Why I love historical theology
I remember the first time I got excited about church history. Please don’t stop reading!
I was part of small group being taught by a UCCF staff worker, Andy Grundy, who was animated as he told us the story of the life of William Tyndale; a genius linguist and pioneering theologian, cruelly betrayed and bravely martyred. I was on the edge of my seat. The story was gripping and Tyndale’s loyalty to Jesus was touching, but what really caught the attention of my heart was the fact that, although I stood in the wake of this man, I hadn’t heard of him until that afternoon. I was a Bible-believing evangelical, happily going about my quite times without a clue that I owed my English Bible to this man. He had lived and died to make the scriptures available to me. This was the heritage I never realised I had, and I found it deeply moving to discover it.
Not long after, I found one of my personal spiritual ruts had its cure in the past. This time, it wasn’t about what someone had done so much as what they had thought and taught. Somebody had lived through something similar to me, fought the battle, seen the light, and written all about it long before I was born. The hero was Martin Luther, and the battle was that I was just never sure I was really a Christian. As a young teenager, I’d become a Christian hundreds of times, convinced that my sins and doubts proved nothing genuine had happened at my last ‘conversion’. Was my faith real? Did I truly believe, or was I fooling myself? Luther came in like a bulldozer and showed me that real faith wasn’t self-conscious and inward-looking as I had been, for that was faith’s greatest enemy. Instead, faith simply looks to Christ and believes his promise of mercy, love, and security. By looking at my faith (or lack of it) all the time, I’d made it all so complicated when the reality was beautiful, liberating simplicity. Just Jesus! I owe Luther a pint or two of Einbecker when we meet in the new creation.
More recently, my theological study has taken me into fifth-century Egypt where I have kept company with Cyril of Alexandria and his friends. These men are famous for their stunningly massive theology of the person of Christ: God who walked the streets of Nazareth. As I’ve learned how to peel back the layers of different cultures, ages, and language, I’ve found that our fathers in the faith saw Christ with a depth I’d never really known. Reading Cyril and the others, I’ve frequently had my eyes opened to the wonder of Jesus and my heart enlarged by his love and humility. I hope that something of Cyril has rubbed off on me when I think of his love of worshipping the Lord, his seriousness about scripture, and his sensitivity to the pastoral needs of his congregation.
I love historical theology because it’s changed my life. Next to the friends and family who have shown me Jesus and nurtured my faith, I’m indebted to men and women long dead who wrote theological books, beautiful hymns, and honest prayers. Athanasius, John Bunyan, Anne Steele, John Calvin, and many more. Of course not everything from the past is easy to read, or even worth the effort – but there’s gold to be found! Theology Network does loads of the hard work for you by picking out the classics and making them available online. I can’t recommend highly enough that you sit down sometime with Richard Sibbes to kick you off and learn from an old saint who walked your road before you, and now cheers you on with a great crowd as you go.
Dan Hames photographed in the act of enjoying historical theology
HT: Dan Hames, Theology Network ASW in Oxford.