No Time Like the Past
Updated: Feb 9
This week I am teaching a graduate history course entitled "Historical Theology." As I begin class, I will engage in what has for me become a tradition in most if not all of my history courses: an opening lecture entitled "Why Study Church History?" Using a list largely borrowed from a classmate in seminary, I walk through some different reasons why the Christian believer might want to know what happened in ages past.
I will not share the entirety of the list here. Rather, I'll focus on just one:
It keeps us from re-inventing the wheel and helps us identify dead-ends.
History, in other words, gives us the benefit of hindsight. Human beings have been following Jesus for nearly 2000 years now. In that time, by the grace of God, we have engaged in worthy enterprises, produced towering intellects and great souls, and been people of good news the world over. In the same set of centuries, however, we have also betrayed our Savior, used the Church as cudgel, and taken part in dehumanizing and at times evil actions.
While I believe that Christ's work in and through his people over time and space has indeed been a great blessing of God to Creation, I am not blind to the other side of the story. How people who often ought to know better and would claim to be agents of the gospel have betrayed what it stands for. How the Church has made mistakes in in actions, stances, and alliances. How we have fallen short. It would be easy to say that all those negatives have simply been done by those who are not "real Christians." And, admittedly, some of them were not. But others? Well, they would honestly claim to share the same faith. They would affirm their trust in Christ. They would be some part of Christianity. Just like me.
Addressing adherence to and departures from the call of Jesus is a biblical, theological, and pastoral task. It is the work of preaching, conversation, prophetic encounter, and relationship. It is also, I think, the work of history.
The other day I was heartened when a ministry friend called to ask me for some historical examples of where the Church had "gone wrong" in a particular way before. This individual did not ask this in order to tear apart the Christian faith. Rather, my friend knew that there were some realities that needed to be addressed in our time. Realities that we as the Church have likely seen before and which history might illuminate well for us.
One of the benefits of having nearly twenty centuries behind us is that there is the potential for a lot of case studies. A multitude of potential examples of Christian successes and mistakes to learn from. While few if any will exactly replicate the situations in which we find ourselves, they can in their own way help us in the here and now. They can remind us of best practices even as they recall flawed decisions, tragic compromises, and outright sins committed by those who faced pressures familiar to us. They might even help us see what in our our time is hard for us to perceive.
History also gives us the ability to understand how certain choices have been viewed, interpreted, lauded and/or corrected over time. That is a real benefit, helping further contribute to a road map for contemporary action.
As I have noted on this blog and will continue to reflect upon in the future, the Church in the 21st century faces challenges, especially in the context of the United States. Such circumstances will require faithful attentiveness to the Scripture, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and adherence to the call of the gospel. History, too, has its place in the conversation. I hope that we come to listen to it more, even as we move onto into a future to which we are beckoned.