As you may know, I am trying to make a career out of church history and historical theology. It is a field not without honor, though it is often overshadowed by the other theological disciplines, as well as the more “practical” pursuits that sell books these days. Many people are indifferent to the history of the church, and a distressing number of Christians have absorbed the great chronological arrogance of our age. Who follow the assumption that the past is nothing but a great expanse of ignorance and prejudice.
I find this unconcern—and even occasional contempt—for the Christian past sad. And not just for the career complications that they could cause me! It is sad, because it cuts us off from our spiritual family and ignores the great Body of Christ that extends around the world and throughout all ages. There are many reasons we should study and learn from church history, but this post will focus on one: the Great Cloud of Witnesses.
Let’s look at Hebrews 11. To show the nature and works of faith, and to illustrate our privileged position as new covenant believers, the author pulls out the highlight reel of those who have responded to God in faith. He starts with Abel and continues through to David and the early judges and prophets of Israel, and the great works they achieved through faith in God’s promise. And he continues the narrative past people named in canonical Old Testament scriptures. We see the unnamed faithful multitude, those standing firm under torture, “so they may receive a better resurrection.” (v. 35b) There might just be a reference to the Maccabean martyrs, who boasted of their hope for resurrection in the face of Seleucid swords. Take my hand, God will give me another. Take my tongue, God will replace it. Take my life, and God will return it on the last day.
So, while the author of Hebrews focuses his “Hall of Faith” on people named in the existing scriptures, “from Cain to Zechariah” to use Jesus’ shorthand, the scope of his description is all those who lived, worked, and died by their faith in God’s covenant promises. And they all point, he says, to Jesus Christ, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” (12:2) We are surrounded, and ought to be spurred on, by the great cloud of witnesses described in chapter 11.
Witnesses. Not primarily in the sense of “witnessing our deeds”, but “those who bear witness to Christ.” They were spurred by the same faith and hope that we are, even if they only knew it through shadows and figures of what was to come. They share the same faith, are adopted as sons (and daughters) of the same Father, and joint heirs with the same Lord Jesus Christ.
That cloud of witnesses did stop admitting members with the coming of Christ. Jesus Christ Himself bears witnesses to his fulfillment of God’s promises, through the words He uttered and the works He performed. The Apostles likewise bear witness, not least by giving us the New Testament scriptures. Through Christ and the Spirit, they were transformed from frightened and bewildered students to bold and awesome witnesses of Jesus. Their life was Christ, and their deaths brought them to His presence to await His return and their resurrection.
And the cloud of witnesses did not end with them. Stephen became the first of the crowd of white-robed martyrs before the throne of God. He was soon enough joined by Justin and Polycarp, who bore witness to Christ in the faces of Emperors and governors. All of the martyrs, from Stephen to Jim Elliot and beyond, stand under the altar of God in heaven, awaiting their final vindication on the Day of Resurrection. And they bear witness to us.
The great theologians likewise proclaim the truth of Christ to us. They form a conversation across the ages, and together they behold the pierced hand of the One they proclaimed. Athanasius, who faced repeated exile and seemed at times the lone voice in favor of Christ’s equality with the Father. (And yes, I know that he could give as good as he got.) Thomas Aquinas, who rejected a cushy abbacy for what seemed like the more humble and obscure path, still teaches us today. Martin Luther lived the last twenty years of his life under a death sentence for proclaiming justification by faith, and who sheltered a great number of refugee ministers at Wittenberg. (If not for the industry and shrewdness of his wife, they would have gone broke under the weight of Luther’s hospitality. He essentially assumed the responsibilities of an archbishop on the salary of a professor.) John Calvin went into exile for his beliefs and only received citizenship in Geneva shortly before his death. (Contrary to the myths about “Calvin’s Geneva” and groundless comparisons to Khomeini, he was the resident alien employee of a city council that subverted him more often than not. There was not a consistent, favorable majority behind him in the city government until 20 years into his work there, and he was only marginally involved in the political maneuvers that secured that majority.) And many more up to the present day, who proclaim and defend “the faith once delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
Likewise we see the great models of Christian living, including Barnabas (son of encouragement!), Francis of Assisi, William Cowper, and uncountable masses of everyday, faithful Christian believers. They all testify to one Christ and comprise the one Church across space and time. We come from vastly different ages, but we will all be contemporaries.
Why should we study church history? To better see this great cloud of witnesses. To realize that the life of the Gospel transcends the small limits of our time and place. To see the trials and temptations they endured, many far worse than our (post?)modern American angst. To be encouraged by their success, to take warning from their failures, and to marvel at the grace and patience of God to poor sinners in all ages. And because we may meet them one day, made alive by one Spirit and worshipping one Lord. Why not start learning their stories now?
And most of all, because they all point us to the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)