How Church History Saved My Life
My wife tells me that my writing is flowery and wordy. This year has been filled to the brim with book review after book review and she has proofread most of them so she would know. After the present blog title we can add dramatic to the list. After all, no one reads articles with poor titles (this can be used to your advantage bloggers).
In the last week I've had the privilege to review The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture (Baker Academic) and Why Church History Matters (IVP Academic). Both books were great encouragements and refreshing reminders of why I read so much in the first place (the past three months have seen ~25 completed). As I've written in many places, every one of my theological pilgrimages has occurred because of books. The likes of The Institutes of the Christian Religion and Luther's Large Catechism were big components of my departure from the Baptist tradition from which I'd grown up. However, it was Calvin's extensive use/quotation of the early fathers in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (also from Baker Academic) that really provoked my interest in the patristics. You see, Calvin was convinced of sola scriptura but he was also convinced the Reformation was returning to the orthodoxy of the church. Granted, Calvin couldn't quote every church father equally but he could and he did quote many. Calvin was proficient in the Scriptures and the fathers.
I was hooked. I wanted to read the church. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press and their "Popular Patristics Series" now cover my bookshelves. A vacation trip to New Mexico (pre-Kenzie) saw me read through multiple volumes (as well as buying some more from a local Eastern Orthodox tea & book store). The early father's presented new thoughts on the Incarnation, the atonement, the church, and even a more Biblical understanding of Mary as Theotokos. Though I wouldn't come to accept all of these ideas, I was greatly blessed by the companionship provided by saints long since dead who took the Scriptures and future of the church seriously. I could no longer claim to appreciate weekly corporate fellowship without engaging in fellowship with the "communion of saints." Only later would I learn the intricacies of patristic hermeneutics (The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture by Graves is an excellent resource I wish I had consumed earlier) but their theology was already affecting how I read the Bible.
The emphasis on theology was quickly followed by an intense interest in the spirituality of the church. All four published volumes of The Philokalia reside on my bookshelves. Little check marks in pencil indicate the portions that have been read. I've learned about the devotional life, the Lord's Prayer, and the prayers/meditations associated with fasting. All of it launched me back into the future to learn from the likes of William Igne's Personal Religion and the Life of Devotion (do yourself a favor, buy a decent 1930's copy not a recent publishing) and many others. Christian mysticism had a history before the full blown individualistic/existential form it has taken today and I enjoyed it thoroughly. With every step and turn more Christian brothers & sisters were available for the tough interactions, restless conflicts and general mayhem of Christian life.
Sin is devastating but the church has written many great words about it. God's love is refreshing but there is orthodoxy behind "God is love." The eschaton has been the eschaton for many generations who were not "the last" and most Christians have lived their lives taking advantage of that. I began to see modern heresy with the candlelight of old councils. I even realized the weakness of the modern atheistic movements and "higher criticism" arguments over inerrancy. Though I affirm the doctrine, I realized the depth of understanding found in Origen, Cyril, and many others simply would not be shaken by the Ehrman's and Borg's of the modern world. Eventually I found Karl Barth and my world has (and will) never be the same.
I cannot count the number of times these great minds of the church have added to my sanctification and theological acumen. The two have come together independent of how much I agreed with the beloved books I was reading. In summary, I experienced everything Rea described in Why Church History Matters. I was integrating myself with the church throughout time and reaping the benefits. Reading the Scriptures could never again be an individualistic event. I now read the word with the minds and hearts of hundreds of Christians who are only a room's length away. People flock to Bible studies to discuss among peers who have studied for a couple weeks. I have hoarded books by minds and hearts who studied for decades and across centuries. Both need to be done. Both.
I remain a Protestant in a cage state for church history. I remain a Protestant because Church History has saved my faith and my life. Looking out on an evangelical world that consistently struggles with people consistently reading their inspired Scriptures it is hard to imagine that the fathers will be added to many nightstands. Nevertheless, I remain convinced today's church needs yesterday's church to help save them just as it saved me.