I started my first church history class with absolutely no understanding of church history. I was still trying to grasp the very basics of Christianity, nevermind the various expressions of Christianity over hundreds and hundreds of years. The only thing I remember from the lectures was finally grasping the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. When it came time to write my paper, I cried and agonized over it so much that I went to the school counsellor to ask if my frustrations were normal.
From my experience, writing your first church history paper can be scary, but since then I have learned some basic principles that can be used as a map and then final checklist to do the best you can even if there are a lot of things you don’t know yet. Below, I explain each principle, and then turn them into practical questions you can ask yourself when you start to research:
1. Once you have chosen a topic (often a historical figure or event), find the relevant primary sources and read them first
To get to the stage of having chosen a topic, you would have had to consult an encyclopedia, dictionary, or class textbook, but once you have done that, go straight to the primary sources. It’s normal to feel drawn to secondary sources that have already done the hard work of interpreting your topic and speak with words you understand, but from my experience, this tends to quench your own creative ideas that naturally come from reading a primary source. And, in my opinion, primary sources are so much more fun to read because they transport you to another world and have the power to spark your interest in things that may seem boring if you’ve only heard them described as dates and names.
Sometimes primary sources can seem scary because they are foreign, but if you can read, you are smart enough to understand them, at least at a basic level! You might not have a full background understanding of what you are reading, but you have unique personality traits, life experiences, and gifts that you can draw from and use to interpret the document, and when you move on to secondary sources, you will have a basic understanding of the topic to build upon.
2. Understand the original context of the primary sources before asking questions about what it could mean for us today
Another tendency when studying the past is to immediately drag it into the present, but if you do this without understanding it in its original context, you will probably end up misinterpreting it. Instead of focusing on what a document means for you, focus on what it meant for its original author and readers. Try to get into their minds. A good church history paper doesn’t even have to apply lessons from history to today (unless your syllabus says this), but it must interpret the past as accurately as possible.
There are two main parts to this step: first, find out what was happening in the world, and second, find out what was happening in the church:
a) The church has never been unaffected by philosophical, societal, and political trends that were happening in the wider culture at the same time. If you figure out what the main characteristics of the latter were you’ll be able to more accurately interpret the development of theology. Sometimes it can be helpful to watch a movie about the same time period; though you have to remember that the movie could be inaccurate (and definitely takes creative licence) in many ways. However, it might be able to get you in the mood for interacting with that context by showing you what people dressed like, what their houses were like, how they travelled, and what they did on a daily basis, which is sometimes difficult to discern from primary or secondary sources that don’t provide this information.
b) A single theologian has never been unaffected by discussions happening in the church at large in the same time because they live in that context and are probably educated and aware of what was happening in scholarship and the church, even if they are not involved in a certain discussion. A good term I learned from one of my church history professors was “dialogue partners.” When you read a primary source or read about the life of a theologian, ask who the person was talking to. This doesn’t necessarily mean who they explicitly addressed a particular book or sermon to, but instead can be found when you look at their life as a whole and see who they were generally or repeatedly interacting with, supporting, or reacting against. I’ve found that reading the preface and dedication of a book can be very helpful to accomplish this step. We often skip over prefaces and dedications because they seem like extra, unnecessary information (which is sometimes true), but if you don’t know much about the period you’re reading in, this could be a goldmine of contextual information.
3. Understand how the life and theology of a person interact
A person is a whole thing, so they can’t do theology or act apart from their specific personalities, biases, styles, past experiences, current situations, and interests. When learning about a historical figure’s life or thought, remember that these two things affect each other. This does not mean that you should create cause and effect statements merely based on connections. However, knowing the basics of a person’s life when reading their ideas and vice versa can help you figure out who they really were and what they really meant to say.
4. Respect and sympathize with your subject
One of the noble (and fun) parts of studying and interpreting the past is attempting to understand historical figures as they wanted to be understood, or sympathizing with them. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should excuse people for doing terrible things (you actually shouldn’t do this, and can read what I’ve said about dealing with the sin of historical figures here), or that we have to agree with everything they said. However, it does mean that we should not impose our own standards on them or merely use them as vehicles to advance our own ideas. This is not only bad taste but also a historical fallacy called anachronism.
When it comes to respectable Christian pastors and theologians, you will gain so much from respecting and sympathizing with them because they were genuinely intelligent and loving people. Furthermore, if they held to a doctrine or endorsed a practice that makes you uncomfortable, learning about these will actually help you to grow in your own theology by challenging it. It will also help you sympathize with Christians in the past or those today who have followed in that figure’s or group’s footsteps. This is not only a good practice for doing history, but also for living in the real world where you are forced to interact and work with people you disagree with.
This can be a huge struggle when writing a church history paper as a Christian because we often have strong opinions about other beliefs and traditions based on our personal experiences. If you find this difficult, think about all of the embarrassing things you’ve said and done, and that your family and church has said and done, and then ask yourself how you would want someone to understand you if they read about your life.
All of these principles can be turned into a checklist of questions to ask both at the beginning of your research and at the end as you edit the final copy of your paper:
What are the most important primary sources for me to skim or read in-depth?/Have I properly identified and interacted with the primary sources?
What was happening in the world and the church during this time, and who were this figure’s dialogue partners?/Did I take into account the developments in the world and church at this time, and does my explanation of this figure’s life and thought reflect their interaction with their dialogue partners?
Where can I get a basic outline of a person’s life/thought to supplement my own in-depth study of their thought/life?/Did I interpret their life/thought in light of each other?
Do I have any biases against this person/group before I start my research, and can I commit myself to temporarily laying my personal experiences aside in order to sympathize with my subject?/Have I forced my own ideas or context on this person/group, or have I gained a more respectful understanding of them?