Making Church History Relevant for Pastors & Students (Part 1)

From Faith Pulpit, Summer 2015. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

Most of us took our church history classes1 in Bible college or seminary (or both) because we had to complete another requirement to graduate. Of course, there were some famous episodes within the last 2,000 years of Christian history that we wanted to know about. And we were told, as the common maxim goes: “Those who do not learn from the errors of [church] history are destined to repeat them.” Also, I remember one revered seminary professor at Faith telling us that the department of church history was always the last in a theological institution to turn liberal. If that is the case, surely there must be something important in those historical classes that will help us remain true to our Biblical heritage.

The challenge is how to discern what those lessons might be in the midst of all those religious figures, civil leaders, dates, locations (mostly European), and events. Sometimes students get lost in all the details of the (admittedly lengthy) narrative. A legitimate question to ask of church history is: How does knowledge of this material matter to my life and ministry? My response is that submitting a given event or period of church history to a prescribed model provides a helpful way to answer this question.

Models

I have found that models can help greatly in creating clarity. In my understanding, models are guides that ask the same series of pertinent questions of any number of historical situations, identifiable groups, or intellectual viewpoints. By way of example, I have used one model (not my own) when I have taught Comparative Religions classes. The Religious Model2 I use for that class helps provide understanding, gives a basis of comparison, and illuminates similarities between widely differing traditions such as Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Christianity. Briefly, this Religious Model asks of each tradition:

  1. What is the chief problem in the world or in human existence?
  2. What is the ideal state or goal which would alleviate the problem?
  3. What is the method by which a person can solve the problem or pass into the desired state?

Of course, in this subject we have to consider many factors (e.g., commitment level, diversity within one tradition). Models provide teachers and students a vantage point from which to view contrasting ideas and similar concerns.

Authorities

In regard to church history I have developed my own model to help make sense of the various events in church history and relate them to our contemporary situation. First, I centered on a theme or idea to focus upon throughout history. While many options exist, I chose the concept of authorities. This concept is important because it identifies those who made significant decisions and how they justified momentous actions. Various influential leaders tried to justify many questionable and outright wicked actions (e.g., the Crusades), and the authorities they used (“God wills it”) were compelling to great numbers of people.

The changes people made throughout church history were not always negative from our Baptist perspective. For instance, during the Reformation period some widely diverse groups of people existed who were neither part of the Catholics nor the Reformers. (I call this broad group the “Sectarians.”) Some of these sects came to the conclusion that infant baptism, the dominant practice for nearly 1,000 years prior to that time, was illegitimate. These believer baptism sects, called Anabaptists by their enemies, were a subset of the Sectarian movement. While their numbers were small compared to the Lutherans and the followers of Zwingli and Calvin, the authorities the Sectarians used to justify their change to believer baptism were compelling enough that many were willing to be persecuted, tortured, exiled, and/or martyred at the hands of both the Reformers and the Catholics.

The RAMHI

The construct I developed to feature the idea of authorities in church history, for lack of a better title, is the Rathbun Authority Model for Historical Inquiry (RAMHI). I believe it can be used in both secular as well as religious history. Taking a segment, event, or movement in history, it asks the following questions:

  1. Who was in charge?
  2. What did he/she/they want to change or keep the same?
  3. What authorities did he/she/they use to justify their actions?
  4. Why were those authorities convincing to those who followed?

A variation of this last question would be “Why were those authorities not convincing to those who resisted?”

With this model we have a basis on which to examine various events in church history. Principles emerge that relate to the modern day. Practices or patterns that religious leaders have used over the centuries are still being used today: power of tradition, power of personality, power of military might, power of compelling argument, power of intimidation, power of ultimate concerns, power of past precedent, promise of God’s endorsement/authorization, promise of material benefit and/or wealth, promise of eternal benefit, and so on it goes. Religious beliefs are a potent force. Some people today are still willing to commit heinous crimes justified by the religious authority they accept. The news on TV and the internet are full of such instances. Can we identify the authorities that leaders have used over the years? I think we can.

At this point, we should acknowledge that though the confessional statements of most Christian denominations place a great emphasis on the Bible as their authority, it is naïve to think that a Bible reference at the end of a statement settles the entire issue. Often other concerns weigh more heavily, such as tradition3 or power. In church history by the height of papal power in the eleventh century, “Christian” leaders (i.e., the popes) were far removed from the New Testament era theologically. Their decisions affected the fate of nations and kings, and often their motivations were anything but pure. The Bible was an afterthought. Often a leader used convincing authorities to justify to others an action he had already decided to do.

(Tomorrow: Examples and conclusions.)

Notes

1 “Church history” is the common way to refer to this area of study. I prefer, however, the term “history of Christianity.” While both options have weaknesses, using “church history” frequently compels the teacher/writer to acknowledge that the “church” was not often demonstrating true Christian or Biblical concerns in a given time period. Likewise, I am hesitant to concede that the recognized “Christian” institutions that had so much interest in secular, civil, and worldly pursuits were “churches” in the proper sense at all. However, since “church history” is the more familiar term, I will use it in this article.

2 This model is found in several sources. The one I have is T. William Hall, et. al., Religion: An Introduction (San Francisco: Harper, 1985).

3 Note Richard A. Muller’s claim concerning those in the Reformed tradition who laid its theological foundation before Calvin: “All of these writers held to the Reformation assumption of the priority of scripture over tradition as the sole, absolute norm for theology,” in “John Calvin and Later Calvinism: The Identity of the Reformed Tradition,” ch. 11 in The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, David Bagchi and David Steinmetz, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 131. I am not refuting Muller’s basic claim. He is unquestionably an outstanding historian. However in every tradition cracks in the foundation can appear. In the reference I made to infant baptism in the Reformation previously, all of the Reformers of whatever persuasion (including all in the Reformed tradition) prioritized the tradition of infant baptism without an explicit example from the New Testament or a direct command, which also violated their own regulative principle for how they (the Reformed) would make decisions in regard to worship based on tradition.

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