The Periods of Church History – Foy E. Wallace, Jr.

Foy E. Wallace, Jr.

In discussing the periods of church history there are five words which designate these periods. The first is the word perfection; then the word departure; then the word apostasy; then the word reformation; then the word restoration. All of this belongs to the course of religious history from New Testament times down to our times…The true church, of course, is identified in the New Testament. Christianity or Christology, in the Old Testament was in type, in prophecy. The Old and the New Testaments represent together the continuity of divine revelation. We are not under the Old Testament—but that does not mean that we do not believe it. When we try to show people that we are not under the Old Testament, they think that we do not believe the Old Testament. Let us ask who it is that does not believe the Old Testament—do you believe that it has been taken away? If you say no—then you do not believe the Old Testament, because the Old Testament is the book that said, “A new covenant he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth, and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). Here Paul showed that what the Old Testament said in advance about itself had been done. That was a quotation from the Old Testament. So, if you do not believe that the Old Testament has vanished away, then you are the one who does not believe the Old Testament. I believe the Old Testament, but we are not under it. That does not mean that it is not true, it means that it was fulfilled and has been abrogated. It was not called the Old Testament as long as it was in force. There is not a law on the statute books of the State of Tennessee that you would call an old law while it is in operation. When a law is repealed, when it is abrogated, when it is relegated, it becomes an old law. Then why is the Old Testament old? Not because it was written first, not because it is older than the New Testament—Paul said, in Hebrews 8:13, that God made it old. “In that he saith, a new covenant, he hath made the first old.” He made it old by abrogating it, taking it out of the way. The Old Testament is true as the revelation of God and the history of man, and of God’s people Israel, and as an inspired record of the development of the divine plan of redemption. All of that is in the Old Testament. The Bible is thus the longest thread of thought ever woven in the loom of time. There is no repudiation of the Old Testament, but we recognize the difference in the dispensations under which men have lived and have served God. So we discuss these phases of revelation only to illustrate the principles that have to do with the history of the church.

The Period of Perfection

Now God has done everything in perfection when he created man. He made him exactly like he wanted him to be. Adam was God’s model, he was the perfect man. There was not a cloud over his path; there was not a jar in his whole nature; there was no experience of pain, no dread of evil, no fear of death. He could look into the face of his God, his Creator and his Maker, with love unpoisoned and confidence undimmed, with which a child may look into the face of its mother. But in the process of time, man being a free moral agent, he broke through the restrictions of divine law and was separated from God. Sometimes people ask why God did not create man incapable of sinning. He would not have been a man. God would have created a machine, instead of a man. He endowed him with the powers of will and of intellect. And God does not circumvent the faculties of his creatures in any of the relationships that we sustain to God. The New Testament refers to the law of the mind, and that is only a designation for the law of God, which law is addressed to the intellect—pertains to the mind, therefore God’s law is called the law of mind. You would not preach the gospel to a goat, because the gospel is the law of the mind, addressed to the mind, addressed to the intellect, therefore the law of God is the law of the mind.

The Spirit of God operates upon man only through this law of the mind, which is the gospel. Paul said that we receive the Spirit through the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:2). And the Holy Spirit remains in us the same way that it enters into us— through the hearing of faith, and dwells in us, through that medium—the Word of God. There is not any mystical, mystified, direct intangible, unintelligible, better-felt-than-told way that God influences man.

So in the beginning God created man with mind and soul. Adam was the perfect man; exactly as God wanted him to be; but Adam transgressed, and there have been centuries of degeneration from the first man until now. But we can span the centuries of degeneration, and see the first man as God created him—man as he was, not as he is; man as God made him, not man as sin corrupted him.

In Ephesians 2:14, the apostle tells us God created a new man, and the new man that God created is called the church—the one new man, the new creation. We have the old creation and we have the new creation. The church is the new creation and, as with the first, at the beginning God made it perfect. The New Testament church was perfect. Its members were not perfect but God created a perfect institution–he formed the church as in the first creation, exactly as he wanted it. But as the degeneration of Adam, departure came, even in the New Testament time, when men so early began to corrupt God’s New Testament institution. In 1 Timothy 4:1 the apostle said: “The Spirit saith expressly, that in the latter times (the last days) men shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.” The last days means the gospel dispensation. That passage does not refer to the approaching end of time. Isaiah the prophet, in chapter 2:2-4, foretold that “in the last days” the house of the Lord would be established when the New Covenant would be inaugurated in Jerusalem. Jesus referred to this prophetic forecast in Luke 24, and pointed to Pentecost as the fulfillment of it. The last days began on Pentecost. In Hebrews 1:1 Paul said that God at sundry times and in divers manners had spoken unto the fathers by the prophets, but in the last days he speaks unto us by Jesus Christ. This is the gospel age—the gospel dispensation, the last days. When Paul told Timothy that in the last days men shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits he meant that even though the Holy Spirit had given to them divine revelation, that all along during the Holy Spirit’s dispensation—the last days—men would give heed to seducing spirits instead of the Holy Spirit. That is exactly where the line exists between truth and error—the Holy Spirit and seducing spirits. The departure comes when men give heed to the seducing spirits instead of the Word that the Holy Spirit has revealed to us.

The Period of Departure

These incipient departures began in the apostolic day and time, and continued, and developed into what is called “the apostasy,” a stronger word for a more advanced state than departure. The departures were gradual, they did not come about overnight. They appeared first in organization—in the corruption of the divine arrangement of the New Testament church. The divine arrangement is simply that of the congregation with elders, deacons, and members. There was a plurality of elders in each church, but as time went on, one elder presided over several churches–instead of a plurality of elders in one church, there was plurality of churches under one elder, which developed the bishop, and the bishop over bishops–the archbishop, a diocesan bishop over a diocese of bishops. It was then an easy step up to the papal system and the pope on his Vatican throne because, after all, the pope was just an overgrown metropolitan bishop. That was an organizational departure.

The next stage of departure was doctrinal. For instance, concerning baptism, the first case of sprinkling in all history was that of Novation, who was sick, and being very ill they substituted sprinkling for immersion, but sprinkled water over his bed, not just on a spot on his head. When Novation recovered, they insisted that he be immersed, but he said if sprinkling is baptism when one is sick, then it is baptism when one is well, because the condition of one’s health has nothing to do with what the action baptism is; and he claimed that it would be a mockery of the ordinance if he should be immersed. Later, he became a candidate for the office of bishop of Rome, but only an immersed person could qualify for the office and Novation forfeited that position rather than do what he called making a mockery of baptism. It was in the tenth century that sprinkling was made a sacrament—so there is the example of departure in the doctrinal area, which occurred 252 A.D.

Next, as in the case of Novation, came corruption in the realm of worship—innovations in the realm of worship—when in 670 A.D. the first instrument of music ever known to be used in the worship of any body of people claiming to be Christians was introduced by Pope Vitalian I. When it threatened the unity of the Roman church, it was removed. In 800 A.D.—130 years later—it was reintroduced, and that time it stayed. But the voice of every reformer coming out of Romanism was raised against the corruption of worship by the use of mechanical instrumentation in worship. We hear the voices of Luther and Zwingle and Wesley and Calvin protesting the use of organs in worship.

The Period of Apostasy

The departures were gradual in organization and in doctrine and in worship, and as history relates the developments, between the sixth century and the sixteenth century there were one thousand years of apostasy; and from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, that particular period of history that is called the dark ages. That period in which the Bible was taken away from the people; when they were taught they could not understand it; that it had to be interpreted for them; and thus a barrier was erected between the people and the Bible. One young man who entered a German institution to prepare himself for the duties of a priest discovered an old rusty Latin Bible, and read it as he could; and in reading of that old Bible he found that the institution to which he had attached himself had departed completely from its teaching. He severed his connection with the monastery and went out preaching reforms. He did not intend to leave what was then called the church, he only wanted to reform it. But every reformation has failed—there has never been a successful reformation in all religious history. When men have undertaken reformation, the result of their efforts has always been the emergence of some other denominational organization or Protestant body or sect. The efforts of Luther and Wesley and Calvin and Zwingle, whose names are familiar to all students of history, only resulted in the formation of Protestant denominationalism. We do not go into the mention of these organizations by their names here, but this is the manner in which all Protestant denominations originated—out of a state of the dismal darkness and apostasy of the dark ages.

There were some men, though themselves steeped in error, who in their hearts were devoted to God and desired to be right. We admire Luther as he stood before the Diet of Worms, and said: “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” His aims were right; he was headed in the right direction; so were other men of that struggling time—but they had to crawl before they could walk. Coming out of centuries of darkness they could not be expected to arrive at the whole truth; but they made a start in the right direction; and we today derive fruit from the work of the men who are called the reformers.

But their worthy work degenerated into Protestant denominationalism; they failed to arrive at the goal which they had set before them; but from their beginning came the fruition of their own desires in the continuous efforts of later men.

Having defined the periods of perfection, of departure, of apostasy, and of reformation, we go to the fifth word—and the word is restoration.

The Period of Restoration

From the ranks of these very men who had carried on the work of reformation came the plea for restoration. This did not come from an outside group of people at all. It came from inside the Protestant denominations, when men advancing in their knowledge, developed a consciousness of the evils of party creeds and party names, and they finally made the plea that was right: Where the Scriptures speak let us speak, and where the Scriptures are silent, let us be silent. That was the statement of their plea, but it is stated in the New Testament words: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.” The whole restoration concept is wrapped up in the statement, “Where the Bible speaks, let us speak, and where the Bible is silent, let us be silent.” This is the appeal to get back beyond the reformers–beyond Wesley and Calvin and Luther and Zwingle and Wycliffe and Huss; back beyond the formation of papacy, back beyond the dark ages, back beyond that which produced the dark ages; back beyond the worship of the emperor, when it was said that to be a Christian, one must be a Roman; back beyond the Holy Roman Empire, and farther back, on and on, until we are right back to the New Testament.

But people will say out of all this talk of restoration how can we identify anything; how is it possible to identify a restored church? Let us now settle that point.

The Marks of Identification

Everyone knows how to identify an automobile that is lost—by its make, model and number. Well, we have the make, model and the number of the New Testament church on record—it is a registered institution, and it can be identified. But we must go to the New Testament to do it. We cannot identify it by human authority in documents, disciplines and creeds. There is only one book that identifies the true church, and that is the New Testament itself.

The first identifying mark would be origination, and that would be in the word seed. Plant seed anywhere and it produces after its kind. An unbroken chain of church succession, dating back to the New Testament, is not necessary in order to have the New Testament church, any more than an unbroken chain of wheat crops through all generations is necessary to have a wheat crop now. Then, origination means that every seed produces after its kind. The wheat crop is in the seed that produces it. Plant it anywhere and it will produce the same thing everywhere. Now, on the same principle, take the New Testament to any dark land of the earth today, where the church has never been known, teach it and preach it, and it will produce now exactly what it produced then—the same New Testament church. The church is in the seed that produces it.

The next mark of identification is organization, and here is the word congregation. The church is not a denominational organization nor in any sense an ecclesiastical body. It is a congregation of Christians assembled for the purpose of worship and service to God. The simplicity of its organization is that of elders, deacons, members—elders to oversee and provide the teaching of the truth; deacons to assist in the work of service; members to assemble together and thus to work out their salvation; and preachers to proclaim the gospel. The word congregation comprehends the organizational identity of the New Testament church.

Next is the word doctrine, and beside that word doctrine, we simply write gospel. It takes the same thing to make a Christian now as in New Testament time. There is no other means or method. Jesus said in Mark 16:15-16: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Peter said in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It is said in verse 41: “They that gladly received his word were baptized, and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls”—and verse 47 says that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” This is the process. The only way to be added to the church in New Testament times was to be baptized and there is no other way now. There are no other kinds of additions. People may need restoration but the only additions to the church are by baptism. We are baptized into Christ, and into the One Body, the church, as stated in Galatians 3:27 and 1 Corinthians 12:13—and Acts 2:41,47 states that we are thus added to the church—baptized, saved, added—it is one process.

The next identity mark is worship and here we have the word pattern. “Keep the ordinances as I delivered them unto you” (1 Cor. 11:2). There can be no additions—when is a thing an addition and when is it not an addition? One says, “Show me the scripture for seats in the meetinghouse, or lights in the meetinghouse, or for songbooks, and I will show you one for organs in the church.” That is not parallel, but we would like to see him look for the organ, so we will give him the scripture for the seats. In James 2:3 it is said that when a man comes into the assembly he is told to “sit thou here.” That is a seat—one could not sit without a seat. It was not only a seat, but the man was ushered to it and was told to sit on it. That is chapter and verse for seats. As for the lights, when Paul preached on the first day of the week at Troas, we are told in Acts 20:8 that he continued his discourse until midnight and the record says “there were many lights.” So the quibbles can be answered, but they are not parallels. A thing becomes an addition only when another element is added. For instance in the Lord’s supper, the elements specified are the bread and the fruit of the vine. Now, the plates on which to distribute the bread are not an addition, because no element is added. But if we should spread butter and jelly on the bread, that would be an addition—there would be another element. The vessels in which to distribute the fruit of the vine are not additions, because no element is involved in the use of a container, but if we should put milk in them, or some element other than the fruit of the vine, there would be an addition. It is said that an instrument of music is as scriptural as a songbook, but a songbook does not introduce an additional element of music. When one uses a songbook, he sings; whether one sings with or without looking at the music staff, he is performing only the act of singing. There is no added element in the use of a songbook. But when instrumental music is introduced into the worship, there is another element of music, and that is the addition—that is the butter and jelly on the bread! A simple coordination of words in an illustration will settle such quibbles. There is a pattern for worship as there is a pattern for doctrine and we cannot transcend it.

The next mark by which to identify the church is terminology, or names—and here we put the word Christian. “The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). If the disciples were called Christians then, why should they not be called Christians now? We are willing to call the people of God by any name or designation that the New Testament mentions, but by none that it does not mention. It is so with reference to the church; we are willing to call the church by any designation that the New Testament mentions, but none that it does not mention. That settles the question of terminology, nomenclature, or names—Bible things by Bible names.

The final mark of identification is creed. We simply put beside it the word Bible. A human creed is a formulated interpretation of what the Bible says; the divine Creed is what it says. It is the only divine creed, we can have no other. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.”

Now we have named six identifying marks—Origination, Organization, Doctrine, Worship, Name, and Creed. If we are right in origination; and right in organization; and right in doctrine; and right in worship; and right in name; and right in creed; we cannot be the wrong church. But if we are wrong in origination; and wrong in organization; and wrong in doctrine; and wrong in worship; and wrong in name; and wrong in creed; we cannot be the right church. That represents the make, the model and the number of the New Testament church. And it is just that simple—a matter of identification.

There is an incident that occurred many years ago in connection with the gold rush to California far back in 1849. A group became separated from the party, and thought that they would perish for water, when all at once they came upon a sparkling running stream of water. They rushed to it with delight thinking that their thirst would be satisfied; but when they drank of the water it was brackish and bitter. They sat beside the stream in disappointment. One of their number wandered up the stream, and came to the fountain from which the stream was flowing. When he drank of the water from the fountain, it was sweet and refreshing. He wondered how a fountain so sweet could send forth water so bitter. It led him to examine the surrounding terrain, and down below the fountain he saw side streams pouring into the main stream; and that solved the problem. The side streams were bringing into that main stream the bitter and the brackish elements. He went back to his party and took them up to the fountain where they drank and were satisfied. How aptly does that illustrate conditions in religion today. There are many men standing on the outside looking on, and they ask the question: What is Christianity? When they see the discords and the divisions that exist in the religious world, over human creeds and denominational theology, they say to us: If that is Christianity, its waters are brackish and bitter. Someone needs to go to all such men and to take them by the hand, and say to them: My friend, you are drinking too far below the fountain. Come, and let us go to the fountain. Now the fountain is this Word in my hand—it is the Bible, the Word of God. It is the fountain of all truth, and when we drink of it, the waters are sweet and life-giving. Below the fountain men have poured into the stream of religion their human philosophy, their speculative theology, their religious traditions, and their false doctrines—and that has corrupted the stream. To the outsider it is brackish and bitter.

Our whole aim of today should be to bring people back to the source—the Bible. It will lead us right, it will lead us into obedience to God; it will lead us into the church; it will lead us into complete devotion to his will; it will lead us along life’s pathway until we have come to the journey’s end; and it will lead us to heaven. Come, stand with us on the Bible and the Bible alone.

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