The value of the past
I have always been a history buff. What has gone before holds at least as much fascination for me as what wonders might come.
Most of my non-fiction books are history books. One of my undergraduate majors was in history, and while at divinity school my favorite classes were always the ones which involved at least some church history.
Of all the periods of church history, I have always been drawn to the time of the early church. In the three centuries between the Resurrection and the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, Christianity went from being a minor, persecuted faith to a major religion that survived and thrived after the Roman Empire fell.
It is a remarkable story, but one may ask of what value even modest knowledge of it is to present-day believers. Certainly most Christians today are able to live their entire lives just fine without knowing the headache-inducing vagaries of ancient theological debates.
The reason is simple. The church consists of all believers who have ever lived.
What this means is that the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings of those ancient Christians are every bit as important as the beliefs, thoughts and feelings of the believers I sit with in church on Sundays.
I can be moved by the heroic story of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the Apostle John, who was martyred at the age of 89 in the mid-second century. I can feel triumph with the fourth century Christians when the Emperor Julian the Apostate’s efforts to diminish the spread and influence of Christianity in the Roman Empire failed miserably.
Christianity has always been a religion that has emphasized orthodoxy, and it was the ancient Christians who determined what orthodoxy was in the face of an often-bewildering variety of beliefs present in the ancient world.
By standing on the foundations of orthodoxy that they laid, I place myself in community with them and with every other Christian in the world who holds those beliefs.
Breaking the bonds of orthodoxy might make me a few new friends in the present but will destroy my fellowship with the millions of believers who have preceded me.
The study of early Christianity is a rewarding experience. It is an opportunity to engage in fellowship with the believers of the past. I recommend it.
Jamie Wilson of Decatur, a recent graduate of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, is one of several current local religion columnists for The Daily. For more information, call Melanie Smith at 340-2468.