World’s Shortest Church History Lesson

Recently, I taught the World’s Shortest Church History Lesson to the kids in my Sunday school. What I tried to accomplish in one hour was to trace the three ways people have tried to established religious authority since the Reformation. That’s a Big Undertaking, I know, and it requires a lot of simplification, but here’s what I came up with:

The three bases for religious authority that people usually appeal to are: 1) Tradition, 2) Scripture, and 3) Nature (or “science”). From three very different foundations, you get three very different kinds of movements: If your primary basis for controlling what you believe and the way you do church is Tradition, what you end up with is Fundamentalism (if it’s good enough for grandpa, it’s good enough for me). If your primary basis for controlling what you believe and the way you do church is Scripture, then what you end up with is Evangelicalism (Evangelical – meaning “gospel based” since the number one thing you can derive from scripture is the gospel – everything else is extra). Interestingly, in Germany, the Lutheran church has always called itself the Evangelical church. Last, if your primary basis for controlling what you believe and how you do church is Nature, or “science,” what you end up with is something you might call “modernism” or “liberalism.”

The odd thing is what happens when you look at how these kinds of ideas have played out in the last 500 years. The first evangelical movement first came about as a result of new scholarship which allowed people to seriously study the scriptures in their original documents. They soon discovered that their traditions didn’t particularly match up with what the scriptures taught, and so they had a choice to make. The majority of those scholars chose scripture over tradition (they were scholars, you know) and so was born the Reformation. But the majority of the church chose tradition, and at the Council of Trent, they sealed it into law that scripture was important, but it was to be primarily interpreted in the light of the great thousand year Roman Catholic tradition. And for the next 400 years, the Catholic church was essentially what we would call Fundamentalist.

The origins of naturalism were pretty innocuous at first. After half a century of war between Catholics and Protestants, Christians wanted to find a third option that both sides could agree to and so end the fighting. Some people suggested that, with all the recent improvements in the way we understand nature – God’s second book – we could use Nature as a basis for establishing certain doctrines that all Christians could agree too. Doctrines such as the unity of God and the fact of His existence based on the obvious design of nature. Unfortunately, as science became more and more advanced, there turned out to be less and less that you could prove from it theologically without the aid of scripture or tradition. And one day in the late 1800’s, a man named Charles Darwin, the son of a Church of England minister, presented a surprisingly cogent scientific argument that said you could trace the origin of species back to practically nothing without the aid of any divine influence whatever. Suddenly naturalism, rather than being a source of Christian unity was a foundation for a theology of an entirely different nature: atheism.

In the 20th century, there has been a frantic urge to do something to reconcile with the naturalists. One popular theologian put it this way:

It is impossible to use the electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. We may think that we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian Faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world

The Catholics, bless their fundamentalist souls, knew exactly what to do with such a theory: it wasn’t part of their tradition, so modernism of any kind was essentially banned.

But Protestants didn’t have any mechanism for enforcing such a uniform response. In fact, the loudest voices for modernism were the same voices that, a generation before had been arguing for new methods of evangelism, and for the modern missions movement. Innovation was not strange to them, and the modern system of religion relied on both science and scripture. Other Protestants, of course recognized that revamping their theology because telephones make them uncomfortable with the resurrection of the dead had no place in either the scriptures or the 400 year tradition of the Protestant church. They began writing books on “The Fundamentals,” arguing from both scripture and tradition against modern, liberal religion.

So far, we come to about 1950, and things mostly make sense. We have three groups: Fundamentalists, who base their religion primarily on tradition (but with scripture as a part of that tradition), Evangelicals, who base their religion primarily on scripture (but with a little tradition thrown in), and Liberals, who are willing to reform everything to fit with the way they understand God working in the natural world. In the Fundamentalist camp, we have firmly placed the Catholics. Straddling the fence between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism we have the conservative Protestants. In the Liberal camp, we have the modernist Protestants, and a smattering of atheists and agnostics. Over the last 60 years, Protestant Evangelicals and Fundamentalists proper have teased themselves into separate camps. But the truly bizarre thing has happened among the Catholics.

In 1962, the Roman Catholic church organized the last great “ecumenical” council, Vatican II. I couldn’t even begin to summarize the changes wrought in that council, but from my Protestant perspective, the general thrust has been to move the Roman church away from their long history of fundamentalism. Among other things, they announced a reversal of the decision of the Council of Trent, that Protestants were essentially all bound for hell. Now we are recognized as “estranged brothers.” We’re still wrong, but were probably all going to heaven. The primary basis of authority for all these changes? Ultimately (as far as I can tell) – Scripture.

This is huge. And of course, a fundamental shift of these proportions caused great mayhem in their church. Some felt the changes were wrong, and still hope to cling to the old Catholic ways. You might call these fundamentalist Catholics. I understand Mel Gibson is one. On the other end, some Catholics think the changes were too timid, and want to push for a full modernist revision: ordaining women priests, condoning abortion, and every innovation in between. We’ll label these “liberal Catholics” and call them crazy. But the vast majority of the Catholic church has come along with Vatican II, which makes them by all accounts, another brand of Evangelical.

Most amazingly of all, the current Pope is a trained German Theologian. He’s writing a book on the life of Jesus Christ, based on historical and scholarly research, which intends to support the testimony of scripture, on its own grounds, and not under the authority he has as Pope. By my reckoning, the Pope is Evangelical.

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

3 thoughts on “World’s Shortest Church History Lesson”

  1. I loved the break-down. I especially loved it since I didn’t have to dig through hundreds of years of old feuds with politics and power masquerading as piety to get it. I did have one question. Do you think the kids got it. If they did, it will serve them all their lives.


  2. Nice. I like the breakdown. I’m particularly amazed with the last paragraph. I’ve like the last number of years of Pope John Paul, and now the new pope. When I learned that the current Pope was the major influence in John Paul’s later, more evangelical, moves, I was quite happy. I have felt in my heart for years that a great refocusing is moving amongst the church and a lot of burned bridges will be rebuilt. Did you see the article a week or two ago where large parts of the Anglican Commune are looking to return to the Catholic Church?


  3. Mom –
    I don’t have any idea if kids “got it.” Some of them took notes, which was nice, but I only had an hour, and it takes lots of repetition before something like that makes it into your mindset. You don’t really get it, until you start seeing repercussions in other areas in your life. On the other side of things, I’m not sure our pastor is familiar with the changes brought by Vatican II. I think he still sees relations between Protestants and Catholics being primarily in terms of the Council of Trent.

    Daniel –
    I did see your post about it. I’m all for rebuilding bridges, and I can see the appeal for an Anglican in an apostate Episcopal church, but I’m not so sure I’m in favor of just joining the Catholics. I mean, if your church suddenly went apostate, would you be becoming Catholic? Since the split with the Catholic church, the Anglican Communion has considered itself a part of the Eastern Orthodox community of churches (a feature I dropped from my “lesson” because it was too much of a complication). One of the key features of the Orthodox churches, versus the Catholic church is that it is made up of a community of hierarchies, based around a people with a common heritage and tongue, and led by the bishop of the largest church in the largest metropolis in the region. So, for instance, Antioch has a Patriarch that is on equal footing with the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is on equal footing with the Archbishop of Canterbury. (If all the non-denominational charismatic churches in NE Oklahoma suddenly became Orthodox, Billy Joe Daugherty would become the Bishop of Tulsa. Scary? 🙂 ) Since the primary distinction is geographical, rather than theological per se, it would be inappropriate for a small church in Syria to just up and join the church of Moscow.

    All that to say that there’s also a group of Anglicans forming an American “Anglican Community” that is politically distinct from the Episcopal church, but still associated with the Orthodox communion. If I were Episcopal, I’d be pushing to join that one, rather than just switching to Catholic.


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