One of the most famous lines in American literature is found in William Faulkner’s 1951 book, Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Historians say one reason to study the past is to better understand ourselves. Memories provide clues to our identity, and these clues shape our actions. Brad Daugherty, a church historian who recently completed a PhD in church history at Vanderbilt University, says we often turn to the past when we’re confused, frustrated, or struggling with present circumstances. He says, “Things don’t happen in a vacuum. There is a long history of development that informs the church’s ministry and pastoral practice. Yet, fundamentally, church history is about discerning how the Spirit of God, who was at work in people in other times and places in our past, is at work in us now.” Daugherty’s doctoral dissertation focused on The Bishops of North Africa: Rethinking Practice and Belief in Late Antiquity. His concern was to understand how a formative period of early Christian faith, which gave rise to the creeds, continues to shape us today.
Grace and Peace Magazine met with Daugherty during the June 2015 Trevecca Pastors and Leaders Conference (PALCON) in Nashville, Tennessee, to ask him a few questions about church history and why Nazarenes need to think about early Christianity. For those wondering, Grace and Peace Magazine didn’t have the courage to ask Brad if the name “Augustine”—that great bishop of Hippo—is really pronounced AW-gus-teen or uhGUS-tihn—or if both ways are correct.
G&P: IS THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY THE SAME THING AS CHURCH HISTORY?
DAUGHERTY: That’s an important distinction. The study of the church as an institution has its place, but, as Christians, our confession is of a God who works in history, a God who works in people, and that means not only recognizing God’s work in the here and now but also affirming the ways in which God has been at work in people across the ages—work that has come to us in often surprising and unexpected ways. One benefit of studying the past is to develop a sense of discernment and to understand that God’s work doesn’t easily conform to expectation. To encounter the Christian past is to encounter people different from ourselves, people whose practices and opinions sometimes differed from ours, and yet, as fellow members of the body of Christ, we are compelled to confess that the same Spirit who is at work in us was at work in them.
G&P: WHY SHOULD NAZARENES BE FAMILIAR WITH THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY PRIOR TO THE RISE OF JOHN WESLEY AND METHODISM? ISN&RSQUO;T OUR RECENT HISTORY ENOUGH?
DAUGHERTY: There’s a real temptation to focus on only our immediate history, or the history we claim as our own, and say, “That’s Nazarene history.” But the truth is that we confess ourselves to be part of the body of Christ, the church of Christ, and that’s something that stretches across the centuries. We are part of a fellowship that was called into existence, not by John Wesley or Phineas Bresee, but by Christ. We may belong to a particular denomination, but we are not a sect. We are part of the universal church.
It is interesting that when the founders of the Church of the Nazarene put the Manual together, they were careful to insist and affirm that they claimed the early ecumenical councils and creeds. And while there’s no explanation in the early manuals about the role of the creeds and the councils and their use, the assertion is that this new movement, this new work of God’s Spirit, the Church of the Nazarene, is part of this larger body, this larger church. They believed God was doing something new but not something separate from the church that came before them. This is an important distinction because, in early America, there were all kinds of new religious groups and movements that invented all kinds of new beliefs and practices—something we still see today. And the questions that arose then are the same ones that arise now: Are these Christian? What does this have to do with the gospel, with the Scriptures? This is a way of asking, Are they a part of the universal church? What do they have in common with what’s gone on before? And the early Nazarenes insisted that they were part of the universal church. They claimed that heritage.
There is quite a bit of interest in early Christianity among Nazarenes, and one explanation for that can be traced back to that affirmation by our Nazarene forefathers and mothers. Studying these early sources is one way to better understand how the gospel we proclaim, the message of holiness we proclaim, is in continuity with what God was doing in the early centuries of Christianity.
G&P: IS THE DESIGNATION "CHURCH FATHERS" PROBLEMATIC FOR THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY AS WE SEEK TO BE A MORE GENDER-SENSITIVE FELLOWSHIP?
DAUGHERTY: That’s an interesting and sensitive question. The structures of leadership in the early church were largely patriarchal, and even though most of the well-known figures were men and most of the sources are from men, the continued use of gendered language can reinforce the idea that the leadership and structure of the church should still be patriarchal. While it’s an accurate description of the times, it’s not helpful in other ways. We need to remember that, while God has been at work in the lives of male bishops, clergy, and even saints, God was also at work among common people: women, children, and laypeople who lived faithfully throughout the ages.
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
G&P: FROM YOUR STUDY OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY, WHO IMPRESSES YOU AS SOMEONE WESLEYANS NEED TO LOOK FURTHER AT?
DAUGHERTY: One figure I’ve focused on is Augustine of Hippo, who was bishop of North Africa in the late fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine might be considered an odd person for a Nazarene to study. He’s been maligned in Wesleyan circles because of his association with the doctrine of predestination, his teachings concerning original sin, and his struggles with guilt and human sexuality.
So Augustine may not be the most popular figure or the first person to come to mind to better understand the holiness tradition, but he is extremely helpful precisely on this point. Much of Augustine’s teaching is about what it means for the church to be holy, and how God works to sanctify not only individual Christians but also the church itself. When we move beyond textbook histories, Augustine explains how God works in ways we cannot always understand, ways that are not always visible, to sanctify each and every believer, not only the clergy, and not only the saints. He taught that the same powers of sanctification, the same work of the Holy Spirit that was at work in the sacraments, which were central for the church at this time, was the very same power that was at work when Christians forgave one another, prayed for one another, and cared for one another.
So the doctrines we often associate with Augustine, doctrines of election and sacramental efficacy, are connected to a vision of the sanctification of Christians that he preached often to the Christians of Hippo.
G&P: WHAT ARE SOME NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN THE STUDY OF CHURCH HISTORY?
DAUGHERTY: Much of church history has been driven by its major sources—what famous figures have said or taught about Christianity. In recent years, there has been much more focus on the laity, on how common people lived their faith, especially women and the poor and marginalized. In the earliest periods of Christianity, women did not leave many written sources for a variety of reasons. This focus is a kind of history from below as we look more broadly at the Christian community and how they’ve responded faithfully to the work of God in their lives and in the world. Part of the historian’s task is to understand how all Christians have lived faithfully in different places and at different times. What makes that difficult is that we have few sources beyond those left by leaders.
G&P: WHAT IS ONE CHALLENGE IN TEACHING CHURCH HISTORY?
DAUGHERTY: One thing that students of church history often find frustrating is the attention given to the episodes when the church has failed. The truth is that the church has been complicit with powers and forces that have not been for the good; we’ve been unfaithful to God and have responded poorly to the world around us. Though it can be unpleasant to discuss this aspect of our history, it is no less true. Our retelling of our history must be truthful, and that includes the good as well as the bad. Such truthfulness is necessary if we are to bear witness to the work of God in the world, whether in the past or the present. A history that is sanitized of all unpleasantness is neither true nor of any help to those who would live as witnesses to the work of God.
G&P: THERE SEEMS TO BE A DRAMATIC SHIFT IN THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND THE BROADER SOCIETY HAPPENING RIGHT NOW IN THE UNITED STATES. ARE THERE ANY PRECEDENTS IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY FOR SUCH A DRAMATIC SHIFT?
DAUGHERTY: Oh yes. In the fourth century there was an even more dramatic shift, although in more or less the opposite direction. Early in the fourth century, the Roman Empire began actively persecuting Christians. Though such active persecution had been relatively rare, Christians did experience local discrimination and occasional violence. They had no illusions; they knew the empire was not on their side, and they knew that getting dragged before imperial officials could very well get them killed. But in the span of a couple of decades, Christianity went from being a persecuted religion to receiving preferred treatment from the emperor Constantine. By the end of the century, Christianity was officially sanctioned by the Roman Empire.
As you might imagine, these were heady and confusing times for Christians. Many hailed the events as a miraculous triumph, a work of God. Others looked back to the old days, when their forebears had shown their faithfulness by facing persecution. Still others took a different view. They insisted that the work of God was not dependent on Rome nor on any earthly society. The favor of the broader society might make certain aspects of the work of the church more or less difficult for Christians, but it could neither frustrate nor hasten the work of God. The church should neither rejoice at society’s favor nor mourn its hostility, for neither the work of God nor the faithfulness of the church depended on society’s favor.
It seems to me that this perspective is worth consideration, especially by Christians in the United States. Even if Christians come to have less power and influence in American society, this does not mean that the work of God will be frustrated. Nor does it mean that Christians will somehow be unable to bear witness to that work, or live lives of faithfulness and holiness in response to it.
This article is part of a series accompanying videos here.
BRAD DAUGHERTY has taught at Trevecca Nazarene University and at the School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South, and has degrees from Olivet Nazarene University (BA), Boston University School of Theology (MDiv), and Vanderbilt University (MA, PhD). An ordained elder on the MidSouth District, he currently serves on the pastoral staff of Blakemore Church of the Nazarene in Nashville, Tennessee.