Andrews and Burke’s (2014) purpose for encouraging individuals to actively engage historically through utilizing different analysis is to obtain a better understanding of histories complexities. Being able to identify, research and analyze each of the 5 C’s separately and connectively in relation to history provides ample opportunity for gaining insight and empathy from the past to better move forward into the future.
In recommending an outline for historical study and writing Pearce (2012) encourages authors to discover the connections secondary sources have made from primary sources. In going beyond interpreting a secondary source (or someone else’s interpretation) through analyzing a primary source, students of history can appropriately formulate their own unique interpretations. In so doing, Pearce (2012) says an author can go beyond interpretation regurgitation and come up with a new “bright idea.” These unique discoveries in themselves shine new rays of light on the past displaying a reflection that reveals a fresh purpose and way ahead into the future.
These same purposes apply to the study and presentation of church history. Advances in technology and communication (the tower of Babel comes to mind) have abundantly made secondary sources of church history available. However, an author or presenter cannot properly study history or find their own voice and unique purpose from history without engaging with primary sources. Primary sources are written within the time they account. A secondary source reflects on previous times, using primary sources for analysis. Both types of sources may pertain to the same period in time and each have their own contemporary purpose. However, hence being written in different time periods, they engage with different contemporaries. In order to connect to the wider context of the past, we must dig directly from its soil (primary sources) to discover our own purpose and thought. As authors and presenters of church history, we must plant our own seeds within the soil of the past, so unique perspectives can grow.
While engaging with primary sources it is beneficial to imagine the author as an individual we are conversing directly, questioning their thoughts and discovering the past from the circumstances they are writing from. Conversely, we should also critique our own thoughts and when making statements of belief about an author and their past, image what they may be asking of us in response to our critique. Think about it, how are we to learn from others if we do not engage with them directly? How often do we critique or question ourselves compared to questioning others? To theorize, if we do not engage with primary sources, our own cloud of assumptions and those of others will consume us.
Lewis (2011) asserts that reading “old books” is more reliable than new, because the implications of those thoughts have been experienced. Errors made historically through thought and action can be evaluated through their implications, so not to repeat them again. I agree with Lewis and identify with his commentary that “every age has its own outlook…and is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” I also identify with the observation that students (being all who read historically) are “intimidated” by reading primary sources, and reflect that my own hesitation in doing so is from intellectual laziness. If we were to spend more time with books of the past, especially primary sources, we would be enabled to write our own chapter, finding our own purpose.
We all enjoy theology that fits with our current context and purpose, but to grow and to encounter our own theology, we must take the time to dig into histories past by reading old books that make up the primary sources of church history. If we do not, we will repeat the same mistakes others have made, instead of learning from them. If we do not plant new seeds, honest historical interpretations will expire and we will not be able to germinate unique individual thoughts, creating a dormant future.
So we should ask ourselves do we read primary sources of history? How much time do we spend with the word compared to others theological interpretations and do we consider our own interpretations before reaching to others? And when we have a change or evolution of thought, do we ask ourselves how in the world this happened?
Being of one body in Christ the purpose of studying church history is to learn from our errors and victories. In so doing we can incorporate ourselves into the past, challenging other interpretations as well as our own. This, as the Bible so consistently does will provide a personal testimony. Personal testimony based on the historical experiences of others and our own gives life to new thought and character, discovering the purpose of historical study uniquely for ourselves.
C.S. Lewis (2011). Introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. In J. Behr, St Athanasius the Great: On the Incarnation (pp. 11-17). New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, January 2007. Accessed August 30, 2016, http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2007/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically.
Robert Pearce, “How to Write a Good History Essay,” History Today, March 2012. Accessed August 31, 2016, http://www.historytoday.com/robert-pearce/how-write-good-history-essay.