One could go so far as to argue that the Scriptures are nothing if not an historical account of a particular people covering a certain period. The second thing we notice is that God is intimately involved with this people throughout the course of their history; and He very often appears to use historical events and figures in His dealings with His people.
This is just another way of saying that the Bible throughout demonstrates God’s involvement with history. He is sovereign over all history, and His rule over history provides important insights to His will. Historical events and developments reveal much about God—His priorities, ways, and power. The history recorded in Scripture is thus a rich source of knowledge about God and His will. Moreover, the way history unfolds in Scripture—and what it teaches us about God—becomes a pattern or template for thinking about all of history, and especially about the ongoing history of God’s relationship with His people. While Church history is central in studying God’s work in history, it is not exclusive. God is at work in all of history, and by discerning how Scripture teaches us to think about God and history, we can approach any topic in history expecting to learn more about God and His ways.
And this is the subject of historical theology. With Scripture as the foundation and guide for thinking about history, historical theology looks to the events, people, and trends in history to augment our knowledge of and trust in the Lord. Historical theology is thus the third “window” of divine revelation, the study of which can help us know the Lord better and realize more of His Presence, promises, and power.
The Celtic Revival
Thus far, our focus in the historical theology section of The InVerse Theology Project has been on an important but little-known period of Church history, the period from 430-800 AD when the Gospel took root in Ireland and spread like a vine to the British Isles and the Continent. We refer to this period as the Celtic Revival. We have focused our study in historical theology on some of the great saints who populated that period, beginning with Patrick. By his own testimony, Patrick seems an unlikely person from whom we might expect to learn more about God:
My name is Patrick, and for sixty years
I have, with many labors, joys, and tears,
proclaimed the Name of Jesus in these parts—
although I know within my heart of hearts
I am a most uncultivated man,
the least of all the faithful in this land,
and looked upon with scorn by many. I
have sought, with all my strength, the Lord on high
to serve, not seeking status, wealth, or fame,
but just the celebration of the Name
of Him Who looked on me with mercy when
I was an ingrate, and the slave of men.
In his Confession and one other document, Patrick tells the story of his ministry in Ireland. He who began as a captive of the Irish and a slave in one of their fiefdoms became a great evangelist, church planter, and disciple-maker whose ministry launched a revival of religion and a great awakening to faith which, in the words of historian Thomas Cahill, “saved civilization.”
Other times and people
Patrick offers us a biographical approach to historical theology, and this became a form of history-writing that continued over the centuries of the Celtic Revival. Historical theology crosses over and intertwines with other disciplines, such as creational theology. In other sections of The InVerse Theology Project, we saw God at work in history through others of His people, for example, when we examined the life and work of 17th-century priest and astronomer, Jeremiah Horrox.
Horrox became enthralled by the incipient scientific revolution that was unfolding from the study of astronomy during his day. He was self-taught, reading everything he could find about astronomy and purchasing his own telescope—a rarity in England in his day. By his work he made several important contributions to the field. He is especially remembered as the first astronomer to accurately predict and then observe, measure, and report what is known as the transit of Venus, when the planet Venus crosses the face of the sun. Here’s how we ended our consideration of Horrox’ work:
He was the first one to discover that
the moon made an ellipse around the earth.
His work led to the understanding of
what came to be described as gravity.
Sir Isaac Newton wrote that Horrox was
most instrumental in transforming what
was then called natural philosophy
from mere fictitious speculation to
the diligent investigation of
the facts of God’s creation. Horrox’ work
improved our understanding of the tides,
corrected astronomic tables, gave
us insight into comets, and much more,
and all of this while also serving God,
fulfilling all his duties as a priest.
He was a ray of scientific dawn,
and died when he was twenty-two years old.
In the study of historical theology, the Church is the central thread. The leaders, movements, triumphs and setbacks, theologies and theologians, revivals and awakenings, and the impact of Christianity on culture and society offer a rich tapestry of subjects for helping to increase our knowledge and love of God and our commitment to His Kingdom.
Historians and more
Studying Church history and historical theology brings us into contact with those who have done the hard work of researching and recording the lessons of history for us. One such historian, whose work we featured in our study of Irish saints, was early 20th-century historian Charles Plummer. His work, as much as that of any other historian, has kept alive the thrilling story of the Celtic Revival and allowed us to muse a bit on the process of keeping historical theology alive for the generations:
Charles Plummer’s Lives of Irish Saints consists
of seventeen short histories of ten
medieval saints. He wrote this as the mists
of mustard gas were lifting from where men
had fought and died to prove modernity’s
enlightened ways. Who would have thought, back then,
that anyone would care to ponder these
obscure and long-dead saints? Who even knew
these manuscripts existed? Histories
of saints have been composed and read for who
knows how long. But the heroes Plummer chose
are more obscure than most. He traveled to
two countries, and worked many stacks and rows
of manuscripts in English libraries
to find O’Clery’s precious copies. Those
old manuscripts and other histories
were copied by the monk O’Clery in
the 1600s. He had copied these
from older works, now lost. But then,|
those copies were themselves transcriptions made
from older texts, but no one knows just when...
A great heritage of Christian art also awaits discovery through the work of historical theology. We saw just how important the arts can be in any generation as we unpacked 18th-century poet and composer William Cowper’s view of the preaching of his day from his poem, The Task. Cowper had little time for the erudite and pompous preachers of his day. He longed for men who would preach like the apostle Paul. In our study An Essay on Preaching we quoted Cowper on Paul’s example of preaching:
“He that negotiates between God and man
As God's ambassador, the grand concerns
Of judgment and of mercy, should beware
Of lightness in his speech. ‘Tis pitiful
To court a grin, when you should woo a soul;
To break a jest, when pity would inspire
Pathetic exhortation; and to address
The skittish fancy with facetious tales,
When sent with God’s commission to the heart.
So did not Paul. Direct me to a quip
Or merry turn in all he ever wrote,
And I consent you take it for your text,
Your only one, till sides and benches fail.
No: he was serious in a serious cause,
And understood too well the weighty terms
That he had ta’en in charge. He would not stoop
To conquer those by jocular exploits,
Whom truth and soberness assailed in vain.”
We can be grateful for Christian artists, scientists, theologians, historians, and others whose dedicated work has left us an abundance of stories, works, reports, and examples to study in seeking to grow in the knowledge of God.
Benefits of historical theology
Historical theology offers many practical benefits for us in our walk with and work for the Lord. It preserves sound Biblical tradition to help keep us within the framework of orthodox thought. Historical theology offers us many shining examples of courageous and faithful believers whose lives can help to shape our own. It reminds us of the importance of bringing God’s Word to bear on all of life and culture, offers us an abundance of artistic beauty and wonder, helps us see the connections between our lives and those of faithful believers in the past, and presents an ongoing library of the best Biblical and theological thinking in every age.
Our approach to knowing God and living for His glory will be incomplete without some measure of historical theology to instruct and enrich us in our calling to the Kingdom and glory of God. The light coming through the window of historical theology can richly supplement our studies in Biblical and creational theology and our calling from the Lord.
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