Why Study Church History?
Before we launch into a semester long study, it is reasonable to ask the question: why? Why study church history.
There are several answers that come to mind, including the fact that it is simply interesting.
However, not everyone finds history fascinating. So we look for a more important reason, a reason that is hard to put into a slogan.
Surely it's related to the well known aphorism of George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. However, there is more to it than that. There is also the aspect that when we go beyond the facts (i.e., that the early church declared some sacred truth, such as the trinity) and ask why it did so, we will have to dig deep into scripture and theology (and sometimes politics) to understand the reasons.
So, I would say we study church history:
- To avoid the heresies of the past.
- To understand the theology behind actions taken by the church.
- To understand how decisions were made in context.
- Because it is interesting.
In this first class, before getting into the nitty-gritty, let's look at some anecdotal and circumstantial evidence.
The Nicene Creed
In AD 325, a council of more than 300 bishops met in Nicaea, a small town about forty-five miles from Constantinople (Istanbul).
Presently we will have much to say about this council, but for now let's look at the council's product, the Nicene Creed (as originally formulated):
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. And we believe in the Holy Spirit.
Before looking more closely at the creed, we should agree on a definition. The Catholic Encyclopedia reads:
[A] creed is a summary of the principal articles of faith professed by a church or community of believers.
So by creed, we mean a sort of minimal doctrine of our faith. If you don't affirm a creed, then you are outside the pale of orthodoxy; you are an apostate church.
Now suppose we had no knowledge of the Nicene Creed, and were charged to develop a creed that summarizes our core beliefs. What might we include? Would we emphasize, as the council of Nicaea did:
begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father
Careful: I am not asking whether we agree with this statement, obviously we do. I am asking if we would consider making such a big wordy deal about it?
It is plausible that we would not. We would probably say that Jesus is/was fully God and fully man and leave it at that.
Why did the council of Nicaea make such a big deal of this? Because they were convened to address this precise question, to face the challenge of a widespread heresy (Arianism, of which we will have much more to say) that denied the substance, eternality and ultimately the divinity of Christ.
In short, we have this dynamic:
- The early church faced a heresy wherein the true nature of Christ was denied.
- A council was convened to address this heresy.
- A creed was developed to teach the proper view on the nature of Christ.
Christians now view this doctrine as obvious, so much so that the emphasis placed upon it by the Nicene Creed seems a little overboard.
However, any puzzlement on the emphasis of the Nicene Creed vanishes if we understand the historic context. That is one reason why we study church history.
By the way, is there anything missing from the Nicene Creed that we would add? Yes, one obvious omission: a more explicit statement of the doctrine of the trinity. We will find out as we study why an explicit reference to the trinity is not in this creed.
Is there anything we would remove? Well, one denomination would generally (but not universally) say yes. And they would be mistaken.
Baptists and the Nicene Creed
We don't say the Nicene Creed in our (Baptist) church. Why? I’m not really sure, but there are several possible reasons.
- It can lead to meaningless, rote recital. This is certainly true. Saying it every week would no doubt lead to many saying without even thinking about the words. However, this argument cannot be used as a reason for never reading it as a body.
- It smacks of "high church" ritualism. Again, it can be used ritualistically. But the fact that it is used by the Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. does not detract from the truth that it was written at a time when there really was one catholic church.
- It contains doctrinal error. Specifically it states:
We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
To many this sounds of a baptism that is far more than a commemoration of Christ's work and a public testament of a believer's faith. However, even for Baptists, this is no reason to discard the creed—for the creed is so general in what is states regarding baptism that all major denomination—even Baptists—can conform their doctrine to it. After all, in scripture we have:
38Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:38-39)
And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.' (Acts 22:16)
So however any denomination reconciles these and other passages with their view of baptism, they can apply the same reasoning (regardless of its validity) to the Nicene Creed.
In short, there is no reason for Baptists to reject, or even maintain reluctance towards, the Nicene Creed.
We stated that a reason for studying church history is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The Nicene Creed addressed the denial of the substance and eternality of Christ. Are such heresies a thing of the distant past?
The doctrines of the Jehovah's Witnesses include:
- God is a solitary being who alone has existed from all eternity.
- There is no trinity.
- Jesus is a creature, the beginning of God's creation, and the agent in the creation of all other things.
- The Holy Spirit is not a person but God's active force in the world.
The doctrines of the LDS (Mormons) include:
- "God himself was once as we now are, and is an exalted man" Brigham Young, The Journal of Discourses, Volume VI, p. 3.
- "In the beginning the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it." The Journal of Discourses, Vol. VI, p. 3.
- "You have got to learn to be gods yourselves and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you", The Journal of Discourses, Vol. VI, p. 4.
- "Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God! I say this is a very strange God anyhow...all are to be crammed into one God." E.F. Parry, Joseph Smith's Teaching, p. 55.
- In the Mormon Catechism for Children, you find this question (13) and answer:
Q: Are there more Gods than one?
A: Yes, many.
- "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's", Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants, CXXX, 22; CXXXI, 7)
In both Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism we find doctrines that are completely at odds with the Nicene Creed. The heresies of the past are dealt with and then forgotten, only to be reborn. There are many examples of this; we will also see how New Age mysticism is a rehash of another heresy (Gnosticism) present in the early church.
The Canon of Scripture
I once received this email:
I read your blog occasionally, and it struck me that you might be someone who could at least point me in the right direction. The basic question I have is why aren't writings from Martin Luther added as part of the biblical canon?
This is a wonderful and striking question. For no matter how devoted we might be to the teachings of Luther, we do not advocate elevating his writings to the level of inspired and inerrant scripture.
The writer's question is: but why not?
How would you answer that question, fellow Protestant?
I submit that the proper answer requires an understanding of church history. Without some knowledge of the church arrived at the canon of scripture, I would not know how to respond beyond a simple minded "because obviously we shouldn’t."
To flesh this out just a little, it is very valuable to ask questions about the canon. The bible contains sixty-six books. Some fair questions are:
- Is scripture inerrant?
- Are our translations of scripture inerrant?
- How did we come up with the sixty-six books? What was the process?
- Is it possible that we omitted some books that should have been included, or included some books that don't really belong?
- How is all of this connected with and consistent with the cherished Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone?)
A final brief example of the need to study church history is the Reformation. Ask a modern Protestant why there was a Reformation, and you are likely to get an answer centered upon the sale of indulgences.
This is not true. Luther's 95 theses were primarily related to corruption in the church, corruption that the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges.
The Reformation was not about corruption, for corruption can be addressed without schism. The Reformation was about irreconcilable doctrinal differences, primarily on the doctrine of justification, or how a sinful man is made acceptable before a Holy God.
Today many Protestants do not understand the doctrine of justification as taught by the reformers, and consequently entire denominations have drifted back to the point where their position on man's role in his own salvation is closer to the Roman Catholic view than it is to the views of Luther, Calvin, and other reformers. At the same time, and ironically, many have actually become more "anti-Catholic", emphasizing not the disputes which resulted in the schism (such as sola fide) but secondary issues like Marian doctrine.
As Protestants, we need to understand the real reasons for the Reformation or else erroneously concede that it was much ado about nothing.