Dr. Dan Spanjer

by Philip Scott (Texas)

All the speakers that come to Summit semester have something insightful to say but not everyone earns the title of “favorite” as Dr. Spanjer has for many students. He accomplished this even despite teaching one of the more dreaded subjects for many students: church history.

He had the task of covering several weeks’ worth of material in just a few days and he did phenomenally well, keeping us engaged, primarily with his intellect but sometimes entirely by accident. In one instance, in recounting how some Catholics challenged Martin Luther, he strode forward, repeating their question of, “Are you saying the Pope doesn’t have any authority?!”. This would have been dramatic in itself, but as he strode forward, his foot grazed the rickety whiteboard stand, triggering a slow fall of the whiteboard so that his question was punctuated with a loud crash in the quiet classroom.

We all thought this was very funny and uncanny in its timing, but it also adequately captured the drama of the situation that Martin Luther was in, much better than any powerpoint with bulleted statements could have. Even without accidents like this, Spanjer still did an excellent job framing the main ideas behind the history of thought leading up to and following the coming of Christ in an engaging, often witty way.

I am not even going to try to relate all he said to us (it took up 30 pages of my notebook) but I want to give a little bit of an idea of how he taught because I wish everyone could hear him. Throughout history, cultures have had different ideas of the nature of reality and what is worth pursuing. He went through several of these ideas using a basic diagram, showing temporal experience on one side, the goal of life on the other side and the means of getting there in between. For example, the Hebrews held the idea that in their temporal experience, they needed to obey God because he was leading them to the goal of life, although they did not know exactly what form that would take. They knew God was Holy and beyond them and worth following, although they often forgot this or did poorly with it. In contrast, some Greek philosophers thought that with your temporal experience, you should pursue the transcendentals: the good, the true, and the beautiful. They thought that pursuing these was the highest goal you could have.

Many people had many ideas about these concepts. But then, as Dr. Spanjer puts it, “Jesus came and blew everybody’s mind”. The Hebrews could not believe that the Holy God of the universe would come in lowly flesh. The Greeks couldn’t believe that the eternal transcendentals would take the form of a man bound by human constraints. Everyone was thrown off. Even on another level, his disciples were looking for a different sort of messiah than the one they got. Looking back on it now, it is not that surprising that the climax of God’s story should be something that absolutely wrecks everybody’s preconceived ideas. But at the time, they struggled with it.

In fact, church history is a bit of a mess because of these struggles.

You have factions, reforms, and people branching out because they disagree with exactly how everything comes together. For example, the catholic church holds that holiness is separate from virtue (defined as what characteristics are good for the city) and one of the results of this is that their cathedrals stand in stark contrast to the architecture around it. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, sees holiness and virtue as compatible, so their churches resemble the architecture around them, only grander. One way to sum up how the Catholic and Orthodox churches differ in whether or not holiness interacts with the world at all is this: Orthodox priests can get married. These differing ideas have significant implications for how you live life and, unfortunately, when the church loses sight of the love that we are supposed to have for one another, church history gets messy. Wars, plots, murders, ex-communications, and other things take place as a result of the schism in ideas. At one point in history, you have three popes, all claiming to be the only true pope, perhaps none with truly holy motivation. Putting it a little facetiously, Dr. Spanjer comments on this sort of thing, saying, “Makes history exciting but darn does that suck”.

I loved Dr. Spanjer.

I am extremely grateful for him coming to teach and I look forward to researching this more myself when I get back from Summit. Despite this, and perhaps even because of its messiness, church history is important to study. When you consider your view on Orthodox and Catholic traditions, you have to remember that these were primary forms of Christianity for over 1000 years. Yes, it morphed and reformed several times, and it had good aspects and bad, as does Protestantism. As you consider Protestantism, you have to look at its foundations and its shortcomings, because it’s not perfect either. So, as you live your life of faith, consider why you believe what you believe. Consider what ideas form your worldview. If you seriously consider all of this, it should bring you back to study the Bible and what it truly means to be a Christian, a Christ-follower. All of what we studied points us back to the question of what Jesus meant by, “Be Holy, as your Heavenly Father is Holy”.