I love church history. The story of what happened between the end of the New Testament and our day is fascinating. To see how the Church went from a handful of men and women from Judea to one of the world’s largest religions is amazing. To see how our doctrine has developed over time is intriguing. To see how corrupt people manipulated the church over centuries in a twisted retelling of Israel’s spiritual history is tragic.
But the church presses on. Heresies have consistently been challenged. The gospel never disappears, even in the darkest times. Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell will not prevail over the church prove consistently true.
History and chronological snobbery
So why do people not seem to give a rip about it? Why do we not seem to understand the value of church history to our day—that it would help us recognize that many of the issues we’ve dealt with over the last 10, 20, 100 years are ones we’ve dealt with before? Why are we surprised when universalism rears its ugly head, or false dichotomies pitting God’s love and his holiness gain a hearing?
If Dayton Hartman’s experience is any indication, it largely comes down to our culture’s affinity for what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. When Hartman began his pastoral ministry, he didn’t see the value of church history.
“In fact,” he writes in Church History for Modern Ministry, “reflecting on my early adulthood, I had the nastiest case of chronological snobbery I’ve seen outside of KJV-only circles” (1).
Martin Luther and the Reformers were old-timers with nothing to say to us. The church fathers and the Creeds were useless since he was a Protestant pastor. It wasn’t until he was challenged by conversations with Muslims and Mormons that he truly began to delve into church history and see it’s profound impact on ministry today. It’s largely from this study and its application that Church History for Modern Ministry came into being.
An introductory apologetic on the importance of church history
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book. Truthfully, it wasn’t even close to what I had in mind based on the title. I anticipated a book exploring a few significant moments in history and how they still matter today. Something akin to Justin Holcomb’s excellent books, Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics.
As much as I wanted to read that, it’s not what Hartman wrote (though he kind of does in the second appendix). Instead, he goes a different direction, looking to the past to illustrate the enduring quality of a few basic but long-standing Christian practices:
- How the Creeds act as guardrails protecting us from theological drift;
- The importance of personal discipleship;
- The church’s long history of cultural engagement; and
- The place of apologetics in preaching.
In each of these, Hartman is showing readers how history has deepened his understanding of existing practices—how they have given him context for his ministry. In other words, it is an introductory apologetic on church history’s importance. And I think it largely succeeds.
The creeds and guarding orthodoxy
Among my favorite moments in the was his discussion of the creeds. This despite a horrible lie in the first sentence of the chapter (because, no Creed is most definitely not the greatest band of all time. Bro, come on…). This chapter is an encouragement for those of us committed to sola Scriptura to remember that we do still need them. Using the analogy of the relationship between Scripture and creeds as a highway (with our various traditions being the lanes on the highway), he writes:
Guardrails—the creeds—protect those traveling along the highway of biblical orthodoxy. While allowing for diversity on non-essential issues, the creeds prevent us from veering off the highway of biblical orthodoxy. Because the safeguards exist, the only way to leave the safe road of orthodoxy is to do a great deal of damage. (16)
I respect this approach a great deal as it does a nice job of concretely describing the function of the creeds. They describe the fundamentals of our faith as found in Scripture. And a knowledge of the creeds really does help us to see where teaching has gone off the rails. The creeds remind us that a teacher who describes Jesus as less than fully God and fully man, rejects the necessity of the virgin birth, or denies the Trinity is one who has abandoned orthodoxy. Thus whatever they’re teaching cannot be called Christian in any meaningful way.
A missed opportunity
Where I think I would have loved to see him focus more, would have been to explain at least one other significant error that church history guards us against—defaming God’s character in Scripture. Among the many errors plaguing the North American church today is a resurgence of Marcionism, an early heresy that played a role in the formation of the canon of Scripture. Its adherents rejected the Old Testament and God as he is depicted there, calling him a cruel and angry false god. For Marcion (the movement’s founder), only Luke’s gospel and ten of Paul’s epistles were considered true and authoritative.
Everything else had to go.
In our day, we increasingly see a practical sort of Marcionism play out. While most of us would never outright say we reject God as shown in the OT, we take a subtler approach. We just don’t read it. We treat it as unimportant. We don’t preach from it. We pit one author over another and ignore the ultimate author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit. Listen to most any sermon audio podcast on iTunes and this is what you’ll hear. But the Old Testament is rich. It is something we ignore at our peril because from it we learn much about the grace of God, the mercy of God, the love of God and the justice of God.
A good starting point, but keep reading
All this to say, I think Church History for Modern Ministry is a fine book particularly for those who realize they are chronological snobs, or as a tool to disciple small group leaders (and maybe haughty first-year seminary students). Those already interested in history but not knowing where to start should consider Bruce Shelley’s superb Church History in Plain Language. But as a starting point, I think many readers will find something of benefit from this book.
Title: Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do
Author: Dayton Hartman
Publisher: Lexham Press (2016)
Buy it at: Amazon