Connecting with Christian Thinkers of the Past

from Jul 26, 2014 Category: Articles

Whenever the professors of Reformation Bible College (RBC) have occasion to get together, I’m struck by what a fine group of biblical scholars and theologians I’m privileged to work with. Nevertheless I occasionally dream, as only a church historian would do, about the faculty I would construct if I were able to build a college from scratch and staff it with willing Christian thinkers from ages past. I imagine faculty lunches with Augustine, John Calvin, and Francis Turretin, or walking past classrooms and overhearing lectures on biblical theology, pneumatology, and soteriology from Irenaeus, John Owen, and Martin Luther respectively. Just a dream, I know. But in some sense I view my role as professor of church history and historical theology as one of bringing that dream to life for our students. My purpose, in other words, is not just to teach my students about those divines and the times in which they lived, but to facilitate a lively conversation between my students and those divines. If I do my job well, my students may very well forget most of what I’ve told them when they leave RBC, but they will, I hope, take with them theological conversation partners who will influence their efforts to read and interpret Scripture and think rightly about God and His ways for the rest of their lives.

Dialogue with individuals who have been dead for many years is admittedly a bit tricky. There is a sense, of course, in which the individuals in question are not dead; they have, rather, joined the living “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us (Heb. 12:1), and as such we enjoy, in the words of the hymnist, “mystic sweet communion” with them. But mystic sweet communion doesn’t negate the difficulty of carrying on a tangible conversation across a divide of several centuries. The ability to listen is a key ingredient in any conversation. Listening to divines from preceding ages of the church entails reading their writings with close and careful attention. Thus, historical theology courses at RBC include a substantial amount of required reading in primary sources. Students taking “Theology of the Early and Medieval Church” read more than 1000 pages from works by men such as Athanasius, Basil the Great, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Bradwardine. Students taking “Theology of the Reformation” read even more from Luther and Calvin.

I encourage students, at the onset of these courses, to bring some of the same ethical guidelines which ought to govern conversations with living individuals to bear upon their dialogue with these persons from ages past. So, for example, I encourage them to be quicker to hear than to speak, to judge charitably any given writer’s meaning, and—most importantly—not to bear false witness against whomever they’re reading, even (or especially) when reading someone with whom they might ultimately disagree. There are different ways to bear false witness against a theologian from centuries past. It’s possible, of course, to simply say that Calvin said X when you know that he in fact said Y. But typically we bear false witness against theologians from the past in more subtle ways; so, for example, we might, without fully realizing it, project our own views onto someone like Calvin (and so claim greater authority for our own views) when Calvin’s words on a subject are ambiguous enough to let us get away with such a practice.

Historical context informs the meaning of historical words

Such misrepresentation (false-witness-bearing) of a historical person’s views on a subject happens more readily when we’re not familiar with the context and/or occasion of that individual’s words. Context informs the meaning of words, something we realize quite poignantly when we hear our own words repeated by someone else without due attention to the occasion upon which they were spoken. Historical context informs the meaning of historical words. One cannot understand, say, Augustine’s words on the church or sacraments without a good grasp of the Donatist controversy he was addressing in his writings on those subjects. Partly with a view towards this reality, students at RBC complete two semesters of church history before they begin courses in historical theology. Of course, the study of church history has value beyond its provision of context to the task of historical theology. The study of church history equips students with a thorough knowledge of the church’s “story,” and so informs—on the principle that memory is constitutive of identity—their sense of what it means to belong to Christ’s ecclesia. Moreover, it affords ample opportunity to rejoice in God’s sovereignty over human affairs and the fulfillment of Christ’s particular promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18). But the study of church history also provides an indispensable foundation for informed conversations with those saints who have gone before us.

In like manner, the ecclesiastical Latin classes required of students pursuing a degree in Theological Studies are geared towards facilitating very careful, ethically-informed conversations with Christian thinkers from the past. These classes find their principal raison d’être in the fact that so many of the great theologians in the Western tradition wrote in Latin. Of course, it’s possible to read those authors—men, again, like Augustine, Calvin, and Turretin—in English translation. And to be sure, our students do read them in translation. But anyone who has carried on a conversation, perhaps by means of a translator, with someone living who speaks another language knows that very often some degree of meaning gets lost in translation. The same is true when listening to—that is, reading—Christian thinkers from the past. While realizing, then, that it may not be possible in the span of a four-year course of study to equip students to read lengthy Latin tomes of theology in their entirety, we strive to set our students on a path that might ultimately lead to such a practice. Students taking “Ecclesiastical Latin” in their second year of studies are expected, in their third-year studies of historical theology, to translate short sections of Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin from Latin into English—all towards the end of properly listening to those divines.

In sum, I like to think that as professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College I might, to some degree, be able to make my dream faculty of dead theologians—realizing of course that it is primarily my dream faculty—a reality for our students. Engaging in conversation with Christian thinkers from ages past is, at least in the ethically and intellectually informed manner I’ve briefly described here, no easy task, as I’m sure my students would testify. But it is both possible and profitable.

Full disclosure: I don’t consider my role as professor of church history and historical theology to be nearly as important as the roles of my colleagues who teach biblical and systematic theology. The principal goal of an education at RBC, after all, is the knowledge of God—that is, the acquisition of skills necessary to read and understand God’s word and to systematize truths about God gleaned from Scripture towards the ultimate end of communion with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. My role is to help students learn those skills by spending time in careful conversation with the best of biblical scholars and theologians who have gone before them, and to instill in them a desire and ability to continue, when they leave RBC, the conversations they’ve begun with those Christian thinkers for as many years of life and ministry as God gives them.

Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.