As a middle-aged git, an aspiring baldy man, someone as uncool as you can get and a rock dinosaur, much of my wisdom is drawn from song lyrics from bands that most people under the age of 35 have never heard of. Thus, in this final blog post, I want to make the case for church history with reference to a line in a song by The Pretenders (called, I believe, ‘Hymn to Her’): “Some things change, some stay the same”. It's not too profound, I guess, but it's a critical element in the historical task, given that the very possibility of history requires some analogy between the present world in which the historian lives and the past that is being studied. Were they identical, history would be pointless, for the past would be the present; were they utterly different, history would be impossible, for there would be no way of analyzing, categorizing or describing the past. No, for history to be possible, there must be things about my world that are the same as those in the past.
Ironically, this is one of the things that typical postmodern thinkers would reject. If Nietzsche was right—if all there is in this universe is my will to power, and if I therefore create myself and my reality—history becomes merely a projection of myself—a justification for my way of doing things—an expression of my desires and appetites. Perhaps the saddest part of the pop appropriation of postmodernism by evangelicals around the world is the failure to realize just how deeply this strikes at the heart of the Christian faith. Christianity does not begin with me as the knowing or willing subject; it begins with God and his creation. It does not regard universals as the constructs of human beings, such that even gender distinctions come to be seen as social constructs. Rather, Christianity sees them as possessing a reality grounded in the creative mind of God. This is of massive theological significance: if there are no true universals—if human nature is just a construct of the human mind—then what is man? What is the Fall? What is sin? And what is redemption?
I will leave the refutation of postmodernism at a metaphysical level to the proper theologians. As a historian, however, it seems to me that the very possibility of history depends upon what I mentioned above—analogies between past and present that require not just points of difference, but points of identity or continuity. Only in this way can we avoid regarding the past as an inaccessible country such that all the stories one might tell about it are merely myths designed to justify some arrangement or desire or identity in the present. No. The past is recoverable because it stands in positive relation to the present.
To make this point very practical, it means that I can read works from the past and find them useful. If you think about it, this would seem to be no great insight; everything you and I have ever read was written prior to our reading of it, and was thus part of the past. But I am speaking here of things written in the far distant past. Okay, you say, the Bible is written in the past, and no evangelical should question the fact that reading it is useful. But it is divinely inspired and transcendent; other works are not, and are bound to their specific times so as to be useless to us. It's one thing for me to read a book written in the 21st century, which speaks to a culture very similar, if not identical to my own, but what about those books written in ancient times, in cultures and for people who are so different to those we find today?
The simple answer is the universals of reality (e.g. God, Christ, his revelation, human nature, sin) remain constant, and this means that the kind of issues addressed by the church over the years—from how to preach to how to counsel people with marital problems or struggles with sin—remain pretty constant. Okay, nobody in, say, the fourth century was downloading pornography from the internet, but pornography and the sex trade did exist then, and Christians did struggle with both.
I want to close, then, by suggesting that even some of the earliest Christian writings can be useful to us because they address God's word to real people in real situations. These people shared the same sinful nature as us, and the situations they found themselves in, while not identical to those in our world, are sufficiently close for us to be able to learn from them—both from their mistakes and their strengths. Thus, to end, here's a quotation from the third or fourth-century preacher and pastor John Chrysostom, relating to the attitudes he sees in his congregation:
Most of those who are under authority refuse to treat preachers as their instructors. They rise above the status of disciples and assume that of spectators, sitting in judgment on secular speech-making. (On the Priesthood)
Congregants sitting in judgement on the preacher and on the word he preaches? Parishioners judging the preacher's performance by the standards of secular entertainment, rather than sacred rhetoric? Sound familiar? Well, if you want to know what Chrysostom suggests about how pastors should respond, you'll have to get the book and read it for yourselves. Believe me, it's one of the best little books on the pastoral ministry I've read.
Some things change, but an awful lot stays the same.