Reviewed by Kirk Wellum
One of my educational regrets is that in my younger days I did not appreciate church history as much as I should, and, therefore, I did not study it as enthusiastically as I could. But with the passage of time, I have come to see that the study of church history has many theological and practical benefits that are critical for the life and health of the church. Theologically, we are not the first Christians to read the Bible and to ponder its message, and so it is important to understand the thinking and teaching of our predecessors. In many ways, we are indebted to them because we stand on their historical shoulders and we ignore what they say at our peril. Practically, the study of church history helps us appreciate our own context because it is difficult to understand our place in history without an awareness of persons and events who have shaped the world in which we find ourselves.
For these reasons, and more, Dayton Hartman’s book, “Church History of Modern Ministry,” is a welcome addition to a growing body of work designed to help church leaders and people alike think and act responsibly as Christians in today’s world. Hartman is a pastor and professor, and both callings and their requisite gifts reveal themselves in the way he addresses himself to the needs of the congregation while at the same time being aware of the debates that occupy the academy.
The book is less than 100 pages in length, clearly written, and organized in such a way that it effortlessly moves the reader from the past, to the present, and then on into the future. It is composed of 6 chapters, followed by a recommended reading list, and two appendices. Something that stood out throughout the book was Hartman’s honesty and lack of pretension as he described the chronological snobbery that marked his early thinking and kept him from taking advantage of the historical riches available to those who delve into what God has done in the past. Having seen the folly of his former ways and taken remedial action, he now appreciates the value of what he previously avoided and is personally convinced of the usefulness of church history for Christians and the church. As a result of his own personal change of perspective he succeeds in motivating the reader to dig deeper and to learn more about the past without talking down to his audience or making them feel foolish or guilty.
I also enjoyed the use of “information boxes” throughout the text that highlighted key concepts in each chapter. These break the text into smaller sections that make reading relatively effortless and they are reminiscent of webpages that will be familiar to modern readers. The “Dear Pastor” sections at the end of each chapter provide helpful suggestions as to how pastors can incorporate the insights of the chapter into their lives and ministries. This is followed by “actions steps” which move the discussion beyond the theoretical so that real change is encouraged and implemented. Then, there are “reflection questions” which review the key concepts of the chapter, and finally a recommended reading list for those who want to pursue the discussion further. These simple but practical tools make the book accessible to a wide range of people, and given the message of the book, that is most desirable.
In the first chapter, Hartman shares his own journey toward greater historical appreciation and the dangers of what he calls, “chronological snobbery.” What I found especially interesting is that his historical awakening took place in the context of pastoral ministry. Often the study of church history is seen as an academic pursuit engaged in by those who are disconnected from the world of church life. Hartman, however, discovered the value of church history as he engaged in apologetics, tried to make sense of key biblical doctrines, and sought to understand the church polity he inherited in light of the scriptures. In addition, church history provided him with perspective on the value of denominations, how to approach social issues like racial reconciliation, how to disciple Christians, how to preach in hostile or indifferent cultural settings, and more. The wisdom of choosing this point of entry into the subject is evident because it speaks to an action oriented church world that frequently prizes the practical over the theoretical, but in the process, is in danger of repeating past mistakes. Hartman, therefore, leads off with a chapter that reminds us that previous generations of Christians have carefully read and pondered the Bible and they have painstakingly recorded the fruit of their investigations.
The second chapter, anticipates the objection that the use of creeds and confessions of faith violates the Reformation principle of sola scriptura by showing that they are succinct summaries of biblical orthodoxy written to protect the church from heresy. This is important because of the contemporary emphasis on innovation which can inadvertently lead to errors of various sorts. Old heresies, like Arianism, Modalism, Adoptionism, and Docetism, that have been clearly refuted in the past continue to plague the church. Hartman argues that creeds can act as rails that define the borders of biblical orthodoxy, and in this way protect the church from innovators who do not realize that their clever insights are neither clever or new. When Christian leaders become familiar with creeds and confessions of faith and then introduce them into the life of the church, they teach congregations that they are part of something with deep historical roots that has been entrusted with a gospel that is universal in its relevance and application. Biblical illiteracy is never a good thing and it makes people susceptible to all kinds of errors. Starting with creedal statements found in the scriptures themselves, and then branching out to the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, if church leaders proceed wisely, they can do the people of God much good.
In the third chapter, Hartman looks at Christian discipleship. This is an area of the Christian life that he finds woefully inadequate in too many instances. Going back to the early church he reminds us that Christians devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to one another, and to the mission Jesus had given them. While we are good at giving sermons, lectures, writing, and reading books, he believes more needs to be done when it comes to one on one instruction and mentoring. And once again, this is where history can help us for when we look back we discover that Christian leaders like Augustine, Calvin, and Spurgeon put a lot of emphasis on mentoring within the Christian community, as well as, Christian parents working with their children to make sure they understood scripture correctly. In the pursuit of Christian discipleship, he recommends the use of catechisms to help children, adults, and the church as a whole, grasp the truths of the gospel and the implications for their lives.
In the fourth chapter, Hartman addresses the matter of preaching and cultural drift, and here he raises the issue of how Christians are perceived by the broader culture. As Christians, we can often make the mistake of thinking that we share the same worldview and vocabulary as the people around us and consequently we tend to talk to ourselves and have trouble understanding why the world is not listening or interested in what we have to say. Not surprisingly, this is not a new problem, Christians in the past have struggled with how to communicate the gospel to their contemporaries without distorting its essential message. Rather than merely talking louder and more stridently they have found ways of accommodating their message to their audiences. In the scriptures we have the example of Paul in Acts 17 when he is presenting the gospel in Athens. In the history of the Christian church, leaders like Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, and more recently, Francis Schaeffer, are examples of pastor-theologians who understood how speak to those around them so they could understand the gospel. This does not mean that their listeners always accepted what they said, but they did understood what was said and they were confronted with the demands and implications of the gospel.
The fifth chapter takes the need to speak to the culture a step further. Not only must we understand our cultural surroundings but we must present people with an alternative or Christian counter-culture. Often Christians are content to be a subculture because this is safer. But Hartman reminds us that Jesus is Lord and there is no area of life outside of his authority. Although theological systems have encouraged isolation from the world (dispensationalism), and other times they have confused the reign of heaven with the kingdoms of this world (post-millennialism), there is a better way. We are called, as Schaeffer would say, to engage, reform, and create culture. Hartman reminds us that historically some of the most influential Christians have been pastors, and we need to recover the ground that we have lost in recent years. Practically, this means that pastors must be trained more like missionaries going to a foreign country. We need to study our surroundings, strive to understand our mission-field, and then speak in such a way that our people are motivated to use their talents and abilities to develop their particular spheres of influence to the glory of God.
Chapter 6 looks back as well as forward. This is especially important in the tumultuous days in which we live where much of the upset is caused by a collision of worldviews. These collisions cannot but affect Christians, and pastors must prepare their people to understand what is going on around them so they can wisely navigate the pitfalls and challenges they will encounter. This means teaching Christians that we have always been viewed as a subversive people who follow a subversive King. The same is true today. We should expect opposition and church history as well as scripture teaches us that God is at work in a hostile world even though it might not always seem like that. Church history also keeps us on track when it comes to theological orthodoxy and this in turn has implications for Christian discipleship and apologetics. Learning from prior theological giants reminds us that we are not the first ones to read the Bible and to wrestle with its teaching. We are indebted to those who have gone before, and among the many things they can teach us, one of the most important is that ministry is not about us, but about serving Christ and his bride.
Hartman brings his book to a close with a recommended reading list followed by two appendixes. The reading list is helpfully divided into 4 main categories: general history, early church history, Reformation history, and American church history. Each of these categories/lists are subdivided into books written at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. In the first appendix, he answers a few basic frequently asked questions connected to church history. The second appendix is a simple guide to creeds, confessions and catechisms. There is also a helpful bibliography and subject and author index.
This book is engaging, biblical, practical, and useful for seminary students, pastors, church boards, Bible study groups, and parents. Today the old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeated it is too often prescient. And even if, as Mark Twain observed, “History does not repeat itself, it does rhyme.” Christians need to understand the riches of their historical heritage and context if they are to meet the challenges of the hour. The recovery of the foundation that church history and historical theology provide is therefore an urgent priority.
Kirk M. Wellum is Principal and Professor of Systematic Theology and Pastoral Studies at Toronto Baptist Seminary. He is also Review Editor for Pastoral Studies here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do