How Does History Matter?
I thought about calling this post “Does History Matter?” but immediately realized that the question is ridiculously rhetorical. I think it is reasonable to contend that the largest majority of thinking people would agree that history matters. How it matters is a completely different issue all together.
I’m specifically interested in how we approach the importance of history in relation to our religious beliefs and practices. As noted on my friend Sean’s blog I’m caught in a difficult pull between the church of the past and the church of the future. I see the problem as a choice between two ways of looking at church history. I’ll describe them as Perfect start-Fixed model vs. Good start-Improving model.
I think most people would agree that Jesus knew what he was doing when he called the 12 apostles and gave them the authority and direction to spread the gospel and build community amongst those who received the message. The New Testament is the testimony of that early mission and its’ outcomes in various places around the Mediterranean.
Perfect start-Fixed model
The first option, as I see it, is that what Jesus communicated to his Apostles and to the early church through prophetic and historical witness was the perfect start to the church. It described a fixed model through which God would continue to carry out His mission in the world. The perfect start included what can be found in the New Testament, but also includes the oral and written teachings of the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church Fathers (Tradition) as they continued to uphold the truth passed down to them through the church. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches uphold this understanding and believe that they have been given the mission of safe-guarding the truth handed down from generation to generation starting with Jesus and the Apostles.
Good start-Improving model
Another way of looking at it is that the church started off well, even Perfect. The New Testament records describe everything that is necessary for us to understand and practice Christian community. But that very early on, probably by the close of the apostolic age, the church moved steadily away from the truth revealed in and through Jesus and the Apostles. The Apostolic and Early Church Fathers are not reliable accounts of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and the manifestation of the church in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th century is an ever darkening image of the teachings of the New Testament church. It is only at the birth of the Protestant reformation that the church begins to return to her New Testament roots and through an ever improving understanding of Jesus and the Gospel the church will either return to a fully Biblical model (Protestant ideal) or even improve on the Good foundation of the Early Church (Emergent ideal).
Getting Back to History
So what is your take on the history of the church?
Taking a closer look at the history of the church has caused me to seriously question my Protestant assumptions about returning to a Biblical and Early Church model. I don’t think Protestants really take church history seriously enough. In fact one of my regrets from my college days is that they forced a year-long church history course into a two-week church history seminar. Clearly they were not concerned that their future ministers would be handicapped by a scant understanding of church history. Is it realistic to try to hurdle over 1500 years of history in order to get back to some kind of perfect ideal that could not even be preserved in communities connected directly to the Apostles. Or perhaps the perfect ideal was preserved but was sometimes expressed imperfectly through individual Christians. And perhaps it was this imperfect expression that caused Martin Luther and others to Protest. I just wonder whether the protest brought us closer to the truth or took us even further away! One of the many things that do concern me about that act of protest is the image it evokes in me of the aftermath – the church like a cracked glass bowl shatters into ever increasing shards – each trying to lay claim to their historical and biblical validity.