It is a great honour and pleasure, being invited to contribute a few guest blog posts to The Sola Panel in advance of my forthcoming visit to Australia. Given the fact that a fool is generally known by his much speaking, I have decided to focus my posts on what I know best—church history, but not in some tedious here-are-a-few-names-and-dates-manner; rather, I want to argue for the importance of church history as a vital discipline for theological education, both in seminary training and in the day-to-day life of the church. Those who do not know history may not be quite as doomed to repeat its mistakes as the famous proverb would imply, but understanding how it can be useful might yet help one or two of us to avoid some embarrassing potholes, or it may just save us from having to reinvent the wheel all over again, fun as such reinvention undoubtedly is (once watching the grass grow and the paint dry has lost its appeal, that is).
In this vein, church history can serve the church in a manner similar to the way in which criminal profilers serve the police force. Even though they stretch the imagination somewhat, I am sure most of us occasionally enjoy those TV dramas where some person with a PhD in criminal psychology is able to work out from the scatter formation of sweet wrappers found at a crime scene that the culprit is a man in his 40s with a limp in his left leg, bad breath and a dysfunctional relationship with his mother. How does he achieve such a startling feat? Because he knows the pattern: he's seen it all before, and, for him, this is just same old same old.
This points to one of the primary purposes of church history as an important area of study for pastors, teachers and anyone who holds any position of responsibility within the church: there are few errors or heresies around today that do not have clear parallels and antecedents in church history. Open theism, with its denial of God's comprehensive knowledge of the future? Think 17th-century Socinianism. Mormonism, with its denial of the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ? Think fourth-century Arianism. Modern denials of penal substitutionary atonement? Think 17th-century Socinianism and 18th-century Unitarianism. The only difference, sadly, is that the heretical arguments of earlier generations were, on the whole, far more sophisticated than their modern-day counterparts. It's almost enough to make one nostalgic. Forget rock music and movie stars; today, it seems that heretics are not what they used to be.
In this context, church history can be a great timesaver. The Bible itself demonstrates time and again that historical ignorance goes hand in hand with moral and theological disaster. The book of Judges is one long litany of periods of forgetfulness and decline, punctuated by the occasional flash of remembrance and salvation. The church forgets her past to her peril. The easiest way to spot a heretic, a charlatan or a theological scoundrel is to know what such a person looks like, and church history is like one giant book of theologically criminal mug shots.
Furthermore, however, church history does not just provide profiles of heresies and heretics; it also offers fruitful avenues of response. One of the great evangelical myths is that tradition, and traditional theological formulations, need always be set against biblical exegesis. As if earlier generations did no biblical exegesis! Such an attitude is not only condescending and filled with chronological snobbery, it is also patently untrue. Too often it also indicates a subtle anti-theological agenda that wishes to downplay or minimize the role of systematic theology in the church's witness over the years. Such an approach overturns, in the process, a pretty universal, almost two-millennia consensus on the importance of systematic theology as a discipline, and it does that by, ironically, sidestepping, rather than engaging with, the exegesis on which such was built. Creeds, confessions and theological doctrines were developed in the context of churchly exegesis of Scripture. One may disagree with a particular doctrine on exegetical grounds, but rare is the doctrine that can be dismissed because its author did no exegesis.
Thus, church history offers not simply a set of heretical mug shots, it also open up heretical positions to vigorous scrutiny, and allows us to learn from both the heretics themselves and those who responded to them. Want to know why Arianism is biblically inadequate? Then start by reading its most fearsome and brilliant opponents, like Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. Want to know what the practical results of the denial of penal substitution are? Well, on the positive side, look at defences of the doctrine by the great orthodox thinkers of the 17th century, and on the negative, look at Unitarian preaching in the 18th century.
Of course, the alternative is that we simply throw history away and start from scratch every Sunday or every time we open a new book touting the latest theological breakthrough. There is nothing like reading modern theology without any historical context to make us prey for any doctrinal cowboy or know-nothing who rides into town. Evacuate Christianity of its history and you leave a dangerous vacuum that can be filled with any old nonsense. As the quotation from George Orwell on my office coffee mug says, “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”.