What do you know about the growth and impact of Christianity from the apostles to the present day, not only in the Western world but also globally, including the development of Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Christianity, as well as considering Christianity in Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Baltic and Slavic states, and India? And why is it important to have this knowledge?
Bible Gateway interviewed Stephen Backhouse, author of the Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History (Zondervan, 2019).
What is so “essential” about this book?
Stephen Backhouse: Ha! I doubt I would ever try to argue for long that anything I wrote is ‘essential.’ However, it seemed a good word to describe what we were trying to do with this book, namely, provide a rollicking ride through 2,000 years of Christian life, thought, art, politics, and culture in such a way as to mention as many people, places, and events as possible without focusing on only one tradition or national expression. So it’s ‘essential’ insofar as it offers the essence of Christian history, distilled into a hopefully readable and interesting form.
Why is it important for Christians in the 21st century to understand Christian history?
Stephen Backhouse: Let’s be honest, most Christians consciously or unconsciously believe that the Christian culture they were born into is THE Christian culture. I have to tell you, Christianity is way weirder, way bigger, and way better than any one denomination or tradition can lay claim to. Christian history helps give Christians a sense of the width and depth of the conversation they’re a part of.
At its best, history helps inject a much needed long-view and humility into our Christianized cultures which are addicted to short term thinking and ‘might is right’ tribalism.
Why did you decide to format Christian history into 20 groups of 100 years each?
Stephen Backhouse: All divisions will be arbitrary in some way. One chapter per full century of Christian history seemed as good a format as any!
What century (or centuries) particularly stand out to you and why?
Stephen Backhouse: I love the fizz of energy and life that comes from the first three centuries. Here we find a new people, a royal priesthood, carving out their startling way of life in the face of traditional ethnic, tribal, and Empire loyalties. The New Testament was written in this time, the Trinity was articulated, churches were formed, cultures were changed, and the Spirit was shining new ways of life on humanity that are with us to this day. And all in the shadow of intermittent persecution and bafflement from the wider culture.
How did the Bible shape Christian history?
Stephen Backhouse: It’s funny. I sometimes talk of the Bible as the ticking time-bomb at the heart of Christendom. Christians—like any group of humans—are always creating oppressive power structures and institutions that tend toward corruption. We’re in love with nationalism, lethal violence, and greed. No one who spends five minutes looking at the present or past ages can fail to notice this.
Yet the reason why we’re able to assess these corrupt Christian cultures for what they are is precisely because of the Scriptures they’ve preserved through time. The merciful character of God and the witness of the prophets in the Old Testament serve as constant reminder to religions and governments who love to talk about God but have lost their way.
Above all the words and life of Jesus Christ are, hands down, the best solution to Christians whose moral compass is spinning. You can be and do a lot of things in this world and call yourself ‘Christian.’ It’s a lot harder to be and do these things while claiming to be a follower of Christ. By preserving the Scriptures, Christian culture has smuggled into itself the agent of its own demise. We find new generations of Christ followers discovering the radical power of Jesus in the Bible all the time, and changing Christian history as a result.
Based on your knowledge of history, how do you see the future of Christianity?
Stephen Backhouse: I’m reminded of Romans 5:3-5 — “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
It’s interesting that Paul thinks ‘hope’ comes from ‘character.’ Hope is not a sentimental feeling that happens passively. It’s a choice. A muscle one needs to exercise. It’s a deliberate way of looking at the world; a way Paul inextricably links to his experience of knowing love through the Holy Spirit.
When I observe Christian groups who are motivated by despair, fear, or anger, I know these are cultures which are not good at producing people of character. I too am often tempted to anger and despair at the way Christians enthusiastically support people and practices that are the exact opposite of anything Jesus said or did. But then I’m reminded to cultivate my hope.
As Kierkegaard pointed out, the Incarnation is good even if no one believes in it. The goodness of Jesus is not dependent on the goodness of the people who like to invoke his name. There’s a goodness at work in the world still, and it pops up everywhere. I’m hopeful because the way of Christ is still the measure of all goodness into the future, even as various forms of Christian culture are consigned to the past.
As the author of Kierkegaard: A Single Life, how do you think Soren Kierkegaard would summarize the history of Christianity?
Stephen Backhouse: Honestly? He’d say the history of Christianity is the story of people organizing together to protect themselves from having to follow Jesus Christ!
He was more pessimistic about the church than I am, but I think every Christian needs to take a bracing Kierkegaardian bath every once in a while. Kierkegaard’s great contribution is that he’s given us a way to negotiate the difference between Christendom (any time Christianity becomes the common culture) and authentic Christianity (imitators of Jesus Christ). This is a heavenly gift which any historian of Christianity should be grateful for.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Stephen Backhouse: I love Matthew 11:28 — “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” It was one of Kierkegaard’s favorites too, incidentally.
Us moderns can easily slip into assuming that this is a warm fuzzy sentimental verse. But if we put ourselves in a contemporaneous historical place with Jesus, it becomes a stark opportunity for faith. This isn’t the stained-glass, triumphalist, pop-culture Jesus of Christendom speaking here. It’s a guy with straggly hair and a bit of fish in his beard asking you to come to him because he has life now in all its fullness.
The opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s offence that this man is God. It is an opportunity for authentic faith in Jesus that remains the same no matter what historical era you encounter him in.
Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Stephen Backhouse (DPhil, Oxford) is the Director of Tent Theology, a venture bringing theology to local churches and networks across the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He was Dean at Westminster Theological Centre and Lecturer in Social and Political Theology at St Mellitus College in the UK. He is the author of several books and articles, including the award-winning popular biography Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan, 2016) and the Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History (Zondervan, 2019).
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