I will be teaching Missions History at seminary (PBTS) and Cultural Anthropology at ABGTS this upcoming term. I like both subjects… but I have a special love for Missions History. I taught the class once before and it was one of my two least successful teaching efforts (the other being “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement”). I look forward to correcting my mistakes this time.
Raised Baptist (and still one) I was disconnected from History. We never really studied where Baptists come from. (Found out later that some people felt like Baptists were founded by John the Baptist… or have always been around in some distinctive and secret form… the Trail of Blood). To a large extent to the best of my memory, Christian history stopped around the time of St. John on Patmos… or maybe the martyrdom of Polycarp, and resumed with John Bunyan, William Carey, Roger Williams, and Charles Spurgeon (with a passing nod to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and— perhaps— Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi).
My Christian upbringing was largely ahistorical. Hymns were the one bit of a link with Christians in generations before us… going back centuries to Isaac Watts… and a few with Latin roots. (It is arguably a bit sad in a way that even this tenuous link to the past is being severed with the rejection of traditional or even blended worship music). Other than that, we practiced “open worship” and a minimum of symbols. We do baptism and Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) because the NT church did, but ignored other rites (because the early church did not).
Of course, Baptists are not alone. There are a lot of “restorationalists” out there– some going back to Azusa, others going back to Campbell— some referring to an important event, others to an important person. History before those people or events is deemphasized, either by ignoring, or by revising the history to fit into a certain perspective.
Is there something lost in this? I think so. Admittedly, I am not a liturgical person… I don’t need a whole lot of symbols… I don’t need to sing songs in Latin, Greek, or Coptic. But I still believe there is something lost when we are disconnected from our history, and even though I am emphasizing Missions History, it is hard (and rather pointless) to make a strong separation between “Christian” and “Missions” History.
So why is it beneficial for Evangelicals to know church history?
1. We learn a lot from those who have come before us… even those we don’t totally trust or agree with. This is a pretty classic argument. “Those who refuse to learn from the past are destined to repeat it.”
Or one could take the point further:
A wise man learns from his own mistakes (and successes)
A wiser man learns from the mistakes (and successes) of others
The wisest man learns… but is not quick to draw conclusions.
In missions we discover that paying people to be Christians doesn’t work very well (and in the Philippines we seem to have to learn it over and over and over again). We see the opportunities of tentmaking and its problems. We see power encounter used and abused, we see the effectiveness at times and the moral bankruptcy of gunboat evangelism. We learn the benefits and the costs of linking faith and government… ecclesiastical and political power. We see movements and methods rise and fall (and sometimes crash). History gives us great opportunities to learn with the tantalizing hope of not repeating those same mistakes.
2. We learn that we are not so unique. The Christian world was full of saints and sinners, the caring, the careless, the cults, the cranks, and the corrupters. The truth from Ecclesiastes holds (at least in a general sense) “There is nothing new under the sun.” The problems of today were, in many ways, the problems of the past; indeed, the problems of the human condition. The problems of greed and power, hope and faith, love and lust, have been with us and will continue to challenge us for the foreseeable future. The views of social ascendancy (such as in post-millenialism) or of the downward spiral (in pre-trib/pre-mil) are challenged by the meandering path of history. History defies the simple lessons and the consistent structure.
3. We learn that we are part of a family. Evangelicals often seem to have an unwritten (yet powerfully felt) belief that one is “Saved by faith alone… and by not being Catholic.” In some other parts of the world, “Catholic” may be switched with “Orthodox” or something else. I have met people who are categorized in the Evangelical family who believe that one cannot be Baptist (at least not doctrinally Baptist) and be saved. But in the history of Christianity and Missions we discover that we have relatives that fought over issues of Gnosticism and Arianism… not as some sort of Ecclesiastical crushing of free thought… but in a quest to relate contextualized faith and practice with revelation. We see them struggle with the concept of canon (the standard) for truth. Our spiritual ancestors struggled to share their faith in hostile places often giving their lives. Some dealt with people of other faiths with the sword, others with the Bible, others by separation/ghettoization, and others with divine love. Sometimes they were wildly successful. Sometimes they were crushed. Sometimes they struggled and persevered. Sometimes they did evil and called it good. Sometimes did good that was called evil.
As a human, I have American, English and Swedish roots. As a Baptist, I have Dissenter, Anglican, Calvinist, Lutheran, Celtic, and Catholic roots. They are my spiritual heritage. They are my family. Like all families, some relatives disappoint, some relatives inspire, but I believe we would be wise to see our spiritual journey in historical perspective.
4. We understand truth in and through history. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hold history/tradition on an even playing field with Biblical revelation (just like like I don’t hold modern day attempts at “new revelations” on the same level as the Bible). Yet, much of the errors we have to day spring from grabbing a stray phrase from the Bible, a peculiar innovation from a specific point in time, an extreme interpretation of a nuanced passage of Scripture, and running with it. When we disconnect the Bible from history (the Bible itself frustrates such an attempt, being a work of history… not only involving historical narrative, but historical in its very production) we can apply almost any interpretation we want. It is through the early church fathers we gain perspective of the faith as it was handed down to them from the Twelve. (Yes, I personally do believe some things they got wrong or uncritically contextualized… but that is human… and their humanity is comforting in many ways.) Additionally, truth as gained from practice and reflection may still be truth. So it is wise to discover the truths that were gleaned (often with blood) over the centuries. A lot of the innovations of the last few decades (Prosperity Gospel anyone?) have developed from a careless Scriptural hermeneutic tied to an ahistorical perspective.
Many cults develop by taking a few verses in the Bible (or another revelation “adding” to the Bible), defining these as the truth from which to filter other verses and create a mythology of their own origin that goes back to the NT church (and squelched by evil majority). Sadly, Evangelical groups (Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic among others) have done this along with various Restorational groups and heterodox groups (JW, Mormon, etc.). Even the old “apostolic” faiths like to link to the earliest church. But the earliest church was unlike all other groups… and for a good reason. They lived in a different time. Our job is NOT to restore the first century church, but build the 21st century church.
Evangelicals often are Hydroponic Christians. We have roots and these roots do bring us the nutrients of God’s word. But roots are for more than nutrients, they are also for stability. As firm soil provides a foundation from which the roots can give stability to the plant, knowing our history can provide us with the stability that we lack.