Historical Theology

By James M. Rochford

Historical theology is the study of how Christians historically came to affirm or deny certain theological doctrines. It also studies the people who were influential on Christian thought, as well as the successes and failures of the Church. While God does not change, our understanding of him does. While Scripture is inerrant, our understanding or interpretation of Scripture is not. This is not to say that relativism or postmodernism is true—whereby we are unable to interpret Scripture accurately regarding the core Christian faith. Instead, by studying historical theology, we can discover their mistakes, their heroism, their cultural influences, their cultural biases, and our own connection to the Christian church throughout history. Church history is filled with heroes and villains—faithful martyrs and violent persecutors.

Why study church history?

Hermeneutics. When we study various theologians from the past, we need to assess their interpretation of Scripture. How did they come to their conclusions? Were these justified or unjustified? What leaps forward did they make in their study? What mistakes did they make that we might learn from? The study of church history is an exercise in “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

Theopraxis. What can we learn about the ways various Christians have practically carried out their faith? Were their methods faithful or faithless? Wise or foolish? What can we learn from their mistakes or the ways they flourished? Under what circumstances did various revivals occur? How did they die out, and why?

Encouragement. We might be embarrassed to admit, but like Elijah, we can sometimes feel like we are the only faithful servants left on Earth (1 Kings 19:10). Such a subjective feeling is clearly false, because Jesus promised that he would build his church, and the “gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Mt. 16:18). God’s church has struggled throughout history, but never ceased to exist. When we study the sacrifices and struggles of Christians throughout history, it can give us a bigger picture. God can encourage us by showing how he has been active in people’s lives throughout human history.

Apologetics. In his iconic book 1984, George Orwell famously wrote, “[He] who controls the past controls the future. [He] who controls the present controls the past.” The study of history relates closely to apologetics—the defense of our faith. If we don’t know history, we might be held at the mercy of those trying to “highjack history” to support bogus claims.

How do we study church history?

Here are several key concepts to keep in mind when approaching how to study or teach the topic of church history:

First, description is not the same as prescription. Just because Christians held a particular view, doesn’t make it binding for us today. Moreover, just because a theological position was ancient, doesn’t make it authentic. Some heresies are old—even existing in the first century church. If a pastor or theologian writes something today, we wouldn’t automatically assume it was theologically accurate. Why then would an ancient pastor or theologian be any different? When studying Christian history, we need to assess and discern if a certain theological perspective or practice was right or wrong.

Second, the origins of a doctrine didn’t occur overnight. We should be suspicious of people who assign dates to the origin of doctrines. History doesn’t work this way. It took time for streams of thought to be brought together, eventually leading to the development of doctrines. Videos didn’t go viral in ancient times!

Third, should we teach church history by TOPIC or by TIMELINE? Professors of church history wrestle with this question. If we teach it by topic, we gain insight into that particular issue but lose the bigger historical setting. If we teaching it by timeline, it can be dry and laborious. It’s probably best to blend the two different approaches.

The Intertestamental Period: the time between the Old and New Testaments

The Maccabean Revolt. This guerrilla war occurred in the 160’s BC. Antiochus Epiphanes terrorized Israel with murder, torture, and the absolute abolition of the Jewish religion. One Hasmonean priest named Mattathias led a revolt that eventually liberated Israel from foreign occupation. Mattathias’ son (Judas Maccabeus) took over after his death. This historical event is riveting to study—being similar to the plot of movies Braveheart and Red Dawn.

The Apocrypha. The term “Apocrypha” comes from a Greek term which means “hidden away.” Protestants reject all of the Apocrypha, while Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Coptic Christians accept some of them. This article assesses the inspiration of these books, and gives a general introduction to each book.

First-century history

Judaism in Jesus’ Day. One of the keys to unlocking the dynamics of the NT is to understand the different types of Jewish believers that existed at this time. These groups break down into four common sects: (1) Pharisees, (2) Sadducees, (3) Essenes, and (4) Zealots.

History of the Samaritans. Who were the Samaritans, and what relationship did they have to the Jewish people?

Dating Jesus’ Death: April 3, AD 33. Virtually all scholars agree that Jesus died in the early 30’s AD. Yet New Testament scholars divide over when Jesus died: some say AD 30, while others say AD 33. It is the purpose of this essay to make a historical argument for the AD 33 date.

Why Did God Decide to Spread the Gospel When He Did? This article covers the cultural, political, and religious reasons for why the gospel spread so quickly in the first century. It also speculates as to why God would decide to bring Christ in the first century.

Apostolic Fathers (AD 100-200)

1 Clement. 1 Clement (written anywhere from AD 67 to 110) is a letter written by the church in Rome to the church Corinth. It is roughly 15,000 words (or roughly the length of the gospel of John).

2 Clement. This letter was most likely not written by Clement of Rome—yet it dates early (somewhere between ~AD 120 and 140).

The Didache. This short book (written anywhere from AD 80 to 110) is an instruction manual for early Christian converts and Christian leaders. It is roughly 6,400 words (or roughly the length of 1 Corinthians).

The Epistle of Barnabas. This is a very early Christian letter (dated anywhere from AD 100-135). It is roughly 9,400 words (or roughly the length of the book of Revelation). The unknown author writes a serious anti-Semitic polemic by using an allegorical approach to the OT. It was most likely composed in Alexandria, Egypt, where this allegorical approach was so popular.

Ignatius of Antioch. This article outlines the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch (~AD 108). He wrote these letters as he travelled to Rome to face martyrdom.

The Fragments of Papias. We do not contain Papias’ writings, but historians believe we can recover fragments of his lost books in the writing of Irenaeus and Eusebius (as well as other church fathers). Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis, and he most likely wrote these excerpts in ~AD 130.

Polycarp. Polycarp was a bishop in Smyrna, living from AD 70 to 156. This letter dates anywhere from AD 105 to 135. Polycarp was a contemporary of Ignatius, and he writes a short letter to the church in Philippi.

The Shepherd of Hermas. This apocalyptic book, dating anywhere from AD 100 to 150, was considered inspired by many third century Christian leaders.

The Letter to Diognetus. The epistle to Diognetus (pronounced Die-og-KNEE-tus) is also called the Epistle of Mathetes (Greek for “disciple” or “learner”). Chapters 1-10 serve as an early defense of the Christian faith, while chapters 11-12 are an early Christian sermon. It most likely dates to the end of the second century AD.

Important topics in Church History

Persecution of Christianity (AD 33 to 325): How wide was Roman persecution in the first three centuries of the Church? How did the apostles die? Which Roman emperors were crucial in this persecution?

Constantine: Blessing or Curse? The famous emperor Constantine brought an end to Christian persecution and helped to make Christianity a state-religion. Was this a blessing or a curse for Christianity? Was Constantine a true believer or a political phony?