Here and Now: Dr. Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
I recently had a conversation with an evangelical friend who asked me, “Why did you choose to study something like Church history?”
Now, this friend had gone to a reasonable seminary, seemed to be bright and alert, but was still amazed that I would have spent so much of my life studying something that he obviously regarded as being essentially useless. I asked him in return, “Didn’t you have to do classes in Church History in seminary?” In answering, it turned out that there was only one required course, which he had found utterly useless. When pressed on the subject, he explained that it was really a waste of time. In his view, it was a matter of the early Church being very similar to his current Bible studies; that simplicity was then lost and corrupted until the Reformers came along; in turn, the Reformation then morphed into dead denominationalism, until American and British evangelicals came along and rediscovered the truth in the last hundred years or so.
What is important is only the “here and now”.
Clearly, not all evangelicals hold this point of view, but many do. Moreover, many evangelicals, even if they have a more nuanced approach to Church history, conduct themselves as though they are the first generation of believers. Others, such as confessional Lutherans, conservative Reformed and high Church Anglicans have a tendency to look no further back than the 16th century and the work of Luther, Calvin and Cranmer.
I would like to suggest that all of this tends to fall into a category that C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield called “chronological snobbery”.
That is, as Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” Lewis goes on to counter this by essentially saying that not only the past (and the views held in the past) that should be examined, but also our certainty about our current views:
“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
For Church history this is especially true, not only on the basis of intellectual honesty, but also for a far more important reason – we run the risk of denying the Lordship of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Put simply, do we think that we are the first to call Jesus, “Lord”? Do we think that we are the first to know the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
No, we are not the first and, if the Lord tarries, we will not be the last to bear the name “Christian”. For over two thousand years untold millions have called Christ, “Lord”. For over two thousand years untold millions have sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For over two thousand years Christian scholars have studied, preachers have proclaimed, pastors have counseled, musicians have composed, missionaries have traveled, teachers have instructed… and they wish to share their wisdom and their struggles with us.
Now, did they all get it “right”? Most certainly not. Vast numbers, however, did get it “right”.
Today, for example, we tend to view the Church sociologically rather than theologically. It is the temper of our times. We speak of “church planting” and “worship centers”. Books are written advising us how to make first time visitors “feel comfortable”. We talk about succession planning for pastors as though they are corporate executives. None of this is necessarily bad or wrong, unless we lose sight of the theological nature of the Church – and the theological nature of the Church is rooted in history. The earliest views of the Church that you find in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers all the way through to the middle ages is not sociological, it is theological. For these early writers the Church is the creation of God that finds both its unity and its universality in the very person of Christ and in his lordship over the Church. Yet, the Church was (and is) also part of the work of the Holy Spirit. Begun at Pentecost, the Church was (and is) both the means and the effect of the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the Church, the Holy Spirit’s work is that of Christ’s ministry “in extension” – for it is Christ’s ministry of teaching, baptizing and discipling which the Holy Spirit works through the Church… and has done so for two thousand years.
So, I study Church history for a reason. I study it to look for the lordship of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit through two millennia, not merely in my own time. I look for those writers who, in their time, their place and within their lives had this lordship realized. Moreover, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, each built upon the work of yet others who came before them. I also realize that I’m not the first to undertake this life of faith and I also need the help of those who have gone before me. Because I believe that Christ is the Lord of the Church, I don’t believe that his lordship is limited to my time and place. I don’t believe it is limited to my denomination or association. I don’t believe it is limited to my country or my local church.
You see, our time is not so different from that of Ignatius of Antioch, or Augustine, or Benedict, or Luther, or Calvin, or Cranmer, or, indeed, that of Bonhoeffer and Barth. The Church’s need for a sense of continuity and foundations has been drawn to the forefront once again as we face what Malcolm Muggeridge called “the crumbling eggshell of Western civilization”. We too need a vision similar to Augustine’s of the City of God. We are as Luther, faced on every side with the “novelties” and “innovations” of our semi-pagan, semi-Christian age. It is only in finding the fullness and lordship of Christ as he dwells in and over his Church throughout all its history that that we may find assurance. It is this continuing vision of that eternal City of God – past, present, and future – that gives us confidence as pagans pound at the gates of secular society and as those who know only the “here and now” pound on the doors of the Church.
Duane W.H. Arnold