On Teaching Church History

In an effort to work ahead and get myself situated for the coming semester, I have the distinct privilege of preparing the syllabus for Church History II (Reformation to Present).  I’m excited because this will be the first time I get to design and teach a class directly in my area of doctoral study and research.  It also brings back a lot of memories for me.  The two-semester Church History course at Houghton College was what first fired my historical imagination and set me on the course I’ve been traveling these past 11 years.  I only hope I can do as good a job as Dr. John Tyson all those semesters ago.

Preparing the class has reminded me of the “old friends” of history with whom I haven’t spoke in a little while.  People like Martin Luther, John Wesley, and others.  I’ve once again been drawn into the story of faith with all its twists and turns, heroes and villains.  I’ve re-introduced myself to my spiritual ancestors that have confirmed I am indeed part of the family.  There’s a legacy here, and despite the fact that it is mixed at times, it’s a “family thing.”

I’ve already mentioned two of the course textbooks I’ll be using: Mark Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity and Justo Gonzalez’s recently updated The Story of Christianity, Volume 2.  Gonzalez does an excellent job at laying out the main narrative of Church History (especially in the West), while the Noll text  illustrates contemporary world Christianity effectively.  I’m glad to have both books as a part of this class.

A major change has occurred in the historiography since I enrolled in the class as a student over a decade ago: the emergence of global Christianity as a vital factor in the scholarship and teaching of the history of Christianity.  While this represents a pedagogical challenge as teachers attempt to weave the histories of the worldwide faith into a cohesive story, I am hopeful that the class I’m leading next semester can do just that.  In addition to the Noll text, we’ll be using a primary source reader entitled A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990.  Published by Zondervan in 2007, it provides edited source material for each continent that covers ancient forms of Christianity, stories of first contact, western missions, and the growth of new indigenized forms of the faith.  With the glaring exception that Pentecostalism seems largely ignored, I look forward to using it as a complement to the often Euro-centric ways we teach Church History.

I strongly recommend the Gonzalez text (both volumes) for anyone interested in learning more about the story of Christianity.  And if you’re a believer, I think you ought to know this stuff.  The legacy we have is immense, and we need to understand it.  In closing, therefore, some words about the importance of Church History from Dr. John Drury, a colleague of mine from Princeton Seminary.  Enjoy!

10.  It can motivate and inspire our ministry and spirituality.

 How? In particular, inspiring stories of saints.  In general, by inertia.

 9.  Step into a stream of Christian mentors.

Mentors with the best creds are often dead; history gives us access to them.

8.  It affects us whether we know it or not, so we’re better off knowing it.

 Just like family history, the more we know the less it controls us & more it helps us; e.g., caught in debates, patience about certain issues, appreciate it.

 7.  Foster Community with Christians over time.

Usual community; community over space; community over time; identity!

6.  Broadens our horizon of the forms Christianity can take.

We’ll see all kinds of Christianities – compass points, Europe/Africa/Asia.

 5.  To keep us from re-inventing the wheel and to identify dead ends.

Church History is a treasure trove of practical wisdom.

experience / reflection on experience / reflection on another’s experience

4.  The Enemy knows it.

Dan Brown isn’t the e, but the e uses people like him to deceive and confuse.

3.  It helps us understand why Christians behave and believe the way they do.

How? by walking thru the steps of the development of practice and doctrine.

2.  Because Christianity is a historical religion.

Jesus was a historical figure born from a historical people (Israel) who began a historical community of witnesses (Church) which works toward the culmination of history in the coming kingdom of Jesus; aka: the story of the church didn’t end at Acts 28.

1.  Because we serve a Living Lord.

Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of the father; with all its sidetracks and errors, the history of the church is the clearest most explicit continuation of Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation.


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