If, as we have noted in this space this week, the Church cannot escape its past and if the Church is influenced in both negative and positive ways by its history and tradition, it seems like we ought to embrace this history in order to examine it. It’s ours anyway; we belong to it. Why not learn from it? Why not study the things we find misguided so we can avoid them in our time today and incorporate the things that might actually benefit our spiritual formation and our passing on of the faith?
I’ll conclude my thoughts on Dr. Keith Stanglin’s article “Restorationism and Church History: Strange Bedfellows?” with today’s post. Honestly, this has been much more a re-hash of his work — not too much original thought from me.
Keith suggests we engage in what a lot of people call “retrieval theology.”
“This is not a call to re-create or ape the faith and practice of a specific time or place from the past; not every thought or practice in church history is equally good or relevant for us. It means learning from the wisdom of our ancestors and appropriating the best that it has to offer for the sake of the church today.”
There are many valid and good reasons for embracing all of church history. One, it gives us our identity; knowing our past helps us know who we are and from where we came. Two, it gives us wisdom; most of the questions and debates we face today have been handled or anticipated at some point in the church’s history. Third, we could gain some needed perspective from the study of church history; the history calls us to a holy balance. Knowing the history of our practices and traditions will help us recognize the swing of the pendulum over time. Then we can start to get a good idea of the pendulum’s position and direction and momentum. Then we’ll be better equipped to take the pendulum where it needs to go or, as Keith puts it, “to stand in its way and push back before it goes too far.”
Studying church history can confirm or challenge our interpretations of Scripture. Maybe this is one of the main reasons we resist it. We like to think our interpretation and practices are pure and strictly biblical and come from an un-biased heart. I know that’s what a lot of us have thought. I remember being told at an early age that if everybody in the world would just read the Bible with clear eyes and an open, honest heart, without any preconceived notions, then everybody would believe and worship just like we do. I still occasionally hear versions of that today! When will we admit that a lot of our “distinctives” in Churches of Christ are not born of slam-dunk biblical arguments or unambiguous passages of Scripture? Most of our distinctive practices are not wrong — I think I’d argue they are all faithful and good and beneficial to a life of discipleship to Jesus. But our arguments come from history, not from Scripture. Every Sunday communion and acappella worship and baptism for the forgiveness of sins comes from what our own guy Everett Ferguson calls “historical foreground.” It’s the historical norm that confirms no baptizing for the dead AND observing the Lord’s Meal every Lord’s Day.
Finally, this concluding section from Keith’s article, with which I strongly agree and advocate:
“Restorationism and church history need not be an odd couple, but can be more like the dynamic duo. I personally applaud and support the genius of Thomas Campbell’s restoration vision: The unity of all Christians by means of restoration based on Scripture. Thus articulated, I stand behind the restoration vision. But I must take leave of any interpretation and application of Scripture in the church that seeks to bypass nearly two millennia of church history, or tries to read the Bible as if no one has read it before, or tries to do theology and worship as if they have not been done for the last 1,900 years. The “Bible only,” in this sense, has never worked.”
Retrieval theology is about embracing and knowing our past — all of it —in order to benefit the Church today and into the future. It requires the discipline of learning from our mistakes, the stamina to refuse to repeat bad decisions and bad practices, and the hard work of incorporating the good and faithful from our past into our present. It also demands a humility in the knowledge that we’re not the first ones to attempt to follow Jesus, we’re not the only ones, we’re not the only ones who have done some really good work by God’s grace, and we’re not the only ones who need God’s grace to cover us in the things we’ve really messed up.