Want to Know Your (Spiritual) Family’s History? Then Read What They Wrote
While we may grasp the need for running to Scripture as the source for our faith and practice, where are we looking for our family history?
Forced to settle for Hazelnut coffee, I headed back to our corner. There was a chance I’d be alone. But I was content sitting by Panera’s fireplace with the Epistle to Diognetus. Would busy guys really want to spend their mornings reading an ancient anonymous letter? Yes. That’s exactly what they wanted.
And it’s exactly what we could use more of.
Ad Fontes (Latin phrase meaning “to the sources”) was a motto of the Protestant Reformation. Instead of relying on the mediation of the papacy—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin directed Christians back to Scripture as the Christian’s final authority. While we may grasp the need for running to Scripture as the source for our faith and practice, where are we looking for our family history?
This isn’t the place to make the definitive case for teaching church history in the local church. But studying church history is worthwhile because God acts in history. The incarnation, resurrection, and ascension are historical events. The return of Jesus is the consummation of history. History matters to God. The church, birthed at Pentecost, fulfills the great commission, by the Holy Spirit, in space and time.
Church history matters, but, sadly, Christians often find it boring.
So, I went out on a limb suggesting our men’s group read not just church history, but the primary sources, the works Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, and other heroes wrote. But, months later, we’re still engaging with, and learning from, the past. I would encourage Christians go Ad Fontes in church history for many reasons, but here I’ll limit it to three.
1. We don’t really know history until we know the sources.
I never met my great grandfather. But I heard about him for years. Then I discovered some of his letters and got to know him. Why did I settle for secondhand knowledge when I could have a firsthand glimpse into his mind? We can ask the same with church history. I didn’t know my great grandfather until I read his words. In the same way, we don’t know history until we know the sources.
I entered college hearing about a bland man named John Calvin. Too shrill, too academic, too harsh. I loathed having to open the Institutes for the first time. But I didn’t find the prose of an over-polished crank. I found John Calvin. I found a beautiful theology of a sovereign God, a God of grace, of mercy, of love, who saves the worst of sinners.
On the Lord’s Supper, Calvin writes
“God has received us, once for all, into his family, to hold us not only as servants but as sons. Thereafter, to fulfill the duties of a most excellent Father concerned for his offspring, he undertakes also to nourish us throughout the course of our life.”
I couldn’t believe it. The writing stirred my desire to worship. This wasn’t desert-dry history. This feeling of awe could never come from the pen of a cold theologian.
I could go on with story after story of how reading historical figures corrected my assumptions. But there’s more. By mining the primary sources, we enter the frontlines of controversy—in a positive way. Our men’s study has discussed substitutionary atonement (Diognetus), the fourfold gospel (Irenaeus), and even overlooked topics like why we worship on Sunday (Didache). Each of these topics carried relevance for ongoing apologetic and theological dialogues Christians encounter.
2. Reading these sources removes the dependence on external authorities.
How often do Protestants get alienated in conversations with Roman Catholics because we’re ignorant of their source material? How many times do skeptics get the upper hand because they regurgitate the same—debunked—material onto well-meaning, but ill-informed, Christians?
Reading the primary sources allows for critical evaluation of what “experts” argue. An argument is only as good as its handling of the sources. The best historians investigate the primary sources, and the best readers cross-examine arguments with those sources.
If Christians want to study the formation of the canon, they can read a book about the canon. Or, they can study the Muratorian fragment and Athanasius. We can go Ad Fontes and strengthen our arguments and bolster our confidence.
The most effective way to learn history is to go to the sources. “But,” you may respond, “old books are too difficult for laypeople.” Great old writing, however, is not too deep for swimming. They’re well worth the effort. C. S. Lewis makes this point in his introduction to Athanasius on the Incarnation:
“The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”
3. We don’t know what our faith is missing until we connect it to our tradition.
Reading church history should never be a mere academic pursuit. One of the main reasons I wanted to introduce the brothers in our church to primary sources is because connecting our lives to the line of Christian history is spiritually nurturing.
Sadly, many Christians can spend a lifetime attending a local church without benefitting from our theologically rich heritage. We don’t know what our faith is missing until we connect it to our tradition. Whose faith wouldn’t be bolstered by Diognetus?
“They [Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”
If our people want to understand how to endure persecution, we could give them a book about persecution. Or we could encourage piety by introducing them to direct accounts of martyrdom—written by those who died for the sake of Christ.
“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, ‘Have respect to thy old age,’ and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], ‘Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.’ But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, ‘Away with the Atheists.’ Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, ‘Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;’ Polycarp declared, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?’”
The Spirit of God has moved through the church and provided much to glean from our ancestors. Our presentist biases are corrected, we develop a vision of the universal church, and we can be encouraged the church will continue to proclaim the same gospel until Christ returns.
Something amazing happens when I read John Piper.
I enter into a conversation with him. Thus, I enter into an ongoing conversation within the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:11). Even more amazing: I can converse with Piper who is conversing with Jonathan Edwards. But why stop there? I can converse with Piper conversing with Edwards, who was conversing with Luther, who was conversing with Augustine, who was conversing with Paul. Praise God for the same tradition of faith delivered to all saints! Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Each of these sources is available to Christians for the strengthening of their faith.
Great writing stands the test of time. Great Christian writing transcends space and time.
I want my great grandkids to read my letters to my wife. I want them to read the notes in my Bible. I want them to go Ad Fontes so they can know me. I want Christians to go Ad Fontes so they can know Christ and his bride.
Perhaps you’re reluctantly saying, “Okay, you’re starting to convince me. What now?”
Where to Start?
There’s good news. The past is here to stay.
Take your time and don’t be afraid to go down the rabbit trail. Often, exposure to primary sources comes through reading modern theology and history books. Ironically, the best way to begin reading primary sources may be reading secondary sources. A good place to start may be Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Greg Allison. Arranged topically, Allison surveys Christian theology and traces how doctrines have been understood through the writings of the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Modern eras. There’s wealth of block quotes, relevant to a given topic, taking you directly to a primary source in every era.
Another helpful resource is Documents of the Christian Church by Henry Bettenson. This resource is a standard book in church history classrooms. It’s a collection of the most influential writings in church history.
Finally, it’s good to start from the beginning. Michael Haykin’s Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church is a well-written introduction to the primary sources in the patristic era.