Everett Ferguson Reminds Us That Church History Is About 3 Crucial Things
For some time now I have benefited from the teaching and academic ministry of Everett Ferguson, the prolific early Church scholar who has spent his career helping the modern Church rediscover and retrieve the ancient one.
His massive volume on early Christianity and baptism is one of the most rigorous treatment on the subject, helping me adjust my understanding of this holy sacrament. His backgrounds book is an anchoring volume in my library on the culture and conditions of the early Church. And alongside these important works is his volume Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, a crucial go-to resource for my own work as a pastor and historical theologian.
One of the things I appreciate about Ferguson's work, a second edition of which releases on November 26, 2013, is that he takes the perceived dryness of "church history" and transforms it into an epic tale about "the greatest community the world has known and the greatest movement in world history." (25)
This is no ordinary story. It is a story about very human people who pursued a deeper understanding of a particular Person. And in consuming this story inevitably one realizes it's also a story about us, the modern church.
Ferguson reminds us that church history is about these three crucial things: people, a Person, and us.
A Story About People
I've always been interested in history. As a child I had a large coin collection of ancient Chinese coins thanks to my generous uncle, even possessing some Roman ones from time of Christ. That probably fueled my teen interest in archaeology as a profession—that, and Indiana Jones.
For me history wasn't about dates and names, locations and events, but people—in my case the people who bought food and garments and ancient bits and baubles with my coins. Throughout his book Ferguson drives home this same point: "History necessarily entails some attention to names, external events, and the sequence of development, but the student should look beyond these things to the religious life of the people involved and grasp the perspective that this is the story of people." (25)
One of the ways Ferguson excels at telling the story of the people in the ancient Church is by setting the stage upon which those people danced. He is a master at diving deep into the nuances of culture and backgrounds of early Christianity. His first chapter performs such a function, outlining the setting for the story's beginning. Another masterful chapter is chapter 4, "The Church and the Empire," as well as chapter 8 on "Church Life in the Second and Third Centuries." Likewise in chapter 16, he outlines the cultural and ecclesial backdrop to the Eastern and Western churches in the 5th and 6th century, which helps explain the gradual split between the two.
Ferguson reminds us that "the real story itself is the people who were involved." (25) From Clement to Chrysostom, Irenaeus to Arius, Bonaventure to Boniface, and beyond, very human people were seeking to understand the human-divine Son of God and the salvation he bore.
A Story About a Person
So church history is more than history. It's a story about people. It's also more than that, because as Ferguson contends this story is about "people who have struggled with the meaning of the greatest event in history, the coming of the Son of God." (25)
Roger Olson has said that the story of Christian theology is the story of the Christian reflection on the nature of salvation. As church people we are gospel people, and the nature of the gospel is the rescue wrought through the life, death, resurrection of the Son of God. This is one of the main reasons why being a student of history is so crucial to the contemporary church. It is an epic tale of the Church's struggle to make sense of the coming of Jesus Christ to rescue and redeem humanity.
Ferguson explores this journey in-depth by exploring how the pre-Reformation Church understood the person and work of Christ. For example, in explaining the significance of the "rule of faith" Ferguson argues that "The statements of the 'rule of faith' focus on the historical acts of God's saving work in Jesus Christ." (110) Likewise, Ferguson shows how the so-called "Arian controversy" was not only a struggle to define Jesus' identity as both God and man and the Godhead, "but also was a struggle about the nature of Christianity and human salvation." (205)
The story of church history, then, is not only about the characters of the play, but also about the main event, Jesus Christ. It's also about one more thing: us, the modern church.
A Story About Us
It's so cliche but it's so true: There is nothing new under the sun, as Qoheleth wrote.
One of the things I've appreciated most about studying church history is seeing how much of our contemporary problems can be traced back to false teaching from eras past. For instance, some within progressive evangelical circles have a view of human nature and salvation that can be described as Pelagian. On the other side of the spectrum, many prominent teachers within conservative evangelicalism hold beliefs about creation that are clearly gnostic. Studying the story of Christian reflection on Christ and salvation can help us avoid the problems and pitfalls of the past.
Ferguson makes this clear: "Nothing is more relevant for understanding the present than the history of the past experiences of those who sought to follow Jesus Christ. Out of the conviction that the proper way to approach contemporary problems is historically," Ferguson hopes to "bring a historical consciousness to its readers." (26)
This guiding conviction that the best way to tackle modern Church problems is to peal back the blanket of history and learn from the struggles of the ancient Church is instructive. It also permeates much of this book in order to help 21st century believers learn from early ones.
One prime example is his extended discussion on the formation of the canon of Scripture. He reminds the contemporary church that Scripture was in a sense "inherited," because the books of the Bible were received as part of the deposit of faith handed down in the church. "The church, therefore, functions as a witness, not as the judge in the process of canonization. In that sense, the church gave us the Bible. It received and preserved the sacred Scriptures."(121)
What does this mean for us today? It means that "if contemporary Christians take the Scriptures, they must also take the church...Certainly the church is part of the apostolic faith and the living of the Christian life, so accepting the faith includes accepting participation in the ongoing life of the Church." (121) These Scriptural steps laid down in the 2nd century "have marked the path on which the churches have walked ever since," (122) and we are behooved to continue walking in them today.
Ferguson dedicates his book to "the students who will use this textbook," saying "May they enter into the adventure of the life of the church as they extend its history into the days ahead." May they, indeed—both you and I.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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