By Dayton Hartman, excerpted from Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do from Lexham Press.
“Martin Luther was a chump.” Yes, I said it. I used to believe it. . . .
So what if Martin Luther (1483–1546) ignited the Reformation? Who cares that he preached a biblical gospel? Today many evangelicals consider much of Luther’s thought to be in error, or at least in poor taste. Worse yet, although he was arguably one of the greatest theologians of his time, the most average of theologians today seems undeniably superior.
Why? Well, we have Logos Bible Software, and Together for the Gospel conferences, and we can live tweet major theological events. Who live-tweeted the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses? Nobody! That’s probably a good thing. Can you imagine the hashtags #IFixedYourDoctrine or #TetzelFail? Those would be the tamest. When angry, Luther’s vocabulary was less Dr. Phil and more Lewis Black. Since Luther’s revolution was neither televised nor live-tweeted, it obviously has little value, except for that whole defending the gospel thing.
Not until I had spent a full year in pastoral ministry did I begin to see the value of what has come before. I remember wrestling with my own explanations of the relationship between the gospel and works. Then I started looking more closely at Luther’s works to see what this “old-timer” said in error. I was shocked that, rather than being amused by Luther’s errors, I was overwhelmed by his insight. Luther’s wrestling was, in a sense, my wrestling. Luther’s pastoral burden to preach grace to his church was, and is, my burden.
Still, even after accepting and embracing the theological riches of Reformation leaders, I maintained my disdain for the early Church fathers and the creeds they helped form. After all, those Catholics love creeds, and they revere many of the early Church fathers. Therefore, creeds and the Church fathers must be useless to me as a Protestant pastor.
As I delved more deeply into apologetic writings, however, I latched onto Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984), only to see that he occasionally referenced the early Church fathers. Even though Schaeffer’s thought changed my life, I dismissed his occasional Church history references as proof that “nobody is perfect.”
Then I began to engage Mormons and Muslims in my community. The claims that they made about Church history shook me. In response, I decided to scrutinize their accusations against the first Christians. I dove headlong into the early Church fathers. I embraced this new direction in research so completely that I purchased Philip Schaff’s (1819–1893) massive 38-volume set of translated early Church works. It was incredibly cumbersome to use, but it looked amazing on a bookshelf. Just having it in my office made me feel—and probably look—smarter. As I made my way through this series, I found that my Mormon and Muslim friends were sorely mistaken in their understanding of early Church history—and that I was too.
The early Church fathers were incredibly helpful. Instead of seeming strange and foreign, they seemed familiar and welcoming. I was surprised by how much Justin Martyr’s (100–165) apologetic writings applied to our culture. I was moved by the seriousness with which Augustine (354–430) undertook efforts to disciple young people. I found myself at home among early Christians, struggling to hold onto biblical doctrine while striving to express it clearly.
In short, this multi-year journey into Church history changed my view of the creeds, preaching, discipleship, pastoral care, and cultural engagement. I am a different and, I believe, better pastor because of Church history. Now, more than a decade since my first foray into Church history, I am a church planter. I also teach Church history and historical theology to seminary students.
By wrestling with Church history, I have identified a number of dangers inherent to ignoring the past, as well as many benefits to knowing what has come before us. These benefits have convinced me that pastoral ministry is maximally effective only if carried out in light of lessons from our history.
How much do you know about the Reformation? Take Logos’ 10-question Reformation Day quiz to find out! Some questions are easy. Others . . . not so much. See how you score!
Then read more about Luther, other figures in Church history, and how Church history matters to all of us today in Dayton’s entertaining and insightful book from Lexham Press, Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Chapters include “Back to the Future,” “Preaching and the Cultural Drift,” and “Christians and Culture.”