The Significance of Church History

Church History is a common course in almost every undergraduate and graduate level degree in Theology, Bible, ministry, etc. However, I have begun to think we have lost the purpose or thrust behind the need for studying the historical roots of the church. In a day when the newest, latest, and most innovative ideas take center stage, it may be that we need to take a step back and look into the past. So why study the history of the church? I wish I could take all the credit for these ideas, but I can’t. This is the culmination of many individuals before me, some of which taught me.

1. Christianity is a historical faith. It is not an esoteric, philosophical, or abstract school of thought. The whole faith is rooted and centered upon the person of Jesus Christ. The church was the innovative idea of a sovereign God. Christianity is the expression of the church. The Christian faith is the one true faith that has expressed the ideas of the church in the correct fashion. And since Christ is an authentic character in the Father’s narrative, the whole faith deserves examination.

2. We study Church History to evaluate, confirm, or correct current doctrinal issues. Church History is not just a series of dates, names, and places. It is the study of the only true walk of faith. That means that the only true doctrinal foundations come through this line. We should study in order to evaluate the validity of current movements. We should study in order to discover true practices and doctrine. With a proper study of the history of the church we might be able to answer some of the objective questions of today. It is absurd to discredit the historical writings and thoughts of those who have gone before us.

3. We can discover who had authoritative responsibilities within the church. When we study the history of the church, we can grasp how things were done. From there we can evaluate. I am not saying that every doctrine and practice throughout the history of the church is correct, but we can glean and learn.

4. We can learn how the person of Jesus has been interpreted throughout the centuries, and how they have articulated His salvific work. With strong foundations, we can know the historicity of our doctrinal ideals. Who did they think Jesus was? How did they determine and define the person of Christ? How did we come to have the canon of Scripture that we do? These are all questions that are answered when we take time to dive into the history.

5. When studying Church History, we can trace origins of denominations. In a day and time when denominations seem a dime-a-dozen, we can study the birth of these denominations. With this study, it might help us to better understand them and then make clear, concise, and informed decisions concerning their doctrine, practice, and validity. Why did certain groups form? What was going on when they formed? Maybe we can learn from the mistakes of the church as we unfold the historical facts.

6. We should study Church History for personal knowledge and growth. When we study Church History it can help us to better define our essential beliefs. We will discover what the key or fundamental orthodox doctrines have been. We will see that over time they changed and been redefined.

7. We will learn to appreciate those who have gone on before us. Our faith did not just drop out of the sky one day. We can read and learn the developments of the church, and how it has been shaped to be what it is today. There have been wars, struggles, tribulations, and trials galore that have fashioned and described the church. When we gain knowledge of these truths, we will grow in love with Christ all the more.

Maybe you can add to this list. I can personally attest that my study of Church History has shaped my doctrinal and theological convictions. I often took for granted the words of others, but finally had the privilege of reading them first hand. What a difference it makes when you gather the sources and discover the riches and depths of the key historical figures. While these are not “inspired” writings or events, I do think they are beneficial. When I look at who, when, and where, I cannot help but hoist the sovereignty of God more than before. I would encourage everyone to grab some historical writing and begin a lifelong endeavor to uncover the treasures of old!

Comments

  1. Dave Miller says

    Not sure why this thing posted with comments closed. They are open now.

    Thanks for the good post, Andy.

  2. Christiane says

    Trevin Wax’s blog often posts prayers and writings from Christians of the early Church, so that is one source available easily to Southern Baptist people on which they can depend

  3. says

    It probably overlaps you a bit, but some of C. S. Lewis’s comments on reading old books seem to apply here:

    “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without
    question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they
    are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

  4. Greg Buchanan says

    Andy,

    Great post… makes me want to break out my church history books again.


    7. We will learn to appreciate those who have gone on before us. Our faith did not just drop out of the sky one day. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/the-significance-of-church-history/#comments

    This one is amazing: I can’t tell you the number of folks I’ve met who don’t like to read histories or theology books or biographies of those who’ve gone before us (not even a comic book version or Cliff’s notes) because “all I need is the Bible.”

    It sounds like humility, but it’s arrogance in this way: “I don’t need anyone else.”

  5. Jason Harris says

    History has always been a weak area for me personally. What church history books would you recommend?

  6. says

    Jason,

    It depends on how in-depth you want to go. A few I would recommend;
    Justo Gonzalez has a great two volume set, Robert Baker has a concise volume I use when teaching undergrad students. Also, Mark Noll’s book called “Turning Points” is a book that hits highlights from Christian history. From there you can dive into specific areas of historical study and the books are endless. Let me know if there are some specific things you would like to study and I will point you in a good direction.

  7. says

    It was a pleasure to read this, and also very much an inspiration. I am working on a biography of the Dutch Johannes van der Steur (1865-1945), who left Holland for the then Netherlands-Indies. He became the foster dad of some seventhousand children. “Pa” (dad) is the most famous SDB here, thoug he claims to have left the faith. His sister Marie did not- and she fostered many children in the colony as well. I would be very happy with any advice on reading material.