Church History is a goldmine. Maybe this is something you’ve suspected, maybe it’s something you’ve known, maybe it’s something you’ve never been sure of but getting into it sounds intimidating. Maybe the most you’ve heard of Church History is something about a Council of Nicaea and that the Reformation was one part Luther-the-monk-nailing-his-problems-with-the-Roman-Catholic-Church-to-a-door and one part an English King trying to get a divorce (more on that in a moment).
I don’t have any wild, earth-shattering revelations to offer you on Church History that can possibly be covered in less than 2000 words, but I was left making some general reflections this year after spending time on the Reformation, and it felt like the thoughts were worth sharing. I hope they might spark your interest in the topic, or at least help you to appreciate it a little.
Here are three important things I’ve learned from studying Church History from the last 18 months at Moore Theological College.
1) Things Are Nearly Always More Complicated Than You Think
This makes sense even when considering current historical events. I always have to leave some context out of telling stories to mates, because we don’t always have time for every detail.
Our culture commonly and collectively absorbs information through the format of narrative. It’s why we can’t get enough of movies, TV shows, books, and a wide plethora of other story-telling formats. Narratives – stories – are very efficient at packaging events in a way that makes them memorable and entertaining. The challenge is, there’s not a lot of time for context in a narrative. If you want an example from fiction, try reading JRR Tolkein’s The Silmarillion. It’s very hard to make high-context narratives work. It’s far easier to engage with a narrative that has some good guys, some bad guys, and something that they argue over.
When we apply this lens to how we interpret and understand actual history though, things start to get weird. Real people are complex; it’s difficult to tell a story about a historical figure that’s accurate and interesting without leaving some bits out (often the bits that get in the way of the story you’re telling).
But when you reduce a historical figure’s complexity in order to serve a narrative, you either end up ill-equipped for processing the uncomfortable things about them in real life (for example, Martin Luther was a really combative man and he really didn’t like Jewish people by the end of his life) or you end up with a story that’s so simplified that it’s just plain wrong (Henry VIII asked for an annulment, not a divorce, because he didn’t believe his marriages to Catherine of Aragon or Anne of Cleves were valid).
Engaging with Church History is important, because where you come from and how you got there is important. Humans are complicated, and we’re sinful, and we’re impacted by our context, and we’re trying to figure out how to love and serve Jesus in that context. Engaging well with history means keeping those things in mind, and being slow to apply our 21st Century expectations. We’re engaging with and reading about real people, not book or TV characters.
2) Be Humble When You Bring Your New Idea To The Table
One of the key lessons from ‘Church History 1: The First 500 Years’ was that a very large chunk of incorrect ideas about how God and/or Jesus works cropped up in that space of time. A lot of the bad takes that surface now are often one of the early heresies with a new coat of paint. (So if someone comes to you with a ‘Benevolent Father, Angry Judge’ perception of God that splits across New and Old Testaments, just know that a bloke called Marcion did it first, 1900 years ago, and that he was refuted within his own lifetime).
People have been thinking about God, about his word, and about how to help people love him, for a very long time. I rolled into theological college with my vision and schtick being ‘helping people who are concrete thinkers grasp the conceptual ideas of God’, only to find out that William Tyndale had had that exact vision 500 years ago when he dreamed of the ploughboys (who did manual labour and little else) to know God’s word.
What I’m saying is that it pays to check what those who’ve come before have thought when it comes to wrangling [insert idea here], God, and his church. It’s unlikely that you’re stumbling across a brand new idea that nobody has thought of before, even if it sounds like it. And if you’re going to dig into this ‘brand new’ idea, it pays to do it slowly and methodically, because as mentioned above, people are complex, and sometimes you hit ideas that are challenging to work through.
3) The Small Stuff Matters More Than You Think It Does
We live in a culture and context that often asks whether the details really matter, with the assumption that they don’t. Maybe it’s an Australian thing and part of our very casual culture. Maybe it’s because we worry a lot about the feelings of the person next to us and don’t want to upset or mystify the visitor with The Weird Thing Christians Are Doing In Church.
Yet there are things we do in church now that were hard to win during the Reformation. It ought to be noted that the Reformers as we call them now didn’t set out to do a new thing. They honestly wanted to reform what their churches were doing, and when they couldn’t convince those higher up the chain, they did their best to be faithful in teaching God’s people according to his word. But many of these things came at a great cost. Others couldn’t really be resolved.
Ulrich Zwingli – a reformer I’d never really heard of until 2021 – died defending his town from people who wanted him to stop his reforms, which included preaching in the common language (rather than Latin), running an early form of Bible studies, and challenging what was being taught about the Mass and priestly celibacy. Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were burnt at the stake because they firmly believed that the bread used in the Lord’s Supper remained bread, and didn’t turn into the Body of Christ (as the Roman Catholic Church taught).
It’s hard to wrap your head around it today, but during a time when capital punishment was a common thing, people died to ensure that the changes made to how we did church would be faithful to God’s word. Suffering in order to defend thought and teaching and practice during periods of change and upheaval wasn’t uncommon. Even for things that we as a modern church have agreed to disagree on – such as when you baptise people – people died as they figured it out.
This was part of the context of the day (see point 1) and so while it’s hard to get your head around, I feel like the take-home truth to be had here is that the details of church practice matter. Why and how and what you do in your church matters. I feel like I think differently about baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a result – not necessarily in the way of changing a theological position – but certainly in treating them as topics of weight and value that one shouldn’t dismiss. The details matter, because it matters how we treat our Heavenly Father, and our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the lost in our world.