After my last couple of letters I’m shocked (shocked) to find you are not yet convinced of the value of your Church history course.
Okay, I’m no more shocked than Captain Renault was to find there was gambling going on in Rick’s Café Américain. (If you don’t know the reference, watch Casablanca. You need more than current pop culture to be truly hip.)
History is a hard sell these days. Partly that is because it is often taught very very badly — the kind of history Arnold Toynbee criticized as “just one damn thing after another.”
Partly, though, the problem is in our culture: we only value what is new and fresh, or at least improved.
But for you, as you journey through seminary there is a particular value to history that you should really hang on to:
History makes sense of theology.
You are in a “theological seminary,” after all. If you don’t aim to understand theology you are in the wrong place.
How do you make sense of theology?
Here’s the problem:
If an intelligent Christian of average education picks up a book exploring any of the great theological issues, there is a very good chance the book is going to seem abstract. Fatally, boringly, abstract.
The topic may be as important as the Trinity, or the natures of Christ, or justification. If you jump straight into the argument, it can seem like people are just pushing ideas around like pieces on a chess board.
Now that you’ve had a Church history class I hope that you can see that the three issues I just named are actually things that Christians have fought over, been driven into exile over, even died over.
And if you’ve had a good Church history class you know the human stories that shaped the arguments. You know that for the people involved, these were not matters of abstract speculation.
- They fought and suffered because they saw that salvation itself hung in the balance.
- They saw that if certain answers were true, then Christian faith does nothing to save us.
- Other answers, very particular answers, showed we have a faith worth holding to the death.
Only certain answers interpreted the Bible reasonably. Only certain answers showed that God in Christ was able to solve the human problem — and that God in Christ has actually done so.
Knowing the stories of how and why the arguments happened enables you to understand the teachings that the Church came up with as a result. And that’s theology.
History + Theology = Clarity
And all of this prepares you really well for your next year in seminary.
At your school, like many others, intro Church history courses come early, and then you take the intro theology courses. I think that is an excellent way to order things.
When you dive into theology, you will meet those ideas again. But now your mind will already be filled up with the stories, with people, with life-and-death struggles behind the ideas. Theology won’t be abstract any more.
In fact, it works both ways. Next year, this year’s study of Church history is going to help you make sense of theology. But you’ll also find that theology is helping you make sense of Church history.
And taken together, you’ll begin to find that those concrete people and those abstract ideas begin to make sense of why the Church is how it is today.
And that can help you be a lot wiser as a minister in a challenging changing world.
Wish you had a better working knowledge of the history of Christianity? What would you say to taking a mini-course, either individually or with a small group? Click the button below to sign up for the waiting list.