Lively Ediface of the Church

Gordon Isaac,  Ph.D.

I must confess that my first exposure to church history was not altogether happy. A kindly gentleman taught the course, but unfortunately all the moisture was taken from the subject, leaving it dry to the touch. This, of course, contains a huge irony insofar as church history is made up of intensely interesting people, moments of tension and intrigue, power oppressive politics, winsome witness in the face of death, not to mention romance, travel, conviction and divine calling! It is a crime to allow church history to be dull or boring, for it is to transmute the very character of what is by its very nature alive, vibrant and instructive.

While there are many more, let me suggest four ways among many, why the study of church history should be carried out with energy and intent.

Reason #1
Church History tells us where we have come from and where we are going.

The Old Testament is God’s story of choosing a people to himself, leading them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. From Moses and the Exodus through Joshua and the Conquest and on through Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the other prophets, the history of the people of God is rich, varied and full. This history leads into the New Testament account.

With the coming of the Messiah, a new but continuous story emerges of the witness of the Apostles to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel moves outward from Jerusalem. From Persia the gospel travels east to the Silk Road and China. It also proceeds west to Africa and into the European continent.

Church history tells of the fall of the Roman Empire and, in the moment of civilization’s demise, the efforts of Christianity to stand in the gap. When no one was left in the city to negotiate with the barbarian hordes, it was Pope Leo who went out to negotiate peace on behalf of the people. From this position of service, the papacy would emerge as a power ultimately needing reform. On through the Reformation, the confessional wars, the time of the Puritans and beyond, the Church has staked its place. Through all the ups and downs of the life of the Church, the providence of God has been visible. Tracing he Church through this vista helps us to know where we have been and where we are going. I rather like the way Joseph Sittler has put the matter when he says,

“There is certainly nothing wrong with the church looking ahead, but it is terribly important that it should be done in connection with the look inside, into the church’s own nature and mission, and a look behind at her own history. If the church does this, she is less likely to take her cues from the business community, the corporation, or the marketplace.”

Reason #2
Church History gives correction for generational blind spots.

In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis urges his readers to take the time to read one old book for every new book they read. This practice, if carried out with discipline, will keep the avid reader from historical hubris, the idea that our time knows better. There is a great deal of wisdom to be had in the ancient world if one will only take the time to read the older authors. He goes on to write these words:

“People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

The advice we are offered here is worth heeding. Every age and indeed, every generation has its own thought forms and its culturally held presuppositions. The only way we have a possibility of transcending the thought form of our own age is if we have taken the time to live in another age through the reading of church history. Reading ancient church teaching will expose natural cultural thought forms or idolatries that we might not be able to identify otherwise.

Quote: ”Seeing the long stretch of history that has gone before us helps us to prepare for the history that extends out beyond our time, and to do so in hope.“

Reason #3
Church History gives perspective on old errors.

Not long ago Dan Brown wrote a best-seller by the name The Da Vinci Code. It was turned into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Many people read the book and many discussed the book. One of the propositions coming out of the story is that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. This alternative religious history put forward suggests that the Church has kept these truths secret and that Mary was meant to play a much larger role than the Church allowed. It would seem that conspiracy theories are popular wherever they are contrived.

By studying church history there is a ready answer to this rather old error. Marcion and others in the 2nd century asserted that they had “secret knowledge” regarding Jesus. The Church cut off the route to secret knowledge by a threefold response. To the idea that there were teachers of secret knowledge, the Church asserted that they knew all the teachers from Jesus to the present (Apostolic Succession). To the idea that they had special gnostic scriptures, the Church set forward the canon. To the notion that the true God would have nothing to do with creation, the Church responded by the Apostles’ Creed.

Reason #4
Church History gives encouragement in the long view of tradition and our perseverance in it.

Church history gives perspective on whatever it is that we may be facing in the present. Is it scandal touching the clergy? Is it questions of the mixture of church and state? Is it persecution or theories relegating
God to the sideline? All of this has been dealt with before. Knowing these accounts gives perspective on where we might be in the life cycle of our church bodies. Seeing the long stretch of history that has gone before us helps us to prepare for the history that extends out beyond our time, and to do so in hope.

Further, church history allows us to meet the saints on whose shoulders we stand. Let me give a few examples. Mary of Egypt (5th century) was subjected to public prostitution for a good portion of her life. It meant being a non-being in the eyes of the Empire. One day she was miraculously saved and taken in by the church community and given dignity again. Athanasius of Alexandria was exiled no less than five times in his life as bishop because he maintained the deity of Christ. William Tyndale was a linguistic genius whose translation of the New Testament into English, developed amid intense persecution, helped establish Protestantism in England. Nearer our own time, the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the dark days of Hitler held up the power of the word of God in spite of unjust worldly power.

In short, church history is a lively edifice that continues to be built. In the words of Philip Schaff, “How shall we labor with any effect to build up the church, if we have no thorough knowledge of her history, or fail to apprehend it from the proper point of observation? History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s Word, the rightest foundation of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity.”