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What can we learn from the history of the church for our engagement with our own culture today? Let me begin with a caution: we should not read the stories of the great figures of church history to feed our fantasy of becoming them and reproducing their cultural context. Not only would that be rather proud (“I reckon I’m the next Luther”), but it would also fail to recognize that the Lord has distinct callings for all of us. I am always struck by Paul’s injunction to the Corinthian Christians: Stay where you are; do what you were doing when the Lord called you (1 Cor. 7:17–24). We are so much the product of our times that we can feel that we have a world of choices before us: “Who shall I be?” It is all too easy to add “Luther” or “Calvin” to the list of possibilities. The modern sense of endless options has only been exacerbated by the advent of cyberspace and the possibility of fashioning our own online avatars. No, we are to be who the Lord has called us to be, which is ourselves refashioned in the likeness of Christ, not someone else. And we are to be ourselves in the cultural context where He has placed us. Even the biblical command to imitate Christ does not mean that His specific vocation is ours; it would be the ultimate blasphemy to think so. I am to pursue my vocation in the midst of the culture in which the Lord has placed me, looking to see that culture develop in a way that will honor Christ given its own peculiarities, not simply by rewinding the clock to a Christian precursor culture.
Nonetheless, church history can and should serve to provide individual and cultural examples for us. They are to be examples from which we must learn with some degree of nuance. We are to imitate Calvin as he imitated Christ, but we ought to be mindful of the differences between Calvin and us and between Calvin’s cultural context and our own. For example, the main problem with a Reformation simplistically transplanted to the twenty-first century is that their situation was so different from our own politically. Living as they did in the era of Christendom, the Reformers of the sixteenth century were often able to implement the basic switch to Protestantism using the authority of the civil magistrates. The English, for instance, awoke one day in 1552 to find that their nation was formally Protestant, indeed Reformed. That was accomplished by acts passed in King Edward VI’s Parliament. In the cities of the Holy Roman Empire it was the same: the decision to become Protestant was enacted at a political level by city councils, often way ahead of the Reformation on the ground.
Nothing could seem less likely in our context today. If we see a reformation, it will be through the preaching of the gospel on the ground. We are, humanly speaking, centuries away from a truly Christian parliament or congress. Aspects of the Reformers’ programs are applicable today (preach the Word as they did, train up pastors like the Elizabethan church), but swaths of the detail are inapplicable—even the preaching of the Word was fostered by the Protestant government with books of prepared homilies prescribed for preaching by the clergy. Much of our learning from church history for our own cultural engagement will, therefore, need to be at a more general level of inspiration for Christian faithfulness rather than the more detailed level of strategies and programs. If anything, the culture we live in will find closer examples in the early church when the Christians faced a pagan culture, rather than in the Reformation era when Europe was in many senses “Christianized.”
A nuanced learning from history is harder to do than simply transferring examples and methods across the centuries to our day, so it will require a good knowledge of both their times and our own. Those who do not have the historical skill to make those adaptations can still let their predecessors inspire them to faithfulness by their example. A Christian with very little knowledge of history can find wonderful general encouragement and challenge from reading church history.
As we read about our family history, one thing becomes very clear: our Christian predecessors themselves engaged with their culture at every level. The Reformation was a gospel movement with political, legal, economic, educational, and artistic outworkings. These usually occurred without the Christians’ anxiously wringing their hands and debating how engaged they should be (another difference from our era). They occurred quite simply because Christians obeyed the Great Commission: they preached the gospel and then sought to live obedient lives. As they did that, they served as magistrates or lawyers or teachers or artists or farmers who sought to serve as though serving Christ (Col. 3:23), and thus, through their faithful obedience and without displacing the proclamation of the gospel, they inevitably formed Christian cultures. If they had not done so, it is unlikely that we would even have heard of them, since the wider impact of a disengaged, privatized faith would have been so minimal. Our own era is a time for putting down deep roots, but we must not confuse that with circling the wagons and disengaging from contact with the world around us. As we seek to live faithfully in that engagement, church history will certainly help us with the specific lessons that are often harder to work out, with encouraging stories of faithful living, and with salutary warnings of its opposite.