A number of years ago I took the Strength-Finders test as part of an evaluation process. In taking this particular test it was said that one of my areas of strength, so to speak, is “context.” That means I like thinking about the past. That’s true and I’ll chalk it up to a tool telling me something that I (and those who know me) already knew about myself.
Yes, I enjoy the past. But not simply for the sake of the past. I believe being a student of the past (i.e. history) helps us live more faithfully and helpfully in the present. This idea of living more effectively in the present (and the future) is one reason I enjoy giving time to reading historically, working on historical notes, and when I have the chance, teaching history at some level (currently, I am teaching Church History I at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a course on Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion at Bethlehem College & Seminary). In other words, history is not merely for entertainment, even though I am entertained a good bit when doing historical work. Instead, part of the aim, at least in my pursuit of historical information, is to build others up and provide help to them as they sojourn on this earth.
Now, my particular interest is in Church History and Historical Theology. There is a difference between the two, but that’s another post. My aim here is modest and precise. I simply want to provide a short summary of why church historians believe you (and others) should develop a level of historical consciousness. That is, almost every time you pick up a church history textbook or take a class on church history, you’ll find rationale for why you should care about this subject matter. I am going to try and summarize some of the reasons here in this post and add a few points of my own.
WHY YOU SHOULD STUDY CHURCH HISTORY
I’ve chosen a few church history volumes from my bookshelves in order to see if they give common reasons for why you should study church history. I didn’t take too much time to pick the books and my choices do not represent any grand plan. Rather, I grabbed a few random history books, did some reading, and created categories.
Here is what I’ve found (summarizing things in my own words).
Common Reasons for Why You Should Study Church History:
Catholicity—studying the story of God’s work through history reminds us that we are part of a global family that spans more than 2,000 years, countless miles, and a multiplicity of cultures. This diverse body finds unity in a common King and Savior.
Counter Individualism—that we live in a highly individualistic age is seemingly clear. Building on the preceding point, church history reminds us that God redeemed a people, not just individual persons.
Discipleship—as we look at the history of God’s people, we encounter those who were both faithful and unfaithful followers of Christ. Watching their attempts to follow Jesus is something the Spirit uses to help us along the path of discipleship.
Faithfulness—being aware of the past, with all the faults, failures, mistakes, successes, victories, and reasons to rejoice, better prepares us for faithfulness in the present and the future. Navigating the often turbulent waters ahead is easier when we have the experiences of the past in our intellectual toolbox.
Enlarging our Views—C. S. Lewis helps us here. “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar [and student of history] 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” (Lewis, “Learning in War-time, in The Weight of Glory).
Humility—again, building on the previous point, as we read more broadly and pay attention to those who have gone before us, it serves to humble us. Often times when we read stories of Christians who have faithfully followed Jesus through significant trials or produced theologically careful works, it becomes more difficult to think too highly of ourselves.
Identify Orthodoxy and Heresy—historically, the church has sought to contend for the faith once for all delivered. As we pay attention to the theological debates of the past, the establishment of doctrine in the great Creeds and Confessions, we see more clearly what right belief (orthodoxy) looks like. In seeing right thinking more readily, we are able to more easily discern false teaching.
Theological Triage—studying church history also helps us note what doctrines were and are worth dividing over and what doctrines allow for a wide range of disagreement.
Thankfulness—as we read the story of Christian history, we are reading the story of God’s dealings with his people in a fallen world. What emerges is a picture of a people who are both faithful and unfaithful. Yet, God, despite our unfaithfulness, remains faithful without fail. This should cause us to give thanks for and to our faithful God.
Hope—as we look at the faithfulness of God and give thanks, this reality should give rise to hope in God who is for us and will bring us safely home.
Some Things Perhaps Missing
As I pondered the list above, I say amen to it all. Yet, here are a few things I might add to the reasons you should study church history and historical theology.
Increased Affections for Jesus—what surprised me is that in the several resources I surveyed, studying church history in order to increase our love of Jesus did not find mention. Perhaps I simply scanned things too quickly. But this reason, particularly for a Christian Hedonist, tops the list. Church history, indeed, world history, is the story of God’s glory. When we read historically and see God’s providential governance of the universe for our good and his glory, we should fall more in love with him.
Missional Wisdom—the mission of the church is to make disciples of all peoples and to teach those disciples to obey all that Christ commanded (Matt 28). Reading historically should help us tackle that task with more effectiveness.
Pleasure—finally, it is not bad to do some things just for the pure pleasure of doing. God has allowed us to keep records and retain memories. Thinking about the past can simply be a way we enjoy the God-given gift of this world, the ages gone by, and our ability to think historically.
With those thoughts in mind, what might you add to why Christians should take the time to study church history?