Coming up today on Renewing Your Mind, why church history matters. For this episode, what is God's Word?
That's right. Let's look at our story. And so you have to choose. You're either part of the one city church or you're part of the Catholic church. Now, whether we want to continue to make that argument or not, it was an argument to say the word Catholic shouldn't be handed over to anybody but should be held onto by Bible believers because we're part of the universal church that Christ founded and He has always preserved. So when I say we want to look at the Catholic tradition of the church, what I mean is we want to look at that great heritage of Christianity of which we are the inheritors and that was formed in the ancient church period. Now, when I say tradition, that can make Protestants nervous too. So I'm, you know, beginning at a difficult point. Catholic tradition, don't we want to avoid both things?
No, we don't. We want to be part of the universal heritage of the church, but we also want to see an emerging tradition. A number of years ago a scholar wrote an article in which he very helpfully pointed out the word tradition can be used in at least three different ways. It can be used to talk about a school of interpretation of the Bible, a way of interpreting the Bible. So we can think about the Reformed tradition as the way in which Calvinists interpret the Bible or we can think about the Lutheran tradition as the way Lutherans interpret the Bible or the Pentecostal tradition, the way Pentecostals interpret the Bible.
None of those groups would ascribe any authority to tradition and yet can be described as having reached a certain consensus, a certain understanding, creating a school of interpretation of the Bible. That's what I mean when I say we want to look at this Catholic tradition, not tradition as authoritative in itself, but tradition as a way of understanding the Bible and the meaning of the Bible for the life of the church. In the ancient church itself, the word tradition would take on another meaning, and that would mean the meaning that says there are teachings of the apostles preserved in the life of the church but not recorded in the Scripture. And there were some who would teach later in the ancient church period that that tradition, that apostolic tradition preserved in the oral memory of the church has an authority that we have to honor and follow and is added or is supplementary to the Bible. We as Protestants have rejected that notion, I think rightly rejected that notion.
We'll come back to talk about it later. But that's a second meaning of tradition, that somehow tradition has an authority of its own independent of the Bible. That's not what I mean by Catholic tradition.
I mean simply the universal study and understanding of the Bible as it emerged in the ancient church period. There's yet a third way in which tradition can be interpreted. It's the theory of interpretation that we find in the 19th and 20th century Roman Catholic Church where increasingly there's a sense that new tradition can be embraced and taught as if it were ancient but recognizing that it's not. And Rome has argued, well, you see ancient tradition can evolve in ways that are still authoritative. And when Pope Pius IX in the 19th century was asked, how do we know what tradition is and how do we know what authority tradition ought to have, Pope Pius IX gave a very honest answer and he said, I am tradition. What he meant by that is I'm the definer of tradition. I'm the only one who can really tell you what tradition is and what its authority is.
That's not the kind of tradition I'm promoting here either. But we're looking at how the ancient church understood the Bible and reached a consensus about the Bible and that's what we mean by the Catholic tradition of the church that we want to seek to understand. And what we're going to find is that in that ancient period, that Catholic tradition came to a clear biblical understanding about some remarkably important things that sometimes we're tempted to take for granted. For example, it was the ancient church that came to a very clear, a very full biblical understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.
I think for many of us as Protestants, we have a slight tendency to take the doctrine of Trinity for granted, one God existing eternally in three persons. How much time and energy does it take to figure that out? See, I just summarized it for you in one simple sentence. That's simple, isn't it?
No, it's not simple. It's very, very complex if you get into it and study it. And the early church, without others to help them and to guide them, spent a great deal of time trying to get that doctrine biblically correct. And part of the reason that we can sometimes take it for granted, almost assume it, is that the ancient church invested so much care and time and study and reflection and controversy to understand it that we are the inheritors.
But of course, we know we can't really take it for granted, can we? People will knock on our doors and tell us they're really biblical and explain to us that the doctrine of the Trinity isn't biblical or try to. And so we have people around yet today who are opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity. They are outside the Catholic tradition of the church, and we do need to, for ourselves, understand the Trinity so that we can answer them and show them out of the Bible that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine.
We'll be talking more about that as we go along. But there is a great achievement by the ancient church. Another great achievement is what we call Christology or the doctrine of Christ. Who was Jesus exactly? And again, we can very quickly and easily say, well, He was God and man.
A hundred percent God, a hundred percent man. There again, that simple statement that we can embrace took a long time, a lot of effort, a lot of study for the church to come to understand clearly, fully, carefully in a biblical way. And so we are the inheritors of that Christological orthodoxy that came from the ancient church.
When we think about the New Testament that we possess, have you ever thought about why are the books that we have in the New Testament there and why aren't there other books in the New Testament? Again, that was a matter that the ancient church had to wrestle with, had to think through, had to reach a consensus about, and we'll talk about as we go along how they came to that consensus. But there again, think of what a treasure that is for us that we have the New Testament as a fruit in part of the reflection of the ancient church as to what books God had given to His new covenant people. Another great accomplishment of the ancient church was the foundation of missions. The ancient church was a missionary church, and we'll see as we go along that there was a remarkable growth under the blessing of God of the church, great growth of the church in that ancient period. In fact, historians tell us, we never know whether to trust them or not, but historians tell us that the number of Christians in the world in 500 was about the same as the number of Christians in the world in 1500, so that numerically the growth of the church in the 500 years was remarkable and that the number of Christians didn't change remarkably for the next millennium. Now, where those Christians were shifted, by 500 Christianity had grown around the Mediterranean basin, by 1500 the center of population for Christianity had shifted north and west in Europe, but the great missionary work of the church was really in the ancient period and then alive again in the modern period. So that missionary thrust of the church is another great treasure that was performed and preserved for us in the ancient church period. So we ought to go in with expectation and thankfulness to those Christians who went before us and the remarkable achievements that they won for us. So in these things, Trinity, Christology, canon of the New Testament, and missions, we can embrace enthusiastically and fully what the ancient church accomplished. But that's not all. We can embrace largely, if not entirely, what many in the ancient church came to think about the doctrine of the church, the doctrine of the sacraments, the doctrine of the ministry, the doctrine of worship, and the doctrine of salvation. Now we'll come back to those things. If you didn't get them all perfectly on your list, that's okay.
There is no test here. But think about that. We may not agree with the ancient church, and we ought to also remember the ancient church didn't always agree with itself. There was lots of discussion and controversy over these things. But on the life of the church, the ministry of the church, the worship of the church, the doctrine of salvation, on those things we significantly are inheritors of what the ancient church thought and experienced. And so as we go along, we do want to focus on how what they accomplished has helped us. And you know, we're helped not only by what they got right, but we're also somewhat helped by what they got wrong, to think through as they had to think through these issues, to keep going back to the Bible and to use the Bible as the standard of all things.
That's part of what the ancient church did, and so they encourage us in that as well. So that's where we're going. We're going to look at about 500 years.
We're going to look at it fairly quickly. We're going to dig somewhat deeper on certain points than on others. And our aim is to sense how Christ has built His church and how we are the inheritors of a Catholic tradition that we very largely embrace and still helps define us. Now, having laid that foundation, we can turn to the world in which Jesus made that promise, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That was a world that for early Christians were dominated by two essential realities.
The first reality was the Jewish world in which Jesus and the apostles were born and raised and which significantly formed them. And then there is as well the Roman Empire or the civilization of Greece and Rome that was the larger context in which the church was born and in which it had to minister. So we want to take just a little time to think about that Jewish context and then that Roman context. Again, we could spend hours and hours doing that, and you might worry that I will, but I won't.
We'll just look quickly at these things. Judaism was a major player in the ancient Roman Empire. Some estimates are that as much as 20 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Jewish. It was a big presence in the Roman Empire, and it existed in two forms in a sense or in two ways, one in Palestine itself, which the New Testament reflects for us, but also in what was known as the diaspora, the scattering of Jews throughout the empire. And the scattered Jews, largely in the great cities of the Roman Empire, had already in one way or another adapted to living a Jewish life outside of the Jewish homeland.
They were often somewhat more flexible. They had come to terms with their pagan environment in a way that sometimes the Palestinian Jews did not. So Judaism tended to be somewhat stricter in Palestine and somewhat more flexible in the diaspora. Because Judaism was such a major reality in the Roman world, the Romans had granted to the Jews what they granted to all conquered peoples, namely the right to follow their own customs. The Romans were pretty smart rulers.
They knew the best way to rule was to, as much as possible, allow local nations to continue in their own ways with familiar patterns of government, often with local leaders from their own people whom they knew, and not raise any more trouble than was absolutely necessary. The main thing the Romans wanted was power and taxes, and as long as they got that, they didn't care much else how you lived. And one of the things the Romans had discovered was that the Jews were peculiar.
They were so fanatically religious that it only made sense to give the Jews special privileges in the Roman Empire. Now, the Romans and most in their empire were polytheists. They worshipped many gods. And so all the Romans asked is, since you worship many gods, add our gods to your gods.
You can go on worshipping whatever gods you want. If you're an Egyptian, you can go on worshipping Isis and Osiris and literally hundreds of other gods and just add to your list the Roman gods. And from time to time, demonstrate publicly your allegiance to Rome by publicly worshipping the Roman gods. And as time went on, that tended to focus particularly on the worship of the Roman emperor as a living god. And the Romans thought this was all very reasonable, but they soon discovered the Jews wouldn't go along. The Jews, from a Roman point of view, were fanatically, unreasonably, ridiculously monotheistic. And the Romans, again, a very clever people, soon discovered it's much easier just to exempt the Jews from any kind of worship of the Roman gods than to try to make them conform. Those crazy Jews are willing to die rather than to put a pinch of incense before the statue of the emperor. What are you going to do with people like that?
The only thing to do with people like that is to give them a special exemption from the law. So, the Romans did this all the way back before the coming of our Lord. The other thing the Romans did that was unusual for the Jews is that they allowed Jews all over their empire to pay the annual temple tax, part of the way that Jews supported the whole system of the temple, the sacrificial system, the priesthood in Israel was by paying an annual tax. And normally, the Romans didn't like that because it meant tax money was all flowing from all over their empire to one place.
And, you know, this wasn't paper flowing. This was gold and silver and hard currency. And they didn't much like that. They wanted the money, if it was flowing anywhere, to flow to Rome. But because of that Jewish insistence of supporting the temple, they gave a special exemption.
And for that, they expected Jewish cooperation with the Roman regime. And most Jews found living under Rome relatively comfortable. They could practice their religion.
They could go about their business. And Rome kept life rather stable. There were of course some fanatics that dreamed of a coming Messiah, that dreamed of independence from Rome, that dreamed of a golden age of Jewish freedom to come, but most were content to go along and get along. And that's the picture we find in the New Testament. That's the situation to which Jesus came. Most of the Pharisees, most of the Sadducees, most of the priests were relatively content to live under the Roman system. But there was this group, the Zealots.
They were hoping for freedom. And Jesus had to begin to speak, had to begin to function in this world. And it is also the world in which the church was born and in which the church too then had to figure out how does it relate to Judaism and how does it relate to the larger Roman world. That's Dr. Robert Godfrey with an introduction to his series, A Survey of Church History, and you're listening to Renewing Your Mind. Thank you for being with us today.
I'm Lee Webb. By the end of the week, we hope you'll have a better understanding of some of the men and events that have shaped the church as we know it. We'd like for you to have the message you heard today. It's the first message in Part 1 of Dr. Godfrey's series, which covers AD 100 through AD 600. You can request this 12-part 2-DVD set when you give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. We'll also provide you with lifetime access to a digital download of the series, along with a PDF of the study guide, which contains an outline of each lesson, along with questions for discussion. There are a couple of ways you can reach us to make your request. One is by phone at 800-435-4343, or if you prefer, you can give your gift online at renewingyourmind.org. At a recent Ligonier Ministries event, I sat down with Dr. Godfrey, and I asked him why he was eager to get this material out to as many people as possible.
Here's what he said. Well, I think so many people don't know their own history, and they don't know the factors that have really made them what they are or have made their churches what they are, and I think it turns on a lot of lights for people and really helps them understand their spiritual development. Well, I know that was the case for me when I first heard this series. I think it will help you connect the dots as you look at redemptive history through the life of the church. So we do encourage you to contact us today with your gift of any amount and request A Survey of Church History, Part 1, by Ligonier Teaching Fellow, Dr. Robert Godfrey.
And again, our phone number is 800-435-4343, our web address, renewingyourmind.org. Tomorrow Dr. Godfrey makes the case that the early church probably wasn't as doctrinally pure as many of us have imagined. Here's a preview. It didn't all suddenly become wonderful after Paul wrote his letters.
There was just a proliferation of heretical movements that tried to claim the name of Christ, insist that they were the true church, and led to this great competition who really speaks for Christ and for the apostles. I hope you'll join us Tuesday for Renewing Your Mind. God bless you. God bless you.
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