Read your Bible. Pray with your spouse. Disciple your kids. Serve in the church. Meet with your small group. Mentor someone younger . . . and . . . study Christian history? I know what you’re thinking. There is way too much going on for me to think about juggling all the above, as well as maintaining a robust knowledge of the history of the faith. I suppose I can’t argue with you. Upfront, none of the above are requirements for admittance or acceptance into the family of God. The gospel calls us to enter a rest unlike we have ever known (Heb. 4). And because we’ve entered that rest by the blood of Christ alone, we are compelled by the love of Christ to grow deeper in the faith and to love people radically. I’m here to argue that God can use the study of Christian history to make you a mature disciple. Here are four reasons why.
1. The creeds and confessions were not written in a vacuum.
What is the chief principle of hermeneutics? Context, context, context! It’s no different for the historic creeds, confessions, and other writings. Many Christians have read the Nicene Creed, Luther’s Shorter Catechism, The Westminster Confession, and more, and taken them at face value. No doubt these documents were written to stand the test of time, but each one was also written within a specific historical context and toward specific historical debates.
Look at these titles from the early fathers: Against Heresies by Iraneus. On the Incarnation by Athanasius. Anti-Pelagian Writings by Augustine. Or how about Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will, which is entirely a reply to Erasmus’ On Free Will.
I’m not saying that you can’t take these things at face value. What I am saying is that if you do, you are only getting half of the story. The beauty of many of these creeds, confessions, and writings is set against the backdrop of heresy. We see throughout the history of Christianity a vigilant defense of the orthodoxy we enjoy today. We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for the gospel over the past two-thousand years. Let us not take that for granted because we are ignorant of that rich history.
2. Most contemporary theologians are admittedly reproducing what has been first produced elsewhere in church history.
Trace this line with me. Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul espoused Christ’s gospel throughout his writings in the first century. In the fourth century, Augustine expounded and defended Paul’s gospel theology against the heresies of his day (see specifically the Pelagian controversy). Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk. Read Calvin’s Institutes, and you’ll find Augustine flooding its pages. The Great Awakening in eighteenth-century America was led by Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards. In the twentieth-century, C.S. Lewis picked up on the Edwardsian threads of beauty and wonder. And, as you likely know, the greatest theologians of our day constantly place the works of centuries past before our eyes to remind us that orthodox theology stands the test of time.
When you read men like Keller, Piper, Chandler, Carson—and many more—know that they too stand on the shoulders of other Christians through church history. We reap the benefits of their careful study of the history of the faith.
3. Church history, particularly during the Reformation, spurs us to be always reforming.
Theologically speaking, the Reformation is not complete. How can I say that? One of the chief tenets of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura. Can you say that your study of Scripture has totally transformed your life in such a way that you think and act Biblically at all times? Of course you can’t. Neither can I.
We are always reforming when we, like the Reformers, constantly go back to the Scripture as our standard for doctrine and life. The spirit of the Reformation lives on when we continue to challenge modern thought, practice, and life with the unchanging truths of Scripture.
4. The history of Christianity proves it has always been a disciple making endeavor.
Make no mistake, when Christ said, “Go and make disciples,” he meant it. Paul discipled Timothy. Augustine was deeply committed to his teaching and preaching ministry in Carthage as a way of transmitting the chief tenets of our faith to young believers. Wycliffe committed his life to Oxford, not only as a way of equipping, but also as a way of sending out some of history’s first itinerant preachers. Luther worked in a close relationship with Melanchthon. Calvin transformed Geneva through education and systematization of theology.
Step back and take a broad look at the spread of Christianity, and you’ll find a simple yet stunning reality. Since the book of Acts, God has built his Church by the power of his Spirit and the transmission of the gospel. He does this through discipleship. That means that he has invited you into this overarching story of Christian history. You are probably not the next Augustine, Luther, or Calvin. But, if you are in Christ, you are absolutely vital to his mission of making disciples. Who are you discipling today?
Here are a few great resources on historical theology:
- Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought by Alister McGrath.
- Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation by Mark A. Noll.
- Concerning Christian Liberty by Martin Luther.
- Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God by Dane C. Ortlund (the entire series On the Christian Life from Crossway is church history gold)
Alex Dean is a pastor in Lakeland, Florida. Holding an undergraduate degree from Dallas Baptist University, Alex is currently completing his graduate work at Reformed Theological Seminary. His book, Gospel Regeneration: A story of death, life, and sleeping in a van, will be released in the summer of 2014. Follow his blog at gospelregeneration.com or follow him on Twitter @alexmartindean.