As evangelical Christians we are people who believe in the historicity of a book, the Bible. This is, as Francis Schaeffer reminded us back at Lausanne in 1974, one of our distinctive features as evangelicals, something that separates us from other professing Christians.
But for how many of us does our knowledge of the history of God’s people end where the New Testament finishes, in the first century? Perhaps we remember hearing about the Reformation and recall that things of which we approve happened, but even there we forget most of the details; even there our memories are often hazy. But events took place then that five hundred years later still define us as evangelical Christians. We remain children of the Reformation even today.
Sometimes we know a bit about the history of our own denomination or of heroic figures of the past such as John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley, George Whitefield, or John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldreich Zwingli, and Menno Simons, depending upon the part of the church from which we come. But even there our memory is often shaky, and with so many evangelicals now attending independent churches, with no denominational affiliation, only just a few years old in many cases, that historic denominational memory no longer applies.
Yet cutting ourselves off from the past is a very dangerous thing to do.
We know that Christians alive today are our brothers and sisters in Christ. But so too are those fellow true believers who lived in the two thousand years of church history before us. We are all God’s children, regardless of the century in which we lived or live. They loved the same Savior, read (especially after the Reformation) the same Bible, and shared all the spiritual ups and downs through which we go today. Technology may have changed, but God’s truth and the human condition never change, and we see that clearly through the unfolding patterns of Christian history.
Why do we do many of the things we take for granted? Why is Scripture so central to the lives of God’s people? It is easy today to go into a bookstore and pick up the English Standard Version (or the Evangelically Sound Version as some people call it). But in the past our fellow Christians were prepared to sacrifice their own lives, often in barbaric ways, such as being burned alive at the stake, simply so ordinary people could read the Bible in a language they could understand.
Prior to 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain I used to spend quite a large amount of time with Christians living on the Communist, totalitarian side of that barrier. We always had the impression that anyone who survived persecution must be some kind of extra-holy super-Christian. But in fact most of them were just like us, which made their Christian faith in often appalling circumstances all the more amazing, because they survived such terrible times without being special or exceptionally holy.
It is the same with the Christians who lived before us.
One of the things that shows that the Bible is truly God’s Word is that it does not hide human frailty—God alone is righteous. Peter denied Jesus out of fright and confessed he found Paul’s epistles a little hard to understand sometimes. Paul and Barnabas fell out and parted company. We can all identify with the very human people we read about in Scripture. Yet look at what amazing things they did! It is the same throughout history—God uses often remarkably ordinary individuals to achieve extraordinary things.
Most modern heresies, for example, are not new but are recycled versions of errors long past, simply presenting themselves in updated guise. If we know our church history, we can compare present to past and arm ourselves against false teaching accordingly.
In the twenty-first century we are always trying to reinvent the wheel and behave accordingly, as if nobody has ever tried to do what we are now attempting to achieve. History shows that this is almost never the case. The mechanism might change—we could not fly before 1900, for example—but the principles remain exactly the same. We can now cross the Atlantic in a matter of hours, not weeks. But human nature is no different in the twenty-first century than it was in the first.
Put first-century Jews or Romans in jeans and sweatshirts and place them on a subway in a twenty-first-century modern city and you would not notice the difference. Read, for example, the letters home from soldiers from Italy or North Africa, garrisoned at the Roman frontier fortress of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in freezing northern Britain, and you could be reading letters home from American troops in Iraq today.
In other words, Henry Ford was wrong. History is not bunk. It is our connection to our fellow human beings who just happened to live in the centuries before us.
When we read the Bible, especially the historical narratives, from Genesis through Acts, we also see that there is a learning or didactic purpose to history. Again, God’s Word does not hide the frailties of His people—for example, Abraham pretending that Sarah is his sister or Thomas having doubts. Yet God accomplished great things through such people.
It is my purpose to be equally didactic, to write a history from which we can all learn something of what God has done through His church over the centuries.
However, as is obvious, there is one rather large difference. I am not writing an infallible, inerrant book of Holy Scripture. As we shall see, Christians have differed with each other over the past two thousand years, and often strongly. One of the great tragedies is that even believing Christians have persecuted each other, with one set of Protestants, for example, putting to death another for disagreements over issues such as baptism.
If one takes baptism as an example of divergences, consider your reaction to the statement, usually made as a joke, “You baptize people your way, and I’ll do it God’s way.” I have heard that joke made by both Baptists and Presbyterians, whose theology of baptism is not at all the same.
Obviously as a theologically conservative Calvinist Baptist attending an equally theologically conservative Anglican church (that is also Reformed theologically and prefers to baptize people by believer’s baptism by immersion despite being in the Church of England), I have biases of my own!
In Scripture we get God’s eye view since the authors were writing as inspired by the Holy Spirit. No other authors can claim such inspiration. Were the Christians of the fourth century right to come to an accommodation with the emperor, for example, to take one issue over which genuine Christians have disagreed with each other for hundreds of years? Was the Swiss Reformer Zwingli right to go into battle? The history of such events all take place after the unique revelation of Scripture came to an end, and I trust that we would agree, as evangelicals, whatever our denomination, that God does not reveal to us new things not contained in the Bible. Obviously, therefore, writing a book on church history is not as easy as it looks.
In Britain because evangelicals are, alas, comparatively few in number, we tend to collaborate across denominational lines. I have also been active for my entire adult life in interdenominational evangelical student ministry, especially the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). On my side of the Atlantic, being Reformed and Baptist at the same time (let alone Episcopalian) is not unusual. While in the USA folk such as Mark Dever on the East Coast and John MacArthur on the West Coast (to take two highly regarded Crossway authors) also manage to combine the two, I know that others might regard this as somewhat unusual.
So being a mix of Reformed (on the doctrines of grace) and Baptist (on the issue of baptism) and attending an evangelical church that is both and coincidentally Anglican is fine with me. I hope this means that what follows is free of denominational bias, and I am certainly keen to be as objective as possible.
But being very happily married to an American evangelical of like persuasion, I do know that on her side of the Pond denominational loyalties can be stronger. In addition, as denominations tend to be far larger there, it is not always the case that an evangelical of one denomination meets those from another.
However, Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that great twentieth-century preacher (and posthumous Crossway author) always said of himself that he was a “Bible Calvinist,” not a “System Calvinist.” This has always been my own motto, and as we shall see when we study the Reformation, it is at the heart of the key Protestant distinctive, sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone.”
As evangelicals we are Bible Christians, believers not in tradition but centered around what we believe God’s Word to us is teaching. Otherwise we are not really any different from the Catholic Church, from which our Protestant forebears split. That Church taught—and still teaches—that the tradition of the Church is equal in authority to that of the Bible. If we put our denominational tradition first, we are being no different, and the Reformation was for nothing. So while for some people being a Reformed Baptist might seem a little strange, for others it is simply following what the Bible teaches.
But I do think, if one looks at the ways in which Christians have put together statements of faith over the centuries, that there are key things upon which all Bible-believing Christians do and have always agreed and united.
That does not mean we believe the same on everything, including issues such as baptism, church government, the continuation of the gift of tongues, or whatever other issues divide us. But as Christocentric Bible believers there are certain core truths, such as the atonement, resurrection, and evangelism, upon which all of us as evangelicals do believe exactly the same thing. It is from that perspective, and how those beliefs unfold through history, that this book will be written.
So what follows will be from a strongly evangelical perspective, written from the theological point of view that what God says to us in His Word is what Francis Schaeffer so aptly called “true truth.” This book is unashamedly cross-centered and takes the Bible to be authentically true.
But it will also not avoid areas in which honest Christians have lovingly—and, alas, in times past not so lovingly—disagreed with one another. This can be a minefield if we let where we differ predominate over where we agree. I can understand this. But being, for example, on Zwingli’s side on the issue of Communion but equally on the side, regarding baptism, of those Anabaptists he had put to death for heresy, I can understand both conflicting points of view simultaneously.
A penultimate point for those who might have seen the earlier edition of this book, published in the United Kingdom in 1998 and just distributed in the USA: that book was designed for what might be called the crossover market, for sales as much in secular bookstores as in Christian. In that edition I had to tread slightly warily of too overtly a partisan perspective, and it was necessary to be as neutral as possible. In this new Crossway edition I still aim to be denominationally neutral, even though I have revealed my own inclinations in this Introduction since many readers would naturally want to know the theological perspective from which I am coming. But as I imagine that most readers will share my evangelical interpretation, a standpoint that is taken by Scripture-believing Christians in many different denominations and independent churches alike, I should say that in this edition those firm evangelical views will be apparent throughout.
One final important theological point needs to be made. As Christians we believe not only that God acts through history and through ordinary people but also that there is such a thing as absolute truth out there. Schaeffer’s “true truth” is not a tautology.
In today’s postmodern world this is not something fashionable to say. Every group has its own “narratives,” none of which might be “privileged” over the other one—unless, of course, you come from a favored group such as Marxists, feminists, a fashionable minority, or whatever is deemed acceptable by those who decide such things.
For science graduates reading this, as D. A. Carson pointed out in a lecture he gave, all this might seem meaningless. Scientists need absolutes to be able to conduct experiments and carry out most of their working lives. This is far from the case in the humanities, however. To be a Marxist historian might be all right—Marxists do believe in absolutes, albeit the wrong ones, but Marxism is an acceptable “narrative.” But writing history that still holds to absolute truth, and especially one that believes that Christianity is completely true, is to be most unfashionable.
Sadly, even some Christian historians I know feel that no one should know they are Christians through what they write. In some areas declarations of faith may not be needed. In my history of how Churchill created Iraq in 1921, for example, Christianity per se does not enter into the story. But on a subject like this one, the story of the Christian church, it is obviously impossible to keep out my own perspectives, and that very much includes a belief in absolute truth.
Thankfully not all universities are plagued with postmodern mush. Here in Cambridge, the Regius (= main; literally “Crown Appointed”) Professor of History, an expert on the Third Reich, has published In Defence of History. Richard Evans makes the telling point that if all “narratives” have equal validity, then so does the Nazi. On their own criteria, the postmodernists have no grounds for saying that the Jewish belief in the absolute moral horror of the Holocaust is preferable as a “narrative” over and above the Nazis who say that to exterminate six million Jews—not to mention twenty million Russians, Gypsies, Lutheran pastors, and others—is perfectly all right.
As a Christian I have no problem at all in saying that genocide is evil! The past is not a series of competing “narratives” or “stories,” all of which are equally valid. There are rights and wrongs, and all Christians should and can see God working providentially throughout history.
To me, people who claim to write “objective” history— that is, history without bias—are almost invariably people who, when writing on religious history, have a strong bias against evangelical belief, the existence of the supernatural, or the guiding hand of God in providence. Our political prejudices are man-made, however strongly we believe in them, and I am always careful to try to weed out such opinions from my analysis of the past. Christianity is God-made, not human, while, say, a Baptist or Methodist bias might be unfair regarding other equally good Christian perspectives. But a strong belief in the truth of the atonement, of God’s very existence, and of a meaning to history because God is in charge of it is surely to adopt a biblical rather than human interpretation of what happens and why. As Christians living in postmodern times, we ought to reclaim the idea that there is a final truth that God has revealed through Jesus Christ on the cross and that we live in a universe of which God is in control, and therefore it has meaning.
On that note, let us now proceed with the story.
Christianity is a faith named after its founder. We are above all as Christians believers in a person—Jesus Christ. Muslims get angry when they are called Mohammedans since the name of their faith is Islam, which means “submission” in Arabic. Muhammad (or Mohammed) may be that religion’s founder, but he was emphatic in saying that he was not divine. Hinduism is the religion of an ethnic group—the Indians of South Asia. Judaism is also today an ethnic faith, although in times past proselytes, outsiders like Naaman the Syrian, occasionally joined.
Christianity is unique, worshiping a divine founder as God, God the Son, Jesus Christ. We are saved not by good works, as is the norm in man-made faiths, but through the fully accomplished salvation we have in Jesus Christ through His atonement on the cross. Ours is a very personal faith.
So the beginning of Christianity is centered around an individual, Jesus of Nazareth, who we Christians know is God incarnate, come down to live among sinners like us to reconcile us with God.
While there are many precepts, moral codes, teachings, and so on in Christianity, our faith is above all a redeemed relationship. Not only that, but it is God coming down to us rather than humans trying to reach up to God.
As Paul reminds us, if Christ is not risen, our hope is in vain. Ours is also a historic religion, and here it again differs from others, which evolved over the course of time, such as the varying branches of Buddhism and Hinduism. We believe in both a person and in facts connected to that person, things that really happened in what Francis Schaeffer liked to call space and time.
Not only that, but the church itself consists of people. We are not simply an institution, but countless individuals all uniquely related to each other through the special individual relationship we each have with God through Christ. Do remember, when looking at church history, that in Scripture the church is seen as a person, the Bride of Christ, and not as an institution. That is not to deny institutional aspects of God’s church here on earth. But what we are looking at is the unfolding story of people and what happened to them throughout history.
Christianity also arose in the context of a specific historical background, the multinational, multiethnic, and multireligious Roman Empire. To us as Christians this ought to be no coincidence—it was all planned that way by God Himself. The events that led to the large-scale Roman Empire, which stretched from the Atlantic coast of Spain in the west to the borders of present-day Iraq in the east, all having their origins hundreds of years before Christ came to earth, God planned centuries in advance.
Are things in our own lives (the small scale) or in history (the large scale) ever purely random events? To use Einstein’s famous phrase in another context, does God play dice? Surely for us as Christians, with a knowledge through the Bible of how God acts, the answer to that must be no. God not only knows what is going to happen but also arranges things so that His will takes place.
On an individual level this is a profoundly comforting doctrine. However odd things may sometimes seem to us, we can have complete faith that our lives are not arbitrary and that God knows what He is doing and is seeking to accomplish.
But while many Christians gain comfort from this at the micro-level, we all too often forget that this is true of the big picture as well, of history itself.
I call this providential history because all that happens, whether simply to us as individuals or on the global scale, to rulers and nations, is equally in the all-loving, omniscient hands of God.
We see this clearly laid out in Scripture because the narrator tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and put it into the mind of Cyrus to let the children of Israel return home. But as we shall see throughout this book, it is evident that God continues to arrange historical events, so that His purposes can be worked out.
So I do not think it presumptuous to say that this is the case for the historical and cultural circumstances into which Christ came and in which early Christianity was able to grow so rapidly over such an enormous geographical area.
The first of these providential circumstances is probably one we know from childhood Bible stories. The Roman Empire is the background to the New Testament. We are aware that God had predicted it many centuries earlier in the visions He gave to Daniel, when Rome was no more than a blip on a very distant horizon, a small and insignificant city-state in a peninsula with little world importance. By Christ’s time it ruled a vast empire from Spain to Iraq, including therefore not only Palestine but also all the other regions around the Mediterranean.
This meant political stability, which enormously helped the spread of the gospel since it was not necessary to cross over unfriendly borders to bring the message to a wide region. It was possible, for example, to go from the Scottish border in northern Europe to the frontiers of Sudan in Africa in the south, all within the safe confines of Roman rule. Never before had one such gigantic political unit existed, and after Christianity had spread throughout it, the Roman Empire split, never again to be reunited on such a scale.
But since the Romans were some of the best road builders the world has ever seen, it also meant that the logistics of travel became much easier. Roman roads were immensely efficient and, thanks to firm political control, also safe.
The other massive help was linguistic/cultural. This is not so evident to us now when reading the Bible. But it is to those who read it in its original language—Greek, or in particular, koine or popular Greek.
Here we can say that God had paved the way over three hundred years earlier through the megalomania of the great Macedonian—and Greek-speaking—conqueror Alexander the Great. He created within a few years an enormous empire stretching from Greece in the west, Egypt in the south, and Bactria in present-day Afghanistan, on the borders of the Hindu Kush in the east. (During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan we probably all read articles about fair-haired Afghans, descendants over two millennia later of the original invading Greek armies.)
The actual empire did not survive Alexander. But the successor states, including those that ruled over Egypt (the Ptolemies, including Cleopatra) and Iran (the Seleucids), remained culturally and linguistically Greek for centuries—look at the references in the New Testament to Greek speakers and Greek cities such as the Decapolis. In Egypt a large Greek population remained down to the twentieth century. In fact the Egyptian city Alexandria was named directly after Alexander himself.
This meant that from Greece to the Indian border there were people who either were Greeks, thought along Greek lines (the Hellenizers of the New Testament), or spoke Greek as a second language. Already, long before Christ, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek—the Septuagint. So when Christ came, the simplest and most widespread common language into which to write the good news, our New Testament, was therefore Greek, not Latin. And all this was because of the mania for conquest of a pagan ruler living three hundred years before the birth of Christ.
This, therefore, is the political and cultural background to the extraordinarily rapid and wide spread of the Christian message in the first century. It reached from Spain in the west to Syria in the east, Macedonia in the north and Ethiopia in the south, all by the end of the book of Acts.
To secular historians, all this is helpful coincidence, as will be the case with many other events in Christian history, such as the Reformation, as we will see. But I do not think we can see it like that. Surely these two extraordinary conjunctions—the size and stability of the Roman Empire and the multinational and equally geographically large use of Greek as a second language—cannot just be accidents. So helpful were they to the easy spreading of the gospel and making Christianity a global faith so early on that they must be seen as part of the providence of God.
As Edith Schaeffer reminds us in her book Christianity Is Jewish, the Jewish background to the origins of Christianity is vital to remember. Jesus Himself was Jewish, as were all His early disciples. Much of the book of Acts is taken up with Jewish-related themes, with Peter realizing that the Old Testament dietary laws no longer applied, and Paul using Jewish synagogues as jumping-off points in his early missionary journeys.
In the entire ancient world the Jews were unique. As I show in my secular history book A Brief History of the Middle East, they alone were monotheists. Nowadays, with the two major global monotheistic faiths—Islam and Christianity—being both monotheistic and multicultural, we forget how extraordinarily unusual this was in ancient times. All the other major religions were polytheistic, believing in vast pantheons of gods and goddesses, as Hinduism does today, or in numerous manifestations of deity, as is the case with Buddhism. Even if your own religion had few gods, people believed that gods related to a particular ethnic group—Jupiter and Neptune for the Romans, for example—and that no one group’s deities were unique. It was the Jews, and the Jews alone, who believed that not merely was their God the God of Israel, but that no other gods existed at all. Furthermore, God related to His people and could be known. Nor was He capricious, like so many of the pagan deities, but profoundly moral. The Jews therefore, to use the phrase of a British writer, Paul Johnson, believed in ethical monotheism.
The Roman emperors basically could not care less what local deities their subject peoples worshiped, since the idea of exclusivity in religion was entirely alien to pagan peoples. However, they did insist on what one might call political religion—you could worship whomsoever you wished so long as you recognized the Roman emperor as being divine. This was essentially not a religious requirement but a political one, a way of ensuring that the vast Roman domains had the glue of common worship of the head of the Empire, the emperor.
Just one group was exempt from this—the Jews. Only they were permitted to worship their own God and no other, and they were not obliged to make religious sacrifices to the emperor.
By the first century Jews were spread all over the Empire and beyond. They could be found in the Persian Empire and as far afield as India. Wherever the Jews went, there were also synagogues where the faithful gathered. These were the Jews of the Diaspora, the beginnings of the spread of the Jewish people all over the world, in our own time in the United States and western Europe as well.
Since the earliest leaders of the infant Christian faith were also Jewish, it was only natural that they would begin by visiting the synagogues to proclaim Jesus as the true Jewish Messiah that He was. But as we see in the book of Acts other Jews rejected the claim, and the early church was persecuted.
Here, as I show in Divided by God, there is already a critical difference between the origin of Christianity and that of Islam, the other major transnational faith. As we shall see in the relevant chapter, Islam began as a religion of political and military power. Islam has always been linked to a state, preferably one under its own rule, the Realm or Dar al-Islam. Christianity, the Jewish writer Bernard Lewis has shown in his many books, is entirely different. For its first three centuries the Christians were viciously persecuted. This was done first by those Jews who rejected the messiahship of Jesus and, secondly, when the Romans, observing this, realized that Judaism and Christianity were actually two quite separate religions.
This Roman realization is important because in discovering the difference between the two faiths, the Romans decided that Christians were not protected by the Jewish exemption to worship the Roman emperor as divine. Christians, from early on, were subject to the full rigors of the Roman state and, refusing to worship Caesar as god, were persecuted most savagely for the next three centuries.
Christians have been persecuted from the very beginning. One only has to read the book of Acts, several epistles—which reveal the fact that Paul was writing them from jail—and advice on how to deal with persecution in Peter’s writing to see that being a Christian and being persecuted for that fact often went together in those days.
In other words, if Christians are being persecuted now, which they still are in many parts of the world, this is nothing at all new.
In fact Jesus Himself told His disciples to expect it, and throughout the history of the church in many parts of the world it has been the norm rather than the exception.
However, this has usually increased the church rather than diminished it, thereby doing the exact opposite of what the persecutors wanted to happen. As early church historian Tertullian declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Throughout the period examined in this chapter, Christianity was an illegal, oppressed religion, and countless brave early Christians were put to death, often in vicious circumstances such as being burned alive or eaten alive. Yet the church grew rather than becoming extinct.
We see this again and again throughout history. In the late twentieth century a terrible wave of persecution hit the churches in China, and numerous Christians were sent off to barbaric prison camps, with many losing their lives. As one survivor told me in Beijing, the Christians during that time had a wonderful sense of the presence of God with them, sustaining them throughout the horror.
As with the persecution by the Romans, the campaign against Christianity had the exact opposite effect of that intended by the Chinese authorities. Christianity numbered around two million adherents, many of them very nominal, when the Communists took power in 1949. In the early twenty-first century and several waves of persecution later, there are at least seventy million Christians in China, if not far more. Not only has persecution winnowed out nominal believers, but the witness of enduring faith against such opposition has acted as a major source of evangelism—millions of Chinese have been profoundly impressed by how Christians have behaved in such atrocious circumstances. Martyrdom remains the seed of the church.
When Christians Disagree
In the Introduction to this book we ruled out the possibility of chance, and it is probably no coincidence that on the day I am writing this section, my Bible reading in the English Standard Version is 1 Corinthians 1. Even at the very dawn of the church itself, Christians were disagreeing with one another, and we have been doing so vigorously ever since.
Sometimes we are tempted to look back nostalgically to the dawn of our faith and think how wonderful it must have been to be united, unlike Christians now. But a swift canter through the epistles soon shows that such a view would be mistaken.
Obviously, as Paul demonstrates in his letters, some disagreement is entirely sinful, having more to do with pride and jostling for power and position than anything else. Sometimes personality clashes are involved, as the apostle implies at the end of his epistle to the Philippians. But with others, genuine doctrinal divergence is apparent, and this became increasingly the case after the original disciples died and the New Testament was completed (more on this issue later). Even in Paul’s lifetime there were genuine differences among believing Christians over the continued role of Jewish ritual observance, as we see in his debates with James in Jerusalem.
Now we have Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, and numerous other divisions. But at the same time, in Britain, the USA, and elsewhere evangelical Christians are often coming together in gospel unity despite doctrinal differences on issues such as church structure, baptism, spiritual gifts, and the like. We can unite around our regard for Scripture and on core doctrines such as the atonement.
As evangelicals we are, rightly I think, wary of ecumenism, of what one might call lowest-common-denominator unity, based as often as not on pretending we do not have real differences, especially for those for whom doctrine is not really very important. But we evangelicals often find that we have what we might describe as highest-commonfactor unity in the gospel and in the core doctrines of Christian faith upon which all God’s redeemed children inevitably agree with one another. So perhaps we are not as disunited as we think. I find that an encouraging thought.
From Montanus to Azusa Street?
The Montanists were an early Christian group who believed in hearing directly from God. They also spoke in tongues. So were they the forerunners of today’s charismatics and Pentecostals?
I mention this because they are a classic example of the way in which Christians today can read contemporary disputes in the present back into the past and reinterpret the past not in its own light but in that of disagreements that we have today.
Non-Christians do such things all the time, including the appropriation of historical Christian figures for secular purposes. For example, the pre-1989 Communist government of Czechoslovakia, which was atheistic and anti-Christian, used Jan Hus, the great fifteenth-century reformer, as a national hero even though they would persecute people who shared his views in the twentieth century. They saw Hus as an anti-imperialist figure who stood up to the emperor of his day, and they thus saw him as a martyr to the cause of national freedom and revolution. Needless to say, this use of Hus, especially when combined with the persecution of his later followers, is entirely inappropriate. But it is another classic example of misusing the past to suit present-day needs.
The Montanists believed, as do mainline charismatics and Pentecostals today, that the miraculous sign gifts continued beyond the time of the apostles and continued to be available to ordinary Christians.
But that is where I would argue that direct comparisons end. The “prophecies” made by Montanus himself and by some of his key followers, such as Prisca and Montilla, did not come to pass. In addition, while the major church leader Tertullian joined them, no other people of his stature became Montanists, and by the fifth century the group had effectively died out.
Because the prophecies remained unfulfilled, and because the Montanists themselves did not survive, many today would argue that they were a detour away from mainstream doctrine, even though it is clear that their doctrines on key issues such as the atonement were entirely orthodox. They were Christians but essentially misguided.
Does that mean that Pentecostals and charismatic Christians today are equally misled? Is it fair to say that because the prophecies proved false, or were simply misguided, all such phenomena today are equally mistaken or even heretical?
The sign gifts are one of those issues upon which sincere evangelicals disagree with each other today. I bring up the Montanists in order to raise the important theological issue of why we as evangelicals believe what we do. In that sense our own view, in this case regarding prophecy and speaking in tongues, is irrelevant. What matters above all is the source of our doctrine, and secondarily, in this context, our use of the past.
As evangelicals we are often glad to be described, even if it is by hostile outsiders, as “Bible-believing Christians.” We will see in the Reformation chapter the critical importance doctrinally of the principle of sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone.” We determine our doctrine by what the Bible says and not by the tradition of the church, one of the two key areas upon which Luther split from the Roman Catholic Church.
However, if we see something in the past that seems to vindicate something we do in the present, we all too easily leap upon it and use it to justify contemporary practice. So if we do believe in the sign gifts, the fact that a major early Christian grouping did so as well means that we are not alone in our particular doctrinal slant and that we are vindicated by what some Christians did in the past.
Similarly, if we are cessationist in our view of such matters, we grasp the fact that the prophecies were unfulfilled and that most Christians rejected Montanism as a rationale for our rejection of such theology in the twenty-first century.
One of the key messages of this book is that history does matter! I am not denying that for one moment.
On the other hand, it is vital for us as evangelicals that having rejected the tradition of the church as an equal source of contemporary authority, we do not then invent traditions of our own and make them as important as Scripture itself. Plenty of people do precisely this, but they cannot really call themselves evangelical if they do.
So, to take the Montanist issues of tongues and prophecy, are they valid for Christians today?
Well, surely the evangelical approach is to examine what Scripture says and to take our response from that rather than basing our beliefs on whether we think a group of second-century Christians, the Montanists, were right or not. We may not end up agreeing with one another—this is an issue over which evangelicals have disagreed, often strongly, since the reappearance of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century. But at least we will have decided on biblical grounds and not on tradition.
“I’ll Baptize Them God’s Way”
How did believers baptize people in early times?
If we knew beyond doubt the answer to that thorny question, there would not today be Baptists and Presbyterians, or at least not in the form that we know them today. (Many denominations now practice believer’s baptism by immersion, and Baptists are therefore no longer unique in their methodology.)
The simple but inconvenient fact is that though we do know much about the practice of the early church, there is also much that is mysterious to us because the archaeological evidence is not as conclusive as we would like, regardless of which view we take. If sincere evangelicals can interpret the Bible in different ways on baptism, so too can archaeology. What has been discovered can be interpreted in different ways. What does it mean, for example, when we read that “households” were baptized? Were all the people in that household equally converted? We hope so, but firmer evidence is needed to be able to pronounce definitively.
But there are things, thankfully, upon which we can all agree. Baptism was clearly something commanded in the early church—“repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). So however it happens, it is not some nice optional extra. While we differ on this issue today, there does not seem to have been division over it back then. Perhaps this is a lesson for us today—to unite on the things that do matter, such as salvation, and to proclaim the message of repentance even if we differ on the methodology of what happens next.
How Do We Know What We Know?
How do we know what we know about so much of what happened in the early Christian centuries?
Much is from surviving manuscripts and letters. Because of the importance of the Scriptures, God’s written Word to us, Christians have always been good at keeping manuscripts, and these include the writings of early Christian leaders as well as the actual Scriptures themselves.
Inevitably this means that we know more about the lives of famous Christian leaders than we do about ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christians who made up their congregations. That, though, has always been the case, in this as well as in other historical areas, although in more recent times historians have been busy trying to plug the gaps.
Can the New Testament Be Trusted?
The answer to this question is yes, and that is very important for the credibility of the Christian gospel in the skeptical age in which we live.
Do people believe in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the story of how Julius Caesar conquered what is now France? The answer is overwhelmingly yes, despite the fact that the earliest extant manuscripts that we have date from nine hundred years after Caesar wrote them—there are no contemporary copies. Nor are there many manuscripts at all.
With the Bible, especially the New Testament, it is radically different. We have thousands of manuscripts from as far back as the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. This is decades after the originals were written, not centuries as is the case with many of the documents historians and archaeologists believe were first composed in ancient times.
So before we go on to look at the issue in technical detail, why the complete acceptance of Caesar as the true author of his accounts of conquest but scholarly scorn toward the considerably better authenticated history of the New Testament documents?
As evangelicals, I think we are able to say that the real difference is not one of scholarship but is spiritual. If the New Testament documents are authentic, then they require a spiritual response to the Person about whom they are written, a response to the claims of Jesus Christ upon all our lives. If the documents are true, then the Christian case has to be taken seriously, and that is something that non-Christians, particularly theological liberals who reject Christ’s supernatural nature, do not want to do. They reject the Scriptures not so much on an academic level but on a personal one. Of course, they dress up their rejection in scholarly language, sadly often with much condescension. By the way, in my experience of university life in Britain and the USA, atheistic chemists are usually considerably nicer to evangelicals than members of the Divinity Department. But we should remember, as we saw in the Introduction, that scholarship is not nearly as neutral as it proclaims itself to be.
So a document such as Caesar’s Gallic Wars does not make spiritual and supernatural truth claims that demand a response from us. Julius Caesar does not say we are sinners in need of repentance. The New Testament does, and this, rather than the actual truth about the authenticity of the documents, is the real issue at stake here. When we talk about the reliability of the New Testament documents, this is always something we have to remember.
From a spiritual viewpoint, the authenticity of the New Testament is vital, especially for us as evangelicals.
How do we know what is true? Suppose I “feel” something to be so—does that make it true? What yardstick do we have to differentiate sincere feelings from absolute truth? To use the language of the postmodernists around us, how do we know that our narrative alone is true? What did Jesus really say, and to whom?
The evangelical answer to this is Scripture, and that is why, as Bible-based Christians, we must both believe in and defend the final revelation and authority of Scripture. Our reason for doing this therefore is not academic, a matter of historical debate, but is at the very core of why we are the kind of Christians that we claim to be as evangelicals.
On the one hand, we do have the Holy Spirit within us, guiding us and leading us. But how do we know whether what we sense inside us is genuinely from the Holy Spirit or not? How do we distinguish what might be a bright idea of our own or, even worse, a satanic temptation from an authentic prompting by the Holy Spirit within us?
The answer that Scripture itself gives is that everything we think or feel must be in full accord with what we know is God’s proven Word to us, the Bible. We as evangelicals hold to the Holy Spirit inspiring Scripture. So if someone says, “The Holy Spirit is telling me . . .” we always have an entirely reliable way of testing that—what is in the Scriptures themselves. We can make mistakes, even well-meant and wholly sincere errors, but Scripture is never wrong.
We do not believe that the Holy Spirit dictated the words by rote, which is what the Muslims believe about the Koran. Each New Testament writer has clear literary styles of his own. So Luke, for example, reads differently from Paul. But what they both wrote was inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that the documents they composed are both true spiritually and without error factually.
Inerrancy, to use a technical term, is a subject over which there has been much discussion and heated debate in theological circles over many decades. But as the late Francis Schaeffer said in a speech in Switzerland back in 1974, “Inerrancy is the watershed of evangelicalism.” You can be a Christian without believing in it, but not an evangelical. If the Bible includes mistakes, if the narrative/historical parts of it contain errors, how do we know that the spiritual side of the New Testament is true? Schaeffer quoted me in one of his books, referring to a personally delightful but theologically confused professor who gave lectures saying that he believed the Bible despite all its mistakes.
Many claim with total and genuine sincerity to be able to do this, and I do not doubt that they really do believe what they say. But by what authority can they say they believe, for example, in the ethics of Jesus while at the same time saying that our source for His ethical teaching, the Bible, is a human document filled with factual mistakes? I cannot see how you can have your cake and eat it too. So the defense of Scripture is at the heart of what we know not just about the historical background to Jesus and the New Testament but to who Jesus was as God and Savior and all that He taught and stood for.
Liberal scholars might therefore claim to be objective—and label evangelicals as biased—and be completely sincere in such belief. But in fact the real difference is that we are open about our faith and the way in which it shapes our thinking, whereas they are incorrect in thinking themselves to be completely scholarly and objective. We need to recognize their complete sincerity—they are not being two-faced—but it is a sad self-deception nonetheless.
This is why, for example, they will deny that the person who is supposed to have written a book—John, say, or Peter—could have done so. They cheerfully invent things like “the Johannine community,” unnamed followers of John who decades or maybe centuries after his death put together accounts of what they think he thought and then wrote it up in his name.
Such critics also exclude from Scripture anything that they do not believe in themselves. Modern writers, whether theologically liberal professing Christians or outright atheists and agnostics, wholly reject the supernatural. Twenty-first-century critics have beliefs that are incompatible with belief in the supernatural of any kind. So nothing that tells of miracles or says that Jesus believed Himself to be the Son of God can be regarded as true or having actually taken place, in their view. But such criticism does not say whether or not something really happened or that a document is verifiably ancient.
But we believe that God inspired the individual authors to be both accurate factually and spiritually, relaying the living Word of God to those of us who have lived in the millennia since the New Testament was written.
But having examined the spiritual context, we can as Christians rejoice that so many authenticated documents do exist from so very early on in the Christian church. This is an interesting contrast with Islam, where no equivalent copies of the Koran exist with a date so close to the founding of that faith. The earliest New Testament codices or documents are much nearer to the origins of Christianity than the most ancient Korans are to the dawn of Islam.
Some fragments of the New Testament can be dated reliably to the end of the first century, to almost within the lifetime of the original authors. There are full copies of the New Testament—such as the Chester Beatty papyrus, from the early third century, which is, to take our earlier example, hundreds of years closer to its original than any of the documents written by Julius Caesar, whose authenticity no one doubts. Archaeology can be very supportive of the historicity of many passages in the New Testament, especially if conducted by experts open-minded enough to believe that events described in the Bible are capable of having taken place.
We as evangelicals, therefore, have no need to fear real scholarship, since it supports the claims of the Bible to be true. We should not reject authentic scholarship, archaeology, and similar academic studies simply because those who oppose Christianity use similar tools with which to attack the faith. Scholarship properly conducted is a wonderful encouragement to Christians and a superb apologetic tool in convincing nonbelievers to take the claims of the Bible seriously.