For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of church history. I like history in general. It’s fascinating to read about the past – the events, decisions, and people that not only shaped their times but those that followed, including the present. Most folks probably don’t appreciate how much of what they do and believe has been tutored by the past. Unconsciously, we tend to assume we’re independent, free-thinkers whose worldview and decision-making aren’t contingent on anything, when the reality is that rarely is there anything we do or think which takes place in an historical vacuum. Simply put, we are the products the of times before us.
That’s why understanding church history is so incredibly valuable for followers of Jesus.
It helps me understand why we believe what we believe.
The reason Christians believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, or that Jesus is fully God and fully man, or that the New Testament has 27 books is because of the Spirit’s working through church history. I recently finished the second volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s magisterial work on the history of Christian doctrine and am blown away, once again, by the sober-mindedness of the church fathers who fought to preserve the teaching of Scripture as handed down by the apostles of Jesus. It wasn’t always perfect process with perfect outcomes but that’s part of the benefit of learning of church history. Ultimately, tracing the development of Christian doctrine has contextualized, reaffirmed, and at times challenged the theological beliefs I hold today. I come away with the feeling that I own better my beliefs.
It allows me to see blind spots in our own time.
Charles Spurgeon said, “I find it odd that he who thinks so highly of what the Holy Spirit teaches him, thinks so little of what the Holy Spirit teaches others also.” While he was referring to the criticism of using biblical commentaries, this could easily apply to church history. We have in church history a full twenty centuries of the Spirit’s work in men and women about which most believers have no clue. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to fall into what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery, which is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”1 It’s the attitude that says the past got it wrong and that’s why it didn’t last, but today we’ve figured things out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every age has blind spots – incorrect worldviews too enculturated to be clearly seen. For example, church history can expose our culture’s love affair with radical individualism or relativistic truth by showing us the gap between the people of God through the ages and our own.
It gifts me with tested solutions for problems we encounter today.
Each season there is some kind of theological or pastoral challenge the church faces. Often, these aren’t new but have been around in times past. Reading the early church as it pertains to the problem of evil, the nature of Jesus, biblical authority, or some other faith issue keeps me not only from reinventing the wheel but creating one that’s not going to be as nearly well-thought out or tested as the one provided by church tradition. This doesn’t mean the church throughout history always answered the question correctly each time, but that’s the gift of history. You can see how unhelpful answers got pulled apart at the seams by Christians in later centuries as they were forced to come up with better solutions to the questions. It truly is a gift to the people of God. Unfortunately for most, it lies untouched as a forgotten one.
It stirs a greater desire in me to be rooted to the one Church.
I’ve always heard tradition is a bad thing, but as I’ve gotten older, I see how ridiculous that accusation is. We have all kinds of traditions, practices or beliefs handed down to us that possess deep meaning (e.g., Christmas traditions, college traditions). Tradition isn’t the problem. It’s a rote, disconnectedness of going through the motions that’s lifeless. Yale church historian Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan framed it this way: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Ever since Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:3, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…”2 we have been a people who have received the tradition of apostolic teaching passed down the centuries. Reading about this advance of gospel truth from generation to generation reveals a desire in me for a rootedness with the Church Historical not only of the first century but of the additional twenty centuries since. Jesus prayed in John 17 that his church would be one, and for me, church history is a small way to help recover the catholicity of my own faith.3
So, take a chance and read a book on church history. If you’re a Clear Creeker, take our class on it when it’s offered. If you need some good starter books on church history, here are some recommendations:
- Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley
- Church History: An Essential Guide by Justo Gonzalez
- Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones
- C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966) ch. 13, pp. 207-8
- The Latin for “I delivered” in this verse is trado from where we get the word tradition.
- The word catholic simply means universal, as opposed to the capital “c” Catholic which popularly stands for the Roman Catholic Church.