The Gospel 3: Historical Perspective Concluded
By: Deji Yesufu
I offer this historical perspective to my readers so that we might appreciate the whole 2,000 years of the history of the Christian Church. We must realize that just as there has been gospel preaching at many periods in time, we have also had much decline in gospel propagation through the centuries. For instance, heresies were inputted into the churches and the churches purged these heresies through reform works. And every time there is a reformation in the body of Christ, the saints have always needed to return to the Bible as their sole authority in faith and practice.
Attacks within the Reformation
The 16th century is regarded by many notable theologians as the period of the greatest works of the Holy Spirit on earth after the times of the Apostles of Christ. There are reasons to believe this because the two leading figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, operated from two different cities in Europe (Luther in Wittenberg, Germany; Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland); yet, they both came to practically the same conclusions on doctrines in the study of scriptures without ever having met each other or read each other’s works. John Calvin, a man who benefitted greatly from the ministry of these two men, would eventually put Protestantism on the map of the world through his ministry in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1536 until his death in 1564. Calvin’s book, Institute of the Christian Religion, is regarded by many Protestants as one of the greatest Christian literatures ever written. The teachings of Calvin gave rise to Calvinism as a denominational force to reckon with among Protestants in Europe.
After Calvin, trouble began within the Reformed Churches in Europe when a student of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, by the name Arminius Jacobus began to teach doctrines that differed from what the Reformed Churches believed. To preserve the gospel in the churches, there were not only a commitment to teaching the scriptures alone and making these the sole authority for faith and life, the churches also enacted confessions of faith. In the days of Arminius there were the Belgic Confessions and the Heidelberg Catechism. These two documents stated the heart of what Christian gospel was and they also meant to preserve orthodoxy. In fact most other reformed confessions of faith and catechism promulgated in Europe were designed after these two documents. Arminius teachings disputed some of the points of these confessions. After his death in 1609, his followers brought out five points about the confessions in the churches that they felt contradicted scriptures. These five points are regarded today as the five points of the Remonstrants. In 1618, there was a coming together of Protestant preachers from most of Europe at Dort, Netherlands, which is today regarded as the Synod of Dort. Arminianism was condemned as heresy in these meetings and the five points of Calvinism were postulated to counter the five points of the Remonstrants. Arminianism will however witness resurgence in the ministry of John Wesley and since Wesley’s Methodism had such a great influence on religion in a nation like Nigeria, our churches here also inherited some of the defects in John Wesley’s theology.
A New Era for Religion
The religious persecutions and wars that pervaded much of Europe from the 16th century caused a lot of people from Europe to migrate to the Americas. What is today known as the United States of America is the result of thousands of migrants to that country mostly from Europe. While the reformation brought a resurgence of religion and a greater commitment to the gospel, it also brought with it a wind of intellectualism, freedom and the tendency to challenge established dogmas and authorities. By the 18th century a spirit of anti-religion began to increase more and more in Europe. For the first time, people began to claim to be atheists (deniers of God’s existence) or agnostics (a belief that God exists but not intimately involved in the running of the world). Along with this was an increase in scientific discoveries and the bludgeoning of the arts. These led ultimately to the industrial revolution in Europe in the 19th century and the inpouring of much wealth in Europe. Men were beginning to be master of their own universe and the need to believe in an unseen God to be able to survive in this world and in the world to come began to wane greatly.
Probably the greatest attack on the gospel in the 19th century was the publishing of the book Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The book challenged the established belief in the churches that God created the world. It became clear to many that if Darwin was correct that man evolved over millions of years, then God did not exist. This book and many other theories like it helped establish atheism in much of Europe and this was also transported to the Americas. The Church took both a middle ground to this matter and an outright rejection of it. Those who took the middle ground would come to be regarded as Liberals at the beginning of the 20th century. Those who rejected the encroachment of science into the gospel were seen as fundamentalists.
Christianity Comes to Nigeria
The first missionaries to Nigeria came to the country around 1840. What this means is that Christianity is not up to 200 years old in this country; prior to the coming of the missionaries, our forefathers were pagans – without God and without Christ. Some of the earliest mission agencies to Nigeria included the Church Missionary Society (CMS) – a society consisting of Christians predominantly from the Anglican Church whose pioneering mission works were in Badagry and Abeokuta (1840); the Presbyterian missions to Calabar (1846); the Baptists missions to Ogbomoso (1850); and the Roman Catholic missions to Lagos (1853). The overarching theologies that these missionaries taught were those suited to their denominational stance; although there were certain instances where denominational boundaries were removed for the sake of unity of purpose. For example, certain Methodist, Anglican, and Baptists missionaries were known to work together to pioneer mission works in areas that were hostile to the gospel. The adverse condition under which these missionaries labored often made them to be immune to the raging controversies among Christians in their home countries. In the mid-nineteenth century when missionary efforts were beginning in Nigeria, modernism was creeping into the churches in Europe. So that on one hand there was the challenge of modernism, on the other hand there was the challenge of Arminian theology. It was in this atmosphere that the missionaries that brought the gospel to Nigeria operated under and it is near impossible to say that these pioneer Christian workers were immune to happenings in their home country.
Between 1900 and 1906, Pentecostalism was birthed in the United States of America. At first they were considered a cult because of two things: they had roots in the Arminian holiness movement that sprung up in the nineteenth century. The Pentecostal movement also had a distinctive: the practice of speaking in tongues. Prior to this time, no other orthodox or recognized Christian organization accepted speaking in tongues as a Christian practice. Churches understood speaking in tongues as a revelatory gift of the Spirit that had passed away along with other miraculous gifts of the Spirit which God gave to the Apostles during the apostolic era. The understanding was that after the canon of scripture was complete, there was no need for new revelations to be given.
The Pentecostal phenomenon however took on a different outlook in Nigeria. With little or no contact with European Pentecostal missionaries, supernatural works did break out among Christians in Nigeria. Three of them are worth mentioning here.
1) There was Garrick Braide who was originally with the Anglican Church but went on to have his own ministry – following some disputes. Braide led revivals in the Niger Delta areas of Nigeria from 1912 until 1917. Afterwards the revivals stopped and he went into oblivion until his death in 1918.
2) There was also Moses Orimolade, the founder of what is today known as the Cheribum and Seraphim Church. Orimolade worked with a lady prophetess, Christiana Abiodun Akinsowon until their split later in 1929. The duo led a number of healing and revival meetings around South-West Nigeria. Orimolade also would soon lose his followership and die in oblivion in 1933.
3) There was Joseph Ayo Babalola, who became an evangelist with the Christ Apostolic Churches, and led revivals in the southern parts of Nigeria between 1930 and 1935.
Christianity in Nigeria Today
These three ministries left a theology of Charismatism deeply embedded in the nascent theology of Nigerian Christian Churches in those early days. By the 1960s three things featured prominently in Nigerian gospel preaching: Arminianism, Charismatism, and the advent of the Word of Faith theology[i].
By the turn of the millennium when I became a Christian, these three Christian perspectives influenced the manner in which the gospel was preached in Nigerian churches. The Arminian bent in our theology meant that the gospel was preached with a defective soteriology in our churches. The Charismatic influences in our churches gave opportunity for the gospel to be presented as a means of deliverance from earthly troubles and pain, rather than as a message of deliverance from the power and consequences of sin. The Word of Faith theology also took Protestant religion to an abysmal level. While many orthodox congregations, like the Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterian churches still thrived, the younger population began to gravitate towards what is now known as “new generational churches”. These churches had an interdenominational outlook to them, they had charismatic leaders, they utilized instruments to make loud sounds during worship services, and most of all they preached a gospel of prosperity.
Please note a few things that may have eaten into the heart of the gospel over the years in Nigeria. First, the missionaries who brought the gospel to Nigeria came at a time that the Christian religion was challenged in Europe. There was the wide influence of Darwinism in the churches and most clergies were Arminian by theology. Following this, the leading features in Nigerian Christian theology was an over-preoccupation with the charismata: a tendency to use God to defeat witches and wizards, to seek healing to ailments, and to find general well-being from the pervading poverty of the nation. Then there was the import of the Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel from American preachers who often came as invited preachers to Nigerian new generational churches.
The three churches that I had earlier attended were new generational in nature. The “founders” had received a personal call to start a ministry in God’s name and the churches were run under their all pervasive influence. The present church I attend, Chapel of the Resurrection, is a university chapel whose foundation was laid on the same day the first administrative block of the University of Ibadan was laid in 1948. Today the Chapel is an interdenominational church that caters to the wide denominational spread among workers and students of the university. The Chapel does not have a “founder”; it is overseen by a body of elders with rational office duration and Chaplains are employed to cater to the spiritual needs of the members. But even the Chapel of the Resurrection, UI, has not been immune to the degenerative tendency that has impacted the gospel in this land. The Chapel also has a tendency to preoccupy itself with “awakening” effects of the Christian religion, while overlooking the elements in gospel preaching that should birth conversion and true Christian living among professing Christians. The danger of doing this is a tendency to produce Christians who are preoccupied with a lot of religious activities with no saving grace at heart.
I have not implied at all in this blog posts that everyone in these churches that I was or am associated with are not Christians. Not all. What I am trying to draw my readers to appreciate is the gospel of Christ and to see that it is in grasping the gospel message, and not in reveling in religious experiences, that a person can be saved. If we understand this, we would preoccupy ourselves with gospel preaching and not the seeking of experiences.
In the next blog, I would begin to look at the gospel proper. Thank you for reading.
[i] There is no space here for me to shed light on the heretical nature of the Word of Faith movement. For those who are interested in further studies, please read up a short note on this link: https://www.gotquestions.org/Word-Faith.html