Theology & Spirituality

Why Everyone Should Study Church History

I recently argued for the indispensability of historical learning for church leaders. Borrowing from Sir John Seeley, I suggested that history remains an essential school of churchmen. This post serves as a sort of addendum to that argument.

My fuller argument—that Christians, and especially church leaders, should possess a historical mind—proceeds in two stages. The case I previously made was that history provides the only data of human experience and therefore should be the “library” consulted by those tasked with solving contemporary problems. The second side of the argument is that not only should church leaders be well acquainted with history, but that all people, within and without the church, should be versed in church history. Stated more concisely, everyone should study history; moreover, everyone should study church history.  

In particular, without knowledge of church history, we cannot be good citizens because we will not fully grasp the rationale, origin, and significance of the institutions and political ideals we hold dear and are charged to preserve; those upon which our entire way of life depends. John P. Diggins reminds us that,

Classical political philosophers from Aristotle to the Founding Fathers to Hannah Arendt have insisted that for a constitutional republic to survive it must return to its first principles. The strength and future of a republic depends upon its capacity for periodic self-renewal through the reaffirmation of the pristine ideals that once inspired it. A republic owes its meaning to the act of founding, to the historical “moment” of its creation.

This seems an urgent task in the present moment when virtually all western democracies, including our own republic, are undergoing, to varying degrees, a crisis of identity and confidence in their historic institutions. To regain an appreciation for, and understanding of, the fundamentals of western political systems it will not suffice to simply reconsider the American founding era, as if the ideas at work there leapt forth ex nihilo in 1776 and 1787.

First, if the history of the modern West is to be accurately understood, the motivations of historical actors must be accurately understood. This necessarily includes religious motivations—or more precisely, Biblically and theologically informed convictions. Such convictions are rather hard things for nonreligious modern people to grasp.

The second reason flows from the first. In order to understand,appreciate, and uphold the foundational institutions that are integral to Western democracy, the context of their creation must also be understood.

Whether modern secularists like it or not, for most of Western history matters of church and state were conceptually inseparable. The theological was political and vice versa. Hence, the principles of the rule of law, popular sovereignty, social contract, separation of powers or mixed constitutional government, and a host of other ideals that, as Brian Tierney phrased it, have become the very “furniture of our minds,” were developed in ecclesiastical contexts heavily influenced by theological principles.

This destabilizes the contemporary narrative that liberal constitutional government only emerged from the primordial soup of the “Dark Ages,” once freethinkers abandoned religious superstitions. In reality, if “free thinkers”  ever existed prior to the nineteenth century, they would have had no conceptual framework to work with, absent the earlier efforts of medieval and early modern Christians who had operated within a decidedly theological context.


In his Birkbeck Lectures delivered at Cambridge in 1900, John Figgis argued that the unity of human experience (i.e. history) was nowhere more apparent than in the record of political ideas. It is especially in the realm of political thought that one begins to believe that no new idea has ever existed, only derivations.

The study of past figures and their ideas, “far from being mere erudition,” was undertaken to recognize that those figures and ideas remain”a part of our own world.” In short, studying the past helps us better understand the present.

It was Figgis’ belief that studious excavation of past ecclesiastical, or rather political, controversies would illuminate the present, helping the excavator chart a path forward and better appreciate his own intellectual heritage. By way of history, “We seek to see our own day as from a watch-tower,” and thereby “know more closely the road we have been travelling.” Figgis was particularly concerned with capturing the basic continuity and development of medieval and modern thought, especially constitutional thought. And this thought was at root religious. For it was in the midst of religious controversy that the political doctrines “which are now the common heritage of the Western world” were asserted and developed.

Figgis began his project in with the fifteenth century not because, as many contemporary historians would like to assert, it was the period where so-called civic humanism began, but because it was the time of the Great (Papal) Schism (A.D. 1378-1417) in the Western Church. The Schism spawned the conciliarist movement, the members of which exerted themselves to solve the problems then facing the Church—namely, the presence of three simultaneous pontiffs (each excommunicating the other), an event which deeply divided Europe. Jean Gerson, Nicholas of Cusa, and other conciliarists proposed resolving this dispute by way of a general council.  In their view, a council possessed the authority to bring order from the present chaos.

This idea was the catalyst for a stunning amount of commentary on the nature of authority in the church and society writ large—a tradition that developed throughout the subsequent three centuries. The basic conciliarist argument favored a polity of mixed constitution, and held that the ultimate authority of the church resided in the community and was delegated, though not forever divested, to higher offices. The structure of the church was then not absolutist, but mixed with elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

The conciliarist ideas prevailed momentarily at Constance (1414-1418) and the Schism ended, or so it seemed. Readers might recall that it was at Constance that Jan Hus was tried and burned at the stake for heresy. According to legend, it then that Hus prophesied about the rise of Martin Luther. In reaction to the Reformation, Catholic theorists largely abandoned conciliar ideas and adopted more absolutist ecclesiological theories.

Figgis realized, however, that the defeat of conciliarism was not permanent. The core ideas endured, and they emerged in subsequent ecclesiastical and secular (to the extent that they were separable) controversies, especially in the Netherlands and England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was this tradition of thought, built largely on the foundation of the conciliarists, that produced the ideas we now take for granted in the Anglo-American system.  


Let us briefly examine the concepts of popular sovereignty and “pluralistic” or federalist government to illustrate the point. Both ideas would be classified today as strictly political, and both are present in the American political system. And yet, both were conceived and first applied (to the extent possible) in an ecclesiastical context. The first pioneers of these ideas were addressing questions of church polity and order, and only tangentially those we would recognize today as civil or political.

The basic idea of popular sovereignty is that power inalienably resides in the populus even after the establishment of government. If ever a government is dissolved, the power delegated by the people to officers returns to its origin. Brian Tierney notes that this idea was present in multiple strains of thought in the medieval period, but can especially be derived from the canonist theory that “the whole church was indefectible in faith, so that in a sense the church, the congregation of the faithful, was always superior to any of its ministers.”  The officers were superior to any one member of the church but not to the whole. This idea was more explicit in the thought of the so-called Roman lawyers like Azo of Bologna (1150-1230). Azo, commentating on Justinian’s Digest, held that the people conceded power to their leaders but did not alienate it from themselves. Emperors or popes might possess power to make laws, but this could always be challenged by the universitas. As a last resort, then, the people could depose their rulers.

Azo’s opinions were never really in vogue amongst his contemporaries. Yet there are notable points of agreement between Azo’s thought and that of Aquinas and Zabarella. Like many influential ways of thought, there was a dormant period for Azo’s view of popular sovereignty. But almost two centuries after his death, his basic ideas were revived at the Council of Constance (1414) wherein the council claimed authority for itself as a representative of the church universal. “This holy synod… representing the Catholic church militant, holds power immediately from Christ and anyone of whatsoever state of dignity, even if it be the papal, is bound to obey it.” It was because the council was a representative body of the whole people that it could claim direct power from Christ himself and demand submission from all other offices, even three popes at once. A pope could overrule individuals but not the universitas embodied in the council.

The basic principle of popular sovereignty was the prerequisite for the development of federalism, viz., when two levels of government operate within the same geographical limits simultaneously and cooperatively. Again, this political composition was pioneered in the medieval Church by the episcopalists who espoused two levels of government: the bishops operating as a local authority and the pope as the universal authority, with the former not deriving its power from the latter. Each bishop, including the pope, derived their authority from the fundamental constitution of the church, “from God and the people,” as John of Paris wrote.

The bishop had power in his own diocese. The pope had universal power over the whole. But the whole was not an amalgam of individuals. It was a corporate unit comprised of a multiplicity of coherent localities. Local consent was key in said model. Indeed, St. Paul had said, “No man should glory in another man’s office.” And Pope Gregory I had wholeheartedly affirmed this principle.

Calvinist theorists of the seventeenth century adopted much conciliar and episcopalist thought, sometimes mediated by earlier Protestant works like the Vindiciae, in his magisterial Politica methodice digesta (1603). Johannes Althusius is heavily cited in mid-seventeenth century works like Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex. Rutherford had notable influence on the founding era in America. But Althusius via Rutherford is not the only transporter of conciliarist and episcopalist ideas to the Anglo-American tradition. George Lawson’s Politia sacra (1657) drew upon the elements of ecclesiological thought surveyed above. It is now well established that beyond Lawson’s evident influence in the English constitutional crisis of his own day, John Locke perhaps acquired many of his notable ideas from Lawson. Not to be forgotten, of course, is the influential Catholic minority in late eighteenth century America (e.g. Charles Carroll) that employed conciliarist thought to justify the war for independence and prove themselves loyal patriots of the new republic. 

Indeed, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century political texts are saturated with medieval thought. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea of a radical break between the medieval and early modern period. As Ernst Kantorowicz put it, “There is hardly a phrase or metaphor [employed in the seventeenth century]… which could not be traced back to some antecedents in the legal writings of the thirteenth century.” 


The basic point of this post remains simple: the principles that undergird western democracy were conceived and developed within an ecclesiastical context. The theorists behind them were first and foremost addressing matters of church polity and animated by fealty to Scripture and the Christian tradition of natural law. Whatever the editors of the New York Times might wish us to think, the political values of the rule of law, popular sovereignty, and constitutional order were not nefarious cover for patriarchal oppression conveniently adopted to preserve the institution of slavery. They were developed over the course of some five hundred years or more, and born primarily out of theological conviction, earnest exegesis of the Bible, and pastoral concern for the health of the universal Church. Modern-day Christians, then, should see themselves as possessing an especial interest in their preservation. They are our ideas, after all. And non-Christians who desire a thorough understanding of the western political tradition should spend a little more time tracing the true lineage of the ideas and values they’ve inherited before they go pulling the whole thing down. 


Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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