Without question, Augustine’s, City of God belongs in the ranks with Eusebius’, Ecclesiastical History, Thomas Aquinas’, Summa Theologiae, and John Calvin’s, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Whew. . . it takes a bit of effort just to type that sentence, much less read those weighty and magisterial works. Happily, Alan Ryan distilled Augustine’s tome into a succinct and comprehensible volume, without losing the power of the man’s writing.
The part of the Ryan’s book that interests me the most is his observation that Augustine was a transitional figure. Augustine was a product of both his rhetorical/political education from late classical antiquity, but he also pointed forward as a Church Father whose Christian theology would reinterpret that world view and shape church ideology for the next thousand years. It made me think of all the other transitional figures in Christian History’s two-thousand-year trajectory. There have been several and all of them stand as mile markers in the development of human societies and the growth of the church. Examining these seminal figures and their transitional movements, you can see the Spirit of God moving toward the end that God has had in mind all along: bringing Heaven to Earth.
The most important transitional figure was, of course, Paul himself. From a young Jewish Rabbi steeped in knowledge of the Torah and as zealous as any of his Jewish forebears, Paul had to make the mental leap that this Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the promised Messiah. And as well-schooled as Paul was in the scriptures, he missed it—and then he persecuted it. But in the revelation that God gave him, Paul’s writings showed how the scriptures point to Christ and the life that God honors: repentance, faith, obedience.
Justin Martyr (110-165) is considered the first apologist, defending the Christian faith with a philosophical foundation. Justin spoke the language of Latin and Greek Philosophers and he won many of them over because he could give a credible and insightful defense of the faith. No one could do this as well as he could and the academic discipline of Apologetics traces its roots back to him.
Antony of Egypt (251-356) established the movement of monasticism and is rightly called “The Father of All Monks.” St. Benedict (480-547) built on his ideas and earned the title, “Father of Western Monasticism.” Together, both men began a transitional movement within the church that still flourishes today.
Constantine (280-337) declared Christianity no longer illegal and allowed the faith to flourish in a way Peter and the other disciples could not have imagined. The church transitioned from being an underground movement, sometimes persecuted, into a legal and financially supported religion of the Roman Empire.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was a transitional figure in the late middle-ages because he was able to reconcile Aristotelian logic with Christian theology. He helped bring about Scholasticism’s highest achievement and showed that logic and faith are not at odds, but complimentary. It turns out the God of the Bible is a rational being.
John Wycliff (1325-1384) transitions between Scholasticism and the Reformation. He is called, “The Evening Star of Scholasticism and the Morning Star of the Reformation” and his writings directly influenced the Reformer Jan Huss. And how about the brilliant idea of having a Bible in your own language instead of having to learn Latin? Millions of ex-Latin students thank you John.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the man God used to right the many wrongs that had infiltrated the Church. Although Luther jump-started the movement, it was Calvin (1509-1564) who organized the principles into a coherent system. A transition from a “Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” to the many and varied Protestant expressions of the faith was underway.
We could easily add to the list Eusebius, Charlemagne, Francis Xavier, the Wesley brothers, William Booth, George Whitfield, and so many others. In large and small ways every Christian offers a transition of the faith as we accept the word of faith in our hearts and endeavor to live it out in the place and time that God has assigned each of us. We are living in a time of human history that gives us a most privileged viewpoint. Whatever transition happens next in our global society, and in my own small life, I want to be a part of it and stand as a witness for Christ. Jesus’ reassurance never grows old: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).