Essay / Theology

The Importance of Church History and the Christian Tradition

When I’m asked what I teach or what my area of expertise is, I am often unsure of how to respond. I have a Ph.D. in theology but I focused on the medieval period. I teach in a great books program that includes texts in philosophy, theology, history, literature, etc. I often write books and articles on monasticism or spirituality. But in addition to all of these I also sometimes just think of myself as a straightforward church historian. So, I thought I would take the opportunity to share some thoughts about the role of church history and the Christian tradition in general.

When one studies church history it is important to keep in mind that one is studying the movement of God the Holy Spirit in history and in the lives of the people of God. Because God is sovereign and providential over all of his creation, there is no area of human or creaturely activity that is beyond his control or supervision. Though creation cries out and awaits its own redemption (Rom. 8:19-23) due to humankind’s sin and fallenness, it is still God’s good creation and he continues to act in it. The Second Vatican Council summed it up well in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation:

The apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received… the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

For evangelicals, however, unlike Roman Catholic believers, it is important to note that church history is not on par with the Scriptures nor is church history as authoritative as the Scriptures. However, it is essential that the history of the Christian church be used in the formulation of theology since it is a record of God’s works and actions in the world. This, of course, does not mean that every event in the history of the Christian church merits the same weight or accord as others. For example, many Roman Catholic theologians give pride of place to the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Evangelical theologians should not give such pride of place to particular historical persons and theological systems. Until recently, in fact, the evangelical church did not give much attention at all to Christian history. No doubt classes in the church’s history were required in seminaries- but that did not necessitate that there was more than one such faculty member on staff, and more often than not that faculty member’s specialty was probably in Reformation, modern European or American Christian history. This is now changing with the retrieval of the Christian tradition amongst evangelical scholars and pastors, evidenced in such publications as InterVarsity Press’ Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series and Baker Academic’s Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future series. Although more work in other periods and areas of Christian history still await attention from evangelical scholars (for example, the medieval era), there is an increasing sense that the history of the Christian church must be taken seriously.

Evangelical theologian Stephen Holmes, in his Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology, gives two arguments for the place of Christian history in theology in general and I think they are worth sharing. First, we are historically located persons who, like it or not, have received a tradition of theological witness and divine movement. These doctrines and movements have been handed down from the apostles and teachers to specific historical churches and then handed down from one generation to another until it reached us. For example, the church received the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds–and even the Bible–in this manner, since it came by way of persons and is not inspired anew in the heart and mind of each Christian. Second, there are (more or less) two ways to view Christian history, associated with Origen and Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 202). Origen saw history as a part of human fallenness. Though humankind was created perfect, by virtue of the Fall any movement in time is away from this perfection and therefore towards destruction. Irenaeus, on the other hand, gave an “account whereby it is a part of God’s good ordering of creation for there to be movement towards perfection, and so history.” Irenaeus sees movement and growth in positive terms. Therefore, if Irenaeus is correct “then historical locatedness is clearly good and proper to human life, and so the mediation of apostolic truth through the tradition is something to be accepted and celebrated.” If Irenaeus is correct, and Holmes gives good arguments in his favor, then it would be imperative for theologians to take Christian tradition seriously.

Holmes’ second argument involves a theology of the communion of saints. Theology (including biblical studies, church history, etc.) is done in service of the church so much so that “it is not possible to practise theology without being somehow involved in the life of the Church.” This in turn means that every Christian needs to relate to Christians of previous eras because “it is not just the differing historical locations that are important, but the shared ecclesial location too. If… it is the case… [then] there is good reason to suppose that membership of the Church establishes some form of connectedness between people that is not undermined by historical separation.” Just as all Christians are “in Christ” and just as living believers are “brothers and sisters in Christ” despite geographical separation, is it possible that chronological separation and distance is not a barrier to communion with other believers? Holmes begins to answer this question by accepting a concept of sainthood, that is, that there are people from the church’s history who were “exemplary practitioners of the Christian life.” Therefore, the saints “are those whom the Church commends to us as people who have successfully ‘imitated’ Christ in their particular situations, thus giving us an expanded and enriched view of what it might mean to be Christlike.” Such a concept must not create an environment or attitude that says the saints add to the story or work of Christ, but rather that these individuals serve as particular examples to the Christian community. Within this category of “saints,” then, would be certain theologians or doctors of the church who

are recognized as outstanding examples of how to think through the way in which God’s all-sufficient gift of his Son is sufficient to meet the needs of a particular age or circumstance. They thus become examples to be lived with and studied, whose writings amplify without adding to the teachings of Scripture in just the same way as the lives of the Saints [sic] amplify without adding to the example of Christ.

Added to this is the realization that these individuals, though dead, are “present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8; cf. Rev. 6:9-11). That is, they are fully conscious souls awaiting the resurrection and are therefore in communion with us, the living. Holmes thus concludes,

we are able, in the communion of saints, to transcend the particularities of our own times – but this transcendence has a complementary immanence. We remain the particular, located creatures that God has been pleased to make us, even whilst, in the Spirit, we are able to learn from those who have gone before. History is not done away with by the Spirit, but its vicious aspects are transformed so that they are no longer barriers but gifts, so that the glorious diversity of God’s human creation does not separate us from other Christians but rather enriches our communion.

From this, therefore, we can conclude that the study of Christian history is proper and necessary to the task of theology. Of course, Holmes’ arguments are not without detractors, but, nevertheless, they are strong arguments for a serious study of Christian history including theologians and theological formulations from the past two thousand years.

As someone who is giving his life and intellectual activity to the study of the Christian tradition, it might not be surprising that I find myself agreeing with Holmes. However, there are still those within the evangelical church who would respond by saying, “As long as we have the Bible, why do we need to care about church history?” Though I hope the number of people tempted to say something like this is small, my experience tells me that it is the common perspective. My prayer is that the evangelical church will continue to recover the rich history of the Christian tradition and that she will do so in such a way as to benefit all her members. Yes, the Scriptures must receive first place in our theologizing, but it is to our own detriment to neglect the study of the Christian tradition.

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