Why Should You Study Church History?

chIn the introduction of his book, Christian History Made Easy, Timothy Paul Jones gives a compelling answer to that question. Let me quote him at length.

In a classic Peanuts comic strip, Sally carefully labels her paper, “Church History.” As Charlie Brown glances over her shoulder, Sally considers her subject.

“When writing about church history,” Sally scrawls, “we have to go back to the very beginning. Our pastor was born in 1930.

Charles Schulz’s comic strip may be amusing, but it isn’t too far from the truth. In sermons and devotional books, Christians encounter names like Augustine and Calvin, Spurgeon and Moody. Their stories are interesting. Truth be told, though, most church members have a tough time fitting these stories together. The typical individual’s knowledge of church history ends with the apostles and doesn’t find its footings again until sometime in the twentieth century.

Still, the story of Christianity deeply affects every believer in Jesus Christ. The history of the Christian faith affects how we read the Bible. It affects how we view our government. It affects how we worship. Simply put, the church’s history is our family history. Past Christians are our mothers and fathers in the faith, our aunts and uncles, our in-laws and –in a few cases—our outlaws!

When a child in Sunday School asks, “How could Jesus be God and still be like me?” she’s not asking a new question. She is grappling with an issue that, in AD 325, three hundred church leaders discussed in a little village named Nicaea [ni-SEE-ah], now the city of Iznik in the nation of Turkey. Even if you’ve never heard of Iznik or Nicaea, what those leaders decided will influence the way that you frame your response to the child’s question.

If you’ve ever wondered, “Why are there so many different churches?” the answer is woven somewhere within two millennia of political struggles and personal skirmishes. When you read words like “predestined” or “justified” in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, it isn’t only Paul and your pastor who affect how you respond. Even if you don’t realize it, Christian thinkers such as Augustine and John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards also influence how you understand these words.

So, if the history of Christianity affects so much of what we do, what’s the problem? Why isn’t everyone excited about this story? Simply this: A few pages into many history books, and the story of Christianity can suddenly seem like a vast and dreary landscape, littered with a few interesting anecdotes and a lot of dull dates.

Despite history’s profound effect on our daily lives, most church members will never read Justo Gonzalez’s thousand-page The Story of Christianity. Only the most committed students will wade through all 1,552 pages of Ken Latourette’s A History of Christianity. Fewer still will learn to apply church history to their lives. And so, when trendy novels and over-hyped television documentaries attempt to reconstruct the history of Christianity, thousands of believers find themselves unable to offer intelligent answers to friends and family members.

What we don’t seem to recognize is that church history is a story. It’s an exciting story about ordinary people that God has used in extraordinary ways. What’s more, it’s a story that every Christian ought to know. (Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones, pp. 6–7: Book and DVD)

Do you believe that? I hope you do. Continue reading

Saint Patrick: Separating Missionary Fact from Fictitious Malarkey

What comes to mind when you think of St. Patrick’s Day? 

Leprechauns.  Ireland.  Wearing green.  Or drinking green beer.  If that is it, you may want to re-read the record books.  

A few years back, Russell Moore gave a brief history lesson on the real Patrick that should make every missionally-minded Christian sit up and take notice.  Drawing on the Philip Freeman’s 2007 book, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, Moore summarizes Freeman’s work:

Freeman helpfully retells Patrick’s conversion story, one of a mocking young hedonist to a repentant evangelist. The story sounds remarkably similar to that of Augustine—and, in the most significant of ways, both mirror the first-century conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Freeman helpfully reconstructs the context of local religion as a “business relationship” in which sacrifice to pagan gods was seen as a transaction for the material prosperity of the worshippers. Against this, Patrick’s conversion to Christianity was noticed quickly, when his prayers of devotion—then almost always articulated out loud—were overheard by his neighbors.

The rest of the narrative demonstrates the ways in which Patrick carried the Christian mission into the frontiers of the British Isles—confronting a hostile culture and institutionalized heresy along the way. With this the case, the life of Patrick is a testimony to Great Commission fervor, not to the Irish nationalism most often associated with the saint. As a matter of fact, Freeman points out that Patrick’s love for the Irish was an act of obedience to Jesus’ command to love enemies and to pray for persecutors.

Likewise, Kevin DeYoung, also from the archives (ca. 2011), provides a brief missionary biography of Patrick.  He says,

Here’s what most scholars agree on: Patrick–whose adult life falls in the fifth century–was actually British, not Irish. He was born into a Christian family with priests and deacons for relatives, but by his own admission, he was not a good Christian growing up. As a teenager he was carried by Irish raiders into slavery in Ireland. His faith deepened during this six year ordeal. Upon escaping Ireland he went back home to Britain. While with his family he received a dream in which God called him to go back to Ireland to convert the Irish pagans to Christianity.

In his Confessio Patrick writes movingly about his burden to evangelize the Irish. He explicitly links his vocation to the commands of Scripture. Biblical allusions like “the nations will come to you from the ends of the earth” and “I have put you as a light among the nations” and “I shall make you fishers of men” flow from his pen. Seeing his life’s work through the lens of Matthew 28 and Acts 1, Patrick prayed that God would “never allow me to be separated from His people whom He has won in the end of the earth.”  For Patrick, the ends of the earth was Ireland.

According to one historian (again I am citing DeYoung’s research) “[Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally” (Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity86)  meaning that he was the first person to take the Great Commission as a command.  Rightly, Patrick read Matthew 28:19 as a calling for him, and so he left home to take the gospel to pagans of Ireland. 

This literal and personal reading of disciple-making needs to be reissued today, because some still think Jesus’ words are for someone else. Tragically, they relegate Jesus’ missionary imperative to a bygone era or for some special class of people.  Yet, as Patrick’s life and labors show, when men take seriously the call to be a disciple-making disciple, God will bring great blessings.  Fifteen centuries later we have much to learn from Patrick.

I encourage you to read the rest of Moore’s blogpost (What evangelicals can learn from Saint Patrick) and DeYoung’s foray into history (Who was Saint Patrick?).  Together these two brief posts will help you determine fact from fiction.  They will give you many reasons to thank God for the missions-minded Brit who brought the light of the gospel to the whole nation of Ireland.

May Patrick’s brave example spur us on to share the gospel with our own pagan nation and hostile neighbors. 

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Read the Bible with the Church: A Wise Word from Charles Hodge

Protestant Christians have always believed in Sola Scriptura, but they have also read the Bible with the Church.  Until recently (since the American Revolution and the Enlightenment), the idea of “Me and My Bible” Christianity, or Solo Scripturahas not been advocated.  Like the Jews who plugged their ears and stoned Stephen, when we read the Bible without listening to the men who have gone before us, we endanger ourselves of committing many errors and foolishly rehashing untold biblical-theological arguments.

In this vein–reading the Bible with the light of Church History–is helpfully represented by American theologian, Charles Hodge.

Protestants admit that as there has been an uninterrupted tradition of truth from the protevangelium [Genesis 3:15] to the close of the Apocalypse [Revelation 21-22], so there has been a stream of traditionary teaching flowing through the Christian Church from the day of Pentecost to the present time. This tradition is so far a rule of faith that nothing contrary to it can be true. Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed. They constitute one body, having one common creed. Rejecting that creed, or any of its parts, is the rejection of the fellowship of Christians, incompatible with the communion of saints, or membership in the body of Christ. In other words, Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject, and which no man can reject and be a Christian (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:113–14).

To learn more about the value of Charles Hodge for today, read my review of  Paul Gutjahr’s recent biography, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American OrthodoxyAnother fresh biography on Charles Hodge is Andrew Hoffecker’s Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

(HT: J.T. English)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day :: Green Means Go!

What comes to mind when you think of St. Patrick’s Day? 

Leprechauns.  Ireland.  A pot of gold.  Wearing green or drinking green beer.  If that is it, your understanding of this celebrated day is divorced from history and the real Patrick of Ireland.

Today on Moore to the Point, Dr. Russell Moore gives a brief history lesson on the real St Patrick that should make every missionally-minded Christian sit up and take notice.  Drawing on the Philip Freeman’s 2007 book, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, Moore summarizes:

Any evangelical seeking to kindle a love for missions among the people of God will benefit from this volume’s demonstration that the Great Commission did not lie dormant between the apostle Paul and William Carey. Patrick’s love and zeal for the Irish may also inspire American evangelicals to repent of our hopelessness for the conversion of, say, the radical Islamic world—which is, after all, no more “hopeless” than the Irish barbarians of Patrick’s era.

I encourage you to read the rest of Moore’s blogpostWhat evangelicals can learn from Saint Patrick, and to give thanks for this obedient servant of Christ.  May his brave example spur us on to share the gospel with our own pagan nation and hostile neighbors. 

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Irenaeus of Lyons: A Faithful Church Father

A Man Worthy of Consideration and Imitation (Heb. 13:7)

After surveying Irenaeus Against Heresies it is evident that the Bishop of Lyons is a man committed to Scriptures and thus worthy of emulation in many ways. His vehement opposition to Gnostic heresies, his unwavering commitment to the Word of God as authoritative, inerrant, and sufficient, and his robust biblical theology are examples worthy of ponder and imitate. In his grasp of the Bible and in his bold proclamation thereof, Irenaeus incarnates Titus 1:9 admonition to elders, “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”

Nevertheless, there are things that Irenaeus did in his exposition of Scripture that modern expositors should be cautious to repeat. First, Irenaeus’ habit of allegorizing details within narrative passages is not a legitimate hermeneutic procedure. Finding more than three allegorical meanings to the ax head in Elisha narrative, and comparing the three spies sent to Jericho to the Trinity[1] are spurious interpretations at best and potentially harmful.

Second, his pattern of making typology fit the most intricate detail of the event is problematic (i.e. Lazarus’ clothes, clean and unclean animals). Though Irenaeus was constrained from major error because of a strong apostolic doctrine, those who have weak doctrine and strong imaginations will be the next generation of Gnostics, or liberals, or postmoderns. Patience, humility to admit we don’t know everything,[2] and increasing textual evidence based on ongoing exegesis must be required for all typological interpretations.

Finally, there is wisdom in focusing on the main details of the Gospel and not on peripheral non-essentials. In a handful of instances, Irenaeus taught peculiar doctrines (i.e. Christ living to the age of 50; six days of creation correspondent to six millennia) by defining one passage of Scripture with another, that in all likelihood should not have been combined. The causes of this are manifold, but the principle lesson is that doctrinal formulation should be founded on the clearest and most abundant biblical evidence. Such Scriptural data must recognize the unfolding nature of progressive revelation and form its doctrines in accordance with the canonical shape of the Bible.

Today, the church stands on the shoulders of men like Irenaeus, and benefits from his stalwart commitment to the truth and the right interpretation of Scripture. Yet, there is one other aspect of his theological enterprise that should not go unnoticed. At the end of Books III and IV, Irenaeus prays for his opponents. He was not cold theologian, but a doctrinally-committed pastor whose theology shaped his prayer and his polemics.  This too, and perhaps, this most is worthy of emulation.  I fear too much pugilism and too little prayer is offered today in debates that surround interpretation of the Bible.

So, as we close our evaluation of Irenaeus of Lyons, may we give thanks to God for this faithful saint and consider his life and imitate his biblical faith.[3]

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[1] Ibid., 4.20.12.

[2] Something that Irenaeus demonstrated in his own position of ecclesial authority (see. Adversus haereses 2.28.3).

[3] For the Gnostics, Irenaeus prays, “We do indeed pray that these men may not remain in the pit which they themselves have dug, but separate themselves from a Mother of this nature, and depart from Bythus, and stand away from the void, and relinquish the shadow; and that they, being converted to the Church of God, may be lawfully begotten, and that Christ maybe formed in them, and that they may know the Framer and Maker of this universe, the only true God and Lord of all. We pray for these things on their behalf, loving them better than they seem to love themselves” (Adversus haereses 3.25.7).

Distraction, Devotion, and Destruction: A Reflection from Gregory the Great’s “Pastoral Rule”

Reading Gregory the Great’s “Pastoral Rule,” a document addressing Christian shepherds and their pastoral roles, I came across this quote.  Ponder it with me.

Secular employments, therefore, though they may sometimes be endured out of compassion, should never be sought after out of affection for the things themselves; lest, while they weigh down the mind of him who loves them, they sink it, overcome by its own burden, from heavenly places to the lowest (Gregory the Great, “The Pastoral Rule,” in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, p. 18).

Gregory’s comment illustrates numerous biblical exhortations for pastors and leaders in ministry.  Consider three:

2 Timothy 2:4, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.”

2 Timothy 2:20-21, “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable.  Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful for the master of the house, ready for every good work.”

1 Peter 5:2-3, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God whould have you; not for shameful gain…”

In a world filled with distractions…Television.  Radio.  Video Games.  Internet.  Telephone.  Cell Phone.  Email.  Blogging.  Facebook.  Twitter.  The list goes on… Where was I?  Oh yeah, distracting secular employments!  In a world filled with distractions, Gregory’s warning is a timeless reminder that one of Satan’s ploys is to take our eyes, our minds, our affections off what really matters and to fill them with worldly goods (Read: Luke 14:16-24). 

More so than ever, our enemy has an avalanche of options to force us off the straight and narrow path.  He may not tempt us to be bad but to be busy with banality.  For none of the things listed above are intrinsically evil, but they become instruments of destruction when they hinder our worship, deter our mission, promote lethargy, or increase vain curiosity.

I don’t say this as a disenchanted technophobe, but as someone who regularly utilizes the modern amenities afforded by technology.  Nevertheless, I feel their effects.  Gregory’s words rachet me back to Jesus’ pre-modern call to pick up my cross and follow Him.  I confess that too many times, I am distracted in this pursuit, and so I appreciate his exhortation.  I pray for spiritual renewal in my life and a return to a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).  I pray for others too that we will together fix our eyes on Jesus running with endurance the race set out for us, and that to do this well we throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  In this I pray, that we will learn how to use mass media not for purposes of distraction, but for purposes of spiritual destruction–“destroying arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5)

Father in Heaven, Undistracted Deity: Give your people the wisdom to see the ways in which worldly distractions keep them from following you as loyal soldiers, clean vessels, and willing shepherds.  Spirit of Truth, lead us to repent and turn from our futile pursuits and to utilize all creation, technology included, for your glory.  Protect us from the world’s all-consuming efffects.  Lord Jesus, glorify yourself in your church, liberating your people to be wholly committed to loving and serving you.  And may the world watch in wonder and follow in obedience to you as your church turns from distraction to devotion!

Sola Deo Gloria, dss