We’ve asked this question before. Now, after reading this article from Nancy Heisey — a Mennonite scholar with roots in the Brethren in Christ Church — I want to pose it again.
Here’s a taste of Nancy’s article:
Many of us subsist on a historical menu for contemporary faith communities that reads: Nero and Constantine: bad; Book of Acts and Menno Simons: good. But I propose that deeper and wiser knowing about the past of the broad Christian movement—and about how Mennonite communities fit, and sometimes don’t, within that movement—is essential for our perseverance and growth in faithful witness today. . . .
Learning to follow Christ in life is thus enriched as we learn about people who also have committed themselves to do so throughout the centuries and across the globe. If we want to know who we are, we need to know who our ancestors in faith were, because they are our family, and in their choices we may see the patterns we also choose to trace.
Nancy’s article offers plenty for Christians to think about. Read the rest of the piece here.
Readers: Why do you think it’s important to study church history in general, and Brethren in Christ history in particular? Share your thoughts in the Comments section!
4 responses to “Why Study Brethren in Christ History?”
I would first argue that studying BIC history apart from Church history is like studying one day of a man’s life – all you end up really knowing is that one day of his life… not his life. (I would also argue that FAR more emphasis should be given to the greater part of Church history (the first 1500 years) as opposed the typical Protestant approach of 1 part pre-reformation 5 parts reformation, 10 parts denominational “distinctives.”
All that said, I get concerned that the BIC (perhaps many other denoms have already done) are losing their way theologically, doctrinally, ecclesially, and ultimately spiritually. We (in the west, generally, but it seems to be increasingly less-exclusive) have given ourselves over to such a strong post-enlightenment mindset that anything “new” is always “better.” The problem is that, contra-enlightenment, these “new” things are frequently rushed into with little if any serious thought. And now, also contra-enlightenment, there is a strong anti-intellectual movement that has affected/infected much of the Church.
The reason why Church history is so important is because we need to know not just WHY we believe what we believe but how did we come to the conclusions we hold. True, much of the Protestant Church tends to paint Nero and Constantine with the same brush… but is that really fair? More importantly, is it accurate? Is it right to do so? “Book of Acts”… good! But is it superior Deuteronomy? Or the Revelation? Is Menno Simons a superior to Iranaeus or Augustine? If so, how and why? And if not, why not? How can we know? How much of Luther’s theses or Calvin’s diatribes or Zwingli’s rants were justified arguments against excess and abuse in the Church at that time and how much was just out and out rebelliousness?
I’m not saying every Christian should study these things in depth… but certainly our pastors should have a very good grounding in these things. And who can do “good theology” with a good grounding in the history of the theology that stems from an historic Church?
Christians know who they are and what they’re about by two fixed points… where they’ve come from and where they’re going. Ignorance of either of those points is not freedom but chaos.
Jim: Thanks for this extensive and thoughtful response. I appreciate your candor and your boldness.
I agree with you on a number of points, not the least of which being these: (1) studying BIC history outside or in isolation from church history in general is useless; (2) Protestants give too much attention to the “western” church and not enough attention to the first 1500 years of Christian history; (3) that Christians — and, in particular, evangelicals — “have given ourselves over to such a strong post-enlightenment mindset that anything ‘new’ is always ‘better'”; and (4) that Christians who do not know “where they’ve come from and where they’re going” risk theological, ecclesiological, and spiritual chaos. Well said, on all points.
However, I don’t think that the study of one’s “local” faith expression is somehow myopic or otherwise problematic. I gleaned from your response a hint of distaste for concentrated focus on and exploration of “denominational distinctives.” (Perhaps I misinterpreted or read something into your words; if so, I apologize.) While I agree that undue focus on such “specifics” might cloud one’s panoramic vision of Christian experience, I think that those who choose to belong to a “local” (i.e., denominational) expression of Christ’s church need to understand “from whence they’ve come.” I believe that studying denominational history allows us to bear witness to the lives and works of the saints who have come before; to confront with courage and clarity the sometimes troubled nature of historic Christian practice; and — using the knowledge gained from this exploration — to commit ourselves afresh to biblically grounded doctrines rooted in our particular tradition.
A seminary professor and scholar of the American pietist movement has observed that church history offers us a way to see how theology was “fleshed out” in the lives of our Christian forebears. This, in turn, allows us to understand how we should live out our theologies in the present. I think this is a good word on the value of church history.
I could say more, but I’ll leave it thusly for now.
Thanks once again for your thoughts. I appreciated your comments and hope you’ll join in on the conversation here at “the search for piety and obedience.”
Devin: I wouldn’t disagree with you re: distinctives. My point was simply that making those distinctives the chief focus of the study of any Church history disconnects us from the whole of Church history and leaves us dangerously vulnerable to disconnecting from the Church itself. This is precisely what has happened with numerous sects and “pseudo” Christian movements such as the Mormons.