At another place where I am a frequent commenter, the host, Jason Stellman, suggests that we should ask the following question:
Should we Protestants, whether Lutheran or Calvinistic, be playing the antiquity game in the first place? Or should we be more consistetly Sola Scriptura?
I absolutely believe that Protestants should be in the business of church history. We need an army of well-informed 21st century Phillip Schaffs and J. B. Lightfoots out there, compiling documents and histories, working through the various theologies of the various fathers, and writing biographies.
Citing an email from Steven Wedgeworth, “… historical criticism is much needed, as so much of [Roman Catholicism] depends on a mythical ‘early church.’ Protestants were the original church historians (Neander, Schaff), yet we have somehow fallen away from that over the last fifty years. We need critical historians, how are also able to appreciate the past, in all its messiness, embracing it as their own.”
Protestants have the ability to be most honest in this because there need not be a pre-commitment to defend such dogmatic notions as the early belief in a papacy, or the viability of the Marian dogmas.
A word about method: regarding the study of the early church, Jaroslav Pelikan, who before his death was perhaps one of the world’s foremost Luther scholars, and who converted to Orthodoxy in the last years of his life, wrote a masterful five volume “History of the Development of Doctrine.” In that work, he says:
Upon closer examination, however, the problem of tradition and history is seen to be more complex. Even the most doctrinaire traditionalist must be concerned with such questions as the authenticity of works ascribed to an ecclesiastical writer or of decrees attributed to a council; he must trace the origin and transmission of quotations that appear in the documents of the church; he must investigate the social settings of his texts, to understand the very meaning of the words. All of these are historical assignments, some of them with far more subtle implications than the need of simply checking dates or verifying texts. (Vol. 1 pg 8).
But in looking at “origins” and “transmissions” of quotations, there IS a need to look at “social settings” and “meanings of words”. You can’t just throw out a quote and say, “aha!” In order to understand “the quote,” you have to understand the situation in which it was written, and indeed, to verify that it was valid.
Before we look at documents like the letters of Clement and Ignatius and Cyprian, there is a process of history and textual criticism that must take place. The early church (following its Jewish predecessors) was meticulous about preserving both oral teaching and written texts, but there was also a tendency, especially in later times, to embellish things.
And by “embellish things,” I’m talking about such things as Eusebius. It’s true he was the first historian of the church, and we are indebted to him for a lot of our information about the early church. But he was also a kind of suck-up to the emperor — Paul Maier called Eusebius’s history a “panegyric” (pg 335 of the 2007 edition of his work) — and his work has been found to be unreliable in places. For example, he had the Apostle John wearing a bishop’s mitre. Does anyone believe that ever was the case?
We cannot take such things as that uncritically. Not if Christians want to take church history to the world and the scholastic academy and say, “believe our word.”