“And Now for Something Completely Different”: Exploring Christian Theology

ECTnewSoon Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing Group) will begin releasing a trilogy of mini-theologies entitled Exploring Christian Theology edited by Dr. Nathan Holsteen and me, with significant contributions by our colleagues in the theological studies department of Dallas Theological Seminary: Dr. Douglas Blount, Dr. Scott Horrell, Dr. Lanier Burns, and Dr. Glenn Kreider. We’re starting with what is actually the third volume in the series (The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times), then releasing volumes 1 and 2 in the next couple of years.

But wait a second . . . Why another “systematic theology” when the market is flooded with them? To answer this question, let me say that ECT is not another systematic theology. In fact, I can honestly say that this series is something completely different. 

Let me explain.

Like any good introduction to evangelical theology, the three volumes in ECT will present believers with much-needed introductions, overviews, and reviews of key tenets of orthodox protestant evangelical theology without getting bogged down in confusing details or distracted by mean, campy debates. These three simple and succinct books will provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes of evangelical Christian doctrine, reorienting believers to the essential truths of the classic faith while providing vital guidebooks for a theologically illiterate church.

But isn’t that what every entry-level theological intro promises? Yes, but let give you six reasons Exploring Christian Theology really is completely different.

First, we wrote Exploring Christian Theology for a genuinely inter-denominational evangelical audience. And when we say “inter-denominational,” we don’t mean that we’re trying to get conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Charismatics to read our theology in order to persuade them to leave their branch of evangelicalism and climb onto ours. Not at all! Instead, we’re descriptively presenting the whole tree of evangelical orthodoxy—as dispassionately and positively as possible. This means pastors, teachers, students, lay-leaders, new believers, and mature saints of every orthodox protestant evangelical church can use these volumes without feeling like they have to constantly counter our assertions with their own views on the matter. Simply put, we’re so interdenominational that if a reader doesn’t agree with our central assertions, they’re probably not orthodox, protestant, or evangelical.

Second, the style of this series will be genuinely popular, informal, and accessible. Sometimes extremely so. Think contractions . . . illustrations . . . alliteration. You’ll see generous bullet points, charts, and graphs instead of just walls of impenetrably dense text on every page. Brace yourself for the pace of a hockey game rather than a golf tournament (sorry, golfers, but . . . YAWN). We wrote this for people who don’t necessarily carry around a large arsenal of biblical, theological, and historical facts in a side holster.

Third, you’ll find this series to be worth every penny you spend on it and, more importantly, every minute you spend reading it. Let’s face it, some mini-theologies with a broad appeal are just fancy-wrapped junk food with very little spiritually nutritional value. Yes, these volumes are intended to be “stepping stools” to the bottom shelf—brief, succinct summaries of specific areas of doctrine that can each be read quickly, consulted easily, and grasped by anybody. But at the same time you’ll find them to be comprehensive, thorough, careful, and—if you bother to explore the endnotes—well-researched and documented.

Fourth, this is a community-authored theology. Rather than presenting the perspectives and opinions of an individual teacher, tradition, or denomination, Exploring Christian Theology is planned, written, and edited by several theologians who are experts in their various fields. We hold each other accountable to avoid personal hobby horses, pet peeves, and doctrinal idiosyncrasies. In other words, you’ll never get one man’s opinion about this or that doctrine. Instead, you’ll get a clear explanation of the classic orthodox, protestant, evangelical consensus and a dispassionate presentation of points of allowable disagreement and diversity within evangelicalism. As such, these handbooks can be confidently used for discipleship, catechesis, membership training, preview or review of doctrine, or personal quick reference by any orthodox, protestant, evangelical church or Christian.

Fifth, these volumes will serve as a foyer into a broader and deeper study of the Christian tradition. We didn’t design Exploring Christian Theology to compete with other systematic theologies in the marketplace. There are a lot of great ones out there—some reflecting the views of certain confessions or traditions, others the perspectives of specific teachers or preachers. Our volumes are designed to supplement (not supplant) more detailed systematic theologies . . . to complement (not compete with) intermediate and advanced works. We promise that after thumbing through ECT, you’ll be much better prepared to read more advanced systematic theologies with informed discernment and a firm grasp on  central tenets as well as an understanding of ancillary discussions.

Finally, there are unique features in Exploring Christian Theology you’ll have a hard time finding all together anywhere else. Right up front we present a high altitude survey of the doctrine in order to set forth the unity of the faith among numerous diverse evangelical traditions. Then you’ll find no-nonsense discussions of key Scripture passages related to that volume’s specific areas of theology. You’ll also find a very helpful narrative of the history of the doctrine throughout the patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern eras. We also provide a glossary of important terms related to the doctrines as well as a feature called “Shelf Space” with recommended resources for probing deeper. By the end of each part of the volume dedicated to a particular area of doctrine, you’ll be warned about the most prominent false teachings related to the doctrine and encouraged with practical application points flowing from a right understanding of the doctrine. Besides all this and more, I’ve been told that the generous first-hand quotations from church fathers, theologians, scholars, reformers, pastors, and teachers from the whole span of church history is worth the entire volume.

In short, Exploring Christian Theology is not my theology, but our theology—the theology of the orthodox, protestant, evangelical tradition. It’s presented in a winsome (and sometimes whimsical) way. It balances biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspectives. And it’s written with the whole evangelical tradition in view.

You can pre-order Exploring Christian Theology today from these sellers:

Dallas Seminary bookstore


Barnes & Noble




Twelve Myths of Church History Unraveled

YarnAs a theologian and church historian who teaches courses on all of church history and electives on the early and medieval church, I constantly encounter a number of falsehoods, fabrications, and exaggerations floating around in popular [Christian] culture. They’re preached from the pulpit, taught in classrooms, shared in Bible studies, and printed in books. (I’ve even heard them parroted by colleagues who should know better.) Each of the following twelve myths could be expanded into full-length essays and even books, but for the purposes in this essay, a quick, brief introduction and correction is all that’s necessary.           

1. The Substitutionary Atonement

Myth: Penal substitutionary atonement was first articulated either in the medieval period by Anselm of Canterbury or during the Reformation. The early church fathers held to the Christus Victor theory or some other non-penal substitutionary theory of the atonement.

Fact: Substitution—and even penal substitution—is one of several explanations of the atonement that go all the way back to the earliest centuries of the church. These various explanations were not mutually exclusive, but often held simultaneously with other explications by the same people. Numerous fathers and theologians of the early church and medieval period refer to Christ’s death as a sacrificial substitute, taking the penalty in place of sinners. The Reformation did emphasize and centralize the penal substitutionary explanation, but they did not invent it.

2. The Selection of the New Testament Canon

Myth: The early church fathers and ecumenical councils of the church selected the books of the New Testament canon based on strict criteria of antiquity (Is it old?), apostolicity (Is it written by an apostle?), orthodoxy (Does it teach the truth?), or other reasonable standards to determine whether each book belonged in the canon.

Fact: Though various local regional councils published lists of Old and New Testament books, no ecumenical council ever voted on the New Testament canon, and there is no record of church fathers or councils sorting through books to form a canon. The criteria such as antiquity, apostolicity, and orthodoxy were sometimes used to explain why certain books had always been received as canonical and why others were not, but they were never used as tests to determine canonicity.

3. Constantine’s Reinvented Christianity

Myth: Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325 forced the Church to decree that Jesus is fully God, after which this orthodox Trinitarian theology was enforced throughout the Empire as law. Before that the church had a vague view of Jesus or tolerated diverse views of who Jesus was.

Fact: Christians had consistently confessed Jesus as both God and Man since the first century. The Arians who taught that the Son was a created being were out of step with what the church had believed from the beginning. Constantine’s influence over the Council of Nicaea was relatively minimal and related to what technical language to use to best explain what the church meant by its confession of Jesus as God. Furthermore, the imperial powers after the Council of Nicaea (325) and before the Council of Constantinople (381) were often in official support of Arianism and against orthodoxy! In fact, for several decades the Emperors persecuted orthodox Trinitarians rather than supported them.

4. Salvation by Grace through Faith

Myth: Martin Luther was the first person to articulate the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Prior to that the church had long believed salvation was by faith and good works.

Fact: The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith has always been the view of orthodox Christians. The issue is whether the grace of salvation also produces works with faith . . . and whether the works produced by grace and faith result in salvation or are the result of salvation. Luther’s emphasis on salvation by grace through faith alone was centralized and emphasized more than any of his predecessors, but even prior to Luther other late medieval theologians expressed similar views.

5. The Early Church’s Self-Identity

Myth: The church of the first few centuries had a vague, undefined understanding of the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, and most church fathers would not be regarded as orthodox by today’s standards.

Fact: Christianity has always clearly and unambiguously held to certain central and foundational tenets summed up in early writings, hymns, confessions, and creeds. Though the earlier Christians tended to tolerate (or even celebrate) more diversity over non-central issues than the later medieval church, they had a clear and uncompromising view of the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy—much clearer, in fact, than many modern Christians.

6. The Inerrancy of Scripture

Myth: The doctrine of the complete inerrancy of Scripture is a recent development birthed in the Fundamentalist reaction against modernist liberal extremes in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, most church fathers and even Reformers allowed for a more dynamic view of Scripture’s truthfulness that allowed for errors by the human authors.

Fact: Though many had a dynamic understanding of the interpretation of Scripture that allowed for allegorical and symbolic meanings intended by the divine Author, no church father, medieval theologian, or mainline reformer ever corrected the assertions of Scripture in any matter. They believed in the complete inerrancy of Scripture and its absolute doctrinal and practical authority.

7. The Dark Gap of History

Myth: There is a dark historical gap between the writing of the New Testament in the first century and the rise of the Catholic Church, during which we know hardly anything about what early Christians believed and practiced.

Fact: There is no historical gap between the New Testament and the rest of church history. We have documentary and archaeological evidence from every generation from the first century forwards, leaving us with a good picture of what Christians believed and practiced. We always wish we had more information, of course, but there is no gap.

8. From the Sabbath to Sunday

Myth: The earliest Jewish Christians worshipped on the Sabbath (Saturday), but the Gentile Church changed the day of worship to Sunday.

Fact: Even the earliest Jewish disciples of Jesus during the apostolic period in the first century commemorated Christ’s resurrection every Sunday. Though most Jewish Christians also continued to observe the Sabbath, the first day of the week (Sunday) was the normal day of gathering for corporate worship because that was the day on which the Lord was raised.

9. From Simple Christ-followers to Dogmatic Christendom

Myth: The earliest church was simple, spontaneous, informal, and without liturgy and fixed leadership structures . . . but as the church grew it became more complex, rigid, formal, liturgical, and hierarchical.

Fact: From the first century onwards, local churches followed liturgies, recited doctrinal confessions, and submitted to ordained pastors and teachers. Worship was formal and solemn. Though the early church could not be accurately described as “informal,” compared to later centuries it was certainly “less formal.” And although the church was never without authoritative leaders, its hierarchy did become more and more complex. However, the earliest centuries enjoyed both fixed elements and flexible forms of worship from place to place.

10. Christianity without a Canon

Myth: There was a period of fifty to 150 years after the New Testament was written during which there was no functional New Testament canon; the church had to rely on oral tradition, confessional summaries, and church leaders for doctrinal authority until the New Testament took its authoritative place next to the Old Testament.

Fact: From the moment letter or book was written by a first century apostle (e.g., Paul) or prophet (e.g., Silvanus), it functioned as “canonical” within the Christian communities. There was never a time after the apostles during which the various churches were left without written authoritative New Testament writings. It is true, however, that there was a period of time during which many churches didn’t have a full New Testament canon with all twenty-seven books. Rather, they had between one and two dozens books functioning as the doctrinal and practical standard. By the year 150, however, most churches had a collection of perhaps two dozen New Testament books functioning with apostolic and prophetic authority.

11. The Apostasy of the Church

Myth: Shortly after the apostles, the church experienced a sudden departure or apostasy away from the pure faith of the New Testament. It took the Reformation to rediscover and retrieve the purity of the early church.

Fact: Though Christianity developed and changed over the centuries, the process was slow and gradual. There are actually ups and downs in the history of the church with regard to doctrinal fidelity, spiritual vitality, and moral integrity. Though different parts of the church apostatized, and different ages saw greater corruption and doctrinal infidelity, there have always been pockets of light and a remnant of faith and obedience throughout the history of the church.

12. The One True [Underground] Church

Myth: The true church founded by the apostles had to go “underground” shortly after the first century and especially during the Dark Ages in order to preserve the truth. They appear occasionally on the radar of history as “heretics” persecuted by the official Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations.

Fact: There is just as much historical evidence that the one true church flew to Mars as there is evidence for a true church existing secretly throughout the centuries. When confronted with this lack of historical evidence, advocates of this myth say that the persecutors destroyed the evidence. Though a great plot for historical fiction writers, the idea of an unbroken line of independent churches outside either the Western and Eastern organized catholic churches is simply not true.

“Don’t Walk on Those Graves!”: The Christian View of Resurrection

GraveOne day when my kids and I were visiting a historic family cemetery in Mesquite, Texas, my boys, Lucas and Nathan, were running to and fro over century-old graves. I called them to me and passed on to them the instruction that had been given to me as a little boy: “Don’t walk on those graves.”

Lucas looked puzzled. “Why not?”

Good question. In fact, I had never thought about it myself. “Because . . . er . . .” I fumbled for a reasonable answer. I couldn’t come up with one. Chances are I was just relaying some relic of superstition that my mother herself had received. But somehow I just couldn’t break the chain and say, Oh go ahead, then, walk all over those graves. Trample on them. It doesn’t matter. They’re deader than dead anyway.

Instead, I threw together the best ad hoc explanation I could come up with at such short notice: “Because,” I explained, “if the resurrection were to happen you’d get knocked over!”

It was true. At some point the graves themselves will burst open. Whatever remains of the dead that are still lying in the ground will be transformed and restored in a glorious new body that shares the characteristics of Jesus’ own glorious body. Nothing of the old will remain in the grave. All things would be made new. Yes, that decomposed matter lying under the ground has a future in God’s plan of redemption.

Sadly, far too many Christians believe their bodies are mere shells that contain the real “me,” as if God never intended for us to have a physical presence, a bodily existence, a permanent means of interacting with the creation He fashioned for us. However, the promise of bodily resurrection completely contradicts this notion. The belief in the redemption of our physical bodies has always been a central hope of the Christian faith (Rom. 8:23). When Christ returns, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21), no longer subject to mortality and death. Note, though, that this is a transformation of our present body, not a recreation of an entirely different body. Jesus did not leave his old body in the grave when He rose—instead, that old body was raised and transformed into the glorious body of His resurrection. Our transformation will follow the same pattern.

This has been the unbroken, unchanged teaching of the Christian faith since the beginning. In the second and third centuries Church Fathers like Irenaeus or Lyons, Athenagoras of Athens, and Tertullian of Carthage argued vigorously for a literal resurrection of the body against Greek scoffers on the one hand and “Christian” Gnostics on the others. The only people challenging the doctrine of the resurrection of our physical bodies as an essential truth were unbelievers and heretics!

Throughout the history of the church, the teaching of the future resurrection of our fleshly bodies continued to be articulated and defended. Consider the following quotations spanning the centuries:

Boethius, On the Catholic Faith (6th century): “This is a firm principle of our religion, to believe not only that men’s souls do not perish, but that their very bodies, which the coming of death had destroyed, recover their first state.”

John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4.27 (8th century): “We shall therefore rise again, our souls being once more united with our bodies, now made incorruptible and having put off corruption.”

Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo), 2.3 (11th century): “If he had not sinned, man was to have been transformed into incorruptibility with the very body that he possessed. When he is restored, then, he must be restored with his own body in which he lives in this life.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (16th century): “We must hold, as has already been observed, that the body in which we shall rise will be the same as at present in respect of substance, but that the quality will be different.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1 vol. ed., trans. Henry Beveridge [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 2:271)

Jonathan Edwards The Final Judgment 4.2 (18th century): “However the parts of the bodies of many are divided and scattered; however many have been burnt, and their bodies have been turned to ashes and smoke, and driven to the four winds; however many have been eaten of wild beasts, of the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea; however many have consumed away upon the face of the earth, and great part of their bodies have ascended in exhalations; yet the all-wise and all-powerful God can immediately bring every part to his part again.” (Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, rev. ed., vol. 2 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974], 194)

In direct opposition to both the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of every branch of the Church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—I too often hear people speak of “dying and going to heaven.” Or they speak of departed loved ones as “finally healed” from their maladies. Or they belittle the body as a mere shell, or a prison, or a burden. Or they believe God will simply discard their present fleshly bodies and replace them with a quasi-physical body either in heaven or at the return of Christ. In short, they essentially exchange the biblical, Christian doctrine of the resurrection of their flesh for the Greek Platonic or Gnostic belief that the physical body has no part in salvation and eternal life. But to reject the resurrection of the body is not simply to reject the unchanged teaching of the Christian church. Rejection of the bodily resurrection is a rejection of Christianity itself!

But why? Why would God bother restoring what has been laid to rest? Can’t He just create a completely new body out of nothing? Of course! However, by opening the graves and tombs and transforming our dead and decomposed bodies into glorious, incorruptible bodies, God declares once and for all: “O death, where is your victory” (1 Cor. 15:55). As Paul explained, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor. 15:54). By snatching our mortal dust and ashes from the grave and transforming them into something eternal and glorious, God will demonstrate that Satan’s attempt at destroying humanity failed. Humans, who had been created with body and spirit in the image of God, will be not only rescued from death and restored to life, they will be crowned with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5).

So, next time you find yourself walking on somebody’s grave, watch out! You could end up getting knocked over if the resurrection happens!


[Adapted from the forthcoming Exploring Christian Theology: The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times, ed. Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael J. Svigel (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2014).]



10 Reasons to Learn Church History (Part 10 of 10)

WhyRC10“Why would twenty-first century Christians—who can read the Bible for themselves and attend Bible-believing churches—need to study Church History?”

10. Learning church history will correct our doctrinal and practical errors.

The history of the church is not only a tale of positive growth and development of doctrinal knowledge and practical wisdom. It’s also a dramatic account of the conflict between orthodoxy and heresy . . . facts and fiction . . . truth and error . . . righteousness and sin. You’ve probably heard it said, “Those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it.” This is true in politics, in war, in economics, and in personal life decisions. It’s also true with regard to doctrinal and practical error.

We don’t have to read too far into church history before we realize that not everything that happened between A.D. 100 and 2000 was praiseworthy. Sadly, the earthly body of Christ has been marked with a number of permanent tattoos—shameful memorials of its not-so-pretty past, self-inflicted blemishes that remind Christians today to never do, say, or believe those stupid or shameful things again. Of course, we need eyes to see the errors of the past and ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church today through His chastisement of the church of previous generations. Four categories of errors can be easily identified and eventually corrected by studying church history: doctrinal errors of accretion or deletion and practical errors of omission and commission.

Errors of accretion occur when churches add their own idiosyncratic doctrines to the unchanging core of essential Christian truths as if they, too, must be believed to be saved. Today these might include a particular Protestant theological system (dispensational or covenant), a certain form of church government (episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational), a dogmatic view of the atonement (demanding that people not only believe that Christ’s death and resurrection save us, but being able to explain exactly how it saves us), or a certain hermeneutic (historical-grammatical, theological, canonical, or Christocentric). By looking back, we can be constantly reminded that the core doctrines of the faith that mark us as true Christians—things like the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, salvation by grace, the authority of Scripture—cannot be added to without obscuring the Christian faith. Distinctive doctrines can be held by different denominations within the bounds of orthodoxy, but those distinctions and different emphases should never be held up as marks of orthodoxy.

Finally, errors of deletion are the results of excising original and enduring doctrines of the Christian faith that have been core essential truths from the beginning. Some have rejected the virgin conception of Christ as an unnecessary doctrine, others have relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendix, and still others have jettisoned the church’s historic high view of Scripture. By looking back, we can plainly see the sine qua non of the Christian faith—the doctrinal beliefs “without which it is not” Christian. This kind of knowledge will help us protect those things that are essential for Christian identity from those who would happily delete them from their confessions of faith.

Errors of omission include practices of the church that were both original and enduring, but had fallen out of observance through either intentional deformation (often disguised as “reformation”) or unintentional neglect. Today these might include things like the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper; the purely benevolent outreach to the poor, hungry, homeless, and oppressed; the rigorous evangelism of certain neglected people groups; the intentional discipleship of new converts toward maturity; and the practice of church discipline. By looking back, we can see what practices have been lost as sea while our sleek, modern vessel continues to cruise through unknown waters.

Errors of commission involve practices of the church that would never have been tolerated in either the original churches established by the apostles or by any of the subsequent generations. Or, when they did appear in church history, the Spirit eventually weeded them out. These might include the over-indulgence of the American church in wealth and luxury; the blind tolerance of sexual immorality disguised as “grace” and “mercy”; an unbridled nationalism that reeks of a new Constantinianism, which blurs the lines between church and state and turns the people of the Prince of Peace into veritable warmongers; or the intrusion of our entertainment-oriented and consumer-driven culture into our worship forms and ministry models. By looking back, we can see how God has dealt with these kinds of unwelcome corruptions of authentic Christian attitudes and actions.

In short, studying church history will correct our errors. History will tap us on the shoulder and pointing us away from our own narrow opinions and personal preferences. And it will equip us to focus our attention on those things that have been believed and practiced everywhere, always, and by all.

10 Reasons to Learn Church History (Part 9 of 10)

WhyRC9“Why would twenty-first century Christians—who can read the Bible for themselves and attend Bible-believing churches—need to study Church History?”

9. Learning church history will clarify our interpretation of Scripture.

Just get two or three believers together for a Bible study and you soon realize that not everybody interprets the Bible exactly the same way. Sometimes they come to completely opposite conclusions. Other times they emphasize certain passages or doctrines more than others. Even when we follow the same rules of methodical Bible study or the principles of exegesis, we sometimes come up with different interpretations.

By looking back over church history, we can gain a perspective that will aid (not replace!) our reading of Scripture in two ways:

First, early testimony can provide added insight into the historical and theological context within which the New Testament itself was written and read. By “early” I mean the writings of the period overlapping with and immediately following the New Testament apostles and prophets themselves, between about AD 50 and 150. Though these accounts can’t be treated as authoritative Scripture, these early authors’ interpretations, doctrines, and practices open a window into the teachings of the apostles themselves.

It’s reasonable to conclude, for example, that Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, reflects much of John’s theology and practice in his own letter to the church in Philippi, which he wrote around AD 110 . . . just a couple of decades or so after John wrote his Gospel, epistles, and Revelation. In fact, Irenaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp, wrote around AD 180: “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary . . . to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those whom they did commit the Churches?” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.4.1). That is, many people were still alive throughout the second century who had the authentic words and theology of the original apostles and prophets still ringing in their ears. Although these earliest testimonies cannot be adopted uncritically, we can’t afford to completely ignore these writings as tools to help us properly interpret the apostles’ writings in their actual historical theological contexts.

Second, enduring tradition refers to those things that continue to be retained, reaffirmed, or restored in every generation of Christian history. Christ promised that he would never leave us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). He also promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). We know that he is ever-present with the church by means of the person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–18). Also, through the Holy Spirit the ascended Christ has gifted the church with not only first-generation apostles and prophets, but also enduring leaders called evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph. 4:11). The implication is that the truth-telling and life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit will prevail in the church against the hellish attacks of Satan. So, if individual leaders, whole churches, or even most of the universal Christian church were to stray from the fundamental saving doctrines of the faith, the Holy Spirit would eventually shepherd the church back to a proclamation of the gospel in its purity. So, by studying church history, we are studying the “further acts of the Holy Spirit since Acts 28.”

Through church history we can discern the core doctrines the Holy Spirit continued to emphasize throughout the ages. When we become aware of these central, unifying core truths of the faith that have endured throughout history, we can be constantly reminded of the boundaries of orthodoxy—the rules within which believers have freedom to responsibly interpret Scripture, but outside of which believers must never stray. As Vincent of Lérins wrote in AD 434, “All possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Looking back will help safeguard evangelical interpreters of the Bible from either denying central dogmas of the Christian faith or from centralizing opinions about what the Bible says. In other words, the core teachings of the Christian faith must never change. The faith has been once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). But in order for evangelicals to know the boundaries of their biblical interpretations, they must know which biblical doctrines are central. Looking back at the history of how the Spirit corrected, disciplined, pruned, and grew the church in its doctrinal understanding will help believers clarify their interpretation of Scripture.