Before moving to Washington D.C., I thought of it vaguely as a city in the “Northeast.” Having spent most of my life in the South and Mid-West, it was in my mind loosely associated with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as one of those Northern cities in which people were generally less friendly but culture seemed a bit more progressive. Then, after I moved to Washington D.C., I realized that I had lumped together a number of things that are really quite distinct. Washington D.C. is actually a part of the Mid-Atlantic region, which is quite distinct from the New England region further North. Furthermore, Washington D.C. is quite culturally distinct from the surrounding areas in the Mid-Atlantic region, and within D.C., one neighborhood differs widely from another. What looks from a distance as a unity turns out, when you get closer, to be a complex aggregate of diverse elements.
A similar thing happened when we moved from Washington D.C. to southern California. I remember being excited on the drive out here to explore “the West.” Somehow, having lived on the Eastern half of the United States for most of my life, everything beyond Oklahoma and Nebraska got lumped together in my mind as one united region. But of course, as soon as you start actually driving around Wyoming or New Mexico or Oregon, you realize that each part of the Western U.S. is very different from all the others. It is as vast and diverse and overwhelming as can be imagined. Even within the state of California, you can find cold and hot, conservative and liberal, skyscraper and desert, Palm tree and Redwood forest, Disneyland and Yosemite. Once again, what looks like a unity from a distance turns out to be richly diverse upon closer examination.
The more I read church history, the more I have this same impression about it.
For instance, in recently reading a bit of Andrew Louth’s Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071 (The Church in History, vol. III; St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), I was struck once again by the sheer hugeness of church history. My abiding intellectual project these years is the exploration of pre-Reformation church history from a contemporary, Western, evangelical Protestant standpoint. But the label “pre-Reformation” is as vague and misleading as “North-East” or “West.” As soon as you actually dip into reading the material, you realize that the Northumbrian renaissance is as different from the Carolingian renaissance as Montana is different from Arizona, and post-Charlesmagne European Christianity is as different from pre-Charlesmagne European Christianity as Boston is from New York. You sail towards the land, but when you hit the shore you realize its not a continent, but only the first of a slew of islands.
Take the Eastern Orthodox church(es), for example. I had vaguely thought of early Eastern Christianity as uniformly Greek, in contrast to the Latin West. Upon closer examination, however, there is no single Greek-speaking Eastern church, but a conglomeration of Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Armenian churches, as well an emerging Arab Christianity existing under the domination of Islam, and various Slavic churches starting in the 9th century. Amidst this diversity, the sheer size of this half of Christendom is overwhelming. During the High Middle Ages, Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul), the seat of the Byzantine Empire, was the greatest city in Europe. Within her history is a whole world of emperors and intrigue, of theological disputes and decisions, of political dynasties and military disasters, of missions efforts to India and China, of advance, retreat, death, recovery, and death again. This Empire stood for more than a thousand years, twice the time that separates us from Martin Luther.
We contemporary Protestants are doubly disconnected from this world. We are a branch on a branch. We are an offshoot of Western, Roman Christianity, which itself had already long drifted away from her Eastern sister. To step into early Eastern Christianity is therefore as exciting to me as exploring Atlantis or Narnia. Its like entering a once important, but long forgotten world.
I read early and medieval church history with my Protestant convictions firmly intact. I don’t soften on the five solas or my reformed soteriology in order to appreciate the writings of Maximus the Confessor or Didymus the Blind or Photius I. In fact, the great exciting thing is, amidst the grand diversity in church history, to seek out a unity. To return to the geographical metaphor: there is something that unites New York City and the Mississippi River and the Mojave Desert. In all their diversity, they are all part of the same country: they are within the same national borders, they share a common language and culture and history, and they are overseen by the same federal government. What is it that unites Boethius and Barth, Constantine and the King James Bible, St. Patrick and Pentecostalism? What is the underlying stream that bands us all together? Where can we see the same Christ amidst diverse struggles and settings? This is the most exciting part of studying church history for me.
To be sure, we should be discerning about the errors and problems we see in church history. But I believe the process of sympathetic/critical engagement is, as a whole, a stretching, healthy experience. Where we see truth in a different tradition or culture, it broadens us; where we see and engage with error, it sharpens us.
Imagine if archeologists and historians discovered that Atlantis had really existed. Imagine the flood of energy and initiative that would be devoted to researching and studying this lost civilization. Imagine the excitement in the discovery of a lost world.
That is how I feel about church history now. There is a whole world out there, waiting to be explored. I want to take lots of long leisurely walks in that world, until it becomes familiar terrain, as comfortable as Bilbo’s hobbit hole and as familiar as the cracks on the sidewalk outside my home. Much of church history feels foreign to me, to be sure—like Seattle feels when you’ve lived in Alabama all your life. And yet, amidst all the foreignness and sometimes corruption, I believe Christ can be found all over throughout church history. After all, he himself promised, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). And I don’t think he took a break from the 4th to the 16th century in fulfilling that promise.