In certain circles of conservative Protestantism, history can sometimes seem to fall off a cliff after Acts 28. For some of us, National Geographic’s latest cover story on the Apostles and their relics may seem like a letter from a different world - and that’s probably too bad.
Up until the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, which seemed to quiet the North American feud between Protestants and Catholics for reasons of political expediency, dismissing stories of saints and relics as Romish superstition was a staple of Protestant youth indoctrination. Modernism’s system of logic and reason applied to a strictly limited first century gave the church everything she needed to convince the faithful of the historicity of her claims. Yet modernity’s waning and fashionable spirituality’s interest in things one can hold and possess invites us to a People magazine approach to the lives and deaths of heroes we imagine to know from the Bible. Anyone acquainted with early church history should know that a hunger for more than the church could endorse in its canon is not a new thing. There are lots of ancient texts with many stories. We’re not only interested on the details of Whitney Houston’s final hours, but we’re also curious about the friends of Jesus.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing for Protestants to poke around a bit more in the early history of the Christian church. Ignorance of this era has allowed a fair amount of sloppy skepticism regarding what is pretty solidly knowable about the origins of the founding of our faith. We should be aware, however, that history usually reveals to us that the past was no less complex and nuanced than the present and that hagiography has derived its common pejorative definition for good reason. The Protestant Reformers had reason to critique medieval excess on a number of counts.
I think it’s also important to recognize that the early church has recognized the liabilities of TMZ-style curiosity. Luke, in writing to Theophilus, did indulge in telling some stories that were simply too good not to tell, but didn’t really offer us the kind of “Lives of the Saints” that others would produce.
Whereas some additional detail can be helpful, Luke realized that our faith is not necessarily refined by giving us more information. Relics can be inspirational, but the water, the bread and the wine are what we get to touch, feel and taste. If faith required exclusive collectables, access to the relics themselves bottlenecks access to our story.
Jesus indulged Thomas, who seems to have become an amazing ancient evangelist, but He reminded him that by His Spirit many, many more would believe on the basis of merely the verbal and incarnational witnesses to the resurrected Lord.
I’d love to see a Protestant revival of interest in the history of the ancient church. I think wrestling through the questions of the historicity of tales and relics informs our knowledge of the past of our faith. Christians should not be afraid to ask tough questions, do hard research and explore the limits of what we can know and how we know it. I’m glad National Geographic has done this piece and I hope many people read it.
What Do You Think?
- How should we incorporate archeological and historical records from the first century into our faith?
- Do you see any spiritual value in relics from the early church?
- What did you learn from the National Geographic story that you didn’t know before?