A few weeks ago, I had a call from a student who was scheduled to take a Christian history unit with me. He freely confessed that he did not quite understand why this unit had to be part of his degree and said that it would help him stay motivated if he had a better understanding of the value of immersing himself in the history of the church. This is a fair question before committing yourself to a semester of study, so I was glad to spend some time with him to talk about the value of having a solid understanding of history. Here are the main points that I made during this conversation:
- The Study of Church History Points us to God’s Faithfulness Across Generations: The Lord Jesus said that he will ‘build his church and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18). Christ has, therefore, been busy throughout history to call people to Himself through His Spirit and building them into the worldwide church. The study of church history is, therefore, in a certain sense, the study of divine activity in the world. This obviously does not mean that we should turn history into a separate source of revelation. We cannot fully understand the full extent of God’s working out of His purposes by looking at history. There are, in fact, some things that are hard to understand. For example, why the church prospered in some places (and eras) and not in others. Still, what we can understand and see clearly should fill us with awe at how the Lord kept his promise to build his church.
- Understanding Christian History Can Help us to Make Sense of the World: It is an undeniable fact that the spread of Christianity and a Biblical worldview had an immense impact on our world. For example, Christian convictions are foundational to many of the values of western civilization. So, a deeper understanding of Christian history will be very helpful in understanding our world better. A knowledge of the contribution of Christianity can, in fact, be very valuable in sparking gospel conversations with those who have forgotten, or have never known, how the message of Christ changed the world.
- Knowledge of the Sweep of Christian History Provides Us with an Interpretive Framework: Many Christians know a few ‘scattered stories’ out of church history. They may have heard of the Roman persecution, Constantine and perhaps Augustine. They also know that Martin Luther supposedly nailed some statements to a door with a hammer. However, without some framework to fit these scattered bits of information into, they will remain just a group of unconnected stories. Having a deeper understanding of the broad sweep of history will bring us to a much deeper, and more helpful, understanding of the ‘turning points’ that we tend to be familiar with.
- We Can Draw Inspiration, and Warnings, from Church History: The monk Bede (672-735) is often known as the father of English church history. He described the value of his main church historical project (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’) as follows: “If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked men, the good religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse, and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.” There are many examples in history of people courageously and faithfully serving the Lord in very challenging circumstances. Knowing their stories can help us to follow in their footsteps here in the 21st century. Equally, history contains many warnings of what the consequences of disobedience or the abandoning of a rock-solid commitment to God’s word can be. Seeking to learn from history does not mean that we turn historical events into a series of object lessons. It is merely a recognition that we have much to learn from those who came before us. We should strive to learn those lessons without seeking to turn historical figures into super saints (or villains!). Instead, our emphasis should be on getting to know historical figures in all their complexity. Or as a famous figure from Christian history, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), said: ‘Warts and all’!
- History Can Act as A Guide to the Present: The idea that history repeats itself is commonplace but not quite accurate. No two historical periods are exactly alike, not least because the figures involved can never be the same. However, we can draw parallels between different periods and events. As Mark Twain said: “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes!” If, for example, we need to respond to the Jehovah’s Witnesses at our doors, we will do well to remember that they are not the first people in the history of the church to deny the divinity of Christ. In fact, the church spent decades during the 4th and 5th centuries responding to the teachings of Arius of Alexandria (256-356) who said many of the same things as the JW’s. So, whenever we encounter a certain heresy, difficult question, or challenge, our first response should be to reach for how earlier Christians dealt with what we are facing. There is, indeed, no need to reinvent the wheel! This does not mean that we should simply repeat what has been said and done in the past. Our current circumstances are bound to be somewhat different to what came before. Still, creative engagement with the past can be a very valuable tool in navigating the challenges of the present.
Hopefully I managed to convince you that the study of Christian history is a worthy pursuit. This leaves the question about next steps. How do we gain a solid working knowledge of the history of the church? An obvious answer, to me at least, would be to enrol in one of the RTC units that survey church history! I realise, however, that this may not be possible for everyone. In such cases I would suggest starting at the general level before moving to the specific. In the language used above, it is recommended that you start with the framework before focussing too strongly on individual events. There are several accessible single-volume church histories that can help you to do this. Personally, I would recommend ‘Church History in Plain Language’ by Bruce Shelley and ‘Christianity Through the Centuries’ by Earle Cairns. Once you have developed a good general framework you can begin to dig into specific time periods and the contributions of individuals. General church histories will often include lists for further reading, and these will be a good place to finding more narrowly focussed works on topics that you are interested in.
Many people shy away from history and may even repeat Henry Ford’s statement that ‘History is bunk!’. I hoped that I have showed you that this is not a position that we can take as Christians. We can confess that God is at work in history. That it is useful in our own spiritual lives and our ministries. So, getting a good handle on our ‘family history’ will richly repay the effort that we put in to acquire it.