Thursday, April 30, 2009

Church History

I am preparing to teach a course on Church History from Jesus to the latter Middle Ages to those who are desiring to be deacons in our congregations. In order for anyone to preach, one must have some idea what the Church has taught. I have picked up a couple of new books on the history of the Church, one by a Lutheran author and the other by and Episcopalian. They both come down about in the same place. After all history is history, we think. But the flavor is different.

Martin Marty’s book, The Christian World, is the product of a mind that has been dealing with the vagaries of the Christian Church for a long time. He is a retired professor whose systematic approach toward history underlies this rather informal overview of the life of Christian nations. For one who has been schooled in the formal history of Christianity with its dates of various Ecumenical Councils and their doctrinal statements, I find Marty’s work fairly easy to follow but shallow. But that is not the intention of this book. His overview showing how the Gospel message was spread throughout the various parts of the world is quite helpful and straight-forward.

Butler Bass’s A People’s History of Christianity is an unusually breezy way of telling the story of the growth of faith. Based in her understanding of the Christian message as loving God and loving one’s neighbor, she endeavors to show that this message has been taught throughout the ages. She quotes the earliest writers to support her points, but it seems quite anachronistic. Annoyingly she will jump around in the first 500 years of the formation of Christianity with little regard as to how the various doctrines and dogmas were developed. And yet, she has a significant point: Doctrine and Dogma are always the statements of those in power. They are always the product of those who have prevailed in a conflict for the faith of the people. It is not the stuff which taught the love of Christ and the awe of God to the people over the centuries.

Today is an era in which people have lost their memory. We in the US, as a populace have forgotten the principles upon which we stand in the face of over-population, consumerism and imperialistic power. We have ignored our history as a nation and a democracy and we have become amnesiacs in matters of faith. The non-denominational churches often do not connect with an apostolic faith—a faith that is grounded in the message of Jesus as it has developed through the ages. Yet those of us who call ourselves apostolic often get stuck in the doctrine and dogma and not the communal love that the Church has supplied throughout the centuries since the time of Jesus.

Both Marty’s book and that of Bass have tried to create an environment in which we can find ourselves in the history of the Church. Either one of these books will tell the story of how Christ’s body is made manifest throughout the world. I am still laboring under the need to understand what the difference between the Valentinians and the Montanists is, but that is ok. I kind of enjoy all those nit-picky things that have nothing to do with the faithfulness the love of God provides for us in the apostolic Church.

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