Why is a Knowledge of History so Critical?

Last year I posted an opinion that one of the major issues facing the Churches of Christ in the coming year (and in fact, the coming decade) is the deficiency of knowledge regarding our history. Over the next three posts (at least) I want to expand that thought to include higher education in general, and the study of theology in particular, as particular weaknesses of the Restoration Movement.

Whenever I have mentioned teaching church history, and Restoration Movement history in particular, I typically get the same eye-rolls and groans. “Why do you want to study that stuff?” is the question, and “stuff” is spat out with enough venom to make sure I understand that the speaker is somewhat disinclined to join in with the study. The same is true when the word “theology” is used. A theological education is almost universally dismissed as being either unimportant or even detrimental to a Christian life.

Well, to make this as brief as possible, there are two reasons why studying “that stuff” is so important.

[As a brief aside, I am not suggesting that such knowledge is critical to become, or to remain, a Christian. Heaven will be full of people who had no understanding of church history during their lifetimes. However, I hold teachers and preachers to a higher standard, and I am fully convinced that a greater understanding of history/theology does make us wiser and more thoughtful Christians.]

Reason number 1: a sound theological education makes it less likely that we will make statements that are factually incorrect. NOTE: This is not the same as a lie. A lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of facts as known by the speaker/writer. If we say something that is factually wrong, and we do not know that it is factually wrong, we are not guilty of lying, but we are guilty of perpetuating a falsehood. Why would we want to do that?

I use as one example my own ignorance. I believed for a number of years that it was Thomas Campbell or some such Restoration leader that came up with the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in matters of opinion, freedom; and in all things, love.” Turns out I was only wrong by a few hundred years. I loved to attribute the quote to Restoration leaders, and I’m certain they used it, but it was not original with them. I was not lying when I attributed it to Campbell, but I was factually wrong.

A second example comes from my preaching experience. A preacher friend of mine got red-faced, spitting mad in a preacher’s meeting  as he recounted an experience visiting a church while on vacation. It seems that during the communion service the congregation sang a song. “You cannot perform two acts of worship at the same time” the preacher roared. I wasn’t going to say a word, but I immediately thought of the song “Father Hear the Prayer We Offer” –

Father hear the prayer we offer,
nor for ease that prayer shall be;
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Let our path be bright or dreary,
storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls in hope unweary
Make thy work our ceaseless prayer.

Now, the song is clearly a prayer. If he had ever sung this song, he was doing two things at the same time – he was singing, and he was praying. [Note: the Psalms are Scripture and many are prayers, so when we sing a prayer Psalm, we are participating in three acts of worship: the reading/reciting of Scripture, the singing of a Psalm, and praying.] But somewhere in this preacher’s training he was taught that a person can only worship performing one task at a time. Bad theology or bad history? I would argue it is both. I do not question his motives or his integrity – but his theology is definitely skewed.

Reason number 2: a healthy theological education opens up the possibility that we will view our own particular history with more humility and view others with less loathing. Again, I will illustrate with my own experiences.

First, at one time I was adamant that there was no such thing as the “Sinner’s Prayer” (note the capital letters) in the Bible. Not only was I convinced of that fact, I was utterly contemptuous of anyone who suggested otherwise. My ignorance was matched only by my feeling of superiority. Imagine my chagrin, then, when during a class on prayer I discovered the “sinner’s prayer” (no capitals) in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Although placed on the lips of the tax collector, the teaching comes straight from Jesus. [It is with no small amount of irony that I have to point out that when I arrogantly denied the existence of the “sinners prayer” in the New Testament I was guilty of the exact sin that Jesus was condemning in his parable. Hmmm]

Now, please hear me out – I am NOT defending the manner in which the “Sinner’s Prayer” is used today. The application in which the tax collector’s prayer is used today (in relation to eternal salvation) is a gross distortion of the context in which Jesus told the parable (i.e., humility in prayer). That truth does not absolve my ignorance, and certainly not my arrogance. Now, whenever anyone uses the “Sinners Prayer” as a path to salvation, I have a much better understanding of (a) where they might be coming from and (b) a much healthier way to help them understand the passage.

The second example I have is more technical, but no less powerful. Growing up I was taught repeatedly that the Greek preposition eis must mean “for the purpose of” and that’s it. This is because Acts 2:38 reads “be baptized for (eis) the forgiveness of sins.” In fact, not too long ago I read an article that stated that out of the thousands of uses of the preposition eis in the New Testament, not one single time can it mean “because.” Wow! Talk about skating out on thin ice. (Pardon the pun.) Many Baptists, and a number of other groups, however, do believe that the preposition eis in Acts 2:38 must mean “because,” because they have been taught the forgiveness of sins precedes baptism.

The fact is that the preposition eis must have some sense of the meaning of “because” in at least one usage – Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented eis the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Now, there are a number of ways you can translate eis here, (The ESV uses the word “at”), but you cannot get around the fact that Jonah preached, and the men of Nineveh repented! That is, the repentance was subsequent to, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Their repentance was certainly not “for the purpose of” Jonah’s preaching. The point is not that eis must mean “because of” in Acts 2:38 (I certainly believe it does not, and I know of no committee translation that so translates it that way!) The point is that by not knowing some basics of the Greek language a person can draw some conclusions that are factually wrong. Once again, I am not questioning motives, but only the correctness of some of our statements.

To summarize: is a knowledge of church history or Greek grammar absolutely necessary? Not, as I mentioned above, in the sense of one’s ultimate salvation. We can believe many incorrect things and still be saved by God’s grace. However, for teachers and preachers a greater degree of accuracy is critical in one respect – we must not be found guilty of promoting error just because it fits our “doctrine,” and we must certainly not be arrogant and dismissive of others who hold differing, although incorrect, beliefs.

In other words, we ascend to healthy or “sound” doctrine by descending into the grit and grime of history in order to make sure that what we are teaching is, indeed, God’s truth.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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