"You can’t ask people of the past to do things outside their realm. You have to allow them to be where they were."
Why is the study of church history so important? Walter Sundberg answers by quoting the German scholar Gerhard Ebeling, "Church history is the exposition of Holy Scripture."
What Ebeling means, says Sundberg, is that "across the ages the Bible has been lived out by men and women of flesh and blood, and they have shaped the faith theologically and doctrinally. To know church history is to undergo catechism, or training in that tradition."
Sundberg warns against measuring historical figures by the assumptions of our own age. "You can't ask people of the past to do things outside their realm. You have to allow them to be where they were. They have different insights and different weaknesses. In that sense, history is, at a very basic level, a multicultural discipline," he says.
Take the Confessions of Augustine, for example. We might say that Augustine was preoccupied with issues that we find much less troubling.
"But there's something grand going on in that great autobiography, especially about not finding rest until one finds rest in God," Sundberg says. "Students have to go to a deeper level of tolerance to understand the mores of that day and how they shaped Augustine's message."
Above all, Sundberg wants his students to respect the past and its wisdom — "to respect all who have gone before us and witnessed to the faith. We have an obligation to their memory. We should never be so arrogant that we can't learn from them."
He points out that on a cultural level, there is much that we do not share with Christians of other ages. But there is one thing we all share: the canonical books of Scripture. "Christians of the past made the same effort to understand as we do. And we should judge them as we would want to be judged — by the Bible," Sundberg says.