HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

Samuel Waldron

PROLEGOMENA TO HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

THE ENCYCLOPEDIC ANALYSIS OF HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

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PART 1: PROLEGOMENA TO HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

 

SECTION 1: THE ENCYCLOPEDIC ANALYSIS OF HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

 

By the phrase "Encyclopedic Analysis" I have reference to the place and divisions of Historical Theology in the Encyclopedia of Theology. Theology is a science. It has its scientific departments and divisions, its encyclopedia. In the following graph I have modified a diagram of Fred H. Klooster who himself was merely giving a diagram of Abraham Kuyper's view of the encyclopedia of theology.

 

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THEOLOGY

I.EXEGETICAL
THEOLOGY

A.Books of the Bible-Isagogics

B.Text of the Bible

1.Biblical Philology

2.Textual Criticism

3.Hermeneutics

4.Exegesis

C.Contents of the Bible

1.Biblical Archaeology

2.Biblical History

3.Biblical Theology

 

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Object: the Bible as such

 

Aim: biblical interpretation

II.HISTORICAL
THEOLOGY

A.Ecclesi-astical or Church History

1.Chrono-logical

2.Terri-torial

3.Denomi-national

B.Doctrinal History--History of Doctrines

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Object: the church in historical manifestation

 

Aim: historical perspective

III.SYSTEMATIC

THEOLOGY
A.Apologetics

B.Dogmatics

1.Prolegomena

2.Revelation

3.God

4.Man

5.Christ

6.Salvation

7.Church

8.Last Things

C.Ethics

D.Polemics

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Object: Xian
doctrine and dogma

 

Aim: systematic
construction

IV.PRACTICAL
THEOLOGY

A.Homiletics

B.Liturgics

C.Poimenics

D.Catechetics

E.Church Order

F.Missions

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Object: the Church as the agency for

propagating the Word

Aim: effective mediation

 

Note several things in this diagram: the four-fold division of theology; the distinctive object and aim of each division; the prominent place of Historical Theology as one of the four major divisions; its relation to Systematic Theology; and the internal divisions of Historical Theology.

Note that Historical Theology comes with Exegetical Theology before Systematics. That is because both divisions are logically preliminary to Systematic Theology. The reason for this in the case of Exegetics is obvious. With respect to Historical Theology it is not so clear. The History of Doctrines, however, sheds great light on Exegetical and Doctrinal issues and in one sense Systematic Theology is the child of Historical Theology. Even the renowned exegete and systematician, John Murray, embraces this relationship.

Systematic theology . . . . is an accomplishment which has grown out of Christianity as it followed its course in history. Systematic theology has been a development within the church of God. the church of the first century did not begin with it and many factors have to be taken into account if we are to explain and vindicate this evolution of what is often called dogmatics. . . The fact that systematic theology is a development within the sphere of the church reminds us that it should not be thought of as the product of a theologian or series of theologians. It is true that the greatest contributions have been made by theologians. We think of Athanasius, Augustine, and Calvin. but neither these men nor their work can be understood or assessed apart from the history in the context of which they lived and wrought, particularly the history of the church. We may not underestimate the influence exerted by these men upon subsequent history. But history conditioned their work also and it is only because they occupied a certain place in history that they were able to contribute so significantly to the superstructure we call theology.

The following memorable diagram will make the relationship between the different departments of theology plain:

THE FACE OF THEOLOGY

Exegetics Historics

Systematics

P r a c t i c a l T h e o l o g y

You can see that there is a lot to be covered in the four quarters of Historical Theology projected to be taught in this school of theology. This leads me to say something about the approach used in these courses. That approach is epitomized in my insistence on referring to them as historical theology rather than church history. Because in my view this particular theological discipline culminates in the history of doctrines and because our overarching reason for studying this subject in this context (the context of a local church and a school of theology rather than the academic context of a college or university) the approach of these lectures will be to concentrate upon historical theology and the history of doctrines rather than church history. This is to say that we carry as our burden in all these studies the desire to discern how the church of Christ was increasingly able to formulate and articulate the system of truths contained in the Scriptures. It is not to say that there will be no treatment of those aspects of historical theology which may more broadly and precisely be described as church history. The emphasis of the lectures and some of the reading will be, however, upon the development of Christian dogma. Some attention must and will be given to those matters which are more broadly church-historical in the lectures. This will frequently be the emphasis of the reading. Church History in general will be covered in the reading, although some high points will be covered in the lectures. The emphasis of the lectures, some reading, and of the courses as a whole will be Historical Theology i.e., the History of Doctrines.

SECTION 2: THE BIBLICAL APPROACH TO HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

Introduction:

I am addressing this subject because I am convinced that the lack of such a biblical approach is not only responsible for many common errors which have plagued the study of church history, but also because without the perspectives I intend to lay out you will not feel the practical impact of what I hope to set before you during this course.

Now in constructing a biblical approach to the study of church history we will deal with four perspectives with which the study of the history of the church must be approached will be set out. You may think of these four perspectives as constructing a runway from which the study of church history must lift off. In order to construct this runway, we must make four passes with the heavy equipment of God's Word down the course of the runway.

The first perspective which forms a biblical approach to church history is this:

I. Church history reflects, enshrines, or contains the supernatural activity of Christ through His Spirit.

Only one text is needed to establish this first perspective on the study of church history. It is Matthew 28:18-20. Matthew 28:18-20 must be regarded as a classic text on the subject of the relation of Christ and His church during this age. The focal point of this relationship is stated in the promise of v. 20a, "and lo, I am with you always." Please notice four things about this promise.

A. The Recipient of the Promise

This promise is given to the universal church of Jesus Christ. Confirmation of this comes from the fact that the Great Commission as stated here and elsewhere in the New Testament was given directly to the apostolate, that body of men which formed the foundation of the church (Matt. 28:16; Luke 24:46-49 with 33-36; Acts 1:1-8). It is the church, then, as established on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) that is the recipient of this promise of Christ.

B. The Duration of the Promise

Notice the duration of this promise. Most important for our purposes is the fact that though the commission is given directly to the apostles of Christ, it cannot be restricted to the apostolic period of church history. The promise of Christ's powerful presence with His church is clearly stated in v. 20a. That this promise remains in effect after the apostolic period and throughout the history of the church is clear from three considerations.

First, it follows the statement of the universal scope of the church's commission contained in the phrase, "all the nations". This commission was not exhaustively fulfilled by the apostles. Since the commission remains to the post-apostolic church to complete, the promise given with a view to its fulfillment must also remain in effect.

Second, the promise is modified by the phrase "all the days" or "always" as it is translated in the NASB. This naturally suggests a period not restricted to the lifetimes of the apostles.

Third, the phrase "all the days" and the promise it modifies is defined by the concluding words of v. 20 and the Gospel of Matthew, "even to the consummation of the age." This phrase clearly refers to the time when Christ bodily returns in glory to usher in the age to come. If any further proof of the meaning of the consummation of the age within the context of the Gospel of Matthew is necessary, the four other occurrences of this phrase in this gospel will put the matter beyond doubt (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3).

The context of this promise assures us, then, that Christ will be specially and graciously present with His people throughout the church age.

C. The Bearing of This Promise

Notice the bearing of this promise. This promise of the special and gracious presence of Christ comes in the context of the activities assumed and commanded in the Great Commission. It is for the making, baptizing, and teaching of disciples that Christ promises His special presence. What a wonderful encouragement the church here possesses in the fulfillment of Christ's great commission!

D. The Authority of this Promise

Notice the authority of this promise. This promise comes within the framework of v. 18. [Read.] No earthly obstacles or decrees can over-ride or frustrate this purpose of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. What an absolutely thrilling encouragement in the work of church-planting!

But I am not here to speak to you about the work of church-planting, but about the study of church history. Thus, we must hasten on to a second perspective with which we must approach its study ...


II. The activity of Christ in church history has a progressive character.

When Christ promises to be present with His church all the days, we are not to think that he will start from scratch on each of those days. There is a process, a growth, a building involved which spans the entire gospel age. In fact it was the idea of building which the Great Carpenter Himself used in His most famous statement of the progressive character of His activity in church history. The passage which I am thinking of is, of course, Matthew 16:17-19.

No examination of the biblical proof for the relation of Christ to His church during this age would be complete which did not prominently expound this text. It is the first mention of the church in the New Testament and one of two recorded uses of this term by Christ during his earthly life.

The crucial idea for our purposes in this text is that the building of Christ's church spoken of here is age-long and eschatological in character. This promise, that is to say, very directly suggests the thought that Christ will build His church through the gospel age and that this process of building will only be completed at His return and only consummated in the eschatological kingdom.

Still the question may be raised, Was it Christ's original intention in this assertion to refer to the building of the church as an age-long process completed only at the end of the gospel age? Could He have been, perhaps, merely referring to a building completed during his life or that of His apostles? Eph. 2:20, a Pauline interpretive comment on Matthew 16:18, obliterates these doubts by confirming three things about this promise.

First, the church mentioned is the universal church. This is clearly the force and implication of the entire context of this statement in Ephesians (1:22, 23; 5:25-27). If it is the universal church to which Jesus was referring, then the implication would appear to be that the building process continues throughout this age.

Second, the Peter-foundation mentioned in Matt. 16:18 refers, according to Paul, to the foundation of the universal church laid in the apostles and prophets. According to the Apostle Paul Peter is the representative of the apostolate. The apostolate as the authentic and authoritative bearers and messengers of the truth about Himself forms the foundation of Christ's church. This naturally suggests that the generation of the apostles merely laid the foundation of the church and that the building process was far from complete.

Third, Paul views the building process as presently proceeding. Note the present tenses of Eph. 2:20. The activities in which Paul regards this building process as consisting are not activities which in any way suggest restricting it to the initial period of the gospel age.

 

The building process is, then, age-long and eschatological in nature. Thus, Matt. 16:18 as interpreted by Eph. 2:20 clearly substantiates the ideas of the presence and progressive character of the activity of Christ in His church.

 


 

III. This activity of Christ in church history with its progressive character has a doctrinal dimension.

 

Christ's progressive activity in the history of the church insures that there will be what may be called doctrinal development. This is important because I intend to argue that the church of Christ has had a growing ability throughout the ages to understand and articulate the teaching of the Bible. I intend to argue that Baptists today owe a great debt to those whom God used to bring the church to new levels of understanding in the history of the church. I intend to argue that we have a great heritage of truth which has been bequeathed to us by the Holy Spirit through such men. Finally, I intend to argue that not all or nor even perhaps the most important of those men to which we owe such a debt were Baptists.

 

Thus, I must establish that church history is characterized by a progressive growth in the church's understanding and speaking of the truth of the Bible. Let me, therefore, set out before you an argument which I believe indisputably confirms that there has been a progressive, doctrinal development in the history of the church. I will unfold this argument under three sub-headings:

 

A. The Argument Logically Stated

 

Let me put my argument this way. If the historical life of the church reflects the gracious activity of Christ, if this activity of Christ has a progressive character, then since a very important part of the life of the church is its doctrinal life, we may conclude that its doctrinal life will manifest a progressive character. This is just another way of saying that there will be doctrinal development in the history of the church.

 

B. The Argument Simply Illustrated

 

I acknowledge that the logical steps involved in that argument may strain rusty, rational faculties. Let me, therefore, illustrate what I am saying. Take your little five-year old son. You know from experience that through God's providential activity he will turn into a man by way of a progressive development or organic process. This process of growth will affect every major facet of the life of your little boy. He will grow up physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Thus, you know that instead of adding two plus three in his kindergarten workbooks, he will in ten years be studying symbolic logic, geometry, and calculus. Why? Because the intellectual aspect of your son's life is an integral part of his existence.

 

It is precisely the same with the church. It also must grow up. Since its doctrinal or intellectual aspect is a crucial dimension of its life, we must conclude that there will be intellectual or doctrinal growth in the church.

 

C. The Argument Biblically Confirmed

 

This argument for the doctrinal development of the church is implied by each of the two passages we have so far studied. In Matt. 28:20 the promise of Christ's gracious and powerful presence is stated with distinct reference the teaching or doctrinal ministry of the church. Verse 20 reads, "Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Since we know now that the activity of Christ here promised is progressive in character, it follows rather clearly that the church will have a growing ability to understand and teach all that Christ commanded.

 

Similarly in Matthew 16:17-19 where Christ's building of His church is promised, there is a focus on truth and doctrine. The church is built on the foundation of the apostolic testimony about Christ. The church is built on the rock of the truth about Jesus Christ as it was infallibly proclaimed by Peter and the other apostles. The church, therefore, has a doctrinal foundation, and we cannot eliminate doctrine from the building process of which Jesus speaks.

 

Many of Christ's parables clearly confirm the general idea of organic growth as a feature of the church's history in the gospel age. Two of the most explicit parables in this regard are found in Mark 4:26-32. Both parables emphasize the idea of organic growth in the kingdom of God. Note especially vv. 27, 28, and 32.

 

Perhaps, the clearest passage which confirms the thought of the intellectual maturation or doctrinal development of the church is to be found in Eph. 4:11-16. Please turn there. I am indebted to the expositions of Professor Greg Nichols' lectures in Ecclesiology for certain of the insights in the following material. 

 

This passage is commonly given an individual or local church application. While such an application is not invalid, there is the necessity of seeing in it an age-long eschatological process.

 

Paul is concerned primarily with the visible, universal church in Ephesians not the local church or an invisible church. In Ephesians 2 he shows that the church is the New Israel. The New Israel is neither local nor invisible. In Ephesians 3 he shows that the church is the mystery-body of Christ composed of both Jews and Gentiles in the age of fulfillment. In Ephesians 4:11 he states that Apostles, etc. are given as gifts to this church. It cannot, therefore, be merely a local church and it is certainly not the invisible church that is here in view. Paul is thinking of the eschatological goal and consummation of the church in Ephesians. Note Ephesians 5:25-27.

 

When in Eph. 4:11-16 is read in light of this context, the conclusion must be that there is an age-long maturing process in the visible, universal church. Very important for our purposes is the fact that according to vv. 12-15 this goal has ethical, doctrinal, and quantitative dimensions. When maturation in the knowledge of Christ is explicitly predicated of the universal church, the idea of a doctrinal development in the history of the church is unavoidable.

 

Louis Berkhof has grasped the biblical perspective here. Let me conclude my exposition of the fact there is doctrinal development in church history by quoting him.

 

We shall have to proceed on the assumption that the Church, despite the melancholy aberrations that characterized her search for the truth and often led her into the ways of error, yet gradually advanced in her apprehension and formulation of the truth. We shall have to assume that even such a tremendous religious upheaval as the Reformation did not constitute a complete break with the doctrinal development of the past. While many errors were exposed and corrected, the Reformers sought support for their views in the early Church Fathers, and did not even hesitate to adopt some of the views that were developed during the Middle Ages. There was continuity of thought even here.

 


IV. Church history will be characterized by a mixture of good and evil, and this characteristic will be present in each dimension of its life including its doctrinal development.

 

What am I saying here, in other words, is that there will be both good and bad doctrinal developments in the visible church. Though Christ is active in the church, this does not mean that nothing but good occurs in any facet of church history.

 

There is a great deal of data in the New Testament which directly confirms this idea. Corinth was a true church and yet contained a large admixture of error and sin and wickedness when Paul wrote his first epistle. A Diotrephes tyrannized another true church of Christ and its genuine Christian members (3 John 9). Paul refers to a "mystery of lawlessness already at work" and implies that it will work during this age until "that lawless one will be revealed" (2 Thes. 2:7, 8). This "mystery of lawlessness" at least in its ultimate fruition appears to bear a religious character. The "man of lawlessness" will take "his seat in the temple of God" (2 Thes. 2:3, 4). However this difficult statement is to be interpreted, it seems to imply that "the mystery of lawlessness" influences the professing church of Christ or has a pseudo-Christian character. This is further confirmed by the statements of John which identify the pseudo-Christian gnostic teachers as antichrists (1 John 2:18, 19; 4:3; 2 John 7).

 

I suspect, however, that many of your minds have gone directly to a passage of Scripture which so far I have deliberately skipped over. You may be saying to yourself, `Isn't this exactly what Christ was teaching in the parables of Matt. 13 and especially the parable of the tares?' Turn there, and let's find out. [Read Matt. 13:24-30.] It would be easy to make a direct application of this passage to the question at hand and assert that there will be an organic increase and progression of evil as well as righteousness in church history.

 

The problem is that the field in the parable of the tares is not the church. It is the world. Look at vv. 37 and 38. It is a serious error to neglect the explicit identification of the field in Matt. 13:38 and assume that the field is the church. This assumption has frequently dominated Reformed thinking on this passage. It has been customary for such thinkers to argue that good and evil is to be tolerated in the church together on the basis of this passage. I hear tell that there are even Reformed Baptists who have allowed themselves to be betrayed into such an interpretation and application of the parable of the tares. Do I need to tell you, brethren, that it is emphatically not to be our policy to allow both good and evil to grow together in the church? The church is not the explicit subject of these parables of the kingdom in Matt. 13.

This does not mean, however, that there are not implications for and applications to the church in these parables. They do imply the mixed character of the church and its history. While the church as a matter of policy is not to tolerate evil men and evil doctrines within its holy precincts, yet as a matter of fact evil men and evil doctrines will often be found within her. Since the church exists in a world in which both good and evil are growing together, we must not be surprised to find both tendencies within the professing church of Christ. In this way the parable of tares does indirectly apply to our subject.

Review:

Before we come to glean several major lessons from them, let me review the four perspectives I have set before you.

 

I. Church history reflects, enshrines, or contains the supernatural activity of Christ through His Spirit.

II. The activity of Christ in church history has a progressive character.

III. This activity of Christ in church history with its progressive character has a doctrinal dimension.

IV. Church history will be characterized by a mixture of good and evil, and this characteristic will be present in each dimension of its life including its doctrinal development.

Major Lessons about the Study of Church History:

(1) The study of church history is justified and mandated by these perspectives.

Is Christ active in Church History? Then Psalm 111:2 and 105:1-7 apply. In light of the biblical teaching that those who fear the Lord will delight in studying or seeking out His works we must insist that the study of church history is not only justified, but absolutely mandatory.

This is, of course, especially true for those who aspire to be teachers in Christ's church. Any course of regular education for the ministry must involve a thorough acquaintance with the history of the church. One of the great deficiencies of much theological education today is the brevity and superficiality of its treatment of historical theology.

But the study of church history is not only mandatory for ministerial students. I remind you that Psa. 111:2 says, "Great are the works of the Lord. They are studied by all who delight in them." Individual Christians and local churches ought to consider how they are to seek out (instruct themselves in) the great works of Jehovah in church history.

(2) One of the great benefits of the study of church history is the study of historical theology.

Historical theology is the study of the doctrinal development or the progress of dogma (as one man has called it) in the history of the church. The study of historical theology is one of the premier benefits in the study of church history.

Historical theology cannot, of course, in any sense be the source or authority for our doctrine. We have just spent a considerable amount of time proving that not all the developments associated with church history and historical theology will be positive and divine. Some will be negative and devilish.

But the fact that historical theology is not infallible does not mean that it is useless. A corollary of the activity of the risen Christ in Church History is that true doctrinal development may be found in the unfolding history of the church. Historical Theology, while on the one hand demanding examination under the spotlight of the Word of God, itself sheds light on the Word of God by enshrining the past fruits of the Spirit's teaching ministry in the church. Berkhof well says:

 

... the development of the dogma of the Church moved along organic lines and was therefore in the main a continuous growth, in spite of the fact that the leaders of the Church in their endeavors to apprehend the truth often wandered into blind alleys, chasing will-o'-the-wisps and toying with foreign elements; and that even the Church itself, as a whole or in part, sometimes erred in its formulation of the truth.

This makes clear why it is so wickedly self-sufficient for people to despise commentaries, creeds, confessions, and the teaching ministry of the church. People do this when they say, `I don't need those old books. I have no creed but the Bible. I don't need a pastor. All I need is my Bible and the Lord.' Such men even clothe their wicked self-sufficiency in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

 

The utter folly of such thinking! Do such men really think that the Spirit of the Lord will help them interpret their Bibles aright when they despise the work of that very Spirit in the church for the last 20 centuries? Do such men not realize the just penalty for such pride and arrogance? Those who will not learn from the errors of history are doomed to repeat them. Those who will not allow church history to be a faithful friend who warns against the error and heresy are doomed to error and heresy themselves!

 

(3) We must reject a cynical and adopt a believing attitude toward the study of historical theology.

 

Both neutral objectivity and cold cynicism are anti-Christian attitudes to adopt towards the study of church history. Too often such attitudes have characterized professed church historians. The Christian must approach church history expecting to find reflected there the activity of the risen Lord.  Its various movements, figures, or doctrines, therefore, cannot be the object of mere objective report or cynical criticism, but must be the object of evaluation in light of the revelation of Christ.  Neutral objectivity and cold cynicism with reference to church history are the offspring of unbelieving atheism. Let us not imitate the many church historians who reflect the attitudes of unbelief toward church history.

(4) In the study of historical theology we must take into account the fact of maturation and development in the doctrinal understanding of the church.

The reality of the church's doctrinal maturation and development has a number of significant applications to the study of church history.

First, when we speak of the maturation of the church's doctrinal understanding, we are not asserting that the church adds anything in its history to that faith once for all delivered to the saints. The progress in the church's dogmatic understanding is not a mechanical or external matter in which something is added to the content of Scripture. It is an organic matter in which the potential of the deposit of truth is gradually unfolded, especially through its conflict with the heresies spawned by the kingdom of darkness. Think of the acorn and the oak tree. There is nothing in the oak tree which was not in the acorn, but there has been a mighty unfolding of the acorn's potential.

Second, when we speak of the maturation of the church's doctrinal understanding, this implies the comparative immaturity of the Early Church's thought and theology. In its early history the church was in its infancy. Thus, you must expect to find a lot of baby-talk in early theologians. There are early theologians who defend original sin and then speak of the innocence of babies. The great Trinitarian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, recognized the reality of doctrinal maturation when he said, "In regard to the doctrine of God, the different usage of terms is no longer so harmless, for what was a little thing then, is a little thing no longer." We must take into account the relative maturity of the church and of individuals in dealing with them.

Third, we must not expect to find doctrinal perfection and maturity in the early and medieval church. There is no ideal church hidden in the folds of early church history. You are not going to find Reformed Baptist Churches hidden in the Alps or Wales in the third century. Baptist successionism, or any other kind of successionism, in my opinion, is clearly insensitive to the New Testament teaching that organic growth, doctrinal development, and a mixed character will characterize the history of the church.

Fourth, we must expect to find great truth mixed with serious error especially in the early stages of church history. There must be no idealizing or vilifying of any stream of church history. Thus, certain Baptists have idealized the Anabaptists and ignored the serious errors which they often embraced. We owe to Augustine a great debt for his articulation of the doctrine of irresistible grace in the Pelagian controversy, but Augustine applauded the persecution of the Donatists and provided a theological justification for it. Furthermore, Augustine regarded all sexual intercourse even in marriage as inevitably involving sinful lust, while Julian of Eclanum, one of his Pelagian opponents, had more biblical and wholesome views of sex and marriage. Let me reiterate the point, there must be no idealizing or vilifying of any stream of church history.

Fifth, there will be an organic increase and progression of evil as well as righteousness in this age.

This thought directly relates to another question often raised by evangelical students as they study Early Church history. They ask, when did the Roman Catholic Church begin? Often the answers given fail to take into account the progressive and organic character of Church History. One could reply, one minute after the last Apostle died and probably before. One could also reply, at the Council of Trent in the 1540's. Both answers would be correct (and so would several others), but both would also be very incomplete. Evil, as well as righteousness, proceeds by way of organic growth.

We must expect to find in the community created by the action of the Kingdom and, thus, in the history of the church every kind of fish, good and bad. I repeat. We must not expect to find a perfect community, a perfect church hidden in the folds of church history, especially in early church history. This is a present, evil age (Gal. 1:4) and that only in the age to come will the Church be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph. 5:27). We must not view Church History like the little girl mentioned by the poet who,

 

When she was good

she was very, very good

but when she was bad

she was horrid.

 

Some people tend to see every movement, or person in Church History as "very, very good" or "horrid." Especially in the early church where both error and truth are only beginning to develop, this is inappropriate. There especially we must beware of over-doing a good guy/bad guy mentality. It is a false mentality which sees every division as a reflection of the true suffering church being persecuted by the apostate church.  Things are just not that simple in a fallen world and an imperfectly redeemed church. We must avoid over-simplification.

 


 

SECTION 3: THE GENERAL OVERVIEW OF HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

 

I. A Chronological Overview

 

A. Of Historical Theology As a Whole.

 

In the span of the 20 Christian centuries there are two clearly recognizable, though broad, transition points for Historical Theology. There is the transition of the 5th and the transition of the 16th century. Two ways of dividing the history of the church have claimed broad allegiance from church historians. The first divides the history of the church into four periods: Early Church, Medieval Church, Reformation Church, Modern Church. The second division counts three major periods: Early Church, Augustinian Church, Modern Church.

 

B. Of the Early Church Period in Particular

 

1. The Boundaries of the Early Church Period.

 

Of course it must be recognized that history does not normally or even rarely provide us with built-in dividing points. There was no sign reading 23 years to the Medieval Church on the road of church history. Assuming this, the fact remains that there are good reasons to begin and end the study of the early church at certain points.

 

a. The Beginning Point (the terminus a quo) (=end from which)

 

This may be conveniently placed at around 100 A.D. when the last Apostle died. From that point on, the church was left with no living authoritative human voice to guide it. The first uninspired literature of the church which we possess also dates from approximately 100 A.D.

 

b. The Ending Point (the terminus ad quem) (=end toward which)

 

This may be conveniently placed in the general vicinity of the middle of the 5th century. There are several good reasons for this.

 

1) 451 was the year of the Council of Chalcedon. The Christological Settlement there concluded the formulation of the two great inter-related doctrines which dominated the thinking of the early church period: The doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the person of Christ.

 

While Christian historians debate as to whether Chalcedon was the end of Christological development, all recognize that with it a turning point has been reached. Some do carry the Early Period to the 7th Century.

 

2) The 5th Century Marked the Practical End of the Roman Empire in the West. Rome was sacked in 410. Romulus Augustulus, the last figurehead emperor, was deposed in 476. Thus around the middle of the 5th century the corner was turned from the Imperial church to the Papal church. With the decline of the Empire in the West would come the ascendancy of the Roman Bishop.

 

3) The 5th century (430) saw the completion of Augustine`s work. His work laid the foundation without which neither the Middle Ages nor the Reformation are thinkable.

 

Conclusion: Thus, while there was no bump in the road of Church History at 450, a great turning point, a great curve in the road can be discerned as the Church heads into the Middle Ages

 

2. The Divisions of the Early Church Period

 

The Early Church Period may be divided into two sub-periods with the dividing line drawn at approximately 325. This Period may thus be divided into the Ante-Nicene and the Post-Nicene or the Pre-Constantinian and Post-Constantinian periods.

 

a. A.D. 311 was the year of the "conversion" of Constantine and the beginning of toleration of Christianity which was completed by around 324. 313 was the year of the Edict of Milan which brought the Church rest. The "conversion" of Constantine laid the foundation for the Imperial Church and the union of Christianity with the State. This was an epochal change.

 

b. A.D. 325 was the year of the Council of Nicea. The Arian Controversy which surfaced around 321 was decided in favor of the Trinitarians at this Council. Though many struggles remained on this issue, the Council of Nicea marked a turning-point in doctrinal formulation.

 

II. A Theological Overview

 

I approach these lectures in historical theology believing that James Orr in his Progress of Dogma was at least substantially correct when he said:

 

Has it ever struck you, then--you will not find it noticed in the ordinary books, but I am sure your attention cannot be drawn to it without your perceiving that there must be more underlying it than meets the eye--what a singular parallel there is between the historical course of dogma, on the one hand, and the scientific order of the text-books on systematic theology on the other? The history of dogma, as you speedily discover, is simply the system of theology spread out through the centuries--theology, as Plato would say, "writ large"--and this not only as regards its general subject-matter, but even as respects the definite succession of its parts. the temporal and logical order correspond. The articulation of the system in your text-books is the very articulation of the system in its development in history. Take, for example, any accredited theological text-book, and observe the order of its treatment. What we ordinarily find is something like this. Its opening sections are probably occupied with Theological Prolegomena--with apologetics, the general idea of religion, revelation, the relation of faith to reason, Holy Scripture, and the like. the follow the great divisions of the theological system--Theology proper, or the doctrine of God; Anthropology, or the doctrine of man, including sin (sometimes a separate division); Christology, or the doctrine of the person of Christ; Soteriology (Objective), or the doctrine of the work of Christ, especially the Atonement; Subjective Soteriology, or the doctrine of the application of redemption (Justification, Regeneration, etc.); finally, Eschatology, or the doctrine of the last things. If now, planting yourself at the close of the Apostolic Age, you cast your eye down the course of the succeeding centuries, you find, taking as an easy guide the great historical controversies of the Church, that what you have is simply the projection of this logical system on a vast temporal screen.

The following table will make clear the extraordinary parallel which Orr is noting:

Theological Subject

Theological

Prolegomena (Apologetics, Scripture, Canon)

Theology Proper (the doctrine of the nature and especially the Trinity of God)

 

Anthropology (the doctrine of man, sin, and grace)

 

Christology (the person of Christ)

 

 

Objective Soteriology (the doctrine of the atonement)

Subjective Soteriology (the doctrine of the application of redemption--justification, regeneration)

Historical Period

2nd & 3rd Centuries

 

 

3rd & 4th Centuries

 

5th Century

 

 

5th-7th Centuries

 

 

11th-16th Centuries

 

 

16th Century

Major Movements

Apologists, Gnostic, Marcionite, Montanist Heresies

 

Most of the Fathers in These Two Centuries, Monarchian, Arian Heresies

Augustine, the Pelagian Heresy, the Semi-Pelagian Controversy

Apollinarian, Nestorian, Eutychian, Monphysite, and Monothelite Heresies

Anselm, the Scholastic Theologians, Luther

 

 

Luther, Calvin, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism

It would be more difficult to specify the theological developments which dominate more recent history. Suffice to say that the doctrines of ecclesiology, pneumatology, and eschatology which are logically subsequent to the theological loci mentioned above have tended to become increasingly the focus of the church's theological attention.

PART 2: THE EXPANSION OF THE EARLY CHURCH


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