Upon completing the biography of Susanna Wesley, I found my appetite whet for understanding her historical context more. After continuing discussions with my husband, he pointed me to a book written by Mark A. Noll called Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Rather than focusing on a single point and time in the history of the Church, he takes a broad-sweeping approach, attempting to cover what he admits is an overview of his subjective perspective on twelve pivotal moments in the life of the Church universal. I am hoping a good read of this book will help me better appreciate specific times and places of church history.
I picked up the book tonight and read the introduction and was fascinated by the reasons he gave for studying the history of Christianity and think they might be important considerations for all of us. He says church history is relevant for us today because:
- It reminds us that Christianity has and always will be set in concrete, historical events and people. While Christianity is a religion, with dogmas, ethics, and an overall worldview, these principles do not come out of a vacuum. Rather, they are firmly established through actual, real-time people and events. For me, seeing Christianity through the lens of real people and real events helps build and ground my faith.
- Church history can help provide perspective on the interpretation of Scripture. This one caught me off-guard, given my Biola-instilled principles of hermeneutics. But Noll is on to something. He discusses how we can both learn from those who have gone before us, and their conclusions, as well as being reminded by their interpretative mistakes that we are equally vulnerable to such errors in our understanding. How might we be allowing our current context to cloud our interpretative lens?
- He further specifies how historical interpretations of Scripture can provide insight by calling us to study and learn from historical church interactions with cultural issues. For instance, we often wrestle in Western Christianity with our involvement with politics. A view of church history can provide concrete and various scenarios of how the church has wrestled through this in the past. While we may not be able to be governed by principles that apply in a black and white fashion to our unique issues, we have actual examples to look at and consider as we assess how to move forward in our current day. Wow! What a treasurable resource!
- Fourthly, church history can help remind us of what is essential to our faith and what should lie on the periphery. He says, “if we are able to isolate from past generations what was of crucial significance in the church’s mission, then we have a chance in the present to order our emotional and spiritual energies with discrimination — preserving our deepest commitment only for those aspects of Christian faith that deserve such commitment, and acting with greater toleration as we move from the center of the faith to its periphery.”
- Finally, church history serves to instill humility and gratitude and worship of God. In the study of church history, we see the heroes and heroines of our faith in all their glories and humanness. We see that all that we are today is built upon their preservation of the faith — and indeed, “the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). And yet their own follies, lusts, and mistakes remind us of the truth that it is not us but Christ who builds and sustains the church.
However much or little time affords me in the coming days to learn from Noll’s perspective, at the very least I am challenged to reconsider the resources I turn to when asking questions regarding the application of my faith today. Church history should not be considered the study of dry, boring details. Rather, it should fall in line with Scripture’s charge to walk not isolated and alone in our faith, but instead, surrounded by “the great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1).