469: Church History

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #469, on the subject of Church History.

This title is overblown.  About fifteen years ago I did a twenty-three part series at the Christian Gamers Guild Chaplain’s Bible Study about Church History, which at the time I thoroughly researched and still had to be corrected on a few points, and I’m not doing that research again now and not even re-reading that series.  But I was asked a question, and I’m going to attempt to muddle through an answer which I hope is adequate.

The questioner asks me such questions periodically, and sometimes I address them on Facebook, but when they get complicated I resort to writing posts for this weblog.  This time the question reads:

I’m confused so I turn to you for enlightenment.  Even when I was Protestant I had no idea between charismatics and Pentecostals and Calvinists.  They seem to fight a lot according to these so called faith based preachers that are on my video feed.  I enjoy listening to them for purely entertainment purposes because frankly, they tell me nothing other than their dislike for the other.  Maybe you could shed some light.

For background, the questioner was raised Lutheran, attended a Lutheran Bible college briefly and became serious about Christian faith when he played in a Christian band.  He converted to Roman Catholicism to accommodate his second wife, and has studied the beliefs of that church more intently than he had studied Protestantism generally or Lutheranism specifically.  Most of that is outside the parameters of the question anyway, but it might help the reader to understand my starting point.

It probably isn’t much use to understand the origins of the Reformation, but I find it at least interesting.  We actually start in England with Wycliff, who put forward the idea that ordinary people should have access to the text of the Bible in their own language.  The Catholic Church opposed this concept, because it was felt that uneducated people reading the Bible in versions that were not the original text or Latin translations rendered by persons who had been identified as “Saints” would get wrong ideas and teach them to others–and there was by this time a long history of heresies started by reasonably educated and scholarly people who read the Bible and got wrong ideas from it, so there was some reason for concern.  Wycliff was far enough from Rome to survive scrutiny, and his message managed to reach a man in Czechoslovakia named Hus.  He wrote a few things that the church didn’t particularly like, but he didn’t actually cross any lines, and his teachings were preserved within the monastic orders for consideration.  They thus reached a young monk named Martin Luther, who found them enlightening and realized that there were some problems with what the church was teaching and doing at that time, so he wrote a list of problems he thought the church should discuss, his ninety-five theses.  He posted a copy on the front door of his church in Germany, as announcements of local interest were generally promulgated, and mailed copies to a few friends around Europe.  One of those friends had access to a Gutenberg moveable type printing press, untested technology at the time, and made many copies of this, which then flooded Europe, and what was supposed to be a starting point for discussion became a battle line for division.

I believe that everyone is wrong about something, including me; a major point of study is to identify my own errors and correct them, which I have done repeatedly over the decades as I refine my understanding of what scripture actually teaches.  A corollary to that is every denomination holds a fundamental error in its doctrine, and this appears at the Reformation.

Whether or not it was official, the perceived message of the Catholic Church was that to get into heaven you had to be sinlessly perfect.  To achieve sinless perfection, you had to be forgiven, and divine forgiveness was mediated through the church.  Thus you confessed your sins to priests who gave you absolution, and usually prescribed penance–good deeds you should do to earn that forgiveness.  Probably that would have been stated as demonstrating that you deserve it, but it’s not very different in concept.  Because of this Last Rites are extremely important, because before you die you must confess all the sins you undoubtedly committed since your last confession, or you will have to pay for them in Purgatory or even go to Hell.  This led to abuses–if the church mediates forgiveness, you can be given forgiveness for wrongs you have not yet committed, and thus the sale of indulgences had become popular, the church prospectively forgiving sins you planned to commit in exchange for substantial gifts you gave to the church.

Luther rejected these ideas.  Forgiveness, he argued, was not earned but given freely, paid for by the sacrifice of Jesus.  It was given to everyone who had faith, and the church had no control over that.  Calvin agreed with this–but then they had a problem.  They were determined that in their understanding Christianity was never about doing something to earn your salvation–works–but entirely about faith, but it struck them that if you had to choose to have faith, then faith was something you did, and therefore a work, and they were back where they started with using faith to earn salvation, something that was a gift and could not be earned.  They each resolved this in a different way.

As an aside, I think this is where the Reformers made their error.  Later denominations have argued in essence that faith, a choice, is not a work, an act, and thus you can choose to trust God and so be saved without that counting as a good work that you did.  Strict Reformation Christians criticize this as “Decision Theology”, that you get to choose whether to believe, because the solution to the faith-is-works problem that the Reformers gave is that you don’t choose to believe, God chooses to give you faith, to cause you to believe.  In support of this, Ephesians 2:8f is frequently cited, reading (in the American Standard Version) for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.  The error here is thinking that the “that” refers to the faith, but “that” is neuter and needs a neuter referent, and both “faith” and “grace” are feminine, so the “gift”, which is neuter, has to be the focus of the statement, the salvation which is given by grace and received through faith.

However, working from the assumption that faith had to be a gift, Calvin deduced, logically, that God decided who would and would not be saved, entirely arbitrarily, and individuals had no choice in the matter–either God saved you, or he didn’t.  This gives us the “Five Points of Calvinism”, which in English are recalled by the mnemonic “TULIP”:

  1. Total Depravity, that people are too corrupt ever to be able to do anything genuinely good on their own;
  2. Unconditional Election, that God makes his choice without reference to anything about us;
  3. Limited Atonement, that Jesus didn’t die for everyone but only for those God chose to save;
  4. Irresistible Grace, that if you have been chosen you cannot fail to believe;
  5. Perseverance of the Saints, that those who are actually divinely chosen will persevere to the end and so be saved.

Thus Calvin’s answer was that God arbitrarily decides who will be saved, forces those people to have faith, saves them, and condemns everyone else.  This is strict Calvinism.  Luther, by contrast, resolved the matter with an irrational solution:  God offers to give everyone faith to believe, and if you accept that faith it’s no credit to you, but you can reject it, in which case you are responsible for your own damnation.

The churches which call themselves “Reformed”, “Calvinist”, or “Presbyterian” generally follow Calvin’s schema, although as I read in a booklet by Catholics explaining Presbyterianism, most members of such churches are more interested in whether they are following Jesus than whether they are following Calvin.  It is also followed by some Baptist denominations, but others follow the line of Arminius, who attempted to correct Calvinism’s strict double-predestination system (you are predestined to be saved or predestined to be lost), which led to decision theology, adopted by many Baptists and most of the Evangelical movement.  It should be noted that there are Calvinist Evangelists, whose motivations are first that evangelism is commanded and second that we don’t know whom God is going to save so we have to present the message to everyone.

So we’re almost halfway there–these are the Calvinists.  They are distinguished from earlier Catholics by the belief that salvation is entirely by grace through faith with no relation to works, and from later Evangelical denominations by the belief that people really don’t have a choice but are chosen and given faith without reference to their own feelings about the matter.

We now have to move through a few centuries and a couple of “Great Awakenings” in which new denominations such as the Baptists and the Methodists arose, to get to the end of what some call the Third Great Awakening (others object that there are only two), involving Moody and Finney.  In the wake of this there were strange events, among them healings, visions, and ecstatic speech.  The concept developed that some people went beyond being saved to being “baptized in the Holy Spirit”.  This was the foundation of the Pentecostal movement, which led to the creation of several Pentecostal denominations united by a recognition of this “second” experience and manifestations of Spirit involvement, most notably speaking in tongues.

Established denominations in which this was not a reality could not accept the notion that there was “more of God than you know”.  Whatever this new experience was, it couldn’t be of God, because the established churches all believed that there was nothing else God was doing in the world that they didn’t have.  In fact, all of them had theological explanations for why these didn’t exist–they were limited to the capital-S Saints, or they ceased at the end of the first century as the New Testament replaced them, or the references actually are to natural gifts like preaching and translation and medical skills.  The Pentecostals couldn’t be called heretics because they maintained all the essentials of orthodox docrine, but many denominations believed that the supposed supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit were demonic.  Pentecostalism was thus marginalized for the first half of the twentieth century.

Sometime around 1960, plus or minus a few years, small numbers of members of traditional denominations became involved with Pentecostals (probably due to the ecumenical movement) and brought concepts of Pentecostalism back to their churches.  Beginning with the Catholics, these groups were called “charismatic” from the Greek “charisma”, a gift of divine grace.  Many of these groups “received the left foot of fellowship” from their churches, but by 1970 there were established “charismatic movements” in all the major denominations (Baptists were generally the holdout), but there were also independent fellowships built on charismatic theology that were evolving into churches.  They tend to blend Pentecostal experience with more traditional church practices, peculiarly mostly the Baptist practices and beliefs, probably because the Baptists were most resistant to accepting the Charismatics as a genuine move of God.  However, there are Charismatic churches in most denominations, and Charismatic groups in many churches that are affiliated with traditional denominations.

Calvinists generally believe that Evangelicals are wrong about the ability to choose to have faith, and thus they are against Pentecostal and Charismatic beliefs because of that, but also because of a belief that all the miraculous manifestations of the Spirit are relegated to the first century.  Pentecostals and Charismatics criticize Calvinists for failure to recognize that people can choose to have faith, and for excluding the power of God from their religion.  Pentecostals criticize Charismatics for trying to “pour new wine into old wineskins”, saying that the new move of God won’t work in the old churches, and Charismatics criticize Pentecostals for throwing out the baby with the bathwater, that is, overlooking that there is much in the denominational traditions that has value and should be preserved.

All of that is a bit simplistic, and indeed there are Calvinist Pentecostals and Charismatic Calvinists.  Most Pentecostals and Charismatics are Evangelicals, but not all.  Many Pentecostals and Charismatics fellowship together.  However, as has been observed by others, the closer any two groups are to each other, the more emphasis they put on their differences.

I hope that helps.

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