Church History Matters: Contextual Theology

I have a pet peeve in a lot of conversations with other Christians (particularly but not exclusively conservative Protestants): most Christians seem to be not only completely oblivious to their history but also don’t think that there’s any reason to change that.

Even conservative Christians will usually admit that the Bible has context. They don’t necessarily try to understand it before concluding the absolute truth for all time from the text, but they will usually admit it is theoretically there when they are asked. They don’t, however, admit that theological development of the past 2000 years – in other words, how we’ve interpreted the Bible – also all came from a context.


Here are just a few of the most common examples of issues. For all of these I have had conversations where the other side of the conversation made wild assumptions about the history behind their position and then when I tried to explain the history they just ignored me.

Biblical Authority

Protestants pride themselves on the Bible, but why did the Bible become the centre of the faith? Not because that’s how the Bible speaks of itself – the Bible claims that its purpose is to point to Jesus and to be useful in teaching but never to be the one and only authority for everything. But the early Protestants were living in a time when the institutional church had been claiming full authority and had become corrupt. In the rush away from the church’s authority, and in an age when the printing press made the Bible accessible to everyone, the early Protestants declared that the Bible was the only authority instead.

You could point out the same thing a couple hundred years later: Catholics declared the Pope infallible, so Protestants suddenly decided that the Bible was inerrant. That was the first time in history that this doctrine had appeared in any form, despite the fact that many consider this modern doctrine a fundamental of the faith and thus ignore most Christians throughout history. It also didn’t help that this was the beginning of modernism and the scientific revolution so culture in general began buying into the ridiculous concept that cold hard objective truth was both fully attainable free of any bias and that it was the most important thing to search after instead of relationship or a healthy society, etc.

Women in Leadership

Most Christians – even most egalitarian Christians – don’t realize that the early church had approximately 50% female leadership and well more than 50% women active in the church. There was no doubt that Christianity in its original form had a special appeal to women with its call to equality, the exact opposite of John Piper’s recent claim that Christianity was supposed to have a masculine feel.

So what happened? Context caught up to the radical vision of Jesus and the early Christians. They realized that in a patriarchal world, women were inevitably going to be less educated, so teaching could suffer, and less respected by the outside world, so evangelism would suffer. There was no sudden decision to completely remove women from leadership, but between 100CE and 300CE, that 50% number gradually dwindled away.

Now the debate is back in full force in a lot of denominations. Catholics claim tradition for why they can’t allow women to be priests but seem to ignore the first 300 years of that tradition (before it was really the Roman Catholic Church as we know it, to be fair). Conservative Protestants claim a literal reading of select passages of the Bible while shrugging off others, ignoring the fact that the first 300 years of Christians very obviously didn’t interpret those words the same way. It’s ridiculous.

Single Priests

Why do Catholics require priests to be single? Sure, you could point to Paul’s and Jesus’ statement on how being single frees you to focus solely on the work of God – which as a priest should be your highest priority – but the historical reason is a lot more pragmatic. The medieval church couldn’t afford to keep wives and children of priests alive. The European economy was hardly thriving and they needed to cut costs. Makes a lot of sense.

Separationist Anabaptists

It’s only fair to include a critique of the tradition I have also aligned myself with. Anabaptists as the Radical wing of the Reformation were opposed by Catholics and Protestants alike for very good reasons: they didn’t just differ on theology, they offered a completely different way of looking at God through Jesus instead of through the state’s power-over approach. In the post-Christendom world (other than maybe the U.S.) this doesn’t seem that radical, but if you know your history, this was a really big deal. Several thousand were killed for their radical approach to faith.

After a generation or two of striving hard to transform the world by living the way of Jesus – including evangelism which neither Catholic or Protestant did at the time – Anabaptists largely retreated into their own communities where they could hold onto their beliefs safely but without angering others. They settled for separation from the world instead of their original goal of transforming the world. That’s why when most people think of Mennonites they think of little communities of people who minimize technology, dress plainly, and avoid the rest of the world as much as possible.

Dispensationalist Eschatology

Many evangelicals think that dispensational theology – the fairly detailed description of how Jesus will return to judge the world, wiping out whoever they deemed to be the bad guys and whisking away the good Christians to Heaven – is a long-held belief. It’s not. It came into being a short few hundred years ago in the United States. For various historical reasons, it fit really well with American culture at the time (still does with a lot of American culture today) and it took off after it was included in the Scofield Reference Bible. It was even named a fundamental in the early 20th Century even though it was so historically-new, even newer than the next one on my list.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theology

Many evangelicals refer to penal substitutionary theology as the Gospel. In other words, if they were honest about history, they would say that nobody had even considered or heard of the Gospel until John Calvin in the 16th century. Not from Jesus or Paul or Peter or any of the church fathers. They were all teaching a false, or at least incomplete, Gospel. You could arguably push it a bit farther and say that Anselm’s satisfaction theory is really the same thing, although it does have some differences but in either case, my point still stands.

If that’s the theory of atonement which makes the most sense to you, all the power to you, but please don’t run around and proclaim that it is an absolute essential to be a Christian because you’re excluding every Christian before Anselm/Calvin and you’re excluding the majority of Christians today. Just because your denomination has taught it for 200 years doesn’t mean that’s the same as all Christians for all time.

Christian Universalism

In the past few years, especially around Love Wins by Rob Bell, I have heard several people claim that Christian universalism was always outside of the realm of orthodoxy, always deemed a heresy, through church history. That is simply not true. A large number of the early church believed that Jesus would ultimately save all people, including Gregory of Nyssa who was one of the leading authors on the Nicene Creed (which is what many would use to define “orthodoxy”). Many in the Eastern Church have continued to think that way to this day, free of the legalistic and retributive-justice mindset that has dominated Western Christendom. I’m not a universalist, but to claim that it isn’t orthodox is once again ignoring history.

Thus ends my rant.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.