I’ve been indulging my history nerd ideals of late with a few books. The highlight has been Mark Noll’s “Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity’.
You may know my advocacy of the idea of ‘train tracks’ (more theologically known as ‘compatabilism’) which is the idea that two seemingly opposed ideas can both be true, most often referring to God’s will and ours. The paradox is constantly before the reader’s eyes when examining church history: as humans make decisions and take action, one wonders where God’s will is in it. This post will consider God’s action in church history, that is, his supremacy over it. Following from this, I intend to tackle the issue of human action in church history and our responsibility.
On God’s sovereignty
Often when I read of God using the foolish things of this world to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:27) or God’s power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), I wonder how seriously we take that in a world where degrees, experience and good references are essential, even for ministry. However, reading church history makes it quite clear that for all the degrees, experiences or references we may have, we are utterly incapable of carrying out God’s mission. It is by his grace that he takes out vain efforts and brings fruit from them.
Take for example, the rag-tag bunch who figure prominently in church history. Consider Luther who, for all his education (he was a lecturer at a university), was unable to curb his acid tongue. Some of his accusations, such as his purported anti-semitism continue to have ramifications today. Yet, God used him as a voice calling for change and for the recovery and integrity of the gospel. Or consider Augustine (left), who became one of the greatest theologians of Christianity from the a debauched and degenerate youth. Or perhaps Constantine serves as good example. Despite being the Emperor who legalised Christianity and probably converted to Christianity himself, he also had his son and wife executed. None of these men would win the holiness Olympics and yet, God is not hampered by their apparent weakness. These men serve not as great examples to emulate but rather as great testaments to the sovereign Lord of all!
It could be argued of course, that despite these men’s shameful characteristics, they were brilliant minds and so made clever decisions that set the course of church history. One might suggest that their sin did not hamper their ability to set or re-direct the church’s path. However questionable that claim might be (for surely pride and self-reliance are also sin), church history shows God to be sovereign over bad decisions as well. Consider, for example, the banishment of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria by Emperor Constantius II and Emperor Julian, for his stand against the Arian heresy. Or the coronation of Charlemagne (right) which, on one hand ushered in the concept of nominal Christianity with full force and promoted the office of clergyman for the wealth it brought. Was Christianity sustained through the middle ages because of Charlemagne or in spite of him? It is difficult to say, for who can turn back time? But it is clear that despite these rather questionable moves, Christianity has endured.
Reading church history gives me great comfort that, as Jesus has promised, he will build his church. I go to an Anglican church and as the controversy over the Lambeth and GAFCON conferences continues to rage, it is a comfort to know that Jesus has been sovereign over the disastrous decisions of the past and that he continues to reign. As my own local church goes through a time of uncertainty, it is reassuring to know that Jesus has used the most sinful men and women in the past and that none of us are beyond his reach. As I think about my own weaknesses, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, I am so thankful that Jesus can still use me. Reading church history propels me to trust in the Lord Jesus, for, as a group and as individuals, I ask that our whole spirit, soul and body may be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord. And I am reminded that “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (1 Thess 5:23)
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.