Apologist Joel Furches explores Christian history and its impact today 

If one were to consider and list all of the things that make Western society so successful, the list might include things such as the education system, literature, art and science. While science and the humanities both pre-existed the rise of Christianity in the 1st Century, we have Christianity to thank for their preservation, refinement and development in their modern form. Here, I intend to explore the rise of Christianity and how it interacted with the intellectual world of the time.

The flaws within Christian history

The Bible is a story of the human race in a constant struggle against God, and as the struggle goes on, the followers of God are not painted in a flattering light as they often make catastrophic mistakes and suffer the results. Just so, as one traces the history of Christianity from antiquity to the modern day, one is liable to find a variety of faults, mistakes and even catastrophes within the system over time. 

This is not inconsistent with the story of the Bible, which makes no pretences that the human followers of God will be perfect, and if Western society lay in ruins, these faults would be well worth consideration. But it remains a fact that we currently live in a time with more success and prosperity in Western nations than at any previous time in history. And Christianity can be found at the root of it all. So did Western society flourish in spite of Christianity, or because of it?


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Faith versus intellect?

When discussions of Christianity and intellect arise, there is usually a false dichotomy drawn between “faith” on the one hand and “reason” on the other; with faith meaning something like “blind trust”, and reason meaning something like investigation and building knowledge before reaching a conclusion.

The classic teaching on the subject of faith in the Bible comes from the book of Hebrews, and specifically chapter 11 which begins with this definition of faith:Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” 

Many take this as support to the “belief without evidence” definition of faith. Among the potential problems with this view of faith is the way it impacts the process of biblical interpretation itself. If faith is, indeed, a spiritual conviction that defies evidential support, then one is free to interpret scriptural passages based on what they feel the passage means. 

When someone challenges them to back their interpretation up with such tools as cross-referencing or contextual support, that person is asking for evidence, defying their faith and insulting their spiritual conviction. This is exactly the trap that one falls into if one reads Hebrews 11:1 without considering the context in which it is given. 

The book of Hebrews is written to Jewish believers as an apologetic for Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. The author meticulously wades through the Messianic passages of the Old Testament, showing in each case how these passages support Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. 

In essence, the author of Hebrews was providing evidential support of Jesus’ station as the promised fulfilment of the Mosaic law and of the prophets. If the author truly defined faith as an unreasoned belief, there would be no necessity to reconcile Old and New Testaments. The author would simply appeal to his audience to search the conviction of their hearts and to believe. 

The author shows an intense interest in the evidence presented in the Old Testament, and how this evidence leads convincingly to the conclusion that Jesus is Lord, and the author also assumes that his intended readers should be interested in these facts as well. This being the case, what is Hebrews 11:1 actually saying? 

Apologist J Warner Wallace argues in his essay on Hebrews 11:1 that, when taken within its context, Hebrews 11:1 is an encouragement to believers who are suffering persecution. What the author is saying is that, in light of the evidence he has supplied that Jesus is, in fact, Messiah, it is possible to endure sufferings with the assurance undergirded by the weight of the evidence that there is hope for salvation and eternal life. 

Or, in other words, given the evidence of God’s faithfulness in the past, one can have assurance in the promise he has made for the future (hope), and trust God because he has proven trustworthy (conviction). 

By this definition, faith is the assurance of the specific promises that God has made for the future based on the evidence he has provided of his power. 

Christianity is about actively engaging in evidence. It is not a dumb man’s religion.


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Literary excellence

The Christian religion emerged from Israel at the beginning of the 1st Century, and its earliest followers were all Jews. Of interest is the fact that the Jewish people were one of the earliest people groups to develop a written language and to preserve and pass along the writings of their history. In pursuit of this passing along of knowledge, Jews developed early and rigorous practices of scholarship and pedagogy, placing a high value on knowledge, studying, and learning. 

This was by no means perfect, of course. Only a select few of scholarly elites had access to reading and education, however the masses had indirect access to the knowledge, given that religious practice in Jewish culture involved reading the long-preserved religious material to assembled masses.

This love for the written word and for teaching was passed along to Christianity, which began to write and preserve its own body of holy texts as it formed, mimicking the Jewish model of copying the texts, preserving them, passing them around and reading them to audiences. The Church fathers produced vast volumes of ancient writings – out-competing their contemporaries in so-doing. They had to not only contend with internal disagreements, but also interact with the larger culture, deepening the complexity and robustness of the intellectual material they were communicating.

The spread of Christianity

By the 2nd Century, Christianity was widespread across the Middle East, Europe and Africa. In all those places, it was nested within a larger culture which was generally hostile to its teachings and practices. The Church was required to defend itself from the hostile culture surrounding it, and so began what one scholar calls “the age of the apologist”. 

It was at this time that luminaries like Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement of Rome began to write. The body of work created by these early literary men was expansive, and easily comparable to their secular counterparts at this time in history. The voluminous writing of Christian scholars and sages has continued at the same rate ever since.

But the contributions of early Christians was not merely in the form of the written word: the Christian Church was responsible for the founding of the largest schools in the ancient world.

Schools in the ancient world

Schools were nothing new when Christianity came along. Greek and Chinese thinkers had been founding schools for many centuries already. But Christians built on that model and improved as well as expanded it in the process.

When one thinks of centres of learning in the ancient world, two places come to mind: Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt. It was in the latter that the first Christian seminary was established in the 2nd Century: The Catechetical School of Alexandria. This school produced some of the earliest intellectual heavy hitters in the ancient world. Among these were Origen, Didymus the Blind and Athanasius (who famously defended the deity of Christ in the Council of Nicaea).

The Church and the intellectual life of mediaeval Europe

The system of higher education as we know it today was a product of the mediaeval Church. During Roman times, only the wealthy could afford tutors for their children. However, it was during the middle ages that students began to gather together in institutions with prescribed curricula and received degrees or certificates upon completion of learning.

These institutions were established by local churches, particularly in major trade cities throughout Europe. These were originally called “Cathedral Schools”, and would go on to become the modern universities.

People who received university education gradually became recognised as valuable for government positions, and as better able to manage land and resources, at which point a university education began to have real-world value.

However, university graduates were technically considered to be clergy, and therefore under the authority of the Church, even as they served executive and administrative positions.

An “intellectual arms race”

By the 8th Century in Muslim controlled regions in North Africa and the Mediterranean, there had already been a stockpiling and translating of ancient Greco-Roman literature into Arabic. This allowed for the Muslim theologians and scholars to get a leg up on their European competitors. This Muslim advance in scholarship, aided by the works of Greek and Roman philosophers and historians, posed a real threat to Christian theologians and scholars.

Consequently, this competition caused a dramatic response in the Christian Church in the West to increase their efforts at education and scholarship in order to keep from being obfuscated by their Eastern rivals, causing a boom in scholarly advancement, as well as a reexamination of such ancient sages as Aristotle, who became the Church’s pet philosopher for some time.

The Christian legacy in the Western intellect

From the New Testament books, to the works of the early Church fathers, to the period of the Apologists in Rome, to the mediaeval time period, Christians never shrunk from the challenge of intellectual pursuits. Rather, they rose to the challenge, educated themselves, and remained competitive in the intellectual arena.

Many of the best “cathedral schools” of this era eventually became the universities which still exist in modern Europe. These include such schools as Notre Dame, Cambridge and Oxford.

The United States was founded largely by people who had migrated there from Europe seeking religious freedom from the dominant churches of Europe, including Catholicism and Anglicanism. Significantly, these European churches permitted the clergy to read the Bible, but did not give this luxury to the laity. As a result, the religions migrating to America placed a high value on studying the scripture for themselves, and thus prized literacy and education.

This being the case, the European model of church-sponsored universities made its way over to the United States, with all of the oldest and most prestigious universities in America founded and originally run by the Church.

Whether or not one believes or agrees with Christian religion, the Western world owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Christianity for the development and advancement of the education system we still have today.


Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.