If I were to ask most Americans questions about the history of their country, like who was it that crossed the Delaware or why was the Civil War fought, they could answer with ease. If I were to ask a European what the French Revolution meant to Europe or when was the Renaissance they could certainly tell me. However, most Christians are woefully ignorant when it comes to questions such as who crossed the Milvian Bridge or what caused the Great Schism.
We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring our Christian history. It makes us poorer both historically and doctrinally. In the introduction to his book The Story of Christianity, Justo González explains just how much the past impacts our present understanding of the Bible:
Without understanding that past, we are unable to understand ourselves, for in a sense the past still lives in us and influences who we are and how we understand the Christian message. When we read, for instance, that "the just shall live by faith," Martin Luther is whispering at our ear how we are to interpret those words—and this is true even for those of us who have never even heard of Martin Luther. When we hear that "Christ died for our sins," Anselm of Canterbury sits in the pew with us, even though we may not have the slightest idea who Anselm was. When we stand, sit, or kneel in church; when we sing a hymn, recite a creed (or refuse to recite one); when we build a church or preach a sermon, a past of which we may not be aware is one of the factors influencing our actions. The notion that we read the New Testament exactly as the early Christians did, without any weight of tradition coloring our interpretation, is an illusion. It is also a dangerous illusion, for it tends to absolutize our interpretation, confusing it with the Word of God.
One way we can avoid this danger is to know the past that colors our vision. A person wearing tinted glasses can avoid the conclusion that the entire world is tinted only by being conscious of the glasses themselves. Likewise, if we are to break free from an undue bondage to tradition, we must begin by understanding what that tradition is, how we came to be where we are, and how particular elements in our past color our view of the present. It is then that we are free to choose which elements in the past—and in the present—we wish to reject, and which we will affirm.1