Church history matters because the Church matters. It was with such a grandiose statement that I launched the ambitious 20 centuries in 20 posts project. History has always played an important role in the Christian story. From the writers of the Gospel narratives and Acts, through Eusebius and Bede down to today, reflecting on and understanding the past has played an important role in Christianity. And this is because of a distinctly Christian understanding of the past. Church history matters because history itself matters. Central to the Christian worldview is not a timeless, sapiential philosophy; what is central is the conviction that God acts and has made himself known in our space/time universe. And God has ultimately does this in Jesus Christ.
The Christian story begins starts with the in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is where most church histories will start their narrative. Yet there is something wrong about this, both historically and theologically. Jesus did not just walk in out of nowhere and start proclaiming the Kingdom of God (Mark 1.1-15); he had a context, and saw himself as part of the long story of God’s dealings with Israel. I think that liberal theologian Marcus Borg is on to something when he says:
“We commonly think of Jesus as the founder of Christianity. But strictly speaking, this is not historically true. Instead, his concern was the renewal of Israel.” - Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, p. 125To do church history well, I suggest that we need to integrate Israel into our narrative, as some historians have started to do. When we do this, it helps us as Christians to read the Old Testament and what the New Testament says about God’s covenant. It helps you understand the first 200 years of Christianity – which was largely a Jewish movement for the first two centuries of its existence – and in particular the context and issues the apostles write about in the New Testament. But most importantly, grounding Christian history in Israel’s history helps we make sense of Jesus, and what he was doing. He saw himself as the climax of a story that involved Adam and Eve, Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, David/Solomon and the kings down to Zedekiah, and the aftermath of exile. It’s by understanding God’s history with Israel and by plotting Jesus on the map of his own particular context – Second Temple Judaism – that we can understand how Jesus interpreted his mission. Briefly, this is what his mission looked like:
- Jesus focused exclusively on Israel: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” Matt 15.24, and “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" Matt 10.5. Except for three exceptions, Jesus ministered only to Israelites, because his mission was to restore the lost in Israel and renew the nation.
- Jesus announced the nearness of the kingdom: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the gospel!” Mark 1.15. The Kingdom of God is where God's climatic authority is known and done on earth as in heaven (see Isaiah 40).
- Jesus performed acts of power: "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" Matt 12.28. Jesus enforced the Kingdom through his miracles. He taught that the Roman occupiers weren't Israel’s real enemy, but the spiritual forces that had enslaved the nation in darkness and sin (see Mark 3.23-28).
- Jesus called and sent twelve: “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that we may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" Luke 22.28-30. Jesus gathers twelve Apostles, a parallel of the twelve tribes of Israel. These twelve are connected to Jesus, and through him the renewal of Israel that they longed for would happen.
- Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts: "And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?' And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'" (Mark 2.16-17). Jesus welcomed the lost of Israel, those generally despised and referred to as "sinners", whilst exposing the hypocrisy of Israel’s leaders.
- Jesus announced God's grace (especially for the destitute): “Blessed are we who are poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6.20).
- Jesus taught a new way of living as God's people: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” Luke 6.35-36).
Church history matters only because history matters. At the heart of Christianity is history: that God promised a Middle Eastern shepherd that through him his family and indeed the whole world would be blessed. At the heart of Christianity is an event that is interpreted as fulfilling that promise: that Jesus, the Jewish King, was killed for the sins the people; that he was raised from the dead, and now reigns as the Lord over all, the first-born of the new creation. This is church history; this is the gospel.
For Further Reading:
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, 2009. MacCulloch is an eminent church historian, and his epic book/BBC series helpfully locates the church's history in Israel's history.
- NT Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996. Wright offers rigorous scholarship, reconstructing the worldview of Second Temple Judaism, making sense of Jesus' aims and self-understanding within that world. A great piece of historical scholarship. Simply put, this book changed my life.