History Q & A

Question: Why study history?  

It seems that i have made a 180 degree turn.  I think the discipline is vital, perhaps even necessary to doing ministry.  Here’s why in a “Q & A” format.

Answer:  The study of history is beneficial b/c in it we recognize our finitude, and we need our other “body” parts.  Simply put, our ecclesiology/theology of ministry teaches us that the church of old is part of the universal church, and as such we learn and can benefit from them as much as we can from reading Boyd, Piper (hmm . . .), Sanders, Barth, or any more recent theologian, denomination, etc.

Question from Evangelical/Protestant:Why don’t we look to Scripture only, since it is our only infallible guide?

Answer:  Infallible, yes.  Only, no.  What is interesting about this question  is that the reformation & evangelicalism were both founded on this idea of Scripture alone will preserve us from error.  To bring out why i think this idea is misguided, let’s look at history briefly.  Protestants proudly ignore history, but their position has HISTORICAL FOUNDATIONS!  Both are influenced by humanism (interestingly, Luther studied under Occam [eg Occam’s razor].  hmm . . Could the protestant reformation be influenced by “unbiblical ideas?”) who said to focus on the “original sources.”  I think that you would agree with me that from a historical perspective, their view hasn’t kept them from error.  At this point refer to point #1 above again.

Question from scholar:  Using history to prove history’s value is circular reasoning.  Can you justify the use of history biblically/theologically? 

Answer:  The other main reason i will give for why this is important in addition to the post and #1/2 is that, theologically speaking, our faith is HISTORICAL in nature.  While this seems like a bit of a “duh” statement, i think that it bears a little pondering. 

Obviously, God acted in history in Biblical times (eg Exodus, Pentecost), but what many don’t often consider is that through the INCARNATION Jesus swapped His nature with ours for our salvation when considering history.  Where this point intersects with our discussion is that as such Jesus can continue his ministry through his church (of holy & blameless “conduits”) to build His Kingdom.  His work in the world is synergistic in nature (he cooperates with us; eg 1 Cor 6:2, 3, 17, the importance of intercessory prayer [2 Chr 7:14, Eze 2:30-32, Ex 32:10-14]).  

The implication of all this is hopefully clear now.  CK sums it up in his syllaubs like this:  “Our theology of ministry teaches us that the ministry of Jesus Christ is not just confined to 1st century Judea, but also to the work of the church today.  This has been true as well in regard to the church that ministered between the times of the apostles and our present situation.”  We study the history of the church to see how the historical church tried to cooperate with Jesus in His ministry.  How was it successful?  How did it fail?  This understanding offers us warning signs about what to avoid and what to focus on.

At this point you might be thinking: don’t we get that from Scripture?  My answer is yes and no.  Yes, the overarching principles are there, but God was working in the 1st cenury Greco-Roman-Jewish culture during the writing of the Bible.  On the negative though, we don’t see how God worked in the world during the Enlightenment, Biblical criticism, the Inquisition, Sacerdotalism, and many other things throughout history in Scripture. 

However, when we take the incarnation and its benefits seriously we get both:  using the objective interpretive historical lens of Scripture we can “exegete” today’s (& the past’s) church & culture to see “What God is Doing in the World Today.”

The church is not supposed to focus on being culturally relevant.  It should focus on Jesus Christ and what He has done, is doing, and will do.  He is our guide.  His work is worthy of our finest efforts to discern, understand and apply.


12 responses to “History Q & A

  1. Derek,

    Good considerations. I think that your best argument came at the first. The rest of what you said really doesn’t add much to the conversation for me. Simply stating that the church from post first century to present is an extension of the body is a good way to conceptualize and remind us that we need all parts of the body to be healthy and to learn from.

    One of the reasons that I ask about Scripture only, and maybe even your concluding statement betrays your lived theology, is that focusing only on Jesus Christ, since he is our guide, seems to be primarily through the NT. Certainly we see Christ working through the Church, but not nearly as objectively or clearly as when looking to the gospels.

    Here’s what got me thinking on this. As I have been exegeting Matthew 15 (first section) the last few weeks, I have realized that the back story for what was going on in that confrontation with the Pharisees was one that we saw again in the reformation. Jesus was confronting six hundred years of the tradition of the elders being passed down, which began right after Babylonian captivity occurred. And what did Jesus do to confront them? He turned their attention away from their traditions and back to God’s word. What did Martin Luther do when he was confronting 1600 years of church history and tradition? He pointed them back to the Scriptures and implored his opponents to engage in discussion with him, showing him where his exegesis was wrong. Thus, it got me thinking that I am willing to bet that we could probably find every mistake that the church has made in the last 2000 years somewhere in the actions of Israel or the Pharisees. And that really, if we wanted to know what not to do, then we need not look any farther than these men who so adequately got it wrong and to the One who so adequately got it right.

    Thus, hear what I am not saying. I am not saying that we should throw out church history. In fact, I am all for it. Really, all I am doing here is thinking out loud. Pondering with you. And hopefully in the process brother, we will learn from each other and grow. As always, I appreciate your heart, mind, and soul and have the greatest respect for you in the world.


  2. Derek,

    Even though you have not had time to respond to the previous post by me, which may not require a response anyway, I have thought more on this topic and here’s what I think. Basically, I did one of those things where I debate with myself. The conversation is facinating for me, but it’s sad because no one else gets to engage in it. 🙂 Anyway.

    As I think about it, while I think that we could just look to scripture and get everything that we could need for being the Church, one of the reasons we are so keenly aware of what the Church should and should not be is because we have the failures of the church from the past. Thus, I think I am back to what I said in my original post here. That I cannot separate myself from my awareness of church history enough to actually know if Scripture would ever be enough. Though, theoretically, it should be. Great talking to you amigo.


  3. Aaron,

    i will get to this later . . . I have to finish my faith and reason paper in the Medival church by sat, and i am behind. Unless i can’t resist, i will catch up on saturday.

  4. Hey brother,

    I think I know where you are going with these thoughts, but I must say that it is crucial to be culturally relevant.

    I have been known, myself, to respond generally to terms or phrases that carry negative connotations; which is what I think you are doing as well.

    Being culturally relevant can mean to some people to compromise.

    Not in my opinion however.

    It is as you said. Our focus should be on Jesus the Christ.

    It is my opinion that if our focus is on him, then we will naturally be relevant to our culture as Jesus was to his.

    But more than being culturally relevant — which is muy importante — we should be creating with God the future that is before us like a blank canvas that sits before a master artist.

    It was wonderful hanging with you, Derek.

    You really bless my life!


  5. Derek,

    I have thought more about your post and have realized something about the answer to your second question. There are two fallacies that I see there. One, you pose a straw man. The question I asked was, “Can Scripture be enough for us?” I am not coming from the reformation. You give us a look at history and tell us, “Could the protestant reformation be influenced by ‘unbiblical ideas’?” Yes, I’m sure it could be, but I am not the protestant reformation. I am not coming from the protestant reformation. I am coming from my own thinking, my own theology, my own understanding of how God has chosen to work within human history. Thus, you set up a straw man, which is incredibly easy to knock down.

    Second, your argument is a red harring. It does not actually answer the question, “Can Scripture be enough?” You give us an answer that includes instances when Scripture appeared to not be enough, which was really people not living out its implications effectively and consistently. However, the question really is asking about possibility. Is it possible that Scripture could be enough? And maybe I should revise it to, “Should Scripture be enough?” In which case, I would say that it should be. While it is good to know about church history, and I have conceded this prior to this moment, I will still argue that Scripture should be enough, and including a comment about how people have failed to live that out effectively in the past is as flimsy of an argument as the non-Christian who says that Christians cannot be God’s chosen means for representation because there are so many hypocrites.

    Thanks for the interaction Derek. I look forward to seeing you when I come down.


  6. Aaron:

    I want you to know that that post wasn’t directly or solely for you (i have other readers, i hope!), so i regret that you took it that way. I was hoping to hit a wide audience with my post. However, “zeroing” in on your thoughts could be engaging on this topic. But please look at your criticism using this caveat to hopefully elucidate what you are thinking here. Here we go.

    “I am not coming from the protestant reformation. I am coming from my own thinking, my own theology, my own understanding of how God has chosen to work within human history. Thus, you set up a straw man, which is incredibly easy to knock down.”

    This is a very modern statement aaron, which reflects the ideals of the Enlightenment. What is ironic about this optimism (unfounded?) is that it was held by people like Harnack and others who reduced Christianity down to merely ethics/morality. While i don’t think you are going down that path, it does raise valid questions about the soundness of understanding the individual as the authority in defining, understanding, and living the faith. I assume that you would argue that it is not you, but Scripture, that defines the faith. However, i see this as simplistic, mainly becasue Scripture is to be interpreted to be understood, which brings us to the realm of authority. This inescapably takes us to the role of tradition.

    Also, your very individualistic stance here was born out of the Medieval era (this is still, to a degree, a relatively new thought in Western History), which culminated, at least in the religious sphere, in the PROTESTANT REFORMATION. So, in a sense, i disagree with you. Your view is birthed right out of the reformation, whether you see it as such. Your attempts to distance yourself from the movement fail, because you are birthed out of the fruit of that movement. You yourself have rightly said that you cannot divorce yourself from Church history when you think b/c you were born out of it (see your October 13th response). To be able to do so completely would be equivalent to being able to think theologically completely objectively, without your biases coming in. I think that you would agree that this is not possible. This insight in itself provides another great reason for studying history: it provides us with an understanding of our presupps, so that (drum roll) we can understand Scripture better.

    Regarding your second inquiry i have much to say but i must be done for now. Let me say one thing though. On what do you base your claim that “Scripture should be enough?” To me you might be in a dilemma here, becasue you can not soundly use theology/Scripture to prove this. It would be circular reasoning wouldn’t it? Interestingly, to advance this point Aaron you would have to cite sources, evidence, or arguments that are a part ofin addition to other disciplines, HISTORY. I might be misunderstanding you, but if i am reading you correctly you have painted yourself into a corner here.

    Aaron thanks for the thoughts here. I hope our discussion can continue to be passionate but irenic as well. I would like to further respond to point #2 of yours, but not right now; hopefully soon.


    ps Sorry for the history lesson, but i am convinced of the necessity of such stuff now b/c it provides a context for understanding where someone is coming from. Without this knowledge, we can’t really understand anything really well. That is why i am arrogant enough to disagree with you regarding where you are coming from. I see your statements in light of church tradition, and don’t see how you can be coming from anywhere else. Forgive me if my “arrogance” offends you.

  7. Derek,

    You are so arrogant!!! 🙂 Just kidding. I do not take our discussions as you being arrogant, and hopefully, most of the time I will also avoid this. As we have done for the last four or five years, we will debate, it will be fun, and I’m sure our friendship will be strengthened in the process.

    You are right that I read the post as directed towards me, namely because you told me in your brief response to my first post that your response was too long to put in a response so you would make it into a post. Thus, I took that to mean that your post was then a response to my response to your post. 🙂 Anyway amigo. You do not have to delve into a further response. I will be in Kansas tomorrow and we can dialogue then or next week. Good chatting with you brother.


  8. Derek,

    If you have a chance to read this before I come into town, here are some initial thoughts. A discussion you and I have had just a month ago centered around, “How do we prove that Scripture is the authoritative Word of God?” And of course I told you that we cannot possibly start with Scripture for that would be circular reasoning. However, is it possible that we could establish the historical reliability of the Bible first, and in so doing, move from that vantage point to considering its claims? You and I would both agree that this is possible. Not only so, but I want us to be careful to equivocate “historical” with “history” as you are using it. We “historical” is describing (i.e. adjective) here. “History” is a place in time.

    Thus, I do not have to appeal to “history” to bring us to Scripture being the only thing for us. Could it be that if we can establish that the Bible is the most historically reliable book in existence, that maybe it would follow henceforth that we should take its claims more seriously than any other book? If you are not willing to grant this mode of arriving to “Scripture should be our only guide” then you will have to throw out that particular apologetic when you want to defend the Bible as the authoritative Word of God.

    But if we are willing to grant this argument to establish the historical reliability of the Bible, then we should also be willing to grant from there that maybe we should base our lives on something so ridiculously coherent (e.g. over 40 authors on three different continents, most of whom never knew each other, writing over the span of 1200 years, a book that coherently flows from the beginning all the way to the end, all the while having Jesus in the NT fulfill hundreds of prophecies, that to fabricate such a character would be beyond plausibility). I don’t know about you, but whatever book that is, especially since it relates the heart and passion of the God of the universe, I am willing to stake my life on it. No theology. No “history”. Simply historical reliability.

    On to the other things you mentioned. You should know by now Derek that I am not in the least bit individualistic in my understanding of how God operates within the faith community. In fact, I would say that God is most fully expressed in community, never in individuality (except of course in Christ). Furthermore, Derek, what bothers me considerably given your opentheistic background and strong adherence to freewill is the undertones of determinism in your arguments. Consider:

    “This is a very modern statement aaron, which reflects the ideals of the Enlightenment. … Also, your very individualistic stance here was born out of the Medieval era (this is still, to a degree, a relatively new thought in Western History), which culminated, at least in the religious sphere, in the PROTESTANT REFORMATION. So, in a sense, i disagree with you. Your view is birthed right out of the reformation, whether you see it as such.”

    Are we really going to say that one cannot arrive at the same conclusions that were arrived at by people who lived hundreds of years ago on their own? What you’re arguing for here, amigo, is the “nurture”. You are saying that the environment ultimately determines what I think. How is this? Do I have a will? Granted, now we could argue that (sigh) no one grows up in a vaccum and therefore each of us is “socially constructed” on some level. blah, blah, blah…. I understand that. But nonetheless, maybe we should see that (a) there are always exceptions to the rule, (b) when we step into eternity with Christ God makes us an exception to the rule of social construction, because if Christianity is limited only to the Amreican dream, then it is not transcendent. Yet God transforms all of us when we are in relationship with him to such a degree that by default, we look crazy to the world. As Paul put it, we look foolish.

    What’s the point? We can argue all we want that our thoughts are “born” out of the medieval era, but that simply does not hold water due to the fact that you are not accounting for volition. I can choose to believe, and think, whatever I want. I will not belabor the point any longer. Basically Derek, I am confused at how you have come to be so deterministic in your thinking that we are determined by our “historical heritage” (which I will still argue one must AT LEAST

  9. Sorry, I accidentally sent that…

    be aware of in order to be influenced by it in any significant way). (By the way, as I’m thinking about this, there is so much that needs to be said on this in order to cover the bases that we will definitely have to talk about it when I’m down because it will take far too long to explicate it here.)

    Derek, my final observation comes in addressing the following comment:

    “You yourself have rightly said that you cannot divorce yourself from Church history when you think b/c you were born out of it (see your October 13th response).”

    Actually Derek, this is what I said, “Furthermore, now that I’m thinking about it, is my view already tainted because I cannot fully differentiate what I see in Scripture from what I know from church history?” I know you weren’t intentionally doing this, but what you said completely misrepresented what I ACTUALLY said. You said that I said, “[I] cannot divorce [myself] from Church history when [I] want b/c [I] was born out of it.” I never said anything about “because I was born out of it.” There is a drastic difference in me saying that I cannot fully differentiate what I see in Scripture from what I KNOW FROM CHURCH HISTORY, and “born out of it.” What I was saying is that due to going to Bible college and sitting through H.A.R.M. and History of the Church, I have a working knowledge of what the history of the church is and therefore I cannot divorce that knowledge from myself when I consider Scripture also. This is a very different argument than saying “because I was born out of it.”

    Finally, Derek, you still avoid the question, “Should Scripture be enough?” Once again, you introduce an irrelevant conclusion to move us off topic. But the question still stands unanswered. It seems that you are the one in the proverbial corner my friend. The Christian life, as you would concede I hope, is founded not on what everyone else thinks, but on who they are in Christ, a reality that they grow in as they learn more of from Scripture. Thus, you are pushed into a corner and you avoid the question. Should Scripture be enough?

    Notice Derek that answering “yes” to this question doesn’t mean that you are then throwing out study of church history. It simply means that you are saying that in reality, ideally, Scripture should be enough, though since we are prone to being fallible, even when we are in community, it is good to know in what directions the Body has gone in the past to help discern our future.

    Tikanga is the word that the Maori use to refer to the history that has been handed down to them. They do not wish to forget it nor repeat it. Unlike much of Western civilization which has for its motto, “hakuna matata,” (which comes from Swahili. “-kuna” meaning “there is” and “matata” being the plural of “problem.” Thus, “There are no problems.” Or, “No problems.”) Maori understand the incredible value of maintaining and remembering their heritage.

    It is for this reason that the phrase used to refer to the past is I nga wa o Mua, which woodenly translated means, “from the times of front.” They believe the only way to adequately prepare for and look to the future is by looking to the future through the past, not as a place to work towards, but as a place to work from. Thus, unlike our fury little friend Timone in The Lion King, who said, “You’ve got to put your past behind ya.” The Maori say, “I nga wa o Mua,” or, “from the times of front.” The past is always in front of us, not as a reminder of our atrocities, but as a reminder of where we’ve been. The past is in front of us to learn from and the future is behind us.

    See you later bro.


  10. Furthermore, you were just dying to use the word “irenic” weren’t you. 🙂 Seriously! You’re the man.

  11. Cliff,

    I am pretty much where you are at. I want to let you know however that i am not reacting against the idea of cultural relevance in a knee-jerk fashion, but rather i am reacting against it because i have thought about this a great deal. Let me define a few things for you.

    What i am for: Looking to Christ to teach us how to conduct ourselves in this world. If we discern His goals correctly, then we will be culturally relevant (by this i am relevant in the way that leads the most people to intimate and passionate discipleship with Him).

    What i am against: Seeking to integrate currently popular elements of American culture simply because most people will enjoy them. Like CJ says, what you win them with is what you have to have to keep them. I would say that winning people with the newest cultural bells and whistles would be detrimental in this vein.

    Where the rubber meets the road: Jesus knows how to reach this culture better than we do, and if we allow him to show us (through prayer, scripture, solitude, meditation and the like) how to relate to it, we will be culturally relevant.

    Thanks Cliff, good to hear from you. Let’s keep in touch!

  12. Cliff,

    I enjoy the saying, “What you win them with, you win them to.” It is the only thing that I got out of “worship” class at MCC.


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