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Message 20, A Survey of Church History, Parts 1-6 (Optional Session):

In this session, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey introduces us to his monumental 6-part study series on church history.

Message Transcript

Well, Michael shows you what really can be done with history, so — I remember vividly when we were about to record the last lecture in series six, Chris Larson came in to thank the audience, a number of whom had been there through the, the whole recording over the years, and he said that “Now we come to Dr. Godfrey’s 72nd lecture,” I felt, on the one hand, old and tired and on the other hand, I thought, how can I have had to leave out so much and have had still 72 lectures?

It is amazing how diverse and how complex the history of the church is. And of course we shouldn’t be surprised by that at all. The church has existed now for two millennia. The church has existed in so many different cultures and places and languages. The church has split into various traditions and emphases and theologies, so it should not surprise us that there’s a huge amount to cover when we think about the history of the church over two millennia.

But I set out at the beginning of the series not to try to cover everything in the history of the church. At least, this was my self-rationalization. I wanted to try to focus particularly on things that I thought were helpful for American evangelical Christians to understand themselves. Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get to be the way we are, both in terms of our strengths and in terms of our weaknesses?

And I had originally, kind of in the back of my mind, thought, “Well, maybe I will do four series on the history of the church.” I’d mentally often thought to myself that the history of the church can well be divided into sort of four segments. “The Church Formed,” the period about 100 to 600. “The Church Deformed,” the period about 600 to about 1500. “The Church Reformed” in the 16th century. And then a little more of a challenge for me, “the Church Transformed” in the modern era.

And so I thought, “Well, that, that would make kind of four nice series to think about who we are and how we got to where we are as American Christians.” But after I did the Reformation series, then it increasingly was impressed on me that the closer we get to the present, the more familiar we are with what’s going on, the concepts aren’t as foreign, the names aren’t as foreign, we begin to be a little more acquainted with what is going on in that period. And it seemed to me we needed to spend a little time to linger.

So I thought, “Well, I’ll do one on the 17th and 18th century, which I did the fourth in this series. Then I’ll do one on the 19th and 20th century.” But when I hit the 19th century I thought, “No, this phenomenon of getting so close that we know a lot and so many things are happening that influence us,” so Chris Larson was kind enough to let me do a 19th century and then a 20th century as the sixth and final series. Unless I live, you know, another 90 years and then maybe I can do a follow up series on the 21st century.

The transformation that I had initially in mind as I thought about the church transformed in the 17th to the 20th century was transformed by an increasingly new world. One can say that there are extraordinary continuities from the ancient world into the medieval world into the early modern world of the 16th century, continuities of a continuing commitment to a hierarchical view of reality. Some people were born to be in charge, and some people were born to work the fields, and that’s just sort of the way life is set up. Ancient people thought that, medieval people thought that, early modern people thought that. There was this kind of continuity of ideas.

In the ancient world there was a Roman empire, in the medieval world there was a Roman empire, and in the early modern world there was still a Holy Roman Empire. So, there were continuities of values and of texts, of religions, of cultures. Certainly a lot had changed, but there was a lot of continuity. But with the coming of the modern world, those things began to change.

And one of the huge changes was democratization. Democratization in politics, to be sure, but also in our look at culture as a whole. So we are much less inclined to think there are better people and inferior people. We are inclined, particularly as Americans, to think we’re all pretty good. And certainly we’re inclined to think that my opinion is every bit as good as yours, or a little better.

And this profoundly affects the church. Up until the last 100-200 years, it was generally the case that the clergy were regarded as the people who knew about theology and the life of the church, and the clergy were deferred to in the church. If there was some decision that needed to be made, the clergy would get together to make the decision and the lay people, they might not like it, but they would pretty much grant that this was what, you know, clergy were supposed to do.

But we live in a world now where an awful lot of Christians, an awful lot of good Christians, an awful lot of Christians sitting here think that their opinions are every bit as good as their minister’s opinions and you might, you know, listen to him. But then you might, well, instruct him in the way he really ought to think about things.

And you know, someone, a sociologist of religion observed that in 20th century America, people in churches pretty much get what they want. Because if I don’t get what I want here, I move down the street where I’ll get what I want there. Well, this has profound effects on discipline, on all sorts of issues. And this is the effect of a democratized attitude. There are many good things about a democratized attitude, but there are many problematic things about a democratized attitude.

So these are some of the things that I’m trying to alert us to, trying to help us think through, because the trap we want to avoid is the trap of being latter day saints. Now, the trap of being latter day saints is kind of two-fold. One is to say the church really did not exist in the past, and we’ve recaptured it. So I don’t need to study those past people because they were not real Christians anyway.

And what I’ve tried to do even, say, in the second series that I call “The Church Deformed,” just to say for all the problems of the medieval church, there were lots of apparently fine Christians there. There were lots of things we can continue to learn from those people. And we have to have a sense of that.

But there’s also a sense of being latter day Christians in the sense that we’re really trapped only in the present. We don’t, we don’t really know anything about anything except the present, and then we tend to assume that the whole history of the church must look just like our experience, because we’re in the church and then you read about the church in the 9th century, so it must be the same.

And the study of history, I think, helps us to be liberated from being trapped in the present. But also, then, illumines for us those things which just belong to the present. And if something just belongs to the present, has very little connection with the history of the church, it should at least give us pause to ask by being different in the present from the past, have we improved or have we declined?

Either is possible, and so I feel as if studying the history of the church is a wonderful opportunity to derive both wisdom from great minds and great Christians in the past, and also to derive warnings against errors in the past, because errors do tend to recycle. The devil is fairly clever. He doesn’t usually recycle things in exactly the same form, but he finds a new angle to come at things that if you know the history of the church you can say, “I think we’ve been here before. I don’t think we need to redo this.”

So having slowed down, it gave us time to look at some aspects of the 20th century, and I’m glad that Lee left this copy for me because I’ve already forgotten what we covered in the 20th century. But looking at the table of contents, I can call it up. And one of the things we talk about in there is fundamentalism, a very important movement in the early 20th century, a very noble movement in the early 20th century.

It was the great confrontation in American churches between fundamentalists, those who believed in the received traditional orthodox tenets of Christianity, the fundamentals of the faith, and the modernists or as we more often say now, the liberals, who were denying those fundamental tenets. And so, we look at how the fundamentalists were seeking to preserve historic biblical Protestantism.

But we also then look how that word “fundamentalist” began to take on not just religious and theological dimensions, as it had had originally, but how that word fundamentalist took on sociological characteristics that were more problematic. And it’s intriguing to me to find the word “fundamentalist” now used mainly in a kind of sociological way by journalists who of course know nothing about church history. We should send all American journalists the copies of my church history lectures, don’t you think?

I am appalled how ignorant American journalists are, by and large, about religion in general and about Protestantism in particular. But now, fundamentalist is a word used to describe any extremist, have you noticed that? We have Muslim fundamentalists. Well that’s just an absurd use of the word, really, but anyway. So we talk about fundamentalism here.

We talk about Pentecostalism. I’m really struck as I go back to look at what was in the 1970s regarded as the master work on American church history by a brilliant church historian at the University of Chicago, who wrote as the kind of culmination of his life’s work, a history of the — it’s called a history of the, yeah, A Religious History of the American People, Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, published about 1973, 1200 pages long, brilliant work. He gives three pages to Pentecostalism. Now it’s unthinkable from our perspective, only what? Thirty, forty years later, to think you could talk about the 20th century and give three pages to Pentecostalism.

Pentecostalism in the latter part of the 20th century became probably the hugest, expansive spread of a form of Christianity maybe in the history of the church. It’s a huge phenomenon that we have to think about. We have to analyze, why has Pentecostalism been so attractive, and what can we learn from it, and what do we need to teach it?

It’s a very important thing to think about, so we give 23 minutes to it, but at least we, at least we’re reflecting on it. Now, of course my favorite Pentecostal still is Aimee Semple McPherson, so I gave 23 minutes to her, too. But not to know Aimee is to, you know, live really an impoverished life. Sister was a genius in her own right and a very interesting figure.

So, I tried to mix up looking sort of at broad phenomenon, but also to look then at some individuals that exemplify some of the best and some of the more problematic traits in the church. I look at J. Gresham Machen, partly because he was the founder of the Westminster Seminaries and the founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but because — but beyond that, because he was such an exemplar of faithful, scholarly defense of Reformed Christianity. He was sort of the R.C. Sproul of his day and a really important man to know, so we talk about him.

I talk about how Rome has changed in the 20th century or not changed. I think one of our apologetic moves with Rome is to say, “Have you changed or not changed?” You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have not changed and yet also changed. Now you can not change in some ways and change in other ways to be sure, but what really has happened in the Roman Church in the 20th century?

How should we evaluate it? Has it changed for the better, has it changed for the worse? Has it really changed at all? These are important questions, because Rome remains a huge religious force in the world and remains an attractive religious movement to numbers of people.

And we need to try to get inside the minds of those who are drawn to Rome out of Protestantanism. That, I think, for many of us is always sort of a surprise. How could you be a Protestant, know the Bible, love the Bible and then become a Romanist? Well, we have to try to get inside the mind of what’s attractive and so we can understand, so we can speak, so we can talk.

I try to look a little bit at the relationship of the church and Islam. Now in the medieval series, I also talked about the rise of Islam and now the church is needing to rediscover some of the resources hidden in the history of the church to think anew about Islam, since Islam is renewed and more powerful today.

So, there are so many things going on in the 20th century that I concluded it would be good to spend a little more time there and to reflect on it and to reflect also on the fact that we as Christians have to face the reality that we are being and have been disestablished. The Bible told us that we would be exiles. And the Bible told us that a servant is not greater than his master and that if they hated Him, they would hate us.

But the truth is, for some centuries that has not been so self-evidently true in the West. Christianity, far from being exiled, seems often to have been kind of in charge. Christianity has been a huge cultural influence, and we got kind of used to that. It was kind of nice. And now, finding ourselves progressively disestablished, we don’t like it. The disestablished never like to be disestablished. When the revolution comes, the revolutionaries take over and the people who’ve been thrown out don’t like it. Well beloved, we are the thrown out. And we have to think a little bit how that happened, how do we relate to that? What should our goals be?

You know if you were king of the world, if you were Donald Trump, what would you want? There are some specific things we could probably make a list of. We’d reverse certain Supreme Court decisions. But we’ve all got kind of accommodated to the notion that Christians really aren’t going to be in charge anymore.

Maybe most of us don’t really want to go back to being responsible, being in charge. But what do we want? What are the moral values that we want the government to enforce? These are some things we try to explore a little bit in thinking through what it means to be disestablished and what our goals are to be for a society. We’re going to pass around a petition to ask the television networks to refuse to broadcast football on the Sabbath day. How many signatures am I going to get?

How loudly did the churches protest when we changed divorce laws to make us — make it easier to get a divorce? We don’t want unbiblical gay marriages, but we’re, some of us are rather satisfied with unbiblical divorced marriages. See, we have to take a hard look at our inconsistencies and our hypocrisies and our uncertainties so that, as we enter in potentially to a period of certainly more intense exile and maybe persecution, we have to figure where are we really going to stand? What are we really going to stand for? Was it R.C. earlier today who said — no it was Al Mohler who said, “What convictions are you willing to be persecuted for?”

And the more we understand the history of the church, the more we understand what disestablishment has meant for us and why it’s such a bitter experience, but also to see some of the opportunities it may afford us to speak a loving word, to speak for Christ as I tried to do this morning when I talked about creation, how we ought to present creation not just in controversial terms, but in attractive terms, to say to people, “We don’t live in a meaningless world. We don’t live in a dead world. We don’t live in an impersonal world. We live in a personal world that our God has made.”

I’ve been very struck by Jesus’ one healing that was a two-stage healing. Remember Mark 8, the blind man, and I think Jesus did that two-stage healing to challenge his disciples who confessed him as Christ, but did not really see him clearly. And I think Jesus was saying in that healing to the disciples, “Look, you are like someone half-healed of blindness who could see men walking around like trees, but you don’t see clearly.”

And I think a study of the history of the church helps us see those places where we see, but we see out of focus. Where we think we understand Christ, but perhaps don’t really understand Him clearly. And the history of the church, hopefully, will jostle us a little bit in places to look again, to look again and to try to look more clearly, to see more clearly as to who Christ really is and what he wants his disciples really to be.

And I’ve been teaching a Sunday school course on the Sermon on the Mount and was struck how Jesus wants us to be the light of the world; that’s not a great insight on my part. Jesus wants us to be a light of the world, but he wants us to be a light of the world in a very different way from the way in which the Pharisees thought they were lights of the world, going around being angry and judgmental and unhappy and not loving anybody.

And Jesus says, “I don’t want you to be my disciples who are unloving and judgmental and miserable. I want you to be my disciples, who are loving and whose light shines in an unloving world. And when you are disestablished, that’s harder to do.

But I am hoping a study of church history will help us, but I have to concede a study of the Bible will help more. Thank you very much!