Do We Need Church History?

One of the things I was asked to do when I began as Associate Minister at ELT Baptist Church was to teach a monthly church history course to a small group of church members. We’ve had two sessions so far and I’m very excited about our next session which, in a seasonally appropriate manner, will look at how the early church expressed its convictions about the identity of Jesus found in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds. We may ask, though, is it really worth spending an evening a month, with everything else that needs to be done, studying church history? Wouldn’t the time be better spent looking at a passage of the Scriptures which are, after all, the inspired word of God? Wouldn’t a really radical commitment to God’s word involve studying the Bible rather than worrying about whatever a theologian from the seventeenth, fourth or second century said. My answer is that, in fact, the precise opposite is the case. The more dedicated we are to the inspired word of God in the Scriptures, the more closely we will listen to Christians of ages past. Let me explain why.

The parable of the sower, found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8, is a very familiar passage. The seed of the word is broadcast to four different categories of hearers. In three cases, the word is heard but eventually bears no fruit while one kind of hearer, the good soil, bears fruit because the word is not only heard but something else happens as well. What is interesting is that the three Gospel writers use different words for that additional step. Mark’s good soils hears the word and accepts it, Luke’s hear it and ‘hold it fast in an honest and good heart’ while Matthew’s ‘hears the word and understand it.’ I imagine that the different words reflect different occasions when Jesus, like any good teacher, repeated the same lesson. The different descriptions of what else is required are surely mutually illuminating and serve to explain each other. The one who accepts the word is the one who understands it and without understanding the word we will not hold it fast in our hearts. What is absolutely clear is that merely hearing the word is not enough. To bear fruit we must understand what God is saying. We must know not only the sound and shape of God’s words but their meaning as well.

The Scriptures are clear that the God appointed means to give us understanding of the word are God-appointed teachers. Acts 8, Ephesians 4, and Nehemiah 8 are among the numerous passages that could be cited in this regard. Hearing is not enough, we require understanding. Understanding is not automatic, it requires teachers. Now, here we come back to the question of church history and the reason why we should listen to theologians and preachers of a previous generation. In the history of the church we have stored up for us the thoughts and conclusions of Christian believers who have wrestled precisely with the question of what the Scriptures mean. Theologians of the past, therefore, do not operate as an alternative to Scriptural authority but as a means of the Scriptures exercising its authority over us since they aid us in arriving at the understanding we need to become fruit-bearing hearers.

Well, perhaps so, one might say, but what God has inspired are the words written by the original authors, shouldn’t we go directly to them? Why rest content with reading the original author mediated through the conclusions of so many other generations of scholars? Why don’t we seek to listen directly to the Apostles as our theologians? Well, apart from the fact that a quick glance at the New Testament suggests that those who did listen directly to the Apostles were just as likely to veer into disastrous error as any other generation of Christians, the best answer to this is that the Holy Spirit, in his wisdom, has not placed us in the second generation of Christians but in the umpteenth or so generation. Has he made a mistake? Or is it more likely that through those umpteen generations, the Spirit has been raising up teachers with insight into the Scriptures and whose insight can help us understand them better? The fact that we stand so many centuries from the original writers of the Scriptures is not necessarily an obstacle to our understanding them, if we attune our ears to those in whom the Spirit has been at work and who, therefore, have borne much fruit as good soil. Our historical location should put us at an advantage compared with those that came directly after the Apostles since we have 2000 years more reflection and meditation of the Scriptures to draw on. Of course, reading church history must never become a substitute for reading the Scriptures, but it is unlikely that if we draw from the best that has been thought and said by those who read the very same Scriptures, we will do so without profit.

Ah, but, you may say, I have confidence that God speaks through his word and he can speak clearly without the aid of all these other theologians getting in the way. Of course he can, and, mercifully, he does. But the question is, are we content that we understand the Scriptures as well as we should, or we could? If we are not, how will we go about deepening that understanding? It is true that we are blessed with teachers in our present day and age that can help us in all sorts of ways, from linguistics to apologetics. The problem, however, is that we learn from the Scriptures it is not just individuals who are liable to misunderstand the Scriptures, but whole generations. Each time and place finds certain aspects of the Scriptures easier to grasp than others. We, therefore, need the wisdom of men and women who stand outside our time and place and don’t share the weaknesses to which our moment in history is particularly liable. (This is, of course, C.S. Lewis’ argument in his famous introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.) For example, we might learn from the Reformers the significance and importance of gathered worship and the Lord’s Supper, the early church fathers can teach us how to trace out God’s nature in eternity from his acts in time and the from medieval theologians how God stands as the source of all goodness. Of course, all of these things are in the Scriptures as well but they are truths that, without teachers from another age, we are liable to hear but not to understand. We can have confidence that God is able to speak to us through his Word, but from that conviction must follow its logical corollary, that the same Spirit spoke through the same word to them then as well as to us now.

Anyone, therefore, who wishes to be good soil, to understand the Scriptures and not merely to hear them, will want to be attentive to what the Spirit has taught to generations past. We should not accept any voice from the past uncritically, indeed, we cannot for on various questions we shall find that they contradict and disagree.  Nevertheless, any generation of Christians that thinks it can stand unaided by the insight of faithful Christians of ages past risks being marked more by conceit and naivety than by humble submission to Scripture. Rather, the inestimable value of the living word of God is honoured best when we are prepared to scour the centuries for every flash of insight left by the Spirit in the deposit of faithful Christian teaching time has bequeathed to us. It is for this reason, among many others, that I am looking forward to revisiting what Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Cyril of Alexandria and many more voices from the fourth and fifth centuries, have to teach us about the Scriptures the Spirit inspired and the Saviour we find in them. Perhaps, having listened to them, we will be better placed to not only hear but understand the word and bear much fruit as a result. We’ll be meeting at ELT Baptist Church on Burdett Road at 8pm on December 10th. If you’re in the area, you’re very welcome to join us.

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