Many religious groups have come and gone through the ages. Some have been clearly Christian, many were obviously not, and some have been far enough on the fringes of Christianity to be rejected by mainstream believers. One such fringe group was called the Cathars.
The Cathar religious movement flourished in southwestern Europe in the 11th through 13th centuries. Although its adherents called themselves “Good Men” or “Good Christians”, they came to be known as Cathars (from the Greek word for “pure”). They did not have church buildings, but they did have a religious structure including bishops and deacons. Pentecost was a main festival for them because the Cathars were very devoted to the Holy Spirit. For the most part, the Cathars were pacifists who lived lives devoted to spiritual practice and religious service, and who got along well with their Roman Catholic neighbors.
The issue with the Cathars was that their beliefs included strong dualistic and gnostic elements which were highly offensive to the Roman Catholic Church. There were some attempts by the Church to send missionaries to “convert” the Cathars, but those attempts met with little success. Ultimately, Pope Alexander III anathematized the Cathars in 1179. The Albigensian Crusade was launched against them soon after. This was the only crusade ever authorized by the Church against other Christians. The Cathars were persecuted and massacred, and then the Inquisition was set up specifically to hunt them down and exterminate them. After they were wiped out in their main regions in France some survived for a time in Italy. There were probably some secret groups elsewhere in Europe as well, but there is no more history of them after the 13th century.
What was so offensive to the organized church that they would literally declare war on the Cathars? It was gnosticism, which had been preached against as far back as the original apostles. Stay tuned for my next post in which I will share my research on gnosticism.
I have not had time lately to study, or to post anything on the blog. However, I encourage all of you to go back through the earliest posts and catch up with the comments that others have made. I really appreciate the different insights and perspectives that several of you have provided. Keep the comments coming!
There doesn’t seem to be much interest among Christians these days with regard to the history of the faith. It hasn’t always been so. In earlier times there was a great focus on the heroes and saints who had gone before. They were remembered in paintings and sculptures, as well as in the observance of special days.
Another important link to the past was the veneration of relics. Christian relics are physical objects with direct ties to Christian antiquity. In the earliest centuries the bones of the saints were highly prized possessions for the churches which had them. These relics were cherished and protected for generations. Of course, not all were actually authentic. But the main benefit to the churches was the link to the past, not some supernatural power in the bones themselves.
I was reminded of all this by an article in today’s newspaper. The article describes a recent discovery under an ancient church on an island off the coast of Bulgaria. A sarcophagus containing some bone fragments was found paired with a small urn bearing a Greek language reference to John the Baptist. Oxford University researchers have completed radio carbon dating and DNA testing on the remains, and have concluded that the bones are indeed those of a first century middle eastern male. They may very well actually be those of John the Baptist!
I was also intrigued by the history of the location. It is a 4th century monastery on St. Ivan’s Island (Ivan is the Slavic word for John). The article says “Nearby Constantinople — now known as Istanbul — was then at the center of the Christian world and the surrounding area was ‘full of monks and holy relics’.” It would be a plausible location for relics dating back to the time of Christ.
I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code recently. It is a fascinating and fast paced book with a complex plot. I enjoyed reading it. The book is obviously a fictional story, but I was also intrigued by its many references to early Christian history. It was often difficult to discern where the author had departed from real history and added his own spin to make the story line work.
A meaningful analysis of this topic is well beyond the scope of a blog post. But I found in our local library a reference which interested persons might find useful. It is Breaking The Da Vinci Code, by Darrell L. Bock, PhD. This book is a thorough, academically based treatment of the main themes of Brown’s book. It digs into much detail on early church history, the Council of Nicea, the Gnostics, and the person of Mary Magdalene. Needless to say, it refutes the assertion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children. What I found more interesting and useful though, was the historical evidence that the divinity of Jesus and the prominence of the four gospels in our Bibles were well established and accepted throughout Christendom long before Constantine and the Council of Nicea.
Dan Brown seems to have been influenced heavily by contemporary writers who promote a modern version of Gnosticism. Elaine Pagels and Stephan A. Hoeller are two of the most well-known authors. On the other side of the discussion are a few authors who provide well-researched and well-reasoned responses. One such author is Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has written an article entitled “What Heresy?”, among others. You can read her article at http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2003/novdec/4.22.html .
Select the Bibliography link on the blog home page for more resources.
I began my study of the history of Christianity and the Church because I knew there was a serious gap in my understanding of how we got from the teachings of Jesus to the Christian doctrines and practices of today. I know there are things I don’t know. But I can’t know just what it is that I don’t know until I start to ask questions and conduct research. This is a basic dilemma of life: We don’t know what we don’t know.
This point was brought home to me last week. I had occasion to be on the campus of a large, new Greek Orthodox church. There were no services in progress, but I could see the beautiful building and look through the windows of the worship center to see the elaborate statuary, paintings and icons that are integral to Orthodox worship. I realized that I know almost nothing about the Orthodox Church. So I thought I would research that a bit, and then report here in a blog post.
The first thing I learned is that the Eastern Orthodox Church has a rich and complex history that goes all the way back to the apostles. So now I know of another whole segment of Christian history that I don’t know. That research is going to take considerable time, and I will strive to provide more information on this topic in a future post.
I am sure that as I continue to read and study and ask questions I will find many more areas of Christian history where I need to expand my understanding. This is exciting! There is so much that has been dysfunctional and disappointing in the Church over the years, but there is also much that is inspirational and uplifting as we learn how historical believers have lived out their faith in so many diverse regions, cultures and times.
I pledge to continue to share my findings with all of you. And I hope that many of you will begin your own personal searches into the roots of today’s Christianity.
I have learned a lot in my personal research into the history of Christianity. I have even learned something about the history of history. There have been writers throughout the ages that have attempted to capture the facts about what really happened so that we who came later could know about them. However, the writers themselves always influence our understanding of the past. Each writer has their own perspective on what should be included or omitted, and how each topic should be presented. It has been interesting to me to read about the same persons or events in multiple historical resources, and then observe how differently the same topics are covered by different authors.
Someone has said that history is an account of the past written by the winners. The historical perspectives that have not prevailed are often not well documented for us today. Thus, much of the church history available to us now is reflective only of those trends in Christian thought and practice that align with the accepted mainstream.
The change in historical perspective over the years has led me to seek out Christian history books that were written a few generations ago. I have found a few such books in antique stores, but they are hard to find. So I was delighted this past weekend to receive the Manual of Church History as a gift. This book was originally written in German by Henry Guericke in 1833, and later translated into English for publication in the USA in 1881. It covers the first six centuries of church history. I am really looking forward to getting into its contents and then sharing my discoveries with all of you.
Have you ever heard of John Mott? I hadn’t either until I read about him in A People’s History of Christianity, but his recent influence on our Christian heritage is significant. He was born in Iowa in 1865. He attended Upper Iowa University, and then went to Cornell. While at Cornell he gave up a promising education in law to go into full time Christian work.
Mott never became ordained or went to the mission field himself, but he served as a leader in the YMCA for many years. Literally thousands of students became missionaries due to his influence. He was one of the most widely travelled and respected Christian leaders in America in the first half of the 20th century. In his last public speech he stated “While life lasts, I am an evangelist.” However, he was not the kind of evangelist we think of today. He was not preaching at tent meetings or organizing revivals. His outreach was to the existing Christian denominations, with a goal of achieving Christian unity. Through the YMCA he sought the cooperation of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for promoting unity through human understanding.
Mr. Mott sounds like one of the unsung heroes of modern Christianity, doesn’t he? But does your opinion of him change when you also learn that he was a founder and provisional president of the World Council of Churches? In the fundamentalist church where I was raised, the World Council of Churches was viewed as a work of the devil. In fact, anything that smacked of ecumenicalism was thought to be harmful to “real” Christianity.
In A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass describes John Mott as “an evangelist of peace, church unity, and a kingdom where all people would be one in Christ.” Can that be bad?