Why Adventists Study Church History

Why Adventists Study Church History--2

Part two of our look at Adventists and Church History.

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

If Adventists are successful in declining to adopt for themselves religiously the modi­fications and accretions which other bodies have acquired from the past, maintaining themselves instead as a "people of the Book," why, then, indeed, should they study church history ? We set forth here seven reasons in answer to this question.

1. A quite obvious reason is a rather nega­tive one—it is by studying church history that we find out how other denominations or sects have come to follow certain beliefs and prac­tices which Adventists, on the basis of Scrip­ture, do not accept. Church history shows us how, and hence why, this has come about. If the belief or practice does not go back far enough to be established in the teaching and practice of Christ and the apostles, Adventists reject it. The story of Sundaykeeping comes to mind immediately as an illustration of this use of church history, and its importance is evident. If church history has no other use for Adventists, its availability for this purpose would amply justify its study.

2. But this is not, and should not be, the only use church history has for us. We are not by any means always at odds with beliefs of the past. In fact, because of our conserva­tive Biblical position on many points of belief, we find many cases in history of those who have held the doctrines we are now emphasiz­ing. Salvation by faith through Christ Jesus, the Sabbath, the second advent of Christ, obe­dience to the law of God, all have had their faithful adherents through the centuries. Honest attempts were made by these earnest early Christians to understand the prophecies of the books of Daniel and the Revelation. The year-day principle was used in prophetic interpretation in the early centuries, and the great prophetic periods were studied. There is evidence in the archives being collected by the General Conference custodian that for more than four hundred years there have been efforts to learn the application of the 2300-day prophecy, which the Spirit of prophecy, through Mrs. White, has so clearly confirmed for us.

3. Church history may yet mean more to us. Why not study it to learn why others have done as they have, to learn their point of view? Of the Christ it was said, "He knew all men." Certainly His followers should know the ways of thinking of men, among whom they are to be messengers of the good news. For instance, why did Christians in the postapostolic period turn so vigorously against the Jews ? The Jews had killed Christ ; they had sneered at and opposed Christianity. And when the apostles, themselves Jews, had ended their work, and Gentiles came to be in the ma­jority in the church, the Jews became to Chris­tians something of a symbol of satanic apos­tate opposition to Christian truth. It followed logically that things Jewish must be eliininated from the church; hence one reason for turn­ing away from the Sabbath, since the Jews were outstandingly the Sabbathkeepers of the Mediterranean world. This was accelerated by the repugnance felt toward Jews during and after their revolt, and the consequent total destruction of Jerusalem, under the emperor Hadrian, 133-135 A.D. Historical study reveals to us the point of view of Christians of that period.

4. Are there not, too, lessons to be had from church history? History does not repeat itself ; that is, one dare not attempt accurately to predict corning events by the past. Yet sim­ilar circumstances may give cause for expect­ing similar consequences. What, for instance, may be the effect upon a religious body of popularization? What, of governmental ap­proval and support? An examination of fourth-century church history suggests a prob­able answer. Christians were still a definite minority element in the population when Con­stantine granted to them, in the years 312-313 AD., his toleration, approval, and support. Up till then they had been persecuted from time to time. Afterward, influx of new communi­cants into the church was great and rapid, so much so that the church could not assimilate thoroughly its new members. The result we know: the church's beliefs and practices were modified, and compromises were made with heathenism. Similar circumstances have later led, and may again lead, to similar results.

5. Again, we learn how men of the past re­acted to opposition or persecution. Persecut­ing authorities have destroyed most of the records of persecuted minorities, but not all.

Recently there became available a reproduc­tion of the church book, or clerk's record, of the Bedford church in England, the noncon­formist congregation of which John Bunyan was a founder and leader. Now we may read, in facsimile of the clerk's own handwriting, of Bunyan's work in the church, and the very record of his eventual arrest for preaching the gospel in disobedience to the laws of the English realm.

6. There is another side to the advantages of the study of church history, one which we have perhaps neglected somewhat in our haste to do quickly what the Lord has now especially committed to men to do. That is the cultural side. Religion has ever been, as we may know from Mrs. White's writings, a great quickener of men's minds. Only when it has become decadent and senile has religion been a re­stricting influence. Therefore, Christianity has developed some of the greatest thinkers of the ages. We cannot always agree with what these great minds have taught—though with some of them, and with part of the teaching of others, we can agree—but as we see how reli­gious thought has in the past quickened the minds of Christians, we ourselves may sense the value of thoughtful study when aided by the Spirit of God.

Let us glance at a few names from former centuries: Paul, the Jew and Roman citizen, trained in Greek modes of thought; Tertullian, the great Montanist, called the father of eccle­siastical Latin expression ; Ambrose, bishop of Milan, the towering exponent of spiritual au­thority over sin, before whom an erring em­peror knelt in repentance ; Augustine, whose book "On the City of God" reshaped, though fallaciously, the church's whole system of prophetic interpretation, and gave a unique cast to medieval ecclesiastical thinking; Ber­r2rd of Clairvaux, whose mysticism kept reli­gious thought of the twelfth century from utter sacerdotalistn Calvin, who, being unex­pectedly present early in his career at a col­loquy between monks and reformers in Switz­erland, rose and without direct preparation for the occasion quoted from memory by book and chapter the early Latin authorities, and saved from immediate embarrassment the reformed cause challenged by the monks. What may not cultivated minds accomplish for God in this clay when culture and thought are so highly valued?

7. Closely allied with this as a value of church-history study may be placed the les­son we learn of the power of an idea in human thinking. It was Augustine of Hippo, in his controversy with Pelagius, who took from the apostle Paul the idea of the sovereign deity, and developed from it the concept of a God predestinating His creatures to eternal weal or woe. From him, Calvin took the idea and made it a basic doctrine in his whole system of theology, thus furnishing to his followers an ideological impulsion which sent them abroad in a remarkable career of spiritual exploration and conquest. How can we overemphasize the importance of the doctrine of righteousness by faith, revealed in Habakkuk, made a beacon light by Paul, set forth anew by Luther, and given emphatic place by Mrs. White in the setting of the threefold message ? How power­fully, too, has the responsibility laid upon God's people in Matthew 24:14 actuated Sev­enth-day Adventists ! Church history reveals to us the power of an idea, especially when that idea is inspired of God.

By-Products in Study of Church History

May we suggest also that there are certain by-products, as it were, in the study of church history. As we observe the bitterness of past religious controversies, and the horrors of per­secution in which most great religious bodies have engaged when they became sufficiently powerful, should we not seek a better spirit of understanding, even in disagreement; of tolerance, even where there is deep conviction; of a gallant fight for truth against error with­out bitterness or rancor ? Did not Christ in dealing with Satan in the matter of the resur­rection of Moses, refrain from bringing "a railing accusation"?

A review of church history, again, seems to point out the insignificance of petty differ­ences. Without holding up for the least ridi­cule the practice of any people, should we not deem it a pity that two groups of believers held aloof from one another because the one used long-stemmed, the other, short-stemmed, smok­ing pipes, as is reported of a European sect doing mission work a few years ago in Ethi­opia?

Then, too, we learn from church history that contrary views, though troublesome, may often prove of value to emphasize elements that have become sidetracked in Christian thinking. Is that not why God called forth the Adventist movement in the early years of the nineteenth century? Someone has said, "Every schism has emphasized a neglected truth."

With it all, too, we learn from church his­tory the need for watchfulness, for guarding against changes and modifications in the true positions which we hold. Were we, like the Liberalists, believers in the fluidity of religious tenets, then the present only would count for us. But such we are not. Our roots go back to the remote past of the apostles, and beyond; and although we must avoid becoming static, in the name of constancy we are warned by the great changes made in response to current influences by the sects and their leaders ap­pearing in church history, that we must retain and maintain our basic beliefs and principles.

(The bibliography for this article appears on Page 46.)


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

October 1940

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