Some Things Do Change

Pelikan BookI’m teaching Church History again this year, and alongside my work in the course I’ve decided to read through Jaroslav Pelikan‘s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.  As I write this morning, I’ve only just begun.

In the initial book of the series, Pelikan discusses early Christianity through the first six centuries AD.  While he does so, he addresses the culture within which much of the young religion arose: the late classical world.  To this end he writes the following:

The victory of orthodox Christian doctrine over classical thought was to some extent a Pyrrhic victory, for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics (44).

Christian theology as we know it, in other words, was profoundly touched and affected by outside forces fairly early on.  Such a statement might elicit a number of responses.  Some might deny that it is true, assuming that every bit of the Church’s teaching is exactly how the Apostles framed it.  Others, taking a typically modern perspective, might decry such additions and seek to purify the faith by removing them.  Postmoderns by contrast may simply yawn, asserting that since there is no such thing as “true” Christianity and hinton st marythat the faith has always been first defined through the lens of cultural metanarratives, there is no point in trying to discover what the earliest Christians believed.

As a Christian historian, I find myself in the midst of these questions when I consider the early Church.  It would be nice to assert, as per the first position, that Christian theology has always been understood by the Church in the same way.  While I would assert that one can trace a stream of orthodoxy through the centuries, even the most basic read of history reveals that the way the Church has reflected upon the “deposit of faith” has changed over time.

What of the second position?  Well, I am an historian.  I am interested in digging into the past.  The lure of understanding what the earliest believers understood about their faith is there.  I am reading the first volume of Pelikan’s work, after all.  But even so, I’m not ready to jettison all the nuance time and space have given to Christian doctrine and the language we have used to describe it in favor of some nascent and (likely) historically irretrievable arh430-530earlychristianartgenesis.  If it is possible to understand Christian theology completely untouched by the Roman world, we will still be understanding it from only one point of view and–unless new sources are available–likely incomplete and in need of further explication.  Besides, in the process of understanding it from our perspective, we might very well be doing the same kind of culturally-conditioned doctrinal alterations that proponents of this position would decry in the first place.

All of this points towards those holding the third, more relativist position.  Clearly this has its appeal.  Christianity is and has always been shaped by its historical and cultural location: first in the Jewish world, then in the Greco-Roman world, and on and on.  This to me is a largely agreeable line of thought.  But then there’s more.  With so many kinds of Christianities–both in Antiquity and today–it is easy to give in to the belief that it is all subjective.  There is an almost nihilism in the furthest extremes of this position.  If none of it matters ultimately, why does any of it matter?  Is heresy really heresy or just another “version?”  As an orthodox Christian historian, I have a difficult time with some of this thinking.

History as a discipline, aware as it is of the many narratives in which we are involved, still carries with it a certain connection to objectivity.  I often feel this pull as I engage in my work.  There is an actual historical record with which we have to deal, and the investigation of said record reveals both details and insight even as it bounds us.  It Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravennatells us, I believe, that there are some basic things about Christianity that have persisted from the earliest days. It also reveals how doctrine has developed and changed over time.  To admit what Pelikan does in the quotation above is simply to state a fact.  How we interact with such facts vis-a-vis the three positions I’ve laid out is up to us.

Christianity has been influenced by the world(s) in which it has lived.  That’s a fact.  But it is Christianity that has been influenced.  The Church’s lively debates, factions, reforms, and reframing over time have always been with reference to the core ideas–and Person–around which it is based.  Though articulated very differently, I believe these can still be discernibly Christian.

To Be Continued.

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Understanding the Story, Part III

As with historical reflection, honesty is essential in my writing and practice of theology even as this same forthrightness is delivered in such a way that helps reframe the Christian life.  Appreciation and celebration of the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition is essential to helping students within our milieu understand the relationship of that particular story to their own.  Beginning in this place provides this vibrant spirituality a platform from which to speak even as it allows “insiders” to feel safe as they begin to explore deeper faithful perspectives and realities just beyond their current understanding.

If mine is truly a “faith seeking understanding,” then such a Weltanschauung must impact all that I do.  My reflections on the place of stories—mine, adolescents’, and those of the world—are vital, as is the deep Christian conviction that their bounds remain set and based upon one’s place in the story of Christ.  Such a faith is at once secure and flexible, unified and open.  In my scholarship this means a deep connection with a practical theology of (his)story; a simultaneously informative and transformative understanding that may just link the apparently disparate patterns of my academic life.  Historical reflection and our personal stories of faith are both revelatory and demonstrative in their own ways and must be continually probed and nuanced to stimulate growth.  The reality of God in Christ precedes and goes beyond both, yet the work of the each is vital in the “in-between.”  Being allowed the opportunity to devote time to such scholarly and practical enterprises at the university I serve is a privilege for which I continue to be thankful.

Understanding the Story, Part II

A “faith seeking understanding” in the field of history means that the discipline is not an all-powerful explanation of everything, but rather much more limited in its scope.  History properly conceived is meant to be read as story, powerful and descriptive.  It invites discovery more about the world around us, leading towards understanding of our existence in light of the existence of God.  Humble yet engaged, we must maintain an awareness of faith that considers it to be the base of all history.  Even so, there must be an openness to honest discovery and growth in the midst of these and related investigations.

With regard to my scholarship in both practical theology and Church history, I feel that taking the perspective of the storyteller fits well with my own “faith seeking understanding.”  Historiographically I feel it is my goal to help others develop an understanding of the past even while being aware that full comprehension is something beyond our grasp.  The writing and retelling of history is often a very personal endeavor as I seek to understand and broaden the narrative in which I find myself.  This personal relevance for me (and, I suspect, all historians) takes the form of those issues which I feel are important: not only religious history understood broadly, but the narrower field of Pentecostal and Charismatic history in which I completed my doctoral research.

Similar desires carry over into my work in the practical theology of youth ministry, where working within and amidst students’ stories is imperative.  As ministers of the gospel we have been charged with announcing a Story that envelops all of Creation–and invites us to join our stories to it.  This alternative to the divergent paths we often trod at once redirects our wanderings even as it values important elements of the paths with which we have been gifted.  Theological reflection on youth ministry for me means working within the biblical worldview and our Pentecostal tradition to think about how students can both gain and maintain a faith seeking understanding, be it at the moment of salvation, during the long process of discipleship, or in the midst of desiring the part of our story that helps define the rest: a teenager’s divinely authored vocation.

Understanding the Story, Part I

A few years ago, I spent around six months with my youth ministry delving into the stories of Scripture.  Borrowing from a curricular approach known as “storying,” the goal was to help students grasp the great narratives of the Bible.  Each week a paraphrased episode was read (i.e. Creation, Noah, David and Bathsheba) and students were asked to creatively retell or interpret it.  They were then asked a number of questions about the text, including their unique observations and reflections on the place of God and humanity within.  I found the freewheeling discussion fruitful and encouraging as it allowed students the space to discuss the Word in their own terms and find their places within and connection to the story of God.  This singular insight is helpful to me as I consider how to bridge the two disciplines in which I teach and write.

When I consider the way in which my faith informs my academic discipline and scholarly work, my mind gravitates to Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum fides quarens intellectum.  I take as an axiom the notion that ours is a faith “seeking understanding.”  As such, the starting point of my life and its work is the reality of God in Christ and the story into which He has drawn me.  Perhaps influenced by the Neo-Platonic ideas of Augustine and his inheritors as well as the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth, I take a relatively dim view of the place of reason in establishing belief and the propositional apologetics that often goes along with such assertions.  This personal understanding of faith is one that seeks not to prove but explain and discover more about the foundation of my existence in Christ.  My story in the midst of God’s story is therefore the starting point for this explanation.  Such a narrative approach has implications for both of the academic fields in which I operate and promises to be fruitful in scholarly work in these areas.  Considered under this rubric, youth ministry as practical theology and Church history both share an emphasis upon faith-full narration that brings them together in a unique way.

As I reflect on the academic discipline of practical theology, within which I understand youth ministry to be a subset, I must admit that the place of the Christian story—and our related stories—is never far from the surface.  If youth ministry is about the various narratives competing for students’ allegiance then it is truly a most vital example of “faith seeking understanding.”  Like all practical theology, it is a discipline that seeks to explain and understand how our faith and theology—truly “words about God”—relates to our practices as believers.  Individual faith stories and larger religious traditions have important roles to play in this conversation.  Within Pentecostalism, for instance, the specialized role and place of the Holy Spirit is but one of the characteristics that will help explicate and define the way in which practical theological reflection upon youth ministry will take place.  From the viewpoint of narrative, therefore, practical theology has a way of both describing and directing adolescent stories towards new ends.

History Seeking Understanding

On Monday I wrote about the deep sense of humility and possibility for understanding one can derive from studying the past.  Now, a continuation of those thoughts:

Such claims are by design rather optimistic and expansive, yet have often reflected my own experience.  Where my ecumenical vision falters, however, is when historical research reveals not just differences in practice or theological perspective, but unveilings of the past that seem to—despite my relative distaste for such normative claims—call into question the moral rectitude of the Church and its members in places where 1) their actions are either clearly un-Christian or reprehensible and/or 2) their theological or chronological proximity to my own life and faith call into question aspects of my own perceived story.  Of the first category, numerous episodes such as the religious violence of the Crusades, heresy and witch trials, Church corruption, intra-Christian wars of religion, the sad story of Christian misogyny, and religiously justified racism all underscore the problem at hand.  While the facts of each of these situations are certainly more complicated than the popular imagination allows, each nevertheless points to a morally or ethically questionable aspect of historical faith and practice.

A sense of historical humility may allow me to understand why Christians may have arrived at these positions, but I yet have great difficulty in sympathizing with certain of these positions.  This said, giving my spiritual ancestors the benefit of the doubt is nevertheless easier the farther back one goes, chronologically speaking.  With regard to more recent developments with which I disagree—say, for instance, questionable anti-intellectual tendencies or damaging theological developments within Pentecostalism, the broad perspective I hope to convey is rather more difficult to enact—but no less important.  No matter the situation, the insight and understanding provided by a balanced and humble historical way of looking at things is always helpful.

Ultimately, I would like to think that my study of history has not only impacted my faith, but that my faith has had an impact on my scholarship as well.  Foundationally, it has directed me towards particular paths of research as I have sought out conversational friends, theological sparring partners, and sage guides throughout the past two thousand years of Christian history.  Quite really, I can say that the study of Church History has had for me an important devotional element.

My faith also reminds me that God is not absent from the historical narrative, despite how difficult it may be to see Him.  As my faith both informs and enriches my study of history, it keeps me from despair at the dark points of the human story and reminds me that there is a God who holds all of it in His hand.  That history has an “end” is a distinctively Christian understanding, and one which I hold dear.  Maintaining this faith perspective affects my scholarship, even as my scholarship affects my faith.  Constant dialogue with historical landscapes both local and foreign involves both continual growth and a deepened faith.  In the end, if a primary Christian enterprise is indeed as Anselm of Canterbury phrased it “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), then in my estimation the task of history to which my scholarly career is oriented is a constituent portion of that vital journey.