Biblical Studies and the Teaching of Church History

By Prichard, Robert W. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Biblical Studies and the Teaching of Church History

Prichard, Robert W., Anglican Theological Review

The exposition of biblical texts is not the responsibility of the church history department at Virginia Seminary. Nevertheless, it would be extremely difficult to trace the history of the Church without frequent reference to the Scriptures. This is certainly true for the early Church, which wrote the books of the New Testament and accepted the Bible as authoritative for its life. It is true as well for the Church in later periods. One cannot understand the motivation of the individual Christians who have shaped the Church's history without a deep engagement with the Bible. The actions of Antony of Egypt (251?-356), Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), Martin Luther (1483-- 1546), or William Wilberforce (1759-1833), to name just a few characters from the cast of church history, simply do not make sense, if one does not take into account their understanding of Scripture.

Any teacher of church history will, therefore, need to refer frequently to the Bible in the course of telling the history of the Church. Most Church historians will, for example, refer to the pivotal role played by a passage in the Epistle to the Romans for Augustine of Hippo's conversion. The evidence is hard to dispute; the story of conversion that Augustine left in his Confessions identified his reading of Romans 13:13-14 as critical. Beyond this point of agreement, however, differences arise among Church historians. All do not agree as to what precisely is happening when a biblical passage plays such a role. Was God speaking to Augustine through the text? Did Augustine grasp something that was intended by St. Paul when he wrote the Epistle to the Romans? Was Augustine's reading of the text in keeping with the intention of those second-century Christians who first began to read the Epistle to the Romans as a canonical text? Or was it the case that Augustine projected his ideas onto the text, as if the Bible were a bulletin board on which successive generations post their own self-understandings? Church historians cannot avoid such questions, although they may not always make them the topic of explicit conversation in beginning courses.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the basic assumptions with which such encounters with Scripture are handled in telling the history of the Church. This essay will contrast a set of assumptions about the role of the Bible in church history that was common in the early twentieth century with a discussion of the way in which the Bible is handled in church history classrooms at Virginia Seminary today.

Modern Church History in America

Although the chronicling of the story of the Church is an activity as old as the Church itself, modern critical history of the Church is of relatively recent origin in America. It was the creation of a generation of historians in the later half of the nineteenth century who learned about the critical handling of source material from German scholars. Williston Walker (1860-1922) earned a Ph.D. at Leipzig (1888) before teaching at Harvard (1889-1901) and Yale (1901-1922). Arthur C. McGiffert (1861-1933), another member of the generation, earned his Ph.D. in Marburg in the same year that Walker finished at Leipzig. McGiffert returned to the U.S. to teach at Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati (1888-93) and Union Seminary, New York (1893-1933). McGiffert, Walker, and other members of their generation shaped church history as a modern craft.

McGiffert and Walker took from their German teachers a low Christology and a low view of the authority of the biblical canon. In contrast, they had a high appreciation of their own critical abilities to distinguish the teachings of Jesus from later accretions. Their German teachers, such as Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930), regarded the Bible much like the site of an archeological dig before excavation; it was a collection of various strata of data, from which the skilled historian could reconstruct the original lay of the land.

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