The First Christian Empire

It began on Monday May 11, 330, when it was officially founded by Constantine the Great, and it ended on Tuesday May 29, 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II breached its walls and conquered its capital.  Its one thousand one hundred twenty three years are a study in Christian government and empire.  I am referring to the Byzantine Empire.

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 A.D. marks the victory of Christianity over Roman paganism.  Constantine then faced a question unique in history up to that point, “What does it mean to be a Christian ruler and a Christian empire?” The eighty-seven Byzantine rulers who would occupy the Byzantine throne after him over the next millennium would grapple with the same question.  If we were to judge them solely by the longevity of the empire they stewarded, we would have to conclude they did well.  But there is more to commend the Byzantines than mere longevity.

John Julius Norwich writes, “The Byzantines were…a deeply religious society in which illiteracy–at least among the middle and upper classes–was virtually unknown, and in which one Emperor after another was renowned for his scholarship; a society which alone preserved much of the heritage of the Greek and Latin antiquity, during these dark centuries in the West when the lights of learning were almost extinguished; a society, finally, which produced the astonishing phenomenon of Byzantine art.”

Notwithstanding the glories of the Byzantine Empire, ultimately the kingdom of God is not defined or delimited by earthly empire, and, therefore, Constantinople’s sacking in 1453, while a historical tragedy did not impede the advance of the kingdom of God.  In fact, as I have suggested in another post, Kingdom History: 1453-1455, the fall of Constantinople may have been necessary in God’s larger plan for the advance of the kingdom of God.  GS

A Kingdom Philosophy of History

How do you view history?  I mean big picture, how do you view it?  In other words, do you have a philosophy of history? A philosophy of history is a paradigm for interpreting the purpose and direction of history.  It not only seeks to interpret the events of the past but also attempts to place the present in the proper context and give insight into the future.  There are a few different major philosophies of history. 

One philosophy of history holds that history is cyclical.  The belief that history repeats itself and that there is not any real progress over time is an example of a cyclical philosophy of history.  A cyclical view of history sees such cycles as inevitable because it operates from a presumption that man never really changes.  Man is destined to repeat the mistakes of history because man is a prisoner of his nature and never really progresses.

Another view holds that history is linear.  An example is Marxism, which teaches that history is on an inevitable progression to the goal of a pure communist society.  Marxism attempts to explain the past, place the present in proper context and predict the direction of the future through its philosophy of history. In the Marxist view, it is just a matter of time before the whole world embraces the ideals of the Marxist state.

Many Christians have adopted a pessimistic linear philosophy of history.  They see history as on an inevitable regression into sin and rebellion against God.  They believe the world is beyond hope, the gospel is destined to fail and evil is destined to prevail on the earth. 

It seems to me that the proper Christian philosophy of history holds history is both cyclical and linear.  While it recognizes history moves in a cyclical manner, those cycles progress in a linear fashion toward an ultimate positive conclusion.  Imagine a bicycle wheel rolling up a ramp to reach a high platform.  The same point on the wheel will sometimes be rotating downward, backward, upward or forward around the axle, but the wheel itself is always moving up the ramp to a higher point. 

 When viewed in the context of this Christian philosophy of history, the last fifty years of American cultural and moral decline are easily explained without compromising the linear view of progression and advancement for the kingdom of God.  The last fifty years in the United States of America merely represents a down cycle, whose peak will reach higher in the next cycle as the kingdom progresses towards its ultimate victorious consummation.  History, driven by the leavening force of the kingdom of God is like a wave traveling up a beach.  There are high points and low points, but it is moving up toward a high consummation. 

This view provides the context for understanding history without compromising Jesus’ promise that the Kingdom will successfully leaven the whole earth.  Anyway, it makes sense to me.  What do you think?  GS

The Kingdom’s Dirty Harry

Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character has always been one of my favorites because he is all courage and cool.  He’s famous for many one-liners, but the most famous is, “Go ahead, make my day”–pure ice in a Depends moment.  Long before Clint Eastwood, Christianity had its own Dirty Harry in the person of Polycarp. 

Polycarp was born in 70 A.D. and spent the latter part of his life as the Bishop of Smyrna.  He was one of the most famous Christians in the world at the time.  He had been discipled by the Apostle John, making him only one step removed from Jesus–pretty good credentials. 

In 156 A.D., during the reign of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Polycarp was called before the local sheriff in Smyrna, ordered to declare Caesar Lord and make a sacrifice to him or be put to death.  Polycarp refused. 

Polycarp was then taken into a stadium where the Roman governor of Smyrna waited along with the locals, and a number of Christians who had come to see what would happen to Polycarp.  The governor demanded Polycarp denounce Jesus and swear by Caesar or be put to death.  Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?”

The governor then said, “I have wild beasts at hand. I will cast you to these unless unless you change your mind.” 

Polycarp replied, “Call them.” 

The governor said “I will cause you to be consumed by fire.” 

Polycarp replied, “Why do you delay. Bring what you wish.” 

The governor then announced, “Polycarp confesses that he is a Christian.”  Polycarp was then bound to a stake and the fire lit.  As the fire roared around Polycarp the stadium of onlookers were amazed because a wall of fire surrounded Polycarp but became like a sail filled with wind blowing away from him so that he stood unharmed.  Seeing his body could not be consumed by fire, the executioner was ordered to plunge his sword into Polycarp.  When he did, so much blood gushed forth that the fire was extinguished.  The multitude, who had seen many executions but had never seen anything like this, marveled.

We know of the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom from eye-witnesses who were in the stadium that day and contributed to a letter written to the church in Pontus recounting the event.  Eusebius, known as the Father of Church History, notes in his Ecclesiastical History written in 325 A.D., that the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom was passed down in writing “still extant,” and he quotes directly from the document.  

So there you have it, the original Dirty Harry. “Call them” and “Bring it on,” he said.  Courage and cool for the ultimate cause of the kingdom of God.  And people are still talking about him 1,853 years later.  As much I like the Dirty Harry character, I bet no one remembers him 100 years from now.  GS

The Conversion of Norway

In yesterday’s blog post, Kingdom History:  1000 A.D., I mentioned that a number of conversions of European leaders leading up to the end of the first millennium changed the course of history.  This is the story of one of those conversions.

The English had been repeatedly attacked and plundered by the Vikings. So, on September 8, 944 A.D., when he stood before London after beaching his ships at the mouth of the Thames, King Olaf Trygvesson of Norway expected a large tribute from the English king, Ethelred.  Olaf and his men rode through the hills of Sussex and Hampshire burning villages, “laying waste the lands, putting numbers of people to death by fire and sword, without regard to sex, and sweeping off an immense booty,” records one English chronicler.  Finally, Ethelred gave in and agreed to pay an enourmous sum of money to King Olaf.

While waiting for the deal to be consummated, Olaf heard of the skills of  a local prophet and decided to test the prophet’s skills.  King Olaf dressed one of his men of similar build in his royal attire and sent him to the prophet.  The prophet said, “You are not the king, but I advise you to be faithful to the king.”

Olaf, intrigued by the story, decided to check out the prophet for himself.  The prophet told Olaf he would be a “renowned king and do celebrated deeds.”  He then told Olaf he would soon suffer a mutiny, would be wounded and carried to his ship on his shield, but after seven days he would recover and be baptized a Christian.  The prophet added, “Many men will you bring to faith and baptism.”

Shortly thereafter, the mutiny took place, Olaf was wounded and recovered in seven days just as the prophet had predicted. When King Olaf returned and asked how the prophet had obtained such wisdom, he replied, “The God of the Christian has blessed me.”  With that, King Olaf was baptized.

King Olaf and King Ethelred then met as brothers in Christ at Andover and Olaf promised never again to make war against England.  King Olaf then returned to Norway to Christianize the pagan land.   GS

Kingdom History: 1000 A.D.

If you had been living in Europe at the end of of the first millennium, would you have thought it was the end of the world?  Would you have been reading the equivalent of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and looking to the sky for Jesus’ return?

Christendom had been on the decline for some time.  Pagan Vikings continually raided what is today northern Europe and England.  Pagan Magyars (from modern-day Hungary) were encroaching on Christendom’s eastern borders, and Muslim Moors, who controlled most of Spain, were encroaching in the south.  What’s more, history was nearing the end of the first millennium A.D.  There were wars and rumors and of wars, comets were seen in the sky and there were other natural phenomena which people interpreted as bad omens.  There was much talk of the Apocalypse, the end of the world.

Then, within the span of forty years, everything changed.  The Vikings (Scandinavia) were converted to Christianity, following the conversions of Olaf of Trygvesson (991 A.D.), Svein Forkbeard (1014 A.D.) and Canute the Mighty (1014 A.D.).  The conversion of other pagan leaders solidified this glorious turn of history:  Harald Bluetooth of Denmark in 974 A.D., Vladimir I of Russia in 988 A.D., Boleslav the Brave (modern day Poland) in 996 A.D., Thorgeir of Iceland in 1000 A.D. and Leif Eriksson in 1000 A.D. The pagan Magyars were tamed when a Christian leader named Vajk (St. Stephen) was crowned king in 1000 A.D. and began facilitating the spread of Christianity through modern-day Hungary.  Spain was reclaimed when Sancho the Great defeated the Moors in 1002 A.D.

History is fluid.  The kingdom of God remains.  With the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, there will be talk of the end being near, as there has been for the last 2,000 years every time a temporary retreat of Christianity is coupled with a natural disaster or two.   Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye will sell more books, but the world will continue.  The world will continue because it must continue until the kingdom of God has covered the earth.  So, when things look bad in the world, when it seems Christianity is on the decline, if it means anything, it means the end is likely farther away than you think, not nearer.  GS