Reflections on World-Changing Theologians, Part 1
Our A to Z trek through “Theologians Who Changed the World” has brought us to certain conclusions. History is anything but dead; it informs our experiences today. We realize that it does not fascinate all people equally and perhaps there are a few of you that felt at times like your head would explode, but we appreciate your sticking with us. Ultimately, our study of church history ought to sharpen us, inform us, and challenge us.
We have centered on three key periods of history: (1) the patristics, or those within the early church, (2) the reformers, including heroes of the Reformation as well as Counter Reformation, and (3) the modern church age. There is, of course, much that took place leading up to these events and leading away from these movements, but we see history as relating primarily to these developments of the church.
Of particular interest is how the history of the church and the history of the world intersect. For example Luther’s Bible was the first Bible printed on the newly invented Gutenberg printing press, a moment that revolutionized the world. Before Gutenberg’s invention, the average person could not afford many books because they were copied by hand and thus extremely costly. The Roman Catholic Church had restricted laypeople’s access to the Scriptures, but Martin Luther and Gutenberg opened the door to public acquisition of knowledge. The standard date for the discovery of America is 1492. That occurred during the lifetime of a number of theologians whom we have studied including Zavier, Zwingli, Cranmer, and Erasmus. We tend to think of theologians as somehow isolated from the times in which they wrote, but in reality they were impacted by their current events and in turn they impacted the world events around them. The American Revolution was fought between 1765 and 1783. Gill, Newton, and, Wilberforce were all alive in England during this time period. What did these men of God think of the events taking place during their lifetime? Did they understand the pursuit of religious freedom or did they feel a stronger bond with their own mother country? Without a doubt, they must have been affected in some way. We examined Dabney and his relation to the War Between the States in America; he was heavily involved within the Confederate cause. There are some who will not use his writings yet today because of his close ties to slavery. Do Dabney’s racist leanings impact his ability to write for the Church? Or do our views against slavery and the Confederacy make us unable to receive what Dabney said on unrelated topics?
In our experience, the educational system includes little historical context with the study of history. We studied the wars, the social developments, the causes, the individuals with little or no regard to what was going on around them. No attempt was made to unite all facets of life and give a more complete historical picture. (Perhaps that would have made it a little more interesting.) Today, we look back on history and begin to understand some of this, driving a passion over what we have been studying. Bahnsen, Rushdoony, and Van Til were alive in America during the famous civil rights marches. They were contemporaries of Martin Luther King Jr. How did that impact their ministries? How are current events reflected in the lives of Sproul, Mohler, and Piper? Particularly in the case of Albert Mohler, we see a theologian who frequently speaks to current events – abortion, homosexual marriages, the liberal news media, and more. Mohler speaks to issues that are crucial and significant to today’s church. Surely history will record the impact of culture in which his ministry was submerged. If 200 years go by and students of church history isolate R.C. Sproul from the issues of our day, they will make a serious interpretive mistake. Diseases, major wars, presidential campaigns, major personalities, poverty, Islamic terrorism, and racial prejudices are serious issues today. History impacts who we are. Today’s current events will become tomorrow’s history. How will we understand it all then?
There are many inferences we can make from our current study. Tomorrow we will look at a few more, but for right now, let us note that these were real men who lived in real times. In all reality, they were no different than we are today; they were products of their times. Sometimes that was a good thing leading to godliness. Other times, we see humanity’s depraved nature coming through loud and clear.