Short Story #1. Years ago in my engineering days, I walked into Lifeway Bookstore. I saw they had a copy of Eusebius’ Church History. I brought the book up to the check out counter and the cashier said, “Oh, I’m SO glad you bought that. My manager wanted to discontinue selling that book because Baptists don’t buy books on church history. But I held out and so it makes me feel great that you bought it!” I should explain that Lifeway Bookstore is the main bookstore chain of the Southern Baptists, and most customers would be Baptist or conservative Evangelicals. But one of the greatest classics in the area of church history apparently was almost completely ignored there.
Short Story #2. More recently, I was teaching Missions History. One requirement for each student was to give a lecture/lesson on a Christian missionary to a group (Bible study, Sunday school class, etc.). A second person was to critique the trainer. I had 11 people in my class, and 4 of the students chose to do their lesson on St. Paul. I had specifically told students that the missionary they chose must be dead. I meant to require that the missionary not be in the Bible, but I must have forgotten. Why did I not want them to choose a missionary from the Bible? Because this wasn’t a Biblical studies class. Part of the purpose of the class is to show that we are part of a chain of churches, missionaries, and Christians that began in Biblical times and continue to the present. I got it right the next year.
These two stories point out what most Evangelical Christians already know. Evangelical Christians are willfully highly ignorant of church history. I was recently sitting in a restaurant with an Anglican priest and a Catholic nun. The two of them got into a lively discussion (practically gossiping) about St. Theresa. Evangelicals focus on the NOW. Those who are interested in Prophecy may be interested in the FUTURE. But few are interested in the PAST… especially early church history. Here in the Philippines, many churches are nervous about other churches that use traditional Philippine musical instruments (such as gongs) because they are “Satanic”. These same churches use drums and electric guitars, which were considered “Satanic” by many 50 to 60 years ago. (Since I play the saxophone and the saxophone was a banned instrument back in the Jazz age, I am a bit sensitive to such bigotry.) Ignorance of history tends to leave us going in confused circles. What are the repercussions of this ignorance?
1. Evangelical Christians get confused by people who claim to know about Church history. I had a friend who was convinced that Dan Brown’s writing on church history in his works of fiction were “the truth”. He had decades of training in church. However, essentially none of that training covered the period from around 100 AD to the mid 1800s. So when someone came along and spoke with seeming authority about the ante-Nicene church, he was ill-prepared to critique the work effectively. I have come across Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who claim that the primitive Christian church was really made up of groups of their respective religions. The early Church was not Baptist, or Pentecostal, or Methodist, or Charismatic, or Presbyterian. But neither was it Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox (in its modern constructs). The early church was a complex mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. Studying church history can help us critique the claims of others and critique ourselves.
2. Ignorance hurts our Biblical understanding. Curiously, Evangelical Christians often seem to confuse issues of canonicity with edification. Therefore, if the Apocrypha, I Clement, the Didache, or the Apology of Aristides is determined not to be canonical, it is deemed unworthy of study. This makes no sense, any more than saying one should not read “Purpose Driven Life” since it is not canonical. Much of Biblical theology and exegesis is dependent on understanding the historical context of Scripture and understanding the historical understanding of passages. Much of the problems we see with modern ecclesiology and eschatology (as well as missiology) comes from grabbing Bible verses based on how they sound today regardless of what was actually meant.
3. It tempts Evangelical Christians to replace history with dogma. Among the Southern Baptists, there are those who believe that the Baptist “denominaton” was started by John the Baptist. This makes no sense Biblically and even less historically. The trail of blood (within Landmarkism) is historically doubtful… the idea that Baptists (as they are presently understood) have existed hidden from view by dominant Christian groups. Pentecostals have tended to do the same thing… grabbing a few odd anecdotes from church history and seeking to develop a historical continuum from it. Evangelical Christians should draw and grow from history rather than create dogma that is founded on, and perpetuates, ignorance.
4. It saps us of much of our important heritage for inspiration and ministry. We can learn and grow from the other members of our “family”. These include Justin Martyr, Augustine of Hippo, St. Anselm, Francis of Assisi, and more. We are ignoring a rich resource when we reject them as family, or assume them to be irrelevant. The work of Gregory the Great, Raymond Lull, St. Boniface, and William Wilberforce provide good and bad examples for our ministry. We can grow from the analyzing the various modality and sodality structures (to grab Ralph Winter’s terms) through the whole range of Jewish and Christian history. The controversies at Nicea, Chalcedon, and more help us to understand why we are as we are (both good or bad). To ignore the past leads us to a rootless pragmatism of teaching and structure.