An important part of learning to drive is depth perception. Drivers need to know where they are in relation to the other vehicles around them. I think depth perception should also be a part of a Christian education. We are Christians in a certain moment in time. We need to understand our time in relation to what has gone before and what may come after.
Most of us have a rather hazy view of church history. We’ve probably heard of the Protestant Reformation, but have little idea what was “reformed” and why it needed to be. Our knowledge of the early church is even sketchier. You may have heard of such figures as Athanasius, Arius, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Constantine or Augustine. But what did they do, or say? Were they “good guys” or “bad guys”?
Early church history is sometimes presented as a struggle against a “great conspiracy,” when, in a “lost century,” the “faith once delivered” was undermined by “false prophets” who introduced “pagan” ideas.
That’s an idea that seriously lacks historical “depth perception.” The real story of the church is one of continual struggle, punctuated with moments of turmoil, as sincere but less-than-perfect men and women tried to respond to the challenges of their times. Even the earliest Christians — those who knew and were taught by Jesus personally — took a long time to grasp something we now take for granted: that Gentiles should be accepted as equal partners in the faith.
In the second and third centuries other issues arose. Some of these would also cause us to say, “Huh? That was a problem for them?” Like, for example, a question about the nature of Jesus. “Was he really God in the flesh?” Or was he a created being, endowed by God with very special powers? Ideas and doctrines we now accept without question were once hot issues, debated with passion, tension and — sometimes, even intrigue.
Church history is not just the province of scholars. Our faith today also faces some important questions—about abortion, homosexuality, the role of women, the plight of the poor, evolution and an appropriate Christian response to the environmental crisis, to name only a few. Passions run high on all sides, and the answers are not easy. Some will disagree with that, claiming that the answers are so obvious there is no room for discussion. Here some depth perception will help.
As C. S. Lewis wrote,
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” — lies where we have never suspected it.
Remember how just two centuries ago, sincere Christians vigorously defended slavery on biblical grounds? Within living memory, the Bible was invoked to support segregation and Apartheid? We should not be so sure we have grasped today’s controversial issues correctly. What will future generations see as our “great mass of common assumptions”?
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide believers into all truth (John 16:13). But that guidance often comes by the Spirit working through fallible human beings. So politics, prejudice and intolerance compete with a genuine passion for the truth.
The story of the battle over the divinity of Jesus is instructive on many levels. A vital truth was preserved, but how it was preserved can leave us wincing. Let’s learn from the past, not just to strive earnestly to maintain the integrity of the faith, but also to treat each other with the love, mercy and patience of Jesus while we are doing it.