Why learn about church history? This is particularly an important question for Christians committed to a biblical faith. Isn’t the Bible enough? Isn’t tradition a bad thing, a kind of institutional legalism that takes us away from the heart of the gospel and the vitality of the early church in the book of Acts?
Robert F. Rea meets these questions “head on” in a book that I hope will see wide usage. His basic argument is that when we ignore the thought and actions of Christians throughout history and from other cultures, what we more likely do is create a culturally captive Christianity that is a “Christianized” reflection of the culture in which we are embedded. Only as we “commune with the saints” across history and culture and understand how they read and applied the Bible can our expression of Christianity “sync” with theirs and have a hope of being the startlingly fresh word the world needs.
Rea begins with discussing “tradition”, which he uses in “the general sense as a synonym for Christian history, church history, or historical theology…”(p. 29). He recognizes that tradition is necessary and inevitable while recognizing that particular traditions may be good or bad. He then explores how “tradition” has been understood in relationship to scripture throughout the history of the church. He begins by showing that in the early church scripture and tradition were compatible–the clarification of the meaning of scripture by the early fathers and councils gave shape to orthodoxy. He traces this through the Great Schism of 1054 and the issue of papal primacy, the Reformation period and the heightened emphasis on scripture and subordination of tradition, down through to the present and the renewed interest in some sectors of the church in patristics and the role of tradition in Christian understanding. He then summarizes the role of tradition among the major current streams of the church. What is significant for him is that tradition plays a role in all of these, even though the relation of biblical authority, ecclesial authority, and tradition will be defined differently.
The second part of his book looks at the expanding circles of inquiry that are necessary to explore as we talk about church history beginning with our immediate circle, our congregation, our faith tradition, our shared theological outlook, contrasting theologies, other cultures, and across the centuries. He considers how our identity is shaped and modified as we expand our circles of interaction. He emphasizes how the cloud of witnesses across the centuries give us models for living, help us recognize false belief, and help us confront persecution and difficult ethical choices. We also practice accountability across the centuries, both allowing prior formulations of biblical understanding and practice to critique ours, as well as sometimes engaging the beliefs and practices we think inadequately reflected biblical faithfulness. We both avoid past errors and learn from past responses to error. Theologians from the past can mentor us–filling in gaps, helping us think in different categories, and as we listen to the conversation across the centuries, come to understand the “consensus of the faithful” where this exists.
In his third section he explores the usefulness of tradition to biblical exegesis and proposes a model that incorporates not only the historical-critical approaches we most commonly use but listens to how our contemporaries in our own and other cultures read scripture and how Christians through history have read scripture. Hopefully, these understandings agree but when they do not, he raises the possibility of multiple levels of understanding, which was certainly accepted by biblical writers as well as many of the early fathers. Some may be critical of Rea here, but what challenges me is that writers of the New Testament themselves sometimes interpreted scripture in other than historical-critical ways.
He concludes with exploring the uses of church history for systematic theology, which must interact with both biblical and historical theology; spirituality, drawing on the spiritual writers and formative traditions the church has learned from down the centuries. He also considers other topics such as worship, mission, ethics, compassion, and Christian unity and how an understanding of church history can enrich and inform our efforts in each of these areas.
Rea makes a good case here that biblical faithfulness may be enhanced rather than diminished as we study the scriptures with the saints across history and culture. He provides examples throughout and resources at the end to help underscore his case. Rea’s book not only makes the study of church history appealing to those who would identify as “Bible” Christians; he also lays the groundwork for a vibrant Christianity that evades the shackles of cultural captivity and heals the schisms of the past.