The first graduate-level class I ever took was in church history. I was still serving on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ at that time, but I had already begun the process of applying to a master’s program in theology, so I was eager to get my feet wet in studying theology before I plunged into the deep end of seminary studies.
As I tried to learn from history during that course, I observed that Christians throughout history veered off course in one of three ways. First, their beliefs became unorthodox. They unintentionally drifted from biblical Christianity or they purposefully tried to reshape Christian belief and practice to fit into their own preferred world view (as with the 2nd century gnostics, for instance). Paul speaks of the gospel as something precious that is entrusted to each generation of believers (1 Timothy 1:13-14). After seeing the many times believers have strayed from the integrity of core Christian doctrines and practices, I resolved to remain committed to orthodoxy.
The second mistake Christians have tended to make at different points in church history is to let pride and overconfidence in doctrinal specifics create division and factions within the church. In John 17 Jesus himself prayed that his followers would experience unity moving forward. Infighting within Christianity has been a recurring problem throughout church history. It takes wisdom to discern what is central to Christianity and what is secondary (summaries of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and elsewhere, along with the classic creeds of the church make good starting points). But even more, a humble posture that recognizes the fallibility of the interpreter and respects Christians who hold other viewpoints on peripheral matters can keep Christians from dividing unneccessarily. During my study of church history that semester humility stood out as a second important virtue to embrace.
Finally, Christians tend to let passion and devotion to God fade over time. Some Christians who espouse orthodox beliefs and preserve unity within the church nonetheless lose their way when the personal, worshipful, Spirit-empowered, and life-transforming aspects of Christian faith are neglected. Christians should rightly fear “dead orthodoxy.” Corporate and personal prayer and worship can help ensure that love does not grow cold. Christians can be intentional about moving from knowledge to wisdom to worship in our engagement with God and with Scripture. In short, vitality in my faith was reinforced as a priority as I began my study of theology in an academic setting.
Orthodoxy, humility, and vitality – may those three traits characterize our lives and our learning!