A (Sort of) Book Review: Church History for Modern Ministry

28412833Dayton Hartman. Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016.*

I’m a Pastor with an educational background in history, theology, and ministry studies. So a book about how Church history and historical theology work together with contemporary ministry should be right up my alley. When I was offered this book for review, my thought was, well, this is kind of my schtick.

What it’s about:

The old cliche (attributed to George Santayana and modified by Winston Churchill) goes, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Hartman argues that ignorance of Church history places the Church in danger of repeating past mistakes and heresies. Church history can serve as a guide and guard of our teaching and practice. The Creeds and councils, the great leaders and theologians of the past, can serve us in keeping us away from heretical teachings which have come up in the past, and practices which have injured the Church’s mission. So, it is wise for us to pay attention to Church history in the present.

The Good:

The basic premise is of course completely accurate. There is great benefit to being well acquainted with the historical teaching and practice of the Church. The Creeds were written for the benefit of the Church, to mark out boundaries for our teaching and practice- Hartman uses the language of “guardrails”(16). The Fathers, theologians and Reformers can all serve us. So the basic premise of the book is a good one. We need more resources bringing to the present the richness of historical theology, and I would excitedly get behind projects doing that well. Hartman’s purpose and goal is wise and to be commended. His execution though falls far short.

The Not-So-Good:

One of the biggest struggles for me was the shocking lack of actual history done. A quick glance at the endnotes (and again, I feel obligated to note my objection to endnotes instead of footnotes) and we find surprisingly few interactions with church history, especially the primary sources. We see only a handful of references to the Apostolic Fathers, then we skip most of the Post-Apostolic Fathers (including all the Eastern Fathers, except for a single reference to Justin Martyr) with just a pair of references to Tertullian and a few to Augustine and then everything from Augustine to Luther is completely absent, and other than the Reformed confessions, we have nothing from Calvin to the present. In other words, the vast majority of church history is absent. From an author with a Doctorate in Church history, one would expect more than this. The selective reading perhaps reveals something of the bias of the author, a Southern Baptist who leans heavily towards a more Calvinistic theological slant from what I see here. I am of course not of that perspective. However, I think that while bias is inevitable, in this case ignoring those outside the typical succession appealed to by Reformed Baptists (Tertullian -> Augustine -> Calvin -> Westminster -> Puritans -> Spurgeon) leaves Hartman with a problematically narrow view of historical orthodoxy, historical practice, and deprives his presentation of some of the richest, deepest, and most beautiful Spiritual and doctrinal theology the Church has produced. In other words, Hartman, in trying to help the contemporary church (and specifically the tradition he’s a part of) to avoid the problems of the past, he has inadvertently entrenched a problematically narrow understanding of historical theology. By excluding the mystics, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, Chrysostom, monasticism, medieval art and liturgy, Anabaptist theology, Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, pentecostal and charismatic theology and practice, etc. Hartman has actually ignored most of the value of Church history for us in contemporary ministry. The contemporary Church needs more battles over confessions and Creeds and the schisms that rigidity produces like we need another worship war, or another inquisition, or more Crusades, or more inter-Christian warfare.

Second, from the stylistic side, Hartman includes high school textbookesque boxes of summaries of people and events which seem completely out of place. If the reader needs this information, it can be mentioned in a footnote (he gives snapshots of Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon, Creeds, Catechism, Calvin, Puritans, exegesis, etc.). The authors assumes the readers need to have bare bones of church history explained, so either the Church’s knowledge of its own history is in really bad shape, or the author assumes the situation is that bad. I’m sure a lot of folks in the pew might not be overly familiar with this, but this book is targeted at Pastors (or so I understand since chapters end with a “Dear Pastor” section). These things function as a distraction in my opinion, and when the book is only 90 pages including 2 appendices, indexes and endnotes (a mere 60 pages without these), the inclusion these show that there isn’t much actual material here. We aren’t given any real meat. There’s just nothing much of substance to flesh out the premise.

Next, this book is supposed to be (if I understand correctly) inherently practical. How to use Church history in a contemporary church context. But little actual “how to” is given. For example Hartman argues that the Fathers, especially Augustine, emphasized mentorship relationships (I don’t think his case is overly convincing, but I’m sure the Fathers did invest in young catechumens) and so the contemporary Church needs to invest in mentoring. But how? What do those relationships look like? How do we work that out? How was that done in Church history (here’s one of those places that monastics would certainly come in handy)? Here we get precious little in the way of content, and almost no connection to Church history.

Lastly, not a major issue of content, but something which undercuts the argumentation, Hartman tries to add humour through an attempted joke about hearing the phrase “Nicene Creed” and assuming it was referring to some obscure unreleased song by the band Creed. He tries to argue “I’m not saying that Creed is the greatest band of all time, but they are.”(13) It’s hard to trust the taste of anyone who makes that claim, since Creed is of course the epitome of late 90s pseudo-grunge mediocrity masquerading as alternative rock music. Failed pop-culture references just make for awkward writing.

Overall:

This book is honestly a a flop for me. I just don’t see much here of value. I dislike writing reviews like this, because it means criticizing a fellow leader in the body of Christ who has put in work and tried to present something of benefit to the Church. But I just came away from this one without feeling like a conversation hasn’t been moved along, or had any real substance added to it. Hartman elevates a certain theological tradition while ignoring everything outside of that (which happens to be the overwhelming majority of Church history). By suggesting that this tradition is the orthodox one, the implication is suspicion of others. The premise of encouraging Christians to read more of Church history and historical theology is admirable, but in trying to make that case, Hartman has gone off course. It strikes me as presumptuous regarding the sole claim of orthodoxy of a single line of tradition through Church history. This book just didn’t offer any real value.

*This book was graciously given free of charge in exchange from the publisher. Many thanks to Lexham Press.

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