Seeking consensus across the centuries
Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past
Author: Robert F. Rea
Publisher: InterVarsity Press (www.ivpress.com)
I came to Christ, or should I say, He revealed Himself to me, at the tail end of the Jesus Movement that swept California in the late 60s. It seems ironic that this historic move of God would give rise to a faith that in some expressions would overlook the importance of history. In one sense it was a break from Tradition. Tradition and traditions are explored in depth in Why Church History Matters by Robert F. Rea.
As a young believer, I grew up in churches that, to my knowledge, did not encourage the study of church history. Any references to traditions were negative. I am not pointing the finger; just stating how it was as best as I can remember it.
It was on my own that I discovered the value of reading about historical figures and events. I don’t need convincing from this book, even though it serves as a wonderful apologetic for why church history matters and the place for tradition. If you need persuading, you can’t go wrong by starting here.
Some might wonder, “How will this help me today?” A Christian couple that I have known for a long time now embraces a mindset that leans toward universalism. A family member now promotes a form of teaching known as hyper-dispensationalism. As Rea in this book repeatedly states, church history teaches us to “seek consensus across the centuries—consensus fidelium.” Though we may find individuals who embraced a form of universalism, can we say that this is what the Church through the centuries has believed? As hyper-dispensationalists assert, are there two gospels, one for the Jews and the other for the Gentiles? Are only the apostle Paul’s teachings considered formative for Christians?
What have Christians in the past believed about these matters? This is where the welcome thoughts of the author lead. What is the consensus? If there was none, what can we learn to help us evaluate troublesome doctrine?
Rea leads from the confusion of the aberrational to the quiet repose of the faith that has been believed and practiced since the time of Christ.
He reminds readers that our communion is not just with our immediate circle. The sphere of influence can extend to believers in the past, who can hold us accountable, just as we today hold them accountable by evaluating their teachings.
This takes us to the most fascinating section of the book, which deals with the subject of interpreting Scripture. It starts with an expert summary of how Christians from the early church to the present have sought to rightly divide the word of truth.
One point echoes a reoccurring theme, “(Moises) Silva contends that historic interpretation is God’s gift to the contemporary church” (149). In other words, taking time to read commentaries and to become familiar with church history is not a waste of time. It allows believers from the past to inform us.
Drawing from another referenced writer, Rea states, “we do not know what Scripture means until we have examined what Scripture has meant, that commitment to biblical authority ‘will actually drive us toward a deeper knowledge of Christian tradition and the history of interpretation, not away from it’” (149).
This leads to a discussion of textual criticism, where scholars, taking into consideration a multitude of factors, try to determine the “precise” text of the Bible. The author, through providing specific examples, makes the point “that historical theology helps the translator of Scripture make better, more informed choices about how to translate” (156). Does this seem dry? The author makes it highly readable, so that any Christian can become familiar with this material.
The last section deals with how knowledge of church history is helpful in a wide variety of ministry applications. It feels a little redundant but it is an accurate assessment.
What commends this volume more than anything is the author’s breadth of knowledge and wisdom pertaining to the subject matter. This might be most helpful to those who doubt the benefit of knowing church history and are skeptical of anything related to tradition. The author never advocates a non-discerning approach.
Most church history books give you narrative accounts of actual events. This book is unique in that it provides a framework for engaging historical thought and practices. It’s a convincing argument that Christians are the poorer when we limit our circles of influence.