I remember the first time I got excited about church history.
I was in a seminar and the speaker was animated as he told us the story of the life of William Tyndale; a genius linguist and pioneering theologian, cruelly betrayed and bravely martyred. I was on the edge of my seat. The story was gripping and Tyndale’s loyalty to Jesus was touching, but what really caught the attention of my heart was the fact that, although I stood in the wake of this man, I hadn’t heard of him until that afternoon. I was a Bible-believing evangelical, happily going about my quiet times without a clue that I owed my English Bible to this man. He had lived and died to make the scriptures available to me. This was the heritage I never realised I had, and I was deeply moved to discover it.
Not long after, I found that one of my personal spiritual ruts had its cure in the past. This time, it wasn’t about what someone had done so much as what they had thought and taught. It wasn't so much about Church History (what happened when and where), but Historical Theology (the development of Christian teaching and practice). Somebody had lived through something similar to me, fought the battle, seen the light, and written all about it long before I was born. The hero was Martin Luther, and the struggle was that I was just never sure I was really a Christian. As a young teenager, I’d become a Christian hundreds of times, convinced that my sins and doubts proved that nothing genuine had happened at my last ‘conversion’. Was my faith real? Did I truly believe, or was I fooling myself? Luther came in like a bulldozer and showed me that real faith wasn’t self-conscious and inward-looking as I had been, for that was faith’s greatest enemy. Instead, faith simply looks to Christ and believes his promise of love and mercy. By looking at my faith (or lack of it) all the time, I’d made it all so complicated when the reality was beautiful, liberating simplicity. Just Jesus! I owe Luther a pint or two of Einbecker when we meet in the new creation.
More recently, my theological study has taken me into fifth-century Egypt where I have kept company with Cyril of Alexandria and his friends. These men are famous for their stunningly massive theology of the person of Christ: God who walked the streets of Nazareth. As I’ve learned how to peel back the layers of different cultures, ages, and language, I’ve found that our fathers in the faith saw Christ with a depth I’d never really known. Reading Cyril and the others, I’ve frequently had my eyes opened to the wonder of Jesus and my heart enlarged by his love and humility. I hope that something of Cyril has rubbed off on me when I think of his love of worshipping the Lord, his seriousness about scripture, and his sensitivity to the pastoral needs of his congregation.
There is something really refreshing about reading the thoughts and feelings of someone from another time and place. C. S. Lewis famously warned against the danger of only sticking with the ideas and outlook of your own age, and prescribed breathing 'the clean sea breeze of the centuries' by reading old books. It's a piece of advice which I've been grateful for many times.
I love historical theology because it’s changed my life. Next to the friends and family who have shown me Jesus and nurtured my faith, I’m indebted to men and women long dead who wrote theological books, beautiful hymns, and honest prayers. Athanasius, John Bunyan, Anne Steele, John Calvin, and many more. Of course not everything from the past is easy to read, or even worth the effort – but there’s gold to be found! I can’t recommend highly enough that you sit down sometime with Richard Sibbes to kick you off and learn from an old saint who walked your road before you, and now cheers you on with a great crowd as you go.
Daniel Hames is Associate Director at Union and lectures in theology and preaching. He is a minister at St Aldates, Oxford, and is completing a PhD in theology at the VU Amsterdam.