In our last article, we considered the first part of the theological encyclopedia, and in this article, we will consider what makes up the second branch of theological studies, namely Historical Studies. While we will find five areas of study, we can first divide the subject into two different disciplines within Historical Studies. On the one hand, there is the general survey of History. This begins in the first century with the Apostolic Fathers and carries us to the Modern Church. Then, you have the theology that has been formulated, debated, and evaluated over the course of almost two thousand years of church history; this branch of study is called Historical Theology. As we break Historical Studies down into five areas of study, we will see these two disciplines discussed.
First, we find the period of the Church Fathers, or the Patristics. While there is an argument dealing with when this time of the Church Fathers end and when the Medieval Church begins, there really is no debate concerning the beginning of the moment in history. The Apostolic Fathers are those men who wrote and taught the church in the first century of the church. Some names to consider during this time are Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Polycarp, Ignatius, Papias, and Hermas. Many of these men were disciples of the Apostles from the book of Acts. For example, Clement knew Paul (Philippians 4:3). It is also said that Polycarp and Ignatius were disciples of the Apostle John.
Following these men, we have those who had to deal with objections to the Christian faith. They are known as the Apologists. Apologists would remain in the church from this point on, and some names that are important during this time are Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. There were others who wrote during this time and were influential figures for the history of the church such as Clement of Alexandria, Origin, and Tertullian.
Some of the great debates to consider during this second century of the church includes Gnosticism and issues with Rome and the Jews. For instance, some in Rome began to complain and argue against Christian communities saying these three things: 1. They were atheists because they did not worship the Roman God; 2. They were cannibals because they celebrated and ate the flesh and drank the blood of their Savior; and 3. They practiced incest because they claimed to love their brothers and sisters. The apologists responded with such great responses that it ought to continue to be a part of our defense today, namely that we worship the one true God and it is against our religion to eat human flesh and drink human blood and to have martial relations with our family members and those who we are not married to. In fact, they would argue, as we should today, we are the best citizens of Rome.
Due to these persecutions, the Fathers set down to define membership in the local church. Many men established not only membership, but what does it mean to be a member of a local church? In the fourth century, the ecumenical councils of the church helped to recognize orthodox doctrine and thus, set it forth in creedal form (Nicene Creed). To conclude our look at this time, Augustine is the highlight for any member in a Western Church. He established so much that we take for granted today. His theology becomes the debates that would continue through the Medieval Church and even during the time of the Reformation.
Second, there is the Medieval Church to consider. Those who come out of the Enlightenment would like us to believe this time was the Dark Age, but this could not be further from the truth. Some of the highlights from this roughly 1,000 years of study include: the continued monastic movement, the mendicant orders, the crusades, the heresy of Islam, feudal system, the establishment of universities, and the great schism between the Western and Eastern Church. Some of the people worth reading would include Gregory the Great, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor, Peter Lombard, Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas. There are plenty of people who wrote during this time, but those names are a good start for the thinking of this time.
Third, the time of the Reformation must be considered separately even though some would argue it ends the Medieval Time and others may argue it begins the Modern Church. While the Reformation covers almost 200 years of history, there is so much to consider that one blog article cannot simply cover it all. For the purpose of this article, we will simply make some suggestions of people to read including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry Bullinger, and then read the Confessions and Catechism of this time period such as the Three Forms of the Unity (Belgic Confession of Faith, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Standards (The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism). This will be a good start and yes, there are many authors I have left off which would be great to read.
Fourth, the next time in history can be tricky- the Modern Church. At what point does history end and current events begin? I would say the moment you begin to study a generation with people still living, you are no longer studying history, but recent events. Therefore, this time is from the 18th century to the early to mid-20th century. Some names to consider are Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til, and once again, so many more thinkers.
Finally, there are the various denominational histories one could study too. This becomes subjective to the church you are a part of, but it may help to study other churches’ histories as well. This is an extremely helpful study because it brings history home for the student. Many names will be familiar names to those in the local congregation.
In the next article, we will consider doctrinal studies.