Mary and I recently took a two week tour through some of Europe’s great cities – Berlin, Dresden, Venice and Budapest – to name a few. In every city and town were churches large and small. From the quaint country churches to the majestic cathedrals, we were impressed by their number, their beauty and their height. Even small towns boast multiple sanctuaries. The architecture spans medieval to baroque to Gothic – each impressive in its own right. And most often, the church domes and steeples stand tallest in the skyline, making it easy to locate them. It all speaks of the profound Christian influence that once dominated European culture. I say that past tense because, for millions of people in these great metropolises and throughout Europe, the Christian faith is a relic from the past. Some of the most impressive edifices are more visited as museums than houses of worship, and many citizens no longer identify themselves with the church – Catholic or Protestant. Church attendance has been declining for years and continues in a downward spiral. What happened?
While I’m no expert on European history or sociology, I do know the church and the Bible – not always together – have played profound roles in the development of European societies and culture. The apostle Paul was perhaps first to impact Europe with the gospel in his missionary journeys and his writings to the Galatians, Corinthians, Philippians and Thessalonians. Britain received its first bishop in A.D. 37; Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in A.D. 301 and in 380 the Roman Empire became “officially Christian”. As the power of the Roman Empire waned, the Catholic Church became the single stabilizing force throughout western Europe, and over the next millennia all aspects of people’s lives – government, family, education, philosophy, art, science and medicine, music and literature – were dominated by the church. The growth of “Christendom” however did not always equate to spreading the teachings of God’s Word. As the power of the church grew so did the desires of men to retain and consolidate their power and, as history proves, power corrupts. In one of history’s greatest and most ghastly ironies, the institutional church actually became chief enemy to the spread of God’s Word – the Holy Bible. Corrupt spiritual leaders acted to keep congregants ignorant of the Scriptures and dependent upon them for their spiritual understanding. But the sixteenth century brought a great Reformation!
Martin Luther, a Catholic monk and university teacher, driven by a yearning for assurance of salvation and transformed in his thinking by intense Bible study, he challenged the official church teaching on multiple issues. Luther along with John Calvin, Philip Melanchthon and many others radically reformed Christian thinking in Europe. The “five solas” are biblical principles considered essential to the doctrine of salvation in Reformation theology and still dominate the theologies of Protestant churches today: Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), Sola Christo (by Christ alone) and Soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone). Straight forward: salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We know this through the Scripture alone, and all is for the glory of God alone. The Reformation transformed Europe and it predetermined the prevailing ethic system communicated into the New World – America.
Subsequent to the Reformation and emanating from it there were great spiritual revivals that swept across Europe and into America. The Wesleyan Revivals birthed tens of thousands into the kingdom of God, and the First Great Awakening (as it was called) helped birth America as a nation and the Second helped put an end to slavery in the western world. But the eighteenth century brought new ways of thinking into popular light – atheism and agnosticism. It was called the “Age of Enlightenment” but it brought only darkness to the minds and souls of multitudes. Jesus said, “If the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is.” (Matthew 6:23, New Living Translation) The nineteenth and twentieth centuries added a growing fascination with Eastern religions and introduced syncretism, New Age and various religious movements into the mix. And most recently secularization and religious pluralism have served to divorce many in Europe and America from their Christian cultural heritage.
What happened and continues to happen in Europe is happening in America also, though perhaps at a slower pace. People have lost their vision, i.e. their moral and spiritual direction, which historically in the West they received from the Holy Scriptures. The bombings of World War II destroyed much in Europe. Since the war many of the beautiful churches have been rebuilt and restored to their former glory. But it is far easier to rebuild a structure than to restore a faith. One thing is certain – “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). What Europe and America need, today more than ever, is the Word of God in their hearing. Jesus’ parting command to all believers was this: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). My goal and purpose in this blog is to do exactly that.