Church History: Something That Tears Down or Builds Up?
The study of the history of the church can easily be frustrating and discouraging, dominated as it is with controversies and conflicts of opinion. At the end of a survey course, it is easy to imagine that a student could come away thinking that Christians have held a myriad of views on social and theological questions, and committed a multitude of both exemplary and lamentable actions, and then conclude that Christian history is characterized by discord and disharmony. They might despair of whether their own Christian lives actually can be a part of a greater Christian body, if this body is characterized by inability to reach consensus. The author of Hebrews writes that suffering Christians can take comfort because a “great cloud of witnesses” including Moses, Abraham, Rahab, and many prophets went before them. The history survey of the author of Hebrews focuses on the commonality of faith in all these past lives; but surveys of the history of the church this side of the birth of Christ, anno domini, might leave people feeling that they are accompanied by a less comforting “crowd of quarrelers.”
Studying church history need not only have this effect of tearing down. It can and should also serve to encourage and build up. Historical study is intrinsically the study of changes across time, but one way to make the process edifying is to note the commonalities that persist even across the years. Consider, for example, Christian perspectives on sanctification and the ways by which Christians may live out lives full of deeds that are pleasing to God. This subject is spoken about across the centuries, but in looking at how authors in very different periods addressed the question, we can find some points of comfort and continuity.
For example, two writers whose works could easily come up in a survey course are the late medieval preacher Gabriel Biel of the 15th century and the holiness author Hannah Whitall Smith of the late 19th century. Biel was a theologian and university professor at the University of Tübingen and a member of the Brethren of the Common Life, a religious order focused on practical piety whose followers influenced Erasmus and Luther. Smith, author of the bestseller The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1875), was a prominent writer and teacher in the holiness movement, which focused on Christians’ ability to live a “higher life” characterized by internal peace and closeness to God. Both of these authors wrote about how a Christian person can do actions that are pleasing to God. In the writings I consider here, both of them emphasized how God graciously puts the ability to do these kinds of actions within the grasp of Christian believers.
In his sermon on “The Circumcision of the Lord,” Biel discussed what the grace that believers have in Christ accomplishes for us. According to Biel, it does three things—it makes us acceptable to God, or friends of God; it justifies us; and finally, it makes “the works which result meritorious and worthy of eternal life, of grace and glory.” The works that we do out of the “prompting of this grace” are considered meritorious before God. Likewise, apart from this grace, we cannot do meritorious actions. Grace is the great gift that makes us friends of God, as captured in Jesus’s words to the disciples, “No longer shall I call you servants, but friends.”
Biel’s goal was to make his listeners rejoice in the grace that God gives. God could have simply “forgiven sins by abstaining from punishment for them, without going so far as embracing the sinner as a friend,” Biel argued, since mere forgiveness is usually what humans do at best. But God did not simply to forgive, but actually desired to go further and restore “His personal friendship.” And then, even beyond this, God enables us to continue in that state of friendship by giving us the grace to persist in this state. To illustrate this point, he told a parable of a good king (who represents God), who offered increasingly more and unexpected gifts to the people of his land. First, “[the king] publishes a decree saying that he will embrace with his favor any of his enemies who desire his friendship.” Then, the king declared that all those taking up the offer would receive a gold ring to proclaim their happy status. As an even more generous gesture, he said that all their deeds done in his honor would be rewarded beyond what would be expected. And to top it all off, the king embedded special stones in the people’s rings to enable them to do these kinds of works that will give such unexpectedly large blessings. Biel ended with this doxology:
“How could one ever praise highly enough the clemency and the preciousness of the gifts of such a king? Behold, such is our king and Savior! The gift is grace, which is bestowed abundantly on us, which is to the soul what the ring is to the body in the parable.”
Part of the reason Biel found this grace so praiseworthy was because it made it easy to live in the state of friendship with God, doing the meritorious works. According to Biel, “by this grace we are able to remain without difficulty in His friendship, and to grow continually through good works. On such a foundation we can easily overcome the onslaughts of the devil, the world, and the flesh…” Thanks to the gems set in the ring he was given, a saint would find that “his body does not fail him when he needs it but increases in the ability to gain further rewards.”
The doxological intent of Hannah Whitall Smith’s book is similar to that of Biel’s sermon—she writes in order to help her readers rejoice that they have a God who made such an easy and straightforward path to believers’ sanctification. However, her theology stresses to an even greater extent the ease with which this process is to occur. According to Smith, only a few simple steps stand between a believer who struggles against sin in her own strength, and a believer who lives liberated from her sinful desires, freely and gladly serving God. Believers must simply lay aside all their burdens and self-striving, consecrate themselves to God by prayer, and then have “absolute faith” that God will begin and complete the sanctification process. She compared the Christian life to a potter who is forming clay vessels. All the clay has to do is to lie still in the potter’s hands, while he shapes it into the kind of dish he has in mind. What results is a life free of concerns, where the Christian accepts all circumstances as occasions by which God is shaping them.
Rather than draw an analogy to a generous king and his friends, Smith draws analogies to more mundane situations, such as those between friends or between parents and their children. For instance, she compared the simpleness and one-time nature of the process of consecration to the giving over of a piece of property between friends. Just as a person only once needs to hand the property deed over to his friend, and does not need to keep giving it again and again, so also the Christian need only consecrate her life to God once. She need not keep giving it over and over again, as though she did not mean it the first time. Later on, Smith compared a person who doubts that God will carry through on his promise of sanctification to a child who, left by her mother with a babysitter for a few hours, despaired and assumed that the mother did not love her enough keep her promise to return.
In short, Smith argued for her hearers to lay aside their own striving, consecrate themselves to the Lord, and believe that he will work his sanctification in them. The remaining and lying still itself is a task; but, at least in Smith’s thought, this lying and trusting is supposed to be something restful and easy. In Biel’s sermon, the grace that God gives enables us easily to do the kinds of good works that God accepts; this enabling grace comes even after the reception of two very good gifts, those of forgiveness and being instated as his friends. Biel argues that believers should rejoice in the smooth path that God has provided.
There is, of course, plenty of room for disagreeing with the ways that both Biel and Smith discuss this issue. Any discussion of the fact that believers can do good works through God’s enabling is incomplete without accounting for experiences like those of Paul, who found that his sinful desires were always at war inside him (Romans 7). Smith’s writing in particular suffers from a dilemma of whether entering a sanctified life is totally a work of God, or is actually completely up to the believer’s ability to remain perfectly still and trusting in God’s hands. And there are certainly differences between the authors. For instance, Smith is focused on how a Christian can live in a state of holiness, where one’s self is passive and completely given over to God’s working. On the other hand, Biel is focused on how a person can do meritorious works and less focused on the idea of a “state” of surrender. However, there are also edifying points of consensus that can be noted. Both of the writers are striving to inspire their hearers to lives of good works based on the fact that these kinds of works are the works that God wants us to do. As we know from Ephesians 2, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Both of the writers encourage the hearers to rely on God as the one who makes us able to do good works. They both not only urge their hearers to know this fact, but also to rejoice in the kind of God who enables his people to act in accordance with what is good. In recognizing this common ground, especially in those points where the goal of the teaching is doxological, students can find a message in the study of church history that builds them up.
Show Sources and Notes
Biel, Gabriel. “The Circumcision of the Lord.” In Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought, edited by Heiko Oberman, 165-174. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 2002.
Smith, Hannah Whitall. The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. Revell, 1952 .
 Gabriel Biel, “The Circumcision of the Lord,” in Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought, edited by Heiko Oberman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 2002), 168.
 Biel, “The Circumcision of the Lord,” 172.
 Biel, “The Circumcision of the Lord,” 173.
 Biel, “The Circumcision of the Lord,” 173.
 Hannah Whitall Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (Revell, 1952 ), 30-33.
 Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, 60.
 Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, 109.