The Church

The Use and Abuse of Church History

Church history is descriptive,  not prescriptive.

One of the main points of fissure between sacramental or hierarchical church traditions and those that are less so is the place of church history. Should history—tradition—play a definitive role in shaping the faith and practice for believers today? Or, should Scripture have the decisive function in our faith? If we decide that tradition and history must be set alongside Scripture as an equal authority, we are faced with the dilemma that history is not uniform, nor tidy. In the hierarchical traditions, history is sometimes treated as a kind of stare decisis, such as one finds in courts of law. What precedent do we find in prior decision, previous case law? Indeed, canon law is exactly this.

But history is the development of the church, how it grew and changed over centuries. It does not represent an authoritative body of decisions that should bind believers in our current age. That position belongs only to Holy Scripture. To be sure, history has great value, and should be studied, but there is a vast difference in observation and stipulation. Church historian Brian Tierney points out some of the difficulties in looking to the past as an authoritative guide. He considers the example of papal infallibility.

“Real issues of ecclesiastical power are involved. If popes have always been infallible in any meaningful sense of the word – if their official pronouncements as heads of the church on matters of faith and morals have always been unerring and so irreformable – then all kinds of dubious consequences ensue. Most obviously, twentieth century popes would be bound by a whole array of past papal decrees reflecting the responses of the Roman church to the religious and moral problems of former ages. As Acton put it, ‘The responsibility for the acts of the buried and repented past would come back at once and for ever.’ To defend religious liberty would be ‘insane’ and to persecute heretics commendable. Judicial torture would be licit and taking of interest on loans a mortal sin. The pope would rule by divine right ‘not only the universal church but the whole world.’ Unbaptized babies would be punished in Hell for all eternity. Maybe the sun would still be going round the earth.”[1]

What Tierney points out is that history is descriptive, but not prescriptive. It tells us what happened, but not what should happen. Tierney’s examples show the error of elevating tradition above or to a position of equal authority with Scripture.  Holy Scripture alone provides this rule, this canon. At once I hear the objection of “but whose interpretation?” Indeed, hermeneutics is not an easy task, but one can at least begin by acknowledging what is admissible evidence. We can look at how past ages interpreted God’s Word, while at the same time acknowledging that no interpreter can claim to be an infallible guide. Indeed, those who claim to listen to the magisterium for authoritative interpretation have made this decision as individuals.

Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers will sometimes chide evangelicals on this point of “individual interpretation” but it is not a strong argument. Recent polling of Catholics shows a large number dismiss what the hierarchy of bishops says on many points, and are making their own decisions. As Thomas Bergler observes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[2]

On the Orthodox side, the plea has been more to the “unanimous consent of the Fathers.” But as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, that consensus is less than unanimous, and subject to revision.

Such an exhortation as “let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers” seemed to assume, by its use of “confession” in the singular and of “fathers” in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic. When an orthodox church father such as Gregory of Nyssa appeared to be in agreement with a heretic such as Origen on the eventual salvation of all men, it was necessary to explain away this agreement. When it appeared that there was a contradiction between two passages in Gregory of Nazianzus, closer study would show “their true harmony.”[3]

Arriving at the true meaning of Scripture can be a challenge, but no one can hand this responsibility off to another. Indeed, read, study, consult as many sources as you can, but remember that the decision cannot be outsourced. And while history informs us as to how others thought, it must not be elevated to the same level of authority as Scripture itself.  The Protestant Reformers had regard for prior interpreters of Scripture. Luther accepted the first 4 ecumenical counsels, and but not subsequent ones. Calvin found value in the counsels, but would not assign them equal authority to Scripture. In the Orthodox tradition, they accept 7 ecumenical counsels as authoritative, and Rome has north of 20 at this point they put in this category. The question is thus not line-drawing, everyone does so. Rather, it is where the lines are drawn. It is often at the distance of several centuries that we see the value (or error) of conclusions from prior ages, but only by comparing these decisions with Scripture. G.L. Prestige aptly summarizes what has happened when history or tradition is given the same authority as Scripture.

“The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[4]

Those who appeal to tradition consider the verdict to have equal (or often greater) authority than the evidence, and this is a fatal flaw. God has caused us to be born again by his Word. (1 Peter 1:23) Can this same Word not sustain us, teach us, and guide us? Can we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us, as Jesus himself promised? Recognizing Scripture as uniquely authoritative within the Church does not necessarily make for an easier path of discipleship, but it does make for a clearer and more faithful one.


[1] Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1972), p. 2.

[2] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenalization of American Christianity, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[4] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics, (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.

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