The Apostles according to National Geographic

Paul Vander Klay

March 10, 2012

I could not agree with Paul more: we in the modern church need more grassroots curiosity about our primitive history.

This is a fact that came home to me in my adult Bible study classes at church, where some of the pillars of our mainstream Protestant congregation have confessed--without any apparent sense of personal dissonance--their skepticism about the reliability of the historical narratives of the Bible, the accuracy of the traditions of our religious heritage, and the relevance of such culturally "distant" contexts for modern discipleship. When I hear some of our most faithful, committed churchgoers speak this way, I can't help but wonder in the back of my mind: "On what basis, then, do you accept the testimony of the Bible and the witness of the Church as your rule of faith and life?" Why, in short, do people who lack this basic curiosity about church history even bother with an enterprise that demands one's full resources--time, money, and hard work?

One of the things I have discovered in my own reading into church history is that so many of the problems and controversies we face in the modern church have played out before. This is not the first time in history, for instance, that the imminence of the second coming of Christ has preoccupied believers; the same thing was going on even as the Gospel accounts were being drafted. Some of my peers in Sunday school are still rather surprised to learn that Peter and John and Paul all apparently, based on their own testimonies, expected to see Jesus return during their own lifetimes. Should it really surprise us that there are broadcast evangelists out there today that are utterly convinced of the same? If it did not irredeemably frustrate the witness of those ancient Apostles to admit their mistaken judgment (but not their mistaken hope) even as they endeavored to preserve their witness for future audiences, should it then frustrate our own faith today if modern eagerness for Christ's return should be delayed for awhile longer? I don't think so.

My understanding of Christian history bolsters rather than confounds my faith. The more I understand how the first Apostles were struggling to make sense of their experiences with the risen Lord, the more I can identify with them in my own struggles to reconcile faith and life. I look around at the other people in my Sunday school class and see modern-day disciples who are still doing what Peter, James, and John were doing then: thinking about the significance of Jesus for today, deliberating over how to live in faithful witness to Jesus' teaching, waiting expectantly for Jesus to make all things right as he promised.

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