Theology, Church History, and Guarding the Good Deposit

Theology, Church History, and Guarding the Good Deposit February 27, 2017

Photo courtesy: Neuestock
Photo courtesy: Neuestock

When I began working with the Christian Standard Bible, my first priority was to dig into the history of the translation. I wanted to know who was involved, how it was developed, how it was marketed over the years, and how many Bibles were out in the wild. In order to understand fully the good and the bad about the project ahead of me, I had to take a thorough inventory of where it came from. I could’ve done my job without this investigation—but not nearly as well.

Similarly, when my wife and I began dating and then discussing marriage, it was incumbent upon us to understand each other’s personalities, our families, and the experiences that shaped who we were. Our relationship was new, yes, but it didn’t start fresh—it started with all sorts of baggage, both good and bad. And it was objectively good for us to learn more about each other, not just to avoid a fight or tailor our personalties to each other, but more importantly to know one another as people. I could’ve loved my wife without this investigation—but not nearly as well.

All of us can relate to these examples in work, in relationships, and in plenty other areas of life. We know that nothing we do or say or believe happens in a vacuum. In many ways, we are all the sum of our experiences and surroundings. We are individual people uniquely made in God’s image, of course, but we’re also people who have been placed in a particular place and time by him, and this has inevitably shaped us (Acts 17:26).

So when it comes to community, theology, and church history, why do we act as though investigation doesn’t matter? Why do we think “it’s just me and Jesus” as though Christianity’s history and foundations don’t matter? Why do we shed off community and getting to know others, as though we’re fine on our own?

American evangelicalism’s tendency toward individualism and modernistic near-sightedness is unique in the history of the Church. And because of this tendency, we’re often looking for something that applies in the moment. We’re often cynical toward anything or anyone we don’t understand. We often don’t want to do the hard work of cultivating and understanding because microwaves produce faster results than crockpots, even if the crockpot meal is more delicious and nutritious.

But we don’t have to settle for “me and Jesus” Christianity that ignores those before us and those beside us. God shows us a better way in his Word, giving us timeless truths that show us that our past matters, that theology matters, and that a local church community matters. Here are just three passages that help us understand this.

1. Community Matters

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, CSB)

This command is different than his command to “love God and love others.” This is a little more specific—it’s aimed at the relationships between disciples, those who claim to follow him. He rules out the possibility of solo Christianity here, telling them that their love for one another would show the world they belonged to him. The gospel creates a family that transcends other families, a family that doesn’t let age or gender or race or even personality flaws separate us. Our involvement in Christian community is perhaps the most vivid picture of the gospel. In fact, in Acts 2, the church’s love for one another led to a multitude of people getting saved!

The next two points flow from this one—in Christian community, we are able to “guard the good deposit” and be thankful for the “cloud of witnesses.”

2. Theology Matters

“Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Timothy 1:13-14, CSB)

Paul makes a clear point to Timothy here—don’t get goofy with the truth of the gospel. This is why it’s a big deal even today when Christians abandon core truths of the faith that’s been handed down for two millennia. Judaism and then Christianity was built on the transmission of truths about God. Key to the story of redemption is getting the story of redemption right–in belief, word, and deed. The Scriptures were and are so important because they provide guardrails. This is also why people are specifically called and gifted to lead local gatherings of believers (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 3; Heb. 13:17; et al.). Teachers have always been among God’s people who help instruct others in the Lord—from prophets to rabbis to apostles to pastors.

So, of course, we can’t know every single thing about God or the Bible perfectly, but that doesn’t mean we get to make up truths about God. When Jesus tells people to “search the Scriptures” or asks, “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” he’s telling them to pay attention to the truths passed down to them, rather than making up their own versions of the truth. This accountability centered around God’s Word has always happened through Christian community—both in “formal” settings like synagogues and church gatherings, and “informal” settings like campfires and meals and living rooms.

Christianity was born out of a theological history, and has been passed down the same way. Just as Jesus taught and explained the Scriptures, so did apostles like Paul, who passed this task to the pastor Timothy, and eventually this task was given to the early church in the formation of creeds in the battle against heresy. And, indeed, we still today have the same task of holding on to “the pattern of teaching” that we’ve heard, guarding “the good deposit” with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Every generation has to fight against those who “will not tolerate sound doctrine” because “they have an itch to hear what they want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3).

Theology matters because objectively knowing God is a core tenet of our faith—even if it doesn’t always feel “practical.” These truths are worked into us through preaching, teaching, spiritual disciplines, and accountability in community. Good theology protects our inclinations to walk away from God and toward “pointless and silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7).

3. Church History Matters

“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, CSB)

This passage falls right after an entire chapter that’s devoted to helping this audience understand those who came before them. The author of Hebrews points out that some died terrible deaths for their faith, and others had great victories—humanly speaking. But all of them had victory in Christ, and they all now stand watching them (and us), their faith encouraging ours. Because of them, we are empowered and pushed to lay aside sin and hold onto the hope in God that they possessed. In trial, we know that we’re not alone, and that we’re not the only ones who’ve suffered affliction. But God knows what he’s doing, as we’ve seen in those before us.

This is no different today. We have 2,000 years of church history behind us to help us understand the Scriptures better, to help bolster our faith in God, and to remind us that we come from a long family line of imperfect people who’ve served a perfect God. Like wisdom from an older man or woman, the saints before us have deep, lasting truths to pass onto us that will help us down the long road of obedience that we so badly want to shorten.

In the end, I can’t force you to care about any of these points. Indeed, it might be possible to live a long life and spend eternity with God without caring a lick about any of it. But as in any job or relationship, we shouldn’t take shortcuts or ignore important aspects merely because they don’t feel all that important in the moment. We should press into them, reaping the long-lasting benefits of deep community, sound doctrine, and knowing the saints before us.

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