“Setting Our Minds to the Track”: An Alternative Protestant Approach To Church History

In his preface to his translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, the ninth century English king Alfred the Great penned the following stirring words:

When I reflected on all this [decline of learning in England], I recollected how–before everything was ransacked and burned–the churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books. Similarly, there was a great multitude of those serving God. And they derived very little benefit from those books, because they could understand nothing of them, since they were not written in their own language. It is as if they said: “Our ancestors, who formerly maintained these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and passed it on to us. Here one can still see their track, but we cannot follow it. Therefore we have now lost the wealth as well as the wisdom, because we did not wish to set our minds to the track.:”(Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, trans. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge [Suffolk, England: The Chaucer Press, 1984], pg. 125.)”:

“We have now lost the wealth as well as the wisdom, because we did not wish to set our minds to the track.” For me, there is no better description of the common Protestant approach to the history of the Church. This way of interpreting Church history may be described in a general way as “Puritan.” As such it represents an abandonment of the track, a denial that our ancestors (outside of a very narrow subset largely occurring late in history) “loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and passed it on to us.” A good outline of this view can be found in John Williamson Nevin in his article The Puritan Theory of Early Christianity. Allow me to recapitulate Nevin’s descriptive points of this theory, expanding the theory’s implications from merely “early” Christianity to “real” Christianity.

First, real Christianity was characterized by “nudity” and “rational spirituality” standing in stark contrast to later accretions of hierarchy, mysticism, and development. Second, real Christianity only lasted a short time, becoming direly corrupt at some point between the first and third centuries. Third, the replacement of real Christianity involved the rise of Rome into power and her simultaneous fall into apostasy, so that within a short time the institutional Church, under Rome, had become a “synagogue of Satan.” Fourth, the long, dark night caused by Rome at last came to an end with the Reformation, which was a “revolutionary rebellion” taking place upon the sole authority of the Bible and aimed at restoring the ancient, primitive religion of “evangelical” times.

Thus runs the basic theory. Variations exist, and not all of them are as radical as the one outlined by Nevin. Nevertheless, something like the above is a common Protestant way of interpreting Church history. History from the Apostles to the Reformation is a long, depressing story of decline, punctuated occasionally by vivid, but short-lived examples of True Faith. At the 16th century, all of this changes. A bold slash bifurcates the timeline into “Dark Ages” and “Reformation,” and generates an epic story of “progress.” Some groups construe the progress radically. They claim that there was an initial Reformation that failed to “purge out all the Romanism,” and so a subsequent one followed, created by the fathers of their own sect. Thanks to a radical practice of the motto “reformed and always reforming,” this one sect virtually alone remains “pure” today. Other groups construe the progress moderately, settling into a complacent “orthodoxy” which they represent as having been seen in brief flashes here and there, but finally, fully settled in the mid-17th century. Of course, their sect is the prime preserver of that “orthodoxy” today. Still other variations exist, but these are two common ones.

This theory values reductionism on every level. It thinks of the Christian religion as a function of a “Bible-Only” method of searching out truth. Consequently, it dismisses out of hand vast realms of human life that cannot be reduced to texts and logical inferences from them. Piggybacking on Matthew 15:1-6 and Mark 7:8-13, it rails at the intellectual and cultural category of “tradition” as consisting only of things invented by men and which necessarily corrupt the Word of God. A corresponding blindness to the power–and the weaknesses–of Protestant traditions settles down on the mind supposedly immune to traditions because of its “plain” biblicism. Hand-in-hand with this comes a reduction of complex issues of authority to an incoherent absolute dichotomy between individual “private judgment” and external authority. Rituals and liturgies and institutional structures with real, enforceable authority fall away, since the Christian religion is about private transactions between God and an individual man’s soul. An exaggerated “remnant” theory replaces concern for the history of God’s dealings with broad bodies of people over long periods of time. The only “true” Christians in history and today, says the theory, are those who exhibit “purity” according to standards supposedly derived “only” from the Bible. Trying to get the theory to consider that it derives its standards of “purity” from idealized readings of the Bible through peculiar historical and cultural lenses, and not from “Scripture alone,” is like suggesting that two-plus-two really equals five. On every level drastic splits appear: Bible or tradition, Truth or liturgy, Theology or history, Exegesis or philosophy, and so on.

This view transforms temporary, contingent exceptions into eternal, immutable rules. For instance, it reads “Athanasius contra mundum” not as an example of God raising up exceptional heroes for infrequent times of emergency, but rather, as the very model for everyday living. This “exceptions are the rule” approach robs the Reformation of the powerful argument that it was, at its root, a natural and organic outgrowth of many strands of legitimately catholic tradition. We thus cannot meet Rome’s claims of continuity on the strong ground of history and tradition. We can instead only meet her claims on the weak ground of admitting her claims of continuity–which, of course, we quickly qualify, she is welcome to, since most of it is “unbiblical” junk anyway.

We often buttress this approach with emotion-charged recitations of the martyrdoms which we claim stained Rome’s hands with “the blood of the saints” through the long ages of her dominance.:”(For example, see J.M. Carroll’s classic work The Trail of Blood.”)”: Consequently, we read Church history as a series of largely corrupt events in the life of a truth-hating, Christ-obscuring institutional-cultural structure. We tell a story of inevitable entropy punctuated irregularly by gut-wrenching accounts of the sad, awful martyrdoms of True Believers. Rarely, if ever, do we think critically about our selection criteria, asking hard questions of ourselves as well as of Rome. Rarer still is the Protestant who actually knows more than caricatures about the so-called “Dark Ages” and the many colorful–and in fact, Christ and Bible-loving–figures who people the drama of redemption.

Again, there are variations on these themes. What I am describing is a general rule, not a rule that covers all cases without exception. In this post I will explain an alternative Protestant reading of Church history. I believe that this alternative view is both more able to withstand criticism from other Christian traditions, and also that it is better able to suggest ways that Protestants can positively appropriate the long ages of history that occurred prior to the 16th century.

Foundations: Covenant Identity and Continuity

The alternative Protestant interpretation of Church history which I defend denies the two basic historical hermeneutical schemes which have dominated discussion between Christian traditions since the 16th century. These basic schemes are sometimes described as “successionist” and “supercessionist.” A “successionist” view holds that only the group to which its adherents belong has existed “from the beginning.” All others result from the later introduction of “novelties” and “innovations” that depart from the original, pure pattern. A “supercessionist” view is that to which the “Puritan” interpretation of history belongs. Its contrasts with successionism are thus easy to see. Note that both of these views posit an original “pure” state to which only their particular group has remained “fully” faithful. They differ in their identification of the original “pure” state, and in what role they see their group having performed throughout history. Nevertheless, their basic reasoning is the same. It exhibits the qualities of “perfectionism” (always trying to live up to a fantastically high ideal, and frequently writing off its failures to do so) and “digital” thinking (assuming there are only two options, and that they are equal and opposite polarities).

On the contrary, the basic hermeneutic of my view of Church history is a functional denial of both of these perfectionisms. The basic principle of this alternative hermeneutic is the concept of “the objectivity of the covenant.” This means that the Christian faith has an external dimension–the covenantal relationship itself is not destroyed by external corruption. As Doug Wilson writes:

…Christ is the Lord of the covenant. Because this covenant can be kept or broken, it has stipulations contained within it for either eventuality. If we keep faith with Christ, by faith, He pours out covenant blessings upon us. If we break faith with Him, then we are trampling underfoot the blood of the covenant by which we were sanctified, and the punishment we will receive is far worse than what would have been received under the law of Moses (Heb. 10: 28-29). The new covenant is not like the covenant that was made with our fathers at Mount Sinai. As a covenant, it still has blessings and curses, but as a new covenant, the blessings are high blessings, and the curses are high curses.:”(See The Objectivity of the Covenant.)”:

In other words, covenant members are covenant members whether they are faithful or not, because God, who sovereignly guarantees the covenant, is always faithful. This view of Church history builds on the biblical theme of the identity and continuity of God’s covenant people through time and through periods of both faithfulness and unfaithfulness. As Peter Leithart has written of the situation in 1 and 2 Kings,

Israel, despite her idolatries, despite several generations of Omride rule, and despite a king and queen that had explicitly abandoned Yahweh and promoted Baal, is still Yahweh’s covenant people. Yahweh continues to bless them in ways they do not deserve. This ultimately makes the idolatry far worse, but the continued existence and prosperity of Israel is a lesson to Judah about God’s faithfulness.:”(See Faithfulness to Israel.)”:

A related theme is the solidarity of God’s covenant people. Even those who are not personally guilty of a particular offense against God often suffer along with those who are personally guilty. I Kings 13 and Daniel 9 are very important passages of Scripture in this regard. Those who are not guilty cannot dissociate themselves from the guilty ones, as if they can isolate themselves from the sins of their brothers, remaining untainted while their brothers fall away. In fact, bringing 2 Kings 13 into the picture, it appears to be biblically incorrect to claim that those guilty of idolatry have by that fact ceased to be God’s covenant people, and that our family relationship to them has ceased because of their sins. God continues to treat the apostatizing kings of Judah as sons, punishing them for their violations of the covenant. Furthermore, to quote Peter Leithart again, the Old Testament prophetic theme of the “remnant” seems to refer “to the whole of Israel that survives a judgment, rather than to some sub-division of Israel that remains faithful during a period of apostasy.”:”(Remnant and Reunion.)”:

From these considerations I would argue that it is not correct to think of the drama of Church history as being composed of a vast “apostate” structure starkly contrasted with a “pure” and “simple” community of Real Christians forming a “remnant” which is always culturally irrelevant precisely because it is always persecuted. Consequently, neither the identity of the covenant people nor the reality of the promises of God to them are lost because of times of idolatry and apostasy.:”(See Division and Reunion.)”: I believe a close reading of 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 shows that covenant membership is defined objectively, not subjectively. Consider that passage:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did–and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did–and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did–and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

Note that everyone passed through the sea. Everyone drank from the rock which was Christ. Everyone was baptized into Moses. Although “God was not pleased with most of them and their bodies were scattered over the desert,” their unfaithfulness did not abrogate their covenant status. Rather, they were scattered over the desert because they were unfaithful covenant members. The common Protestant notion of a “pure” visible Church, untainted by the messiness of culture and history, would, on this view, appear to be unbiblical. On the contrary, the whole history of the Church–including the things we do not like–is the heritage of Protestants precisely because the covenant people remained in existence the whole time. That people is our people. Those men are our fathers and brothers. The “crazy uncles” are our “crazy uncles,” and so, of course, the evil popes and prelates were our evil popes and prelates.

This view of covenantal identity and solidarity seems odd to those steeped in the “Puritan”-like argument from historical discontinuity and its legacy of separationism, but I believe it is compatible with a perspective solidly grounded in the Protestant Reformation. At the same time, there may be some modification or another of the Reformers’ views, but this should not be overly troublesome when we recognize that the Reformers lived in the midst of a terrible war that was destroying all of Christian society. They lived each and every day “in the trenches,” as it were, trying to keep their heads and the heads of their flocks from getting blown off, popping up every so often to quickly fire grenades back at the other side. It is hardly reasonable to imagine that their every polemical utterance, however it may fire our blood today, represented some kind of “literal truth” about their “Romanist” adversaries, and that we today must always toe the exact line that they did lest we “give up the Gospel.”

Whatever we may wish to argue about the original Protestant reformers’ historical vision, the view I advocate certainly stands opposed to the starkly pessimistic view which many Puritans and later Protestants championed. The alternative view which I present here shuns the perfectionistic view that is well summed up by the 19th century Presbyterian scholar R.L. Dabney: “We believe that the Christianity left by the apostles to the primitive church was essentially what we now call Presbyterian and Protestant. Prelacy and popery speedily began to work in the bosom of that community and steadily wrought its corruption and almost its total extirpation.”:”(See The Attractions of Popery.)”: And the view I defend here is certainly incompatible with this gem of self-glorying discontinuity attributed to Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers”:

We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther and Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel under ground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents. Persecuted alike by Romanists and Protestants of almost every sect, yet there has never existed a Government holding Baptist principles which persecuted others; nor, I believe, any body of Baptists ever held it to be right to put the consciences of others under the control of man…:”(Found cited without direct attribution on The Reformed Reader site.)”:

By contrast to such supercessionist (Dabney) and successionist (Spurgeon) views, the alternative view I espouse holds that throughout history and up to the eschaton there is only one Church. There are not two Churches (one visible, the other invisible), but one Church manifested in two different ways (historical and eschatological). There is only one Church, but the historical Church is not the eschatological Church because the former has not yet grown up, has not yet been washed by the Word to the extent that she has become “holy and without blemish,” to use the words of Eph. 5:27. Now, since being without blemish is not a condition of merely being God’s covenant people, being with blemish is not an indication that a people are not God’s covenant people. Like God’s people in the Old Testament, God’s people in the New Testament “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and must run the race set before them (Heb. 12:1), taking care lest they fall like those whose stories were preserved as an example (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). This means that all of Church history belongs to Protestants and is our heritage as much as it is anyone else’s.

This is the basic outline of an alternative Protestant way of interpreting Church history. Much more needs to be said. For instance, this theory seems to require an alternative way of viewing texts. If we claim all of Church history as ours, then we must understand that the textual artifacts with which we deal are the products of brothers, not foreigners. Accordingly, we must exercise family charity by working hard to understand the texts our brothers have left behind. This often requires a great deal of hard work, for the world in which our brothers lived was not at all like the world that has been constructed by Protestants since the Reformation. It is not proper to read old texts without a sober-minded realization on our own part of at least of some of the assumptions our brothers held which we do not today hold, and without an attempt to “walk in their shoes” so as to see why they considered those assumptions legitimate–and in fact, quite biblical. We must not, as is the instant and constant impulse of successionists and supercessionists, scour old texts for “plain” quotations with which to “refute” our Roman Catholic adversaries. We should remember that while our polemics are most often supercessionist, the polemics of Rome are most often successionist–equal and opposite extremes which are equally and oppositely wrong.

A second trajectory which must be explored will involve serious historical-theological work in the sources. Such work must be carried out according to a method informed by a commitment to the understanding that faith transcends petty Modern concepts of “verification.” The trap which successionists will constantly lay for us will be precisely on this point, summed up by the popular polemical question “Where was your Church before the Reformation?” In other words, successionist Roman Catholics will always ask us, “Where is the historical and textual proof of your Church’s existence before the Reformation?” The proper answer to this question, I contend, is not some equal-but-opposite successionist claim or some impossibly head-in-the-sand supercessionist idealization. Rather, the answer that should be ready on our lips to the question “Where was your Church before the Reformation?” is this: “Where was your face before you washed it?” Lest this appear as mere smart talk, we must then follow up with an honest acceptance of the entire record of historical Christianity, even the parts that we ourselves don’t particularly like. We must demonstrate that, for example, we love Bernard of Clairvaux and believe him to be our father and brother in the Christian religion–a father and brother whom we honor first and criticize only second. Bernard is a loved one, someone with whom we identify, not merely an example of someone who, by our self-referential standards, “wasn’t biblical,” or worse still, someone who said some things that we think we can use to disprove some “papist” assertion or another.

A third area which needs to be developed concerns development itself. By admitting that the whole of Church history is our heritage as much as anyone else’s, we must grapple with the changes that have occurred in the expression of the Faith over time. But, we must do so in a way that demonstrates a disavowal of the perfectionisms of both successionism and supercessionism. Successionist Roman Catholics, for example, will always demand that we give an answer, or better still, an alternative, to schemes of development such as Cardinal Newman’s. This is not an unreasonable demand on its face, since it is a request to flesh out the stated theory, to show how it actually works its way through difficult issues of the history that we are claiming is our heritage as well. This aspect of the task will perhaps be the hardest (next to the alternative theory of texts), precisely because we have, as Protestants, for so long allowed ourselves to obsess merely on “theology” and upon mantra-like polemics against “Romanism.” We have not, unfortunately, taken the time to develop a coherent approach to Church history that can demonstrate a real humility in the face of things of which we do not approve and do not believe to be “biblical.” We have not sought to examine our own assumptions, to understand even our own Reformation heritage in its natural context, but we have for the most part simply accepted Modern propagandistic stories about “the Dark Ages” and the “progress” that followed when “reason” was elevated above “superstition.”

Consequently, we have for a long time been utterly vulnerable (whether our polemicists have recognized this fact or not) to the successionist arguments of Roman Catholics–arguments which, unlike our own, actually accept all the bad parts of history right along with the good. If we are going to accept all of Church history as our own, we must account for historical development in a way which does not simply consign the bulk of it to some nebulous, self-serving category of “unbiblical,” or see it only as vaguely uninteresting precursors to “what really matters,” the Light and Truth and Freedom of the Reformation. Further, we must develop a broader, deeper theology of what reformation itself is so that we can recognize and responsibly handle the several reformations that came before the one which we ourselves most venerate.

These are three areas I see in which we need to do some serious work. There may be more, but these should suffice for a start, and to show that I am not seeking to advocate just one more closed-minded theory of community self-justification, the likes of which have characterized both Protestant and Roman Catholic self-portraits ever since the disastrous trainwreck of the 16th century. On the contrary, to again cite a great father and brother, Alfred the Great, we must seek to set our minds to the track, for only in this way can we understand and appropriate the wealth obtained by our ancestors and handed down to us.

[See Part II of this theme]

This entry was posted in On History. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.