On the separation of church and history

By Terry Mattingly Modified: March 14, 2013 at 9:50 am •  Published: March 14, 2013
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On the night he was betrayed, the rabbi from Nazareth gave blunt, but mysterious, instructions about the rite that would forever be at the center of Christian life.

The Gospel of St. Luke reports: "He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."

These images mystified the faith's Roman critics. In his multimedia project "Church History Made Easy," Baptist scholar Timothy Paul Jones noted that one ancient pagan wrote this vivid speculation about Christian worship: "An infant is covered with dough, to deceive the innocent. The infant is placed before the person who is to be stained with their rites. The young pupil slays the infant. Thirstily, they lick up the blood! Eagerly they tear apart its limbs."

How can anyone learn these kinds of human details, asked Jones, and come away thinking that history is boring? The stories and lessons of church history are especially important, he said, for millions of evangelical Protestants who attend the many modern megachurches -- flocks with few, if any, denominational ties that bind -- that have helped reshape the landscape of American religious life.

"Taking church history seriously helps us sink our roots into something deeper than the present," said Jones, who teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "One of the dangers of this whole post-denominational world we live in is that people can lose their rootedness and lose a sense that generations of Christians have passed the faith on to us."

This is especially important in the age of "The Da Vinci Code" and other works of popular culture that can leave people thinking that "there is no heresy and that there is no orthodoxy," he said in a telephone interview. "What you're left with is a lot of competing voices and the sense that everything is up for grabs."

This is tricky territory for Protestants in churches born through the work of John Calvin, Martin Luther and other reformers who -- to varying degrees -- questioned the authority of ancient traditions preserved in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. It's even harder to stress church history, said Jones, in today's rapidly changing independent churches that embrace modern media and other marketplace trends.

In these flocks, "tradition" is often measured in months or years, not centuries.

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