From Jerusalem to the Quin Road
As Christians, all history is theological. The Christian faith is built on the revelation of God in time and space, the self-disclosure of God to humanity through Jesus Christ. Christ is the centre of the Christian faith. A man who, as the ancient Creed of the church bears witness, for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. The Christian Gospel is rooted in history, because through history in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Co 5:19).
The church, to use the language of Scripture, is the body of Christ (Col 1:14). Therefore the history of the church is the history of God's unfolding redemptive plan for humanity. The great scholar of Irish ecclesiastical history James F Kenny (1884-1946) noted that studying church history was a theological as well as an academic exercise since, the history of the church is actually the story of Jesus' continuing life on earth. For that reason, to study church history is never merely an academic exercise for the Christian, it is always deeply theological.
Ennis Evangelical Church, as a non-denominational Christian Church, is but one tiny part of the great world wide story of the Christian Church. Church History plays an important part in understanding our faith no matter our denomination or tradition. As the Bible reminds us, Christians should remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7). Throughout the history of the church there have been great examples of godly men and women who suffered for their faith in Christ and helped the church formulate and better understand its doctrine. Studying the development and progress of Christian doctrine helps us to better appreciate the insights of those Christians who have gone before us. True progress in Christian doctrine is not change. True progress, as Thomas Oden noted, is an advance in understanding of that which has been fully given in the deposit of faith. The faith, as Scripture teaches, that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
The great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan (d. 2006) opened his monumental 5 volume study on the history of the development of Christian doctrine with the reminder that, what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God: this is Christian doctrine. Doctrine is not the only, not even the primary, activity of the church. The church worships God and serves mankind, it works for the transformation of this world and awaits the consummation of its hope in the next. ‘Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ – love, and not faith, and certainly not doctrine. The church is always more than a school…but the church cannot be less than a school. Its faith, hope, and love all express themselves in teaching and confession… The Christian church would not be the church as we know it without Christian doctrine.”
As we study church history we should bear in mind that unlike the divinely inspired Scriptures, the theologians and fathers of the church were not infallible or inspired. They sometimes got things wrong, or changed their minds, and even on occasion taught false doctrine. All Christian doctrinal development must be viewed with a critical, though not unsympathetic eye.
Augustine - perhaps the greatest Christian theologian in the early church - cautioned, “We who preach and write books, write in a manner altogether different from the manner in which the canon of Scripture has been written. We write while we make progress. We learn something new every day...I urge your charity, on my behalf and in my own case, that you should not take any previous book or preaching of mine as Holy Scripture...I would be more angry with the one who praises me and takes what I have written for Gospel truth than the one who criticises me unfairly.”
Studying church history is not an uncritical exercise, we must always evaluate and judge the doctrine and practises of the church in light of what the Scripture teaches. True Christian doctrine, as Augustine noted, is gathered not by the opinion of private judgement, but by the witness of the Scriptures, not subject to the fluctuations of heretical rashness, but grounded on Apostolic truth.
The 18th century birth of modernity shaped the way many Christians viewed their faith, and greatly diminished the contribution and value of the ancient Christian church to modern theology. Individualism replaced community, the past was dismissed in favour of the present, and rationalism re-defined faith. In studying the past we can gain great insight and sometimes a refreshingly new perspective on old questions by listening to the voices of the past.
The history of the church is not without its dark chapters of corruption, heresy, persecution, and division. The story of the church is, as Pelikan remarked, also an expression of the broken state of Christian faith and witness, the most patent illustration of the truth of the apostolic admission in 1 Corinthians 13:12, 'Now we see in a mirror dimly...Now I know in part.'... Whether or not dogma is refined by history, it can be better understood through its history.
You can find our series on the history of the church in the blog posts that follow. Here is the first Session: The First Christians: Apologists Confessors and Martyrs