If there is one thing that Protestants are often guilty of, it is most certainly being ignorant or at least naive of Church History. Historical Theology is more or less left to the academic world and often considered to be too “Catholic” to be of any use. This is unfortunate. I have found that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) and these witnesses from the past can greatly enhance our passion for the Lord and our passion for truth. I’m often amazed that people hold beliefs or at least consider holding certain beliefs that were dealt with early in the first four centuries. Whether dealing with the low Christology of Liberal Protestantism or the concept of Jesus not being God as taught by Mormons & Jehovah Witnesses, we can look back nearly 1500 years (or more) and find that the questions and answers have not changed. We would do well to pay attention to Church History and the subject of Historical Theology in order to trace the development of doctrines which may help keep us from reinventing the wheel.
But what is heresy? Better yet, what is orthodoxy? Do these terms have clear definitions or are they simply words that scholars toss around in the hopes of confusing the general reader? If orthodoxy is “good,” than is it safe to assume that heresy is always “bad”? Has heresy served a purpose? How has the authority to declare that which is heretical and that which is orthodox? Does the Roman Catholic Church have this power or do the Orthodox Churches (e.g. Greek Orthodox, Roman Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox)? What about Protestants and their insistence that the Scriptures alone carry the truth (Sola Scriptura)? But then we must ask, who has the correct interpretation of the Scriptures? Issues or authority surface in these types of discussions quickly…
I’m convinced that there is much we can learn from Church History and yet I’m equally impressed with the reality that time is precious and that most people will probably not purchase Philip Schaff’s eight volume History of the Christian Church (despite it being excellent). I doubt most will pick up Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, Williston Walker’s A History of the Christian Church, or any of the other fantastic works on the subject (e.g., Brown’s Heresies is another excellent work on the subject). It’s just simply not a priority for most people aside from seminarians or scholars. And, if we’re being honest, most pastor’s would probably rather read a copy of the Leadership Journal.
So, since I’m convinced that Church History is important and I’m also equally impressed that time is precious, what is our solution? The Internet! Most specifically, thinktheology.org. Yes, come to us for all of your theological needs… okay, that sounds quite excessive, rather depressing, and extremely arrogant! My point is simply to suggest that your studying of Church History can benefit you greatly. In fact, we have much to learn, as well as much to appreciate from Church History. There are so many interesting stories and insights into the development of what many of us take for granted (e.g., Athanasius’ awesomeness!). Church History deals with the likes of Polycarp, Origin, Tertullian, Augustine and then works its way into the lives of men such as St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and what ultimately led to the Reformation.
Studying Church History is filled with many stories of redemption and ridicule. It has its ups and its downs. On one hand you see orthodoxy rise and on the other heresy spreads. It is the “battle” of the orthodox against the heretics, or at least it seems to often be reduced to such. Perhaps my favorite quote concerning the topic of heresy and orthodoxy comes from the late Harold Brown, who stated,
“Heresy… presupposes orthodoxy. And, curiously enough, it is heresy that offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy, for while heresy is often very explicit in the first centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy is often only implicit. If we hope, today, that the orthodoxy we believe is the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude v. 3), then it is necessary to assume that it is older than heresy. But heresy appears on the historical record earlier, and is better documented, than what most of the church came to call orthodoxy. How then can heresy be younger, orthodoxy more original? The answer is that orthodoxy was there from the beginning, and heresy reflected it. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of another person or object in a mirror or a lake before seeing the original. But the original preceded the reflection, and our perception of it. The same, we would argue, is true of orthodoxy — the original — and heresy — the reflection. The heresy we frquently see first, but orthodoxy preceded it.” – Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, p. 4
Thus, we can recognize that heresy has played its part within the development of what is often considered orthodox and essential. From these initial thoughts, let’s consider some questions:
- How do you define “Orthodoxy” and “Heresy” and who do you believe can determine those terms?
- Do you view “Heresy” as a positive or a negative or are you unsure how to react to it?
- Why do you think many Christians ignore Church History? Does it matter?
Anybody care to guess what is both scripturally and historically the first major problem? I’ll give you a hint: I don’t consider Acts 6’s problem between the “Hellenistic” Jews and the “Hebrew” Jews to be the first major problem.