Why should anyone care about church history? In seminaries throughout America, church history courses are often seen as a sort of hazing exercise, a rite of passage, the primary function of which is to keep ministerial candidates from completely bombing ordination exams. For Protestants, this seems particularly true for the period of church history commencing with the end of the book of Acts up to when Martin Luther started the Reformation by (literally) hammering out his thoughts on the doors of some churches around Wittenberg.
Jesus, Disciples, Paul, yada, yada, yada…Luther, Calvin, yada, yada, yada, Billy Graham.
I don’t fault those who think this way, because I did too, both before and after I took required church history classes in seminary. What exactly am I missing out on if I can’t fill in the yada-yada’s with seemingly unimportant dates when some old white guy with an odd name said or did something really right (or wrong)? Besides, God reveals Himself through His Word, which, unlike the checkered history of the church, is authoritative and infallible. So, why exactly should I or anyone else care about church history?
My own perspective shifted when I set about translating some old Greek fragments from a second-century church father (Irenaeus) for a seminary course (that I didn’t want to do). But that course changed my life. Reading stories from the church fathers made history come alive and show me how wrong I was to think it was… well… stupid. I saw for the first time why church history was important in its own right and in relation to other disciplines like biblical studies and systematic theology. And while the entire list is extensive, I’d like to share five arguments why I think Christians should think church history is great and take it seriously.
1) Church history helps us better understand the Bible and avoid theological mistakes
Ever heard of a guy named Marcion? He was a second-century heretic who couldn’t reconcile what seemed to be a demanding, petty, cruel, and vindictive God of the Old Testament with the gracious, forgiving, and loving Jesus of the New Testament. So, he concluded there must be 2 gods, the pathetic and insufferable “bad god” who created the world, and the kind and gentle “good god,” Jesus, whose purpose is to redeem us from the “bad god” (not to him). So, Marcion unhitched his belief in Jesus from the Old Testament by getting rid of it. Good thing no Christian, especially an evangelical preacher, would ever make such a mistake today. Want to learn more? Listen to my Knox Lecture Series talk: “Good God vs. Bad God?”
2) Church history is really, really interesting
Here are just a few examples of what I mean. (1) My doctoral research is essentially about a fourth-century church father who held such a grudge against one of his predecessors that he manufactured an atrocious (yet completely bogus) heresy based on his nemesis’ statements. This “heresy” supposedly existed within the church and supposedly tried to do away with the Gospel of John. The only thing is, that “heresy” was nothing more than a baseless rumor. (2) Remember Marcion? One church father, Polycarp, is known for running out of the public baths (sans clothes) after seeing him, all the while calling him “the firstborn of Satan.” (3) Early on, Romans accused Christians of secret, flagrant crimes like atheism, cannibalism, and incest because they didn’t worship the pagan gods, partook of the body and blood of Jesus, and greeted one another with a holy kiss. Fascinating stuff, huh? Dig a little deeper and you’ll see there are loads of stories just like these.
3) Church history gives us reason for optimism
In a recent Knox chapel message, I relayed part of the story of Blandina, a Christian woman who, along with dozens of other believers, were violently persecuted for their faith in Jesus. She and others endured three days of the worst kind of tortures, including sitting on a red-hot iron chair, being suspended on a stake as food for wild animals, and being tossed around in a basket by a wild bull. Why? Because Christianity was an illegal religion at the time, the culture didn’t understand and therefore didn’t tolerate Christian beliefs, and believers were charged with all sorts of crimes they didn’t commit. We remember from passages like the opening of I Peter that we as Christians are to expect trials, and we see in the story of Blandina what faithful Christian witness looks like amidst overwhelming persecution. The expansion of Christianity as a result of martyrdoms also reminds us of the power of the gospel in proclaiming Christ’s victory over death (and in spite of death). As Tertullian famously quipped, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
4) Church history is the continued story of God working in and through His people
Throughout scripture we see this, from the fall of humanity in the garden, to his gracious covenants with humanity throughout the Old Testament leading to the new covenant in Christ’s blood. And yet God’s sovereignty over His creation and His church doesn’t stop there. Church history is the continued story of God graciously dealing with His church. Sure, there were some knuckleheads along the way, and there were some brilliant folks too (though they too had moments of knuckleheadedness), but that’s no different from the characters we read about in scripture. And just like scripture, church history is best understood not as a series of men and women doing important things, but rather God doing amazing things through sinful, broken people. And that’s precisely what we see throughout history: the consistency of God lovingly and graciously pursuing His people despite the fact that we too tend to be… well… knuckleheads.
5) Church history is about learning from others who wanted to know Jesus better
This is the main point of my church history course, and indeed all the courses here at Knox. The very first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer, of course, is, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” I think we can do that more effectively by studying how our ancestors did the very same thing. What did they get right? What did they get wrong? Through their stories we are able to see God’s unrelenting faithfulness and, as I remind my students, this should result in us offering deep, heartfelt praise and glory to our glorious King.
So, if you’re not interested in really interesting stories about mankind’s brokenness and God’s faithfulness that will deepen your faith, show you more of the character of God, and lead to optimism and richer worship of our God, then church history probably isn’t for you. But if you are interested in stories about God using men and women to declare and demonstrate His gospel (often through their own brokenness), then I think you’d really like church history – especially here at Knox!