“Should I read historical theologians?”

I write today to answer a common question:

Should I read historical theologians in my personal discipleship time?”

Of course, any writer at historicaltheology.org will answer with a resounding “yes!” Yet, the vast majority of Christians never consider the 2000 years of thoughts and scriptural reflections from those saints, hermits, and religious vagabonds who went before them. Many scholars of the Protestant Reformation did champion going back to the sources with the Latin phrase ad fontes, literally meaning “to the fountains.” However, these reformers were talking about getting back to the ultimate source of their information about God: the Bible.

Certainly, our faith is nothing if cut off from this original wellspring. Yet, it is helpful to understand through which territories this fountain has traveled on its way to us moderns. Indeed, these paths were often wastelands where the stream of the true faith all but trickled through deserts. Other times, it raged in torrents as the floodgates upstream released a torrent as happened in the Reformation movements. Could we not learn from these times of drought and plenty alike? How did others see the Bible before us? What did they learn from it, and how did they apply its teachings to everyday life?

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Salt & Light: Historical Sermon Illustrations from Matthew 5:13-16

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. – -Matthew 5:13-16 (ESV)

To this day, I remember a well-meaning college student teaching on this passage at an event when I was part of a youth group. With all the wisdom of a church father, they read the passage and then waded into interpretation by saying: “Christians are here to give flavor to the world” as they attempted to explain the meaning of “you are the salt of the earth.” I remember how strange and unhelpful that was for years to come. However, for all the weird and uninformed hermeneutics available, there are some great historical examples of references to this passage that will be sure to add flavor to any sermon or Bible study.  Continue reading “Salt & Light: Historical Sermon Illustrations from Matthew 5:13-16”

D. L. Moody & the Art of Using a Story to Get to THE Story

Methods of using stories in sermons have long been debated. Typically, evaluation is given to their quality, length, and volume. One great example of how this can be done effectively is in a particularly powerful sermon by D. L. Moody (1837-1899) that was so riddled with testimonies of God’s work in the lives of famous theological figures that one could criticize the good evangelist for excess if one dares censure the portly statesmen of the faith. Regardless, from Moody’s example the modern pastor can learn better the craft of weaving in the real-life testimonies of saints past and contemporary without distracting from the narrative of the Gospel in their own sermons.

For this task, we will consider the singular revival sermon entitled “Sowing and Reaping.”[1]In a brilliant set up to his stories that come later in the message, Moody reflects on both Christ’s and Paul’s use of “teaching from analogy.” Moody allows this subtle reference to percolate in the mind of the audience; full of foreshadowing but without any awkward reference to the fact that he would be employing the same didactic method later in his own discourse. Continue reading “D. L. Moody & the Art of Using a Story to Get to THE Story”

From Mediators to Shepherds

The years following the Protestant Reformation were a time of great transition in Christian theology. However, a transition in the practice and role of local church leadership also redefined centuries-old views on the alleged special access the clergy had to God. Church historian Winthrop S. Hudson (1911-2001) wrote that for all the changes in thinking that occurred in this first century after the beginning of the Reformation “nowhere can this [change] be seen more clearly than in the altered view of the clergy.” Continue reading “From Mediators to Shepherds”

Gateway to Paradise: Medieval and Renaissance Views of Baptism

The transition between the Medieval and Renaissance eras was volatile for the disciplines of theology and philosophy with the events of the Protestant Reformation contributing to the debate from a parallel plain as well. On the eve of this season of change, it is not surprising to see Catholic theology and the highest form of art mingling into one – especially in the city of Florence, Italy. It was there that in 1425, sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) began a 27-year-long endeavor to craft the “Gates of Paradise.” Completed in 1452, the enormous work was created specifically to become the monumental doors of the Florentine Baptistery. While the doors themselves are a magnificent bronze casting containing ten panels that depict various characters and scenes from the Old Testament, the work is widely hailed as a revolution in visual perspective leavng behind the flat, two-dimensional medieval style in favor of robust realism. However, what it did not leave behind was the equally robust doctrine of the supremacy of baptism in the Medieval Era.

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Pascal, Anselm, and the State of Communicating Deep Ideas to an Unsuspecting Public

It has happened to all of us. We read the writings of a famously deep thinker and are forced to reread the words repeatedly to decipher their meaning. For the modern communicator it is vital to combine brilliance with eloquence. What good is a profound observation if no one can understand its meaning? Some of the most brilliant scholars struggle to communicate to young students because they cannot distill and simplify their thoughts well. As you might assume, this is not a new difficulty. Continue reading “Pascal, Anselm, and the State of Communicating Deep Ideas to an Unsuspecting Public”

3 Filters for Teaching Historical Theology in the Church

We’ve all had those brilliant ideas that didn’t work out in real life. As a pastor, I often find obscure historical or theological facts fascinating and seemingly vital during my times of sermon preparation. However, I occasionally have to be reminded that others might not be as excited about some nuance of the Persian Empire or the erroneous hermeneutics of the Spanish Inquisition. Still, this does not mean that pastors cannot teach historical theology in the church for the good of the Kingdom. Here are some practical tips that I employ as content filters:

  1. Is it Relevant?

While an amusing anecdote can be fun and informative, the amount of time you have to disciple your congregation is limited. Using the minutes wisely and effectively demands any teaching on historical theology needs to be relevant to the Biblical teaching you are doing. Does a story offer background that supports the focus of the message and theological theme of the passage? Does it tell us how believers of the past have understood this same text? If so, it just might make the cut! Otherwise, beware of letting your latest research hobby wreak eisegetical havoc on the weekly sermon. Continue reading “3 Filters for Teaching Historical Theology in the Church”