There Was No Golden Age in the History of the Church

How often have you heard people lament that these days are not like the “good old days”? Perceptions of the past state of the world or Christianity are often skewed, reflecting the selective memories of individuals or the selective reading of the historical record. We like to think that there was a Golden Age when true and pure Christianity was dominant and Christians all lived happy, holy lives, but the more history I read, the more I believe the idea is a fantasy.

Westminster Seminary church historian, Carl Trueman reminds us that this pining for an ideal era of Christianity has a long history that goes back at least to the Reformation:

One harmful but guiding assumption of much of Reformation and post-Reformation historiography has been that there are ‘golden ages’ such that the present state of the church pales in comparison to some perceived time when all was right with the church…

The Golden Age model has two faults. First, it typically smooths out the rough spots in a particular era by treating theology as though it dropped out of the sky, or, perhaps better, straight out of the Bible. It does not. Humans do theology in specific historical, cultural contexts, and theological issues are always more complex than the Golden Age model allows. One does not have to reduce everything to an extreme materialist model of history to acknowledge the truth of this statement.

In addition, it does not always allow for the fact that we live in the late twentieth century, not the sixteenth or seventeenth. If one wishes to appropriate the sixteenth or seventeenth century, for example, as a model for contemporary church theology, one must do without blinkers and with an awareness of the theological, cultural and philosophical developments between then and now. Ignoring the critical questions of history does not make them go away.

(Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment,ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark; Paternoster, 1999, xvi.)

With that last statement Trueman reminds us that we need to tell the whole story, a story that takes all the aspects of life into consideration: political, sociological, and cultural. We cannot imagine that none of these things mattered or had an influence on the times. Additionally, if we wish for the good old days of selective memory or reading, we have to take the good and the bad. If it’s the Reformation we wish for, we have to take the inherent violence and political instability of the times, in addition to the somewhat rudimentary post-Catholic church order and life. If we long for the great revivals of the 18th or 19th centuries we have to take the extreme emotionalism, moralism and nationalism that were often confused with the gospel.

Rather than wish for the “good old days,” we ought to take the advice of Solomon, who recommended against idolizing the past, and instead instructed us to enjoy the present, warts and all:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this…In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl. 7:10, 14)

About Mark Farnham
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Founder and Director, Apologetics for the Church (apologeticsforthechurch.org). PhD in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; ThM in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

5 Responses to There Was No Golden Age in the History of the Church

  1. Gordon Lovik says:

    There will be no Golden Age until our feet hit the streets of gold. I seem to remember that Jesus was shepherding the disciples in time of lots of brass. Hmm. . .of course that was another dispensation.

  2. L. Mark Bruffey says:

    There was a time, however, before nominalism, the enlightenment, and ensuing secularism, when western church culture did not track along with pop culture–for there was no pop culture, only high culture and folk culture. The western “common man” of today is not the same western “common man” of yesterday.

  3. Jim E says:

    My parents always told me, “The only thing good about the ‘good old days’ is… they’re gone!”…

    I’m getting old enough to know what that meant…and you have it right…we glorify some things about the past and I guess that’s alright, as long as we remember: “The bitter with the better.”…’cause in whatever era we live…there is good and bad…I’ll take today for I am alive…I will do with what is and pass on the best of what I know to my children and grandchildren…they, in turn will take that and in their own experience, will make what they will…all we can hope for is it will still come out of the Bible…and that they will, as I pray everyday, “Love and serve Him”…and for the Lord to “keep them safe and close to You”…

  4. Job says:

    L. Mark Bruffey:

    The time of which you speak, before nominalism, the enlightenment, secularism and pop culture, was exceedingly brutish. It is also useful not to dismiss the very negatives associated with both high and folk culture, and also the context and circumstances which those cultures existed. It is not useful to pretend that being a serf or commoner in 16th century Europe is superior to being a working class person in a great many countries today. Further, we should also not dismiss that the time period of which you speak was before the modern missions movement which took the gospel and spread the church nearly all over the world. So, even if it was “better”, it was only so for a much smaller percentage of the globe’s population, as the rest were bound by darkness. Finally, we must acknowledge the correctness of Søren Kierkegaard and similar when we discuss the very negative impact of Christianity by state churches in whom membership was basically compulsory. If anything, we can say that liberal theology (and also the enlightenment and secularism) pretty much came from unregenerates who were forced to attend state churches. For instance, liberal theology did not come to us from post-revolutionary France and its cult of reason, but from “high culture” types who were members of good standing of the state church in Germany and similar. Ultimately, it is a real error to ignore the virtues of this era (especially the fact that for the first time in history we have very nearly a global church) while ignoring the real flaws of previous ones.

    • L. Mark Bruffey says:

      In her preface to the revised edition of Gaustad’s The Religious History of America, Leigh Schmidt notes, “In an era that resists the grand narrative and the panoramic vision and that embraces fragmentation and dispersion, the ‘Age of’ this or that has a noticeably discordant ring” (ix). She’s quite willing to drop the concept. Okay. So am I, for the sake of the argument. And, yes, Job, there is a reason the medieval synthesis collapsed.

      But a case can be made that the church is in much worse condition today than it was before the reformation. The question is not, “Was there a golden age?” The question is in what ways and to what extent has the “modern” church divested itself of both its rich post-reformation (Calvin/Luther) and pre-reformation (Augustine) heritage, and why. The (post-)modern evangelical church behaves very much like its “enlightened” modernist counterparts in casting off–lock-stock-and-barrel–its own (pre-1850) traditions. It still embraces the myth of progress, is fearful about conservatism, cannot articulate with precision exactly what it intends to conserve when it does claim to be conservative, and in large part is more interested in being evangelical without being conservative. In the pop evangelical interpretation of things, it is as if Christ delayed the building of his church for eighteen centuries.

      It’s going to take several generations, should the Lord tarry, of serious, careful, and precise deliberation to get back on track. Neither one-liners, nor all-or-nothing “whacks” (such as your initial response) are very helpful. No, there was no golden age. And Yes, I have been spanked. But no solution to the problem has been offered, and serious questions remain as to whether it has yet been recognized.

      P.S. Which of Kierkegaard’s works have you found most helpful?

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