The Gospel 2: A Historical Review
By: Deji Yesufu
I often find myself having to remind many Christians, particularly those of Pentecostal background that Christianity did not start in 1900 with Charles Parham or the Azusa Street Revival. While it cannot be disputed that some remarkable events happened with these early Pentecostal phenomena, they cannot be interpreted without looking at the 2,000-year history of the Church. In this blog post, I wish to examine how the gospel has been propagated, attacked, and then preserved throughout the history of the Church. Because it would be practically impossible to examine all the events that have occurred in this period, I will narrow down on only a few important ones.
After the Apostles
The Bible closes with the account of an older Apostle John in the book of Revelation whose writing dates to sometime around AD 90. It is believed that John was the last surviving apostle. After John’s death, the Christian gospel flourished in the ancient Roman Empire with a few periods in between when Christians were persecuted for their faith. The period of relative peace in the churches also came with its own challenge namely attacks from within the churches. The Apostles generally disseminated their doctrines to the churches through letters or epistles and so by the beginning of the second century the Christian world had become flooded with epistles – many of them claiming to have apostolic authority.
It is not known who the exact persons were, but some Church fathers came together and decided to select a number of epistles and books, and to call these the canon of scriptures – the Bible. Therefore, in addition to the Jewish Torah (Genesis to Malachi), the churches selected 39 other books and epistles to make up the New Testament. The Old and New Testaments therefore became the rule of faith for Christians. They were to become the rule, or canon, for all the churches. This was how we came about our Bible as the 66 books of revelation which God gave through his servants, his prophets and apostles, and thus passed on to us. The orthodox Christian position is that the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, and all rules of faith and life are to be guided by it. It is from this revelation that the Christian gospel emerges.
Constantine, Heresies and Contentions
Again, the Church will fall into extended periods of persecution and suffering. Respite will however come the way of Christians in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine, ruler of the whole Roman Empire, became a Christian. Constantine abolished the persecution of Christians and made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire – this is where Catholics get the “Roman” in their name from.
At the time of Constantine, the Christian gospel came under attack. A key element of the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ was being disputed by Arius, a preacher in Alexandria, Egypt. Arius claimed that Jesus was subordinate to God, that he was created by God and that he was not deity. The question of the deity of Christ divided many Christians and led to one of the earliest councils of the Church which Constantine presided over: the Council of Nicaea. In this meeting, Christian leaders from every part of the world came to dispute this question. Arianism was declared a heresy and the Nicene Creed was promulgated. At the Council of Nicaea, the doctrine of Christ’s deity was again affirmed. The doctrine of Trinity, which had first been formulated by Tertullian to describe the deity of Christ, was accepted as dogma. The gospel of Jesus Christ was preserved because the person of Christ in the eternal Godhead was preserved so that his sacrificial death could be better understood as God’s means of redeeming the world.
A little over a hundred years from that period, another controversy broke out in the Roman world. This time it was a reaction to the writing of Augustine, one of the greatest church fathers. In Augustine’s book, Confession, he had written: “… (O God…) give the grace to do what you command, and command what you will…” A British monk by the name Pelagius felt that Augustine was making light of human responsibility. He said that God who commanded “…be thou holy even as I am holy…” expected Christians to take responsibility for their actions and stop positing a lame dependence on grace – which he felt was the reason there was so much sin in their time. In contrast to Augustine, Pelagius maintained that man had all the grace to save himself. He said that man was born without original sin, and that by his sheer effort, man could “make heaven”. Pelagius’s views, which later came to be known as Pelagianism, were eventually condemned by the church fathers as heresy. Augustine’s views, that man was wholly dependent on the grace of God for salvation, were however not wholeheartedly accepted by many in the Church, although it was never labeled heresy. Through Augustine a cardinal doctrine in the gospel of God’s grace saving sinners was preserved in the Church.
Islam and Muhammad
The Church experienced a great deal of assault by false teachers through the centuries. Most of these men sought to include something into the heart of the gospel so as to make the Christian message lose its power. Thankfully the gospel was preserved through the teaching of sound and upright church fathers, and through the preservation of its orthodox revelation – the Bible. The greatest attack on Christianity will not arise until the eighth century with the life and ministry of Muhammad. It is important that Christians know something of the life of Muhammad as it would enable us share the gospel with Muslims and also help us guard against deception in ourselves.
Muhammad was born in AD 570 in the Arabian city of Mecca. He died in AD 632 in Medina. Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be a prophet of God. He was sent by God to proclaim Islam, a monotheist religion just like Christianity. The only problem is that Muhammad taught his followers that the Christian message had been perverted and that the revelation he was receiving was the true message God was sending to the world. Muhammad, who was said not to be literate, received direct revelations of God (Allah) through an angel (some accounts say Angel Gabriel) and relayed these messages to his followers orally. Many of his listeners knew these messages by heart and thus preserved them. After Muhammad’s death, there was a need to preserve these revelations. Thus, a compilation of the revelations was put together in what is called the Holy Qur’an. The message of the Qur’an runs contrary to the message of the Bible[i]. A few of them will suffice here: (1) Jesus Christ is said to be a prophet of God and not the Son of God. Muslims say God does not have a wife and did not give birth to children; (2) and that Christ never died on the cross, rather he was substituted. In other words, the Muslim Qur’an goes to the heart of the Christian gospel and renders it useless. Christians have long disputed the veracity of the Qur’an and the aim of this blog post is not to enter into such dispute. I am simply listing out historical distortions to the message of the Bible.
The Great Schism and the Reformation
Next, I would like to fast-forward about a thousand years after Mohammed was born. It is important to note that much of the ancient world was quite religious. While Islam was the dominant religion in the Eastern parts of the world, the West was ruled by Christianity. In fact, prior to the coming of Islam, much of the East had also been dominated by Christianity. There is a Christian denomination called the Eastern Orthodox Church that used to be quite dominant in much of what we know as the Middle East today. Prior to the 11th century, much of the world’s Christianity was under one great umbrella. But in 1054 something called the Great Schism occurred. The Eastern Orthodox Church split away from their counterpart in the West, the Roman Catholic Church. The dispute was over an article of doctrine regarding the exact manner the Holy Spirit was to be represented in the Trinity. But there was a greater underlying factor that had to do with the ecclesiastical rivalry between the leaders of the two arms of the Church. Since the fall of Rome in the 5th century, the Bishop of Rome (West) and the Bishop of Constantinople (East) had never agreed over who was to be subordinate to the other. This dispute would eventually culminate in the division between the two churches. It would also give Islam greater powers in gaining grounds in hitherto Christian nations in the East – because they were busy quarreling over doctrinal issues.
By the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church held ecclesiastical powers over all of Europe. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century would, however, change all of that. A German monk, Martin Luther, through his writing and with the advent of printing, began sharing messages with ordinary people – showing them that the way of salvation was not as the Bishops of Rome had prescribed but as was clearly delineated in the Bible. Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic by the Church of Rome but his movement had long taken over most of Europe. By the middle of the 16th century, most of Europe had become Protestant. But the Catholics will roll out her counter-reformation efforts and restore a lot of Protestant countries back to Roman Catholicism. But the religion that Luther taught which was further put in finesse by men like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin became a force to reckon with in Europe. This is what brought about the birth of Reformed Christianity. The heart of the reformed faith is a contention for the gospel, a call to restore the message of salvation that is able to save men from sin. It is this reformed faith that God through his mighty grace brought into my heart when I became a committed Christian in 1998.
In my next blog post, I would look at how the churches drifted from the Reformed Faith and the heart of the gospel and imbibed another gospel in its wake. As we do this, please keep in mind the lesson of this blog: how we received our Bible; how the fathers preserved a veritable item in the gospel, the deity of Christ, through the Nicene Creed; how Augustine postulated the great doctrine of grace thereby re-enacting Paul’s message in his time; how Muhammad received a new religion by the hands of angels; how the Great Schism occurred; and how the Protestant reformation restored the gospel again to the churches.
[i] Muslims have often maintained the position that Christians represent the facts on their religion wrongly. I have listed only two facts here: that Jesus is not the Son of God and that the Christ did not die. I would be very glad if anyone who disputes these basic Islamic tenets shows me that I was wrong in this representation of them. If I find it to be true, I would return to the blog and edit out this position.