For many, just the word “history” brings up bad memories from high school. When I hear the word “history,” I think of random things such as Charlemagne, carpet-baggers, Huguenots, dates, times, presidents, and a bunch of things I forgot until we studied WWII (which was actually interesting).
For most Christians, church history is the same way. We don’t really know much about it. We know a little about the Apostles in the book of Acts, then there is a bunch of stuff we think is weird and too “Catholic,” and then there is the Reformation, and here we are today with prosperity preachers and Joel Osteen.
So is church history important? Is it useful for discipleship? How much should we study it? My hope is to briefly sketch why I think church history is important for evangelicals today and is actually a gift from God to help us understand how to apply his Word. Why study church history?
1. Church history reminds us that we are part of a larger family of faith.
We have a tendency to think the church really began in our lifetime with cool pastors, conferences, and podcasts. Or, we have a tendency to think the church really began at the Reformation. We forget that there has always been a remnant. There has always been a true church. Jesus promised that the gates of Hades would not prevail against his church and the gates of Hades never have. People loved Jesus in the early church (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, et. al.), in the middle ages (Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, et. al.), in the Reformation (Luther, Calvin, et. al.), in the early modern era (Edwards, Whitfield, Wesley, et. al.), and in the modern era (Machen, Henry, Barth, et. al.). On the one hand, church history protects us from thinking our denomination is right and everyone else is wrong (most of our denominations are less than 400 years old), and, on the other hand, it reminds us that we are part of a larger family of faith dating back more than 2,000 years.
2. Church history helps us rightly interpret the Bible.
God’s Word is meant to be interpreted within the community of faith. When an individual just runs away from the church and doesn’t listen to instruction from others, he usually starts a cult. We must interpret the Bible as we bounce ideas and interpretations off one another. And we don’t just bounce ideas off of those around us. We use the larger community of faith including the writings of Christian brothers and sisters who have passed away.
3. Church history helps us hold to correct doctrine.
Though God’s people may err in certain doctrinal matters, certain teachings like the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the resurrection, and the second coming are always held as truth by all true Christians. Church history helps us see what God’s people have always believed and what doctrines the majority of Christians have seen as essential. It helps us continue to pass on the “once-for-all-delivered-to-the-saints” gospel (Jude 1:3). There is a saying that, “new kinds of ‘christians’ are really just old kinds of heretics.” Knowing correct doctrine helps us guard against false teachers and religious sects today.
4. Church history helps us guard against reading our culture onto the biblical text.
Church history helps us see how other cultures have interpreted the Bible and see where some of our biases and prejudices pop up. For example, the topics of homosexuality and gender roles are rather controversial subjects today but almost completely agreed upon throughout most of church history. If we are teaching about these subjects in new ways, this should cause us to ask if we are reading our culture onto the Bible and making it say what we think is important today instead of what it actually says. Another example is that in America many Evangelicals think drinking alcohol is sinful. Seeing that this is a unique idea in post-prohibition America (and is not thought to be sinful in almost all other times and countries in church history) helps us put this issue in perspective.
5. Church history helps us see where we might be defending our traditions instead of the teachings of Scripture.
It is vitally important to know what the church has believed at each point in our history and why. That keeps us from “drinking the Kool-aid” and just doing what our denomination says. It is important for a Lutheran to know what Luther thought. It is important for a Presbyterian to know what Calvin thought. It is important for a Baptist to know about the radical reformation and English separatism. It is important for a Pentecostal to know about the Wesleyan holiness movement. It is important for an Episcopalian to know about the Anglican Church, the Reformation, and Thomas Cranmer. The list could go on and on. Knowing which historical actions caused certain beliefs is essential for challenging our views according to the Bible.
6. Church history helps us know how to address situations today.
I can’t think of any issues today that the church has not already dealt with in its past whether that be grace, politics, denominations, ethics, pastoral ministry, etc. The old adage, “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it” is true of church history as well. By studying church history we can avoid stepping on landmines by seeing who has stepped on them before. We can copy what the past has done well and avoid some of the mistakes they made.
7. Church history brings humility.
If you hold a theological view or an interpretation of Scripture that almost nobody has ever held then you can know that 99% of the time you will almost certainly be wrong. The burden of proof is on the person who is holding a “new” view. This should humble us and keep us from thinking that everyone else was just too silly to see things like we see them today.
8. Church history helps us minister to others.
If I know the history of someone else’s ideas, denomination, or theology, it allows me to know how best to minister to them. It lets me know where they might be off and what issues they may misunderstand.
9. Church history is a reminder of God’s grace
Instead of looking like a bride we as God’s people have a history of looking more like a harlot. What is interesting to me is just how un-Christian so much of church history is. We have a history of shooting ourselves in the foot. However, just like Israel in the Old Testament, God loves his beautiful, messy, disobedient, lovely bride . . . the church. It is a reminder of how kind God has been to keep his promises despite our failures to be faithful to him. It is true that “if we are faithless he remains faithful for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13).
In all this we know that only God’s Word is perfect and history is our imperfect attempt to play that out. However, church history is a helpful guide and companion on our journey in the Christian life and it is God’s gift to help us be faithful.
- Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley
- The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 by Justo Gonzalez
- The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2 by Justo Gonzalez
- Historical Theology by Alister McGrath