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Church History Matters

Ouch. Did I just say that? I did, and here is why: in my raising, we were taught to go to the Bible and the Bible alone, which I still agree with. However, this meant that one shouldn’t read anything that isn’t the Bible, a Strong’s concordance, or a Thayer’s Lexicon. If you just had to read something, you could read a “brotherhood” book written by a faithful member of the Churches of Christ like Franklin Camp or Guy N Woods.

In order to avoid the reality that I reached some of my views on the Bible alone, my harshest critics blamed extra-biblical books: “Much learning has made you mad!” This wasn’t true, of course. I only turned to unapproved books after I reached my conclusions, but whatever. I guess I’m still salty about that one. But it’s an important lesson we need to learn: honest people can put the same amount of time, passion, and energy into studying the Bible and still walk away with different conclusions. This does not make them any more or any less Christian because it’s the Lord that adds us to the church.

Anyways, because of this, I never studied the church fathers or even the history of my own heritage. It wasn’t until I met my friend Dr. Dallas Burdette and my other good buddy and fellow minister O.B. Richardson that I really started looking into resources written by those outside of my heritage. (By the way, if you’re in the Montgomery area or in Southeast Alabama or Southwest Mississippi, I’d love to get you connected to these two ministries.)

This year, as you know if you’ve read my blog, I’ve done a tremendous amount of reading and study in the history of the Stone-Campbell movement. To my delight, what I discovered was a philosophy of unity and ecumenism that is similar to my own. I had reached the conclusions through studying Scripture, but those views were vindicated by what I found in my studies.

This semester, I’ve started looking into the church fathers more closely. While I have the complete set of Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene works as well as literature from Lightfoot, Schaff, and others, I hadn’t dug into them quite yet because of other obligations. As I told one friend, this was because I either didn’t really care about what they said at best (because of my upbringing) or maybe I was afraid of what I might find at worst, but it was probably a mixture of both and everything in between.

Well, I’m just a few weeks into my studies, but I can already tell that I’m just as excited and motivated to study early church history as I was my own heritage.

Why?

Do I think their writings bear any authority on equal level with Scripture? Do I think that if some interpretation can’t be found there that the position should be abandoned? Do I believe that the perfect church is back there somewhere and that if we can just get back to what they believed and what they did then we could all sit around the campfire together?

No. None of that.

I believe we should study the church fathers for a few major reasons which are by no means exhaustive: (1) their diversity lets me know I’m not alone in my questions, (2) their ways of approaching Scripture were different and offer new-to-us perspectives that inspire us or even makes us thankful for what we have, and (3) understanding the development of Christian doctrine gives us insight to where we are now and why.

But, as I quoted in a recent article on traditionalism,

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.

Jaroslav Pelikan

In other words, we have to enter into a conversation with the past, but we ultimately have to decide for ourselves what to incorporate into our lives and what to put into a museum or a library. Another warning from Pelikan is relevant concerning varieties in manuscripts, etc.:

These literary problems, which could be multiplied almost endlessly through these two centuries and well beyond them, jeopardize any history of the early development of Christian doctrine that proceeds from one thinker to the next, tracing origins, influences, borrowings, and divergences.

Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1. p. 122

He also reminds us that “History is usually dictated by the victor” and that it is misleading to use terms such as “orthodox” and “heresy” as “though there were some method of determining a priori who were the villains and who the heroes” (p.68-69).

So, we can go back to read, study, and learn from these men and women, but placing too much emphasis on them is dubious in my opinion, especially considering how diverse and divided they appear to be. Ultimately, we go to the Bible, but since our approach to the Bible differs between individuals, looking to church tradition gives insights into why we read the Bible the way we do.

I look forward to this study of the church fathers, and, as I do my readings, I’ll share quotes I find insightful, troubling, or maybe even revolutionary.

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