A Few Thoughts on the Subject of Church History

Simeon A Morbey

Church history is an odd subject. It can be a controversial subject. It is definitely a confusing subject. I don’t write this piece to offer any solutions or radical theories. I write to offer some thoughts on church history. I came upon these thoughts while walking along a beach, and, doubtless, they could stand some polishing.

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Why is Church History so uniquely controversial?

In my opinion, the source of the oddity, controversy and confusion mentioned above can be seen in the very phrase “church history”.  It is a funny phrase, blending two different things together: the term “church” and the term “history”. History is one sort of thing while church is another. On the one hand, history is an academic discipline with all the various theories and professionalisms that such disciplines have. It requires calm reflection on past events so that we might understand them better. On the other hand, the Church is the bride of Christ. She requires us to focus on Christ so that we might attain salvation through Him.  These are different in kind. Furthermore, understanding past events and the attainment of salvation have two very different operating principles, for lack of a better term. To ensure the best understanding of past events, the historian needs to be allowed to freely inquire into those events. I don’t think that many Christians would describe free inquiry as a necessary part of attaining salvation. Faith and good works are much more important. Thus, the church historian finds herself grappling with salvation and free inquiry. Will her work tend toward the best understanding of events or toward salvation? Or can she do both? Are salvation and free inquiry mutually exclusive? Or even antagonistic? How uncomfortable would that be?

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Is there a way past the tension between ‘Church’ and ‘history’?

The differences between history and church discussed above remind me of the argument about the tension between Jerusalem and Athens, between faith and philosophy.  Proponents of this famous argument say that faith and philosophy are heterogeneous elements, ultimately incompatible with each other. They say that both the Bible and philosophy assert that there is one thing needful for human beings but disagree on what that thing is. According to the Bible, the one needful thing is obedient the love of God.  According to philosophy, the one thing needful is free inquiry. On this theory, the church historian is in an awkward position. Her theme is the church and her medium is free inquiry. The incompatibility of salvation and free inquiry necessarily means that her work will favor one or the other. I suspect that this favoring of free inquiry or salvation explains the spectrum of church histories: books on the historical Jesus at one end to biography at the other. In my experience, books on the historical Jesus or incorrect translations of canonical texts do not carry much weight when it comes to the validity of religious beliefs.  It’s not that books on the historical Jesus or translations are not interesting; it’s just that they often feel beside the point. The type of historical books that do more to help my religious belief is biography. Perhaps the latest example of such a book is the Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov’s Everyday Saints.[1] What does this differentiation mean, if it exists at all? Perhaps it points to the importance what the historian intends her project to do. Does she intend her historical project to a work of philosophy or a work of faith? What is the point of church history?

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What challenges facing the post-modern Church historian?

One major problem facing the church historian is the contemporary, post-modern understanding of history itself. Post-modern relativism places everything an historian writes into a meta-narrative. It is this meta-narrative that truly counts. It drives the content of the historian’s writing. Moreover, an historian’s meta-narrative is uniquely hers. Thus, history unhappily, unhelpfully collapses into autobiography.  History itself has become a problem. With this in mind, one can be forgiven for asking, “what is the point? And, really, that is the important question for the church historian. What is the point of church history? My opinion is that church history should function first and foremost as the biography of the church. As Orthodox Christians we are part of a large, far-flung family whose origins go back to Christ.  The main goal of the church historian should be to tell the story of that family and it’s relations with God. A good church historian will use this story to help us to better understand ourselves and our relationship to God. On this account, church history appears to be more like an exercise of faith than of free inquiry. Perhaps deciding that church history is a theological discipline rather than a philosophical one might be a way to start clearing up the oddity, controversy, and confusion over church history. Wait, is that radical?


[1] Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunev, Everyday Saints and Other Stories. Julian Henry Lowenfeld, transl. (Dallas: Pokrov Publications, 2012).

2 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on the Subject of Church History

  1. Andrew

    I like your thoughts. As I read it, I was reminded of a passage out of a book by Vladimir Lossky who (more or less) asserts that there is an inherent risk of academic studies of faith-type topics because the acquisition and assimilation of academic knowledge can give the student a sense of deepening their relationship with God, when in reality this may not be the case, especially if the student is doing academic work INSTEAD of praying, fasting, and reading the scriptures. (He was talking about Orthodox theology, as opposed to church history, but I think that the point still works just as well.)

    Your line, “A good church historian will use this story to help us to better understand ourselves and our relationship to God.” seems to fit with Lossky’s point (at least as far as I understand Lossky’s point).

    Except he might look at the other side of the desk. Perhaps the good church history student will listen to the story and recognize not only his/her place in the story, but will see how the story is offering a model of how a person can find his/her way to God.

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  2. Dasha Piwinski

    When people make the argument that: “I don’t need to go to church; I can pray at home or appreciate God in nature; etc.” they’re denying themselves a basic “benefit” of Orthodox Christianity: To encourage, support and pray for each other when one of us is weakened for whatever reason…and we all will be weakened somehow, sooner or later! I submit that one person does not have to be living in another person’s chronological time period in order to offer that encouragement. Surely everyone has been inspired by an account of someone who lived before them, whether a public figure or family member. Through written account or by oral tradition, one person’s (or one community’s) “story” – can greatly encourage another who is faltering.

    But when you consider the Orthodox belief that both the living and the departed are united in Christ, the value of “church history” is put on a much higher level! Although “church history” starts out within the confines of secular history, (and knowledge of secular history is very relevant to understanding church history), it doesn’t end there! It’s relevance continues even as succeeding eras pass away. Church history is a “living” history. Consider the saints: Their stories stand as examples of how human history can’t prevent us from coming closer to God….unless we allow it to! They functioned as human beings within their own time period yet, they still pray for us and we still ask for their intercessions and prayers. We would not do this if we considered them only bones in the ground. They are alive in Christ! We are joined with them in Christ! They still have relevance and activity, even though their earthly time period has finished. This is what differentiates the saints from other historical figures. It’s what differentiates Church history from secular history.

    Everyone in Church history – past or present – has value to our own lives and efforts as Orthodox Christians. Whether it’s participants of the 3rd Ecumenical Council, St. Moses of Africa, Father Arseny in the gulag or those on the parish’s pieroghi brigade – their stories and prayers still advise, warn, council, comfort and encourage us. In our times of trouble, the entire Church community – living and departed – surrounds us (or it should!) with the attitude: “You won’t fall: We love you and we’ll hold you up when you are weak.” We’re part of this living Church history.

    So the person who engages the argument that “I don’t need church to be a good Christian” might as well argue: “A bride doesn’t need a groom in order to be married.” The living history of the church, and the sustaining renewal it provides, is like a beautiful, refreshing fountain. To deny this to oneself, is like denying yourself a tall drink of cold water on a sweltering summer day.

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