The Disciplines of Knowing: Theology (4)
Your roots matter more than you might think.
Give ear, O my people, to my law;
Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings of old,
Which we have heard and known,
And our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
Telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD,
And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. Psalm 78.1-4
The roots craze
Discovering their familial roots is a growing interest among Americans and people elsewhere. Several companies exist, using DNA and various forms of historical research, to help you discover your place of geographic origin, and something about the people who – though you’ve never met them or ever known much about them – have contributed to your being who you are today. At least one television program runs on PBS in which celebrities are introduced to their roots by an Ivy League researcher, almost always to their great delight.
I think it’s safe to say this present craze for discovering our roots traces back to January, 1977, when, over a period of 8 days, ABC broadcast the mini-series, Roots. Roots is Alex Haley’s story about discovering his own family’s roots, which he traced from a young 18th-century African named Kunta Kinte up to the (then) present day.
People loved it. Roots won a variety of awards, including an Emmy for best mini-series. And it was not long before the current craze for discovering our roots was up and running.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, as natural-born seekers, it makes sense that we should want to learn something about our provenance, the people in our family line, and what they may have contributed to the persons we are today. Many people believe that discovering their roots can help them understand who they are and what they might hope to become.
There’s no doubt truth to this, and this argues for Christians to become more familiar with the third window of theological studies, historical theology.
God’s works in history
Historical theology is that discipline that seeks the knowledge of God and His glory through the works He has done for, in, and through His people in ages past. History since the first Christian Pentecost is filled with amazing and glorious stories of the spread of the Gospel, the good works of Christians, the transformation of people and societies under the impact of the Good News, and the great saints and teachers who have left a legacy of example and instruction for us today.
The faithfulness of those who have gone before made it possible for the Gospel to have come down to us today. We would not enjoy the many and varied advantages of the Gospel – either in our churches or our world – apart from the diligence, courage, sacrifice, and contributions of those who have preceded us in the faith. It ill behooves us to be indifferent to their lives, works, struggles, achievements, and legacy.
Historical theology is the discipline that gives us their stories, opens the treasures of their teaching, introduces us to their many good works, encourages us to follow in their footsteps, and helps us to appreciate the permanent and transformative presence of the Gospel throughout human history.
It’s a very large field of study, to be sure. But this does not excuse us from making some effort to learn from and carry forward the heritage of those who have made it possible for us to know the Lord in our day.
Making use of this discipline
Where to begin? You might want to acquire an overview of the various periods of Church history; to learn how the Gospel spread from the Roman world to Asia, Africa, and the New World; who the key figures were in this expansion; what struggles the Church had to overcome; and what institutions and blessings were introduced by believers at various stages in the process. You might find a dictionary of Church history to be a valuable companion in this effort.
Pick a theologian or writer from the past, and begin to familiarize yourself with their work. Subscribe to a Church history newsletter; learn the stories behind the great hymns of the Christian tradition; read about the development of the various creeds and confessions of the Church; take an interest in a particular era, movement, or development; learn the history of your own denomination.
Take your time. Be patient and persistent. You don’t have to learn everything all at once. Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little, is as true for historical study as it is for the study of God’s Word.
Keep your focus on Jesus. He is the Prime Mover of all history, as He brings His Kingdom into being on earth as it is in heaven – winning people to Himself, building His Church, doing the work of restoring the world to God, and making known the knowledge of God and His glory in every nation, culture, and tribe. Jesus is the Centerpiece of all history, and especially of Church history, as He moves, fills, empowers, directs, and leads His people to seek His Kingdom and righteousness.
As Christians, our roots are sunk deep and spread wide through all of world history. Historical theology opens a window of divine revelation to help us grow in understanding the greatness, goodness, power, and rule of King Jesus over all nations, peoples, cultures, and times.
1. Can you think of any aspect of Church history that has had an impact on your walk with and work for the Lord? Explain.
2. What are five things you’d like to know more about concerning the Christian movement through the ages?
3. How can a better knowledge of historical theology help you to increase in the knowledge of Jesus Christ?
Next Steps – Transformation: Do something this week that will get you into the discipline of historical theology. Make note of how this exercise affects your understanding of Jesus. Share the results of this exercise with a Christian friend.
T. M. Moore
One place to begin learning is in understanding the times and the world around us. Our book, Understanding the Times, outlines the broad scope of what we need to understand to live as witnesses in this secular world. Order your copy by clicking here. To see how and why the small stuff of your life matters, order a copy of our book Small Stuff (click here).
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.