinian ordered the destruction of the tombs of Montanus, Maximilla, and Priscilla which had become a shrine to their heretical teaching.
Without doubt, Montanism was a serious heresy. It was, however, most serious, not for the content of the prophecies, but for the place it gave to prophecy. Montanus and his followers were explicitly saying that Scripture was not enough, that further additional revelation was essential to understanding the will of God. These revelations were not only additional to Scripture, but both in content and delivery they were in emphatic contradiction to it.
As such, the emergence of Montanism posed a major challenge to the believers of the second century. Had the door to additional revelation been opened, faithful testimony for God would have become almost impossible. The emphatic and unified rejection of Montanus and his teachings, in spite of the prominent teachers who propagated them, was of crucial importance in the history of the church.
Sadly, the fight was not over. Satan is a persistent and flexible opponent. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the emergence and the alarming spread of erroneous teaching that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Montanus. We do not have to search too hard or too long to find those who purport to receive special prophetic revelations from God, and who communicate these revelations in the throes of ecstatic frenzy.
If, in conversation with these individuals, we point out the unscriptural nature of their experience and practice, they will very likely accuse us of limiting the Spirit of God. His sovereign power, they contend, means that He can act as He chooses, move as He wills. In reality, the net result of their doctrine is not to glorify the Spirit: it is to undervalue – and indeed to devalue – the Word of God. The Holy Spirit cannot be glorified where the Scriptures that He inspired are set aside, disregarded, or added to.
The sufficiency of God’s Word is a remarkable truth. It means what it says – that the Bible is a sufficient guide for our Christian lives. Wonderfully, God inspired His Word in order that it might meet every need of His people. The words of the apostle Peter are germane here: “According as His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue: whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2Peter 1:3-4). God has provided His people with everything that “pertains to life and godliness,” and the “exceeding great and precious promises” of His Word are central to that great provision.
We can, then, learn much from the example of the second century believers who recognized in the teaching of Montanus an intolerable heresy. We ought to be grateful that, by the grace of God, they stood firmly for the truth of God. In our day we cannot afford to do less.
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (5): The Christological Debates
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul expresses his care for the believers to whom he was writing, and his urgent awareness of the error that they were about to face. Assuring them that he was jealous over them “with a godly jealousy” (v 2) he accurately highlights the nature of that attack: “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him” (v4).
The English translation tends to obscure the vitally important point the apostle is making. “Another Christ” is allos (another of the same sort) but “another gospel” and “another spirit” are heteros (others of a different sort). There can be no minor differences in doctrine relating to the person of Christ. No matter how similar to the Scriptural standard another Christ may seem, if he is not the Christ of the Bible, both the gospel that presents him and the spirit behind that gospel are far different from the truth of Holy Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s warning had a clear and urgent relevance for the Corinthian believers. In the next two centuries, its relevance for every church and for every believer would become all too clear. The christological truth that is at the very heart of Christianity was to become the subject of serious and sustained attacks.
It would be more accurate to say that Biblical Christology came under attacks, for heresy and the hetero spirit that inspired it launched a pincer movement, attacking Biblical doctrine on two fronts. One arm of the assault attacked the deity of Christ, another His true humanity. Between these two errors, both equally pernicious, equally heterodox, the early believers had to navigate as they strove to remain true to God and to His Word.
Teaching that denied the true deity of Christ was nothing new. Throughout His ministry, the Jewish authorities’ most vociferous opposition was aroused when He spoke of Himself as the Son of God. “He makes Himself equal with God” (John 5:18) was their recurring complaint. Calvary only added to their opposition. Bad enough that an itinerant teacher should claim equality with God; still worse that such a claim should be made for a man whose execution was calculated to express the deepest opprobrium of the Jewish and the gentile worlds, and of heaven itself.
As the apostles faithfully preached the Christ they had known, they too encountered opposition from those who were willing, perhaps, to admit that Jesus of Nazareth made some good points, but would not acknowledge that He was Who He claimed to be – the eternal Son of the eternal God. This view found two expressions early in the church age. One arose from Jewish Christianity. This was the heresy of the Ebionites. Members of this sect denied the eternity, the deity, and the sonship of Christ. As though almost anticipating the heretical teaching of many false religious teachers in our own day, they argued that Jesus was an outstandingly righteous man, chosen by God to be a special prophet, chosen to be the Messiah, but nonetheless a created being, and not truly God. A similar view was expressed by those who are known as Arians, followers of an Egyptian named Arius. Arian teachers had a higher view of Christ than the Ebionites. They acknowledged Him as the Son of God, but denied His eternal existence and His equality with the Father. It has been said that their teaching came within an iota of being Scriptural. They taught that Christ was homoioúsios – of a similar substance to God – not that He was homooúsios – of the same substance as God. Theirs was truly anallos-Christ, and, for some, such differences may well have seemed like trifling details. But much hung upon that one letter, and for all the similarity of the Christ they presented, their teaching was heretical and represented a serious affront to the truth of God’s Word.
While heresy of this sort presented another Christ who was less than divine, other teachers presented a Christ who was less than fully human.These doctrines were primarily Greek in their origins.
The idea that matter was inherently evil was deeply embedded in Greek philosophy. Had that notion remained in the sphere of philosophy it might, however mistaken, not have done a very great deal of damage. Imported into Christianity, though, its impact was alarming. And, as the prevailing philosophies of the society in which we live have the power to influence us far more than we imagine, it was inevitable that this idea would have just such an impact.
To those who had been influenced by Greek philosophy, the idea of incarnation – that a transcendent God would really become man – was unthinkable. Surely, they reasoned, God would not soil Himself by association with matter. On this assumption were built two strands of gnostic heresy. One, called doceticism, from the Greek word meaning “to seem,” suggested that Christ’s human form was an illusion – that His body did not have any real physical being. The other strand, termed monarchianism or adoptionism, taught that a man named Jesus was taken over and controlled by the divine essence at His baptism. A later development of this sort of teaching was monophysitism, meaning one nature, which taught that the incarnate Christ had only a divine, and not a human nature. Each of these teachings, and others closely relating to them, had the ultimate effect of denying the reality of the incarnation, and undermining the teaching of Scripture concerning the genuine and actual humanity of the One Who was “manifest in flesh” (2Tim 3:16).
Whether these hetereo teachers presented another Christ who was less than divine or less than human, they represented an assault on the very heart of Christianity. As their teaching gained popularity, the foundation of the gospel – the preaching of Christ crucified – was coming under attack. This serious attack had to be repelled, and the only thing that could repel it was the truth of God’s Word. And it was to that irresistible force that God’s people turned.
Controversy about the nature of Christ, and especially about the Arian heresy, raged throughout the Roman Empire in the opening decades of the fourth century. This controversy threatened the peace of the empire and so the emperor, Constantine, called an international council of church leaders. Some 300 bishops gathered in Nicaea (current day Iznik, Turkey), in the year 325. They did not gather to invent Christianity’s teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, they came to compare the Christology of different groups to the truth of Scripture and the teaching of the apostles. Arius himself attended with 22 supporting bishops. But as passages from his writings were read, the supporters quickly deserted him, and the statement that resulted from the Council was all but unanimous. That statement has been passed down to us as the Nicene Creed. It summarizes the teaching of Scripture regarding the unity of God, the person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It repudiates the stunted Christology of the Arians, and represents the triumph of the truth of God’s Word over the preachers of “another gospel.”
That triumph was neither final nor total. While the denial of Christ’s deity and the threat posed by Arian heresy had been dealt with at Nicaea, the churches continued to be troubled by denials of Christ’s true humanity, especially by the Monophysite heresy, which suggested that the Lord Jesus had only a divine, not a human, nature. In response to the continuing propagation of this view, church leaders gathered in Chalcedon (now a district of Istanbul, Turkey), in the year 451. There they produced a further statement of faith which affirmed what we know as the hypostatic union of the divine and human in the incarnate Christ. The creed produced by the Council, affirmed belief in “our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin.”
It is important to understand that the council of Chalcedon was not inventing an orthodox Christology. Nor did their approval make the Christology embodied in the creed orthodox. Rather, they were addressing the challenge of doctrinal innovation by returning to the truth of God’s Word. And, while we look to Scripture and not to any human formulation as the basis of our faith, we do well to take note of the truth stated and defended at Chalcedon. Heresy in our day has not ceased to repackage the erroneous teachings and other gospels of past centuries. We do well to heed the warning of the apostle and the instruction of history and to hold fast to “the simplicity that is in Christ” (2Cor 11:3).
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (6): Sola Scriptura
In the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Germany, the ritual of the Roman Catholic church was in full swing. The air swirled with the scented smoke of incense, almost obscuring the statues and images that lined the walls of the building and its magnificent vaulted ceiling. From the high altar came the musical drone of the Latin mass. From all over the building came the clack of rosaries and the murmur of prayers, interrupted only when the tinkle of a golden bell drew the adoring gaze of the congregation to the elevated host, a sacrifice that they could look at but not partake of. The wealth and error that the church had acquired through the Middle Ages was on display, a vast religious machine smoothly turning souls into money, ever adding to its wealth and prestige. But, suddenly, a new sound was heard – simple but portentous, cutting through the sonorous hum that filled the air, startling the priest and the people, and halting the liturgy in its well-worn track. It was the sound of nails being driven into the hard oak of the massive cathedral door. That sound would echo beyond the walls of Wittenberg until the whole world rang with it.
In reality, the scene that took place when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses (or topics for discussion) to the door of the cathedral was probably less dramatic – nailing a notice to the door was an established means of initiating public debate. But it is difficult to overestimate the repercussions of Luther’s action. Though only a humble monk, he was to become the piece of grit that brought the well-oiled machinery of the Catholic church almost to a standstill, that sowed consternation and alarm amongst the princes and prelates of Europe, and that brought light and hope to their benighted and despairing peoples. In this mission, Luther was not motivated by political ambition or by religious fanaticism. Rather, he was inspired and impelled by the Word of God. It was the study of Scripture that had brought him to faith in Christ. It was in its pages that he discovered that “the just shall live by faith.” And, it was to Scripture that he appealed as he stood before the hostile Diet of Worms, saying “my conscience is captive to the Word of God … here I stand, I can do no other, may God help me.”
Direct appeal to the authority of God’s Word does not, perhaps, seem a remarkable thing to us. But in Luther’s day it was both radical and revolutionary. Throughout the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic church had done everything it could to declare Scripture off-limits, and to replace it with the traditions of the church and the decrees of the papacy. Indeed, that trend had commenced before the Middle Ages. The church at Rome had always been prominent – a sort of first among equals in the world at the time. That position was based on the respect of believers for the doctrinal strength and the faithfulness of the believers in Rome. At the conversion of Constantine, however, the Roman church gained a political power that was far from Scriptural. As such power does, this new importance quickly corrupted the Roman church, which developed territorial ambitions to match those of the Empire with which she was now identified. And because Scripture that was freely available and open to all would not serve these ambitions, the place and power of the Word of God was undermined and circumscribed by the teaching of the Roman church.
This attack involved three strategies. The Roman church claimed a monopoly on the correct interpretation of Scripture. Only the teachings of the doctors of the church, and ultimately of the Pope could be regarded. This teaching authority, vested in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, is called the Magisterium, and it is still the teaching of that church. “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” This teaching cut believers off from the Word of God, it denied them the opportunity to emulate the noble Bereans who “received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so,” and it meant that the church had tremendous power to control the way in which they understood Scripture.
This attempt to monopolize the interpretation was bolstered by the way in which the church opposed the translation of Scripture into the vernacular languages of the European peoples. The intent of Jerome’sVulgate, in providing a new translation of the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible into Latin, had been to make Scripture widely and accurately available. In a world where there was no longer an overlap between literacy and the ability to understand Latin, the use of the Vulgatefurther empowered the church, and further disempowered those who might otherwise have been too aware of the growing divide between the teachings of the Apostles, and those of the Roman church. Some access to vernacular Scripture remained in glosses and lectionaries, and some – both priests and laymen – continued faithfully to preach the truth of God’s Word. But there were many whose only knowledge of Scripture was dependant on the teaching of the church.
In its drive for power, wealth, and dominion, the papacy did not wish to be limited to “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3), or even to Scripture as interpreted by the pope. So, the doctrine of papal infallibility developed. This taught that, when the pope made pronouncements on “doctrines of faith or morals,” the dogmatic pronouncements of the pope had the same force and effect as the teaching of the apostles. If the political or financial interests of the Roman church needed the support of doctrine, the pope could provide it.
Thus, through the Middle Ages, Scripture was sidelined, locked away from the people, interred in a foreign language, and belittled by the introduction of new dogmas. Believers in this period had no way of evaluating the truth of what they heard from their priest, no way of knowing when innovative doctrine was being foisted upon them. They simply had to take, on trust, the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, and to accept the proposition that the pope knew best.
It is in this context that the true significance of Luther’s action must be understood. Along with the other reformers, Luther’s teaching had an influence on the way in which all sorts of doctrines were understood. But his return to Scripture was the most important, most fundamental, and most radical of all his contributions to the health of the church.Sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone” became one of the great watch cries of the Reformation. Luther in Germany, Tyndale in England, Olivetan in France, and Diodati in Italy began the translation of Scripture into the vernacular languages of Europe. Scripture once again became widely read and widely discussed in the markets and the taverns as well as in the schools and universities. Volumes of Biblical commentary began to pour from the presses. Like a mighty river, the torrent of Scripture swept through Europe, washing away the accumulated junk of centuries, undermining the power of the papacy, bringing truth and its sister, freedom, to those who sat in great darkness.
We look to Scripture, and not to the Reformers, for our doctrine. Nonetheless, we should thank God for those who were raised up by Him to restore His Word to its rightful place as the only source and final arbiter of spiritual truth. And these men have a great deal to teach us – they were captives to the Word of God. They were, in Luther’s memorable phrase, captives to the Word of God. They were prepared to put everything – wealth, safety, and life itself – on the line in order to stand for its truth against human traditions. We need to maintain a similar attitude to God’s Word. We ought not to oppose tradition simply because it is tradition. But we should never obey tradition when it is in contradiction with the teachings of Scripture. Moreover, we must be always on our guard lest we imitate the Pharisees who were upbraided by the Lord Jesus because they taught “for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15:9). May God help us to live the truth of sola scriptura, individually and as assemblies of His people.
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (7): The Reformation
Justification by Faith
The Epistle to the Romans is the beating heart of the gospel. In it, as nowhere else in Scripture, the doctrines of this most glorious message are comprehensively surveyed. The Holy Spirit takes us down into the depths of human depravity and up again to that tremendous peak where we learn of God’s purpose that members of that fallen race should ultimately and inevitably be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29). And, at the heart of this remarkable letter is the truth – simple, yet world-shatteringly profound – “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17).
The epistle to the Romans describes the gospel as the revelation of the “righteousness of God” (1:17). Things that we could never have guessed about God and His character are made known to us uniquely in this great message. The great principle of justification by faith – or, more comprehensively and correctly by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone – is one of those Scriptural truths that would have been inaccessible to us apart from God’s revelation of it in His Word. That man is depraved may be clearly seen. That God is great and good may be inferred from the general revelation of His person and His power in the natural creation. But the fact that He would choose this way of justifying sinners lies well beyond the grasp of our instincts or our intellects. The gospel is unique in its dependence upon what God has done. Man, and every religion he has ever devised and designed, is fixated on what he can do. Paul laid an unerring finger on the root of this obsession when he emphasized that salvation is “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:9). We love to boast and are constitutionally opposed to the idea that there is nothing that we can bring to God, no work that we can do, no way in which we may cooperate with Him in the salvation of our souls.
That attitude is natural – an integral part of the thinking of unsaved men and women. And, like any natural fault, it has the potential to affect even those who are saved. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote with a remarkable vehemence to warn the Galatian believers who were in danger of being seduced from relying on the sufficiency of Christ. In the second chapter he reminds them of what they already knew: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (2:16). A little later he drives the point home still further: “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (3:3).
The erroneous doctrines that Paul addressed with such urgency in Galatians may have withered beneath his words, but they did not die. Right from the first century of church testimony, there were those found who preached a salvation partially, if not wholly, based upon or sustained by the righteous works of the individual. Their gospel – another of a different sort, and not of the same (Gal 1:6-7) – had an appeal to the human desire to work and to boast and, its popularity increased as the centuries passed, and the church moved toward ages that, as far as the gospel light was concerned, were dark indeed.
That darkness was deep, but it was not absolute. There were still believers, saved by grace, through faith, and still those who taught that truth to others. One such man was an Augustinian monk named Johann von Staupitz. When Staupitz met a troubled young monk named Martin Luther who was deeply conscious of his sinfulness, and seeking by any means to find release, he pointed him not to the importance of good works, or the merits of church, or sacrament, but to the work accomplished by Christ on the cross. Luther was later to remark “Staupitz lighted the flame of the gospel for me. … Without Staupitz I would be rather in hell than in heaven.”
Luther, and the Reformation in which he played so important a role, would famously insist on the fundamental importance of sole fide, sole gratia – justification by grace alone through faith alone. But the reformers were doing more than preaching the truth of justification by faith as it had been understood in past centuries. Luther and his brilliant friend Philipp Melanchthon carefully studied the Scriptures in light of the most recent advances in the understanding of Biblical Greek. As they did so, they came to understand a vital distinction that had often been overlooked. This was the difference between justification and sanctification. In Catholic teaching, justification was the process by which the sinner was made righteous before God. As Melanchthon scrutinized Scripture, and especially the epistle to the Romans, he came to understand that justification was not a process of improvement by which a sinner was made righteous. Rather, it was a judicial act by which God declared a sinner righteous. That justification was followed by a process of sanctification, but this was the working out of a right position before God, and not a means to achieving it.
The recovery of this Scriptural truth was of enormous significance. It restored the true meaning of Christian freedom, as souls no longer lived a righteousness life in order to rack up spiritual brownie points. Rather, a godly life became the privilege of the justified soul, the glad response of the liberated heart, and the practical working out of a right standing obtained through faith in Christ. Part of the purpose of the Savior’s work at Calvary was to “deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb 2:15). Now, as the truth of the gospel was rediscovered, that liberty was brought to fruition in the experience of countless souls.
This understanding of the doctrine of justification became fundamental to the Reformation in all of its arms. It was not the only concern of the Reformers, nor did all of them understand its significance in the same way. Nonetheless, they were united in their commitment to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone: sola fides, sola gratia. And for that we ought to be deeply glad. We claim these men neither as leaders or founders. We do not uncritically accept their teaching, nor claim that, in every detail, it accords with the Word of God. But we must give God thanks for those who bought the truth and did not sell it (Prov 23:23), but who stood fast for it in the face of formidable opposition.
We should also note well the way in which the truth of Scripture was recovered. Melanchthon’s recovery of the truth was not the result of casual reading. He did not find it in his daily reading book, nor was it a “challenging thought” discovered in a verse detached from its context. He discovered the truth through the careful, painstaking study of the Word of God. To that study he brought every natural talent. He applied the outstanding education that he had received. The fruits of that effort transformed Christendom, and placed us forever in his debt.
His example is important for us. This generation is more – if not always better – educated than any that has gone before. We have experience in applying our minds with diligence and discipline to complicated and challenging subjects. We have the benefit of training in critical and analytical thinking. Daily we use these skills in our work, laying them at the disposal of our earthly employers. Too often, though, we seem to abandon them at the closet door, and approach Scripture in a haphazard and disorganized way. God and His Word deserve better, and in the story of the Reformation we see writ large the value and importance of Paul’s exhortation: “Study to show thyself approved unto God: a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2Tim 2:15).
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (8): The Gathered Church
With the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Church, the body of Christ came into being. This great construction, spanning centuries of time and geographical expanses and including every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, will continue to be built until the return of Christ when the Rapture signals its perfect completeness.
Shortly after the day of Pentecost another entity came into being. This was the church of God at Jerusalem, the very first local assembly. As the first such gathering, it provides a vital prototype for all that follow. Those “that gladly received” the message of the gospel “were baptized” and “added” to the assembly fellowship (Acts 2:41). This company, then, “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” As distinct from the global coverage of the Church the body of Christ, this church was local, confined to Jerusalem. And, as the gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire its progress was marked by local assemblies – the churches of God. So, Paul could write to the Corinthians about the necessity to avoid giving offense “to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God” (1Cor 10:32). This instruction presupposed a body of individuals marked by their separation and distinctiveness, from existing religious and social groupings.
In the early centuries of church testimony this distinctiveness was clearly maintained. In an atmosphere of persecution, where identification with Christ could mean intense suffering, loss, and even death, no one would take lightly the decision to join with the believers. The pattern of conversion, baptism, and joining the local church was the actual, as well as the Scriptural, norm.
In the year 312, this began to change. That year marked the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine. The genuineness, or otherwise, of Constantine’s conversion remains unclear, but its impact on Christendom was undeniably dramatic. Christianity went from being a radical and peripheral religion to becoming the official religion of the Empire. Once it was a sure route to persecution and ostracism; then Christianity became the pathway to preferment and social advancement. Thus began the identification of church and state that has continued to the present day, to the consistent detriment of Scriptural Christianity.
The sphere of Christendom that developed in the centuries after Constantine was very different to the New Testament experience. The acceptance of Christianity by a ruler – whether as the result of conviction or as the fruit of political expediency or dynastic imperatives – was regarded as signaling the wholesale conversion of his people. Baptism, by means of a mistaken analogy with circumcision, lost its Scriptural significance. From being a public act of identification with Christ, entered into by a true believer, it became a meaningless ritual carried out on infants who had no capacity either to believe or to reject the gospel.
While there were always those who practiced the Scriptural pattern of church testimony, this indiscriminate, national counterfeit became usual. Even the Reformation failed to address this issue adequately. Luther hoped that the German reformation would result in the end of an episcopal hierarchy, and a more obvious working out of the truth of the priesthood of all believers. As a temporary measure he approved the transfer of their property and power to Protestant nobles. These nobles were disinclined to relinquish that status, especially in light of the radical and violent events of the peasant’s revolt. Subsequently, the Peace of Augsburg, which brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end, enshrined the principle cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion). This meant that the rulers of individual states determined the religion of their state and of their citizens. In England, too, the conversion of the national church to Protestantism was a purely political decision by Henry VIII. While his son Edward VI pursued further reformation as a result of his genuine evangelical convictions, membership of the national church remained compulsory for each individual, regardless of their actual views. While the Scottish church differed in that it followed a Presbyterian model, it was still a national church, encompassing everyone – saved or unsaved.
True believers within these national churches realized the difficulty of reconciling this practice with the teaching of Scripture. They attempted to reconcile the two by creating the concept of the visible and invisible churches. The visible church, they argued, was the external national church with its ritual and ceremony. The invisible church was made up of true believers, concealed within the visible church, only to be recognized at the Day of Judgment.
However, the period of the Reformation was also marked by the emergence of “gathered churches.” These groups were made up of those who rejected the joining together of church and state. Such groups had always existed and many, including the Swiss Waldensians and the Czechoslovakian Hussites, gladly identified with the Reformers’ teachings on justification by faith alone. Many of these believers insisted that baptism was proper for adults who had been saved and was an essential preliminary for gathering in church capacity. For this reason, they were often identified as Anabaptists, meaning “rebaptizers.” In addition, most Anabaptists maintained the truth of the priesthood of all believers, practiced under the control of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, they rejected an ordained ministry and insisted that believers should have freedom to exercise their spiritual gifts. They were also, for the most part, strongly Biblicist, relying on Scripture and not church teaching to guide their lives.
Some Anabaptists held radical and extreme political views, and the influence of these groups led to some horrific events. Anabaptist prophets were, most notably involved in a notorious siege and massacre at Münster, Germany in 1534. These events hardened public opinion against the Anabaptists, even though many of them were not politically radical. For this reason, “Anabaptist” was used as a term of reproach, and Anabaptists became the objects of fierce persecution by both Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe. As a result, many fled to the New World and settled in the colonies of North America.
The Anabaptist movement was concentrated largely in Europe. While some Anabaptists were to be found in England, they were not plentiful. However, similar ideas about the gospel, the church, and baptism were emerging among those who became known as Puritans. These believers were dissatisfied with the state of the English church, believing that the Reformation had not gone far enough. As it became increasingly clear that their demands for further reformation would fall upon deaf ears, many Puritans became Dissenters – separated from the Church of England. These Dissenters fragmented into a wide variety of groups. Some held very strange doctrines and advocated radical political positions. Most, however, sought the freedom to practice what they understood as the truth of Scripture. Some gathered as congregationalists, some as Presbyterians, and others as Baptists. Each of these groups shared a recognition that only true believers had a place in the visible church, and all sought to separate themselves from the union of church and state that prevailed in contemporary Christendom.
This was never an easy step to take. Under the reigns of Elizabeth, James, and Charles I, many were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and martyred for their obedience to the Word of God. After a brief period of prosperity under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Restoration brought a fresh wave of oppression. Some escaped to North America, where, in the effective absence of any national church, they found greater freedom to practice their beliefs. They endured faithfully through dark and difficult days, and in the sovereign purposes of God, were to be used mightily by Him in the salvation of countless souls.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1Cor 1:27). In the story of these believers, who took their stand on the Word of God in defiance of the state-sponsored churches with their machinery of compulsion, we can see God using the little things to perform a great work to His glory.
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (9): The Evangelical Revival
There is no doubt that studying Church history can sometimes be a depressing business. Too often, human frailty and failure seem to hamper or thwart the work of God. But history also has much to encourage us. In particular, it provides us with innumerable proofs of the fact that our sovereign and all-powerful God can overrule human and satanic opposition, and use it to prosper the gospel. The history of the Church in the early centuries contains numerous examples of this. Imperial opposition to Christianity, and the consequent scattering of believers, was one of the most effective means of spreading Christianity throughout the known world. Nor are such events confined to the early church. Throughout the centuries, God has used opposition and attack for His purposes and to His ends.
Another example of this principle is provided in the revival of evangelical preaching in the middle of the 18th century. In those decades, a mighty work was done for God. In England, Ireland, and America the gospel rang forth with fresh clarity and renewed power. Many individuals were saved, and the character of nations was changed. And this happened, not in spite of, but, because of the opposition of the established church to the preaching of the gospel.
The Cromwellian Interregnum in English history (1649-1660) was marked by a dramatic change in the religious life of the nation. The established Church of England was shaken up, the episcopacy was suppressed, and a plethora of independent and separatist congregations sprang up throughout Great Britain and Ireland. The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II brought about a radical reversal. The episcopacy was re-established and, in 1662, the Act of Uniformity was passed, requiring ministers to submit to High Church Anglicanism and renounce the Puritan and Presbyterian elements that had prospered during the Cromwellian period. Over 2,000 ministers refused to take an oath to uphold this act and were removed from their positions in an event known as the Great Ejection. Those who continued to preach the gospel became the objects of official persecution – John Bunyan is perhaps the most famous figure to have been imprisoned at this time.
This ejection of those ministers who were most committed to the preaching of the gospel and the practice of Scriptural ecclesiology had a serious and negative impact on the character of the church. This was echoed in fashionable society. The lifting of the social restraints that had been imposed by the Puritans resulted in all manner of pleasure seeking. At the same time, the working class continued in spiritual darkness, disregarded by a church that was more concerned with social status than its responsibility to preach the gospel.
It was in this dark context that God began to move. The work that He would accomplish is associated particularly with John and Charles Wesley (1703-1791, 1707-1788) and George Whitefield (1714-1770). These men were instrumental in a great revival of the gospel on both sides of the Atlantic.
John and Charles’ father was Samuel Wesley, a clergyman who began his career as a Dissenting minister but who, ironically, is remembered for his opposition to religious non-conformity. Their mother Susanna was a remarkable woman. She gave birth to 19 children, of which nine died in infancy. She still found time to take charge of her children’s education. In addition, she held family devotions every Sunday, and these came to attract a large crowd from the surrounding area who were, like Susanna herself, dissatisfied with the lack of spiritual food provided from the pulpit of the local church. Like many a godly mother, Susanna had a vital impact upon her children. Her exercise to teach her children in her home had international effects that she little imagined.
The Wesley brothers both attended Christ Church, Oxford. While there, they were responsible for founding the Holy Club. This group was made up of young men who were dissatisfied with the low moral standards that prevailed in English society, and sought to live holy lives, marked by religious discipline. This desire made them conspicuous amongst the godless undergraduates, and because of their disciplined lives they became known mockingly as “Methodists.” Both of the Wesley brothers went on to become clergymen. At this stage, though, they were relying on the holiness of their lives for salvation, and knew nothing of the peace of salvation. It was only after a disastrous period in the newly established American colony of Georgia, and his return to England that John “felt [his] heart strangely warmed” as he listened to Luther’s preface to Romans being read. In the same month, May 1738, Charles was reading Luther on Galatians, and having found the One “Who loved me and gave Himself for me,” he was able to say “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoice in hope of loving Christ.” Two days later he began writing the first of over 6,000 hymns.
George Whitefield was the son of an innkeeper, and went up to Oxford as a servitor, receiving free tuition in exchange for working as a servant for more wealthy students. At Oxford, he too became a member of the Holy Club. In 1735, after a lengthy struggle under the conviction of sin, Whitefield trusted Christ as Savior. Like the Wesleys, he was ordained and made plans to travel to Georgia. While he waited for his passage, he began to preach in London. He only stayed three months in Georgia, before returning to London. Here he found many pulpits closed to him by ministers and bishops who had little sympathy with his gospel preaching. It was this effort to stifle the preaching of the gospel that led to the remarkable work of God known as the Evangelical Revival in England and, in America, as the first Great Awakening.
Whitefield’s response to the closing of pulpits to him was simple, but to the respectable clergymen of the day, almost unthinkable. Shut out of the church in the village of Hanham, near Bristol, Whitefield began to preach in the churchyard. He had been gifted with a remarkably carrying voice, and his sermons quickly gathered enormous crowds, especially of local miners who had never before heard the gospel preached. Soon he was preaching in the open air throughout England. At a time when the population of London was less than 700,000, he attracted audiences of 20,000 to 30,000.
In 1738, Whitefield sailed once more to America, where he became parish priest in Savannah, Georgia, where he established the Bethesda orphanage. Before he left, he persuaded the Wesleys to join him in open air preaching. They were reluctant to take this step – John later admitted that he felt it “almost a sin” to adopt this means. But the brothers were eventually persuaded, and open air preaching became a vital part of the Revival that swept through Britain and the American colonies.
The Wesleys and Whitefield devoted their lives to the preaching of the gospel. Whitefield’s greatest work was accomplished in North America, especially in Georgia and Philadelphia. He was associated with Jonathan Edwards, the first great American preacher, who was born in East Windsor, Connecticut in 1703. John itinerated extensively throughout England and Ireland, travelling thousands of miles on horseback, proclaiming the gospel wherever he went. He also organized circuits of preachers, many of whom were not ordained ministers of the Established Church. This led, eventually to the formation of the Methodists. Charles Wesley, likewise, devoted his life to the gospel. He never formally left the Church of England. Though he travelled far less extensively than his brother, his hymns were widely used and had a profound impact.
The Evangelical Revival has many important lessons for us. It teaches us that social conditions are never so dark as to prevent God from working. It demonstrates the inestimable repercussions of a godly mother’s exercise. It underscores the value of a disciplined life made wholly available for the Master’s service. And it emphasizes the power of God to confound His enemies by turning their opposition against themselves.
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (10): Rediscovered Hope
Abraham has the unique distinction in Scripture of being referred to as the “friend of God” (James 2:23). This was no empty title. Rather, it reflected the reality of a life lived in communion with God. Seldom was that communion so clearly expressed as when God, anticipating the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, revealed His purpose to Abraham, asking, “Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?” (Gen 18:17).
Though Abraham’s description is unique, his standing is not. It is a remarkable fact that we have, by grace, become friends of God, and that we too have been taken into His confidence. In the upper room, the Lord told His disciples of their new relationship to Himself and with God: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:15). God’s ways are unsearchable, His judgments past finding out. But, in gracious condescension He deigns to open His purposes to our gaze.
Viewed in this context, prophetic Scripture is revealed as one of the chief glories of God’s people. It reveals something of His purpose for the Universe, and the ways in which this purpose will be realized. God allows us to live in a present that is enlightened by the future with an ennobling and energizing appreciation of the great goal towards which His purposes ineluctably work.
In light of this, it is both strange and sad that the study of prophecy has, throughout the history of the Church, been relegated to the periphery, discouraged by those in authority, and denigrated as the occupation of the mentally – as well as spiritually – unbalanced. The often-quoted quip, that “the study of Revelation either finds a man mad, or leaves him so” (John Calvin), aptly sums up the prevailing attitude to prophetic study.
It cannot be denied that this attitude was not without some justification. Radical groups throughout the centuries justified their extreme practices by a reading of prophecy that placed them in the last days. A sorry history of attempts to set the date of Christ’s return does little to rehabilitate the caricature of the student of prophecy as, at best, eccentric, and, at worst, downright dangerous.
This history helps to explain – though it cannot excuse – the neglect of prophecy. By the end of the fourth century AD, amillennialism had displaced premillennialism as the predominant way of understanding prophecy. Broadly speaking, amillennialists taught that Israel had been replaced by the Church, which enjoys a spiritual fulfillment of the promises originally given to Israel. They denied the possibility of a literal millennium, arguing instead that Christendom was already experiencing a spiritual millennium. The Reformers generally accepted the outlines of the amillennial scheme, and, in the aftermath of violent social upheaval caused by millennial teaching, vigorously opposed the idea of a literal reign of Christ of 1000 years.
Throughout the seventeenth century, though, this began to change. The resistance to allegorical readings of Scripture that was at the heart of the Reformation resulted in a grammatical-historical interpretation which insisted that the Bible meant what it said. This made a spiritualized amillennial reading difficult to sustain. These were also times of remarkable progress in almost every field of human endeavor. The world seemed to be becoming a better place. This spirit of optimism was reflected theologically in postmillennialism. This view suggests that the spread of the gospel, with its beneficial effects on all levels of human society, would usher in an idyllic period of 1000 years at the end of which Christ would return. Postmillennialism depicted human history and contemporary society in a positive light. It became widely held among evangelicals and may well have helped to foster their enthusiasm for spreading the gospel at home and abroad.
At the end of the eighteenth century, though, this optimism was becoming difficult to sustain. Progress in the scientific seemed to be leading man away from, and not toward, God. Atheistic rationalism blossomed and revolutions in France, Ireland, and America seemed to prefigure a wider descent into social anarchy. These circumstances encouraged believers to look again at Scripture and to return to the premillennialism that had been little-regarded since the early centuries of the Church. Premillennialists expected that “evil men and seducers” would, indeed “wax worse and worse” (2Tim 3:13). Society was on a downward slope and its decline would only be arrested and reversed by the return of Christ Who would put down rebellion and establish His righteous kingdom.
In this context, a variety of premillennialism interpretations emerged. Most students of prophecy adopted a historicist premillennialism, which understood the book of Revelation to refer to past events. The crucial insight that it referred to future events we owe to John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).
Darby was born into a wealthy Irish family. He was an extraordinary man with a forceful personality and seemingly inexhaustible energy. Although his father intended him to be a lawyer, Darby chose to become a clergyman in the established Church of Ireland, ministering to poor parishioners in Co. Wicklow. He adopted an ascetic lifestyle and, by his own admission, was a high churchman, who thought that salvation was only to be found within the established Episcopal Church.
This changed in 1827 when Darby, immobilized by a serious riding accident, devoted his convalescence to the study of Scripture. His conversion, which he described as his “deliverance from bondage,” can be traced to this period. While his understanding of prophecy (and his views on the nature of the Church, which fall outside the scope of this article) developed over time, it is probable that it, too, had its roots in this time of meditation and Bible study.
Darby’s interpretation of prophecy had a number of important features. Like many evangelicals of the time, he was convinced that God still had a purpose for Israel, and that the promises made to the nation would still be fulfilled. This led him to endorse a strongly literal understanding of Scripture which insisted that the term “Israel” always referred to the nation, and never meant the Church. This principle also meant that he understood the book of Revelation to be a literal account of events that were still to take place and not a coded account of the history of the Church. (This view is usually called futurist premillennialism.)
Like many other earlier scholars, Darby identified a number of distinct periods in human history, marked by the different ways in which God dealt with man. These “dispensations” were far from being the most distinctive element of Darby’s system, but they gave it the name – dispensationalism – by which it is most commonly known.
The most distinctive feature of Darby’s interpretation was related to Christ’s return. Other premillennialists at the time saw this as a single event in which Christ returned to earth, after the tribulation, to establish His kingdom. As Darby studied the New Testament, he came to realize that it presents the return of Christ as an event in two stages. First is the Rapture, when He comes to the air to snatch away the saints, dead and living. This event is followed by the seven years of the tribulation, at the end of which Christ returns to earth in glory and with His saints to rule in righteousness for 1000 glorious years.
After his conversion, Darby’s life was devoted to preaching and teaching. He traveled widely, crisscrossing the Atlantic and working extensively in Europe. He produced a new translation of the Bible, and he oversaw the translation of the Bible into French and German. He was an indefatigable writer, producing over 40 volumes of commentary, controversy, and exhortation, as well as some of the most sublime hymns ever written. This activity meant that dispensationalism was accepted by many Christians, especially in the United States, where the Bible Conference movement and the publication, in 1907, of The Scofield Reference Bible did much to ensure its spread.
We have much cause to thank God for the ministry of J. N. Darby. His saturation in Scripture resulted in his being used to recover the Church’s delight in prophecy and to restore her expectation of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. For Darby, and for generations of believers since, that hope has glowed brightly, even as conditions round about us have grown increasingly gloomy. May we, too, be found among those who “love His appearing” (2Tim 4:8). Maranatha, even so come, Lord Jesus!
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (11): The Recovery of Church Truth
A local church, as envisaged by Scripture, is a called-out company of believers gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 18:20). It is part of no overarching organization, but stands directly responsible to its risen Lord (Rev 1-3). Those who form part of it have first been saved, and then have publicly acknowledged that faith in baptism. The church is led by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23, Acts 20:17). Its activities include the breaking of bread, prayer, the teaching of God’s Word, the spread of the gospel, and ministering to the material needs of individual saints and other churches (Acts 2: 42; 1Thes 2:8; 2Cor 8:2-4; Phil 4:10). It is striking that so simple an entity, without elaborate governance, ornate premises, or the support of a great organization, should be described as the “temple of God.” Yet, it is this sort of company that Scripture describes as the “church of God,” and it knows of no other place where Christ’s blood-bought people can gather in His name and with His presence.
Wherever the apostles witnessed, these churches were the result. Sadly, though, even before the apostolic period had come to an end, there was evidence of a shift away from the simplicity of the Scriptural pattern. Men like Diotrephes arose, loving to have pre-eminence amongst God’s people (3John 9). A Scriptural plurality of elders was replaced by a single ruling elder, and local responsibility gave way to federated central authority. The Scriptural church as a local spiritual entity was displaced by a super-national church, which wielded enormous political, and military power that placed unsaved and venal men in authority over God’s people.
There were, however, always those in all parts of the world who gathered in Scriptural simplicity. While they have left little trace on the pages of history, it is important not to forget about these faithful believers. The recovery of truth about the nature of the church that took place in the early decades of the nineteenth century was unusual in the breadth and longevity of its results, but in its return to the teaching of the New Testament it shared much with other movements that had gone to the same source. To understand this historical context is not to underestimate or devalue the remarkable work that was accomplished by the Holy Spirit, but it may preserve us from arrogance or complacency about our place in divine purpose.
The events that took place in Dublin in the late 1820s must have a special interest for any believer in assembly fellowship. It was there that a small group of believers began to gather, in separation from the surrounding denominations, and in obedience to the Scriptural pattern.
The Anglican Church of Ireland was at a low spiritual ebb. Many of its ministers saw their calling as merely a source of employment, and the interests of the gospel and the souls of the perishing came a poor second to maintaining the social status and political power of the church. Those ministers who too plainly preached the gospel were liable to be silenced by their bishop. In the last half of the eighteenth century, a number of these ministers had seceded from the Anglican Church, impatient to preach the gospel without hindrance. By contrast, the believers who began to meet together in Dublin in the 1820s had no interest in forming themselves into another denomination. Though they included men of great intellectual ability, high social position, and considerable persona charisma, they did not gather to, or under, any of these. Instead, they gathered to the name of Christ, in distinction to the denominations around them. Their convictions about the church owed much to their saturation in Scripture.
The willingness of these men to be guided by Scripture alone meant that their gatherings looked very different from the prevailing practice of Christendom. The Reformation had recovered the Biblical truth of the priesthood of all believers in theory, but it continued to be denied in practice. Those who gathered in Dublin believed that the office of the clergyman was, in J. N. Darby’s words, “a sin against the Holy Ghost,” and they allowed for the exercise of gift by all brethren who possessed it.
The principles expressed in the gatherings in Dublin soon crossed the English Channel. One of the first assemblies in Great Britain was in Plymouth. Those who gathered refused to adopt any unscriptural name. This frustrated those who wanted to label this new movement, and, focusing on the characteristic mode of address amongst these believers and their location, they gave them the name “Plymouth Brethren.”
The speed with which this teaching spread indicated that the Spirit of God was at work, preparing the hearts of God’s people and directing and empowering the work of revival. As the decades passed, a clearer understanding emerged of the distinctiveness of the local assembly, and the need for separation from the religious confusion of Christendom. Progress was not uninterrupted; but, in spite of these challenges, God’s work carried on, and assemblies were formed throughout the world.
At home and on the mission field, these believers were active in the spread of the gospel. In gospel halls, tents, and in the open air they labored to discharge their responsibility to their fellow men. Missionaries commended by assemblies in the United Kingdom and Ireland were responsible for pioneering in China, in Central Africa, in India, and in South America. They eschewed the support of missionary societies, and relied on God to supply their needs. These devoted servants of God echoed something of the energy and devotion of the apostles and, like them, “turned the world upside down.”
The history of the assemblies over the past century has not always been a positive story. At all times, though, it is an important one. Time and again, the experience of God’s people has proved that strength in testimony directly depends on obedience to God’s Word, and separation from the world – socially, religiously, and politically. Too often, truth that was hard-bought by earlier generations has been frittered away by those who undervalued or despised their birthright and inheritance.
We live in a dramatically different world from the Dublin of the 1820s. It is even more different from the world inhabited by the believers of the first century. But God’s pattern for His people has not changed, and we understand very little about God if we doubt that His pattern is best.
Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (12): Conclusion
In Hebrews 11, the writer details an impressive list of the heroes of faith. These worthies, named and unnamed, throughout history are singled out as exemplars of the life of faith. The list makes for stirring, if humbling, reading.
And it is the writer’s intention to stir us. In Hebrews 12:1 he highlights the practical implications of the example of “so great a cloud of witnesses” for the way in which we live our lives. But he also takes pains to ensure that we give the examples of the past a proper place in our thought, as he exhorts us to look off “unto Jesus, the author and finisher of faith.”
That priority is worth restating as we come to the final article in this series. As we have looked back over the centuries of church testimony, there is much to challenge and stir us. But these articles will have failed in their purpose if they have not emphasized for us the necessity to look off beyond man, to look to God and His Word as the only sufficient and reliable guide for our life and testimony. History holds many valuable lessons for us, but we should be careful to keep it in its place. We should be especially cautious about appealing to historical precedent to justify doctrine or practice. Whether we appeal to the “early fathers” or to the “early brethren,” we are alike on uncertain ground. “What saith the Scriptures?” (Rom 4:3) must be our inveterate question. God’s Word must be our first, our last, our only court of appeal.
Our consideration of history should enhance, and not hamper, our activity in the present. It is easy to allow a preoccupation with the past – recent or distant – to paralyze us. The apostle Paul, in his personal experience, found it necessary to forget that which was behind, in order that he might “press forward.” We should not forget history, but we should seek to maintain the character of Dan Crawford, the idiosyncratic African missionary: “Hats off to the past, coats off to the future.”
These considerations notwithstanding, we do have much to learn from history, and a people that forgets its past is impoverished indeed. Tracing the faithfulness of God and the power of His Word, should fit us better for worship and for work.
This series has provided an overview of some important themes and moments in church history. It has drawn on some of the sources mentioned below, and they are a useful place from which to embark on a more detailed study. Providing lists of this sort is always a risky exercise, and the inclusion of a book is not an endorsement of every detail of its content. Writing history requires two components – facts and interpretation. We can value a work for its presentation of fact, even while disagreeing – wholly or in part – with the author’s interpretation.
Covering two millennia in a work of reasonable size is difficult. Nonetheless, there are a number of useful overviews of church history. Iain D. Campbell’s Heroes and Heretics devotes one brief chapter to each century, and provides a readable, though sketchy, account. Also useful is E. H. Broadbent’s classic work The Pilgrim Church. Broadbent attempts to tell the story of the non-institutional church, of companies of believers who were often subject to severe persecution by the Roman Catholic church, and by the national churches of the Reformation. His accounts often differ markedly from the received view of the groups that he describes. It is unfortunate, therefore, that editions currently available do not provide adequate documentation of the sources used. In spite of this, it is fascinating reading, and a valuable reminder that there are at least two sides to every story.
More detailed coverage of the early centuries of church history is provided by F. F. Bruce’s The Spreading Flame. The story of Christianity from the apostolic period through to the Reformation is told with admirable clarity by Nick R. Needham in his three volume work,2000 Years of Christ’s Power. Each volume stands on its own, and is especially useful for the inclusion of relevant primary sources at the end of each chapter. Volume 3, “Renaissance and Reformation” is especially useful, and covers not only the magisterial Reformation, but also the story of the Anabaptists. The opening chapters of David Bebbington’s Baptists through the Centuries are also useful in this context, especially for their summary of the debate about the scale of Anabaptist influence on English nonconformity.
David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain is the standard introduction to the emergence and growth of the evangelical movement in Britain. That subject can also be approached by way of biographies of the main figures involved. John Pollock’s biographies of John Wesley, George Whitefield, William Wilberforce, and D. L. Moody are readable and stimulating.
The stories of the recovery of dispensational truth, and the truth of gathering in assembly capacity are closely intertwined. Timothy Stunt’s From Awakening to Secession is a meticulously detailed account that describes the background to these events in some detail, and provides unparalleled coverage of the ministry of Darby and others in Ireland, the UK, and Europe. Grayson Carter’s Evangelical Secessions from the Via Media, c.1800-1850 is also useful in this context. In light of John Nelson Darby’s importance to both these stories, it is worth consulting Max Weremchuk’s John Nelson Darby: A Biography and, in a less scholarly vein, Marion Field’s John Nelson Darby: Prophetic Pioneer. For all his importance, Darby was only one of God’s servants, and the stories of two other giants are told in Edwin Cross’s The Irish Saint and Scholar – A biography of William Kelly and his Life and Times of C.H. Mackintosh.
The early story of those believers who are identified – often against their wishes – as “the Brethren,” is told by David J. Beattie in The Brethren: the Story of a Great Recovery and in Harold H. Rowden’sThe Origins of the Brethren 1825-1850.
History contains much to sadden. Human failure is writ large in every age of history, not least in our own. But history has its greatest value for us when it reminds us of the faithfulness of God, His power to preserve testimony and the provision that He has made for the unique needs of every generation in His holy Word.