History as a Guide to Contemporary Debates

by
July 24, 2015

Unmoored.

But it simply isn’t true.

Wrong side of history argument…

Our key anchor point is always the Scripture.

2,000 years.

That’s a long time.

It’s here we should stop and acknowledge that history is never a sterile environment. Political and economic ideals intertwine with philosophical questions as they bump against theological concepts. Sometimes dividing between Individuals of the past were every bit as flawed as present ones. The famed orator and preacher John Chrysostom used his gifts to move audiences to repentance but used those same talents to move masses to violence against Jews. Gregory the Great may have brought significant reform to a drifting church in the 6th century, but he also codified the concept of purgatory, an extra-biblical conjecture.

4 decades.

That seems like a long time.

In 2016, we will be four decades from what Newsweek famously proclaimed “The Year of the Evangelical.”

In the modern political and cultural realities we face, that feels like eons ago.

Since the heady days of 1976, we’ve traveled the road from Carter’s election to “Evangelical” being a term that loses an election. We reveled in the triumphantalism of the Moral Majority but became relegated to the minority because of our morality.

Yet we are talking mere decades.

For nearly two millennia, the church stood rooted and grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ.. The church offered the freedom of the cross to people groups that openly accepted the Gospel as well as to cultures that fully rejected the claims of Christ.

For nearly two millennia, the church has contemplated and been faced with it all:

Abortion.

Homosexuality.

Marriage.

Wanton consumption.

Social inequality.

Slavery.

War.

Immigration.

Refugees.

The list goes on. It’s all there. As Solomon once stated, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Since the very beginning, the church has spoken to the challenges of their day by driving believers back to the ultimate authority – the Scriptures. In certain eras, the church engaged the needs of the day effectively. In other eras, the church itself became so enmeshed with the cultural norms of the day, prophetic voices arose not with new message, but one as old as the church itself – to return to the Word of God.

Each generation received a missiological mantel to engage the cultural issues of their day. They presented Truth. The Truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over and again. As a pilgrim people who have not yet reached their homeland, voice after voice in the church championed the claims of Scripture to encourage positive aspects of culture or prophetically condemn the atrocities of the era.

For Christians, we engage the situations of the day standing not alone, but amid the throngs of generations. This “great cloud of witnesses” provide encouragement, balanced insight and a deeper context than the flash-fire of the present. It gives us the ability to wrestle with ideas along with our forbears – even when the process is less than neat and clean.

Consider the question of abortion. Evangelicals continue to hold the ground on issues of life in the womb. Not only in the Scriptures is all life upheld as precious in God’s sight, but the church carried this teaching forward. In the early 3rd century, Tertullian writes his apologetic work, Treatise on the Soul, arguing for a clear understanding of life beginning at conception. By the 6th Ecumenical Council in 680 the question of abortion was re-iterated leading Eastern churches to affirm in 692 that those who abort a baby or produce drugs that lead to an abortion are committing murder.[1]

Sound like issues we might face?

Even the Reformers challenged their culture. Luther called out those who abort their children as violating an understanding of the gift of children in his commentary on Genesis 25:4.[2] Calvin famously stated his opposition to abortion in his commentary on Exodus 21:23 where he states,

for the foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.[3]

Here’s the point: We do not stand in isolation from those who have gone before us.

Yet this brings a new challenge to our churches. Much of our practical outworking of Christian history only goes back as far as “the-last-time-something-great-happened” or “the-worst-event-ever” in our recent memory. Our churches become untethered from the anchor of our rich heritage which points over and again to the faithfulness of our Savior.

So what are we to do about our historical amnesia?

I believe there are several solutions that start with church leaders but it can move through our congregations quickly.

• Highlight historical figures and stories as illustrations in sermons or teaching series. Bring awareness to our congregations that people in the past understood the power of the Gospel and stood for the truths of Christ.

• Educate our children in the heroes of the past. The Torchlighters animated series highlights several key persons that your family should know. They are readily available to rent online and can help kids connect with the giants who journeyed before us in the faith!

• Read biographies of faithful men and women. Read their letters and their words. Read the sermons of pastors and church leaders of prior eras. While this type of reading should never replace Scripture, it should be a regular part of our spiritual disciplines! For pastors and church leaders, I frequently recommend a reading plan that’s as simple as 1, 2, 3.

1 – Read at least one treatise by a key figure in the history of the church annually. This could be Augustine’s Confessions or Athanasius’ Life of Anthony. It could be Calvin’s Institutes, or Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner. I recommend reading this in a community of other Christians so you can talk about the ideas presented by the author.

2 – Read at least two biographies of individuals who faithfully followed Christ. Do this every year. There is a reason why biographies have played such an essential part of Christian spiritual life and discipleship for centuries!

3 – Read at least three sermons by leading figures like Spurgeon, Luther, Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan and Calvin every month. Read sermons on whatever text you are teaching or currently studying to gain a fuller understanding of how the church understood these passages in the past. In the process you will hear how leaders encouraged their churches during times of persecution or times of plenty. You will hear cautions about heresy or be amazed at reports of the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

As the Bride of Christ, we join the throngs of Christ-followers who stand on the “wrong side of history” over and again as we rally around truth, not the shifting tides of culture. In the history of the church we find encouragement for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

 

[1] The Quinisext Council in 692 was largely attended by Eastern Bishops and considered a continuation of the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils by the East, but not in the West. Canon 91 condemns abortion.

[2] Martin Luther, Jaroslav Pelikan, et al, Luther’s Works, Vol. 4 (Saint Louis : Concordia Publishing House, 1999) 4:304.

[3] John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, Vol 3 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1854) 3:42


John Mark Yeats
Dr. John Mark Yeats serves as the undergraduate dean for Midwestern Baptist College. Yeats earned his Ph.D. in Church History from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He also holds degrees from Southern Seminary, Oxford University, and Criswell College. Yeats has authored three books, Franchising McChurch: Feeding our Obsession with Easy Christianity; The Time is Come: The Rise of British Missions to the Jews, 1808-1818; and Worldviews: Think for Yourself about How We See God. He has also contributed articles to multiple journals as well as the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. Yeats is married to Angie, and they have four children, Briley, Sean, Cadie, and Jackson.