Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Church History

What do you know about your spiritual heritage?  Why do you believe what you do?

These two questions are the foundation for the subject I am teaching the first-year students this semester, the history of the Church from Pentecost to the Reformation (Part 1 of 2).  While it may not seem like a relevant subject for a missionary training program, it is fundamental to a good understanding of our theology and "how we got here."

Discussing the life of Justin Martyr

The fact is that we did not receive the Word of God in a vacuum.  Christ did not preach the Gospel to me personally.  So if I am going to trust it, I should know how it got from Him to me over the course of 2 millennia, through 3 continents, by way of several languages.

What is your concept of the Godhead, for example?  How do Jesus and the Holy Spirit fit into the clearly monotheistic Old Testament Scriptures?  Is Jesus God?  If so, is He the same person as the Father?  Is He different?  How different?  Did Jesus have a beginning, or has He always been?

Can you support your view from Scripture?  Or are you just repeating what you've been told?

This issue is at the core of the subject I am preparing for this week's class: the first council at Nicea in AD 325.

Sabellius and the other modalists had taught that one God has played different parts in the drama of history, expressing Himself in three distinct roles or modes.  Rejecting that view, Arius taught that Jesus had a beginning and was a distinct being, subordinate to the Father.  The majority of the Church was balanced somewhere between the two extremes, holding to some (perhaps) unexamined and (often) unexpressed form of our trinitarian view.

The upsurge of unbiblical heresy provided the catalyst the Church needed to refine and define its beliefs and understanding of Scripture.  It was nothing new in 325:  significant portions of the New Testament were written to combat the heresies of legalistic Judaism, mystical Gnosticism, and other deviations from the Truth.  And the Council of Nicaea was far from the last.  In reality, it was just the first of several councils that continued to debate different aspects of who Jesus was and is.

Constantine and bishops with the Nicene Creed

Reading about the lives of the Church fathers and the things they wrote are an important step in understanding our own theology.  However, we can't simply take their word for it.  We must follow the example of the Bereans in Acts 17 and examine the Scriptures for ourselves.  My desire in this class is to provide the balance and perspective of both, not just imparting knowledge of past events, but challenging each student to reflect on why they believe what they believe and change the way they pass that belief onto others.

Although I love and have always tried to be a student of history, I am definitely not well-read enough on the early Church to teach spontaneously.  This class is more an overview than anything, with only 32 class-hours to cover 1500 years.  Even so, I spend an average of 15 hours studying each week to teach 2 hours of material in class.  The students would be fortunate to absorb one-fifth of what I learn each week!

I'm thankful for good sources:
  • Kenneth Scott Latourette's A History of Christianity
  • Bruce L Shelley's Church History in Plain Language 
  • Wikipedia and Wikipedia (Spanish)
    • I spend a LOT of time here and it's great to be able to jump from one language to the other on the same page.  It saves lots of time translating concepts to Spanish.  The downside is that it is so easy to get distracted going down very interesting bunny trails. ;)
  • Iglesia Pueblo Nuevo
    • I don't know anything about this church in Madrid other than what I have read on their site, but they have a phenomenal section on Church history, including an amazing collection of biographies, all in Spanish.  It is my first resource for homework reading assignments.
  • The Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  • Dave Barnhart
    • My friend and Church History prof at Montana Bible College not only gave me a good foundation for CH in his classes, he graciously shared his notes with me.

I am also thankful for Kaylee's faithfulness and patience with me, as this has definitely been our most stressful semester so far.  Especially during our 6-week-long kitchen remodel (Details and photos here), I was under a lot of pressure to complete all of my responsibilities each week.  In preparation for Thursday morning's class, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are pretty solid study and Powerpoint design from dawn to dusk, other than breaks for meals and campus responsibilities.  I can't say that I've handled the strain very well, either, so you might want to pray for Kaylee's continued sanity.  At least her kitchen is in one piece now. ;)

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