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10 Things You Should Know about the History of Christian Theology

History, according to one cynic, is nothing but “the succession of one d___ thing after another.” Unfortunately, many Christians would agree, although one hopes they wouldn't use precisely the same terminology! The fact is, people wonder why the history of Christian theology is worthy of our time and energy. Facts, dates, and dead people do not inspire much excitement, and many doubt the practical value of spending time on something that cannot be changed.

Alister McGrath has pointed out that “history is often the refuge of people who cannot cope with the present and find consolation in turning over the pages of the past in a wistful manner.” They are more comfortable discussing Augustine’s doctrine of God than their own. “Those who find theological self-disclosure embarrassing,” notes McGrath, “or who have no concern with the issue of truth, can thus retreat into the relative safety of reporting what others have said. A concern for history thus ultimately degenerates into a contempt for truth. But it need not; indeed, it should not” (“Engaging the Great Tradition,” in Evangelical Futures [Baker, 2000], 146-47).

So why should we study the history of what the church has believed? What value does it have for us today? The question deserves an answer.

(1) We read in Acts 1:1 that the Gospel of Luke was an account of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” The book of Acts is the account of what Jesus continued to do and teach through his church. Although Acts concludes on a triumphant note (28:31), Jesus has not ceased to act. The history of the church and the development of its understanding of doctrine is nothing less than the final chapter of the book of Acts. Jesus is no less alive today, working through and on behalf of his people, than he was in the days of Peter and Paul. Although we do not have an inspired record of this activity, we can and should learn much from the ongoing manifestation of Jesus in his body, the church.

(2) The importance of historical theology is also due to the fact that it is, in a manner of speaking, a study of the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Abraham Kuyper, in speaking of Scripture, makes this point:

“It [Scripture] works also as a living seed that is sown, and which, according to the nature of the soil, germinates and brings forth fruit. Hence the task of the theologian is by no means ended when he has formulated, assimilated and reproduced the content of the Word in its state of rest; it is his duty, also, to trace the working of this principium, when the fountain is flowing. After it was finished, the Holy Scripture was not hidden in some sacred grotto, to wait for the theologian to read and to make scientific exhibition of its content; no, it was carried into the world, by reading and recitation, by teaching and by preaching, in apologetic and in polemic writings. And once brought into the world, it has exerted an influence upon the consciousness-form of the circle which it entered” (Principles of Sacred Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968], pp. 571-72).

Thus when we speak of the development of doctrine we have in mind the interpretation and re-interpretation of Scripture by individuals. The truths of the Word never change. They do, however, undergo formulation, attack, re-formulation, and so on through time. We must always distinguish between divine truth as it is in itself (the Bible), and the gradual apprehension of that truth in the course of human experience.

(3) Doctrinal statements and creedal affirmations have played an essential role in the life of both individual believers and the corporate church. By them we assert what we believe and how our beliefs distinguish us from those who we regard as being in error. Yet no one ever produced a doctrinal statement or confession of faith in isolation. So much of what we bring to the Bible (be it conscious or not) has come to us from past generations. Walgrave thus concludes:

“One cannot thoroughly understand the present state and convictions of another if one is ignorant about the influences and circumstances of his individual history and the way he reacted to them. In the same way there is no serious chance that the present state of a doctrine shall be understood if one refuses to follow patiently the historical path that leads to it” (Unfolding Revelation [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972], 4).

(4) Historical Theology is also the study of the manifold work of the Holy Spirit. To deny the validity and value of church history and the theological developments within it is to deny the ongoing process of divine illumination. Canonical revelation ceased with the writing of the book of Revelation. But the Spirit continues to illumine the hearts and minds of those for whom he is Teacher. To deny the importance of studying this process is to refuse to acknowledge in the past what we so jealously claim for ourselves in the present. Who would dare suggest that the Holy Spirit ceased his teaching ministry in a.d. 95 only to have resumed it in this present age?

(5) Related to the above is the truth relating to spiritual gifts. As Christians we should strive to profit from all the gifts graciously bestowed on the entire body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has ministered and edified the church in the past through the charismata no less than he does in the present. The fruit of these gifts is available to us through the diligent study of the lives and literature of such great saints as Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Spurgeon, and others. We are diligent to heed the instruction and exhortation of contemporary teachers and leaders. Why, then, do we arrogantly ignore those who have taught and led with equal insight in centuries past?

(6) The history of the church and its theology is the record of divine providence. The Bible loudly asserts that God is sovereign and Lord over all of history. He is actively and effectively and for his own glory directing the course of human experience such that all things will be consummated in Christ Jesus (see Eph. 1:9-12; cf. also Dan. 2:19-23; Heb. 1:3). To study historical theology is to study God at work! History is, in point of fact, the redemptive strategy of God. Consider the words of the psalmist (Ps. 77:11-13): “I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God?” In that light, John Piper writes:

“The aim of providence in the history of the world is the worship of the people of God. Ten thousand stories of grace and truth are meant to be remembered for the refinement of faith and the sustaining of hope and the guidance of love. . . . Those who nurture their hope in the history of grace will live their lives to the glory of God” (The Legacy of Sovereign Joy [Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000], 18).

(7) Through the careful and diligent study of historical theology we are alerted to the destructive heresies and pernicious tactics of Satan in his never-ending effort to destroy what God is building. Satan is ever-active, sowing the seeds of false doctrine and distortion of the truth of Scripture. We must acknowledge that “there have been periods in the history of the church and its theology when seeing the hand of God maintaining it in truth is a sheer act of faith. There are other periods or chapters of the story when it takes little faith to see God at work restoring truth” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 22). The study of historical theology will protect us from dangerous theological paths, for no doctrine of the Word has come down to us untouched. Virtually all interpretations have been tried and tested and have emerged in the form of confessional standards. Again, Kuyper is helpful:

"These utterances of his [the student's] Church do not consist of the interpretation of one or another theologian, but of the ripest fruit of a spiritual and dogmatic strife, battled through by a whole circle of confessors in violent combat, which enlightened their spiritual sense, sharpened their judgment, and stimulated their perception of the truth" (576).

Thus, by being attentive to the theological wars that have been waged in ages past, and by being sensitive to the doctrinal and creedal formulations that emerged from these struggles, we shall be protected from those errors into which Satan would love to lead us.

(8) Historical Theology is also the study of people. Three considerations are important here. First, the study of historical theology reveals to us both faith and failure from which we can learn much. As the exploits of those listed in Hebrews 11 provide an example of faith and the rewards of obedience, so too the lives of Christian men and women during the past 1900 years serve to set an example for us of godliness and greatness.

But, secondly, we must also be careful in how we appropriate the insights of great individuals of the past. We should never challenge someone’s evangelical credentials simply because he/she fails to agree completely with an Augustine or Luther or Edwards or Wesley. We who are evangelicals must always view historical tradition as our servant, not our master. Our consciences are ultimately bound only to Scripture.

Finally, while historical tradition is not an infallible guide to biblical orthodoxy, it helps us meet the challenge of radical individualism. In other words, it alerts us to be cautious, even suspicious, of the novel interpretation, of the theological innovator who espouses a view or a call to action utterly disconnected from anything taught in or believed by the church in centuries preceding his/her own. We are thereby safeguarded, notes McGrath, “from the shallow individualism of theologians for whom innovation and ‘creativity’ – to use a word that has often come to mean little more than a determination to abandon traditional viewpoints – are of prime importance. If an evangelical theologian confronts us with a demand to ‘believe me!’ when offering us a radical new teaching, we can respond with an obvious challenge: Why has no one believed this before? Why, throughout two thousand years of faithful Christian reflection, has this doctrine never been taken seriously? Such a critical approach is liberating, as it frees us from the authoritarianism of maverick preachers and writers” (157).

(9) Historical Theology is crucial because of what it shows us concerning the emergence, development, refinement, and ultimate impact of Christian belief. Why is this crucial? Because of three truths.

First, belief matters. What people believe affects how they live. “Bad theology,” said J. I. Packer, “hurts people.” We simply must devote ourselves to understanding what people in the church have come to believe, why, and how it affected them then and how it affects us now.

Second, some beliefs matter more than others. Some doctrines, such as that of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the nature of salvation are worthy of debate and precise thinking. Heresy is not always a bad word, for it identifies what is false that we might see and embrace what is true.

But third, sometimes some beliefs matter too much. The disturbing thing about historical theology is the revelation of how Christians have done un-Christian things to each other in defense of doctrines that, in the ultimate scheme of things, don’t matter all that much. Olson gives one example:

“Without in any way denigrating the Protestant Reformers and their great reforming work of the sixteenth century, I would argue that their failure to unite due largely to disagreements about interpretations of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper is a scandal and a blot on the history of Protestant theology. Of course Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other Reformers disagreed about other things as well, but that doctrinal issue seems to have been the all-consuming point of division that prevented Protestant unity” (17).

That isn’t to say that the nature of the Lord’s Supper isn’t important. It is only to say that it isn’t as important as the unity that is often sacrificed to maintain one’s distinctive view. Historical Theology alerts us to the comparative value of Christian doctrines and warns us against the excessive dogmatism on secondary issues that so often wreaks havoc in the body of Christ.

(10) The study of historical theology also “demonstrates how the interpretation of the Bible was governed, often to an uncomfortable extent, by cultural and philosophical assumptions” (McGrath, 149). In taking note of this we can avoid the danger of thinking that “evangelicals can read Scripture and reflect on it in a detached, objective, and culture-free manner” (149).

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