"As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard a pitter patter of feet coming toward her..." (C S Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Does Church History Matter?

In a so called unprecedented age, where all of Christianity is re-inventing itself, and all of Christian doctrine is up for re-writing, one must ask the question "Does church history matter?" (Just to write this almost makes me cringe at how unbelievably near-sighted my generation has become!)

If we say 'yes it matters' too emphatically, the response will be "Why are you Protestants then?" Didn't Luther radically depart from centuries of theological teaching. One common criticism against Luther (and the Reformation) was "Can you alone be right and the whole world be wrong?" And, when Luther talks about Sola Scriptura, isn't he saying Scripture is all that matters?
A few things about Luther. First, his Sola Scriptura argument was not that Scripture is the only authority for the church, but that Scripture alone is the final authority for the church. According to Luther, there can be, indeed should be, lesser authorities, including pastors, doctors, and theologians of the past. Also, Luther himself was not a "My Bible and me" would-be-theologian. He was extremely well-versed in both Scripture (in which he earned a doctorate) AND church history. Luther did not see himself as departing from all of church history, but that part which strayed from Biblical faith. He would often use church history to defend his arguments, as did Calvin and all those who followed. Calvin himself was so well versed in Augustine that he would quote lengthy sections from his works from memory.
Now, having said that, here is the value of church history. I am one person. I read my Bible and come to certain conclusions based on what I know of the historical and textual context. You (my reader) are another person who does the same. For us to converse with each other may help us to see blindspots in each others thinking. What if we could multiply that by, say...a few million others throughout all generations of Christian history from every diverse background. Also, when I read the Bible, I find it helpful to consult an expert every so often, like a mature Christian friend or pastor. What if I could hear what theologians, philosophers, monks, pastors, and scholars have said about something for say...two thousand years? It is possible that we will discover something totally new, something that all of church history was wrong about, and we alone have discovered. It is possible, but not probable.
Church history is not authoritative in that it can tell us contrary to what Scripture tells us (in such case Scripture always wins), but it is authoritative in that it tells us what men and women (far more smart, far more faithful, and far more godly than I!) have thought of Scripture from generation to generation. Many of whom lost their lives because of their belief in it.
So, maybe instead of re-writing all of our Christian doctrine in this unprecedented age of reinventing the church (again cringing), we should humbly dialogue with the few million friends who went before and see if they have something to offer?