One of the subjects I’ve been teaching of late in our Adult Sunday School class is church history. One of the challenges often faced in seeking to commend an appreciation of church history and historical theology is misconceptions about church history that are often found in Evangelicals. In this and the two posts following I hope to address several of these misconceptions.
Misconception One: After the Apostles the church did nothing but decline in its doctrine and understanding of the truth.
Sometimes there’s the false idea that, after the Apostles, the church, in every respect, began to decline in its understanding of the truth until we get to the Reformation. Actually, this is not entirely true. It is true that once the Apostles, with a capital “A”, were off the scene, the actual level of the church’s understanding of the N.T. Apostolic witness became more apparent. As might be expected it was very immature with respect to some truths. Also in the early period of church history, as in every period, Christ’s ongoing and progressive building of his church, and the activity of the gates of hell in resisting and fighting against it, are both happening at the same time. Since that’s the case we shouldn’t be surprised to find two very different trajectories in the Church’s developing understanding and articulation of the truth taking place at the same time.
First, there is, indeed, an evident drop in the church’s theological maturity after the death of the Apostles. But from the beginning, moving forward, you also find gradual growth in a proper understanding and articulation of some truths of Scripture. For example, the first three centuries were marked by tremendous growth in the maturity of the church’s understanding and articulation of the doctrines of the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ as embodied in some of the early creeds. And throughout church history prior to the Reformation there are both positive developments and negative developments gradually occurring at one and the same time. These positive and negative developments were happening to various degrees side by side until eventually resulting in a major rift between the true church and the now false and apostate church at the time of the Reformation. There are also separations between true churches and apostate churches at other times in church history over essential gospel doctrines.
This helps to answer the question people often ask, “When did the apostate Roman Catholic Church begin?” In one sense, little seeds of it began not long after the death of the last Apostle. And those seeds began to develop very slowly and gradually over the centuries. But, in another sense, the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today, actually became formerly and confessionally entrenched in many of her heresies at the time of the Reformation, with the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which met between 1545-1563. It was then the Roman church officially rejected the most substantial elements of the attempted corrections of the Reformation, including the gospel of justification by faith alone. At that point the strain of these two opposite trajectories of development became so great that those who would be true to the gospel were forced to separate, and to no longer consider the Roman church a true church.
This should help us see that it’s wrong to think that from the death of the last Apostle to the time of the reformation, every development in the church or churches was bad and there is nothing positive to learn from church history and historical theology until then. Many developments were good and there were many areas in which the church’s understanding of the truth was becoming more and more mature. We can learn a lot from those developments and should learn from them, while at the same time recognizing that there were areas of decline that were appearing as well. We’re not to think that Christ was building his church during the time of the Apostles and then he took a break from AD 100 until the Reformation. We’re not to think that when he said to his church, “And lo I am with you always, even until the end of the age” there’s an exception of over 2000 or 1700 or 1400 or 1000 years of church history. No, Christ has been at work building his church throughout history and in every generation. I’ll address other and related misconceptions in the posts to follow.