Critical Turning Points in Church History by RICHARD J FOSTER AND LYNDA L GRAYBEAL

Critical Turning Points in Church History by RICHARD J FOSTER AND LYNDA L GRAYBEAL

All the passages below are taken from Richard Foster’s book “Streams of Living Water,” published in 1999.

We present this brief overview of the last two millennia to give you a sense of the sweep of church history. It is our hope that this will provide you with a grid through which you can evaluate the development of the six faith streams you are studying in this book. A timeline for this survey is given at the beginning of Chapter 1. Any standard church history volume will give you additional details.

People mould events, and events define history. Examples of this are innumerable: the children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the fall of Jerusalem to Rome, the collapse of the Roman Empire, the spread of Islam, the merging of city-states into nations, the Renaissance, World Wars I and II. All were critical turning points, but none shaped or defined history like Jesus. 

Jesus Christ is the great continental divide of history. Prior to his appearance, humans devised countless ways to fill the God-shaped vacuum in their lives—animal and human sacrifices, secret rituals, laws and regulations, impressive temples, and more. They were constantly struggling uphill, scouting out a clear path, looking for the light shining through the trees, straining toward the crest. All to no avail. Trapped in the underbrush and darkness of the forest, they caught only an occasional glimpse of the peak.

But Jesus, who entered human history at the continental divide, fills this God-shaped vacuum and provides sure footing on the crest of the mountain range. Our struggles to reach the crest are over, and there is no need to go down the other side. Jesus has brought us up to the top of the divide, and we now travel the ridge of this divide with him as our guide. We, the Church, the people of God, work in cooperation with God to shape the events that define our history. 


The Church starts its journey along the divide at an unusually high summit: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:1-4 NRSV). “It doesn’t get any better than this”, as the saying goes. Here they were, this ragtag band of frightened, uncertain, marginalized humans, obediently waiting for something called “power from on high” (Luke 24:49c NRSV).

     These 120 people became the God-ordained, Jesus-trained, Holy Spirit empowered charter members of the Church. That first day saw three thousand others join this embryonic movement, and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 NRSV).

     With the new movement’s roots in Judaism, it would have been easier for Jesus’ followers to stay in Jerusalem and its environs. But doing so would not have fulfilled his words, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7b). Something radical, something drastic had to force the believers beyond their comfort zone. That “something” was persecution. These early disciples of Jesus were “scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:16). Then “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4 NRSV).

     On the day of Pentecost people from the shores of the Persian Gulf in the east to the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, from the Black Sea in the north to the countries lining the Mediterranean Sea in the south heard the gospel. Next it went into the Horn of Africa via an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39 NRSV). The apostles, coming under persecution, remained in Jerusalem until James was killed and Peter was imprisoned and escaped. Then they too started to disperse throughout the region.

     Peter went to Caesarea for some time, but we later see him and Jesus’ brothers travelling with their wives, presumably spreading the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:5). Thomas proclaimed the gospel in IndiaPaul joined the ranks of the apostles and travelled to Asia Minor and GreeceEvangelist Barnabas, teachers Priscilla and Aquila, pastor Timothy, deacon Phoebe, evangelist Silas, and innumerable others proclaimed the gospel everywhere, building up the infant churches, moving from mountain peak to mountain peak along the divide.

     However, Roman persecution soon began, because these followers of the Way refused to “bow the knee” of worship to Caesar. The first persecutiontook place in A.D. 64. Nero had used his personal monies to reconstruct Rome, but fire destroyed ten out of fourteen districts in that year. Rome’s citizens suspected that he had set the fire so that he could rebuild the city more splendidly yet (early “urban renewal”). When their gossip reached Nero’s ear, he knew he had been discovered and had to find a scapegoat. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for the Christians (who were now recognized as a distinct group), he found one. This first persecution did not affect the spread of Christianity throughout the region much, but it was a harbinger of things to come: the trail along the divide would be neither smooth nor easyNine other persecutions were spread over approximately 250 years. Finally, with the issuance of the Edict of Toleration in the year 311, state-sponsored persecution ended. Then, when the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity became an “authorized religion”. Disciples now had confiscated property restored, enjoyed freedom of worship, and savoured equality with other cults.


     Along with persecutions early Christians faced another danger on their trek along the divide: false teachings. In northern climates, wind-driven snow sometimes falls so fast that “white-out” conditions force hikers to grope their way to safety. In the early Church much the same thing happened: a proliferation of heresies obscured their vision. Major disagreements centered around the proper understanding of Christ’s nature, the standing of members who had recanted their faith to escape martyrdom, the nature of human beings, which books to include in the canon of the Bible, what Jesus’ death had accomplished, and more.

     These debates absorbed enormous amounts of time and energy, but they were immensely important. Without the clear thinking and argumentation of such early leaders as Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, the Church’s body of beliefs would have been seriously compromised, perhaps beyond recognition.

     Seven great ecumenical councils were convened to wrestle with these matters, the most dominant issue being the christological question. It needs to be noted that many of the teachings these councils dealt with were not necessarily false. A great variety of positions were floated during this period with a view to discovering which ones were most consistent with biblical revelation. While these gatherings were complicated by political rivalries and the growing tension between East and West, the general theological thrust is clear.

     The Emperor Constantine called the First Ecumenical Council of the Church at Nicea in 325. The issue here was over the teachings of Arius, an Alexandrian priest. Arius did not hold to the full divinity of Christ, believing that there was a time in which the “Logos” did not exist and that Jesus was subordinate to God. Another priest, Athanasius, argued persuasively against Arius. The teachings of Arius were ultimately rejected and Christ was declared to be “begotten not made” and “one in being” (homoousios) with God. This, then, defined Christ the Son as co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father. In addition, this gathering wrote a beginning creedal statement (expanded and refined at future councils)—a statement that has ever since been called the Nicene Creed.

     If the First Ecumenical Council affirmed the full divinity of Christ, the Second Ecumenical Council affirmed his full humanity. This gathering was convened in 381 by the Emperor Theodosius at Constantinople. Here was the situation: Apollinarius of Laodicea, out of a strong reaction against the teaching of Arius, went to the other extreme, emphasizing the unity of the person of Jesus Christ as one incarnate nature of the divine Logos, and thereby denied the existence of a human soul in him. This denial of Jesus’ humanity was condemned at Constantinople. The council also affirmed the results of Nicea and further developed the Nicene Creed. In addition, this council effectively completed the basic outline of trinitarian theology by affirming the deity of the Holy Spirit.

     The next two councils need to be discussed together. They concerned themselves with how both the divine nature and the human nature of Jesus could exist in one person. Nestorius, a monk from Antioch who became patriarch of Constantinople, stressed the distinction between Christ’s human and divine nature and taught that they could never be fully united in one person. On the other side of the equation Eutyches, a leading monk of Constantinople, stressed the unity in Christ so much that he essentially had Christ’s humanity swallowed up by his divinity. Both positions were condemned: Nestorius by the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431, and Eutyches by the Fourth Ecumenical Council held at Chalcedon in 451The result of these council debates was a position that held in creative tension both the unity of Christ’s person and the distinction of Christ’s dual natures. Chalcedon affirmed that “the one and the same Christ, Son, Lord and Only begotten”, has been made known in these two natures which, without detriment to their full characteristics, continue to exist “without confusion or change, and without division or separation”, while belonging to one person. The phrase “without confusion or change” was intended to exclude the error of Eutyches in merging Christ’s two natures. The phrase “without division or separation” was intended to exclude the error of Nestorius in separating the person of Christ. “One person in two natures” became the normative terminology after Chalcedon.

     We should add that the Third Council at Ephesus declared that Mary was Theotokos, “God-bearer”. This was all part of the christological debate over “one person in two natures”. Nestorius, it appeared to his detractors, was teaching that in Christ there are two persons and that Mary is the mother of the human person of Christ but not the mother of the divine person of Christ. In order to emphasize that Jesus is “one person” and that Mary went hand in hand with the mystery of the union of divine and human in Jesus’ person, the council declared her Theotokos. Because the Council of Chalcedon went further in clarifying christological terminology for this union, the Council of Ephesus has become associated almost exclusively with this definition of Mary as “the bearer of God”.

     The Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, both held at Constantinople, resulted in a further refinement of the decisions made at Chalcedon. The Fifth Council was convened by Emperor Justinian I in 553. Its main agenda was the condemnation of three individuals on the grounds that their teachings were in error in much the same manner as Nestorius’s. Known as “the Three Chapters”, they were Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ibas of Edessa, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus.

     The Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681) declared that Jesus possessed both a human will and a divine will that function together in perfect moral harmony. This teaching was really a deduction stemming from the affirmation of Chalcedon that Christ had two natures in one person. It effectively condemned Monothelitism, a movement that believed Christ had only a divine will.

     The Seventh Council (and the last truly “ecumenical” gathering) was called by the Byzantine Empress Irene. It was held in 787 in the very same city as the First Council, Nicea. The issue it addressed, while still christological in nature, was more practical and pastoral: the place of images or icons in the life of the Christian community. This problem had been brewing for a long time. The veneration of icons had been a part of Eastern worship and spirituality since the fourth century. An important theologian, John of Damascus, defended the use of icons on the basis of the doctrine of the incarnation. He maintained, in other words, that the imaging of Jesus by Christians was part of an incarnational (or enfleshment) theology. Others—including two emperors—disagreed violently. Thus the iconoclastic (“icon-smashing”) controversy soon reached fever pitch. Only a council could solve the impasse. The council’s conclusion was to affirm the use of icons and other symbols as a valid aspect of Christian worship. In expressing this conclusion, the council was careful to make a clear distinction between the veneration of icons and the worship of icons.

     The summary list below will help you cement these seven ecumenical councils in your mind:

1. Nicea (325): Declared that Christ is fully divine.

2. Constantinople (381): Declared that Christ is fully human.

3. Ephesus (431): Declared that Christ is a unified person and that Mary is Theotokos.

4. Chalcedon (451): Declared that Christ is “two natures (divine and human) in one person”.

5. Constantinople (553): Reaffirmed Chalcedon and condemned “the Three Chapters”.

6. Constantinople (680-681): Declared that Christ possessed both a human will and a divine will that function together in perfect moral harmony.

7. Nicea (787): Icons and other symbols are acceptable aids to worship and devotion.

Of course, many other critical issues were being debated during the centuries of the seven ecumenical councils, not the least of which was the issue of the canon of the Bible. This issue became critical when Marcion, a second-century leader, began teaching that Christians should reject the Hebrew Bible because he felt that the God of the Old Testament was radically different from the picture of God presented by Jesus. This led Christian thinkers to work hard at determining not only the collection of the Hebrew Bible but what writings from the Christian era should be considered authoritative. The first list that has come down to us of the twenty-seven books that appear in our New Testament is in a letter written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367. It was much later, of course, that the Church finally reached uniform agreement on the New Testament. The most important determination was whether a book was written by an apostle or a close associate. Other criteria had to do with whether the writing was in accord with the rest of biblical revelation and whether it passed the test of experience (whereby through long use the Christian community had come to a consensus regarding divine inspiration).

     As we have seen, the Christian community ploughed through a whole blizzard of controversies in its trek along the divide during the centuries of the ecumenical councils. We today owe a great debt to those who helped the Church through those defining events.

     But if the great blizzard of theological defining had passed, two great earthquakes were yet to come—earthquakes that would irrevocably split the Church into three great branches: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and ProtestantismThe Orthodox quake occurred in 1054 and the Protestant quake in 1517. Let’s look individually at these three great expressions of Christian faith, first attempting to understand the background and history of each quake and then examining the strengths of each expression. We begin with the Roman Catholic Church.


     Because the supreme authority of the pope is at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, to understand the Roman expression of faith we must first trace the growth of the papacy.


     In the early centuries of the Church five centres dominated Christian life: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Each of these centres had a bishop who gave spiritual and theological leadership, and all five functioned in a collegial manner. Jerusalem, however, lost much of its influence after the city’s fall to the Romans in A.D. 70. Antioch and Alexandria, though intense centres of theological creativity, had difficulty competing with the political clout of Rome and Constantinople. In addition, the rise of Islam in the seventh century further eroded the influence of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria.

     Rome, being the centre of political power, began to dominate the life of the Church. But in 330 the centre of political power shifted when the Emperor Constantine moved from Rome to Constantinople. (The city was originally called Byzantium. After the move Constantine renamed it after himself.) This set up a classic struggle between East and West, for dominance not only in theological thought but also in ecclesiastical power.

     In theory, the bishops were all equal, but in practice the bishops at Rome and Constantinople grew in importance as the various church councils sought to hammer out Christian beliefs and teachingBishop Damasus of Rome (366-384) was the first to begin describing that part of the Church centred in Rome as “the apostolic see” and argued that “although the East sent the apostles yet because of the merit of their martyrdom, Rome has acquired a superior right to claim them as citizens”. Innocent I (402-417) referred to the Roman bishop as “head and apex of the episcopate”.

     Leaders in Constantinople did not sit idly by. At the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople they asserted, “The bishop of Constantinople shall take precedence immediately after the bishop of Rome, because his city is the New Rome.” Then, at the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, they passed a statement (Canon 28) that accorded the See of Constantinople an honor and authority equal to that of Rome.

     This struggle went back and forth for some time, but it was Bishop Leo (440-461) who really turned the tide in favour of Rome. Called “Leo the Great”, he saved the city of Rome twice: first from the onslaught of Attila the Hun and then from the Vandals, led by King Gaiseric. In both cases Leo succeeded not by armies but by diplomacy and persuasion. Leo also laid a biblical and theological base for papal primacy, centring his teaching squarely in the doctrine of “apostolic succession”. Leo took to himself the title Pontifex Maximus, the greatest high priest. (The title “papa” [pope] originally expressed the fatherly care of any and every bishop for his flock. It began to be reserved for the bishop of Rome only in the sixth century, long after Rome’s claim of primacy.) From this point on the bishops of Rome continued to gain authority over the affairs of the Church.


     The Crusades in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries reflected the power and dynamism of the papacy. Driven by intense religious fervour (and the love of adventure and personal profit), crusaders from western Europe attempted to expel the Muslims from the Holy Land. In one way or another all of the great and colourful figures of this era were caught up in this consuming cause, from Peter the Hermit, who sparked the First Crusade, to the saintly Louis IX, King of France, who energized the Sixth and Seventh Crusades. These Crusades also caused untold suffering and horrors beyond imagining: “It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses…. [M]en rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.”

     There was one notable exception to the continued rise and authority of the papacy. That exception is known as “the great papal schism”. What happened, in short, is this. In 1305 the archbishop of Bordeaux was elected as Pope Clement V. This Frenchman never set foot in Rome, preferring instead to set up the papacy in the French town of Avignon. This marked the start of what historians call “the Babylonian captivity of the papacy”. It lasted for seventy-two years. Finally in 1378 the College of Cardinals, still heavily weighted with Frenchmen, gave in to the clamour of a Roman mob and elected an Italian as pope: Urban VI. Urban quickly set up residency in Rome. Within a few months, however, the cardinals had second thoughts about Urban and announced to all of Europe that the people of Rome had forced the election of an apostate and that the proceedings were invalid. They then chose another from among their number as pope—Clement VII, who set up residency in Avignon. Now there were two popes, each condemning the other.

     To solve the problem both camps agreed to a council at Pisa, on the west coast of Italy. They deposed both claimants to the papal chair and elected a third man, Alexander VBut the two deposed popes refused to be deposed! Now there were three claimants to the papacy. Finally in 1414 the Holy Roman emperor called together a great gathering of leaders at the German city of Constance to settle the matter. This time their efforts met with success: the three popes were effectively shoved aside and a new pope was elected, Martin V. For all practical purposes this ended the great schism, but the whole process weakened the papacy enormously. And in many ways it set the stage for the Protestant Reformation (which we will discuss presently).

     The pinnacle of papal authority came under the leadership of Pius IX in the nineteenth century. To solidify papal authority he called together the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870The central issues for this gathering were the primacy of the pope and the dogma of papal infallibility, both of which were affirmed at this council. The council further affirmed that when the pope makes a final decision in matters of faith and morals in his official capacity (ex catbedra), this decision is infallible and immutable and does not require the prior consent of the Church.

     This action of the First Vatican Council was a major shift in favour of the authority of the papacy. For the first time the pope was placed above the process of the corporate discernment of the whole Christian community. Clearly the Church had travelled a long way from the consensual agreements of the early church councils.


     In the first thousand years of the Church’s life enormous gains were made. The gospel was introduced into all of Western Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, the southern part of Eastern Europe, southern Russia, central Asia, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. The stories of the sacrifices and gospel labours of those early evangelists for Christ are endlessly moving. But there is also a dark side to some of these efforts—imperial conquest and forced conversion at the point of the sword. Overall, though, we can say that great good came from the sacrificial labours of many.

     Considerable mission activity occurred in the thirteenth century and beyond through the Franciscans, who fanned out into many places, especially China. But the great wave of Catholic missions occurred in the sixteenth century, and the key figures were Ignatius Loyola and his younger contemporary and disciple, Francis Xavier. Some historians call this period “the Catholic Reformation”; others use the term “Counter-Reformation” to emphasize its vigorous attack on the expanding Protestant movement; still others see it as a revival of spiritual piety with little concern for Protestantism. No doubt it was in some measure all of these.

     Loyola founded “the Society of Jesus”, or Jesuits, a highly disciplined mission-minded order of chivalrous soldiers of Jesus— mobile, versatile, and ready to go anywhere and everywhere . . . which is exactly what they did. Latin America, Africa, Asia, and beyond. Other orders—Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians—were also actively involved in these mission efforts.

     Francis Xavier was the one who took Loyola’s vision of missionary zeal to the far-flung regions of the globe, earning him the title “patron saint of Catholic missions”. This “industrious missionary of indescribable gaiety” planted the Christian message in India, Japan, and China. His work in Japan is especially noteworthy, mainly because it was there that Xavier worked out his views of contextualizing the gospel message into Japanese culture. He saw—that many things in Japanese life were valuable and should be preserved and brought into the context of Christian life and witness. He even wanted to add Japanese elements to the Roman liturgy. (The pope eventually rejected these changes as too much contextualization!) In 1579 the Jesuits established a new town as a home for Christian converts, calling it Nagasaki. Before the end of the sixteenth century Jesuit missionaries could count three hundred thousand Japanese converts, hundreds of churches, and two Christian colleges.

     It is well known that many did not follow Xavier’s emphasis upon indigenization and contextualization. Ruthless policies of imperialism, conquest, and enslavement followed much of the exploration of “the new world”. The story is sad beyond describing. It would, therefore, be useful to pause briefly to remember one Bartholomew de Las Casas. A Spanish missionary whose father had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the West Indies, Las Casas spoke out vigorously for the equality and freedom of the Indians. The only way to seek their conversion, he argued, is by peaceful preaching of the Word and by example of holy living. Unfortunately, his voice did not win the day, but it does represent many who sought to faithfully serve Christ and just as faithfully bring the good news of the gospel to all peoples.

     A major step in Catholic thinking about missions occurred at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This was the first council called not to combat heresy, pronounce new dogmas, or rally the Church to stand against hostile forces. It was a council called not against but for something—for aggiornamento, an Italian term for “bringing up to date”. “Revolutionary” is probably not too strong a term for Vatican II. What one council theologian, Canadian Father Gregory Baum, said over the proposed document on divine revelation could appropriately be said over the entire proceedings: “This day will go down in history as the end of the Counter Reformation.” In Pope John XXIII’s opening speech he called the Catholic Church to “rule with the medicine of mercy rather than with severity”.

     That statement was to be prophetic for Catholic mission thinking, for on 7 December 1965 Vatican II accepted the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) which renounced in principle any use of external force against the voice of conscience. This marked a radical break with a fifteen-hundred-year-old practice.

     Two other key developments for mission came out of Vatican II. First, the Decree on Mission Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes Divinus) centred the basis for mission in the dynamic activity of the Trinity in the world, through the sending of the Son to the world in the incarnation and the sending of the Holy Spirit into the world following the resurrection. The Church then participates in this sending by being the sacrament of God in the world. As a result, the Church does not have missions; it is mission. Missionary activity is thus not the work of a designated few, but is incumbent upon all Christians. Clearly this was a major step forward in Catholic mission thinking and practice.

     Second, the Declaration on the Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetatestated that the good things found in others religions are to be affirmed and that those who follow those traditions, and through no fault of their own do not know Christian faith, achieve some measure of salvation. (The meaning of this latter point is unclear and has caused vigorous debate in the Catholic community. Whatever the precise meaning of the statement, it is clear that it is not teaching universalism.) Since Vatican II Pope John Paul II has issued an important encyclical on mission (Redemptoris Missio), which places particular emphasis upon proclamation as the central mode of evangelization.


     Now, as we turn our attention to Eastern Orthodoxy, you will need to back up a bit in your mind—back to the struggles for power between Constantinople and Rome. Deep-seated dissimilarities existed between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. Their languages were different. Their practices were different. Their political relationships were different. And these differences produced first a rift and then a full break.

     In 867 the patriarch of Constantinople declared Rome heretical for adding the filioque (“and the Son”) to the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit .., who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Then, in the mid-eleventh century, the East accused the West of error by universalizing clerical celibacy and by celebrating the Eucharist with unleavened bread.

     In 1054 Pope Leo IX sent Cardinal Humbert, a non-Greek-speaking, pro-celibate, anti-political alliance diplomat to negotiate with Constantinople. The mission was doomed from the outset. Finally, just as a worship service was about to begin in the Church of Holy Wisdom at Constantinople, Cardinal Humbert marched in, placed a papal bull of excommunication upon the altar, and marched out. A deacon, grabbing the paper, rushed after the cardinal and begged him to take it back. Humbert refused, dropping the papal bull in the street. Historians use this shattering event of 1054 to mark the break between East and West—the first great earthquake along the divide. Henceforth Eastern Orthodoxy was a separate expression of Christian faith and witness.


     At present Orthodoxy has over two hundred million adherents in fifteen self-governing (“autocephalous”) churches, including the four ancient centres of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The other centres are Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Poland, former Czechoslovakia, and the United States. We have mentioned some of their differences with Rome: the conciliar authority of bishops rather than a pope, the permissibility of marriage for clergy, the insistence on leavened bread for the Eucharist, and the rejection of the filioque in the Nicene Creed. But none of these differences really gets at the heart of the uniqueness of Orthodoxy. Just what is Eastern Orthodoxy?

     Perhaps the one word that best sums up the heart of Orthodoxy is the word tradition. Not the plural traditions, as in various and sundry customs, but tradition—a living continuity with the Church throughout the ages. The Eastern patriarchs put it this way: “We preserve the Doctrine of the Lord uncorrupted, and firmly adhere to the Faith he delivered to us, and keep it free from blemish and diminution, as a Royal Treasure, and a monument of great price, neither adding any thing, nor taking any thing from it.” John of Damascus wrote, “We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it.”

     For Orthodoxy tradition means more than just handing down certain beliefs and ideas to future generations. It means a living connection to the faith of the apostles and fathers of the Church. It means entering into the inner spirit of the tradition. It means creative fidelity to the past, in which the disciple always seeks to live into the tradition. Tradition also involves quite specific elements to Orthodox Christians: “Tradition … means the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the holy Icons—in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages.”

     Perhaps one helpful way to understand Eastern Orthodoxy is through its use of icons. “An icon,” says Orthodox historian Timothy Ware, “is not simply a religious picture designed to arouse appropriate emotions in the beholder; it is one of the ways where God is revealed to man. Through icons the Orthodox Christian receives a vision of the spiritual world.” Icons, then, serve as a kind of window between earth and heaven. Through the icons the heavenly world is manifest to the worshipping congregation. According to Orthodox theology the icon is the capstone of the doctrine of Incarnation: because God became fully human in Jesus Christ the invisible has become visible and can be portrayed in wood and paint. All matter has been sanctified and is able to convey the grace of God.

     You may recall that the Seventh Ecumenical Council struggled with this issue and came down on the side of the use of icons, affirming that icons did not represent idolatry but were an authentic expression of incarnational worship. The argument is that, while the icon is not of the same substance as its original, it does open to us a window onto the original. By material means we receive a glimpse into the heavenly world. Further, Orthodox teaching insists that icons should not be worshipped but should be venerated—venerated in much the same way that other Christian groups venerate the Bible. Indeed, Orthodox Christians speak of the Bible as the verbal icon of Christ. 

     Theologically speaking, Orthodox belief would remind us that we are created “in the image of God”, so that we carry the “icon” of God within us. Sin, then, is the marring of the divine likeness. When we sin we inflict a wound in the original image of God. Salvation therefore consists in God restoring the full image of God. Christ came to restore the icon of God within us. This “restoring” involves rebirth, re-creation, and transfiguration into the image of Christ.

     John of Damascus, commenting on the power of icons, wrote, “When I have no books, or when my thoughts, torturing me like thorns, do not let me enjoy reading, I go to church, which is the cure available for every disease of the soul. The freshness of the images draws my attention, captivates my eyes … and slowly leads my soul to divine praise.”

     Another way of getting at the spirit of Orthodox faith is by understanding something of the approach to prayer called hesychasm. The word literally means “quietness”, “stillness”, “peace”. Hesychasm has sometimes also been called “the prayer of the heart”. This meditative approach to prayer was developed beginning in the fourth century, with Evagrios of Pontus (c. 344-399) as the key figure; it then experienced considerable subsequent development in the fourteenth century, with two writers having extensive influence—Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) and Gregory of Sinai (?-1346). Since the nineteenth century something of a hesychast renaissance has occurred, sparked by the publication of two books: the Philokalia and The Way of a Pilgrim. Inclusion of the “Jesus Prayer” is a prominent feature of hesychastic prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ (Gregory of Sinai often added the phrase “a sinner” to the prayer, and more recently Orthodox believers have tended to follow his example.)

     Hesychasm is prayer of the entire person. Though we may begin by praying with the lips, in time we “descend with the mind into the heart”, allowing the intellect and the heart to be united. We “find the place of the heart”, and our spirit acquires the power of “dwelling in the heart”, so that our prayer becomes a “prayer of the heart”. All of this signifies a complete state of reintegration in which, as we pray, we are totally united with the prayer itself and with our divine Companion to whom we pray. We are not so much saying a prayer as we are being turned into prayer.

     This “prayer of the heart” may well be one of the finest gifts Eastern Orthodoxy has to offer to all Christians. It certainly is the most borrow-able.


     The turning of Russia to Eastern Orthodoxy is one of the great stories of history. It seems that Vladimir, prince of Kiev, while still a pagan, sent his followers to many countries in the world in search of the true religion. . . . . Travelling on to Rome they found their worship more satisfactory, but they complained that it was without beauty. Finally they journeyed to Constantinople, and as they attended the divine liturgy in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, they discovered what they were seeking: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.” Thus in 988 Vladimir embraced the Eastern expression of Christianity, making it the state religion of Russia. Thus one of the great civilizations of the world was opened to evangelism by Orthodoxy.

     Eastern Orthodoxy has often been criticized for not being a missionary church, and there is enough in the criticism to make it sting. Frankly, Orthodoxy has never developed anything close to the mission societies of Protestantism or the mission orders of Catholicism. Even in the above story of Russia’s move into Orthodoxy Vladimir took the initiative, not a mission-minded Orthodoxy. Having said this, we must also emphasize that Orthodoxy has had shining examples of individual mission activity. The Eastern monks who brought the Christian faith to Persia, India, and Ethiopia illustrate these courageous efforts.

     Special mention should be made of two brothers, Constantine (or Cyril) (826-869) and Methodius (c. 815-885). Their great work was among the Slavic peoples. Before setting out for Moravia (roughly equivalent to modern Czechoslovakia) they devised a Slavic alphabet and began translating the Bible into the Slavic language. Their work in Moravia met with some successes, though their specific mission efforts ultimately did not endure. But the great contribution of Constantine and Methodius was their translation of the Bible and the liturgical service books into Slavic. Because of their efforts the Slavic Christians from the outset heard the Bible and the services of the Orthodox Church in a tongue that they could understandThis is all the more astonishing when we realize that Christians in the western European countries did not have this same privilege, Latin being the language of the Roman Catholic Church. Building on the foundation of Constantine and Methodius, Orthodox mission efforts went forward in a language understandable to the people among the Moravians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Russians.

     Hilarion, the metropolitan of Russia, said in 1051, “The religion of grace spread over the earth and finally reached the Russian people…. The gracious God who cared for all other countries now no longer neglects us. It is his desire to save us and lead us to reason.” So it was that Russia—that great land mass and even greater mix of ethnic groupings—became the most important mission field for Orthodoxy.

     The Russian Orthodox Church, centred in Kiev, was restricted largely to the cities until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In 1237 the Mongols invaded Russia, destroying Kiev. Under the most severe conditions the Orthodox Church kept the Russian national consciousness and Orthodox religious faith alive for the next two centuries of Mongol occupation.

     While Orthodox missionary activity continued under the Mongol occupation, the Russian Church ultimately failed to convert the Mongols themselvesOne key factor in this failure stemmed from the Orthodox practice of establishing national churches. The Russians, meeting the Mongols on Russian soil, simply could not bring themselves to encourage a Mongol national church; they did not want to give up their national customs in favour of Mongol culture.

     One effective mission effort during the Mongol occupation came under the leadership and inspiration of Stephen, Bishop of Perm (c. 1340-1396). The evangelistic efforts of Stephen (and those inspired by his example) were not to the Mongols, however, but to the primitive tribes in the northeast and the far north of the Russian continent. Stephen himself worked among the Zyrian tribes. Following the example of Constantine and Methodius, these missionaries translated the Bible and church services into the languages and dialects of the people to whom they ministered.

     The major evangelization of the Russian nation, however, occurred by a most unusual method of colonization devised by Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392), a gifted leader who eventually became the greatest national saint of Russia. Sergius headed the Monastery of the Holy Trinity fifty miles north of Moscow, and he would send his monks into the surrounding forests to establish other monasteries. Communities soon grew up around these monastic centers, and by means of this colonizing process, repeated over and over, the Christian faith spread across all of northern Russia, carrying the gospel as far as the White Sea and the Arctic Circle. Sergius also influenced a deepening of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Church. (The years

1350-1550 are considered the golden age of Russian spirituality.) This rise of the Russian Orthodox Church was timed perfectly, for the Turks overran the Byzantine Empire four years after the Mongols departed Russia. Hence Russian Orthodoxy became the protector and ascendant church of the Orthodox world.

     The city of Kiev never recovered from the sacking by the Mongols. Moscow, a small and relatively unimportant town at the time, took its place as religious hub when Peter, metropolitan of Russia from 1308 to 1326, settled there. Moscow came to see herself as the leader of the Orthodox world. A saying developed during the years of Moscow’s ascendancy regarding that leadership role. There had been one Rome in Italy—so the saying went—but it had fallen to the barbarians. Constantinople therefore became the second Rome. Eventually it too had fallen, this time to the Turks. And so a third Rome had arisen—namely, Moscow. The Russian emperor took his title from the first Rome (czar is the same word as caesar) just as he had taken his religion from the second Rome.


     Historians use 31 October 1517—the date when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses (or propositions) to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg—to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. There were, of course, precursors, especially Englishman John Wycliffe and Bohemian John Huss. Coming to prominence during the papal schism, they both condemned numerous Roman practices, especially the sale of indulgences, and emphasized the primacy of Scripture over tradition. Huss was excommunicated twice, put under investigation, and finally condemned and burned at the stake in 1415. Wycliffe died in 1384, before being persecuted by Rome, but his followers—the Lollards—suffered considerable persecution, and with the death of their leader in 1417, they went underground.

Then, exactly one century later, Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed his theses to that Wittenberg door. It was the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation. It would prove to be the second great earthquake for travellers along the divide.


     Initially Luther was working to reform the Catholic Church, not trying to start a new church. Historian Bruce Shelley notes that in these reform efforts Luther brought creative theological answers to four critical questions: 

“How can a person be saved?”

“Where does religious authority lie?” 

“What is the Church?”

“What is the essence of Christian living?”

Luther’s reply to the question of how a person can be saved was unequivocal: “By grace through faith alone!” His own deepening understanding of this answer came as he began his work as a teaching theologian at the newly founded university of Wittenberg. In 1515 he lectured on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Then for two years—1516-1517—he lectured on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The powerful message of justification by faith in these two books began to work its way into Luther’s heart and soul. The great turning point came as he meditated long and hard on the words of Romans 1:17: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” He later recalled, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

     To Luther, faith was not merely intellectual assent, as it had been for most of the scholastics. Rather, it was a grateful, whole-hearted response of one’s entire being to the love of God in Christ.

Thus one of the great cornerstones of the Protestant Reformation was laid: sola fide, faith alone. Luther knew that by emphasizing alone he was adding a word to Scripture, but he believed that the theological climate demanded the addition and that it was, in fact, in perfect accord with Scripture. Besides, Augustine and Ambrose had said the same thing before him.

     As to the second question, about the grounds of religious authority, Luther’s forthright response rested on sola Scriptura, the Scripture alone. During an eighteen-day debate with John Eck of Leipzig, Luther declared, “A council may sometimes err. Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.” Then, in April 1521, Luther defended his position of the authority of Scripture before the Diet of Worms. When he was told to recant what he had written, he responded, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God”, adding that unless he were convicted by Scripture and plain reason, he could not recant, for he did not accept the authority of popes and councils (since they had contradicted one another). “I will not recant anything,” he declared to the court, “for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

     By stressing the primacy of the Word of God as contained in Scripture, Luther was not rejecting the teachings of councils or the great writers of Christian thought. But he was making them subject to Scripture: any time there is a discrepancy between the two, he said, the Bible is to be regarded as the authoritative source of faith and practice.

     Luther backed up his emphasis on “Scripture alone” by translating the entire Bible into German, thus making Scripture accessible to his people. That effort was clearly one of Luther’s major achievements. Others had translated the Bible into German, but no one else had equalled Luther’s dignity and felicity of expression (nor has anyone since). His version of the Bible became a cherished possession of Germany and did much to standardize the literary language of that country. Indeed, the effect of Luther’s version upon the German language was even more profound than the effect of the King James Bible upon English.

     As to the third question—What is the Church?—Luther replied that the entire community of faith are priests before God. This doctrine of the priesthood of all believers tied directly into his stress upon the primacy of Scripture, for Luther urged all Christians (as priests unto God) to read the Bible; and he insisted that they were competent, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to understand it aright. In taking this stance he rejected the papal claim to have the exclusive right to interpret Scripture.

     Further, he rejected the supposed superiority of popes, bishops, priests, and monks over the laity, insisting that all Christians are consecrated priests by baptism and that the only difference among Christians is one of office. He maintained that the work of priests and members of the religious orders is not a whit more sacred in the sight of God than the work of a farmer in his fields or of a woman in her household duties.

     This leads directly to Luther’s answer to the fourth question: What is the essence of Christian living? To this he replied, serving God in any useful calling, whether ordained or lay.

     While not deprecating the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Luther found no grounds for them in Scripture; and by insisting that all useful work is sacred, he undercut the fundamental rationale for monastic life. He saw family life as being just as sacred as single monastic life, and he helped arrange marriages for those who left the cloistered life. He himself married a former nun, Katherine von Bora. Theirs was a happy home, and several children were born into it. When the family gathered around the table, they were typically joined by a number of Martin Luther’s students, who admiringly recorded his “table talk”.

     All of this had a way of erasing the line between things sacred and things secular. Indeed, it was Luther’s contention that all useful and good things are sacred. The thrust and logical conclusion to his teaching was that ours is a sacramental world.


     It is common knowledge that the Protestant Church is far from uniform. Its diversity is, in fact, one of its great strengths (however lamentable the infighting and divisions that have come from it). Perhaps it would be helpful to explain this diversity in terms of five major expressions of Christian faith and witness.

     The first is the Lutheran expression, which we have already discussed to some extent. In some cases the Lutheran Church is tied to the state, as in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. In other cases it is a self-standing denomination, as in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

     Lutherans still hold high the standard of their founder by stressing justification by grace through faith alone, believing that people gain favour with God (justification) purely as a divine gift (by grace alone) to those who trust in Jesus Christ (through faith alone). Lutherans produced the first Protestant confession of faith, the Augsburg Confession (1530), and have always had a keen concern for right belief. They also pioneered congregational singing of the liturgy and hymns. As with other Protestants, Lutherans recognize two rather than seven sacraments, practice infant baptism, and teach the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (consubstantiation). In worship Lutherans have especially stressed the importance of the preaching office—the proclamation of the Word.

     One important thread of Lutheran renewal has been Pietism, with Philipp Jacob Spener and August Francke being the key figures in the movement. The pietist concern for holy living, the use of the Bible in small groups, and the care of souls has been a helpful balance to scholastic Lutheranism, with its concern for proper doctrinal formulation. Pietism is a history and an emphasis from which the entire Church could profit.

     second expression of Protestant Christian faith is called Reformed. Reformed Christians are reflected in the Huguenots, numerous Presbyterian groups, and a whole family of Reformed churches (e.g., the German Reformed Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Reformed Church of America, and the Christian Reformed Church).

     No single human leader has placed a more profound stamp on the people of the Reformed family than John Calvin (1509-1564). At the age of twenty-six Calvin wrote and published what was probably the most influential single book of the Protestant Reformation, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Institutes did not owe its prominence to Calvin’s originality of ideas—Calvin himself wanted only to demonstrate that Protestant beliefs were exactly what had been taught by the Church throughout the ages. It was the clarity, the comprehensiveness, the orderly arrangement of thought that commended Institutes to Christians throughout EuropeIt was the most inclusive and systematic presentation of the Christian faith as held by Protestants that had thus far appeared. The great burden of Calvin’s writing and teaching was upon the sovereignty of God, though he certainly stressed many of the beliefs that are commonly associated with his name: total depravity, election, predestination, and more. Attempts to define the essence of Reformed thinking produced a series of important confessions and catechisms, the two most prominent being the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).

     One of the best gifts the Reformed expression of faith has given the larger Christian family is a careful understanding of how the Church should relate to and interact with the culture in which it lives. The Reformed conviction is that by informing the culture with values of truth and beauty and civility, by establishing good laws and morals and government, it is possible to create a civilized society, perhaps even to effect an approximation of the kingdom of God in history.

     third expression of Protestant life and witness is the Anabaptists. The Mennonites, the Hutterites, and the Brethren are their direct descendants, and the Quakers and Baptists are distant relatives. The most famous leader of the Anabaptists was Menno Simons (1496-1561).

     Their name, assigned to them by their enemies, means “rebaptizers”. The Anabaptists themselves rejected any notion of “rebaptism”, for they did not consider the ceremonial sprinkling they received in infancy to be valid baptism. For them Christian baptism was a conscious adult action experienced upon confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ. They were severely persecuted for this position, an unusual one in that day.

     Anabaptists were the “radicals” of the Protestant Reformation, voices crying in the wilderness urging the moderate reformers to strike even more deeply at the roots of the old order. While Luther would allow whatever the Bible did not prohibit, the Anabaptists rejected whatever the Bible did not prescribe. Hence they tended to strip away more of the traditional symbols of the Roman Church than did either Luther or Calvin—statues, pictures, candles, even music. Their goal was the “restitution” of apostolic Christian faith, a return to communities of radical faithfulness to Jesus Christ as reflected in the book of Acts.

     They took the task of Christian community with great seriousness, forming a communal life of love, support, and economic sharing called the Bruderhof. Even to this day we can find thriving Bruderhof communities that trace their roots back to those early Anabaptist experiments in Christian community. They remind us that it is possible to establish communal ways of living that are not monastic in character.

     Perhaps we can learn most from the Anabaptist insistence upon radical discipleship to Jesus Christ. Because Anabaptists have worked harder than most groups to translate the Sermon on the Mount into daily practice, we can be instructed in obedience and faithfulness by their example.

     fourth expression of Protestantism is the Anglican Church, which has created the historic background for several Anglo-American denominations. Actually, it is a matter of historical debate whether the family of Anglican churches should even be classed as part of the Protestant Reformation. Many Anglican leaders like to speak of their communion as the via media, the middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. After all, the Anglican break with Rome was far more political than it was theological, having to do with Henry VIII’s desire to head a national English church (with the archbishop of Canterbury as its religious leader). All of this got rather complicated by Rome’s refusal to annul Henry’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon, and Henry’s subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, and more. No doubt you have read all about it in undergraduate history courses. The point is that Henry merely wanted an English Catholic Church rather than a Roman Catholic one.

     Be that as it may, it can be argued that the Anglican Church over time did initiate numerous reforms that stand in continuity with the concerns of the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps the two most important reforms were (1) to have an English Bible installed in all the churches and (2) to replace the Latin service of worship with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. These two acts are contributions from which the entire Church has benefited.

     The “Great Bible” that Henry VIII commissioned was in reality a compilation of the earlier translation work of William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) and Miles Coverdale (1488-1569). A pioneer in translation efforts, Tyndale was imprisoned and ultimately died at the stake in Belgium. Interestingly, his dying prayer was, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes”. The simple step of making the Bible accessible in the language of the people encouraged other reforms and increased interest in accurate translation workA century later this resulted in the finest English translation of the Bible ever produced: the Authorized Version, commonly called the King James Bible. It is a treasure that has been given to all English-speaking Christians. In a similar manner, The Book of Common Prayer has become a rich source of worship and devotion to groups far beyond its Anglican and Episcopalian roots.

     The fifth (and last) expression of Protestant witness we shall mention here is a little more difficult to name than the others. “Nonconformists” is the term usually given by historians to groups in this fifth category—a term that underscores the refusal of these Christians to conform to established church bodies. They have also been described as “free churches”, to distinguish them from state churches. “Dissenters”, “Independents”, and “Separatists” are other labels that have been used to accent one aspect or another of these groups.

     The Puritans were among the most influential of the early Nonconformist groups. Other Nonconformist Protestant bodies include Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, and the Salvation Army. Nonconformists are also the taproot of a vastly branching tree of denominations and evangelical parachurch groups that have developed in the United States and beyond.

     Strong preaching has historically been one of the distinguishing marks of the Nonconformists. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) represents this emphasis well. The most famous English Baptist preacher of the nineteenth century, Spurgeon was warmly evangelistic, a Liberal in politics (and a friend of Prime Minister William Gladstone), the editor of a monthly magazine, the founder of orphanages and a training school for ministers, and the author of many books. At nineteen he took over an old church in London, and before he was thirty his preaching had attracted such crowds that in 1861 the Metropolitan Tabernacle was built, seating over five thousand. His book on preaching, Lectures to My Students, is filled with striking expressions and evangelical passion. It is used to this day.

     Perhaps the finest contribution of the Nonconformist groups to the Church worldwide has been to hold high the vital importance of warmhearted conversion, effective evangelism, and cross-cultural mission. These themes tie in so completely with the next section that it would be best to integrate them into that larger story.


     During the four-hundred-year period of 1600-2000, Christian faith and witness went from being European-centred to becoming the first real worldwide religion, with a substantial presence in every major culture on earth. The first half of this period was dominated by Roman Catholic mission efforts, as we noted earlier. But by the year 1800 Catholic missionary efforts had been forced into decline: the Jesuit order had been abolished in 1773 (the pope acting under monarchical pressure), and European financial support had been curtailed because of the French Revolution and the ensuing chaosAt this point Protestants picked up the slack, equipping themselves with structures of mission societies comparable to the Catholic orders. That Protestant effort grew into the greatest explosion of missionary activity in the history of the Church.

     Precursors included first the Quaker “Valiant Sixty”, who in the mid seventeenth century fanned out from northern England in evangelistic effort, to many parts of the globe. Then, in 1732, the Moravian Brethren set out in missionary passion for the West Indian island of St Thomas. In the subsequent twenty years they commissioned missionaries to Greenland, Suriname, South Africa, the Samoyed peoples of the Arctic, Algiers, Ceylon, China, Persia, Abyssinia, Labrador, and the American Indian territories. Nor should we forget John Wesley, who in 1739 declared, “The world is my Parish.” Under the leadership of Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Wesley’s Methodist lay evangelists took the gospel worldwide.

     But, as we say, those were precursors. When in 1792 a self-educated teacher, shoemaker, and pastor wrote An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, an utter explosion of missionary zeal resulted, and the “means” that he wrote about stimulated the founding of countless mission societies. This little book became the Magna Carta of the Protestant mission movement and earned its author, William Carey (1761-1834), the title “Father of Protestant Missions”. Carey’s vision, combined with the spiritual fervour of the First Evangelical Awakening, propelled the Church into what Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette has called “the great century” of unprecedented missionary expansion.   

     Missiologist Ralph Winter has divided Protestant mission efforts into three great eras. The First Era focused primarily on the coast lands of the great continents of Asia and Africa (and other coast lands, to a lesser extent). William Carey’s work in India is a good representative of these pioneering efforts. This period was marked by remarkable sacrifice on the part of those who went out. For example, in the first sixty years few missionaries to Africa survived more than two years. Winter writes, “The gruesome statistics of almost inevitable sickness and death that haunted, yet did not daunt, the decades of truly valiant missionaries who went out after 1790 in virtually a suicidal stream cannot be matched by any other era or by any other cause.”

     The Second Era focused upon the inland areas and is well represented by J.Hudson Taylor (1832-1905). Many assumed that with a Christian presence in the coast regions the mission task was over, but Taylor saw the need to push on to the interior. Consequently, he established the China Inland Mission, which eventually served in one way or another over six thousand missionaries, predominantly in the interior of China. As with the First Era, a whole host of new societies sprang up to respond to the challenge to move inland: Sudan Interior Mission, Unevangelized Fields Mission, Africa Inland Mission, Regions Beyond Missionary Union, Heart of Africa Mission, and more.

     The greatest student missionary movement in history, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, arose during this period and responded to the call to the interior. Twenty thousand volunteers went overseas, and another eighty thousand stayed at home to rebuild the foundation of the missions endeavour.

     The Third Era of Protestant missions focused upon “hidden people groups”, a difficult-to-define non-geographical category of peoples who are socially isolated. Two leaders represent that new mission frontier of hidden people groups: Cameron Townsend (1896-1982) and Donald McGavran (1897-1990).

     Townsend established Wycliffe Bible Translators to respond to the need he saw in the neglected tribal peoples. At the same time McGavran worked to analyse the problem of social barriers, and through his writings and efforts spawned the frontier mission movement, devoted to deliberate approaches to reach unpenetrated social groups. What Townsend and McGavran helped us see is that there are numerous “hidden peoples” that are defined by ethnic or sociological traits, people so different from the cultural traditions of any existing church that mission (rather than evangelism) strategies are necessary to plant indigenous churches within their particular traditions.

     At the International Congress on World Evangelization in 1974 some 16,750 hidden people groups were identified. These groups comprise roughly 2.5 billion men, women, and children. This is the great remaining task of the Third Era of missions.


     Much more could be written, but we hope that this brief survey will give you the tools needed to go on from here. We would like to conclude this thumbnail sketch of church history by drawing on the International Congress on World Evangelization’s analysis of the 16,750 hidden people groups still in need of a viable Christian witness in their own ethnic and cultural setting. To be sure, many organizations have arisen since 1974 to address this need; even so, a massive task still lies before us—all of us: Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. It is our contention that these three great branches of the Christian family are all valid expressions of Christ’s Church. We worship one God and Father of us all. We confess Jesus Christ to be Saviour and Lord. However divided and separated we may be in ecclesiastical structure, we walk the continental divide of history together. It is our hope and prayer that God will help us find ways to join hearts and hands in bringing the Good News that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life” to these remaining hidden people groups representing some 2,500,000,000 precious people—people for whom Christ died. (229-254)

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