The year is 2100 and one of your descendants is doing some research into your life. Because you are not someone of great significance, your descendant will probably find a birthday, time of death, property records, and one or two anecdotes depending on how well you store your digital information and/or how well you are remembered within your family. Oh – they might find some photos as well. That’s pretty humbling. The untold number of conversations and relationships that made up the sum total of your life compressed into four or five anecdotes and facts. Imagine that the only record of me left in ninety years was that I liked the Grand Angus burger from McDonalds. If you were doing research into my life – you would provide my vital stats and make some comment like – “Jeremy really liked burgers.”
You wouldn’t like someone doing that for you. Think about this in the context of church history.
Name ten prominent figures in church history off the top of your head. Now try and think of one key fact or anecdote associated with their life. Write it down using a mind map. Continue the process until you’ve exhausted what you know about these figures in church history (no cheating – that’s like referencing the dictionary for words in Scrabble when you don’t know what you want in the first place). Even if you filled two A3 pages with facts about your people – it would still only be a fraction of their life.
What I’m writing about is a common frustration with historians. Primary sources, for better or for worse, are one of the few ways that we can look into the mind of man. The purpose of this article is to make you aware that this problem exists and to give you a greater sensitivity for approving and disproving of men and women in church history.
The overwhelming majority of believers in history have left no discernable trace in history. These people are like the worshippers that God talks about to a dejected Elijah. The beautiful thing here is that God had a purpose and plan for each of these silent servants and they are a part of redemptive history.
Prominent figures should be treated with charity. Dinner conversation and doctoral research into the lives of prominent figures should have the same respect that you would want for yourself. I’m not saying that we can’t have opinions (strong or weak) – only that you appreciate the nature of primary sources in historical work. One thing we can do is to stop making x = y correlations based on what you’ve heard somewhere.
Be curious and thankful. Studying church history allows you to appreciate how God uses everyday people to accomplish extraordinary things. I hope that this post leaves you with a desire to know more about someone to give thanks to God for his great work (in them and for His ongoing work in us).
Now… about Servetus…