Gavin Ortlund has a recent article at The Gospel Coalition which argues that Evangelicals should get better acquainted with pre-Reformation and especially Medieval Church History. To this we can only give our hearty Amen. The recovery of history is one of the great needs of our day.
We would like to offer one complementary though important caveat. Mr. Ortlund’s post is titled, “Searching for Gospel-Centered Theology Before the Reformation.” It would be more helpful to become familiar, not with a theology, but with key people, including their own biographies and significant encounters. In other words, we shouldn’t read history only looking for ideas but rather as the true unfolding of who we are and how we got here.
This is important in two ways. First, if you read the Middle Ages with the intent to find “Protestantism” or “Proto-Protestantism,” then you will very likely do a bad job of it. No one in the Middle Ages was looking forward or actually “anticipating” the Reformation as the Reformation actually happened, even if they did help cause it. It would better to learn them as they were first, understanding what they said and why, before relating that to our own ecclesiastical communities. Only then can we see the real continuities between the medieval drive for the reformation of Christendom and how our Reformers themselves carried out that project.
Secondly, if you read history looking merely for ideas, then you will also miss the way in which history should shape us today. We do not simply need more ideas, but rather more teachers. Mr. Ortlund himself understands this point, as he writes:
I think this statement captures exactly what our attitude should be in engaging pre-Reformation church history: this is part of my heritage, my identity. The image I think of is a family photo album. In any such album there may be pictures that embarrass us, and we may be more proud to be related to one great uncle than to another. But warts, blemishes, and all, my family is still my family—and it would be foolish to cut myself off. After all, I wouldn’t even be here without them.
Church history is not only a textbook for Mr. Ortlund, but a family tree. And so, not as a critique, but as an agreement and encouragement to go further, we would emphasize that it is precisely this reason that requires us to learn it as real history, with all of the causes, motivations, and implications that one would expect from history. This also means that we should not only focus on the theologians when studying church history.
They are certainly important, but they are not always the primary actors of history. Mr. Ortlund mentions Charlemagne among his historical figures, but Constantine certainly figures large as well. We would also add that Roger II of Sicily and Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire should go in the family album. In both the Investiture Controversy and the battle between Conciliarism and Papalism, the Protestant reader cannot help but see the importance of the civil magistrate. With this background, writers like Marsilius and Wycliffe make perfect sense. And when they make sense, Luther begins to become clearer for the modern reader too.