What are church historians good for?
September 5, 2014
I'm in the process of reading an excellent manuscript on Martin Luther, of which I hope to say more at a later time. Recently, I also finished reading an exceptionally fine study of the Westminster Standards by John Fesko. Both books have prompted me to reflect a bit on the benefits we receive from the work of good church historians such as these. It seems to me that good church historians typically avoid two temptations and, more positively, make at least two contributions to Christian theology and life.
First, the temptations good church historians avoid:
(1) Good church historians avoid the temptation of reducing the figures and events of church history to cheerleaders for a favorite contemporary Christian doctrine, experience, or theme. It's an easy and far too common trap for historians to look down the well at an Augustine, a Luther, or an Edwards and see their own reflection in the water.
(2) Good church historians avoid the temptation of refusing to draw instruction from the figures and events of church history. Historians can be so committed to locating their subjects in their discrete historical contexts that they fail to remember that their subjects are participants in one common human history and therefore that they are able to serve as lessons or warnings for those of us who do not live within the same historical moment.
Second, the contributions good church historians make:
(1) Good church historians help us appreciate the social, intellectual, economic, and political contexts within which historical figures and events lived and occurred and within which alone they have their meaning. We will not be served well in reading the history of theology if, for example, we think that Jonathan Edwards's views about divine sovereignty were the same as those of the Westminster Assembly or if we think that Luther's views about the normal Christian life are the same as those of contemporary evangelicals. Good church historians paint a picture with sufficient contextual nuance to help us avoid such misunderstandings.
(2) By providing contextualized portraits of the figures and events of church history, good church historians thus enable us to learn from those who lived the Christian life and made the good confession at times and places that are different from our times and places. And, frankly, it is often the points of discontinuity between earlier Christians and contemporary Christians that prove most instructive as those discontinuities call into question our untested assumptions and parochial biases, and invite us into what is, in many cases, a more capacious vision of life before God.
The only other thing to add is that recent years have witnessed the publication of a spate of excellent books by fine church historians on figures such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth, etc. And these books not only offer the benefits noted above, they also acquaint us with these historical figures in such a way that we can read them for ourselves with understanding and profit. So take up and read! And the next time you have the opportunity to do so, buy your friendly neighborhood church historian a pint (or a glass of sweet tea, or whatever...).