History is important to Christianity.
But, oddly, history isn’t very important to Christians these days. Most believers in my tradition have a passing understanding of Jesus’ biography, the events surrounding the Apostles, know there was something called “The Reformation,” and then think of Billy Graham. That’s all the history about the church they know.
And that’s a shame, it seems to me. Of course, we could observe how many Christians of my tradition are barely aware of what they believe (and, much worse, if what they believe is truly in line with the faith they "profess"). There are many reasons for this: an underlying suspicion of ‘intellectual stuff;’ an emphasis on felt needs and experience; an emaciated theology of the person that believes that Jesus was just joshin’ when he told us to love God with our minds; and a teaching-pulpit tradition that encourages all those weaknesses.
In any case, my point is this: we ought to pay more attention to church history. During my couple of years in seminary, I’ve been challenged by my good friend, Johnmark, to give a bit more weight to the early Patristics.
Now “Patristics” is another word for “church fathers” and they, as a group, are kind of Christianity’s ‘founding fathers’ (a term most Americans know). When I talk about the early Patristics, I’m thinking of those influential church leaders who helped guide the church as it transitioned from the Apostles commissioned by Jesus to the ‘institutional’ church that Constantine ushered in. For about two hundred years, most of these early church fathers worked very hard to preserve and teach nothing but the teachings of the Apostles. The church fathers of the first hundred years after the last Apostle died are of particular interest to me.
My current hero from this time is a man name Irenaeus who was raised in Turkey, actually was a protégé a bishop named Polycarp. Polycarp was a protégé of John, the Beloved Disciple. So it was John (Jesus’ best friend on this earth) who taught Polycarp, and then Polycarp taught Irenaeus. During that era, we don’t see much speculative theology. No, the emphasis was on conservativism: teaching what the Apostles taught – no more and no less.
Now the value of these Patristics to us is that when we have certain questions about, say, church organization or baptism, or engagement with worldview philosophy our proper, right, and God-honoring response should be to go to the Bible. But what if there is ambiguity there? I realize that’s a hot-button statement. But still, I have to acknowledge that some ambiguity on those matters exist. The next place to go is, seems to me, to those early Patristics.
For example, to those who insist that baptism is only valid if it is done by immersion might be surprised to learn that the Apostles and their protégés were not nearly so rigid. From “The Didache,” a very early document that dates from the 100’s, the understanding of Apostolic practice was that how a believer was baptized was a matter of circumstance. That is, there was an order of preferred 'modes:' immersion in cold flowing water (river or beach) was the best, second best was cold still water, third best was warm still water, fourth best was to pour water over the head three times. All of those were legitimate modes of baptism to the very early church. What was really important was that the person being baptized and the one doing the baptism to fast one or two days before. These days, we don't even think about doing a fast before baptism.
Hmmmm. Folks, that’s what was important to the Apostles: not how the person got wet, but whether they were spiritually prepared to engage in the ritual.
We say that our faith is built upon Jesus and the Apostles’ teaching but we conveniently neglect to see what the Apostles actually taught. We make ambiguous Biblical passages into doctrine and ignore Apostolic teaching.
Now I am not – read me well – in any way suggesting that early Patristic writings have the same authority as the canon of scripture. I am suggesting that they should be influential in our understanding of some ambiguities which I believe God has allowed to be in scripture.
Here's another thing; I realize that there's a current faddish re-discovery of the Patristics among Evangelicals. I applaud that movement as an attempt to get reconnected with the church's history. However I would exhort Evangelicals to go beyond the faddish find-a-quote-from-a-Patristic and thoughtfully engage with those men who struggled to carry on the Apostles' teaching.