The Value of Church History

I’m still at it — listening to those iTunes U. lectures. Recently, I have completed a couple of semesters from RTS (Reformed Theological Seminary) on Church History , covering the period of the Reformation to today. Listening to the lectures makes me want to go back and read through the original sources, but my schedule won’t allow that right now, so these lectures will have to do. Here are some of my reflections on church history after listening to the lectures.

What is church history? It is a picture of God’s hand in the affairs of history. It is the story of people of faith, searching after the reality of God, proclaiming their faith to a hostile world, and coming to  grips with fellow believers about what is true, false or expedient. It is one big, long dialogue involving a a continuous debate between players strewn across centuries, a conversation that spans millennia and builds on itself like building blocks. As a picture of God’s hand, a story of believers, and a dialogue between people of faith, there is much to be learned from church history.

First of all, it illustrates the Sovereignty of God and his continual control in the world. It recounts changed hearts, changed lives and the power of the gospel in the world. The church that would never be destroyed by the gates of hell persists and carries on.

Second, as a story of believers, there are lessons to be learned from previous successes and sin, faithfulness and failures. As Paul calls upon the Corinthians to learn from the example of the Israelites, the church today should learn from its predecessors. There great cloud of witnesses can also provide encouragement and inspiration in the face of challenges and discouragement.

Third, the dialogue of church history provides perspective. It tells us where we have come from, laying a foundation and giving background for discussions, debates and practices that exist today. It will allow one to navigate and properly think through new discussions and debates (which are really old debates with new clothes). It is important to have these bearings in the fast-flowing exchange of ideas that faces every generation.

One of the discussions to be found is with the world, indicating a clear apologetic need among the faithful. It involves boiling the gospel down to its most essential elements to enable clear and effective communication to others. This discussion portrays a clear interaction with the culture and prevailing philosophy of the day. To speak the unchanging gospel within an ever-changing cultural context is the challenge, and sometimes it has been carried out more successfully than others.

Another discussion in church history is the one between fellow believers. There is both an overwhelming amount of agreement and disagreement to be considered. A matter that has received general consensus among believers over 2000 years indicates what is almost certainly an essential and indispensable teaching, and one that should be questioned only with great reservation today. On the other side of things, disagreements abound. It is not the case that if you study church history, you will have all the answers. Rather, church history allows you to eaves drop on the debates of the dead in order to enter into a living and ongoing discussion. It lays out the options and develops historical trajectories, providing benefit to the thoughtful student. In light of the diversity that exists, we are reminded to always return to Scripture to mine the gospel anew for our generation but with a clear awareness of those who have gone before us.

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2 Responses to The Value of Church History

  1. Patrick says:

    I’m in my fourth year teaching church history to 11th graders and have found the study invaluable (and I still have an immense amount to learn). I think it’s unfortunate that our Restoration tradition sometimes discounts its relevance. Alexander Campbell knew a ton about church history, but also dismissed much of it as “the rubbish of the ages.”

    I think one of the main reasons to study it is the reason C.S. Lewis gives for knowing our past: “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” I also love his essay “On the Reading of Old Books” (his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation), in which he expands on this idea.

    • Jeremy says:

      Love the C.S. Lewis quote! I believe that we as a people ignore church history to our detriment. It helps us to be balanced, distinguishing between matters of importance and matters on the fringe (or the local issue vs. a universal problem).

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