History of Christianity: 17th Century
History of Christianity: 17th Century
Out of the foundations—or the debris—of the 16th century Reformation of the Christian Faith, we see the rise of denominations. What was once a unified Christian Church based in Rome, had been torn asunder centuries earlier when the Eastern Orthodox Church went its own way. The Reformation had further split the Western Church into Roman Catholics and Protestants; and then cleaved the Protestants into Lutherans and Calvinists, the latter also known as the Reformed Church.
Efforts were made, especially by the Lutheran theologian Georg Calixtus, to unify the Church by formulating a "consensus of the first five centuries." All three major branches met in Torun, Poland in 1645, but could not reach such a consensus.
Roman Catholics insisted that Rome was the ultimate authority in matters of the Faith. Protestants proclaimed that Scripture alone was the ultimate authority. Catholics countered that if the Church in Rome had—through the guidance of the Holy Spirit—selected the Canon of Scripture, which Protestants acknowledged, Scripture could not possess sole authority. Another key issue became the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility—which Protestants could not abide.
What Christians Believe
All Christians, high and low, far and wide, agree that the Scriptures are without error, for the Author of the Holy Scriptures is God. The Scriptures were written down by mortal men, but authored by the Holy Spirit. The words of the Bible are the words of the Holy Spirit of God.
All Christian theologians agreed on the basic tenets of the Faith, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity. All Christians agreed as to who Jesus Christ is, specifically His "preexistence, kenosis, and exaltation."
Jesus Christ was "the conjunction of the two natures, divine and human, subsisting in one Son of God." This means that Christ was both God and man. And He was both so that the work of redemption, atonement, and salvation might be accomplished. Christ had died on the cross, and "by the obedience of his death made satisfaction to God the Father."
There was a split in belief as to whether Christ made satisfaction for all humankind, or as the Calvinists believed, only for the elect. Those not of Calvinist persuasion believed that "Jesus Christ, the Son of God but also the brother of all humanity, issued his summons to the entire human race."
Satisfaction is not to be confused with appeasement of divine wrath. In the death of Christ "the end of punishment is the manifestation of retributive justice in regard of sins."
All Christians agreed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, who suffered, was crucified, died, and was resurrected from the dead. All saw God as the Author of this Plan of Salvation.
Lutherans and Calvinists also agreed on the doctrine of justification by faith, "embracing the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ."
The 17th century was a time to systematize theology according to the outcome of the Reformation. In 1619, the Synod of Dort—a council of Reformed churches from eight countries—settled five major points of doctrine that were in dispute. In 1647, the Reformed church produced a major statement of doctrine, the Westminster Confession, which is still in use in a revised form by Presbyterian churches today. The official purpose of this was to provide documents by which to reform the Church of England.
In Reformed theology, God had decreed "to reveal his glory; to create the world; to preserve and govern the world; to select some in Christ . . . and to leave others in their sins and condemn them." Reformed theologians insisted that God had the right to choose whomever he pleased.
The seventh chapter of the Westminster Confession, "Of God's Covenant with Man," states: "here for the first time a confession makes the doctrine of the covenant authoritatively binding for a major church." To orthodox Calvinists, this consideration of time and history did not imply that eternal decrees by God were in any manner conditioned by what was the human and historical response to them.
Scottish theologian Robert Rollock wrote: "The whole of God's word has to do with some covenant, for God does not communicate to man unless it is through a covenant." Without understanding the covenant, "no context of Holy Scripture can be explained solidly, no doctrine of theology can be treated properly, and no controversy can be decided accurately."
In Reformed theology, "A covenant of God is an agreement between God and man, by which God, by the eminent right that he has and by his singular goodness, promises eternal life under certain conditions and seals it by certain signs, and as it were, pledges." God had made a "covenant of works" with Adam; which was replaced by a "covenant of grace" in Christ.
The Law and the Gospel are not contrary to each other, but they do differ greatly. They presented mankind with opposite paths to salvation. The covenant of works with Adam promised man eternal life in heaven on the condition that man must obey God's Laws; and promised eternal death if he did not obey. The covenant of grace in Christ promises all who believe in, and follow Him, eternal life in heaven.
The death of Christ on the cross ratified this new covenant. Christ atoned for human sin, and thus rendered null and void the power of the law to punish those who accepted the covenant of grace. But this new covenant included an obligation to strive for a life lived in accordance with the law.
It later came to be believed by many theologians that God had made separate covenants through Adam; Abraham; Moses; and Christ. And later still, some added covenants with Noah and David as well.
What all Protestants agreed upon was that the entire definitive revelation was in Scripture; rather than, as Catholics believed, in Scripture and subsequent church traditions. All Christians believed that the covenant through Christ is the final covenant between God and man.
To Calvinists, if you have salvific faith, it is because God has preordained that you will have it. Some Reformed theologians believed that God predestined even the original fall of man.
Lutherans did not buy into Calvinist predestination as such. The Lutheran view is that "we have been elected on the basis of our divinely foreseen faith, as this finally takes hold of the merit of Christ."
This also meant that the condemned are condemned not by God's will, but by God's foreknowledge of their unbelief. All parties agreed that the cause of damnation is ultimately human sin. And that redemption is a response to sin and the fall of man.
Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church continued to assert itself as the sole authority in all matters of the Christian Faith, and stressed the authority of Church traditions over the entire Body of Christ. The Catholic Church cited the daily prayers of the church as authoritative on the efficacy of grace, and prayed even for the dearly departed.
The Catholic Church declared John Calvin the worst heretic; his theology was false and contrary to the Catholic Faith. There is no such thing as predestination, though God, existing as he does outside of space and time, knows in advance of human time what individual persons will do with their free will. Catholic doctrine rejects "fate." The grace of God and the free will of man are not antithesis but "two parts of a single integrated cause of the act of believing."
Cornelius Jansen wrote that grace was "altogether necessary for every good work" based on the words of Jesus that "apart from me you can do nothing." Catholic theology sees it more as cooperation between divine grace and human free will.
According to Catholic theology, there is such a thing as natural morality. Grace and faith are not needed to make an act morally good. In the words of Catholic theologian Luis Molina, "There cannot be a meritorious act apart from grace and love, but there can be a morally good act apart from grace and love and even apart from faith."
The Church of England
The Church of England, known as the Anglican Church (and its American offshoot, the Episcopalians), sought a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
In the 17th century, church attendance was required by law in England. The majority of the English People were satisfied with this arrangement. But on both ends of the spectrum stood a large group of dissenters—those who wished to remain Roman Catholics, and those who wished to purify the Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism. From the word purify we get the word Puritan.
A large group of Puritans left England, to settle in the Netherlands. They felt so strongly about their beliefs that they left behind their homes, most of their possessions, and their means of livelihood; to dwell in a strange land among people of different language and customs.
After a time, the Puritans (and Pilgrims) in the Netherlands were convinced that God was calling them to sail across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean to the sparsely inhabited wilderness of North America; to establish a state for themselves. This state would eventually become the greatest of all nations: America.
The King James Version
In 1611, the King James Version of the Holy Bible was published. It is the result of the work of 54 middle-aged scholars divided into six translation teams over 33 months. They were chosen for their skill in the ancient languages of the Bible, knowledge of theology, and biblical scholarship.
The King James Version helped standardize the English Language. It set the standard for English phraseology, rhythm, and syntax for centuries to come. Even today, "Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name," may be the most frequently spoken phrase in the English language.
The King James Bible translators searched for words that would not only read beautifully, but also that would sound beautiful, for this Bible was designed to be read aloud.
The King James Version of the Bible could be understood by every ploughboy, built on a spare and simple vocabulary of only eight thousand different words. Eighty percent of the King James Version is identical to William Tyndale's translations. William Tyndale had been tracked down and burned at the stake 75 years earlier by agents of King Henry VIII.
Well into the 20th century, nearly every English speaking household in the world had a King James Bible. Millions came to personally know God through its pages. It remains the bestselling book of all time.
The King James Version was so beautifully done; it was not revised for nearly three hundred years. When it was revised, it was not to "change" the Bible, as the anti-Christ would spout, but merely to modernize the language, as the use of English words and grammar had changed.
Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
John Bunyan of England published Pilgrim's Progress in 1678, which for 100 years would be the bestselling book in the world besides the Bible. It remains in print today.
Like many of the Lord's chosen vessels, John Bunyan may seem an unlikely choice to author such a monumental work. Bunyan was a tinker—a mender of pots and pans. In 1660, he was put in prison for preaching without a license. Bunyan, father of six children, could not get a license because he was uneducated and disagreed with the Church of England about some doctrinal issues.
Bunyan would spend parts of the next twelve years in prison—each time they would let him out he would go right back to preaching. In prison he made shoelaces to support his family—and wrote Pilgrim's Progress. The theme of the book is the answer to the question: "What must I do to be saved?"
In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, thus ending religious toleration in France. King Louis did not tolerate the 1,500,000 French Protestants known as Huguenots. Their churches were burned, their schools and hospitals closed. They were banned from decent jobs, and forced to pay extra taxes. Some of their children were whisked away from them.
French soldiers systematically persecuted the Huguenots. They forced some of them to dance until they collapsed; others had boiling water poured down their throats; some were beaten on the soles of their feet and their hair pulled out of their beards; arms, legs, and hands were burned by candles or hot coals; Huguenot women were forced to stand naked in the streets.
400,000 Protestant Huguenots snuck out of France. They flooded into England, Holland, Germany, and America. There arose a Huguenot Quarter in London. Huguenots soon comprised a fifth of the population of Berlin.
Baptists, Quakers, & Pietists
In 1609, Pastor John Smyth of England founded the Baptist denomination, after he and his followers rejected infant baptism in favor of the believer's baptism. Smyth and the Baptists also rejected predestination, believing in the total free will of human beings.
In the late 1640s, the Quakers were formed in England. They did not believe in rituals, or even in having ministers. They did believe that all people have the inner light of God inside them.
In 1670, Philipp Jakob Spener started the Pietism movement. This involved small groups of Christians getting together in the middle of the week for Bible study, discussion, and prayer. They held each other accountable, and shunned dancing, playing cards, and gluttony. The Pietists launched a movement toward Godly living and spiritual rebirth.
The Great Commission
Christian missionaries enjoyed great success during the 17th century. They converted nearly the entire population of the Philippines, through teaching the Gospel and performing social work among the needy. The missionaries had success at winning converts, on a smaller scale, in Viet Nam. They had no luck in Japan, where missionaries were crucified; burnt alive; boiled alive; or buried up to the neck at low tide on the beach.
Catholicism came to dominate Mexico, as well as Central and South America, where missionaries organized their converts into villages, in which they were kept safe and fed.
My sources include Reformation of Church and Dogma by Jaroslav Pelikan; The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael and Sharon Rusten; A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins; The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White; and Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey.