Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On the Use and Abuse of Church History

Over that Justin Taylor's blog, I made the following comment about church history, particularly in relationship to how we internet bloggers tend to marshall history to our defense, rarely ever to the critique of our own position. One of the most recent examples is over issues of penal substitutionary atonement, particularly here in the post and comments.

First we ought to be extremely careful how we examine history. Often times they do not ask the same questions we are seeking answers for. They may give us clues how they might answer, but often times their debates are far different from our own.

I’m not going to defend all the church fathers here and their views on the atonement, but it seems to me too many are quickly dropping names from history and then asserting ‘these guys denied penal substitution’ when in fact they were not issues they wrestled with as a whole (or to the degree that say others in the 16th century did). This first claim goes hand in hand with the assertion that penal substitution is a new invention, which is hardly the case since the church fathers do bear some witness (beyond Chrysostom) to Christ bearing our sins and the curse we deserve. If you read the comments in Jones' post there is a discussion of the church fathers linking to sources, and then dismissing them, etc.

The careful historian encounters these issues and is much more judicious in how he asks questions of the past that may not have been asked or addressed until the future. This is not to say the past cannot give us clues but only to say that most of us internet bloggers are far too quick in our assertions about who has and has not read history very well... even while too many us get our history from wikipedia, or other bloggers (myself included at times). It is hard work to listen to the past rather than merely marshaling them to our side (I call myself into check here too).

Second, because often times the issues that the wrestle with are different from our own, we ought to avoid a sort of smorgasbord approach. The tendency to is to pick one element of one person’s thought and justify our own view with it. The reality is that we might pick all the worst aspects of various church fathers (and latter figures) and construct a theology in which the whole tenor of it runs contrary to the dominant themes of said fathers (this strikes me as a fair example of how many people approach Irenaeus and Athanasius--choosing one element they like while discarding their whole theological paradigm). This becomes an immature program of defending one’s position marshaling a ‘he said, she said’ without listening to the larger melody of their thought. Let’s not forget either that Luther, Calvin and a whole host of the reformers were better historians of the church fathers (both eastern and western) than all of us combined.

Third, does it not go without saying that regardless of what someone said our hearts must be held captive to the Word of God. Church history and historical theology can be like a stabilizing wing of an airplane but it can hardly be the engine that drives the plane.

No comments:

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...