Invitation To The New Church History -- By: Denis R. Janz

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 08:2 (Fall 2011)
Article: Invitation To The New Church History
Author: Denis R. Janz

Invitation To The New Church History

Denis R. Janz

Dr. Janz is Provost Distinguished Professor of History and Christianity at Loyola University in New Orleans. He and Dr. Holcomb share an interest in historical methodology, which was the subject of Dr. Holcomb’s doctoral dissertation. Historical Methodology was also an interest of Penrose St. Amant, Dr Holcomb’s doctoral studies mentor.

The academic discipline known as church history takes upon itself the study of an impossibly large subject.1 At one end stands, let’s say, the rugged, illiterate agricultural day laborer in first century Galilee who in some way identified himself with the earliest Jesus movement. At the other end, perhaps last Sunday morning, we have the well-heeled, educated American business woman stepping out of her SUV in front of a suburban church, two children and a husband in tow. These are the bookends, from proto-Christianity to post-Christianity. What happened in the interval? Change: the contrast is obvious, stark, almost grotesque. And continuity: these two, plus roughly ten billion human beings in between, have thought it important to orient their lives in one way or another on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This “in between” is what church historians care about.

Why? Obviously because they see this as being of major importance, not only for current “church people,” but for all of us. Calling themselves “Christians,” these ten billion individuals have, for better or worse, shaped the course of western history more profoundly than any other group, religious or secular. In large measure, it is precisely this cultural inheritance that has made us who we are. And thus we will never make sense of who we are, or of our current world-historical situation, or of humanity’s prospects for the future, without knowing something about it. Church history (to paraphrase Paul Tillich) is in this sense the depth dimension of the present. Without it we are condemned to superficiality.

As a discipline focused on this massive data, church history has existed now for at least two centuries. Its agenda until very recently has been dominated by certain facets of Christianity’s

past such as theology, dogma, institutions, and ecclesio-political relations. Each of these has in fact long since evolved into its own sub-discipline. Thus the history of theology has concentrated on the self-understandings of Christian intellectuals. Historians of dogma have examined the way in which church leaders came to formulate teachings which they then pronounced normative for all Christians. Experts on institutional history have researched the for...

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