Saving Us from Ourselves
The question that many Christians ask is “why the big deal about church history?” Many in today’s evangelical church, from the conservative to those on the outskirts of evangelicalism like the charismatics, cannot see what is so important about knowing a little about church history! The claim by so many Christians today is that they do not need those that went before us, since they can simply be led by the Holy Spirit and let the Spirit guide them in the interpretation of the Bible.
History—the story of those that went before us—is “the story of those whose heirs we are…a long preface to our own life stories.”1 The reason we can see so far is that we are standing on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before us. Only the conceited, the arrogant, see no need for church history. The conceited, the arrogant, are those who trample on the memory of the giants who have prepared the road on which we travel.
“For nearly two thousand years the Christian Church has
exercised a profound influence upon the western world. Since the
beginning of the nineteenth century its moral and spiritual influence
has spread, in a greater or less degree, to almost all parts of the
globe. No one, therefore, ought to be indifferent to the story of the
Church of Christ.”2
History, in reality, is HIS story. For history
shows how God, in His providence, is leading this world to the very end
God has designed for it (those who believe in Christ to blessedness and
those who do not believe to eternal damnation). It is in history,
especially church history, that we discover how God is making use of
ordinary men and women like you and me to accomplish his will.
“History,” writes Philip Schaff,
“is the biography of the human race,
and the gradual development, both normal and abnormal, of all its
physical, intellectual, and moral forces to the final consummation at
the general judgment, with its eternal rewards and punishments.”3
“Christians have a special interest in history because the very foundations of the faith that they profess are rooted in history.”4 It is with this interest—that our faith is rooted in history—that we should approach the study of church history. The fact that Jesus was an historic person, who actually lived on earth, who died and rose from the dead, makes the study of church history so vitally important for every Christian today. The very fact that Jesus said “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Mt 16:18), makes the study of church history significant to us. Church history shows us how He indeed has been working in His church, from the book of Acts to the present. “The central current and ultimate aim of universal history is the KINGDOM OF GOD established by JESUS CHRIST.”5
Cairns gives six points as to the value of church history6 to Christians today. We will be following those six points.
1. Church history as a synthesis
“links the past factual data of the Christian gospel
with the future proclamation and application of that gospel in a
present synthesis that creates understanding of our great heritage and
inspiration for its further proclamation and application… Exegetical
theology is linked in a meaningful pattern with practical theology as
the student sees how systematic theology has made an impact on previous
human thought and action.”7
There is and still must be place for systematic theology in the church today. The theology we adhere to influences our thoughts and conduct on this earth. When we look back at the struggles of the church from the earliest times to keep its doctrine and behaviour pure, we realise that we are not islands unto ourselves, but that much of what we have today in doctrine and behaviour are because of those monumental struggles to safeguard the purity of the church. This takes us to the next point.
2. Church history as an aid to understanding the present.
“We can understand the present much better if we have some
knowledge of its roots in the past… Present-day problems of the church
are often illuminated by study of the past, because patterns or
parallels exist in history.”8
In order to understand the existence of the different denominations we need not look any further than church history. When we look at the origins of the Anglican church, for instance, we note the struggle of the kings and queens of England with the papacy. In the origins of the Methodist church we find the Wesleyan revival which eventually brought a departure from the Anglican church. The genesis of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches can be traced all the way to Switzerland.
Do you have any idea why your church believes what it believes and why its current liturgy exists?
3. Church history as a guide
“The correction of existing evils within the church or the
avoidance of error and false practice is another value of the study of
the past of the church. The present is usually the product of the past
and the seed of the future… New sects will often be revealed as old
heresies in a new guise. Christian Science can be understood better
after a study of Gnosticism in the early church and the ideas of the
Cathari in medieval times. Ignorance of the Bible and the history of
the church is a major reason why many advocate false theologies or bad
Many claim that their false theologies (which they do not see as false) come from proper Bible study. However, when we look at the doctrinal battles of the early church we will soon find out why the early church looked at such theologies as false or even heretical. When we study church history we discover much of the why of our theology and liturgy.
4. Church history as a motivating force
“Church history also offers edification, inspiration, or
enthusiasm that will stimulate high spiritual life…. No one can study
the brave stand of Ambrose of Milan, in refusing Emperor Theodosius the
Communion until he repented of his massacre of the Thessalonian crowd,
without being encouraged to stand for Christ against evil in high
political or ecclesiastical circles.”10
When we look at how the church has been persecuted, we will
find comfort in church history in the fact that all over the church has
remained an indestructible force. Just before his martyrdom in Rome,
Ignatius wrote to the church in Rome,
“Now I begin to be a disciple. I
care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win
Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let
breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole
body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may
I win Christ Jesus.”11
As he heard the lions roar, before he was to
be thrown to them, he said
“I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be
ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.”12
When the Romans tried to force Polycarp to deny Christ and to bow
before Caesar, he answered by saying
“Eighty and six years have I
served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my
King, Who hath saved me?”13
The persistence of the saints of days gone by is a great encouragement to us. This we can only learn from church history. Every time we read a biography of some Christian, we are reading about church history.
5. Church history as a practical tool
We understand systematic theology much better when we have a
grasp of church history and the development of systematic theology
within that history.
“The doctrines of the Trinity, Christ, sin, and
soteriology [doctrine of salvation] will never be properly understood
unless one is aware of the history of the period from the Council of
Nicaea to the Council of Constantinople in 680.”14
“Is he,” writes
Cairns of the preacher intending to preach,
“seeking to warn of the
dangers of a blind mysticism that puts Christian illumination on a
level with the inspiration of the Bible? Then let him study the
mystical movements of the Middle Ages or early Quakerism. If he seeks
to warn of the dangers of an orthodoxy unaccompanied by a study and
application of the teachings of the Bible, then let him give attention
to the period of cold orthodoxy in Lutheranism after 1648, which
created a reaction known as Pietism, a movement that stressed earnest
study of the Bible and practical piety in daily life.”15
We can find an occurrence of an example in church history for almost every problem we face today in the church. It will be time well spent to study church history to discover how the church dealt with these problems in the past.
6. Church history as a liberalising force
Whenever we look at the history of the western world, we find
that it is meaningless (deficient and incomprehensible) if we do not
take cognisance of the role of Christianity in the expansion of western
civilisation. In a review of a new book by Rodney Stark called For the
Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts,
and the End of Slavery, David Neff writes,
“Stark doesn't argue so much
the virtues of Western civilization as the fact (yes, fact, not theory)
that you cannot understand Western civ without reference to Christian
theology and the way that it fertilized the soil in which those
‘extraordinary episodes’ grew.”16
“When we study the life and work of past generations, and when
we interpret it, we are doing history. But we must remember that future
generations will read about our times as past history. In that sense,
like it or not, both by our action and by our inaction, we are making
history. This is both an exhilarating opportunity and an awesome
responsibility, and it demands that we do history in order to be able
to make more faithfully. Every renewal of the church, every great age
in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history.”17
To believe that we can get along fine without looking at church history and the ground breaking steps those from the past have made in the study of theology, is to be so egotistical to think that the Holy Spirit has led only them to the truth and that those who have gone before us have simply not been as close to God as they are! Thinking like this simply cannot be the thinking of someone who claims to have the Holy Spirit in him.
True Christian humility will let us look at the past to learn from the mistakes made in the past, and to learn from the great teachers of church history so that our own lives may be enriched! When we realise that much greater men of God have gone before any of us, we will start walking in humility as we learn from them!
End Notes Gonzalez, Justo L., The Story of Christianity Complete in One Volume The Early Church to the Present Day, Prince Press, First Printing—December 1999, xiii.
 Renwick, A. M., The story of the church, Inter-Varsity Press, Bristol, Great Britain, Reprinted, 1977, p7.
 Schaff, Philip, HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH: VOLUME 1 APOSTOLIC CHRISTIANITY From the Birth of Christ to the Death of St. John A.D. 1-100, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, First printing—July 1996, p2.
 Cairns, Earle E., CHRISTIANITY THROUGH THE CENTURIES A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, Twenty-seventh printing (second revised edition), 1981, p13.
 Schaff, VOLUME 1, p3.
 Cairns, pp17-20.
 Ibid., p17.
 Ibid., pp17-18.
 Ibid., p18.
 c Ibid., p18.
 Foxe, John, FOXE’S BOOK OF MARTYRS, Whitaker House, Springdale, PA, 1981, p19.
 Ibid., p21.
 Ibid., p22.
 Cairns, p19.
 Ibid., p19.
 Neff, David, ChristianityToday.com, Editor's Bookshelf: Getting Western Civ Right, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/128/51.0.html.
 Gonzalez, xviii.