Church History: Where Do I Begin?
by Matt Shrader
In the previous issue of Aletheia I gave my explanation for why church history is necessary. I also mentioned that once we can agree that church history needs to be considered then we need to start asking how we are going to do this. I have been asked this simple question several times: where do I begin with church history? I may have convinced someone that it is either important or interesting, but that still leaves this issue of how and where to begin.
My high school soccer coach used to preach to my team that determination is breaking up a seemingly impossible task into small achievable goals. There is a lot of truth in that statement. We might be tempted to place church history in the category of the seemingly impossible. And, in a way, it is impossible. At my modest local library, there are no fewer than sixteen shelves of books containing the works of Martin Luther or works about him. When it comes to Augustine, it is even larger. In fact, there are three huge folio volumes that talk about the books that have talked about Augustine!
I do not think that we need be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what there is. Our goal is not the impossible task of being comprehensive, only that of being responsible, a goal that is attainable. To that end, I would encourage you to consider the idea of determination mentioned a few lines above. I would also like to offer some ideas on the ways we can begin to read church history. To help visualize this I would put them in two categories: (1) the tools or skills that Christians need to do church history (what do I need to do this?) and (2) how we use those church history tools to affect us (what do I let it do to me?). Let me reiterate that this is not as hard as it seems and it is not for the specialist only. I am going to give some suggestions, but you may find that many of them are already in your possession.
Tools/Skills for Doing Church History.
A Worldview. One of the first “tools” needed as you begin looking at church history is an understanding of the Gospel core of Christianity and also a Christian worldview. Our assumptions of what is proper Christianity are important, especially for how we are able to evaluate the history of Christianity. This is not to say that someone cannot understand church history unless they have a correct understanding of the Gospel. But if the goal of church history is not just to understand the details but also to evaluate the relative worth of different time periods and apply our understanding to our current situation, then it is essential to know when someone has strayed from the Gospel or from the basic Christian worldview. As Baptist theologian Alvah Hovey once put it (way back in 1854): without this basic understanding of Christianity how can we “discover and honor the true ship of the Church amid fleets of piratical craft sailing under her colors?”1 Of course, we also remember that we read church history to try and understand theology and even to be challenged or enriched in our theology. Yet, we must be careful not to allow any and every moment or viewpoint found within church history to be correct.
A complementary idea is to know what to do with disagreements. Not all of these are created equal. In my Aletheia article from last month (September 2015) I spelled out some of the ideas to keep in mind about how to handle disagreements. I will just restate that it is important to remember when these differences are essential to Christian identification (e.g., Trinity), when they are matters of theological consistency (e.g., inerrancy), when they are essential to local church fellowship (e.g., ordinances), or when they are matters of personal preference (e.g., author of Hebrews). If and when you begin studying a figure or time period from church history you will find things both to admire and to reject. In any such case we must remember the relative importance of the issue at hand and where it fits into the larger scheme of Christian thinking and witness.
Skills for Reading History. When we study church history we need to have a set of skills for how to read history in general. Many of these things should be rather self-evident, but they deserve repeating. John Fea, in his introductory work on studying history, gives “five C’s of historical thinking” that I find helpful.2 First, we are concerned with change over time. Because things do not stay the same, we ask how things have changed because this gives understanding to why people think and act the way they do. Second, context is important for the study of the past. This means not only that we cannot take words out of context but we must also take cultures and entire belief systems into account. Third, we want to know about causality. In other words, we want to know not just a list of facts but why things happened the way they did and what shaped events. This should introduce some caution because we cannot possibly know this in every situation or even fully and completely in any situation. There can be any number of potential causes to an event. Yet, as students of history we work hard to understand these causes because it opens up better understanding. Fourth, we care about contingency or the possibility that human beings have the ability to do something not based on their surroundings, but more out of their own free will. Fifth, the past is complex. Not only are people from the past different from us, but they may also in fact be quite a bit more complex. Any student of the past would be willing to tell you about their favorite time period or personality and how complex that time or person is. Simplistic presentations of history run the risk of missing details that are essential to the story.
All these points are helpful in understanding what it means to study history. There are skills that we inculcate and there are bad skills that we work to excise. The fact of the matter is that as we study history we can make a lot of mistakes and bad assumptions. Anachronism is to attribute a practice, event, or thing to the wrong time period. The Whig fallacy of historical interpretation is to assume that all things happen simply because they are pushing toward what we see in a later time. Books upon books have been written that explain potential fallacies.3 Skill and awareness is needed on these issues. It is also true that as we study history we continually reshape our own understanding of that history. I hope that you do not hear this and conclude that history is unknowable or a wax nose that we may make say whatever we want. While we admit that we can never produce a completely neutral and unbiased presentation of history, we can still produce a historically objective presentation of history provided we aim to follow the practices of good history.4 A good way to learn these practices (besides working through some of the books I have just footnoted) is to read good historical work. With some practice it is not as hard as you think.
Asking the Right Questions. One of the most important things we need when we to do is to ask the right questions. Do I understand the context well? Or causality? Is my understanding too simplistic? Am I avoiding fallacious historical reasoning? As we study church history, we should also ask a handful of questions that are more theological in nature. When a theologian – such as Martin Luther – does something – like post a 95-thesis statement – he is doing something. He is not just throwing out beliefs into the ether. He is actually doing something with his understanding of the Bible and theology and is trying to accomplish something – like showing the theological and moral bankruptcy of indulgences. This idea that theology is action cannot be undervalued. When Augustine wrote his Confessions, he was not simply saying something he thought was correct or worth hearing. He was trying to influence people, particularly so that they would see his spiritual autobiography and then consider their own. What was the Council of Nicaea doing with their statements? What was John Bunyan trying to accomplish when he published The Pilgrim’s Progress? This makes context essential and it opens up to us the immense value of church history and the power of theology both in the past and in our own day.
Related to this idea and to the previous point about disagreements, we need to understand not only what a person is trying to do with his theology but also what his sources of theology are and what his biblical warrant is. If we are studying history for the purpose of self-evaluation and betterment, then we must ask whether the things we are studying should change us. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther wrote about The Bondage of the Will and Erasmus wrote about The Freedom of the Will. If we are interested in this exchange in church history we might ask a series of questions such as: What is the context of this historical debate? What are the actual arguments of each (what are they saying)? What are they actually doing to the church in their day and age with these books? What do they use as authority? Which one makes the best case biblically? Once we answer those questions then we can begin to ask what we should let history do to us.
As I finish this section on the tools of the historian, let me just say that this is not a how-to list that guarantees pure results nor is it a comprehensive methodology. Other ideas like our character qualities are important (e.g., are you generous or pugilistic?). There are tools we use and gain proficiency with and there are abilities and qualities of the person to consider. Studying history is both a skill and an art. But, it is something we can all do.
What do I let Church History do to me?
We must remember that we are not doing this simply as an academic exercise. It is academic in the sense that it takes study and the use of proper skills and understanding. But, we are doing this with an eye toward growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ. So, as we apply church history to ourselves, a few points about what I should do with my tools of church history are important here. In a sense, we are learning how to use tools and honing our skills so that we can construct/disciple ourselves and those around us. Such a task needs some thought.
Remember, We Need History. We need to remember why we need church history. It helps us to evaluate our thoughts and actions as Christians. It teaches us what is important and what is not important. It shows us what Christians think about a host of theological and ethical issues. It shows us what Christian witness looks like in the mundane and in the extraordinary. It tells us what Christian worship, benevolence, education, and friendship have looked like. The list could go on, but the point is that church history gives us identity and examples and we do well to consider how it models Christianity.
Be Open, at Points. This is not to say that we follow everything we see in church history. But, we ought to listen to what church history tells us is important. To push against the weight of church history is an uphill battle. Consider this statement by F. F. Bruce:
Where the Holy Spirit guides the people of Christ into further truth, that guidance (though meeting with some initial resistance) tends in the long run to commend itself to their general acceptance. It will not conflict with truth already learned and established, even if it shows that some things previously reckoned to be truth were only imperfectly so, or not so at all. It will be acknowledged to be in harmony with the mind of Christ, as His mind is primarily revealed in Scripture and progressively appreciated in the church.5
The assumption is that Christians throughout the history of the church have the same Holy Spirit working inside them. This same Holy Spirit wrote Scripture. Therefore, we compare our thoughts with the history of the church to see if it matches up while we also compare our thoughts and the church’s against the Scriptures. As I explained in the last Aletheia article, church history does not hold the same authority as Scripture. But, the same Holy Spirit has indwelt Christians throughout the church’s history and we ought to care for what they have urged us is important.
So, have the attitude of an apprentice, but not without a critical eye. I have already mentioned the need for a pre-understanding of what Christianity is and what the Christian worldview is. Here I am adding the idea that we are fallible and limited human beings who need to be pointed in the right direction. Now, while we are fallible, the Bible is clear and compelling in many areas. Not all areas of our convictions are as open to being challenged as others might be. I believe that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. To be honest, no amount of argumentation will get me to change my mind on that (but I think I stand in good historical company there). There are some areas where I am very open to being challenged in my ideas while other areas not as much. It would take a lot of convincing to convert me to not being a Baptist, or not accepting inerrancy, or any number of doctrines I currently hold. So, while I hold myself to be an apprentice to church history – and fallible at that – I also believe that Scripture is abundantly clear on many issues that I will have a harder time relinquishing than others.
Be Critical, Generous, and Respectful. That being said, we should be critical and generous. Christians throughout the history of the church are fallible and full of faults and even inconsistencies, just as we are. But, they also have the Spirit of God and we should listen well. Don’t condemn others from the past without good reason. If we do, we run the risk of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. This is
the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.6
On the other end of the spectrum might be what we could call “historical naiveté”, or, the uncritical acceptance of a past act simply because it is past. Some things have passed away from the church’s history because they needed to while others have passed and need to be resurrected. Wisdom and biblical thinking need to be utilized in these appropriations.
Where do we begin to get into church history? I hope you see that reading church history is not impossible, though it cannot be done flippantly. My encouragement would be to take up and read! The tools and suggestions presented here do not take a college or seminary degree to attain (though that is certainly nice), but they may take a lifetime to master. As you practice, sharpen yourself and your skills. Read great historians and see how they do it. Continue to grow in your knowledge of church history and your understanding of theology and the church. More to the point, let church history teach you Christianity.
- Alvah Hovey, “A Good Church History”, Studies in Ethics and Religion (Boston: Silver, Burdett, and Company, 1892), 541.
- John Fea, Why Study History? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 6-15.
- Carl Trueman, Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper, 1970).
- Richard Evans, In Defense of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).
- F. F. Bruce, Tradition Old and New (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1970), 18.
- C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012), 207-8.