Today I begin a blog that will lead into a class I’m teaching on church history with the New York School Of Mission on January 13-14. These will be short readings that will prepare us for the class. If you aren’t participating in the class, I believe you will still benefit from this series of blogs.
Let’s begin with the question that lies behind our motivation–WHY? Why study church history? Here are a few reasons that any disciple (especially those who want to serve in the full-time ministry) should be a student of church history.
Why study church history?
- We learn lesson about humanity from history.
We learn about people from studying history. How do we make progress? It has to be built on the past. George Santayana (1863-1952) was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. In Volume I of Reason in Common Sense, Santayana writes, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We like to think of ourselves as an advanced civilization. But if we don’t learn from the past, then are we really advanced? Did you know 112 million people were killed in wars in the twentieth century? After all this time, humanity still hasn’t learned how to settle its differences without fighting.
History is a good teacher. But to be taught, we have to be eager students.
- We prepare ourselves to answer people’s questions about church history.
In 1 Peter 3:15-16 Peter writes, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
I recognize that Peter is specifically noting that we ought to be ready to answer people’s questions regarding our hope in Jesus. I hope that all of us are equipped to do that. But this principle applies to other areas as well. We need to know something about apologetics in order to answer people’s questions about the existence of God and the problem of suffering. Also, we ought to know a little bit about church history to answer people’s questions about doctrine and the church. If a Methodist were to ask you about who founded the Methodist church, would you know the answer? If someone in the Reformed church asked about Calvin and his doctrine, would you know be able to have an intelligent conversation about Calvinism? People have questions. They often come to us for the answers. We need to be informed.
- We build our confidence as leaders by knowing church history.
In Ephesians 4:11-16 Paul writes, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”
Much of church history is about “every wind of teaching” and “the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” If we don’t know the origin of false doctrine, then it will be more difficult to teach against it. Plus, as leaders, we are to equip God’s people for works of service. If we aren’t equipped, how can we equip others? Knowing church history gives us confidence to stand against false teaching and to equip others in their stance against false teaching.
Did you see the movie The DiVinci Code? What did you think of it? Perhaps you liked Tom Hanks. Maybe you thought it was an interesting thriller. But were you able to see through the “cunning and craftiness” of the book’s author and the movie’s director? Did you have answers for some of the claims made in that book/movie? Even if your answer was—I know enough about the early church to know that this book isn’t about the church of Bible, then that’s better than scratching your head in confusion.
- We equip ourselves to guard against future error.
We cannot adequately battle false doctrine unless we have some understanding of church history. Church history answers important questions about false doctrines. Question like: When did this doctrine arrive on the scene? Where was it taught? Who taught it? How was it first received?
Douglas Jacoby makes a strong statement about our movement of churches in one of his lectures on church history. He states, “We are more orthodox than the orthodox, more catholic than the Catholics, more protesting than the Protestants, and more charismatic than the Charismatics.” Do you understand what Douglas is saying? If you know church history, then you do understand what he means. Church history helps us know who we are. In the battle against false doctrine it is important to know who we are. An understanding of church history helps us fight against error and cling to the truth.
- The Bible is a book of history. Every time you read the Bible, you are reading about God’s history with humanity.
Judaism and Christianity are grounded in history. God acts in history; therefore, history is important.
Phillip Schaff of Yale University writes, “History is the stage where His play is acted out. History is the drama of redemption.”
In the OT, Israel was instructed to “remember.” Deuteronomy 4:9-10, “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, ‘Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.’”
When Luke writes Luke/Acts, he informs us that he is writing history. Luke 1:1-4 states, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. The preaching of the early church was based on a historic event—the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.”
John Briggs notes, “Christianity is essentially a historical religion. God reveals himself to his people, not in doctrinal statements, nor in theoretical studies, but in action, in the outworking of a story of relationships.” The story of God’s interaction with his people begins in the Bible, but it doesn’t end there. It continues throughout history. It continues throughout history down to today where we are making history with God. Therefore, since God lives in and through history, we ought to be compelled to learn about God’s history with his people throughout the centuries.