As a new school year begins and I look at my students, most in my classes for some liberal arts requirement, I find myself making the same opening day plea once more: “Yes, church history really does matter.” Even to my Christian Ministries majors, “Yes, this matters for your ministry.” And to my seminarians, “Yes, you need to know this for the people in your pews.” Of course I’m biased; I’m a historical theologian. But I believe it, so I continue my plea:
“No, knowing why Athanasius or Anselm argued that God became flesh will not help you create the next cool game to play at youth group. But it will help you understand the gospel you preach to your youth. No, understanding how the early church came to define the dual natures of Christ won’t help you sort out the war about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. But it will help you speak hope to a parishioner in crisis. And no, knowing about Gnosticism will not help you balance a church budget. But it will help you recognize that heresy in your own preaching.
“You’re right. Church history is not a practical course. Preaching, pastoral care, CPE—all of those are vital. Church history is not like these, but it is vital too. See, if we are all the Body of Christ, then church history is our memory. Church history is our memory of where God has moved in the past in order to help us look for where God is moving and leading the church into the future. The Holy Spirit can be hard to glimpse sometimes as we look around in our present, but she’s a lot nicer about letting us see the back of her head. Knowing where she’s poked her head out before can help us know where to look for her next. If we know the Spirit was with the monks, we know the Spirit hangs out with people who pray. If we see the Spirit working in the midst of the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, we can look for the Spirit in the midst of our current theological debates. If we glimpsed the Spirit among the Stylites and St. Francis, we can trust that the Spirit is also among the weirdos today.
“Sometimes we note that the Spirit was moving in one place while the church was preoccupied in another. We repent the Crusades and the Inquisition and hope that, knowing these, the church can be more attentive in the future. There are no new heresies in the church. We learn the things about which the church said, ‘Umm … not quite. That description of God doesn’t hold up with what we know of Scripture and God’s work as we’ve experienced it.’ The church said Gnosticism doesn’t work. God really did become human, Christ wasn’t offering secret passwords, and matter is not evil. Yet people in our pews believe these things. They also believe Donatism and Pelagianism and Modalism and Adoptionism. If we’re not careful, we preach these ourselves. Our theological ancestors lived in different times, and they can point out our cultural blind spots. The more we know, the more we’ll see, and the more truthful we will be.
“The fathers and mothers, in all of their idiosyncratic glory, are our guides in this endeavor. These theological forebears witness to the same Christ we follow and point out the same Spirit’s movements in the world. Reading their work is like reading over their shoulders as they read Scripture and listening at the keyhole as they pray. Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine taught me to pray my theology when I read their Five Theological Orations and Confessions. To pay attention in church history class is to make new friends. We can ask the Cappadocians, ‘What resources of hope can I offer the family in my church that just lost their mother?’ I can ask Chrysostom, ‘Tell me, what’s the key to being virtuous?’ ‘Abelard, Heloise, what should I ask this young couple when they come for premarital counseling?’ They are friends sitting on the shelves in your study, waiting to be asked for their wisdom. Dust them off and have a conversation.
“And in the end, forget all these utilitarian reasons. Make friends with Gregory, Benedict, Hildegard, Francis, Martin, John, Susannah, and Karl not for all the wisdom they will give you about your ministry or for the sake of your parishioners but for the joy of their friendship. Pray with them. Read Scripture with them. Delight in their language. Let them support and encourage you on days when you can’t see the truth and challenge you on days you’re a little too certain. God has given us to one another. Let’s enjoy this friendship.”