The Bible Has Always Existed Alongside the Newspaper: John Woodbridge and Frank James III on Church History in Historical Context
In a 1963 Time Magazine story featuring Karl Barth, it was reported that Barth encouraged young theologians "to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both." This encouragement makes sense considering Barth's own contextual sensibilities.
It makes sense for another reason, too: the Church has always existed alongside History. Cultural forces are constantly either helping or hurting how the Church reads and interprets the Bible. There has always been a surrounding historical context that's influenced the Church's "words about God."
This is one of the reasons why I valued my Master of Theology program in historical theology. Grasping the historical context for the iterative development of Christian theology shed new light on how we've received what we believe. It's also one of the reasons why I love the second volume of Church History: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day by John Woodbridge and Frank James III.
Throughout this engaging resource, the authors masterfully weave the riveting, gripping tale of the historical development of Christian theology by exploiting and exploring the full historical context that surrounded its development. It's one of the reasons I agree with Woodbridge that Church history is anything but boring!
Today I wish to zoom in on one era that helped give rise to Christian theology: the Renaissance. Roger Olson has said that the story of Christian theology is the story of Christian reflection on the nature of salvation. My hope in such zooming is that we will be mindful of how our own historical context is shaping—and perhaps reshaping—our own reflections in the 21st century.
In his multivolume work, Histoire de France, Jules Michelet was apparently the first person to use the word Renaissance to describe the period surrounding the pivotal period of Church history known as the Reformation. The word is a derivative of the French verb renaitre, meaning to be reborn. Woodbridge and James explain that during this period the dominant thinkers "believed that their age was recovering the beauty and wisdom of the arts, architecture, literature, moral philosophy, and languages of classical antiquity after the 'Middle Ages' of cultural darkness." (76) It was through such recovery that many of the gears that fostered the Reformation were set in place.
One of those primary cultural gears I'd like to focus on was a recuperation of the classical languages Latin and Greek. Woodbridge and James note that "the humanistic educational curriculum of the Renaissance…[provided] scholars with training in philology, the ancient languages Latin and Greek, and rhetoric in their quest to understand better the texts of Scripture." (77) Ad fontes—"to the source"—was the ensuing battle cry resulting from such an emphasis, and the influence upon one of histories most important humanists, Desiderius Erasmus.
"Erasmus displayed a breathtaking knowledge of classical sources," write Woodbridge and James. He read deeply the writings of classical authors, particularly St. Jerome. He also displayed a masterful grasp on New Testament Greek. Woodbridge and James note it was those studies in New Testament Greek "that would make his name immortal." Erasmus went on to carefully construct a much improved edition of the Greek New Testament that he hoped "would become the basis for more accurate translations of the New Testament into the vernacular languages." (98) Those hopes were realized in two key Reformation leaders: William Tyndale and Martin Luther.
Tyndale created the first printed English translation of the NT using later editions of Erasmus's, efforts that would later lead to his imprisonment, strangling, and burning at the stake. Likewise, Luther used Erasmus's NT edition as the basis for his translation of the NT into German. In fact, it was this translation that began to influence Luther's own theological development leading up to his October 31, 1517 moment—perhaps this is why some in the 1520's quipped "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched."
Woodbridge and James note a number of other notable Reformers cut from the cloth of humanistic studies, including: Melanchton, Zwingli, Calivin, Bucer, and the early Anabaptist Conrad Grebel. "The study of Scripture in the original languages," they explain, "contributed to their evangelical conversions to Protestantism. (99)
As you can see the context of the Renaissance with its emphasis on liberal arts recovery is an important subtext to understanding the rise and development of the Reformation. Put another way: culture shapes the Church, in helpful ways and hurtful ways. If we were to swing over to the Enlightenment, we'd see how the Age of Reason gave rise to Protestant Liberalism. And that age is what has given rise to our own post-modern age and current iterations of theological reflection.
The Church constantly swims in historical context. The Bible has always existed alongside the Newspaper.
As pastors and students of the Bible, it's important to grasp what Woodbridge and James intend to teach with their volume: "that church history—like all history—is culturally conditioned. The social norms that governed an earlier era may not be the social norms today." (30) Likewise, the culture, technology, political and social realities, and scientific awareness of the time all helped shape how we understand revelation, God Himself, creation, sin, the person and work of Christ, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the end.
I love how Woodbridge and James conclude their volume:
The ultimate value of history lies not in its predictive ability or even its capacity for elucidation, but in its aptitude to teach humility. Church history, particular, is an opportunity for self-reflection and, indeed, for self-correction. If the story of the Christian church can bestow on us a measure of this humility, then we will enter the uncertain future with a sure compass.
How might our current historical context be an opportunity for both self-reflection and self-correction? How might reflection on the past bestow on us a measure of humility as we march forward into the future?
Jeremy Bouma (ThM) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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