The size and importance of Christian history

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St Bernard, c. 1450, in Musée de Cluny, Paris. My photo

Part of learning what I call ‘Classic Christianity’ as a means towards rejuvenating your spiritual life is discovering not only the theology and worship and devotional practices of the past but also learning the story of Christian history. A few months ago, I was struck by how much of it there is, and why, therefore, this is an important field of study and reflection for the thoughtful Christian.

It all started with Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle. At one point he stops to take count of the time since various events, such as from Creation, Abraham, Jesus, that sort of thing. And the time from Abraham to the Incarnation of the Lord is about 2000 years.

Most of the Old Testament, except for the very beginning of Genesis, takes place in those 2000 years. And all of it was written in those 2000 years. The Old Testament is the telling of the faithfulness of God towards his chosen people and the revealing of his character through his interaction with human history, whether through prophets, poets, priests, or kings.

We are now 2000 years the other side of Jesus Christ. We and Abraham, who is the beginning of the Covenant, are the same distance from the Saviour temporally. This is worth thinking about if you believe that the God of Christianity who is present here today is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We have 2000 years of the history of God with his people up to the coming of Christ. He has not abandoned that people. And if he is the same sort of God, who made himself known from Abraham to the Apostles, he will probably be acting in the same sort of ways (unless you’re a specific type of Dispensationalist, I guess).

This means that Christian history is not simply the record of A-Z, how we got from Jesus to Pope Francis and Billy Graham. While the writing of it is not Scripture and therefore not revelatory in the same way, it is still the story of God’s faithfulness to his people.

A careful, reasonable, yet prayerful reading of Christian history is a way of accessing the story of God and His people. Learning the stories of the saints and theologians and councils and heretics and attempts at reform and monastic foundations and so on and so forth is a way of learning how God has acted and still acts today.

I hope, therefore, that you will take an interest in the stories of the Church, from the martyrs like Sts Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna to the mystics like Sts Hildegard von Bingen and Gregory Palamas, to the reformers like Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer, to missionaries like St Patrick and Bruchko (Bruce Olsen). Their stories will show us the living God who is still here, who has always been here, who will stay with us forever.

George MacDonald & Universalism

The Last Judgement, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus (Photo Mine)

George MacDonald (saint of the week here) is one of those fantastic people that should hopefully make many of my contemporaries rescind their blanket statements about ‘Victorians’. Just read The Princess and the Goblin. Or consider some of his ideas about the afterlife.

MacDonald was a Congregationalist pastor who lost his licence to preach for not believing in the ‘Providence’ of God– by which, I think, is meant that extreme predestinarian view which teaches that God predetermined that I would have toast for breakfast and wear purple underwear on Ash Wednesday — and for teaching ‘Universalism.’

But MacDonald’s so-called ‘Universalism’ isn’t so bad. His belief was that everyone gets one last chance, basically. Thus, those whose hearts were prepared on Earth for Christ but who did not accept Him due to, for example, a lack of understanding of Who the Real Jesus Is, or who never heard of Jesus, or something like that, will look upon Him in the next life, and when they see Him, they will know that He is the one for whom they had been searching all along. And so they will enter the rest of the saints.

Those who did not prepare for meeting Christ will not enter that rest.

C.S. Lewis (saint of the week here) counted MacDonald as his great Teacher, and this seems to be the point of view we see at the end of The Last Battle when a Calormene (sp??) makes his way into Heaven because his worship of Tash was actually worship of Aslan all along — he just misunderstood Tash and Aslan, believing Tash to be basically Aslan and Aslan, Tash. That is to say, the basic character of the two. Thus, he joined Aslan in heaven.

Now, we don’t really know what will happen beyond the grave. The Bible exhorts us time and again to make our decision here and now. This means that here and now is very important. Nevertheless, I think that the living Christ can make Himself known where and when He wills. How did Abraham know the true God? Or Melchizedek? God is everywhere, and can be known by anyone. All those who choose God and His gift of Life, will receive that gift from Christ, our only advocate and mediator, in the life of the world to come.

The idea that some of them may officially be Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Confucians, pagans, or animists shouldn’t bother us. That Judgement is Christ’s to make, as He sits on the dread seat of judgement. What matters is Christ Himself and His Spirit.

Maybe Augustine is right, and only about 3% of all humanity makes it into heaven, that 3% being members of the visible Church who truly believe in and trust Christ. Maybe Origen is right, and we all make it, even the Devil. However, I’d rather MacDonald be right. Some of us make it, and it’s all about our Faith in Christ. Will we greet Him as our Brother and Friend, or fear Him as our King and Judge? ‘Twill only be seen as we pass the curtain.