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A Remarkable Century

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
April 26, 2021 12:01 am

A Remarkable Century

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 26, 2021 12:01 am

The 20th century witnessed many advances, but it was also the bloodiest century in history. Today, W. Robert Godfrey introduces opportunities and problems that the church faced during this period.

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Wars, Holocaust, financial ruin, how the Church survived the 20th century, next on Renewing Your Mind. When we look back on the 1900s, we remember technological advancement.

Think about it. The Wright Brothers' first flight was in 1903. Just six and a half decades later, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. There were incredible advancements in health care too, but there was a depression, two world wars, a cold war, and breathtaking loss of life. Indeed, it was a century of dichotomies. Let's discover what effect all of this had on the Church.

Our teacher is Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. Perhaps you're thinking to yourself, do we really need a church history series on the 20th century? Some of us have lived through a good bit of the 20th century and think that we know what went on, remember some things, but I think we'll find as we go along that there are a number of things we didn't experience, don't remember, didn't see at the time about the 20th century, and that the shape of the century is really quite interesting. And very important, of course, for where we are today.

So, we'll plunge into it. I remember at the end of the 20th century, they would constantly talk about what was the most important book or the most important event of the 20th century. And I was always struck that almost always the most important thing had happened in the last 20 years of the 20th century.

It shows our tendency to focus so much on the present or the immediate past. Those of us who are here may remember a good bit of the 20th century, but we don't remember a lot before 1940 or 1930, even the oldest of us. And so, it's good to look back because one could argue that the most important single event of the 20th century happened before the 1920s.

It was the First World War that really changed the course of Western history, and we'll want to look just briefly at that as we go along. It was a remarkable century. I suppose people who lived through any century say ours was really a remarkable century. But the 20th century was remarkable, remarkable in its diversity from some of the very best things in human history to definitely some of the worst things in human history. Great advances in the natural sciences and in economy.

If we had time, we could go around the room and ask how many of us would be here if it weren't for the advances in medical science that took place in the 20th century. Life expectancy has been dramatically increased, at least for those of us in America in the 20th century. Economic opportunity has grown for many, many people, again, at least in America in the 20th century. Democracy as a form of government has spread much further in the 20th century than took place in the 19th century, and that has brought to numbers of people opportunities and freedoms that they had not enjoyed before. There have been some remarkable migrations in the 20th century.

Some of them we're familiar with, some of them we're not so familiar with. The African American population in America in the 20th century dramatically moved from the rural South to the urban North in the 20th century. From 90% of the black population being in the South at the beginning of the century, now 66% of the black population is in the urban North. That's a huge change of a big population, something we may not really have thought about or noticed so particularly. Clearly, Hispanic immigration has taken place in the 20th century.

Muslim immigration has taken place from the Middle East to Europe in the 20th century in a way that, as we're beginning to see, is dramatically impacting Europe. So, immigration has been a significant factor in the 20th century. But in addition to changes and positive developments in the 20th century, there have also been, of course, the calamities of the 20th century. The 20th century was the most violent, the most murderous century in the history of mankind.

That's staggering to think about. And when we think about that, our minds usually go back to the First World War and the Second World War and the millions and millions that died there. But there was much violence beyond that. Before the Second World War started, Stalin had killed millions, particularly in the Ukraine, with his actions to try to change agriculture in the Soviet Union. Mao killed millions in China in the communist revolution there.

We think of minor names like Pol Pot in Cambodia and Idi Amin in Uganda. Thousands of people, millions of people, dying violently in wars, some of them ideological wars, some of them simply power grabs. But it's been a violent century, and the violence, of course, in part is related to the advances in military technology. It's not probable that human beings are any worse in the 20th century. They just have more efficient ways of killing other people in the 20th century. And so it's part of the tragedy of the 20th century that there have been these huge shifts in violence and the effects of violence on massive populations. We also see in the 20th century, in addition to the rise of democracies in a variety of places, the rise of dictatorships in a variety of places, where old traditional governments were replaced by new dictatorial powers. It probably is going to take us more time to know for sure whether replacing Tsar Nicholas II with Joseph Stalin led to an improvement for the Russian people or not, whether replacing the Empress of Japan with Mao Zedong led to an improvement for the people of China or not. One needs a long view of those things. Those are difficult questions.

Improvement, how? But clearly, dictatorship was at least as much a phenomenon in the 20th century as was democracy. And so these huge changes that we don't think of usually as part of church history indeed had a great impact on the church.

That almost goes without saying, doesn't it? The church has to live in these circumstances. The people of God have to react to these both problems and opportunities. On the opportunity side, we can see dramatic missionary growth in certain parts of the world.

Despite the dictatorship and the repression in China, the church has grown dramatically in China in the 20th century, beyond almost anybody's expectation. One might almost think God is at work in this process. You know, that's always the problem with studying history, isn't it?

We can only study history as it's often put from below. We can't see the mind of God. We can't perfectly understand the activity of God. We can't perfectly understand the ways of God or the goals of God and what He's doing. We know He's at work. We know He's sovereign. We know He's accomplishing His purpose. But often we can't trace it as historians.

What we can trace is human motivations, human actions, human outcomes. And we can then try to evaluate it from the scriptural point of view. But we're always left a little uncertain as to how accurately we're tracing the hand of God in human history.

And we have to always remember that He is at work. He is the one who grows the church in China, despite all human efforts to stop it. After a century of intense missionary work in China in the 19th century, there was relatively little fruit.

I think a foundation was laid, but relatively little fruit. And then suddenly when it seemed impossible for the church to grow in China, when missionaries had been expelled, the church explodes. And it is a reminder when we get discouraged that God is sovereign and God is accomplishing great things. We've seen dramatic growth of the church in Nigeria, growth of the church in Korea. We've seen the growth of the Protestant churches in South America. There have been a lot of important things happening in the 20th century in terms of the growth of the church. So much so that many scholars and historians are looking at the church in the 20th century and saying, one of the most dramatic things that's happened in the 20th century is that the real center of Christianity has moved significantly to the south, south of the equator, because of growth in Africa and South America, and has shifted somewhat to the east because of growth in Asia.

And that the old centers of Christianity in Europe are declining, but new centers are emerging. It's part of the mystery of God's work in history. Abraham Kuyper thought he understood that mystery. We talked a fair bit about Abraham Kuyper in the fifth series. But that fifth series talked about Abraham Kuyper who really believed that part of the mystery of God's work in history is that God is constantly moving the church to the west. The church started in the Middle East, then it moved to North Africa, then it moved to Europe, then it moved to America, and Kuyper said, I'm sure it's going to move now to Asia. Kuyper predicted that Japan would be the next great center of Christian growth and explosion, so he wasn't a perfect prophet.

But it is kind of interesting. I don't think Kuyper's right to say that's the certain and infallible plan of God, but it is interesting to see the way the church has moved through the centuries. And it should certainly be a warning to us as American Christians where we tend to think the church is kind of vital today. A hundred years ago, the church looked just as vital in England as the church in America looks today. And yet a century later, the church in England is in a pretty deplorable state. And we as Americans mustn't be proud, mustn't be self-confident, mustn't presume that whatever strength we see in the church today will continue.

We do want to keep our eye on what God is doing, how things are moving, because in addition to the opportunities and the growth of the church we'll be able to see in the 20th century, there is even new and stronger opposition the church will face. We talked a little bit in the last series about the growing intellectual challenges to Christianity, which did become more and more culturally powerful in the 19th century. But by and large in the 19th century, those anti-Christian forces did not empty the churches. They may have controlled the universities, but they did not empty the churches. But in the 20th century, we're going to see that secularism really does begin to affect and begin to control not only the minds of the intellectual leaders of the West, but increasingly the populations of the West. And particularly the European churches took a terrible hit in terms of church attendance during the 20th century. Secularism is no longer just an ideology, it's a way of life.

It's an experience, and it's a way of looking at reality that increasingly will be controlling and powerful in the West in the 20th century. Secularism, you remember, is derived from that Latin word meaning age, this age. And secularism means our only concern is the here and now.

Our only concern is this age. We don't really believe anymore in heaven, we don't really believe in hell, so those are not controlling ideologies for most people. What really controls us is getting all the gusto as we go around once. That becomes a dominant, maybe not always quite so grossly expressed, but a dominant attitude for many, many people in the West. But secularism, of course as we see if we just turn on the news today, is not the only threat facing Christianity in the 20th century and on into the 21st century. Revived Islam is a threat to Christianity. It's interesting, when 19th century Christians looked at the issues facing 19th century Christians in the West, they often saw the struggle between belief and unbelief. And I think in the 20th century, we begin to see it is more likely that that should be expressed as the struggle between true belief and false belief. Even secularists are really controlled by belief. Secularism isn't just rational, it isn't just reasonable, it isn't just unbelieving.

Secularism is a believing commitment to a way of looking at the world. But it's not just secularism, it's Islam, it's communism. Communism seems declining as an attractive ideology, but certainly for much of the 20th century, communism was a hugely attractive ideology to intellectuals as well as to common people.

And, of course, in the middle of the 20th century, fascism became a very powerful nationalistic ideology for many people. So, the church in the 20th century faces great opportunities but also faces great struggles, great enemies. And as we go along then, we want to look at these situations. And you remember we began, I'm sure you all remember, we began our study of the 19th century by saying there were kind of five reactions we could see to Christianity in the 19th century.

And I think those five reactions can still help us as we look at the 20th century, although those five areas take somewhat different form in the 20th century. The first reaction to Christianity, you remember, I said was Christianity attacked or Christianity rejected. And we're certainly going to see that in the 20th century as well, as I've already said, coming even more intensely, more effectively, more effectively undermining the life of the church, at least in some parts of the West. And so, as we go along, we want to look in a little more detail at some of those attacks on Christianity. Secondly, we talked about the effort to defend Christianity by establishing it in law. And many European states had established churches and legal action was taken to try to protect against gross unbelief and against immorality. What we see, I think, in the 20th century is any effort to establish Christianity in law seriously in decline. There still are established churches in many countries in Europe, but the seriousness of that establishment, the significance of that establishment, the effectiveness of that establishment has really declined. So that Prince Charles in England is already suggesting that when his mother dies, he probably doesn't put it that way, but that's what he means.

Although, you know, she's got another good 10 or 15 years if she takes after her mother, when his mother dies and he's crowned king, he would like to change the coronation oath from being protector of the faith to being protector of the faiths, reflecting the pluralism of England, the pluralism of his own thought, but also the weakness of the establishment, who really is going to leap to the defense of the established church in the face of such suggestions of change. And so the whole establishment ideal is really collapsing and weakening in the 20th century. Thirdly, we talked in terms of the 19th century of accommodation, that Christians facing a new modern world and new modern thought tried to change Christianity and make it fit in better. And that was a great enterprise in the 19th century, and there will continue to be such efforts in the 20th century, but it seems to me, and I may well be wrong, I had historian friends who were students of the Middle Ages when I was in graduate school, and when they would ask me what I was studying, I would say, I'm studying the 16th century. They would say, oh, you're studying journalism. And it was their way of subtly saying the 16th century was too close to have enough distance to really understand what had happened. Well, surely we're doing a fair amount of journalism when we're looking at the 20th century. We are close, and therefore in trying to evaluate what's happened and what's important, we may make judgments that don't really hold up. I say that just to sound humble because I don't really believe it.

I think I'm right as I go along, but there are these two things. It seems to me, I don't know how it seems to you, that liberal accommodationist theology is in decline. I think it's in decline just because nobody much is listening or caring. People who used to really want to be able to say they were Christians really cared to change Christianity, so it seemed respectable. I think in the 20th century increasingly we live in a world where people don't really care whether you say you're a Christian or not, so it doesn't need to be accommodated.

It doesn't need to be changed. Certainly it seems to me what are known as mainline denominations are in decline. They are certainly in decline numerically, but they're also in decline in influence. 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, there was a lot of caring about what the Methodist church thought or the Presbyterian church thought or the Episcopal church thought. Do you get the impression anybody cares what those churches think anymore? The whole phrase mainline, of course, is sort of a deceit.

We'll come back and talk about that later. But I'm intrigued as a historian that for the first time in the history of the Republic, there is no Protestant justice on the United States Supreme Court. All the justices are either Roman Catholic or Jewish. And I don't notice any rioting in the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan or other staunch Protestant places. Where is the Protestant seat on the court? We just don't care. The Protestants don't seem to care and the country doesn't seem to care. So the accommodationist approach is still present, but it seems somewhat less significant than it did in the 19th century.

But we'll talk about that a lot more as we go along. Rome also is accommodating. We'll come back to talk about Vatican II and did Rome really change?

How much has Rome changed? What do you think about Pope Francis? He's making all his predecessors saints, so maybe he'll soon be a saint himself, but that's just a kind of mean-spirited Protestant dig. Pope Francis clearly is an accommodationist.

Now, whether it's only an accommodation of style, which I kind of suspect, or an accommodation of substance, we'll have to see. But Rome is trying to figure out what's going on. Then, fourthly, I said we have staunch Protestant defenders of the faith in the 19th century. We looked at Princeton. We looked at Kuyper in particular as examples of that. We have those heroes in the 20th century as well. J. Gresham Machen we'll talk about as one of the leaders of the intellectual response to liberalism in the early 20th century. We could think of Cornelius Van Til as a great apologist of the faith. We could think of someone today like Don Carson, who's a great biblical scholar, answering all sorts of silliness about what's going on in the Bible.

And we have someone like, oh, I don't know, R.C. Sproul, not only a real scholar in terms of what's going on intellectually, but remarkably effective at being able to speak to people who are not necessarily scholars, and able therefore both to defend Christianity at a high intellectual level, but also at a popular level, which is a very rare skill in history indeed. So, we have good defenders of the faith still in the 20th century that have made a significant difference. Fifthly, I said one way of relating to Christianity in the 19th and still, I would say, in the 20th century is the longing to revive Christianity, the longing to see it renewed, the expectation that God will do surprising, powerful, unusual things. And certainly, leaders of the Presbyterian churches in Korea have said they saw a great revival in the 20th century in Korea. Leaders of the Reformed church in Nigeria have said they've seen a great revival in Nigeria. Many people for decades looked to Billy Graham as the kind of visible manifestation of the revivalist tradition in America. So, revivalism as a goal, as an experience, remained a strong anticipation in the 20th century, but perhaps the strongest manifestation of the revivalist tradition in the 20th century has been the rise of Pentecostalism.

Whether you like Pentecostalism or don't like Pentecostalism, we'll talk about Pentecostalism in a lot more detail, but there can be no doubt that Pentecostalism is one of the most powerful Christian influences and movements of the 20th century and that it is very much a manifestation, although with significant changes, of that revivalist tradition. So, I hope I've whetted your appetite for the 20th century. I hope I've talked about a few things that you thought, oh, I haven't thought about that relative to the 20th century, or I'd like to know more about that with the 20th century. So, I hope you'll all stick with it, and we'll be looking at a variety of things relative to the 20th century as we go along.

And we look forward to that. We are all products of the church in the 20th century, and as Dr. Godfrey mentioned, over the next few days here on Renewing Your Mind, we're going to look at the movements within the church that shape us today, some for the better, some for the worse. So, I hope you'll join us each day this week as we continue Dr. Robert Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. In this sweeping overview, he covers the major events, controversies, and personalities of the church, from Constantine to the Crusades to the Reformation to the present. He helps us understand the growth of the church. When you contact us today with a donation of any amount, we'll be glad to send you the 12 messages of the series covering the 20th century.

You can reach us by phone at 800-435-4343 or online at Although we don't know what the history books will say about the church today, we can sense that change is happening all around us. Here at Ligonier Ministries, we want to be an anchor that holds against the changing tides, a source of biblically sound teaching to equip the church to stand for truth in our day. One source of great content all day, every day, is RefNet. That's our 24-hour internet radio station. You can tune in to hear Dr. Godfrey, along with our founder, Dr. R.C. Sproul, and the Ligonier Ministry Teaching Fellows, and other trusted pastors and teachers.

Listen for free at any time when you go to or when you download the free RefNet app. Tomorrow, Dr. Godfrey will show us how the modern missionary movement shaped the 20th century church. The wealth of the West enabled the churches to have money to send missionaries. Not that they paid them very well, but they had money to send them. But the complicating factor was that many local people saw the missionaries as simply imperial agents, saw the missionaries as coming to advance the cause of the West, not the cause of Christ. So how fruitful were their efforts? We will find out tomorrow, and we hope you'll join us for the Tuesday edition of Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-25 15:32:04 / 2023-11-25 15:41:19 / 9

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