I imagine this sounds contradictory to what I just said about being cautious in using the Patristics, but it’s not. We do need to learn from history, but what we need to learn is more about ourselves.
The Bible is sufficient to tell us how to please God. We don’t need to read the minutes of the Nicene Council or the essays of Tertullian or Clement to sort that out.
But the study of church history is like looking in a mirror. We can see where men smarter and better educated than we are made colossal mistakes by being held unwittingly captive by the culture and traditions of their day. If Luther and Calvin–geniuses–could make mistakes, so can we.
In my view, there’s no better way to gain perspective than to study the history of the church–if we do so with humility. If we see church history as leading to our now perfect understanding, then we’ve really missed the point. However, if we see church history as a way to avoid mistakes made in the past, we can learn a lot! After all, a lot of mistakes have been made!
It’s just a matter of not feeling superior to those who’ve gone before. If we’ll admit that we make mistakes, too, then we will be on the path to doing better.
For example, if we imagine that the Church of Christ gained doctrinal perfection at some point in the last two centuries, we can test the theory by seeing what was taught in the 19th and 20th Centuries to see if we even agree with who were in the past! And the fact is that, no matter which part of the Churches you are in today, you surely disagree with much that was taught in the past.
There aren’t many Churches of Christ left that still require women to wear hats–and yet that was nearly universally taught as a command of God in the 1950’s and earlier.
There aren’t many Churches of Christ left that refuse to hire a preacher, and yet the hiring of preachers was one reason the Churches left the larger Restoration Movement in the Sand Creek Address and Declaration. Located preachers weren’t accepted in many Churches of Christ until after World War II!
And so it goes–we change our teachings and practices continuously while pretending that we’ve held to the true pattern of practice ever since 1906.
Now, this bit of history hardly proves either side right or wrong. Rather, it simply denies the lie that we’ve always taught the same thing. We haven’t. Rather, our thinking has changed over the years just as has everyone else’s.And this proves one thing for sure: we have no business presuming that we have perfect understanding now. After all, our spiritual ancestors made the same claim and have been shown to have been wrong–by us! Our children will certainly take views that disagree with ours and then claim to have finally found perfect doctrine!
Their children will do the same to them!
Therefore, we have to get over our presumptuousness and realize that we are all products of our times. Escaping our culture is much harder than we imagine! And so we must approach God aware of imperfections, asking for grace not only for our moral failings but also our intellectual failings–asking God to forgive our error and show us how to understand things better.
Humility is the first step in hermeneutics. We have to admit that we’re quite capable of error and pray that God shows us where we are mistaken–while being confident in his grace to save us despite our mistakes.
This doesn’t mean we can know truth. We can. It’s just that we can’t presume to get it all right. We have to admit to ourselves that we just might be wrong on one point or another and so be genuinely open minded when others disagree with us.