November 20, 2014
The church: where we’re coming from and where we’ve been
When we’re with good friends or family most of us can express ourselves without having to explain every little thing. Those who are close to us know us. They know where we’re coming from – most of the time anyway, and hopefully, we know too.
Jesus did. According to John 8:14, He said, “I know where I came from and where I'm going.”
Cultural backgrounds, family histories, and past experiences help to define who we are, where we came from, what we need, and where we’re going. Understanding those aspects of ourselves and those close to us can help to relieve anxiety, suspicions, and misunderstandings.
Similarly, the more we know about the Family of Christ, the more we recognize our ties to one Lord and one faith.
And, the more we know why other Christians believe as they do, the more we begin to appreciate their sincerity and respect their choices.
And, the more we embrace each part of the Body of Christ, the more effective the church becomes in forgiving, loving, and working together in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Such beliefs made me want to know the histories of various denominations, so I can better understand where they’re coming from and what we have in common – in our common union in Jesus Christ. This caused me to request a review copy of God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology, which Crossway kindly sent.
In this highly recommended, hefty volume, research professor Gerald Bray shows us how Christian doctrines came about and what struggles caused theological differences or new developments in how people thought. For such a book to accomplish its goals, heavy-duty research and fair-mindedness are a must.
In the Preface, for instance, Dr. Bray shows where he’s coming from by saying: “…very few people would now assert that what their particular church teaches is absolute truth to the exclusion of everything else.” Most Christians today would not welcome a history of the church “whose main purpose is to debunk or defend a particular denomination.”
That said, Dr. Bray also recognizes that “We all have our preferences, of course, but anyone who argues that only the Baptists, or only the Roman Catholics (or the Reformed, the Eastern Orthodox, the Lutherans, or whoever) are right while everyone else is wrong is now regarded as a propagandist, not as a historian – and is dismissed accordingly. At the present time it is universally agreed that the historian must rise above his own bias and be as fair as he can be to others, accepting that even disagreeable facts must be analyzed and explained in their context, even if he might privately wish that the past had been different.”
We now take many principles of faith for granted, but from the earliest days of the church onward, various issues or problems arose that had to be resolved. Each solution brought a new resolution or another step in theology, and then other concerns came to light.
As Dr. Bray says, “Just as a piece of cut glass reveals different aspects of the light according to how it is held, so the New Testament appears in a new light when looked at in response to the different theological questions that have been put to it.”
For example, in the early church, “Christians who prayed to God as their Father had to stress that he was the God of the Old Testament – the Creator and Redeemer are one.... After that was established, the identity of the Son was next on the theological agenda,” which meant expressing “this great mystery in a way that would affirm both the divinity and the humanity of the incarnate Son without compromising the integrity of either.”
Beliefs about the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, and a calling to the ministry needed to be considered too, whereas present-day concerns often center on “the suspicion that either there is no God at all, or that all religious beliefs point to the same transcendent deity.”
Simply reading the Preface of this book will give you an overview of the denominational histories and diverse theological developments in the churches, but, as you might expect, these 1260 pages have more to say! Fortunately, the scholarly author has a conversational style that retains reader interest. Or, the book can be used as a reference guide to church denominations, key figures in Christianity, and historical events.
To organize this wealth of material, Dr. Bray divided the book into eight sections as follows:
The Israelite Legacy
The Person of the Father
The Work of the Father
The Person of the Son
The Work of the Son
The Person of the Holy Spirit
The Work of the Holy Spirit
One God in Three Persons
For example, Part One discusses “A Shared Inheritance” among Christians and Jews, while Part Six talks about “The Inspiration of Holy Scripture.”
Regarding the latter, the early Christian theologian Origen considered “the overall purpose of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Scriptures in the first place. As he saw it, the Spirit had two principal aims in view. The first was to instruct believers in the deep things of God, which only he knows. The second was to help beginners in the faith, who need guidance and can be reached only when the deeper mysteries are expressed in the language and concepts of everyday life.”
For biblical examples of this, consider the settings for Jesus’ parables in a vineyard or field or dimly lit home. Or, consider how the resurrected Christ identified Himself with the individual needs of seven churches in Revelation, letting Christians in Laodicea know He is the “beginning of creation” and not a created being as some thought. Or how they needed Him to clothe them and anoint their eyes, even though the area was known for woolen cloth and eye salve!
Only a God-inspired word could be so relevant and alive – then and now – in Christian lives and churches. God does not change, but circumstances, times, and languages do, causing Christians throughout the centuries to pray about and express their beliefs, so one generation to the next can understand.
As Dr. Bray says in closing, “God the Father has spoken to us in the Word; God the Son calls for us to hear and respond to that Word, which is found only and fully in him; and God the Holy Spirit gives us the understanding and the will to accept that Word and allow it to transform our lives by uniting us to Christ, in whom we dwell in the heavenly places and have fellowship with all three persons of the Godhead.”
May this book help us to have fellowship with one another as we consider each part of the Body of Christ, joined in love, in Jesus’ Name.
©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is an ecumenical Christian poet, writer, and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.
God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology, hardback