What do I think of Robert Rea’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Let’s be blunt. For many of us, history isn’t always the most exciting topic, which is quite really a shame since it impacts our lives so much. If we’re Christians, we love the Bible and we think it’s important to know what happened in it, but aside from perhaps something like the Reformation, many of us don’t know what happened in church history. Go to your average church and ask the people who know their Bibles well to name a single early church father. Most likely, you’ll get blank stares and some might say “Martin Luther? John Calvin? John Wesley?”
It’s a shame that those of us who have such a great love of Scripture so often do not bother to understand how our own history that went before us turned out. We act as if Jesus came and then perhaps something like the Reformation happened and lo and behold, we are here now and now we must live our lives.
Part of this is the individualism in our culture that places each of us in our own little vacuum of existence where what went before us doesn’t matter and what’s happening outside of us doesn’t really matter. It is our personal universe that is of the supreme importance. What difference can the Donatist controversy make? How can I be repeating the errors of the Gnostics today, whoever they were? Why should I care about those old arguments Thomas Aquinas put forward for God? Do I really need to care about how John Chrysostom interpreted Scripture?
Rea tells us that in fact church history does matter and if we are students of Scripture, we should be students of that history. We should be learning about the great men and women who came before us and realize that the lessons we learn from them in the past can be highly influential in our day and age and keep us from repeating their errors and help us to repeat their successes.
C.S. Lewis years ago gave the advice to read old books because when you do, you read another time and place that critiques yours and can see blind spots in your position that you do not see because of the unspoken assumptions you accept in your culture. Meanwhile, you too can see blind spots in the work that you are reading that they would miss for the same reasons.
In fact, the author suggests we read outside of the circle of our own faith tradition, our own time, our own location, and our own culture. In doing so, we will interact with areas we would never have considered before. If we are wrong, we can correct our view. If we are right, we are still the better for getting to see why others think differently.
The first part of the book is about tradition. How is it understood? The reality is Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox (By orthodox, unless stated other wise, I mean branches of the church such as Eastern Orthodox) all place some value on tradition. Some place it on the same level as Scripture. Some don’t, but they see it as important to consider and insofar as it agrees with the Scripture, should be accepted. Bible-Focused Christians, as Rea prefers to call them regardless of where they land on the church spectrum, would all tend to accept statements like the Nicene Creed for instance.
Regardless of your position, tradition should not be ignored. Even if you think it is wrong in a certain place, it is helpful to learn how it is that that tradition came about, why it was held to in its day, and what the reasons were for believing in it. It would not be as if people just woke up one day and said “Hey! Let’s believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary!” There would be reasons for holding to it, rightly or wrongly, and a context that it was discussed in.
This part also includes a little bit about church history and how we got to where we are. As stated earlier, too many of us really have no idea even though we claim to be Bible-focused. This is interesting in an age where many of us like sites like ancestry.com where we want to see where our families came from, and there is no wrong in doing so of course, but our very Christian faith does not get the same treatment.
The second part is about the way we interact with the past. Can you form friendships as it were with those who went before. I am thinking of a debate I had with an atheist not too long ago where I stated that we do have the works that we can read by the past and we should critique them today and learn from them today. We can interact with the philosophers and others who went before us rather than leave reality up to only people today who happen to get a voice just because they’re conveniently alive at the time. There is a well of wisdom before us and we need to drink from it.
This includes finding mentors and accountability partners. No. You can’t communicate with them the same way you would with a friend, but you can still learn from them and let their lives be a blessing to you. I think of Aquinas for instance whose arguments I use today. When properly understood, they are incredibly powerful in our day and age. Too often, we have dismissed ideas just because they are old. Some ideas will stand the test of time and we will find we have just reinvented the wheel when we are done if we ignore them.
Finally, we have a section on how this affects us today. Can we bring the past into the present? What this deals with is how to interpret Scripture, such as by learning from the methodologies used in the past to interpret Scripture, and also how learning history affects our practices of worship and compassion and missionary service.
I will say I was a bit disappointed that despite being academic, when it came to this last section, nothing was really said about apologetic approaches. It would have been good to see how those of us who are in the apologetics ministry could look to the past for valuable mentors and friends in the field. Other important areas were mentioned, but this one was left out. I hope a future edition will include that as well as we can learn from great defenders of the faith in the past such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.
Still, this is a recommended read and got me thinking about the importance more of learning from the past and learning how to interpret Scripture as they did. You won’t find out much about church history per se, but you will find out much about why you should find out about it.