One of many blessings that come from reading church history is a perspective sufficiently distant to see the larger picture with all its harmony and its diversity. Blessed with such perspective, we see God continually at work among his people: now turning, then correcting, sometimes simply allowing, the course of his church through the centuries. No believer and no Christian group can afford to believe or think or live in isolation. We all — individuals and groups — can and need to learn from each other.
The undivided church of the first several centuries gave us the “rule of faith” expressed in the Apostles Creed, as well as the New Testament canon itself. It also bestowed a legacy of commitment — demonstrated in martyrdom, monasticism and the less spectacular but equally heroic models of quiet but faithful perseverance. Meanwhile, that earliest catholic (undivided, worldwide) church was struggling to achieve equilibrium between its Christian “identity” (being different from the world) and its intended “universality” (making a home within every culture).
After the division between East and West, we can learn from both Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox to stand in awe before the transcendent Mystery, to step into the ancient stream of contemplation and meditation, and to appreciate Christ’s amazing mother Mary as a model of faith more than most of us Protestants have ever done.
All Christians need Luther’s four gospel slogans (sola gratia – solely grace, sola fide – solely faith, solo Christo – solely Christ, sola scriptura – solely Scripture), capped by Calvin’s persistent admonition that all things result in the glory of God (sola Deo gloria). The Anabaptists teach us the difference between being citizens of a worldly state and belonging to the kingdom of God, while reminding us that we must personally choose to follow Jesus as Lord and Master. The Anglicans gave us the English Bible and the treasure-chest of the Book of Common Prayer — a worship repository with which most Protestants are sadly unfamiliar, yet full of gems waiting to be discovered.
Continuing our overview of church history, the Methodist movement took the gospel outside church buildings into the marketplaces and fields, and taught the importance of a heart “strangely warmed.” When many hearts had cooled, the Holiness movement rekindled a passion for Holy Spirit transformation into Christ’s likeness. Later, the Pentecostal revival focused on heavenly gifting for earthly service. And the charismatic renewal emphasized that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that the God who is most high is also most nigh
The Adventist revival awakened a comfortable church to the awareness that Jesus can come at any time, while continually repeating that immortality is by grace and that eternal life is God’s gift through Jesus Christ. The Restoration Movement (Stone-Campbell) challenged believers separated by creeds to acknowledge their essential oneness in Christ, and to seek common understanding through the discipline of careful, contextual study of Scripture.
Today, a worldwide house church movement reminds us that institutional forms reflect tradition and not necessity. Meanwhile, thousands of new congregations wear no denominational name, in response to a hunger for “mere Christianity.” And everywhere we look, churches starting from scratch (whether emerging or emergent, missional or merging) have yet to make their own discoveries, contributions and mistakes as they find their own place in God’s eternal purpose.
Each of us comprehends a measure of God’s truth and none of us grasps it all. Standing within The Great Tradition of apostolic teaching, we nevertheless represent a virtual mosaic of Christian belief. If we remember that, our zeal for truth leads us to a generous orthodoxy. If we forget it, the result is an “orthodoxy” that shrivels and embitters rather than fostering health. Ultimate truth is a Person, not a proposition. He calls us in our diversity, and loved by him we gather — beneath the shadow of a cross illumined by the light from an empty tomb. There we share … and eat together … our respective morsels of living bread.