Seeing God in History

Like many endurance sports, mountain climbers have their own cadre of clubs celebrating the adventures shared by only a few humans in history. In the 1980s, Richard Bass and Frank Wells conceived the mountaineering challenge of scaling the highest peak on each continent and coined the term “Seven Summits” for their quest.

In the church history classes I teach, I depict the events unfolding in the history of Christianity like that of a great mountain range, with immense length comprised of peaks and valleys, enduring both stormy and prosperous weather. Following this picture, by providential design, I explain how certain men and women have risen to high peaks representative of significant moments of theological development.

Recently, I assembled seven of these figures in a brief book, Seven Summits in Church History, as an attempt at a helpful way of getting one’s mind around the advance of Christianity as a whole rather than feeling overwhelmed at the thought of consuming all of the facts at once. My list of seven summits worth climbing in church history includes: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Hubmaier, Edwards, Carey and Henry. As with any such list, this one contains some element of subjectivity. But like the diversity of the tallest peaks on each continent, the seven I have chosen serve to shape the general direction of the history of Christianity in their own ways.

After years of dedication and effort, when Bass and Wells finally ascended their seventh summit, they reflected on their accomplishment. They said, “It started as a challenge … but it became much, much more. … We wanted to see it all, and we knew no better way than from the tops of the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents.”[1] They wanted to see it all, but in reality, they really did not see all there was to see.

What they saw were vast visual perspectives from the vantage points of many similar mountain peaks. And yet, though they saw only part, their collective journey gave them a comprehensive appreciation of all there is to see from such heights. So it is with the study of the work of God among the lives of men and women in the history of Christianity. There exists an almost limitless supply of perspectives that, when studied together, provide the opportunity for comprehensive reflection and edification.

Reading through church history and focusing on significant “summits” reveals different cultures, historical contexts, personalities, triumphs, sufferings, lives reborn, and lives snuffed out. The seven I have chosen lived in different eras, the latter only knowing of the former, and brought their own unique contribution to the advance of the Gospel. However, through the collective study of their lives, there appears some common features of the work God. For God is what ties these summits together. He is the comprehensive vista. God and His work are what is there to see.

To elaborate in part, I give three brief examples of how one can see God and His work from the vantage point of the top of these peaks in church history:

  1. Christianity continues to expand.

In his 1939 essay, John Foster argued for “The Place of Church History in the Training of Missionaries” and reminded that “in spite of unfaithfulness within and of hindrances without, [the Church] was, from the days of the apostles until now, actually engaged in the task of coming.”[2] His point was that even in the darkest of cultures or in the midst of the greatest of church scandals, the Kingdom still advances.

God’s faithfulness to His promises persists through the triumphs of Augustine, but sometimes despite his failings. From Luther’s upending of the powers that be to Carey’s Abrahamic leaving of home and country, God protected the good news of the Gospel and saw it delivered to a new generation of saints. Indeed, from the peaks of these summits, we can affirm with Job that we know God can do all things and that no purpose of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2).

  1. God works through individuals.

There is no milepost on the timeline of history over which God has not traveled. Wars, plagues, movements, fads, trends, seismic activity, tidal patterns, animal migration—all of everything falls under His gaze. However, God gives special and intentional engagement with His creatures to bring about the end for which He created the world. Proverbs reveals that God directs the hearts of kings (21:1), and in His patience He works good out of what men mean for evil (Gen 50:20).

Such is the story of the men in Seven Summits in Church History. Each of these summits represents a man twice-born and redeemed by God for His good purposes and plans. From the immoral Augustine to the hard-headed Henry, God worked through these sinners, declaring, “Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).

Given this humbling reality, we should be encouraged to know that God still works through individuals. Earthly kingdoms will come and go, and Fortune 500 companies will rise and fall. Fame will land on some, and others will labor in anonymity, but God knows and still works. God could have the next William Carey in an Allen Edmonds warehouse right now shaping shoes and shaping his heart for the nations of the world. Such were some of you. Such are some of you.

  1. The Word of God cannot be broken.

Charles Spurgeon once spoke of the perseverance of Christianity in history as a river that may have traveled underground from time to time but always has had honest and holy adherents.[3] The viability of the expanse of the Gospel has never rested on the talents or ingenuity of God’s children. From the earliest days of recorded history, God has been the reason why His people and His message of good news have persisted. From corruption and slavery in Egypt to the failed monarchy that led to exile, God ensured that His Word and His people were preserved (1 Kings 22:8).

He did this through His prophets proclaiming that despite the deteriorating world and its kingdoms, God’s Word will stand forever (Is 40:8). With the coming of His Son, the final prophet, He reminded that the Word of God cannot be broken (John 10:35). Truly, God intends to guard and sustain His Word until heaven and earth pass away (Matt 5:18). With the Word also are sustained His people who, He promises, not even the powers of darkness and evil will overcome (Matt 16:18). Given this certainty then, we can draw great encouragement from the study of the lives of Christians in history.

Luther and Calvin saw the centrality of God’s Word return in their day only to have it stunted in the following centuries of Enlightenment. Edwards and Carey were used to channel the truth river back to clarity and then see God’s Word taken and translated to the edges of the globe. When modernism sought to extinguish this advance with its criticism and evolved claims, Carl Henry joined several others in reminding that the Word of God cannot be broken. Thus, by looking back, we who labor in the present have every reason to live with joyful hope regardless if our era sees the river of Christianity travel above or below the ground.

These are just a few of the ways in which the reading of these seven summits provides the Christian with some incredible views of the vistas of God’s work in history. Yet, as J.I. Packer said in Knowing God, “Someone who touched down on the top of Everest in a helicopter (could such a thing be) would not at that moment feel anything like what Hillary and Tensing felt when they stood on the same spot after climbing the mountain.”[4] Not all who merely skim the lives of the past glean from or enjoy them the way church history mountaineers do. The aim and heart of Seven Summits in Church History is to allow you to see the value of the climb and remind you of the greatness and goodness of God—faithful in ages past and certain faithfulness in the ages to come (Eph 2:7). Thanks for reading and climbing along with me.


This article is adapted from the newly released Seven Summits in Church History (Rainer Publishing, 2016). Designed as a brief introduction to church history for all readers, Seven Summits first was developed as a series of articles here at Theological Matters in 2013.

 Seven Summits in Church History
Jason G. Duesing
Rainer Publishing, 2016
132 pages

 

[1] Dick Bass and Frank Wells, Seven Summits, (Warner Books, 1986), 3.
[2] John Foster, “The Place of Church History in the Training of Missionaries,” in The Life of the Church (Oxford, 1939), 266.
[3] Charles Spurgeon, “Public Meeting of our London Baptist Brethren,” Sermon 376 in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 7. (1861), 225.
[4] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (IVP, 1993), 255.