The Necessity of Church History
by Matt Shrader
Baptists have their roots in the English Reformation. Since their beginning, several beliefs have been at the center of their theology, including believer’s baptism, individual soul competency, congregational government, as well as fundamentally orthodox beliefs like the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Whether they are affirming the major beliefs of orthodoxy or their denominational distinctives, Baptists have normally placed the authority of Scripture as paramount. Considering that this essay is tasked with showing the necessity of church history, a Baptist might ask why I would want to make history necessary but also highlight the authority of Scripture and the competency of the individual to make spiritual decisions. After all, if we can read the Bible for ourselves and make decisions for ourselves, why do we need to know the past?
I have several responses to this line of thinking. Basically it misunderstands what Baptists mean by soul competency and it dangerously ignores church history. It’s the second point I want to focus on here. Robert Rea is correct when he says, “when we ignore centuries of God-loving Christians and the rich well of resources that they have passed on to us, sometimes ignoring even Scripture itself in the process, our perceived needs are often little more than the mirrors of our fallen culture.”1 To ignore the past is to be held captive to the tyranny of the present age and it runs the risk of belittling even Scripture itself. I propose we think about four central reasons why we need church history, some important clarifications, and then start to think about what to do next. And so first, why do we need church history?
Because “tradition-less” does not exist
No matter what church we attend or what denomination we adhere to (or even if we do not claim any denomination), every church works within some kind of tradition. This may appear in the form of what a regular church service looks like (liturgy) or it may come in the doctrinal beliefs of the church (believer’s baptism) or it may surface in understandings of worship, fellowship, or spirituality. All these normal practices of a church inculcate values and theology into their church, i.e., tradition.2 We have to recognize that at some point we are living out values and theology from our past, even if we are not quite sure where they came from or that we are even doing it. Simply put, “tradition-less” does not exist.
If we ignore the fact that we are part of a tradition or that we cannot get away from tradition, then we run the risk of being parrots of whatever our contemporary values are. Kevin Bauder offers this description of the danger: “Typically, they accommodate the forms of their Christianity to whatever else they are doing in their lives. And their tradition is transparent to them: they are blissfully unaware that they have exchanged the gold of the Christian past for a stubble of their own reaping.”3 To escape the tyranny of our own day we must first recognize that we are already embracing a tradition. To mine from the wealthy stores of church history we must recognize that they are there.
Because of what doctrine is in relation to Scripture
I recognize, of course, that there is a capital “T” Tradition that is often present in this discussion. This is the “Tradition” that reminds one of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox views of church history. These views, though different from one another, elevate the authority of church history equal to or above Scripture. Protestants rightly oppose such a notion. I do believe, however, that as a Baptist I must insist on affirming the great Tradition in a certain sense. To see why, we must see the relation of Scripture to doctrine.
Scripture is inspired and inerrant and fully capable to provide all that is needed for life, doctrine, and practice in the church. As such, it is of a higher authority than anything else that we possess as humans. I am assuming that such ideas are readily acceptable by those who are reading this. The more difficult idea is that doctrine is Christian thinking and action about the teaching of the Bible applied to human experiences and situations. We believe the Bible teaches the idea of the Trinity, but that did not become a major issue for the church until a couple centuries after the Bible was written. Likewise, we believe that the Bible teaches the impossibility of anyone attaining salvation without the work of God’s grace, though this was a hot topic within the church in the fifth (and has been in nearly every) century. To affirm the Trinity and to deny Pelagian views of humanity has been almost universally recognized as important to Christian identity. Yet, these are doctrines, scriptural doctrines even, but they are not Scripture. They are essential and they are biblical, but they are not the Bible itself.
This is an important point to make because it is how Protestants guard the place of Scripture and hold in check the encroaching authority of human-formulated doctrine. This is precisely where we must use (and have been using) church history. Since the Trinitarian debates and the Pelagian debates of the early church, the overwhelming consensus of church history has urged us to agree. Notice, it has urged us, but I would argue that they are urging us to search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. As we search the Bible we find that the Trinity is there as well as the insistence on God’s grace in salvation, and both are vital. Yet, Trinitarianism has been occasionally denied and Pelagianism occasionally affirmed in church history. How do we determine which doctrines are to be held and which are not; and, are there times when we let tradition tell us what to believe?
The Reformation gave us some help on this point. They tell us that there is a difference between the norma normans (the norm that norms all other norms, which is Scripture) and the norma normata (the norms that are norms because they conform to the ultimate norm of Scripture).4 Doctrines are still norms because they conform to the highest norm of Scripture. Yet, doctrines can be challenged precisely based on their fidelity to Scripture. This kind of challenge is what the Reformers issued to the Roman Catholic Church over their view of justification, sanctification, and even tradition itself. And so, when we recognize we have traditions of doctrine and of value, we then need to traverse historical paths of doctrinal origins and development and judge them by the ultimate judge of Scripture. Baptists normally accept a Chalcedonian understanding of Christological texts, Reformation understanding of soteriological texts, and a Baptist understanding of ecclesiological texts. As Paul Hartog has said: “For as students of the entirety of church history, we know that we are both children of the fathers and heirs of the Reformation.…Nevertheless, we listen with ears open to the fathers even as our hearts are resolutely bound to Scripture. In other words, we really do learn and yet retain our distinctive theologies.”5 The history of the church and the tradition that it gives us are important because we learn many of the doctrines of our faith as the church has developed them through time. They can be essential to accept or reject dependent on their fidelity to Scripture, but they must be confronted.
Because we all need Christian apprenticeship
Church history is essential so that we can learn when tradition urges us to reconsider our doctrines according to Scripture or when it urges us to consider doctrines and practices that we have forgotten. No doubt, some doctrines are more easily recognized as essential to Christianity than others. Church history, when taught well, acts as a mentor in Christian identity.
We have to be taught an identity and come to terms with it before it becomes our own. This is simply true to human experience. Church Historian Robert Louis Wilken asserts as much: “Without tradition, learning is arduous at best, impossible at worst. In most things in life—learning to speak, making cabinets, playing the violin—the only way to learn is by imitation, by letting someone else guide our movements until we learn to do the thing on our own.”6 The way to learn what Christianity is all about is to be confronted by great Christians and let their thoughts and examples influence us. We need to be taught what is properly Christian both in word and in deed. Further, the words we use are important and we get that language from Scripture and the history of the church. “Trinity”, “Pelagian”, “Protestant”, “Baptist”, “evangelical”, “worship”, “holiness” and other such Christian ideas are given us in our tradition. It is our responsibility to assimilate them before we can rightly claim them (or critique them) as our own.
Because, on account of our fallibility, we need accountability
One last reason why we need church history should be relatively easy to assert: we are fallible human beings who need accountability. We are sinners by nature (church history teaches us that Pelagius got that wrong) and we need to be taught what is good and true. Further, we have to come to terms with the differences among us. While we believe the Bible is inerrant we also affirm that we are not. This explains how we have such divergent views of doctrine by many who claim the name of Christian. We have to come to terms with those differences. We also need to try and avoid repeating errors. And we have to try and recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in the entire universal church. Again, it is Scripture that is paramount in making these theological decisions, but church history helps inform us. As sinful, fallible people we need accountability as we determine what we believe Scripture teaches, and church history provides it.
Some important clarifications
Having said what I have in the space that I have, I want to try and be sure I am clear on a few central points. If I affirm the ultimate authority of Scripture, then I must let Scripture define what is essential to Christianity. Yet, this biblical priority must be well nourished with Christian tradition. There is a certain back-and-forth between letting our understanding of Scripture have the final say and letting church history tell us when, where, and what we must consider important. Both are authoritative, but not in the same way or to the same degree.
We also need to think about whose history we find important. Is it just Western, European, or English-speaking theology that is important? And just dead people? There are definitely certain points of church history that are important such as Nicaea, Chalcedon, and the Reformation. We tend to point to important points like these because they dealt with significant issues that have provided necessary distinctions between groups and because their conclusions have been consistently accepted by Christians through history as faithful to Scripture. And so, I would assert that all of church history is important, though not equally, and it is all under the judgment of Scripture and the rest of church history. Having a central idea of what Christianity is proves important in pointing out poor moments of church history from good moments.
So then what do we do with those differences that we are bound to find in the history of the church? A few thoughts will have to suffice for now. I can be a Baptist who affirms denominational distinctives and also a Christian who is part of the universal church. It is of primary importance that I understand what differentiates the Christian from the non-Christian and what differentiates various Christians from one another both on the theological and the practical level. I affirm the priority of Scripture in making these distinctions but I also insist that I cannot be informed in these decisions without church history. Scripture and the history of the church teach me that I must embrace the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the necessity for grace in salvation, among others. I also learn from church history the importance of identifying with a certain history within the history of the church, namely Protestant and Baptist. Importantly, as I delineate further historical descriptions I also recognize when these differences are essential to Christian identification (Trinity), when they are matters of theological consistency (inerrancy), when they are essential to local church fellowship (ordinances), or when they are matters of personal preference (author of Hebrews). In other words, there is more to Christianity than just “mere Christianity.” Differences, which are both real and important, are caused by the fact that we are still sinful humans trying to understand God’s ways. The variety of differences does not mean I must reject the competency of the individual to make decisions and it does not mean I must look to a recognized magisterium as equal to or above Scripture. Authority to adjudicate differences is still found in Scripture.
And now what?
I hope that by now I have at least opened to you the possibility that you need church history. Without it your tradition is bound to be shallow and near-sighted. Church history can offer deep resources for understanding the wonderful truths of what it is to be Christian. But how is this done exactly? Let me first warn that we must avoid certain dangers such as interpreting church history through contemporary assumptions, not seeing errors in the church’s history, and ignoring historical contexts to cherry-pick historical practices. But let me also state that church history really can help in significant ways. Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and C. S. Lewis have helped me to understand human psychology and the battle with sin better. Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Kevin Vanhoozer have helped me begin to see how Christians can understand theology at all. John Bunyan, C. S. Lewis, and Bernard of Clairvaux have taught me much about sanctified Christian imagination. John Gill, Charles Spurgeon, Alvah Hovey, E. Y. Mullins, A. J. Gordon, Mark Dever, and Kevin Bauder have helped me see the value of Baptist views of congregations, soul competency and even church discipline. And I could hardly do without what I have learned from Augustine, Bernard, Martin Luther, and my parents (!) about the Gospel and conversion. Some of how I have learned from church history has been hinted at throughout this essay, such as having a central idea of Christianity and taking note of ideas that church history has repeatedly affirmed to be important, among others. But these ideas are more involved and deserve a longer explanation. To be sure, a fuller presentation will have to wait for another essay.
There is much benefit from church history because Christianity is much bigger than any one of us. “We find ourselves situated in a Tradition that is bigger than us personally or even our contemporary generation collectively. There is wisdom in the ages. ‘Truly, we stand on the shoulders of giants and we honor them by knowing more about them, learning what they have taught, and seeking to apply insights from them, in the light of Scripture, for us today.’”7 I believe that if we give a proper place to church history then we will greatly benefit. Indeed, to overcome ourselves, we must utilize its benefits.
- Robert Rea, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 15.
- Paul A. Hartog, “Evangelicals and the Tensions of Ressourcement” in The Contemporary Church and the Early Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010), 207.
- Kevin Bauder, “Understanding Conservative Christianity: A Digression” http://seminary.wcts1030.com/publications/Nick/Nick210.html
- Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 17, 80.
- Paul Hartog, “Evangelicals and the Tensions of Ressourcement”, 226-227.
- Robert Louis Wilken, “The Christian Intellectual Tradition” First Things June 1991.
- Paul Hartog, “Evangelicals and the Tensions of Ressourcement”, 228.