The Use and Abuse of Church History

J. G. Vos

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 5, no. 2 (April 1996).

The history of the Christian Church, if rightly regarded and used, can be a great source of strength, wisdom and stability to the serious Christian. On the other hand, Church history wrongly regarded and misused can be a stumbling block, an occasion of weakness and stagnation. There are three attitudes toward the past history of the Church which are wrong and which can only hinder true strength and progress in bearing witness to the Truth. These three attitudes are: [1] Romanticizing the past; [2] Absolutizing the past; and [3] Disdaining the past. We may consider each of these.

1. Romanticizing the Past

Romanticizing the past means giving it, in our thinking, an ideal or perfect quality which in fact it did not have. Often it may involve the anachronism of reading the present back into the past instead of seeing the past and interpreting it for what it really was.

Two examples of this tendency come to mind. The first consists in romanticizing the ancient British or Celtic Church—the first centuries of Christianity in Britain and Ireland—before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and before the dominance of Romanism. That the Old British or Celtic Church was in those times as pure as any part of Christendom, or even the purest of all, we do not question. But the attempt of some authors to portray the Old British Church as essentially Calvinistic in doctrine and Presbyterian in form of government, and on top of this to hold that it preserved in some places an unbroken continuity of corporate life until the Protestant Reformation, through a thousand years of the Middle Ages, can only be regarded as an unwarranted romanticizing of history.

Similarly the Waldensian movement of northern Italy has been romanticized, not so much by the Waldensians themselves as by writers in English-speaking countries. The allegation that the Waldenses had a distinct corporate life going back almost, if not actually, to the apostolic period, and continuing clear through the Middle Ages to the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation, and that through this long period of nearly a millennium and half they were always distinct from Roman Catholicism, is impossible to substantiate by valid historical evidence. The real evidence indicates, rather, that the Waldensian movement originated in the twelfth century, about 400 years before Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, the Waldenses were not Evangelicals or Protestants in the proper sense of these terms. It is possible—or perhaps even probable—that they held the universal priesthood of believers. It is true that they opposed some of the most serious abuses and pretensions of the Church of Rome. But they did not hold the real heart and core of Protestantism—the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone—in any consistent or pointed manner until they learned it from the Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century. It is even more unhistorical to try to maintain that the mediaeval Waldenses were Calvinists and Presbyterians before the Reformation. That they were noble and faithful witnesses for the truth of God cannot be denied, and we should honor their memory for it. But it is an improper romanticizing of history to regard these saints as virtually Calvinistic and Presbyterians in mediaeval Italy and France.

2. Absolutizing the Past

By absolutizing the past is meant regarding some one epoch or period in the past as ideal and normative for all time to come. The time just after the passing of the apostles, or the time of the great early Church Councils, or the time of Luther, Knox and Calvin, or the time of the Second Reformation and the Westminster Assembly, is nostalgically regarded as “the good old days” and the idea is held that what the Church of our own day really needs is to get back in spirit to those times and there take its stand. This tendency arises from a lack of historical perspective, often combined with a considerable degree of historical ignorance, and a failure to recognize the imperfection and relativism of all human attainments even the best and highest human attainments under God.

One example of this tendency is the not uncommon notion that the official creeds or standards of a church are sacrosanct and that it is wrong and impious to seek to amend them in any detail, or even to bring them to reexamination in the light of Scripture. This absolutizing of the past inevitably disparages the authority of Scripture as the absolute standard of faith and life. If there are some elements or phases of the past history of the Church which must be regarded as exempt from the judgment of Scripture, then the Bible is no longer our only infallible rule of faith and life. If Scripture is really the only infallible rule of faith and life, then everything in the history of the Church since the New Testament was completed, is subject to the judgment of God speaking in the Scripture. We do scant honor to the Westminster Confession, for example, if we attribute to it an authority which inheres in the Bible alone, and thus regard and treat it as if it were infallible. But the person who considers it impious or profane to say that such a creed can be amended on the basis of further study of the Bible, is treating it as infallible and giving it a rating which of right belongs only to the Word of God. The present writer considers the Westminster Confession the best creedal statement of Christian truth that has ever been formulated. But after all it is not the Word of God and it is not infallible. It was composed by men who were indeed learned and godly, but still fallible and in themselves capable of error.

And, again, when people regard the Reformation as a fixed quantity and a once-for-all attainment, they are absolutizing history. The Protestant Reformation was part of a historical process. “Ecclesia reformata reformanda est”—the Church having been reformed is to be further reformed. Like sanctification, reformation of the Church is a process without any terminal point in history.

3. Disdaining the Past

Disdaining or despising the past is a reaction against the romanticizing and absolutizing tendencies. The person who disdains the past fails to appreciate its real attainments and values. He fails, that is, to realize what God has really done in the past history of His Church.

Someone has said that “Nobody ever learns anything from history except that nobody ever learns anything from history.“ By and large, we live in an age which over-rates the present and scorns the past. Some can hardly mention the Scottish Covenanters of the 17th century and their struggles without a sneer. The witnesses and martyrs are brushed off with faint praise by an attitude which says, in effect, “The Covenanters were important of course, but....”

All true progress is building on foundations laid in the past. Only by a grasp and appreciation of the past can we have a truly valid attitude toward the present, and only so can we build soundly for the future. The person who says, “History is bunk” is dishonoring God who by His work of creation and providence made history what it was.

In our own day that great historic monument of the Reformed Faith—the Westminster Confession—has been laid aside as a museum piece by the largest Presbyterian body in America, and a “new confession” substituted for it as the denomination’s real working standard. And this “new confession” is really a rejection of much of the truth attained and witnessed to in the historic Westminster Confession. This is truly a disdaining of history.

It is not uncommon to find people with an attitude of disdain for the historic Scottish Covenanters and the old Scottish covenants. We are not saved by Covenanter history, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. But we do the Lord scant honor if we despise what He has done in and through His people in past times.

The disdainful attitude has its roots in pride—the pride of ignorance. Someone has said that there are three kinds of pride: pride of race, pride of face and pride of grace, and that pride of grace is the worst of the three. But surely we may rank with it pride of ignorance as one of the worst forms of pride. There are people who actually glory in their shame, who actually boast that they are ignorant of theology and church history.

We of the nineteen sixties are not the first intelligent or faithful Christians that ever lived. Christ through His Spirit has always been at work throughout the past history of His Church. Let us heed the Biblical injunction to “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” Let us not romanticize the past, let us not absolutize the past and let us not despise the past. Rather may we appraise it justly and value it wisely, to the honor and glory of God.

This article originally appeared in the journal titled Blue Banner Faith and Life and was written by the editor, Dr. J. G. Vos. After Rev. Vos was forced to leave the mission field during the second World War he began to publish this periodical as part of his pastoral work in his Clay Center, Kansas, parish, and continued it as a professor of Bible at Geneva College. The quality of the material that appeared in this publication soon earned it recognition throughout the world. The publication of this fine periodical came to an end when Dr. Vos was no longer able to carry on the task. It is now long out of print but we understand that the entire content of this periodical, covering a period of some 33 years, is still available from the American Theological Library Association Board of Microtext, P. O. Box 111, Princeton, N.J. 08540.