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Posts Tagged ‘Waldensians’


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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Some of my uncles growing up were in construction. Most of my brothers-in-law are in construction. So as I think about the 2nd part of Bavinck on the Christian Life, I think about a construction metaphor. If the first part was the foundation, the second would be the framing.

There were only two chapters in the second part. Recall that the foundations were creation in God’s image, the Law and union with Christ. The two chapters in this section are Imitating Christ and Worldview.

Bavinck understood the Christian life as one of imitating Christ. We need to see this in terms of God restoring His image in us, in accordance with the Law, through our union with Christ. I say this because may have seen the Christian life as imitating Christ, but meant something different.

Recall as well that this is intended to be an ordinary life, not viewed as radical. We partake of earthly goods, but they are not ultimate goods. We enjoy them as part of God’s good gifts, but they are temporal and temporary. As the song goes, hold on loosely.

Bavinck looked at the historical patterns of this theme. Bolt summarizes this for us. Bavinck identified dangers and wrong turns.

The early Church was a persecuted Church. This is because they claimed to be the only true religion, and Christ claimed their ultimate allegiance. Rome did not like that. With martyrdom a real possibility, it unfortunately became “regarded as a matter of glory and fame” (pp. 106). It became pathological, similar to what we see with radical Islam today.

Monastic separation created a divide between clergy and laity. Professional Christians tend to breed “incompetence and an unspiritual life-style.” He noted the rise of the Waldensians, and others, who simplified doctrine and emphasized holiness. Soon you also saw the rise of the “mendicant armies” who exalted poverty above all other virtues. Medieval mysticism came to see Jesus as model, not Mediator and Redeemer.

Any view of imitating Christ that neglects Him as Redeemer is sub-biblical and rejected by Bavinck. This brings us back to union with Christ as the primary element of imitation. He believed we were not to simply look and act like Jesus, but to be transformed inside.

Bolt then brings us to the Sermon on the Mount. Bavinck’s views shifted, with his latter view more nuanced. World War I lay between point A and B. It helped him see some problems with his understanding, and deepened his understanding. Bavinck understood it in its original context as to His disciples who would face persecution. We cannot simply woodenly apply it to our circumstances. The Sermon was about obeying the law of God in your circumstances. Our circumstances may be different, and therefore our obedience may look differently. They lacked power in culture, and were to let their light shine. “If the early church had tried to transform its world through cultural engagement, it “would have quickly drowned in the world’s maelstrom.” (pp. 115)” As Christianity loses power in the West, we need to recognize how we imitate Jesus will change. We will become more like the early church. We can’t focus on cultural engagement, but “simply” preach the Good News.

Bolt summarizes all this with “our following Jesus in lawful obedience is grounded and shaped by our union with the whole Christ. (pp. 117)” Therefore we focus on our obligations, not our rights. This is hard for sinful, self-absorbed people.

The chapter on worldview is more theoretical. Bolt covers specific aspects of the worldview in which we fulfill our vocations and imitate Christ in part 3 of the book. The concept of a Christian worldview appears to be first articulated by Kuyper in his Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton. Bavinck would also talk and write much about this topic. While the particulars were nearly identical, their methodology was different, as was their application. This lead to some conflict between the two men in later years. Kuyper was the more “dogmatic” of the two, and comes across as an autocratic leader. Bolt traces this history, and I won’t repeat it.

But one key area went back to regeneration. Kuyper viewed, at the risk of reductionism, regeneration creating two kinds of people with two kinds of science. Bavinck was more open to receiving the science done by unregenerate Christians. As image bearers, they could see something of the truth too. Kuyper was engaged in cultural conflict, Bavinck was more open to learning from non-Christians.

For Bavinck, a worldview broke down into thinking, being and doing. The relationship between these is important. For Bavinck,, being is first. As we become self-aware we think and do. Bolt notes that “worldview follows faith and union with Christ; it does not create faith and is no substitute for it. (pp. 125)” Worldviews are how we navigate our way through the world, other humans and God.

For the Christian, our worldview is about God revealing Himself to us, as well as revealing truth about ourselves and the world. God is faithful and good, revealing these things truthfully and reliably. While he acknowledges the distortions caused by sin, he doesn’t focus on them like Kuyper and Van Til.

“The essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God, and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.”

These frames, built on the foundation, will direct our understanding of the Christian life. We’ll get to that next time.

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