I’m forever indebted to Dr. S. Donald Fortson, Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). I’ve never met him, but a few weeks ago I was listening to one of his lectures available on iTunes U. It was from Dr. Fortson’s History of Christianity I course, the lecture titled “Christian Historiography.”
Toward the end of that lecture, he noted that a recognition of a canon is a call to study church history, and that the identification of the books of the canon belong to Christian history. He said one way to understand church history is that it’s a history of the exegesis of the New Testament. He also credited Philip Schaff with saying: “Church history is the connecting link between exegetical and systematic theology.”
Dr. Fortson then went on to illustrate Schaff’s comment as follows. Picture that connection between exegetical and systematic theology via the image of a tree, a grand oak tree. The roots are biblical exegesis. The foundation must be deep roots that sink deep down into the Scriptures. The great branches of the tree would be systematic theology. The great trunk of the tree would be church history.
His key observation was what should happen between exegetical study and systematic theology. One shouldn’t jump immediately from the roots to the branches, so to speak. Rather, the humble interpreter of Scripture will pause to ask, “How have God’s people understood the Bible and where have they come to in understanding the different doctrines of the faith?”
I love that picture of the interconnectedness of the tasks of biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history. All three of them are vitally important which is why a large portion of the curriculum at RTS is devoted to all three areas.
And here is where I am indebted to Dr. Fortson. After reflecting a few moments on his illustration I came to the conclusion that when I graduated from seminary, I was a shrubbery, because my theological education made that jump from exegetical study to systematic theology far too often. I even remember one professor saying that as long as we did our exegesis, our systematic theology would take care of itself. That’s certainly true, if the goal is to produce a bunch of shrubbery!!!
To be fair, the seminary I attended did require courses in church history. However, those courses were selective in what was studied. For example, although the library may have had a copy of Calvin’s Institutes, we never considered anything Calvin had to say at all! Now I’m sorry, but no one should be able to receive a Master of Divinity without having some significant exposure and interaction with John Calvin’s writings, whether one agrees with him or not, because Calvin is one of the greatest theologians in Christian history (here are 9 other reasons Ligon Duncan gave to to read the Institutes as well). The only reason to avoid such significant individuals in the hall of faith is if there is a fear that someone may grow a trunk, that is, become convinced of what many in the church have believed for some time, and agree with those who have gone before us!
When I left seminary, I thought I had my theology down pat. So I was surprised not too many years after graduation when I found myself in a PCA church where the elders and laymen knew many theological terms and concepts I had never heard of, such as the regulative principle of worship. I was amazed by the grasp they had on many things just from their familiarity with church history, as they stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before us. Being a shrubbery, I had a lot of catching up to do. And I still do.
Unfortunately, there are many today who, like the Knights Who Say “Ni!”, still demand a shrubbery! But rather than always appeasing such relentless demands, we must eventually come to terms with the interpretations of our church fathers. After all, we aren’t the first generation ever to have the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. And this is an area where too many in the church today are conformed to the culture, rather than being transformed by the renewing of their minds.
Anthony Selvaggio’s little book, 7 Toxic Ideas Polluting Your Mind, includes a chapter on neophilia, the love of the new. As Selvaggio points out, in the biblical worldview, preservation trumps progress. Using Proverbs 22:28, Salvaggio shows that there are two types of people in the world: “stone movers” and “stone preservers.” Christians are called to be “stone preservers”, that is, stewards of a sacred trust to preserve the truth delivered once for all. He quoted G. K. Chesterton with regard to the idea of the “democracy of the dead”:
“Tradition means given voices to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Chesterton, Collected Works, 1:251, cited by Selvaggio, p. 50)
For those interested in giving heed to the voices of those who have gone before us, the Reformed Forum has prepared a Reformed reading list, covering seven areas, each having three levels: biblical studies and hermeneutics; biblical theology; systematic theology; apologetics and philosophy; church history and historical theology; practical theology; and classics. This list is not for the faint of heart, but who ever said growing a trunk would be easy?
As always, take up and read!