“Two-thousand years of church history,” by itself, is a humbling consideration… at least it should be.
The church has a very complex and colorful past. From the Mediterranean coastal lands to the north African deserts and central Europe; from Christians who dwelt in trees to those who lived in rock igloos in islands. The church is a living, breathing organism which has been around for a very long time. The history of the church is the history of our family, of our brothers and our sisters who once lived in very different times, around very different people, and under very different political and economic circumstances—yet stayed the course, sustained by the very same Spirit you and I know today (if you be a Christian).
No matter whether the good times prevailed or the bad times reigned, the church flourished in various ways, theologically and numerically. There are generally two responses when contemporary believers look back on church history. Some are humbled by what they see; others are compelled to anathematize those who’s beliefs do not mirror their own. I suggest the former attitude is the one we ought to have, and there are a few reasons for this.
The Church Was Given A “New” Testament
Now, when I say “new” I do not mean that it had never been considered or revealed before in any shape or form whatsoever. What I mean is that the Christians in the 1st – 4th centuries are pretty fresh to the reality that God, through the Son, has taken on a human nature to reconcile a sinful people to Himself. This had been prophesied for years prior to the advent of Christ, yet the fuller revelation of the Messiah had been veiled and viewed as though one were looking through cloudy glass. The New was revealed in the Old, and the Old is now explained in the New.
The church, for the very first time, had clearer revelation than that which had been revealed through types, shadows, prophets, kings, and historical events in the Old Testament. They now had Christ. Given the unexpected nature of the incarnation and the rapid expansion of the Christian “movement” within those first few centuries, the church was pressed—from very early on—to begin developing language which described what the Scriptures revealed. Heresies began flourishing and the orthodox had to respond, lest the candle Christ had lit become extinguished.
This is a big factor we 21st century Christians need to consider. We need to show grace to the early church which was put in an incredible, yet risky position. Their doctrine and their practices are not going to be identical to our own because, as I mentioned earlier, the church is a living thing. Christ’s bride grew as a child grows from his mother’s womb. It is completely anachronistic to impose terminology we now have within a more developed theological schema upon the fathers who were dealing with—from their perspective—a new & improved theological system which, nevertheless, grew out of what had preceded it in both Greek philosophy (praeparatio evangelica) and Old Testament Judaism.
There were several theological issues to be understood and worked out as the New Testament epistolary literature and historical accounts circulated throughout the known world. It would be ridiculous to think the early church had all the revelatory pieces together in a neatly organized system from the git-go. Biblical theology was just learning to crawl, and systematic theology was still in the womb.
Early Theologians Lacked A Perspective We Now Have
What a blessing it is that you and I can take fuller advantage of Christ’s promise that He would indeed build His church. During the first four centuries of the church, while the foundation was laid by the apostles, the early fathers and later thinkers, such as Augustine, were in the middle of raising the walls to the superstructure. Thinking through the Scripture with the presupposition that it was, (1) the inspired Word of God, and (2) plenarily infallible, the task of biblical interpretation was to categorically understand certain parts of the biblical narrative as it related to the whole of God’s revelation.
The immutable and invisible God of the Old Testament became man; there are three Persons mentioned in Scripture, all of whom are called God, yet there is only one God according to Deuteronomy 6:4. These perceived tensions, in order to be resolved, required categorization the church had not yet developed. Without the necessary categories, heresy would continue to plague the church.
Phrases such as “justification by faith alone,” or, “the lapsarian views relevant to God’s decrees,” had hardly hit the radar of some of the most early thinkers. In fact, soteriology was less of a discussion in the early church than was the doctrine of God, the Trinity, and the incarnation. Soteriology would not come to the fullest expression until the Protestant Reformation about 1,000-1,500 years later. Thinkers up to that point had really (honestly) struggled with how to talk about things like nature and grace; what grace was and how it was applied to the believer; the role of God’s sovereignty as it relates to election and, indeed, the nature of election to begin with. A lot of these issues were not clarified or made the subject of interest until Martin Luther—by God’s providence—raised awareness of the conundrum of sinful man on one hand, and a righteous God on the other.
Now, do not mistake me to be saying these conversations never happened prior to the Reformation, or that development of these doctrines was non-existent. After all, it was Augustine who defended monergism from the likes of Pelagius and his ilk. But the theological locus of soteriology had not come into its fuller expression until the Reformation blew the doors off the Roman Catholic Church. But when it did develop, it was developed with the help of the earlier Christian thinkers, like Augustine and others.
We possess a perspective the earlier church did not have access to. We have the blessed opportunity to peer back through the corridors of history and see how and why various doctrines arrived at their present-day expressions. We can take doctrinal stances on the basis of a more informed theology rather than trial and error. We are no longer struggling to develop sufficient categories in discussing the most essential elements of the faith. We can see the mistakes as well as the successes of the earlier church. But, no one, and this goes for every generation of Christians past—no one in history has had the perspective the most recent generation has had or now has.
Because of our privileged position, we need to think twice before we impose the lucidity of our theological knowledge upon the fathers who could not see things as clearly.
Theological Ignorance In Our Own Generation
Now, I just said we have more access to the truth than the church has ever had, yet Christians are probably more ignorant and stagnate than they ever have been. In other words, if there was a time to be arrogant (and there never is), now is certainly not it. It’s absolutely stunning to me that we have Christians who cannot even properly describe the doctrine of the Trinity or understand the distinction between the Person of Christ and His two natures, yet those same Christians condemn previous generations for theological error in the most ill-informed way possible. It’s as if man don’t even try to be accurate. This is the most ignorant generation of Christians to date, and their sloppy insults of the fathers—which spew forth like a never-ending stream of verbal excrement—prove it.
Most Christians wouldn’t know the definition of justification or the ingredients of saving faith if it slapped em’ in the face. These are the same jokers who want to condemn the fathers about the very things they often fail to understand. Many Christians cannot distinguish between justification and the broader term salvation, let alone metaphysics from epistemology, or revelation from reason. They can’t even account for the way they interpret Scripture beyond the implied, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it!” This is the worst intellectual position Christians have ever found themselves in. It is utterly ironic that contemporary Christians could even fathom critiquing the fathers in the way they sometimes have when they themselves refuse to consider what the fathers believed, the times in which they lived, the access they had to Scripture & relevant academic writing.
It wouldn’t be so bad if carefully crafted arguments and biblical-theological reasons were presented upon disagreement with those who have preceded us. It is true that they didn’t always get it right, and I think what I’ve written above assumes this. However, the fathers are, more often than not, written off upon a cursory consideration in favor of some innovative idea put forth by the new guy. Just like that—with the whip of the tongue—theological giants and entire generations of the Christian family tree are thrown into the lake of fire. The population of self-professing, ex cathedra-speaking popes has grown to an astronomical number. The modern ability to excommunicate those who have never—in the history of the church—been declared anathema, is astounding.