Window on the Past Setting the Stage: A Belief in History Master of Divinity Student, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Assistant to the Editorial Director, reformation21.

Article by   June 2006

It should not escape the attention of the Christian disciple that some of the most profound spiritual mysteries are very often closely tied to time and history. Take the incarnation for example. Arguably the most weighty of spiritual realities, and yet Luke's accounting of this inscrutable certainty begins with a simple, straightforward historical accounting, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria." (Luke 2:1-2)

In a day where the historicity of Jesus and the gospels is under enormous attack and where Gnosticism is rising in popularity at an exponential rate, even haunting the headlines of national news, it is essential that the Church uphold the deeply historical nature of the Christian faith. It is, after all, no small thing that the Apostle Paul, when he considers the breaking of the Son of God into a time ordered existence describes that moment as the very "fullness of time" (Gal.4:4). It seems that Paul understands time and redemption to be converging in upon one another, that time is brought to maturity in the events of redemptive history, at the point where the threshold of the temporal is crossed by eternity itself.

And not of little importance is the historical fact that Christ's birth coincides with the rise of the great Roman Empire, an Empire whose influence dominated the psyche of the common man and brought considerable advances to the far reaches of the then known world. And if it is not presumptuous to say so, one can, I think, discern the imprint of God's finger on the choosing of this moment in time.

The Roman Empire literally extended from the Euphrates river valley to what we today call the British Isles all the way to the deserts of Africa. And, as you might imagine with a dominion covering such a mass of land, the indigenous people groups represented in these various provinces were now brought together under Roman authority and law. Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Oriental cultures were for the first time substantially unified--all cultures that, prior to the exploits of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, were separate and disconnected. Indeed no peaceful interchange, at least not of any consequence, had been established between these nations prior to this time. What Rome had accomplished was, in this sense, unparalleled.[1]

Now, this unity of government greatly aided the spread of the gospel in New Testament times. As Henry Sheldon noted, "The entire plan of Roman conquest and polity encouraged intercommunication."[2] In order for a nation to remain intact over such a vast expanse and diversity of cultures, a reliable means for communication and travel had to be instituted. Thus, early on we find Rome establishing five main lines of travel from the capital city to all the various corners of the Empire. This advance opened up the Empire to travel and more direct oversight, not to mention the fact that it greatly benefited the Empire financially by establishing trade routes from within the Empire's jurisdiction.

In terms of Christianity, this advance provided the Apostles to move easily between cities without the fear of robbers or war. Before Roman roads and sea routes, it would have been inconceivable (humanly speaking) of visiting all the places that Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and the others were able to visit. This advance paved the way for the spread of the gospel, though certainly unintended by the Roman government. Evangelists could walk from province to province with ease and with safety, something unthinkable just two hundred years prior.

Further, with this political unity there came a unity of language. Greek became the common tongue of the Roman Empire, the so-called lingua franca.[3] This was necessary, again, for purposes of communication and rule. If governmental officials were going to oversee the varying provinces of the Empire, particularly those extending into the Orient, they must share a common speech--a speech conducive to the promotion of the unity of the Empire.

Clearly, the establishment of Greek as the language of the Empire had a significant impact on the spread of Christianity. As Paul traveled from city to city, he was able to utilize a language that many, if not the majority, would have understood. Also, and most significantly, this shared language supplied the writers of the New Testament with a common language from which to write. The language employed in the writing of the New Testament was Koine Greek, the official language and dialect of the average Roman citizen. Thus, the writings of the Apostles were not obscure and unapproachable but were able to be read publicly in worship and passed along to neighboring churches for their growth and edification.

And, as providence would have it, Greek proved to be a language well suited to communicating the sometimes highly nuanced expressions of the truth we find in the writings of the New Testament authors. Different tones, textures, and degrees can be discerned in the word choice and grammar of Scripture, largely because Greek is a language that can accommodate such fine distinction. In other words, Greek, with its capability for specificity and delineation, served to protect orthodoxy and, consequently, the health of the early church.

It should also be noted how the unification of different people groups under Roman rule helped build bridges across cultural barriers. With roads to connect them physically and a language to connect them linguistically, ethnic and tribal barriers were greatly weakened in the process. People who would have been regarded as strangers in a given area were now commonly seen and spoken too. This is not to say that distinctive characteristics of nationalities were entirely smoothed out or simply abandoned, but that with greater familiarity existent between people groups, there came a greater sense of solidarity. Under the jurisdiction of Rome, these once separate people groups were now bound together. Rome became, if you will, their common identity.

Again, this solidarity greatly served the Apostles in their evangelistic enterprise. This is particularly true of the Apostle to the Gentiles, for he was both a Jew and a Roman citizen. Remarkably, Paul was able to proclaim the gospel in the synagogues to Jews in Athens and immediately following reason with the Areopagus. Different though these two people groups and their religious convictions were, the Roman world accommodated both, committed as the Empire was to philosophical and religious syncretism.[4]

Admittedly, syncretism as it was encouraged in Rome was more of a political maneuver than anything else. For Rome was able to extend its domain and rule by welcoming the gods of foreign nations into the Pantheon. Such alacrity towards foreign gods, made Rome appealing to outsiders and helped make the transition of nations into the Roman Empire much smoother. Of course the Roman religious heritage was wide enough to accept almost any god, just so long as that god (and the people who served that god) were willing to accept all others. This becomes, as you may well foresee, a major sticking point in the relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity.

However, at this point, the march of Christianity was both helped along and hindered by Rome's syncretistic policy. It was a helped in the sense that tremendous freedom was given to expounding and exporting religious and philosophical ideas within the confines of Rome. Thus, in the early days of the Church the Apostles were able to proclaim the Christian gospel alongside other religious beliefs with little antagonism, Pharisees and Sadducees notwithstanding at the moment. The curse of this freedom is fairly obvious. Many perceived the Christian God as just one more god among the gods. This perception changed fairly rapidly, however; when it became patently clear that the Christian's religious claim, like the Jews, was exclusive in nature. The Christian God was not a god among gods, but the God--the one and only God.

When this began to be understood by Roman officials, the relationship between Christianity and Rome deteriorated. Persecution including martyrdom became commonplace, since Christians were unwilling to worship the emperor or accept other religions and philosophies as equally true as their own. This season of persecution began in earnest during the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 54-68) and continued off and on until the decree of toleration by Emperor Constantine in AD 313. But we'll talk more about that in the months to come.

For now, we should take note of the astonishing similarity between our own culture and that of the early church. The similarities are conspicuous, and not merely coincidental. The opening up of the world to communication and travel is unprecedented in our time as it was in the age of the early church. The proliferation of philosophical ideas and religious beliefs and practices (due at least in part to such advances in communication and travel) are as widespread in our day as then, even more so due to technological advances like the Internet. The reality of multiculturalism and the religious pluralism that often accompanies it is as alive today as possibly ever before in human history.

If this be true, and I suggest it is, it should not surprise us that we face similar opportunities and difficulties in ministry in the twenty-first century, as was faced in the first century. Indeed, we should expect similar successes and sorrows from our sharing of the gospel, as the early church experienced.

Though we've only skimmed the surface, the patterns and parallels between our time and the early church should give us more than a moments pause. For we can begin, if we are willing and faithful to do so, to learn what to expect of our own time by paying attention to an earlier time and begin to prepare for it. It is possible that we might gain a sense of our time's proneness toward certain pitfalls, and how we might avoid them, by turning our attention to the first-century. It is possible that we might gain a sense of the trajectory of particular ideas and practices in our own day, or how exclusive ideas or practices are going to be received (or not received) by the culture at large by considering the responses of the Hellenized culture of the early church.

Needless to say, there are a myriad of other possible lessons to be heeded, many more which I have left unexplored for sake of space and time. But aside from all that's been said above, we must learn as the early church did, to trust the One who brought time to its fullest in Christ's first advent, and will bring it to an even greater fullness in Christ's second advent. And thus, with hearts full of faith, it is to that end we strive together in our prayers, and even now turn to labor.



[1] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1984) 13-17

[2] Henry Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, vol.1 (New York: Hendrickson, 1998) 9

[3] Lingua Franca is a term used to describe a common language used by speakers of different languages.

[4] Syncretism is the practice of adding and mixing beliefs and practices of different religious and philosophical sects.

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