Edward M. Panosian
This article first appeared in Faith for the Family March/April, 1973. It is reproduced here by permission.
Perhaps the two most significant periods in the history of Christianity are the first and the sixteenth centuries because of the revelation of God by the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the following Apostolic Age in the first century, and the rediscovery of the Gospel by His servants in the Reformation era of the sixteenth century. These two ages are remarkably similar in character and in the effect of that character upon the Christian church. God moved in a special sense in both periods. An examination of a few similarities may show parallels with our present age and indicate the possibility that God soon may be moving in a special sense again.
The “fulness of time” of both the Incarnation and the Reformation was one of apparent political unity. The Roman Empire, encompassing the rim of the Mediterranean, represented a single state composed of many dissimilar peoples. Much of this unity, in the first century however, was more contrived than real, as was the unity of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanies in the sixteenth century. A facade of political order and coherence covered great conflict and competition. Because the German states jealously maintained their autonomy, imperial power could not force religious uniformity when the Reformation began.
Besides the apparent political unity of both periods, there was the unity fostered by travel and communication. The Roman roads and the Roman sea made it possible to communicate ideas rapidly throughout the Roman Empire. Also, the urban character of the empire meant that large numbers of people in a relatively small space could be reached with any new message, whether of philosophy or religion. The civil bureaucracy and the postal system contributed to disseminating information rapidly. Learning was widely accessible. Much the same was true during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Increased trade meant increased travel in western Europe. Cities had been restored in the late medieval revival out of feudal society. Education for the laity had been fostered for the previous two centuries. Intellectual humanism was eager for ideas. And that almost providential mid-1400’s introduction of movable-type printing was to be a tool for a veritable knowledge explosion, the importance of which, to the spread of the reformer’s ideas and Biblical translations in the spoken languages, it is difficult to exaggerate.
In both ages the religious and the political were intertwined. Church and state were not separate entities, but two aspects of one. The Roman Emperor was pontifex maximus (greatest priest) of all the religions of the empire. Religion was a buttress to the political state and was often associated with what our day would consider simple patriotism. Church and state were interdependent. The sixteenth-century German emperor was to matters political what the Roman pope was to matters religious. The Empire was the civil arm, and the Church was the “spiritual” arm, of the same body. This is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by the religio-political nature of Martin Luther’s examination at the Diet of Worms in 1521, which was a political conclave dealing with an essentially religious question.
In both of these periods in Christian history religion abounded. The wide variety of her conquered peoples gave to Rome ample variety of religions. Rome’s attitude seemed to be the more religions, the merrier. This attitude was especially prevalent as the empire waxed older, and its cohesion and strength waned, demanding more religious placation of the gods for the salvation of the political empire. Similarly, religion abounded in its pervasiveness in the Holy Roman Empire. Although then there was only one church, its power dominated almost every area of life in the first “modern” century. Politics, as we have seen; society, the “just price” system of church-controlled economics; and the near monopoly of the arts in the building and maintaining of those “sermons-in-stone,” the cathedrals — in all these departments of life, the church exerted its influence.
Not only was there much religion in both eras; there was also much religious corruption. Priests cast doubt on the piety and the purity of their teachings by their actions. So it was not surprising that dissatisfaction and disillusionment and a longing after the true and the holy fired the hearts of many of the people and made them ready and waiting for the coming of the Word of God in power — in the Incarnation and in the Reformation. There was much religion, but little heart peace.
In both eras the origin of the movings of God lay in simple, humble soil. At His human birth, there was little natural evidence of the royalty of the Lord of Glory. In a carpenter’s shop, He learned and labored through His “youth.” The common people heard Him gladly. Ordinary men became His disciples. As a common criminal, He submitted to the shameful death which was to be for man’s redemption. Although there is infinite difference in the comparison, the reformers, too, were common men. They were of the people, not of the nobility, as a group. Their appeal was to the people, not primarily to rulers. The Anabaptists (not strictly reformers, in the view of some, but prominent in the Reformation era) had special growth among the common men of their day.
Organized religion cast out both, as well. He Who was the fulfilment of the law was rejected by those who represented the law. By them He was taken, and by their wicked hands, crucified and slain. They who hated the light and loved darkness sought to destroy the Light of the World. His followers were to endure the persecution of Rome for three centuries after His resurrection. Romish religion, representing a law of works contrary to the gospel of grace, in the sixteenth century rejected the reformers, excommunicated, “defrocked,” and damned them as heretics to Rome’s “truth.” They were cast out of Romish synagogues, hated, and whenever possible, put to death.
Forerunners preceded both ages. Prophets spoke in former days of His coming, and John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord on the eve of His coming. All history had pointed to His coming. Fourteen and fifteen centuries later, pre-reformers, such as Wycliffe, Huss, and Savonarola, paved the way for later reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox.
The Incarnation and the Reformation brought not peace, but a sword. Both came in an age of comparative peace, but they initiated conflict as they separated truth from error. The only peace which accompanied their message was the peace of hearts in submission to Jesus Christ and the peace of minds whose thoughts were brought into captivity to Him.
Another interesting consideration is the cultural progress and achievement which was part of the setting of both periods. The classical age of Greece and Rome came to completion and fulfillment at about the point of the Augustan Age into which Christ was born. The Greek mind and the Roman muscle combined to realize what may have been the zenith of human achievement since the Flood. In so many areas of culture, man had arrived at his best, yet he was in so great need. Moral progress did not accompany man’s mental and material progress. Man at his best was more accurately man at his most sophisticated sinfulness. The classical virtues did not hide the classical vices. Man’s extremity was God’s “opportunity,” And Heaven came down.
The same picture describes the eve of the Reformation. The Renaissance, which immediately preceded and merged into the Reformation period of reassertion of the Word of God, was similarly characterized by signal achievements in learning and the arts. A cultural flowering, a “rebirth of learning” has long been associated with the Renaissance. Excellence of talent and expression, boldness in the return to the literary sources, a critical spirit toward the contradictions between claims and attainments of the late medieval Church — all these somehow emboldened the Renaissance man to an individualized morality which was more often immoral by God’s standards. Moral excellence lagged far behind man’s scientific, literary, and artistic excellence. Renaissance man faultily diagnosed the human dilemma as the result of ignorance and repression of individuality. This faulty diagnosis led to the fatal prescription of education and moral liberty which, in turn, produced standard-less license. In the midst of what he thought was freedom, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century man was in bondage to his own sinful nature.
A final point in parallel is the apparent economic prosperity accompanying both the ages considered here. Affluence was increasing as trade increased, and men seemed to reflect a greater degree of economic independence. Much of this, however, was more apparent than real. Beneath the surface affluence lay the problems of growing taxation and the reciprocal inflation of prices and deflation of monetary value. And both ages eventually witnessed the drug effect of immediate stimulus followed by ultimate depression.
These, then, are at least some of the similarities between the first and the sixteenth centuries, the days of the Incarnation and those of the Reformation. And what of today? How much of this description is relative to these present times?
To be continued…
The following biographical sketch appeared in the original publication of this article in the March/April 1973 issue of Faith for the Family.
Dr. Edward M. Panosian is professor of Church History at Bob Jones University, A native of Elmira, N. Y., and an avid student of church history, Dr. Panosian has also had considerable acting experience in Shakespearean productions presented by the Bob Jones University Classic Players, and appears in a major role in the Unusual Films motion picture Flame In The Wind. He holds a bachelor of arts, master of arts, and doctor of philosophy degrees from Bob Jones University.
Dr. Panosian is now retired from his teaching duties.