WHY CHURCH HISTORYMATTERS: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past. By Robert F. Rea. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014. 232 pages.
Does studying history really matter? After all, you can’t change it. Should we not instead look to the present and the future? After all, no one really learns from history. We do what we do, no matter whether we study the past or not. Being a church historian by training and having taught church history I have dealt with significant numbers of students who find the course they are taking to be largely irrelevant to their career goals. Better to take a course in management than waste time learning names and dates of long dead people. Besides, don’t we know more about the world and the Bible than our forebears? Of course, I disagree with them, and do my best to disabuse them of this notion, but it’s a difficult task.
Robert Rea is a church historian who has faced many of the same questions, and has chosen to offer his rationale or apologetic for the study of church history. Bob Rea is a professor at Lincoln Christian University, a seminary/college affiliated with a branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement. The Stone-Campbell Movement, being a Restorationist tradition has had its own reasons for resisting the teachings of history, believing that not much good occurred between 100 CE and 1801 CE.
Rea’s target audience is what he calls "Bible-Focused Christians." In other words, conservative evangelicals who seek to follow the religion of scripture, but who it seems (I would concur from experience) find little of value in the past. Rea seeks to show how those within this movement would benefit from the interpretive and illustrative gifts of their spiritual ancestors.
The book is divided into three major sections. Part 1 speaks to the way we understand tradition. Here he offers his take on the definition of tradition, shares how Christians have understood tradition down through the ages, and then offers his take on how it is understood today -- noting the difference between those who hold to apostolic succession (the idea that the current ministry of the church descends in an unbroken line from the apostles through the historic episcopate -- Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican) and those who do not affirm apostolic succession (everyone else!). Rea’s point in this section is to demonstrate that “whether we affirm the canon of Scripture, Trinitarian explanations and vocabulary, Christological explanations and vocabulary, Christological explanations or even denominational distinctive, we embrace tradition. This is true whether we call it ‘tradition’ or prefer softer terms such as ‘precedent,’ ‘custom’ or ‘common practice’” (p. 77). If we have traditions, it is wise to explore them and wrestle with them.
In part 2 Rea moves in a more practical direction, showing the reader how the study of church history can help form our spiritual and Christian inquiry. This occurs in a process of experiencing "expanding circles of inquiry." He notes that our circle of inquiry starts narrowly within the congregation and then the denomination/movement. Too often we stop there, but our spiritual lives would be enriched if we can see ourselves as the descendants of a Great Cloud of Witnesses, with whom we share community by imbibing their works and witness. This expanding circle of witnesses includes voices from well outside our usual circle of conversation. They help provide accountability, helping us see how our own visions and experiences match or depart from the views of earlier Christians. There may be reason to depart from them, but wrestling with their works will help us understand why we have taken the path we are on. At the same time, these voices from the past can serve as spiritual mentors. Rea speaks in the book how in his doctoral studies, his encounter with the Patristic theologian John Cassian proved to be spiritually beneficial.
While some of us read church history out of pure enjoyment, for many the question of relevance still remains. Thus, in part 3 Rea responds to this question. In the last section of the book, Rea demonstrates how our spiritual ancestors can help us read scripture, engage in ministry through preaching, enhance our spirituality, inform our worship, form our ethics, and more. Being that Rea is writing to/for “Bible-Focused Christians,” he is especially concerned to show how the study of history can inform one’s reading of Scripture. While not disregarding the results of the historical-critical method of biblical study, which dominates the academic field, he feels that this reading, while necessary, is spiritually sterile. Tradition helps us see meanings that lie beyond the literal, even venturing into allegorical exegesis, which dominated the medieval age. By considering these additional voices, we enhance our reading of Scripture and Christian life as a whole.
The question that Rea wishes to raise with us is why does Church History matter? He offers a rationale, but in the end the reason it matters is that it allows us to "celebrate the body of Christ!" (p. 192). This occurs as we broaden our vision of the body to include not only those who share life with us in our congregations or even our denominations, but by reaching out across the ages to include the full communion of saints. With this, I am in full agreement. If we neglect the past we lose the richness of this broader fellowship. We may not always agree with their views or their lives, but they are part of our community, and the call out to us to hear their testimony.
While I liked the book, I do have some caveats. In large part this is due to the fact that I am not the target audience, and not simply because I do not need to be convinced of the importance of history. Living in a different theological community, I found the constant recitation of the phrase "Bible-focused Christians" to be distracting. I realize that Rea is trying to speak to a group of people who claim complete loyalty to Scripture, but this term like “Bible-believing” is problematic. Many of us who would be considered liberal by Rea’s definitions, value greatly Scripture. We may not consider Scripture to be inerrant or speaking a word from God in every part, but we too wish to attend to the voice of Scripture as we seek to hear a word from God. While he doesn’t mention liberal/progressive Christians very often, they/we are often cast in terms of unfortunate stereotypes. That is a problem on both sides of the spectrum – liberals often cast conservative evangelicals in similar light.
Ultimately, the audience is the conservative evangelical student (and perhaps pastor or interested lay person) who is struggling to make sense of the value of history. While I recognize that Rea is speaking to this broader evangelical audience, I was hoping he would connect his own journey into history with the often ahistorical views of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Being more open about this context would have provided a compelling case study of the way in which the past has been thrown aside. Perhaps he didn't want to offend colleagues, but our shared tradition has often discounted everything that existed between the first century and the early eighteenth century when Thomas and Alexander Campbell along with Barton Stone rediscovered the first century church.
So, while useful, for those of us on the other side of the Protestant spectrum who also find history irrelevant a different book would be of value. Although a much different book, Margaret Bendroth's The Spiritual Practice of Remembering seeks to answer the question of the relevance of the past for a more liberal/progressive audience. Still, whatever your perspective, if you are questioning the value of history, Bob Rea’s book should prove helpful in your journey.