Christendom and the 500 Year Cycle
With surprising regularity, Christendom faces dramatic changes every 500 years. I say this, not because there is anything intrinsically special about 500-year anniversaries, but because of the historical precedent. I also bring this up because the last dramatic change was 500 years ago. If history repeats, are we on the brink of another such change?
Christianity – as distinct from Judaism – emerged in the first century AD. Classical western chronology commemorates this event by counting years from the birth of Christ (it turns out that the originator of this method miscalculated, since Jesus was born around 6 or 4 BC, rather than 0 AD). Measuring 500 years from this approximate date brings us to 500 AD.
The First Change
476 AD marks the fall of the Western Roman Empire. This was a truly ‘world event’ since it marked the end of the greatest superpower that the world had ever seen. (Again, it turns out that the Eastern Roman Empire, known as ‘Byzantium,’ would continue until 1453, nearly a thousand years longer. Trust me, it’s a complicated story). Most people considered Rome to be invincible, and her fall left a far more significant impression on human consciousness than even the first and second world wars.
Christianity found itself in new territory. While Christianity and Rome had a complicated relationship, the idea of a Christianity separate from the Roman Empire had previously been unthinkable. As Rome fell, the power void was filled by the church. What had once been a useful, but neglected activity – the conversion of barbarians – took on new significance. Barbarians must be converted, because they now ruled the world.
The Second Change
By 1054, the Middle Ages were in full swing. (At this point, I must refer to ‘Christendom’ rather than the Christian church, since the current ecclesiastic structure and doctrine looked nothing like its ancient ancestor ). It almost looked as if the second 500-year anniversary (1000 AD) had come and gone without a change, but at the last minute a great separation – the Schism of 1054 – occurred. Pope Leo IX excommunicated the entire eastern half of the Church, and patriarch Michael Cerularius returned the favor on the western Church.
Prior to this time, the idea of a divided church had never occurred. To be sure, there had been hundreds of heretical offshoots of the church. Yet these had always been splinter-groups, heterodox individuals who may have exerted great power, but always succumbed in the end to the power of orthodoxy. In 1054, the institutional Church faced a new reality: divided Christendom. Nor was this division based on major heresy. It was the result of centuries of misunderstanding, culminating in a fierce debate on the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son (the filoque debate). Suddenly, the Christian map was radically different.
The Third Change
The fall of Rome and the Schism of 1054 were both culminating events, unsurprising to the historian. Rome’s power was gradually declining for hundreds of years prior, and the division between East and West was also increasing prior to those significant events. The Protestant Reformation, however, began precipitously and dramatically in 1517. No longer was the division between East and West, Catholic and Orthodox. Now a new group, with astonishing vigor, was on the scene. Protestant arrived with a deep commitment to the text of the Bible, and an apparent disregard for the time-honored traditions of Roman Catholicism.
The Reformation ushered in a period of freedom. Individuals were encouraged to think for themselves, to interpret the Bible rather than blindly accept what they were taught. In the process, Protestants laid the foundation of the modern world: democracy, individuality, freedom of conscience, and the rights of man. An unlikely bedfellow, enlightenment, helped these ideas along. Enlightenment thought gradually went down the path of deism, then atheism. Before long, there was a long-running war of ideas between Catholics, Protestants, and Deists – one that occasionally resulted in bloodshed.
The Fourth Change?
The year 2000 marked the fourth 500-year anniversary. Have we, are we, or will we experience a great change? To be sure, the world is radically different than in the past, but that is not enough to indicate, necessarily, that Christendom has experienced a dramatic change. Perhaps some event is about to happen that we know nothing of. However, I want to argue that we have already experienced the next dramatic change.
The change that I speak of is the triumph of liberalism. I do not mean this in the sense that liberalism has ultimately triumphed. Far from it – I am confident, just like God is, that Christianity will ultimately triumph. Yet for the moment, liberalism is ascendant. Liberalism has existed for hundreds of years, but today’s liberalism is significantly different than the past.
(1) Modern liberalism is Marxist, Socialist, and rabidly anti-Christian. This contrasts with classical liberalism, which was able to coexist peacefully with Christianity.
(2) Modern liberalism now holds firm political power. Most governments of the past five hundred years have been religious, even if they did not accept every religion. Today’s first-world governments are decidedly irreligious.
(3) Modern liberalism (a.k.a. practical atheism) is the predominant religion across the first world. It is measured, not by denominational affiliation, but by the degree of philosophical influence that it holds.
(4) Modern liberalism ushered in some radically new ideas – ideas that have never been seen before in the history of the world.
Never before, in the history of the world, has marriage been widely defined as other than a man and a woman.
Never before, in the history of the world, have major armies enlisted women.
Never before, in the history of the world, has abortion been as widely accepted and practiced as it is today.
Never before, in the history of the world, has atheism been widely accepted.
While liberalism is resulting in a seismic change for the church, it is hard to pin down a date when this change occurred. The three previous changes could be marked by specific days on the calendar. Maybe in a few years, something radical will occur. In the meantime, we can point to a few options. 1973 marks the legalization of abortion in America – a clear triumph of liberal principles. 2001 has little to do with liberalism per se, but marks the obvious end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, since it involved the September 11 attacks. 2015 marks the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, the ascent of homosexual ‘marriage,’ another obvious liberal victory. I personally lean toward 2001 as the major date, but that is a personal preference. You can select whichever you like.
In the meantime, the church needs to ask some serious questions. Have we recognized the ascent of liberalism, or been to busy to see what is happening around us? Are we prepared to function in a ‘post-Christian,’ Marxist, irreligious age? Are we identifying and targeting liberalism theologically, or only politically? (This begins by identifying and targeting syncretism in the church). Are we ready to engage a liberal world with the Gospel?
 This is not to say that Christianity in 476 looked like its ancient counterpart, either. However, there was still some degree of similarity. By 1054, the degeneration of the church was complete, and had been complete for some time.