Continuing in this short series on what makes for a robust program of Christian discipleship and learning, I now turn to a second, fundamental domain of sacred knowledge: Church History.
A Brief Intro to Narrative and Retrieval Theology
Since the work of the German theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), there has been a movement in both Protestant and Catholic theology to see the Bible predominantly as a narrative, or story, a story that we are expected to “live into” as followers of Christ. Main proponents of this “narrative theology” are men like George Lindbeck and Hans Frei. While this narrative theology can have its pitfalls, it also has several advantages.
On the negative side, narrative theology can fail to take seriously the propositional claims made in Scripture, thus calling into question the necessity or relevance of foundational dogmas and moral truths. On the positive side, narrative theology embraces and illuminates for us the simple fact that most of the Bible is written as a story, a story through which we are meant to learn, and from which we are meant to model our behavior. The Christian life is, as 20th century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasaar put it, like a “theological drama.” This theo-drama is a story like many others, albeit a real one in which we are meant to live, and move, and have our being. In the Hebrew manner of speaking, it is the “story of stories!”, for it is God’s story and we are His real-life characters.
In addition to this approach to the Bible as story, some 20th-century Catholic theologians, like von Balthasaar, also belonged to a movement called the “nouvelle theologie,” an academic project that slightly predated Vatican II (1962-65). This “new theology” was only new in that it sought to regain the theological framework of the early church fathers, and renew scholarly interest in the biblical text itself. This movement was also known as “ressourcement” theology, as it sought to creatively recapture the Church’s earliest teachings and recontextualize them for the purpose of evangelizing the modern and post-modern culture of the 20th century West.
In Evangelical theology however, especially in the last generation and especially through the works of men like John Webster, Oliver Crisp, and Kevin Vanhoozer, both narrative theology, and ressourcement theology have emerged in a particularly Protestant fashion. The ressourcing of Protestant theology in early church history often goes by the name “Retrieval theology” and it looks to counter much of the modernist and post-modernist influences that infiltrated Protestant thought in the post-Enlightenment and post 1950’s Western church. Thomas Oden’s masterpiece of systematic theology, Classic Christianity, is prime example of retrieval theology.
Retrieval theology thus serves as a bulwark against current trends in culture that would seek to undo the wisdom and knowledge of the church’s past, to include her stories of great men and women of the church. Retrieval theology in this sense can also defend against the cultural trend toward revisionist history, a trend that sees the past as either barbaric, naive, and unscientific; or as cruel, misogynistic, and exploitative. As such, as theological apologists and Bible-true Christians, we can embrace both the Catholic version of ressourcement theology, with some caveats of course, and also welcome the retrieval theology popular now in much Evangelical, academic theology. By in large these are healthy movements aimed at recapturing much of the Church’s social history and historical thought.
Church History as Retrieving the Past and Living Our Christian Story
These two disciplines of narrative theology and retrieval theology seem to highlight a very basic need in the life of the human person: first, we need to feel a part of a bigger story, and second, we need to feel anchored to our own past, the past of our ancestors. The second need is what we might call a feeling or sense of “legacy.” It is also a need the Bible makes very explicit, especially in the Old Testament, as it relays for us historically the promises of God coming to fulfillment through particular families, people groups, and lineages.
The Bible give us clear illustrations of both being a part of a bigger, theological picture, and also having a spiritual legacy. We see this most clearly in the history of the nation of Israel, and in the Church’s communion of saints. When one reads through 1 Chronicles 1-9, for example, it is clear how God considers and cares deeply about the literal history, the very lineage, of His people. The often overlooked genealogies in the Old Testament, and even Matthew and Luke’s in the New, while perhaps tedious to read, are central to the nature of God’s plan in the world, and to the identity of His people. Thus, we see not only in the Old Testament a list of literal names of those that went before the current generation of Israelites, we also see the reality of the present communion of the saints (Lk 22:32, 1 Thess 5:11, Jn 17:21, Js 5:16, Heb 11:39-40 ff.,). In these passages and others, the Bible tells of those who are “in Christ” as being knit together in Him (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 12:27), and this is not something that death can separate. We are still one body in Christ, even after our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ have gone on to be with Him. In this way church history mirrors the history of the nation of Israel. As the Old Testament continually refers back to the pre-Atonement history of God’s people, so does Church History refer back to the post-Resurrection history of God’s people.
Early Protestants therefore saw the church as existing in two metaphyical states: the Church Triumphant (those saints already in the presence of God), and the Church Militant (the saints still fighting the good fight of faith in the world). Although we, having direct access to the Father through Christ, do not pray to the saints, it is clear that they still pray for us and on our behalf (Rev 5:8, 8:3) since they are in Christ, and Christ is always interceding for us. After all, it is not as if St. Paul has forgotten about us, as if he no longer prays for us now as he once prayed for the church in Philippi during his own lifetime.
This theological and biblical exposition is only to highlight the fact that to remember and tell the stories of the faithful men and women who have gone before us, is to remember the lives and tell the stories of our own family, our real family in fact (Mk 3:31-35, Matt 10:32-39). Thus, to study Church History is not only to understand how theology has developed over time, and how different communities have understood the deposit of our faith, but it is also to engage in family storytelling, in recalling the legacy of God’s people that is also our legacy, and that helps us to know who we are in Christ and how we fit into His plan of redeeming all of creation.
As such, the study of Church History should facilitate for us a retrieval of theological thinking from the past, which allows us to avoid the chronological snobbery that C.S. Lewis warned us of, as well as reminding us of the great theological drama, the grand and very real play in which we are intimately involved. Being involved in this “greatest story ever told” reminds us too of the ontological connection we have to all those saints who have preceded us; the brothers and sisters in Christ who in effect act as our spiritual forefathers and mothers.
Some Practical Application of Church History
If knowing Church History allows us to not only think along with past generations, but imaginatively enter into a shared story, what are some advantages we might gain from thinking about and living into our Christian heritage?
History as Wisdom
First, knowing Church History provides us a kind of wisdom that we otherwise could not have. As mentioned above, to avoid chronological snobbery, or the idea that we know better now merely because we are more technologically advanced, we must engage with the thought life of those that thought before us. The great thinkers of the Great Tradition have already tilled much of the intellectual soil with regards to general and special Revelation. Moreover, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, different generations struggle with different kinds of intellectual and spiritual battles. Sometimes thinkers of a previous generation, or even a much older generation, were able to solve certain problems that today we barely recognize, but that are still great cause for concern and crises.
For example, the nature of work is something we often don’t think about in our culture, but work, to include overwork, is a huge cause of spiritual and emotional problems in our 21st century lives. Secularism reduces work down to either “money making” or elevates it to “identity making.” In answer to this false dichotomy, reading something on a theology of work by one of the great Puritan theologians of the 17th century, especially the likes of Richard Baxter, for example, can give us incredible insight into how we should manage our life of work, to include our life of play and leisure. Examples could be easily multiplied.
Of course, one of the biggest areas of thought that Christians in the 21st century Western context must recapture is that of philosophy, and understanding the role philosophy, especially metaphysics (the study of what exists), has played in shaping our Christian worldview. For example, in contrast to Marxist philosophy, which saw all human thought as subject to, and entirely a product of, changes in socio-economic conditions, Christian thought, on the other hand, exists in a continuum with the past. It is a way of thinking that looks forward and backward, and is always aimed at synthesizing philosophical knowledge from the past for the present context. In this way, Christian philosophy is one way to think about God’s eternal truth, and articulate that Truth for the present day.
As G.K. Chesterton once quipped, and rightly so, the only true democracy is tradition, since it takes into account the opinions of the dead, as well as the living. It is in this sense that Christians are neither pure conservatives, nor pure progressives. We do not live in the past blindly, never bothering to advance our understanding of God, nor do we rush forward without carefully listening to the voices of our past. Rather, we take all the light of the past, and past tradition, and use it to illumine our path forward.
Historical People as Models of Virtue
Second, knowing Church History gives us concrete examples of great men and women of faith, many of whom are much closer to us in time and space than the biblical saints, and who by sharing in the sufferings of Christ and carrying out the Great Commission, act as true role models of virtue for us and our children. To not know the lives of men like: Boniface, William Tyndale, John Bunyan, David Livingstone, Jim Elliot, and Eric Liddell, or of women like: Perpetua, Catherine of Siena, Marie Durand, Mary Slessor, Corrie ten Boom, or Edith Stein, is to live an impoverished life of faith. These are the torchbearers who have carried the flame of faith on to our generation, as we must also carry the flame for the next. From them and from their example we can and should teach our children. Virtue building is a crucial aspect of our life in Christ, and as we subject our will to the Holy Spirit in order to becoming more like Christ, part of that submission can be emulating the lives of these great heroes of the faith.
In sum, this second domain of Christian knowledge seems more critical to embrace now than in previous generations. Especially as we find our culture split into two secular camps, the modernist and the post-modernist, each of which would label much, if not all, that has come before us as either barbaric, unscientific, and naive (the modernist), or as evil, unjust, and oppressive (the post-modernist). While the Church must accept some of these critiques as legitimate, meaning we must accept our history in its fullness, warts and all; still we must not fall into the trap of these two camps, and make generalizations that are simply not true. We must also embrace the great legacy the Church has left for us. I think we need it, and I believe especially that many young people today need to know they have a past history that goes far beyond just their own personal story, that they have a past that extends all the way back to the day of Pentecost, if not further.
Church History in this sense can supplement greatly our identity in Christ, for not only are we “in Christ” but we are in His body, the Church. But it is not only our identity as members of the Church that matters, for Hebrews 11:39-40 makes an incredible statement about the current existence of those who have served Christ before us, saying that they, the martyrs who have gone before us, are waiting for us so that they can receive their promised perfection! That means that we also have a responsibility to uphold the legacy passed on to us, for as we thrive in Christ, and as we endeavor for Him, so our spiritual forefathers and foremothers benefit from our actions. How or what exactly we affect in the lives of those who are already with the Lord I cannot say, but that the saints and martyrs share in our own life, as we also share in theirs, is clear. We are, after all, one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
I close with the words of St. Augustine on our future life with God and His people:
How beautiful and lovely are the dwellings of Thy house, Almighty God! I burn with longing to behold Thy beauty in Thy bridal-chamber…Oh Jerusalem, the holy city of God, dear bride of Christ, my heart loves thee, my soul has already sighed for thy beauty! … The King of kings is Himself in the midst of thee, and his children are within thy walls. There are they hymning choirs of angels, the fellowship of heavenly citizens. There is the wedding-feast of all who from this sad earthly pilgrimage have reached thy joys. There is the far-seeing choir of the prophets; there the company of the twelve apostles; there the triumphant army of innumerable martyrs and holy confessors. Full and perfect love reigns there, for God is all in all.