Why Adventists Study Church History

Why Adventists Study Church History--1

Why do Seventh-day Adventists study church history?

By FRANK H. YOST, Professor of Church History, Theological Seminary

The question, "Why do Seventh-day Ad­ventists study church history?" was asked by a historian who knew Advent­ists as a people who derive their tenets from the Bible, but who, he thought, set aside the implications of most historical religious ex­perience since New Testament times. In an­swering this question, our first consideration should be to define what church history is. History is often taken to mean the events of the past. Thus we say, Napoleon made history. However, since for the most part we do not know of events except in the record of them, history for practical and scholarly purposes is the record of past events. Church history is in its broadest application the record of past events in the universal church of God since creation; but in its more restricted and generally accepted sense, it is the record of events in the church of Christ since the in­carnation.

In learning what these events of the past are, the careful student is concerned with the original records. These are called "sources," and the sources for church history are similar to the sources for other kinds of history. The Bible itself, writings of ancient historians, letters, sermons, polemics, apologies, court records, official decrees and laws, ecclesias­tical decretals, conciliar canons, inscriptions, and other materials which give the events, circumstances, or atmosphere of any period being considered, are necessary grist for the mill of the student. His task is not made easier by the fact that, except for the last four hundred years of English and American church history. all these sources are in lan­guages and dialects other than English.

The student knows history only from what is in the sources. This point can scarcely be overemphasized. For instance, we know what actually happened at the Battle of Gettysburg, not because some modern American historian has written ably concerning it, but because official records, letters, diaries, and statements of reliable and competent eyewitnesses, re­corded shortly after the event, give the only actual information that exists. True, most of us must depend upon the modern historian, but he is in turn dependent completely upon the sources. Without extant sources there could be no true account.

The emphasis given to this point becomes justified in the light of a conversation I had a few years ago with an acquaintance. We were discussing the labors of a mutual friend, who had done some writing in the field of church history which had not proved accept­able. My acquaintance shared his friend's dis­appointment. When he was asked if the one who had done the writing knew the languages of the sources, he answered, "No, why should he, when he has Mosheim to depend upon?" Professor Mosheim lived in eighteenth-century Germany, was under the influence of the philosophy of the time, and interpreted his sources accordingly. His effort at objectivity led him to say some things which contem­porary old-school Lutheran theologians did not like, but which we as Adventists are able now to use polemically to our advantage. But it must be remembered that Mosheim knew ac­tually only what he found in the sources.

The fact that it is the critical school that has stressed the careful use of sources should not cause reluctance on our part to use them. The work of the critics in the sources has been, from the scholarly point of view, both good and bad. On the good side, as early as the fifteenth century a critic proved conclu­sively the falsity of the so-called Donation of Constantine, and as a result, the fact that the collection now known as the pseudo-Isidorian decretals was a forgery. Much valuable work of this kind has since been clone.

On the other hand, work has been done which must from any point of view be con­sidered baneful. Not long ago I had occasion to work over the life of a bishop of medieval Germany. There were two different edited Latin versions of his life. Before 1900 only one version had been known, which the critics were sure had anciently been interpolated in order to establish certain monastery property claims. These critics had studied the avail­able manuscripts, and on the basis of the turn of certain Latin sentences—what they thought were differences of vocabulary and peculiari­ties of style in general—they had picked out the sentences and paragraphs which they thought interpolated. Although they had dif­fered a good deal among themselves, they had agreed at several points. But about 1900 another manuscript life of the bishop was found, evidently earlier than all other manu­scripts. From this it could be determined im­mediately where later interpolations had been made. In only a few cases were these in­terpolations at the places where the critics had thought they were. Their methods of dis­covering the interpolations were proved in this case invalid. There are other similar cases in point.

The "Epistles" of Ignatius, bishop of Anti­och. who was martyred probably before 117 A.D., furnish another illustration of a source problem. Ignatius is one of the most-quoted early authorities for post-apostolic Sunday-keeping and for the early establishment of episcopal authority. There are several dif­ferent collections of his letters—one of thir­teen, one of seven, and one of three. Scholars are in general agreed that the seven-letter collection is authentic, but there are reasons for challenging seriously the validity of sev­eral epistles in this group. Further critical study of this question may be hoped for. To Adventists the question is of first importance.

The dating of sources is another important critical problem. In the Didache, or'"Teach­ing of the Twelve Apostles," Chapter VII, there is a statement showing that in baptism immersion may be substituted for by pouring. Here it is desirable to determine not only whether this is the private opinion of the writer (for the sources themselves may be colored) or the sentiment of the church in general at that time, but also at what date the writing was actually done. Some scholars today date this source as early as 125 A.D. A great deal hinges upon the dating of this source because of its bearing upon the an­tiquity of the church's departure from im­mersion baptism. Similar problems are met in the dating of documents that pertain to the Sabbath question.

There is one other phase of the use of sources which has influenced both theology and church history; namely, the question of interpretation. One type of interpretation we shall call the rhetorical. In seeking a facile and agreeable way of stating historical facts from the sources, a writer will sometimes so play up the matter that the real facts will be almost smothered. Gibbon furnishes an illus­tration of this sort of writing. Some portions of his rather florid, and certainly expansive, eighteenth-century English have but a line or two of actual source material as a basis for whole pages of discussion.

A historian's own ideas will obviously color his interpretation of the sources. After he has examined the sources for the Battle of Gettys­burg, for instance, a writer may arrive at conclusions on one or more points somewhat different from those of other historians. There is particular danger in the heat of theological controversy, when partisans are under strong temptation—to which they all too often yield —to strain the sources to prove what they wish to have proved. This should not be. Ignoring the sources will not help us here, for the secondary historian upon whom we think we dare depend may, in using the sources, have committed to some extent this very offense. Thorough honesty, a desire to be fair-minded and objective, a willingness to see all sides of a question, and an earnest purpose to find truth only, will help the stu­dent to avoid mistakes in the use and inter­pretation of historical materials.

In church history, care must be used in this regard, not merely because personal convic­tions may tempt one to bias, but for the simple reason that when one segregates a series of facts within the restricted field of church history, he is in that very act of segregation making an interpretation of the facts. The creation of his field of study is to some extent an interpretation. Church historians fre­quently make of their histories an interpreta­tion and a philosophy, and most churches, denominationally speaking, apply in their the­ology—that is, in their philosophy of religion —the experiences of the past, the experiences which they understand church history records.

_______ To be concluded in October

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By FRANK H. YOST, Professor of Church History, Theological Seminary

September 1940

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