Some Introductory Thoughts on Church History

history

In a couple of weeks, I am taking off to Serbia in order to teach a course on church history. The opportunity to engage with students around the world, particularly as we talk about our common “family” history, is tremendously exciting.

The first lecture is aimed at introducing students to the study of church history. I thought it would be fun to share some of my notes here. What would you add? What would you take away? Any constructive criticism is welcome.

*TEACHING NOTES*

  • What is Church History?
    1. History, in general, is the study of the past. Yet, history is more than a mere study or reflection on past events or people. History also involves interpretation.[1] We consider an incident, think through bits of information, make inquiry, only to then interpret what we have found in our research. Thus, the historian not only tells the story of the past but relates how the story came about, what it meant at the time, and how it is relevant for us today.
    2. Objective vs. Subjective.
      1. Objective history tells what happened. It states the facts. (Twin Towers and 9/11, the Fall of the Berlin Wall).
      2. Subjectively, history is interpreted. It tries to make sense of the facts. (What caused the raising of the Wall? What brought the collapse? What led to WWI, or WWII?).
    3. Church History looks at what happened (as objectively as possible) and then tries to interpret, or make sense, of the facts in light of the cultural issues/context, and more importantly God’s redemptive purposes.
  • Why study Church History?[2]“To know nothing of what happened before you were born,” warned the ancient philosopher Cicero, “is to forever remain a child.”
    1. Christianity is a historical religion—followers of Jesus believe that something happened thousands of years ago that caused something, rather than nothing, to exist. Namely, God created the world ex nihilo (Gen 1). Then, man, the image-bearer of God, rebelled and sin entered the world. Yet God chooses a people for his own possession, sent his Son into this world to live, die, and conquer the grave on their behalf. Therefore, Christianity is rooted in historical facts and actions.
    2. Study Church History Because of the Sovereignty of God[4]
      • I think history is amazing primarily because it is his-story. God has declared the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10) and controls all things (Eph 1:11). The hearts of kings (Prov 21:1), the roll of dice (Prov 16:33), the allotted geographical residence of every person (Acts 17:26), and even the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2:23). All of this is history that finds its cause in the decree of God. He has ordained all that is and will be. So, in reading history, we are reading the story God is unfolding for his glory. Thus, the story of God’s glory.
    3. To correct mistaken views about what has happened in the past—did Jesus really die on the cross (contra Islam)? Did Constantine rule over the Council of Nicaea? Was the Bible put together in the 1500’s?
    4. Understanding the development of doctrine, heretical theology, and our own beliefs:
      • As we study Church History we enter into the times, places, and minds of those who have gone before us.
      • As we contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) we are helped by those who have contended before us. Heresy has always been around, beginning in Genesis 3. Noting how the Church has responded to various heresy’s helps us better respond today.
      • Looking at history we are better able to understand our own theological traditions, as well as particular religious practices of certain groups (including our own).
    5. Personal Growth—from Dr. Chad Brand, “When we study a body of historical material we are going to obtain a lot of information about our past. We grow personally as we grow in knowledge. We are able to talk about numerous ideas and issues with informed minds. We become better teachers as we root our teaching in history. Teaching, in a sense, comes alive. Furthermore, we become more devoted to God as we see his faithfulness to his people throughout history. And, we see others who have been devoted to their God in both the good times and the bad.”
    6. Church History Guards Against Three Errors
      • Contemporaneity—the present might not be the best time to be alive. We have our own issues, as did those in the past. But previous generations are not inferior to the present generation/age.
        • S. Lewis and chronological snobbery: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”[3]
        • The question becomes, is something, and idea, false? When was it refuted? Who refuted the idea? Is it false simply because it is from a previous age? Past ideas might be wrong, but not simply because they are from times past.
      • Self-sufficiency
        • We need each other. And we need those who have gone before us.
        • Some of the greatest Christian minds have lived long before we were born. We are foolish to disregard ongoing interaction with previous generations. When the writings of Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bavinck, Machen, Murray, etc. are at our fingertips, why would we not take up and read!?
          • Personal Illustration: in preparation to preach, I rarely preach a text without picking up Calvin and seeing what he said about a passage. Sometimes I find fresh insight, at times I am affirmed or challenged, and other times I find no help. But, I do not want to neglect the great minds in history who have gone before me.
      • Uniformity
        • By paying attention to history we can see that the core beliefs of the Christian faith remain unchanged across cultures and ages. The context may mean the outworking of the faith looks differently, but the faith once for all delivered to the saints remains intact theologically.
        • Reading church history helps us to see how the gospel has impacted different places at different times.
  • How to Study History
    1. Approaches to History in General—Finn follows Bebbington in arguing for five approaches to historical interpretation:[6]
      • Cyclical history— Many Eastern cultures understand history to be cyclical rather than linear.4 In the cyclical interpretation, history is a series of endlessly repeating cycles. The past is repeated in the present and the present will be repeated in the future. History has no ultimate purpose or goal—it simply happens again and again.”[7]
        • Importantly, this disregards the idea of a meta-narrative and a telos. That is, the story isn’t heading anywhere. This does not line up with the biblical view of history, where God is working all things towards a goal (Eph 1:11). There is an end in sight. The goal is the eschatological kingdom where God’s people dwell in God’s place and enjoy God’s rule.[8]
      • History as progress—history is always moving towards positive progress. This was popular in the 19th century but is chastened by two World Wars. From a Christian perspective, we certainly believe God is moving things towards a telos. However, Finn adds the needed nuance. To be sure, Christians believe in progress; God is sovereignly bringing about his good purposes from creation to consummation. But God’s ways are not always our ways, and progress, even when discernible, must always be tempered with a robust understanding of human sinfulness.”[9]
        • Whig interpretation of history—”this approach is identified in 1931 by Methodist historian, Herbert Butterfield. According to Nathan Finn, the Whig interpretation of history “is a form of presentism. However, what sets the whig interpretation apart is its assumption that the past is prologue to the present and that the present is more progressive, enlightened, and, well, better than the past. Thus, the past is often judged by the degree to which it measures up to the standards of the present.”[10]
      • Historicism—”Historicism is the belief that all cultures are determined by their history.”[11] Whatever the “truths” of any particular culture, they have arrived at these truths through historical processes. Another way to put it, beliefs are shaped by culture, not vice-versa.
      • Marxist history—”History unfolds according to different epochs wherein human production is disrupted because of class tensions, resulting in cultural revolutions.”[12]
        • Karl Marx, Engels.
        • Atheistic
      • Judeo-Christian history—“history is both linear and teleological.”[13] Christians believe that God is moving history, one metanarrative, from beginning to end (linear). All the while, he is bringing all things to their appointed end and purpose (teleological).
        • This does not negate the ups/downs or various cyclical patterns we find in history (cf. Judges). Overall, however, the move is forward, towards a conclusion. Better yet, we are moving steadily from beginning to new beginning (Rev 21).
    2. Approaches to Church History[14]
      • 5 Versions:
        • Taking religion seriously: it seems for a time those who studied history tended to look at social and economic factors that contributed to various historical events and or movements. However, eventually, historians began to take the impact or influence of religion a bit more seriously, even though the historian might not be a Christian themselves.
        • History through the lens of faith-commitments: “historical study “through the lens of faith commitments,” is related to the first. The difference is that whereas non-believers can take religion seriously, they cannot interpret the past according to a religious worldview. This “integrationist” approach—standard at many Christian educational institutions—“sees Christian faith as a unique interpretive framework through which believing historians see reality and make sense of the past” (p. 37). Debates along these lines were concerned with the possibility of “objectivity.”[15]
        • History as search for Christian Ethic: this approach looks to Christian history “as a branch of moral philosophy, where lessons from great leaders of the past develop into a Christian ethic.”[16] We look to the past and draw conclusions about how to live the Christian life. History, thus, teaches us how to live morally upright.
        • History as apologetic: the historian looks through history and sees evidence that validates the truthfulness of the faith (or falsehood of other faiths). Ian Clary writes, “Because Christianity is historical, it is possible to confirm the historicity of the Bible and its teaching, such as the resurrection. Evangelical historians attempt to “reintegrate the ‘Jesus of history’ with the ‘Christ of faith,’” which stands in contrast to the “demythologization” of the historical Jesus in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann (p. 100). This method is used in ways broader than just proving the truthfulness of Christian Scripture; other historians have used history to prove Christianity’s triumph in terms of the development of Western civilization.”[17]
        • Historical study as search for God (i.e. “providentialism”): the historian looks at past events and attempts to find God’s hand in the events of history. The providentialist, it seems, interprets what God is doing or saying in specific historical events.[18]
        • What’s the Best approach(es)?—it seems there is, as with all things, a bit of truth in every position. We certainly want to take the impact of religion seriously when it comes to historical development. Furthermore, Christians learn lessons about what it means to live morally upright lives, both by paying attention to the mistakes and successes of those before us. Surely, as well, certain doctrines and beliefs find support for their validity in history (cf. sin is empirically verifiable). Finally, God is at work in history and looking at the past allows us to pay attention to the outworking of his plans.
  1. Some Practical Steps:
    1. Start with Periods of CH (periodization)
    2. Read Original/Primary Sources
    3. Read reputable textbooks
    4. Read Articles/Monographs
    5. Listen to Lectures
    6. Write it down (take notes)
    7. Continually —this is important because you will not remember everything in this course. My goal is to help you trace the big movement of history and perhaps dive into a few specific movements, events, and people. In order to grow in historical understanding, you’ll need to make a habit of studying these things. Therefore, it’s important to know a bit about how to think historically and why it is important.

 

 

[1] Nathan Finn writes, “For the historian, history is not the same thing as the past, but rather, history is the discipline of reconstructing and interpreting the past. Historians believe that history includes more than simply repeating facts about the past” (Nathan A. Finn, History: A Students Guide (Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition), Kindle page 26).

[2] The following points are borrowed (and at times adapted) from Dr. Chad Brand and his course notes, Church History I at Boyce College. Furthermore, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones notes a few important points in his short introduction of Christian History Made Easy, 7–6. Particularly interesting is where Dr. Jones reminds us that church history is “family history.”

[3] Dr. Art Lindsley, C. S. Lewis on Chronological Snobbery, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/596.

[4] This point is something that I’ve been leaning into for some time.

[5] Church History and historical theology are overlapping and complementary disciplines. Church history looks at the developing of the Christian church in terms of institutions (rise and fall of denominations, various controversies, etc.). Historical theology is more ideological. That is, historical theology deals with the development of ideas or doctrines.

[6] Finn, History: A Student’s Guide, 44.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] See Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture and also the work by Graeme Goldsworthy in his Gospel and Kingdom in order to understand the overarching story of the Bible.

[9] Finn, 48.

[10] Finn, History: A Student’s Guide, 30.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 53.

[14] This section is taken from Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Waco, TX: Baylor U. Press, 2015).

[15] Ian Clary, “A Review of Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions,” Themelios 41. Vol 2, 2016.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] The problem is we do not have access to God’s specific purposes in history. We know generally that God is moving everything towards a telos, and is working for our good (Rom 8:28), according to his will (Eph 1:11), but we do not know exactly how this event or that movement is contributing to God’s providential purposes.

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