Why the Historian Is Indispensable to Christianity
If the average Christian were asked to identify the essential roles in Christianity and pre-Christian Judaism, he or she would probably name the pastor, the apostle, the prophet, the priest, and perhaps also the king. Depending on the person’s denominational affiliation, he or she might mention the pope or the musician or the nun. Few members of any denomination, I think, would mention the historian—a figure lamentably seen by many as merely providing additional support to the ministry of the church, like the mechanic who fixes the pastor’s car or the landscaper who cuts the church’s grass. The historian remains an unsung hero, and understandably so, because the historian is the bard who pens the ballad, not the one for whom the ballad is penned. In this brief article I would like to break from the established pattern and sing of a ballad of the historian, a figure who was and is at the heart of the mission and ministry of Christ’s church.
The religion known as Christianity is not, as some might suppose, an ahistorical philosophy of life based on basic moral principles. It does not bubble up from the hearts of people, nor is it plucked from the summits of intellectual investigation. Christianity is, to quote Anglican theologian A. E. J. Rawlinson, “an historical and positive religion,” a religion based on God’s revelation to humanity in history. Even this cursory description hints strongly at the importance of the historian: a historical religion calls for a historian as a harvest calls for a harvester. A more detailed look at Judaism and Christianity brings the importance of the historian’s role into clearer focus.
In the first century AD, Judaism was a religion based not merely on universal ethical principles but, rather, mainly on what they believed was the one God’s action in the world—the call of Abraham, the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, the leading of the Israelites back to the promised land from exile, and so on. Many of their sacred religious texts retold, interpreted, and reflected on these events and were thus historical writings, though different from modern history in some ways. Therefore, in Judaism the role of the historian had been decorated with the badge of divine approval.
The first Christians, who were Jews, based their modified—or, as Christians would generally prefer, fulfilled—Jewish faith on additional events, namely, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and his death and resurrection. When Peter addressed the crowd at Pentecost, his focus was not on philosophical or ethical ideas but on historical events concerning Jesus (Acts 2:22–36). Apostle Paul made the point powerfully to the young church in Corinth: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17 NRSV).
Since the religion of the Christians depended so heavily on real events, it was important that the memory of these events be transmitted properly. In response to this need, numerous early Christians, two of them apostles, according to tradition, took up their pens and documented the life, death, and resurrection of the man they proclaimed to be Lord of the world, giving the church the cherished four Gospels. The Gospel of Luke is the most explicit in declaring the historical study involved:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1–4)
As time went on, the church discerned that these four texts were composed under the direct guiding influence of the Holy Spirit and were therefore, along with a number of other early Christian documents, to be considered sacred Scripture in the same sense as the established Jewish sacred texts. Historical study had once again been blessed by the breath of God.
As important as the four Gospels are, the role of the historian was not fulfilled when the ink on these documents dried. The documents require ongoing interpretation and validation, for the purposes of understanding what the New Testament says and of asserting the truthfulness of the Christian message. In the last several centuries, Western understandings of the Gospels have sometimes been clouded by the work of overconfident scholars who have seen the biblical depictions of Jesus as a mask distorting his true face and who have made grandiose attempts to sketch an accurate portrait of this purportedly obscured face. Fortunately, Christians have still been able, with the help of better historical research, to discern with reasonable accuracy what these ancient documents mean to communicate and to argue convincingly for the historicity of Jesus’s existence and his death and resurrection. Arguments for the historical resurrection of Christ have become especially popular in recent years through the ministry of apologists such as Lee Strobel. The work of the historian, then, remains integral to the ministry of the church as it proclaims God’s action in the world, including the good news about the historical Jesus of Nazareth.
The role of the historian does not stop even there. Christianity did not reach a final, inflexible state as the Spirit descended at Pentecost or when the last living apostle breathed his final breath, thereafter needing only to be carted from place to place and generation to generation. Over time it developed hugely important features, the most obvious and arguably the most central being the established list of which Christian documents were divinely inspired and therefore to be included in the New Testament. All forms of Christianity, from dogmatic Roman Catholicism to “back to Bible times” Protestantism, are products of developments that took place well after all the apostles had met their respective ends. The retelling, interpreting, and defending these developments is a task for the Christian historian. Any community of believers that cannot explain, for example, where it got its Bible or why it was considered inspired and not merely reliable, like a calculus textbook, has compromised its intellectual integrity and cannot expect to captivate the minds of its neighbours or its children.
Thankfully, throughout the history of the church, many have spent countless hours, often well out of view, studying and writing Christian history. Like the four Evangelists of old, these writers took up their pens to record events and interpretations and ideas, though without the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They have often been wrong, but they also have often been right, and some serious study can help the church discern and teach the important truths that it needs to know. This serious study is yet another task that calls for guidance and leadership from the church’s historians.