History can be a great source of strength and affirmation in difficult,
dangerous times.” Anyone anywhere has always lived amidst dangerous times, but why study church history?
Why study church history?
Cicero wisely said, “To remain ignorant of what has happened before you were born is to remain always a child.” Do you want to remain a child, or more precisely an immature Christian? We all want to grow in faith and closer to Jesus. The past provides us with examples to follow, and follies to avoid. We never learn or grow in isolation, so why should we neglect 2,000 years of men and women who have already gone before?
Have you ever studied higher education in the UK? In the USA, doctorate students primarily study and do research on their own, and submit their writings to a committee. But in the UK, the student is assigned a professor, and a one on one mentorship begins which lasts for years. The student learns from the mentor’s experiences, mistakes and achievements. We too can look to the saints of the past as our mentors. How did they deal with distractions? What did they do when they were depressed? How did they pray?
1.To cultivate Christian growth
The early Christians, even the Apostles, believed Jesus was returning in their lifetime. But it’s been 2,000 years. That’s a long time to wait. While waiting, we must, as Paul says, run the race. We have a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2) from church history to provide us with good models to follow and bad examples to avoid. We can look into the rearview mirror and see if those of the past struggle with the same things we all struggle with. Since they are already at the finish line, their lives can encourage and help us to run and complete our own race.
2.To curb our arrogance
C.S. Lewis said that every third book you read should be one from the past. This was to curb what he called “chronological snobbery.” “Chronological snobbery” is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”
Are any of us really smart enough to figure out and solve problems all by ourselves? Do we really think our interpretation of Scripture is right and we don’t need to check out old dusty books? Are we that confident in our abilities to interpret Scripture this way? Studying the past keeps us humble. It keeps us from thinking that we have all the answers, or that we can find out all the answers because we are smarter and have better technology.
It makes us realize that we are only one tiny part of a huge and long lasting church throughout the ages. We shouldn’t be so confident in ourselves, or our theological era, because what if we have it wrong? You can go to CCEL and search for the texts for free. You can even download a PDF to put onto your tablet. I recommend to try to read one of these early texts at least once a month. Read it, find some articles about it, understand what the purpose of the text was to get an indication of why it was written.
3.To prevent error
Much of the history of the church was about battling and preserving the church against error. Much of the doctrine that we believe today is a result of preventing heresy from creeping into the Church. Much of the errors the early church dealt with, still continue today, and if we don’t study church history, we may not be able to recognize them.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a new form of an old error. Could you recognize it, if they came to your front door? Only studying what the church fought against will help avoid error, because the enemies of old will come at us with the same attacks, disguised with different maneuvers. So why should we waste time trying to come up with a solution to combat errors, when an adequate solution may have been presented 1,000 years ago?
4.To provide an apologetic
This reason is closely aligned with reason #3. If we can recognize an error, we can show someone why we believe they are in error. We can also refute an error. For example, the history channel is notorious for airing programs that speak of ‘lost gospels.’ They say the Church suppressed such gospels for power or political gain.
However, if we correctly understood how the Bible came together, this is an easy charge to refute. Such refutations could lead to a conversation about the reliability of the Bible, how it is God’s Word and what God’s Word says about Jesus and salvation. An apologetic can provide opportunities to share the Gospel.
An apologetic can also be useful for our youth, and personally I believe the church as a whole is doing a horrible job of teaching our young one’s how to respond to errors or attacks against Christianity. Dr. Al Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, once told the story of Evelyn Waugh. Evelyn was raised in a Christian home in the early 1900s.
By the time he was 17, he had become a committed atheist. He said any Christian readings assigned to him by his tutors were subversive to the faith, and promoted unorthodox ideas. He says, “I do not remember ever being urged to read a book of Christian philosophy.” By that he means books on tough intellectual matters of the faith, books by people dealing with struggles, books that address the History Channel’s claims.
The Church is over 2,000 years old, and has more resources to pull from that could fill up the library across the street ten times over. Use the past to defend the faith today.
5.To understand tomorrow
Understanding where the Church has come from and why, can prepare the Church for what is about to come upon the horizon. For example, if one understands why liberal theology came upon the scene in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s one can understand why Churches are allowing homosexual marriage, or why some “churches” believe there is no hell.
Sometimes decisions the Church has to make are not so clear-cut, and decisions and trends of the past can help the Church in making wise and Biblical choices for the long bumpy road ahead. America today is quickly looking more and more like the 1st century Roman Empire, the time and place Christianity began.