CHURCH HISTORY COURSE
Time is the great organizing force of human life. We move through time, marching to its incessant staccato drumming. When God created this universe, he established time as its regulator. Galaxies and planets share space, but dance to the melody of time. All things we experience, including redemption itself, are filtered through time. Creation began time. The Fall altered our experience of one another in time. God called Abraham and Israel at particular points in time. Jesus entered our world in the fullness of time. The mission of the church unfolds through time. And Jesus will return at the culmination of time.
So the story of redemption is intimately tied to history. The first half of the journey is largely summarized in the Old Testament. The second half begins in the New Testament, with a clear testimony of Jesus’ life and work, and a brief introduction to the expansive evangelistic ministry of Jesus’ followers in the book of Acts.
Church History continues that story. We live in the “in-between” times, where salvation has come, but the world has not yet been completely reborn in its ultimate redemption. While we wait for Jesus, who began a good work in us, to finally make all things new, we hope in his goodness, tell of his love, and influence our societies with the grace of the Kingdom of God.
Although the history of both humanity and the Church of Jesus Christ are wandering, varied, and often darkened by evil deeds and experiences, there are also many notes of delight and confidence. For instance:
- In spite of many wars, plagues and deliberate actions of genocide, humanity has survived, thrived and expanded across planet earth, the home God prepared for us.
- Beside God’s providential care for the universe generally, and humankind more specifically, God also intervenes deliberately in our history, calling Abraham and his family Israel to walk in a unique understanding of faith and life, sending Jesus as the Savior, and empowering the church’s witness through the Holy Spirit.
- Even though the Christian Church is splintered into many denominations and liturgical practices, it remains one its core beliefs about Jesus and its testimony about the way of salvation.
- In fact, the Christian Church remains the single largest human social organization in the world, and has influenced human history more extensively since Jesus’ coming than has any other cultural or philosophic movement.
- The church lives in this world as a witness to Jesus’ redemptive activities and power, and is the primary voice of God’s continuing mission of reconciling love.
Throughout church history, Christians have probed the nuances of these foundational testimonies. Influenced by cultural changes and challenges, a number of different families of theological reflection have emerged. Our approach at CLC lies within the Reformed tradition, built upon the expansive insights of John Calvin at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Central to this theological approach are these emphases:
- The distinction between “regeneration” (God’s one-time act accomplished solely through the work of Jesus) and “sanctification” (God’s on-going transformative activity taking place in partnership with redeemed persons and communities).
- The “Presbyterian” form of church structure, built around the primacy (but not independence) of the local congregation governed by Elders and Deacons who are called and elected from the membership because of their obvious spiritual gifts.
- Appreciation of the sacraments as two in number (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), each being a sign and seal of God’s redemptive love, but not actually transacting merit.
- Viewing the “Law of God” as not only normative for creation and as announcing human sinfulness, but also as guiding our redeemed response of sanctified living.
The 10 Session Church History Learning Experience
SESSION 1 – Survival & Spread
Key Idea: Through the expansive conquests of the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires, the world was uniquely prepared for the rapid expansion of the church. When Christians began to testify about Jesus, their message and lifestyle were wonderfully received by many. At the same time, through cultural and political opposition, wide-spread persecutions against Christianity began. Key Christian teachers helped consolidate critical Christian doctrines, and encourage believers’ faithfulness through times of terror.
SESSION 2 – Consolidation & Controversy
Key Idea: In the midst of the worst persecution, Constantine changed the direction of Christianity. The peace and government support he brought allowed the church to wrestle with two key issues: (1) was the man Jesus also fully God? (2) is the divine Christ truly human?
SESSION 3 – Expansion & Division
Key Idea: Peace and prosperity led some to develop monasticism as a more rigorous and holy expression of Christian piety. Augustine became a key theologian, forming church doctrine in controversies with the Donatists, Pelagius, and Roman power. Cultural differences and theological emphases increasingly split the Church into eastern (Orthodox) and western sections (Roman Catholic).
SESSION 4 – Church & State
Key Idea: After Rome was abandoned by the Empire’s government (which had moved to Constantinople) and overrun by invaders, the Christian church became the leading governing authority in the west, which led to a centuries-long struggle between church and state for rule of European society. Two figures solidified the competing views: (1) Gregory the Great expressed the heights of church and papal authority, while (2) Charlemagne expressed the heights of civil authority.
SESSION 5 – Islamic Challenge
Key Idea: Islam arose in the 8th century as a major challenge to Christianity, quickly dominating the Middle East, and expanding rapidly through northern Africa, eastern Europe and Spain. When the eastern church felt hopeless and nearly overrun, its leaders appealed to Rome for help. The four major and many subsequent “crusades” that resulted (1) consolidated Europe, (2) strengthened the power of the papacy, (3) nurtured unending tensions between Islam and Christianity, and (4) caused further harm to relations between the western and eastern branches of the church.
SESSION 6 – Reforming Movements
Key Idea: The power and pervasive influence of the Roman papacy and church created a growing movement of simpler, less encumbered and more pious expressions of Christianity, notably the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Waldenses. Along with these movements, at least three key spokespersons articulated what a reformed church should look like: Arnold of Brescia, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus
SESSION 7 – Reformation
Key Idea: Martin Luther initiated an irreversible movement of church reform, initially responding to the problem of indulgences, the power of the papacy, and the manner in which the sacraments were viewed and used. John Calvin further defined church reform through extensive biblical study and an emphasis on preaching, articulation of what has come to be known as the “Presbyterian” form of church leadership, and an emphasis on pervasive social expressions of Christian piety. Anabaptist leaders extended the Reformation into complete separation of church from state, holiness communities seeking temporal perfection, and minimizing of church structures and symbols, while in England, the Reformation took on a more social-cultural character, and was led by rulers seeking to establish a uniquely English form of Christianity.
SESSION 8 – Religious Wars
Key Idea: The multiple expressions of Christianity post-Reformation, often tied to regional groups and authorities, precipitated a lengthy period of destructive “religious wars.” One of the outcomes of this tension and devastation was a significant migration of persecuted Christian groups to the “New World,” creating a unique relationship between Christianity and the formation of new American nations.
SESSION 9 – Enlightenment & Revivals
Key Idea: The Enlightenment sharply challenged Christianity, calling into question its belief in God, revelation, miracles and human need for divine salvation. Naturalistic evolutionary theory sharply challenged biblical doctrines of creation and the uniqueness of humanity. A major Christian response to these challenges was privatization of belief, anti-intellectualism, division of life into “sacred” and “secular”, and the promotion of conversion through personal evangelism and revivals.
SESSION 10 – Mission & Social Gospel
Key Idea: As exploration and colonization spread European and American influence world-wide, Christianity followed in a global mission effort. In the modern age, Christianity has had to respond to slavery, worker exploitation, social inequalities, Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, war and genocide.
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