10 Reasons to Know a Little Bit of Church History

Transfiguration of Christ

Who was Athanasius? In what century did the Protestant Reformation occur? Why was Jonathan Edwards important? What was the Second Great Awakening? In most churches, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could answer these questions. Indeed, the study of church history has fallen on hard times. But here are 10 reasons why the average believer’s walk with Christ would be enriched by learning a bit of church history.

1. Church history confirms the promises of Scripture. For example, George Muller of England demonstrated time and again the truth of James 5:16 (“. . . The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”), as God answered his prayers and provided miraculously for the needs of the 2,000 orphans in his care. And the Church’s growth from a marginalized, persecuted Jewish sect in AD 40 to the Roman Empire’s official religion in 325 to the world’s largest religion in 2014 powerfully confirms the truth of Matthew 16:18—the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church.

2. Church history comforts believers in their struggles. Jonathan Edwards was fired from a job. Martin Luther was plagued by fear. Elisabeth Elliot endured the death of two husbands—one at the hands of violent natives on the mission field. Yet none of their lives were ruined by these hardships. They all went on to fruitfulness. Knowing this encourages perseverance amid our own afflictions.

3. Church history broadens our choice of devotional literature. There’s nothing wrong with reading devotional guides by popular radio preachers. But knowing a bit of history helps believers realize that there are also enriching choices from ages past, including Charles Spurgeon, the Puritans, early Church fathers, and C. S. Lewis.

4. Church history helps Christians counter heresies and cults. Most theological errors are recapitulations from previous generations and have already been refuted by faithful Bible students. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, who deny the deity of Christ, and the so-called “Jesus only” movement, which denies the coequality of the Godhead’s three persons, can all be answered with arguments from the Trinitarian controversy of the third and fourth centuries.

5. Church history helps believers interpret the Bible. Knowing how Christians in ages past viewed various passages can shed tremendous light on Scripture. The commentaries of John Calvin, Matthew Henry, John Gill, and others are all helpful resources in addition to today’s Bible aides.

6. Church history bolsters faith. Think about the vast number of people who have followed Christ over the ages and their staggering contributions to human flourishing. Christians helped spawn hospitals, orphanages, democracy, human rights, art, widespread literacy, and much more. Indeed, “we are surrounded by so great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

7. Church history provides terms to use in describing difficult doctrines. The Trinity is “one essence and three persons.” Jesus has “two natures in one person.” The Bible is “inerrant and infallible.” Believers who don’t know a bit of church history probably won’t have these phrases in their theological tool belts.

8. Church history frees us from the illusion that modern, secular psychology is the only solution for emotional and behavioral problems. Though psychology brings helpful insights, the Puritans, Spurgeon, and others developed keen pastoral insights long before anyone heard of Ritalin or behavioral therapy. The student of church history enjoys a wealth of counseling resources.

9. Church history contains cautionary tales to remind us that Christians can dishonor their Lord. The crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, and the Reformers’ squelching of religious freedom all engender humility and caution for believers. Zeal is not enough to justify our words or deeds. We must take care that actions we label “Christian” truly reflect Jesus.

10. Church history provides believers with a spiritual genealogy.  We know who our physical ancestors are. Why not learn about our spiritual forebears too?

So get to know church history. You will probably find it more edifying that you ever considered.

Your Atheism Is Too Small: Lewis on the Problem of Evil

C-S-LewisMany people are atheists because they believe that evil and suffering in the world proves that God does not exist. Looking back on his own intellectual and spiritual journey from atheism to Christian belief, however, C. S. Lewis argued quite the opposite. While the suffering he experienced in his youth (the death of his mother, unhappy schooldays, and the traumas of service in the First World War) destroyed the simple faith of his childhood, he eventually came to realize that atheism is a superficial and inconsistent response to the problem of evil. For how, he argued, can anyone explain the presence within them of that very moral standard which alone enables them to complain about the existence of evil and use it as an argument against God? Where does this moral standard come from? Moreover, if there is no God and human beings are only accidental byproducts of a random and purposeless universe, how can atheists attach any significance to their thoughts and values? These points were summarized most effectively for a popular audience in this extract from one of Lewis’s famous BBC radio broadcasts during World War II.

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

–The BibleMesh Team

Why More Is Never Enough

10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12 (ESV)

moneyUK“Everyone wants more.” That’s the answer a former corporation head gave Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan after he told her he had just successfully sued his former company for $5 million. What puzzled Noonan is that the fellow admitted that he did not even need the money. The blind pursuit of more for more’s sake unsettled Noonan: “The idea of getting into a struggle to squeeze out another $5 million when you have $100 million seemed to me absurd, a misallocation of energy and interest. It’s not as if you can buy a better steak if you’re already that rich. It’s not as if you can buy a better anything. So why fight for another five?”

The Bible provides an answer to that question. Lovers of money are never satisfied (v. 10). By themselves, possessions merely “increase those who eat them” (a pun on expanding waistlines), or serve as cold and distant trophies (v. 11). In the end they are meaningless, a nothingness which never delivers joy. Conversely, Solomon observed that the true delights of one’s work do not arise from riches, but rather from a job well done.

Those who continually lust for money fail to satiate their appetites, because God did not create people to take ultimate pleasure in anything save Him. Money, after all, is an artificial construct of human society. Instead, God made man to enjoy work. This is why “[t]he sleep of the laborer is sweet” (v. 12 NIV). He receives the reward of the work of his hands by seeing a job well done (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19; 2:10, 24-26). Material blessings are but dim reminders of the glory of hard work. If a man labors for nothing more than a paycheck, however, he will never be able to rest (v. 12).

God placed man in creation to work, but the Fall diverted him from true happiness. Although one’s efforts may produce wealth, financial gain is not the final goal of one’s labors. The joy gained through our stewardship of God’s creation is. The gift of God in work may be as simple as a good night’s sleep.

A Biblical Understanding of Career

At every turn, we hear of career concerns—of career counselors, smart career moves, career-ending injuries, and so on. As much attention as we pay to this notion, indeed, as much anxiety we have over it, we might well be interested in what the Bible has to say about careers.

careerAlas, concordances aren’t much help since the word “career” is a later development, a metaphor arising in the Romance languages, beginning with the Latin for “road” or “route”—carraria—and showing up in French as carriere. The closest we come in the Greek New Testament is with dromos, which means a course one traverses (as in hippodrome, a building where horses run a course). Dromos appears in 2 Timothy 4:7, where, reflecting on his life, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race (course in the KJV), I have kept the faith.” And yes, the word is translated as carrera and carreira in Spanish and Portuguese Bibles respectively.

So what career guidance can we get from Paul, who finished his dromos/race/course/carrera? Well, in Acts 22:3, we learn that he got off to a great start, being “thoroughly trained” under the master teacher Gamaliel. But things went off the rails for him when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. With his rabbinic career wrecked, he ventured out on a new career.

So how did this work out for him? Second Corinthians 11:24-28 doesn’t paint a rosy picture—lashings, beatings, a stoning, shipwrecks, toil, hardship, dangers of every sort and on every hand, hunger, thirst, cold, exposure, and worry about the budding churches: not the sort of opportunity you’d post on a job board.

Surely a career counselor could have helped him avoid a lot of this grief, for he seemed a bit too ready to launch out on bold enterprises without careful study of the prospects. For instance, he jumped into Macedonia without knowing who on earth might catch him (Acts 16:9-10)— much like the impulsive Abraham, who “by faith . . . obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

Of course, the Bible says things about being prudent, prepared, and diligent for the work ahead, and equipped for options. And certainly, there is room for a holy ambition that dreams of and studies for far-reaching impact for the Kingdom. But unflinching devotion to an economically or socially upward path or to a congenial situation is not the biblical approach. Rather, believers should manifest a level of joyful abandon, willing to discover their God-directed career at the end of it all, saying, in effect with Paul, “Praise the Lord. That was surely interesting.” In other words, everyone has a career, a course in life; it’s a question of authorship. When we write out our plans, we should do so with pencil rather than pen, always willing for God to erase them and substitute fresh ones in ink. The editing may upset us at first, but we should trust His wisdom and beneficence, come what may.

First John 2:15-17 counsels us not to love “the things in the world” and to avoid the desires of the flesh and eyes and the “pride of life.” When career concerns fill in these blanks, then an idol materializes. At its feet, pastors are paralyzed by preoccupation with longevity and promotion, and the laity shrink from witness in the work place for fear that someone will be annoyed.

In Luke 14:28, Jesus asks rhetorically, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” Taken alone, this sounds like a career counselor’s advice, the sort of prompt that would lead a preacher to avoid prickly topics, a baker to make cakes for gay weddings, or a public school teacher to withhold a kind word for Intelligent Design. But the whole passage points in the opposite direction—to the way of the cross (a road quite familiar to Christians in, for instance, the Muslim world). This is, of course, the highest career counseling, in that there could be no better course to take in life than to live daily in response to the Lord’s leading, whatever the cost in worldly terms. Indeed, as the Bible says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Is Israel’s New Abortion Law Consistent with Its Jewish Heritage?

The state of Israel has long illustrated the cultural fruitfulness of rooting a nation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, far outpacing its Muslim neighbors in the areas of democracy, religious freedom, education, scientific achievement, and the just treatment of women. But in January 2014, Israel approved an abortion law that is incongruous with its biblical heritage. Now, any Israeli woman between ages 20 and 33 may receive a state-funded abortion for any reason. (Previously, the government helped pay for abortions only in medical emergencies, cases of sexual abuse, and for women under 20 and over 40.) The Israel-Flagleader of the committee that drafted the law, Jonathan Halevy, explained, “We want large families in Israel. We definitely encourage birth. But when pregnancy occurs and it is undesired or inadvertent, I think we should supply the means to end the pregnancy properly.” Halevy said his committee hopes to expand state funding of abortion to all women under 40. This change in policy makes Israel’s abortion laws among the most liberal in the world.

The new law represents a striking departure from Israel’s Jewish heritage. In light of Bible passages like Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”) and Psalm 139:13 (“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”), Jews historically have affirmed the sanctity of unborn life and viewed abortion as evil.

For example, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived around the time of Jesus, prescribed harsh punishment for anyone who struck a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. He called the aborted baby “a human being . . . destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light.” The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a collection of ethical instructions written between 50 BC and AD 50, was explicit about abortion: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as prey.” The apocalyptic Sibylline Oracles (first century BC) said women who aborted their children would suffer God’s wrath along with sorcerers, adulterers, and thieves.

First Enoch, among the books of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha produced in the first or second century BC, said an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb.” Referring to the Old Testament, the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 37-100) argued, “The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race.” Ancient Jews agreed almost universally that abortion was a sin.

Early Christians, many of whom were Jews, continued the tradition of opposing abortion. The Didache, a popular first or second century Christian work, counselled, “Love your neighbor as yourself . . . You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn.” Likewise, The Epistle of Barnabas from the same era said, “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn.” Though these works were not included in the New Testament canon, they were read widely in the churches and reflected the position of early believers.

Contemporary abortion advocates, and perhaps even Israeli policy makers, may argue that the Bible is ambiguous when it comes to abortion. But that was not the position of Jews and Christians 2,000 years ago. They were convinced that Scripture came down strongly in defense of unborn life—and for good reason. Friends of Israel who “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) should add to their petitions that the nation would return to its heritage and protect unborn life.

What Does the Bible Say about “Behaving Sensibly”?

1 But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: 2 That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. 3 The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; 4 That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. 6 Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded.

Titus 2:1-6 (KJV)

Writing about the “Doofus Dad” phenomenon in 2005, New York Times columnist John Tierney recalls a conversation in his home:“One evening, after watching Homer Simpson wreck the family car at a monster-truck rally and plunge on a skateboard into Springfield homerGorge, my 6-year-old son asked me, ‘Why are dads on TV so dumb?’” Indeed, the boy had a point. Where once the television father was wise and admirable (as in Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver), today, he is a somewhat pathetic, incompetent fellow, who is “forever making messes that must be straightened out by Mom” (as in Home Improvement and Everybody Loves Raymond). This may be popular television, but it is not the biblical paradigm.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to Titus, the churches on the island of Crete were marked by immaturity and doctrinal confusion, torn by “empty talkers and deceivers,” (Titus 1:10), by those who trafficked in religious “myths” and ungodly standards (Titus 1:14). The congregations were in desperate need of saints who could stand firm against the current of foolishness.

In making his appeal, Paul used a form of the word sophron four times in six verses, and the King James Version translates it four different ways—as “temperate” in verse 2, “sober” in verse 4, “discrete” in verse 5, and “sober minded” in verse 6. Some versions of the Bible use the expression “self-controlled” (NIV and ESV), but this leaves something out of the equation. Foolish and evil people can exercise self-control in their pursuits. (For instance, the shame-ridden samurai showed extraordinary self-control in ritual suicide.) In other words, self-control is praiseworthy only in the pursuit of good and wise purposes. And that is where sophron comes in. As the NASB and HCSB aptly translate it, men and women are to be “sensible” or to behave “sensibly.”

This tracks with the Greek philosophical ideal of sophrosyne, a kind of moral sanity, whereby the person thinks and acts rightly. Sometimes it translates “prudence,” sometimes “moderation.”

Today, the words “crazy” and “wacky” can be used to praise someone, applied with a smile of appreciation. Often it is meant to highlight the subject’s daring, imagination, or humor, all of which can be good. But when the person lacks fundamental rationality and restraint, he becomes a joke himself. And as such, he is in no position to lead, either by example or by precept.

In today’s cultural context many find the “doofus” charming, and it is a role that many enjoy, because it frees them from responsibility; their spontaneity and eccentricity become ends in themselves, and no one can really rely upon them for a straight answer or a straight walk. So let churches and individual Christians lead a counter-movement of appreciation for the sensible person, who even in his or her lighter moments gives evidence of mooring in the rational, the accountable, and the admirable.