The Charismata in Church History

One argument that seems to arise from the side of cessationists is that church history records that signs, wonders, miracles and healings ceased soon after the first century and with the formation of the New Testament canon. We have noted in the past that such a view cannot be faithfully established from a biblical-theological perspective. But what does history attest to?

We see this in certain words of the early church father, John Chrysostom (AD 347-407):

‘This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?’ (Homilies on First Corinthians. Homily XXIX, 1)

More evidence to support the cessationist case is shown through such words of Augustine (AD 354-430):

‘In the earliest times, “the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away.’ (Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Homily VI, 10)

Finally, confessions of faith such as the Westminster Confession of Faith make this statement in its opening section on the Holy Scripture:

‘Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.’

And, no doubt, there are other church fathers and variable sources that could be quoted in support of cessationism.

Thus, the argument goes that signs and wonders, miracles and healings, as well as other such things as prophecy and tongues, were only given in the time of the first apostles to authenticate their message, since the gospel and apostolic writings of Scripture were not yet complete. But, with the completion of the canon of Scripture by John (the apostle), and with these writings later being compiled into the New Testament, there was no longer any need for such gifts. Not only that, but cessationists then go on to support their argument by showing that the church fathers testified that such gifts of the Spirit had ceased, proving they were only for a limited time of authenticating the gospel message.

Yet, the story cannot stop there. We cannot find ourselves quoting a few church fathers as solid evidence for the ceasing of such gifts. Most cessationists, if not all, would claim that the history argument is not 100% evidence against the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit, signs and wonders. But many will, no doubt, be ready to use such to support the cessationist view.

Therefore, let’s take a moment to consider the words of some other church fathers and their specific thoughts about the gifts of the Spirit, specifically miracles, healings, prophecy and tongues. Below are four church fathers in particular:

Justin Martyr (approx. AD 100-165)

‘Therefore, just as God did not inflict His anger on account of those seven thousand men, even so He has now neither yet inflicted judgment, nor does inflict it, knowing that daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God.’ (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39)

‘For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us. And just as there were false prophets contemporaneous with your holy prophets, so are there now many false teachers amongst us, of whom our Lord forewarned us to beware; so that in no respect are we deficient, since we know that He foreknew all that would happen to us after His resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven.’ (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39)

Irenaeus (approx. AD 120-202)

‘Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister [to others]. (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 4)

‘Nor does she [the church] perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error.’ (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 5)

‘In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual,” they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit…’ (Against Heresies, Book 5, ch.6, 1)

Novatian (approx. AD 210-280)

‘…they [the first disciples] were henceforth armed and strengthened by the same Spirit, having in themselves the gifts which this same Spirit distributes, and appropriates to the Church, the spouse of Christ, as her ornaments. This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, offers discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed.’ (A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, ch.29)

Gregory Neocaesarea (AD 213-270)

Consider these words from church historian, Justo Gonzalez, as he chronicles some of the things that took place in the life of Gregory Neocaesarea.

‘The most famous of these workers of miracles was Gregory Thaumaturgus – a name that means “wonderworker.” He was from the region of Pontus, and had been converted through the learned witness of Origen. But upon returning to Pontus and becoming bishop of Neocaesarea, his great evangelistic success was due, not to his theological arguments, but to the miracles that he was said to perform. These were mostly miracles of healing, but we are also told that he could control the course of a river in flood, and that the apostles and the Virgin appeared to him and guided his work.’ (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, p99)

In his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green quotes an early church source, The Apostolic Constitutions, making note of the charismata gifts:

‘A passage in the Apostolic Constitutions crystallizes the point well: ‘These gifts were first bestowed upon us, the apostles, when we were about to preach the gospel to every creature, and afterwards were necessarily provided to those who had come to faith through our agency, not for the advantage of those who perform them, but for the conviction of the unbelievers, that those whom the word did not persuade the power of signs might put to shame.’ The charismata given in the apostolic age [first century] had not been revoked: they continued in the Church in the third century.’ (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p270)

Finally, it would be interesting to read some of Augustine’s words near the end of his life. Though many cessationists might look to quote him as a pointer towards a more cessationist view in the early church, as was shown in the beginning of this article, what we don’t realise is that Augustine actually had a change of theology near the end of his life.

Michael Green specifically points to his own study of the early church fathers as a reason why he shifted away from a more hard cessationist view, and he quotes these words of Augustine in his own reflections.

‘I am encouraged, in my recantation [from his hard cessationist thoughts in his earlier edition of this book], to be in the good company of Augustine who, in his earlier writings, believed that the charismatic gifts had died out in the Church and were no longer needed. But by the time he wrote The City of God, however, he had realized his scepticism was unwarranted. In Book 22 he tells how he changed his mind “once I realized how many miracles were occurring in our day…It is only two years ago that the keeping of records was begun here in Hippo, and already, at this writing, we have nearly seventy attested miracles.”‘ (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p271)

To read more about the changes in Augustine’s theology, one should read City of God, Book 22, Ch. 8, which is specifically subtitled, Of Miracles Which Were Wrought that the World Might Believe in Christ, and Which Have Not Ceased Since the World Believed. Now, what one will notice is that Augustine specifically refers to healings and miracles that happened through relics, which evangelicals have tended to not agree with such a practise.

So the words of Augustine will be challenging to many evangelicals. I am personally not closed to such, not so much to utilise Augustine’s comments to bolster my own theology, but for knowing how things of biblical times were not always done within our prescribed framework: Jesus had a spitting ministry at times with healing (see Mark’s Gospel), Isaiah walked around naked for quite a while (see Isaiah 20:1-3), Elisha’s bones raised a man (see 2 Kings 13:14-21), handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul were used for healing (see Acts 19:11-12). And, if we will pay attention, we will see God has been doing things ‘outside the box’ from creation until now.

Interesting and challenging, not always fitting in OUR boxes to say the least.

Therefore, church history does not unequivocally support cessationism. No doubt there were some cessationists, but there were also quite a few continuationists.

In the end, the Scripture stands as the starting point for forming our theology. Still, it is interesting to study history, since our faith has been walked out over thousands of years. We are not alone in this. And, with such a consideration of history, we have seen that, in all probability, God never ceased in displaying His glory and power through signs, wonders, miracles, healings, prophecy and other various spiritual gifts.

To end, I point out one other resource that might be of great interest to those who would like to study about the charismata of 1 Corinthians 12 throughout church history. It is Ronald Kidd’s Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church. I have not yet had the opportunity to read it, but it was suggested in another book on the charismatic gifts, which was written by a friend of mine.

Change Will Always Come

I think most of us know that change is bound and determined to come, even if we don’t like it. Matter of fact, we might say that most don’t like change. We get set into patterns and habits and traditions and everything else that makes life both manageable and easy.

First off, there is nothing wrong with patterns, habits and traditions. Of course, we have enough Christians that are horrified by such ‘order’. But if we just think about regular life, we have plenty of patterns, habits and traditions in our lives to recognise they can be a good thing. I think it is a good habit (or tradition) that we all brush our teeth in the morning. The bad thing is when that pattern or habit or tradition becomes the dictating force in our lives. That is not good.

Somehow, we serve a God that is both constantly doing new things (i.e. Isaiah 43:16-21) and is also the same yesterday, today and forever (i.e. Hebrews 13:8). Interesting combination.

Still, change is inevitable. It will always come. We don’t want to change simply for change’s sake. We want God to bring about the change. But, we must be ready for Him who is always doing new things.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the past 100 years or so in church history, though I know church history started way before that (I’d even argue it started in the Garden). But there have been a lot of changes in the church in the past 100 years, even from a worldwide perspective.

Here are few to consider (some less important than others):

1) Sunday morning clothing

This is a simple one to start off with, but I’m sure most of us can remember the days when Sunday was the day you dressed up. Why? There are many plausible reasons. Sunday was seen as the Lord’s Day (and one could argue it is specifically the Lord’s Day, i.e., Revelation 1:10). Being the Lord’s Day and wanting to honour the Lord on His specific day, one would feel compelled to wear their Sunday best. It was not honouring to wear jeans and a t-shirt to the church’s gathering, much less sandals, shorts, etc.

But the church has mainly shifted its thinking. Of course there are those who still dress up. I have friends who do so. And there is nothing wrong with this. It’s neither here nor there. One has the freedom to dress as they please (albeit causing someone to stumble). There is no special dress for Sunday, for most now realise that Jesus is Lord of Monday through Saturday as well. We are not called to honour Him only one day a week. Thus, we realise that our dress is of little importance to the calling and work of God

That one’s easy and not that important, to be honest.

2) Sabbath theology

This is connected somewhat to the former point, as our Sabbath theology used to be specifically centred around Sunday. It was the Lord’s Day and was considered special.

But the church has moved into more of a holistic understanding of the days of the week, meaning, as I have already stated, that we know Jesus is Lord of Monday to Saturday just as much as Sunday. Of course, most of the church worldwide continues to gather on Sunday mornings, mainly being connected to the ‘first day of the week’ when Jesus rose from the grave. But we realise that Sunday finds no specific special place in the Lord’s heart, just as the Hebrew language does not find a special place in the Lord’s heart. God is just as much sovereign on Tuesday’s and communicates just as much in French or Dutch.

And I think this has been a good emphasis. We don’t want to neglect gathering together, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us (10:25). But we know we can gather any day of the week at any time during the day.

But more than just a change in practise, this has been a change in theology. We realise that Sunday, nor even the Sabbath according to the Mosaic Law (Saturday), makes up what is the true Sabbath. Jesus Christ is the Sabbath rest which God’s people are called to enter. I share more here.

Thus, a change, a good one, has come to the hearts of God’s people.

3) Use of charismatic gifts

Some 50 years ago or so, it would still be quite unusual to see the charismatic gifts of the Spirit being used in our gatherings. For these, I am referring to prophecy, tongues, healings, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, etc. Those specifically listed in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. Yes, I believe there are more gifts of the Spirit than those nine. But it was those nine that brought the most controversy.

But with the Pentecostal, charismatic and neo-charismatic (‘Third Wave’) movements, the church has moved towards not only a doctrinal belief but also into a practise of these gifts today. Matter of fact, whereas in the past some more traditional denominations would have been quite strong defenders of the cessationist view, even declaring such use of the gifts (specifically tongues) as demonic, some of these church groups have now moved the pendulum to a more soft-cessationist view, at least being open to the possibility of these gifts.

Can one imagine a Baptist or Presbyterian 30-40 years ago being open to these gifts? Change has definitely come. And I think this has also been positive change for the body of Christ and the world. But let’s stay biblical and accountable in this as well.

Here is a list of other changes with shorter explanations:

  • Musical instrumentation in our gatherings: There was a day, and maybe still with some small groups here and there, in which anything with a beat was considered ‘of the devil’. Somehow the organ was more holy, or maybe no music was allowed when the church gathered. But now you have many instruments being allowed, even more ‘modern’ ones. I am not here to argue which is the best instrumentation. That’s silly. But I will say that, regardless your instrumentation choice, if our gatherings are devoid of the life and Spirit of God, it really doesn’t matter which instruments we believe are more godly and demonic. Bring on the djembes!
  • Bible translations: Of course, we all know that Jesus spoke King James English. Ok, not really. But there was a day that this might have been believed. And, yes, the King James Version (or Authorised Version in the UK) was considered the translation. There were even Bible passages to back this up. But I’m sure there was a day when the Geneva Bible was also considered the translation, while the King James was seen as the renegade translation. But we have finally moved toward the realisation that more recent scholarship has allowed us to have better accurate translations of the original languages, i.e., the ESV, NIV, NASB, etc.

So change comes, and I would say each of these were good changes that have come. Some were of more significance than others. But I would say they were all for the health and growth of the church towards that goal of maturity, as we are reminded in Ephesians 4:11-13. Again, some were of greater significance – such as the regular use of charismatic gifts being more important than the allowance of ‘normal’ clothes in our gatherings. But I think all were beneficial.

And I’m sure you can think of many others. Feel free to list them in the comment box.

But here is where I am headed. I’ve been thinking about some changes that I suppose will take place amongst God’s people over the next few decades or so. By no means do I see this as a prophetic prediction. They are simply musings in regards to 1) knowing that change is always taking place and 2) considering what is going on in certain circles of the church today.

1) Women in church leadership

I know, I know. This is already taking place, not to mention it’s a very hot topic amongst some circles. But more and more we are seeing women being released into varying ministry roles in the church, even church leadership (i.e., even serving as what the Bible really refers to as elders-overseers).

So, then, there is no prediction here, right?

Well, being such a touchy subject for many, I think we are going to see even further movement in this area.

I have more egalitarian leanings, meaning I am very open to women in eldership (or ‘lead pastors’ for our American theology). And I am very open to the idea of the husband and wife being co-leaders in the family, rather than the man being the final authority. But, to be honest, I don’t like the tag of egalitarian. The word carries a ton of baggage with images of strong feminism movements coming forth.

Please know that’s not me at all. I really hardly ever approach this subject. It’s just not that important. Nor am I one to simply appoint a women into leadership simply to prove a point. Oh, how terrible that would be! It comes down to gifting and calling, not ideology or dogmatism.

But here is the shift I believe may possibly happen in the next few decades: Whereas it is now not overly uncommon to see women preaching/teaching in a full church gathering or allowing women to be appointed into some kind of leadership role (or, for American theology, hired as a staff pastor), it is still not the usual practise.

Yet, I believe by the time my children are grown adults in their 30’s and 40’s (and I only have one son of almost 9 months now), I believe it will not be so uncommon to see women serving in major leadership roles in churches. Whether that is head pastor, senior pastor, associate pastor, or elder (you can probably tell I like the word elder better), my children probably won’t think one thought about it if a woman was in eldership (at least in non-dogmatic church circles).

Of course, there will still be the tried and true who hold out, all in the name of being faithful to the teaching of Scripture. But I think we will see this in many church circles. Yet, even more, whereas some more traditional denominations could never see themselves open to the idea, I believe even these people will begin declaring they are open to the possibility.

You see, that’s where I am right now. I am open to women in eldership. I only know about 3 women that I think could serve as elders right now and, as I said, I am not up for appointing them just for the sake of putting forth new developments within the western church (by the way, many churches in the eastern and southern hemispheres have no problem with this).

Remember with the charismatic gifts. It used to be very uncommon to see these gifts some 50, 60, and 70 years ago, outside of a few groups that came out of Azusa Street and other streams. But now you have some 500 million people claiming to be part of the Pentecostal, charismatic and neo-charismatic groups. And, even more, you have certain traditional denominations that are now open to these gifts but had been closed to the idea.

This is what I think will happen with the church (in the west, especially America) over the next few decades. The practise of women in major church leadership in many church groups, and the ‘openness’ even in traditional denominations.

Some will call this the trappings of the devil. I think it will be another positive transition and development.

2) Evangelicals and tradition

There is a difference between ‘sacred tradition’ and tradition from an evangelical perspective. Most evangelicals, or at least the ones humble enough to admit it, will recognise the importance of the church existing for 2000 years. Not one of us reads the Bible in a vacuum as if we are not influenced by our particular church background and the church of 2000 years.

We can argue all day that our starting ground is the Bible, of which I think it should be. But we really interpret the Bible due to our church background (our particular church tradition). To deny such is either arrogance or misguidance.

And, so, most are ready to recognise the importance of studying church history, the fathers of our faith (both old and more recent), the creeds, the councils, etc. I simply know that I believe a lot of what I believe because a man lived one and a half millenia ago named Augustine. His theology has affected my soteriology and my eschatology, if not a lot more than that.

Faithful evangelicals do, or should, respect tradition.

But, with regards to the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church, tradition is more faithfully termed ‘sacred tradition’. The belief is that Scripture is part of the more holistic understanding of this sacred tradition. The apostles and their close associates taught things and orally passed those things on to the church leaders of the first century who passed it on to those church leaders of the second century and on and on.

One thing to remember is that those first Christians, and even up until the 15th century, did not have their own personal copy of the Scripture. Such was quite unfathomable. I am not saying we shouldn’t have one today. But they didn’t have them back then. Some would fault the Roman Catholic church in keeping such Bible copies from the people, which may be partly true. But the practical thing is that the printing press wasn’t around. Hence, most didn’t have their own copy of the Bible.

Not only that, but we didn’t have a formalised canon until the late 4th century. Hence, a need for these leaders to continue to orally pass on the faithful teachings of the apostles. The Pope (meaning father) was the leader of this group of leaders (bishops). They believed they were called to be the faithful transmitters of the teachings that had been entrusted to the church.

But, as an evangelical, we would tend to point out where this group has gone wrong, parting from some of the teaching of Scripture – i.e. with veneration of icons, the institution of the infallible Pope, the doctrine of Mary, prayers to the dead, etc. And, yes, I agree that some of this stuff is probably not biblical, though I am definitely not as dogmatic as I used to be (God, save my soul!).

For an evangelical, everything must be grounded in Scripture. And, again, I agree with this. For me, I cannot (at least, yet) move from this stance that our beliefs and practises must be founded in Scripture. I believe God still speaks today through human beings, but they sometimes get it wrong. And, thus, the Scripture contains that which we are assured is God-breathed. Thus, let’s start from what we can agree is truly from God.

Still, in all of this, I believe that in the next few decades, evangelicals are going to start considering the role of tradition, or sacred tradition, with regards to our faith. Most have moved far away from the view that the Pope is antichrist and that the Roman Catholic church is all going to hell. For my generation, such a claim is almost laughable.

But I think evangelicals are going to start listening to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxees more and more. And you know what? I think this is going to open the door for those two groups to listen to Protestant evangelicals a little more.

No, I’m not talking about the sappy ecumenicalism where we all come together, sing Kumbaya and decide what is the best social action to take. I’m not talking about finding the least common denominator and hoping we can all get along. But I’m talking about real, authentic, spiritually-informed discussions. We are going to start admitting that the Roman Catholics were not as wrong as we both thought they were and hoped they were.
This isn’t going to happen tomorrow. It will take a while. But I believe we are already starting to walk this path.

Most will blow these words off from me. And that’s fine. It might not happen. But I sense it will.

Again, not tomorrow. But by the time my children are grown-up, we will have made some major and faithful headway.

I don’t know if this will be a fulfilment of attaining to the unity of the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, as Ephesians 4:11 tells us about. If it’s just another ‘movement’. It won’t matter, nor will it last.

But if it is really what God is doing by the work of His Spirit amongst His Bride, then it will matter and it will last, maybe even ushering in some kind of major change in God’s people across the planet and seeing us prepare ourselves to marry Christ.

Please don’t label me as some kind of wishy-washy, airy-fairy, who-cares-what-we-believe Christian. That’s not me. I have strong convictions about the truth and of Christ. I have very strong beliefs. But I also know that I don’t have it all together and that just maybe there are others out there that know a little more than me.

One of those persons could be a woman in church leadership or one of those people could be a Roman Catholic archbishop. But I want to listen.

Maybe you disagree with these two points above and disagree with the thrust of my article. That’s fine. But what changes do you think will take place over the next 30, 40 or 50 years? I’d love to hear from you.

History of Eastern Orthodox Church

Last night I watched an interesting programme on the BBC2. Well, it originally aired this past Saturday evening, but I was able to watch most of it last night with the hopes of finishing the show tonight. It was a programme specifically on the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In recent months, my heart has begun to stir towards knowing a little bit more about history, and specifically, the history of our faith as held out by the generations of Christians before us. I am somewhat saddened when we try and disconnect ourselves from what has come before us. Oh, yes, it isn’t all pretty. And the programme proved that last night. And, yes, I don’t agree with everything – ethically or theologically. But we have come from somewhere, come from a cloud of witnesses that is not just to be found in Scriptural times, but in the centuries since then. I have touched on this topic before.

So it was interesting to learn a little about the history of the church, particularly the Eastern Orthodox Church. Of course, I am always a little wary of what the BBC will present about the faith. And, of course, they would be wary of how I would present the faith if given the opportunity. We each have our tainted lenses and reasons.

The Eastern Orthodox church got its initial beginnings when Constantine headed east and founded the city of Constantinople. Actually, the city had already existed for quite a while, begun during the days of the Greek empire. But, in the year 330 AD, Constantine officially founded the city of Constantinople. We now know this city as Istanbul in the country of Turkey.

Because Rome was being attacked by Germanic barbarians, and were oddly enough having success, Constantinople was to become a kind of ‘new Rome’. And it became the capital of Christianity in the east. This was also the beginnings of the Byzantine empire, which started to spread quite rapidly. Though this particular church was situated in the more eastern part of the then known world, it was still specifically connected to the western church in Rome.

One of the next major emperors to come along was Justinian I. He was quite instrumental in seeing the Byzantine empire spread, which would have meant eastern Christianity was also being spread. Remember, in those days, the church and the state were one (and, oh, what a debate this causes in the modern era).

Justinian was responsible for the building of Hagia Sophia in the 530’s AD, which served as a kind of church headquarters for the east. This building was an architectural masterpiece in those days with nothing existing like it in all the world. It’s known for its huge dome in the sky, quite unlike the church buildings in the west.

About a century later, in the 630’s, Islam was born and started to arise in the Arab world. Yet, in its desire to expand, it also headed into the eastern Byzantine area. Such would lead to the Byzantine-Arab wars, with Muslims specifically looking to strike at the heart of the eastern world itself, Constantinople. And, through force, Islam was able to gain much of the eastern empire’s territory. Will come back to the Muslims in a moment.

Not too long after, there was also a stirring of iconoclasm, headed up by Byzantine Emperors like Constantine V, Leo III and Leo IV. What is iconoclasm? It simply refers to the destruction of icons.

Now this is where I am not sure the BBC historian-reporter would have his facts right, but I am ok if this is confirmed. When most evangelicals think of iconoclasm, or not wanting to venerate specific pictures and relics of those saints that have gone before us, most base this out of Exodus 20:4-6:

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

But, the historian reported a different reason why iconoclasm arose, at least in the 700’s. He reported that iconoclasm began brewing as many leaders in the eastern Byzantine empire began to question why the Muslims were having such success against the empire and the church. Did God switch sides? The Byzantine Christians believed God’s blessing had been with them in the expansion of the church and, subsequently, the empire (or maybe it’s the empire expanded and, so, subsequently, the church expanded). But now, the Muslims were gaining ground and gaining ground rapidly. What was wrong, God?

This is where iconoclasm came in. The emperors wondered if the icons were not in accordance with God’s wishes. Muslims would never craft anything like an icon, since the Koran absolutely forbid such. So maybe the Muslims were right and the Christians weren’t, hence why they now seemed blessed in their expansion. [Side note: I think a lot of this makes up for some very poor theological thinking. But, of course, I did not live in that period as to consider all things.]

It is possible that this questioning came through a consideration of the text in Exodus 20, which is used to argue against the use of and veneration of icons. But it is interesting to consider the practical things that could have led to the edict to destroy all icons.

Again, I don’t know if this is completely true, but I am fine either way. It was simply worthy of noting. [Feel free to confirm or deny.]

Yet, in 787 AD, the second council of Nicea met and affirmed the use of and veneration of icons. This council is also known as the seventh ecumenical (universal) council. But, while most evangelicals accept the decisions and rulings of the first six ecumenical councils, they will not accept this seventh council. It is strongly maintained that veneration of icons is not in accordance with with Scriptural teaching, mainly based in places like Exodus 20:4-6.

The next event in the eastern world was the Great Schism of 1054. Up until this point, the church had officially been one – no other denominations, no other branches, no other groups. One church. But from this point, it would officially be in two.

The eastern church had already taken up the emblem of the double-headed eagle, one head for Rome in the west and one head for Constantinople in the east. But many believe this was an image of what was already taking place at the heart of the church – a split between east and west.

The official schism happened during a church service when Pope Leo IX sent an envoy, Cardinal Humbert, to Constantinople to excommunicate their patriarch, Michael Cerularius. Oddly enough, in the same moment, Cerularius returned the favour, excommunicating the Pope. And there we have the official point of division.

What was it all over? Many would say it was based around one word – filioque. Back in the late 6th century AD, the western church decided to add this one little Latin word to the Nicene Creed. Originally, the creed stated this about the Holy Spirit: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.

But, in an attempt to emphasis the equal divinity of the Son with the Father, the western church decided to add this one word with the creed now stating: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

For the eastern church, it was unacceptable to change the creed.

Of course, tensions existed beyond this discussion. But, to stay true to every other split that has happened in the 1000 years since, we need to make sure a split is over theology, right? It couldn’t happen over difference of opinions, power-hungry leaders, moral problems, or because we decided to serve coffee after our gathering instead of before. Well, divisions can (and do) happen because of these things. But we have to keep this looking the best we can to hide our shame. Anyways…

And, thus, you now officially have the split between the Western Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church.

The final straw that broke the camels back, in regards to the split between the two branches, happened during the Crusades of the 11th and early 12th centuries. Though the church had now split, with Constantinople standing on its own, the eastern church did request help from Rome during a period of heightened attacks by the Muslims.

But, where the first three crusades caused no tension between east and west, unfortunately, things were not to stay that way. In the fourth crusade of 1204, crusaders had been sent from the west to reconquer the Muslim-controlled Jerusalem. Yet, they instead headed to Constantinople and sacked the capital of the Byzantine-eastern empire. Such a tragic event that severed the church in the west and east for good.

I was pleased, though, to read that, in 2004, Pope John Paul II extended a formal apology for the attacks and destruction of Constantinople in that fourth crusade. This apology was accepted by one of the Patriarch of the eastern church, Bartholomew. Such news does give us hope for this goal of unity that we are called to.

There is more history to look at within the Eastern Orthodox church, specifically on how the church dealt with Turkish-Ottoman empire and the move of the church to Russia. That post shall remain for a later time.

We’ve Come From Somewhere

Not too long ago, I wrote up a book review on John Eldredge’s The Way of the Wild Heart. I do appreciate what Eldredge has had to say in all of his works. As I came to the end of The Way of the Wild Heart, this being my third time through the book, I read these very interesting words in the final section on the life of the sage:

‘I recall a phrase I heard years ago, speaking of the men who led the church early in the twentieth century: “Yesterday’s Men.” At the time I liked the phrase. A young Warrior itching for his moment, something in me said, That’s right – these guys need to move over. It’s our turn. In retrospect, I repent of my arrogance. For now, twenty years downriver, I hate that phrase. We need more men around who have lived through yesterday, seen it, and even if they haven’t conquered it, they have learned from it.’

These words struck me as mightily important for today. For Christians who live in the modern, 21st century, we can many times get this idea that things started with us. ‘Who cares about what was said and done before. We are the ones. We have the ideas. We have arrived. It’s all about us.’

Or, to take it even further, today I find that many hold to the motto, Who cares about what was said and done before. We are the ones. We have the ideas and our ideas are that we reject everything that came before us. We have arrived. It’s all about us.’

This kind of mindset is extremely dangerous. In the end, as Eldredge points out, such views are absolutely arrogant! Do we really have the audacity to think that it all started with us? Are we just going to chuck out the great ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1)?

Listen, I understand that the church has taken up some seriously unhealthy practices at certain periods in history. We all know the proverbial joke about the Dark Ages and why it was labeled as such. And I understand that, at times, unhealthy and unbiblical tradition has developed in both the past and present. By no means am I suggesting that we put tradition equal to the Scripture. The Pharisees and scribes did that at times and look where it got them (see Matthew 15:1-9).

But I also believe the church is to humbly approach our Christ-centred faith remembering that it isn’t all about us. We actually came from someplace. We actually have quite a few billion in that cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. The gospel did not become a reality in the late 20th or early 21st centuries. It’s been around for quite some time. I think about 2,000 years total.

But too many people have begun sipping from the chalice that says, ‘Forget them. We got it all figured out.’ God save us and humble us from such an ungodly mindset.

I have typically found this kind of thinking in many people within the recent emerging church movement. Listen, I am not here to bash the emerging church. For those who do spend the better part of their time doing so, I think it is ridiculous. There are a few more important things to get on with than to heresy hunt, trying to point out all groups that are wrong. Sometimes we need to simply get on with living out the gospel truth rather than focus on everyone who is not, or at least those we think are not.

But what I would challenge the emerging, or emergent, movement with is that they not be so quick to throw so much out of the window. It simply is too prideful and arrogant to do so. Again, some things need to be laid aside, and I leave you to decide which of those really need to be. But we are not called to scratch the whole card and completely make up a new one. We have come from somewhere. Those who have gone before us were involved in the conversation a long time before we were ever thought of.

Of course I believe that God is always doing ‘new things’ (see Isaiah 43:19). And I believe this Scripture not only spoke into Isaiah’s day, nor simply into the initiation of the new covenant in Christ’s day, but it also becomes a reality with our present day. Interestingly enough, the One who is faithfully consistent has continued to do new things along the centuries. But, in the midst of new things, the Faithful One does not ask us to disconnect from the past. He asks us to remember our history, remember the line from which we have come.

We see this in Paul’s plea to the Galatians:

This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. (Galatians 3:17-18)

The Law was given, and Paul says it was given so that we would ultimately be pushed to Christ (3:19-29), but God did not annul nor forget that which He previously promised to Abraham – righteousness by faith (Genesis 15:6).

So, the lesson applicable to what I am trying to get across is that, even when God stirs a new thing in our midst, He does not ask us to completely forget those who have gone before us. There are people who have given their lives for Christ and the gospel of the kingdom. Most of us will not even come close to such a path. Therefore, I think it safe to say that those who have given their lives in such a way just might have been graced with a little more wisdom than you and I. Maybe? Maybe not? But it’s worth considering.

And, even in the midst of such new things in our midst, I would remind us that Scripture teaches us elsewhere that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that things really did not start with us. Again, God can stir new things in us and there will definitely be a sense of newness and freshness in our midst. But do we really think that this is new in the bigger perspective? Isn’t there an eternal One who sees it all at once?

Such truth and such reality reminds me of how Job responded after God appeared to him and began to speak to him: Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth (Job 40:4). Or, in modern English: I’ll shut up and crawl back into my hole now.

Therefore, let us be encouraged to keep pursuing our God. He is a dynamic and living God who is always doing new things. In this we find much encouragement and strength. But let us never walk down the arrogant path where we discard everything and everyone who has gone before us. Such is unhealthy. Such in unbiblical. Hey, I even think the cloud of witnesses will help us endure in the race set before us (see Hebrews 12:1).