Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a multi-part series. Read Part 1.
We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us both in our own tradition as well as the Great Tradition of the Christian faith. In the classroom we get the opportunity to train future pastors, deacons, elders, Sunday school teachers and small group leaders with the tools they can use to help their congregations and small groups think well through how their own work relates to the Kingdom of God.
How Do You Integrate Historical Theology into the Classroom?
There are several different ways to integrate historical theology into the classroom. One of the main ways is to examine primary texts. One approach is to use a survey textbook to tell the overarching narrative of history and then devote the in-class portion of the course to go deeper into the topic; in the case of historical theology, you can use primary sources to prompt discussion. One example is looking at Martin Luther and how he changed the way that people understood vocation. In An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he states,
It is the pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the ‘temporal estates.’ That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason—namely, that all Christians are truly the ‘spiritual estate’, and there is among them no difference at all but that of office.
It would be a fruitful exercise to have a discussion based works like this. Reading primary texts allows the students to learn how to study and use primary sources and develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between faith, work and economics.
Another approach is to use the class lectures to tell the overarching narrative and use several smaller books to go deeper on certain topics. This would allow a professor to assign readings on a topic like faith, work and economics, such as William Placher’s Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. This book functions like a reader that gets students into the sources, wrestling with the different ways that church has thought through a specific issue. It is a good supplement to other broader readers since the editor is allowed to explore the topic in detail and find sources for every century in the life of the church rather than just the most famous writings on a particular topic.
Every era has blind spots, and we must be willing to learn from the mistakes of the past.
How Does Historical Theology Relate to the Great Commission?
Historical Theology allows the church today to learn from the past, to see the good and the bad and to learn from it. Some of the decisions the church makes in regards to faith, work and economics can help or hinder the spread of the gospel.
For example, looking to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we can see Christians on both sides of the slavery debate. During the First Great Awakening prominent Christian figures were on both sides of the argument for and against slavery. George Whitefield, though he did great things through his preaching, was also responsible for bringing slavery to Georgia. Thomas Kidd shows that while Whitefield called for better treatment, education and evangelism of slaves he never questioned the actual institution of slavery.
John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” on the other hand, was a slave trader who became an abolitionist. Both men used their platform to influence how Christians viewed this practice. In the beginning of the nineteenth century a group of Christians in London were able to bring about widespread change in Britain. This group, known as the Clapham Sect, included men and women like Hannah More and William Wilberforce, and while it took a while they were able to change the course of an empire. Their efforts helped to bring about the end of the slave trade in the British Empire and helped to change the culture of the English.
These stories allow us to see how faith interacts with work and economics and how it can impact a Christian’s witness. Every era has blind spots, and we must be willing to learn from the mistakes of the past so we do not make the same or similar mistakes and hinder our witness. We can also learn from the bold stands against injustice to learn how to do similar things today.
Faith, work and economics has largely gone unexplored in historical theology and church history classes, hopefully this brief exploration shows the importance of the topic as well as gives some ways to introduce it into these courses.
Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in the FWE Curriculum Project.
Crouch, Andy. Flourishing Good, 2018. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/commongoodseries/251748284?autoplay=1.
Placher, William C., ed. Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Edition Unstated edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2005.
Quinn, Benjamin T., and Walter R. Strickland II. Every Waking Hour: An Introduction to Work and Vocation for Christians. Lexham Press, 2016.