Cards on the table: one of the reasons I study the Church’s past is the same reason I study the American past for a living: I’m a giant history nerd. But I hope to convince you that studying the Church’s past is of great value to all believers, even if you won’t all get that kid-in-a-candy-store look in your eyes while you’re doing it, like I do.
Here are a few reasons why I live out my Christian life in the company of the dead:
IT HELPS ME STAY ACCOUNTABLE
Christianity isn’t about you and God. Or me and God. It’s about us and God. Through Christ, God is not merely creating a multitude of individual relationships He can enjoy forever. He is creating a community, a people, a nation – a family. There’s no “solo mode” option when it comes to Christianity. As frustrating as it can be for my rugged American individualism, the truth is that God has entrusted the gospel, the kingdom, the Scriptures, and the sacraments to the Church. Not just to you, not just to me. And He expects us to be accountable to the others to whom He has entrusted these sacred things. We practice this accountability through interacting with our fellow Christians here on earth, of course; however, I would challenge you to think of accountability as something that connects the various members of the Church through bonds that even death cannot sever.
I would encourage you to be accountable to the dead.
I love the race imagery the author of Hebrews uses to describe the Christian life. Run hard after Jesus, and be encouraged by the huge crowd in the stands screaming their heads off for you (Gram Sloppy Paraphrase Edition, 2017). Sometimes we forget, though, that the “great cloud of witnesses” is made up of past runners. Church history is a long relay race, and the folks in the stadium seats cheering us on are those who have already finished their laps. Studying the Church’s past is like watching film of past laps in the race. Now that it’s your turn to run, don’t you think it would be smart to pay attention to what the rest of the team did on the earlier laps? Don’t you think it would be smart to make sure you understand the rules and the goals of a race that began well before your time?
Now, if you study the film of past Christian runners, you’re going to see a lot of variety. Not everyone held the baton the exact same way, nor did everyone use the same running or breathing techniques. But there’ll be no mistaking the fact that they were in the same race. There’ll be no mistaking the fact that, although their paths around the track might not look exactly the same, they’re still being very careful to stay in their lane. It’s important to pay attention because any runner who doesn’t stay within his/her lane in a race gets disqualified, no matter how creative or innovative his/her racing techniques might otherwise be. We value innovation greatly in our American culture, and innovation certainly has a place in the life of the Church, as well. But if we listen to the roars and cheers of the great cloud of past runners, we won’t hear “Innovate!” as often as “Guard!” “Maintain!” “Persevere!” and “Hold fast!”
Studying the Church’s past lets me know what techniques to use in my own series of laps. It reminds me of where the lines are so that I can stay in my lane. In short, in matters of both belief and practice, it keeps me accountable as merely one team member running merely one leg of a much greater race – a race whose grand prize that will ultimately justify the struggles and difficulties of every runner’s laps.
IT GIVES ME COMPANY IN MY STRUGGLES
Can I be honest with you? After 30+ years of reading the Scriptures … some parts still really confuse me. And some parts still really bother me – like deep-down-trouble-the-soul kind of bother me. Finding yourself confused and bothered can be a scary place, especially if you think you’re the only one feeling those things. Sometimes, we can buy into the fear that questions are really the first stage of disbelief – that if we cannot live at ease with the whole of Scripture, then we are alarmingly close to completely falling away from the faith! Maybe those questions are evidence that we already have!
But as I study the way that those who have come before me interact with the Scriptures, I find that confusion and concerns have always been with the Church – ironically, the very community who had to discern what was and was not Scripture in the first place! There’s comfort in knowing that Augustine was stumped on more than a few occasions, or that Luther struggled deeply to reconcile Paul and James (not that he ever did!). There’s comfort in watching Patristics, Medievalists, and Reformers alike deeply appalled by the mistreatment of Jephthah’s daughter or completely at a loss about what to do with a song of public praise that ends by talking about dashing babies against rocks. In short, studying the Church’s past reminds me that I am not alone in my gratitude for the gift of Scripture, nor in my wrestling with the contents of that gift.
But it’s not just comfort and companionship I find in studying the Church’s past. I often find answers, as well. While I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit can and will speak to individual Christians as they study the Scriptures … why study alone? It is not an insult to the Holy Spirit, nor is it a lack of faith on our part to want to study the Scriptures armed with what the Spirit has spoken to fellow Christians over the past 2,000 years. To me, it’s actually a logical extension of the belief that none of us are equipped to serve God without the gifts of others within the body. If the eye cannot function without the hand, nor the head without the foot (to borrow Paul’s language from 1 Corinthians regarding spiritual gifts), then why would I assume that God intends for me to live out the commands of Scripture armed solely with whatever individualized insight or illumination He may choose to give me? Why would I presume upon the Spirit to reveal to me personally the meaning of various passages, when He has already stored up for me a 2,000 year treasury from which I can draw vast riches as I have need? He may indeed speak to me directly at times as I am studying a particular passage of Scripture, but I must never forget that He has already spoken about that exact passage. Like, a lot.
To be sure, there has been an astounding amount of quality biblical scholarship put out in the past few decades, so please don’t hear me saying that you can only find good answers by consulting dead people. I think most of the people who wrote the commentaries on my own shelves are still alive, or maybe died within the past fifty years, or so. But consulting the long-deceased can have distinct advantages, as well. It’s helpful to get the perspectives of those who engaged the Scriptures far removed from our own cultural biases and worldview assumptions (they had their own to contend with, of course), as well as far removed from the concerns and crises of our own times, which tend to color our interpretation.
IT MAKES ME MORE AWARE OF WHAT IS INFLUENCING ME
I heard a great story one time (um, citation needed) about a new pastor who noticed that his new congregation had a rather strange custom. At the end of each service, they would turn and face the back wall and recite the Lord’s Prayer. He asked around for several weeks, but no one knew exactly why this tradition happened, or even when/how it had started. Finally, one of the older members of his congregation provided him with the answer: the words to the Lord’s Prayer used to be painted on the back wall. What seemed like a perfectly natural aspect of Christian worship to that congregation was actually the result of a tradition of which almost none of them were aware. Turning around and staring at a blank wall was just something that normal Christians did.
This story may seem a little silly, but I think it’s a good illustration of how each of us lives out our Christian lives. On the one hand, we should strive to make our faith “our own.” However, we should also recognize that none of us will ever have a faith that is solely “our own.” How we read the Scriptures, how we think church “ought” to be done, what images or ideas come to mind when we think about God – all of these things in us are a product of family, local church, denominational, and even national faith traditions. I am not suggesting that you and I cannot have independent thoughts about matters of faith, or that you and I can never hope to make our faith our own in any way. Instead, I am saying that we would all do well to figure out exactly what is contained in our inheritance of traditions. Where did these family, local church, denominational, and national faith traditions come from? How did they develop? How does being exposed to those traditions affect us, even if we may have rejected some of them (for example, like many of you, I grew up in a different tradition than Anglicanism)?
To complicate matters further, we live out our faith in a different culture and context, on a different continent, and in a century far removed from that first generation of believers. We are following hard in the path of people who are almost nothing like us! And that pursuit is unavoidably shaped by the generations that stand between us and them! And … And … Ah! But don’t despair. Just be aware. One of the reasons that I study the Church’s past is to get the perspectives of those from different cultures, contexts, continents, and centuries so that I better understood how I am influenced by my own inherited traditions.
For example, how did believers interpret the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler in cultures without strong commitments to private property and capitalism? I’m not knocking either private property or capitalism, mind you, but pointing out that those cultural commitments will inevitably affect how we read the story here in twenty-first century America. What can I learn about Christian political ethics from those who lived under kings and emperors, as I try to live faithfully in the relatively greater freedom of a representative democracy? Are there lessons on rest, focus, and discipline that I can learn from those who have lived outside the 9-5 American rat race where the constant temptation is to self-medicate with screens in order to survive until the next work day arrives? What did “loving your neighbor” look like for Christians living in places where their neighbors just might kill them – whether in second century Rome, seventh century Syria, or twentieth century Soviet Russia? What can I learn about the nature of Christian worship by doing it alongside the first century church in Corinth, the tenth century church in Byzantium, the sixteenth century church in France, or the twentieth century church in China? You get the idea.
The essential unity of the universal church is a core Christian doctrine: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” (Eph 4:5-6). Yet, the life of the various communities that make up that universal church has looked drastically different across time and space. Some of these differences are regrettable, even tragic. But a lot – maybe even most -- of the differences are quite natural. There is no such thing as a culture-less person, and we should not imagine that this suddenly changes just because said person is now a Christian. What 2000 years of Christian history can help us do, however, is become culturally-aware Christians. We cannot practice our faith outside of culture, but we should at least be aware of how our cultural context is affecting how we practice our faith.
Does the 2000 year history of the Church affirm that such-and-such doctrine or practice is a hill worth dying on; or, is this just of a distinctly Western (or specifically American) hang up I can let go of as part of the greater good of serving as a faithful witness to Christ? Was such-and-such political or cultural issue (or its historical equivalent, if there was one) a hill worth dying on for Christians in the past – even in the past of our own nation, even just a generation or two ago? If not, should it be such central to Christians in America today? Obviously, we live out our faith in a sometimes drastically different context than those who went before. So, the doctrines, practices, and issues that make up our own hills-worth-dying-on might look very different for that reason alone, at times. However, studying the Church’s past forces us to submit our own hills to a sort of indirect community-wide assessment in light of what the Church across time and space has valued above all else in its pursuit of Christ.
IT STRENGTHENS MY FAITH
Rich Mullins wrote a great song called “Boy Like Me/Man Like You.” It’s an imagined conversation with Jesus about what it was like to grow up as a boy in first century Palestine vs twentieth century rural Indiana. My favorite lines of the song come at the end of each chorus:
“Did they tell you stories’ bout the saints of old? / Stories about their faith? / They say stories like that make a boy grow bold / Stories like that make a man walk straight”
It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of the stories of those who have gone before to my own Christian walk. I learned faith kneeling beside George Muller and Rees Howells. I learned to fight back against the deep anguish of the dark nights of the soul fighting shoulder to shoulder with St. John of the Cross. I learned humility serving in the kitchen with Brother Lawrence. I learned courage in different ways from Corrie Ten Boom, Brother Andrew, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth. I learned steadfast faithfulness from Athanasius. And I learned sacrifice from the early Christian martyr who handed her nursing child to her father before going to face the lions in the Colosseum because she would not renounce the faith. Her name escapes me, but her story never has.
TO WRAP UP
Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan famously wrote: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.” It’s a great quote …
… only it doesn’t stop there. He goes on to add, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
I share that quote as an acknowledgement that what I have written here is the beginning of a conversation, not a complete conversation in and of itself. There are many follow up questions worth asking. Where is the line between living with the dead and simply living in the past, which the quote above warns us about? To what extent can we speak of one coherent orthodox Christian tradition – one lane on the race track, to borrow from the metaphor in the first segment of this essay – when those who have professed to be Christians have held such divergent views on many issues over the centuries? These are the sorts of conversations worth continuing in your own corners of cyberspace, or (better!) in your own homes or local churches, pubs, and coffee shops.
Finally, where should you even start, if you’re interested in trying out this whole “living life with the dead” thing?
I would recommend starting with any of the following books:
Church History in Plain Language is a nice, one-volume introduction to Church history. For a bit more scholarly (yet still very accessible) introduction, try The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 and Volume 2. (There is also a combined version that includes both volumes of an earlier edition).
A great introduction to important figures in the Church’s past is 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. You should also check out God in Dispute, which is a series of fictional debates between major theologians in Church history, designed to help you get the gist of their contributions to Christian thought. Don’t worry, no seminary education required to follow along!
Turning to Anglicanism, in particular …. For a quick introduction to Anglican thought, you could start with Glorious Companions, though do note that all of the individuals included in this book are from the Reformation era or later. To get a good grip on Anglican history, an oldie but a goodie is A History of the Church of England. It covers Anglican history from the beginnings of Christianity in Britain through the state of Anglicanism around the world in the 1970s or so.