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Another quarter, and another volume of Nick Needham’s church history set, 2,000 Years of Church History. The second volume covers The Middle Ages. I mentioned the layout of the books in discussing volume 1. This volume is about 440 pages long. Reading about 10 pages per day, I was able to read a chapter a week and be done in 10 weeks. This makes for a very doable project, and you aren’t overwhelmed with all the information that is found in this thus far excellent series.

HeĀ  begins this volume with Islam and the Church. We’d join Paul in saying that even if an angel preaches another gospel to you, they are to be anathematized (Gal. 1). While Mohammad claims to have received a vision from an angel, his message is very different from Paul’s gospel and therefore to be rejected.

Islam did spread through military conquest. Some of the churches in conquered lands were treated fairly well, particularly the Arian and monophysite churches. He distinguishes between the Sunni and Shia muslims in addressing their first “civil war”. Most Christians were placed in segregated communities and treated as second-class citizens, often with a heavy tax. At times they benefited from the Christian community. Nestorian Christians in Persia translated the great Greek philosophers into Arabic. Generally “Christian governments” waged defensive wars against Islam. A few people like Francis of Assisi preached the gospel to them. Some of the crusades seem far less interested in protecting pilgrims and freeing conquered Christians than gaining fame, power and wealth.

Needham then discusses Charlemange and the Holy Roman Empire. The struggle between civil and religious authorities would take up much of the Middle Ages. This was not limited to the Pope, but we also see the Eastern Patriarchs, at times, seeking to bring the civil authority to heel. It was a back and forth. He also addresses developments in theology and worship in both the Eastern and Western Church.

This volume continues Needham’s broader than usual focus. This is not a Eurocentric approach to church history. For that I am thankful. For instance, much is said about the development of both Eastern and Western monasticism. We see the repeated influence of Augustine in controversies involving predestination and the Lord’s Supper. Communion controversies appear at least 3 times in this volume.

The third chapter focuses on the Byzantine Empire and brings us to the Great Schism. The iconoclastic controversy takes up a bit of space. It was a ruthless controversy with Emperors deposing Patriarchs; Patriarchs excommunicating Emperors, exiles and cruel punishments. Church history is not pretty! This should put to rest any mistaken notion about the consensus of the Patriarchs as preferable to “sola Scriptura”, but sadly it won’t. The filioque controversy regarding the Nicene Creed is discussed.

“Following the Cappadocian Fathers, the East tended to being with the persons of the Trinity, and saw their unity as lying in the person of God the Father. For Eastern theologians, the Father guarantees that the three persons are only one God, because the Father alone is the “fountain of deity”, the one source of the Son and the Spirit, … By contrast, the West began, not with the persons, but with the nature of God. Following Augustine of Hippo, Western theologians tended to think of God’s nature or essence before the three person of the Trinity, and to see the oneness of the Trinity as lying in the one common nature shared by Father, Son and Spirit”

In the east, you had some dissenting movements: the Manichees, Paulicians and Bogomils. All three were connected to Gnosticism. Paulicians often allied themselves with Muslim Arabs against Byzantium, whom they saw as oppressors. The Bogomils were in Bulgaria, which was a region over which the Eastern and Western Churches struggled. They would not survive the conquest by the Muslim Turks in the late 14th century.

Needham then moves back West for the Cluniac Revival, influence of Hildebrand and the Investiture Controversy. The Norsemen proved to be a problem for much of the Western church. But eventually they were converted to Christianity. Over the course of about 100 years the gospel spread from the lands the Norseman conquered to the lands they came from (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland). The gospel also made headway into eastern Europe as the Bohemians, Poles and Croats were converted. Alone with this was a reformation of Western monasticism aka the Cluniac Revival. They also sought purification in the leadership of the church. Hildebrand led the efforts to reform the papacy. He wanted it to be independent of the state in order to pursue its spiritual purposes. This would lead to the Pope investing kings with power. Popes, for a time, were king makers. One unfortunate side effect was that ecclesiastical officers were freed from prosecution from the state. Their crimes were considered sins and subject to the discipline of the church- a practice that helped produce the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the American Roman Catholic Church, particularly in Boston (don’t worry, I don’t deny that Protestants like to cover up a “good” scandal too).

The fifth chapter examines that less than period of time covering the Crusades. He looks at the causes and history of the Crusades. Not all crusades were created equal. Some were worse than others as the trade cities exerted their power.

Needham then moves into the manner in which the gospel came to the Rus, how they had their own patriarch and became an independent Eastern Church. The Mongols factor heavily in this. After the defeat and removal of Mongol control, many Russian Orthodox began to think of themselves as the “third Rome”. Because Byzantium had “sold its soul” in the Union of Florence (in order to receive military assistance against the Turks) Russia saw itself as the heir of orthodoxy.

Back to the West, the book then delves into the rise of the universities and scholasticism. Aristotle “came west” and exerted great influence on the theology of the Church at this time. Needham gives summaries of Anselm, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Bonaventura and Aquinas among others.

The Papacy reached its height in the time of Innocent III. There were a number of theological developments (transubstantiation was made dogma), new monastic orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) and humbling of kings. There was also the crusades against dissenters like the Albigensians and Waldensians.

Back to the Eastern Church he develops the fall of Constantinople. The battles with the Muslims, particular the Turks, continued to take their toll. There were also controversies like the hesychastic controversy involving Gregory Palamas. He relates the various attempts to heal the Great Schism, all of what came to nothing since they were mostly about receiving military aid than uniting the Church.

The decline of the Eastern Church was matched in the West by the decline of the Papacy, particularly in the Avignonese Captivity (the Papacy was controlled by French nobility and seated in France). At times there were two or three Popes. Proto-Reformers like Wycliffe and Hus arose. The church East and West was in sad shape at the end of the Middle Ages.

This is another insightful and interesting volume. It has good balance between East and West. It deserves a reading by all interested in church history.

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Last year I came across Nick Needham’s 4-volume series, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power. I thought it would be an interesting read, and one I could possibly use with my kids in the high school years.

Needham used to teach church history in Nigeria. He longed for a readable, well-rounded textbook for his students. So he wrote one.

For 2018, I decided to read the set. One volume per quarter should make for relatively easy reading. The opening volume has 12 chapters, so I read a little more than a chapter per week. I would generally read in the morning after my time in the Scriptures. It was a reasonable goal, and for the first volume it worked quite well. At 400 hundred pages, I averaged about 50 per week. This was fairly easy since I like to break at the end of a section, and he divided each chapter up into around 4 sections.

The first volume is entitled The Age of the Early Church Fathers. The chapter listings are helpful to see the scope of the volume. It has a strong commitment to Eastern Christianity, as well as a chapter on African Christianity, focused on Alexandria and Carthage. Due to the time frame covered here, there is plenty of focus on heretical movements and Christological development. There is a progression from persecuted minority to Christianity as a dominant but divided faith in the Roman Empire.

Designed for education, each chapter has a list of key people and then a sampling of writing from some of them. At times he used footnotes to point you to more detailed information in the series about a person to whom he refers. He has a glossary of terms in the back of each volume.

He begins with historical information about Rome and Israel. The globalism movement of today isn’t new, but is an echo of the Roman Empire. He mentions the common philosophies of the time. In Israel, he summarizes the various groups exerting influence on the people.

From there he moves into the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to include Gentiles and eventually be dominated by Gentiles. The Jewish War saw the fall of the Sadducees from power and influence, the Zealots and Essenes essentially wiped out, and the Pharisees left as the controlling force of post-war Judaism. They condemned Christians and Christianity became almost entirely Gentile in make up.

Needham moves into persecution and the Church’s response in a series of Apologists defending the faith. This includes information about early worship services.

“For it is through faith that Almighty God has justified all people that have ever lived from the beginning of time.” Clement of Rome

The rise of the Gnostic heresies lead to the development of symbols or creeds. He also discussed the Apologists who responded to Gnosticism. The faithful church so separated itself from the Gnostic “Christians”, calling themselves Catholic or universal. The emphasis was on the same faith they held in contrast to the idiosyncratic faith of different (often small) Gnostic groups claiming to be Christian. At the same time, another group arose known as the Montanists, which believed God had sent a new wave of prophets who spoke mostly about the nearness of Christ’s return. They were a proto-Charismatic group focused on dreams, visions, speaking in tongues and a strict lifestyle including fasting, celibacy and martyrdom. At a time when the Catholic Church was seeking greater unity due to Gnosticism, the Montanists created further division and often condemned those who didn’t embrace their teaching.

You can’t discuss the early church without discussing the influence of Alexandria and Carthage. Needham introduces people to Clement, Origen, Tertullian and Cyprian. These men would exert a great influence over the Church for hundreds of years. It was not always for the better, but they certainly left their mark.

Soon the Church wouldn’t be fighting for its life as toleration grew and eventually Constantine legalized Christianity. Now the Church began to focus on theological formulation. Most of this centered on Christ. Initially it was the problem of Arianism (Jesus was the first created Being). Needham also brings in developments in Church leadership, organization and worship. There is also some discussion of the Canon of Scripture. With legitimacy came laziness and the response of monasticism to escape the worldliness that entered the Church.

There is a whole chapter on the Arian Controversy that he mentioned in chapter 7. One of the strengths of the volume is its tracing Christological developments in the Church. While not as deep as it could be, he brings in a broader depth then I’ve seen many books on Christology. They usually end with Chalcedon, as if that answered all the questions. When Needham gets there, he addresses how the Eastern Church was still divided in their understanding of Chalcedon. These theological differences often included political components as dissent from Constantinople blended theological disagreement and the push for independence which would foreshadow the Reformation in some ways.

Tucked between the Arian Controversy and the post-Nicene Christological controversies is a chapter on John Chrysostom, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo. Both John and Augustine were children of privilege (Jerome as well) with loving, faithful mothers who doted on them. John represented the Antiochene method of biblical interpretation which focused on grammar and history rather than the more allegorical Alexandrian method. Like Augustine and Jerome, he struggled with sexual temptation. Rather than get a wife, he also fled from close relationships with women (with one exception later in life). His time as a hermit with fasting and sleep deprivation did great damage to his health. Known for his preaching, he was essentially kidnapped by imperial forces to become the Patriarch of Constantinople. He didn’t fit in well there and angered many of the political elites. This is one of the passages that gives us insight into the worldly political games that entered the Church. His enemies got the authorities to stop the annual baptism service on the eve before Easter. 400 soldiers entered the church and mayhem and bloodshed ensued. Eventually Chrysostom was exiled to a remote, inhospitable fortress town. The escort was instructed to give no regard to his well-being. He would never make it to the fortress as the scorching sun and hard rains brought him to his death on the journey.

“Glory be to God for all things.” The last words of John Chrysostom

Jerome was a scholar schooled in philosophy who traveled throughout the East, spending time in the Syrian desert avoiding women and learning Hebrew. Jerome brings us into a discussion of the Apocrypha. Jerome advocated for following the Jewish canon. Others included books found in the Septuagint. The Church remains split on the Apocrypha to this day. The Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church receive them, while Protestants and the Russian Orthodox Church view them as less than Scripture.

As I noted, one of the strengths of this book is the focus on the Christological controversies. Needham returns to them in the struggle between the theologians from Antioch and Alexandrians. Some of their differences resulted from the different methods of biblical interpretation, some from different use of technical terms and some from different emphases. Antioch emphasized the two natures of Christ, while Alexandria emphasized the one person. Sounds overly reductionistic but I’ve noted that in disagreements we tend to harden our positions and get more extreme. Both schools of thought had their extremes which seem to be mistaken at times for the norm. The charge of being Nestorian is still tossed out by Eastern Orthodox to Protestants, Lutherans to Reformed regarding our views of the Supper, etc. We easily forget that distinction is not the same as dividing. We can easily forget that all Jesus does He does as one person, so we can speak of Mary as the theotokos or sing that “that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me.” And so Needham brings us from Nicea to Chalcedon.

He then interrupts the Christology to talk about the Germans, or the Germanic tribes pushed out of eastern Europe by Attila the Hun. They were largely Arian Christians and Pagans. They spread to the West and a number of them sacked Rome, North Africa and Gaul. He delves into the contrast between Celtic and Roman Christianity and how the latter finally prevailed through the British Isles.

He then returns East with a focus on the on-going post-Chalcedon Christological controversy and the political fall out. Much of this will likely be new to Western Christians for whom Christology was generally seen as resolved at Chalcedon. This can help them in their interacts with Eastern Orthodox Christians.

This was a very readable and helpful volume. Needham struck a good balance between depth and breadth in what he communicated. It was not dry as some church histories can be. The larger type also means it seems less intimidating despite the 4 volumes. I look forward to reading the rest of this series over the coming months.

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