Rethinking the Everyday Value of Church History

Several months ago, if you had asked me to consider reading up on the history of the Christian church, my response likely would have been something in the ZIP code of, “I’m sorry, but I think you have mistaken me for someone with an insomnia issue. The truth is that I have absolutely no problems getting to sleep at night.”

Granted that such an ignorant response signals more than one personality disorder, I am nevertheless clear that many – perhaps most – Christian believers are in my camp insofar as we would much rather read the works of current authors and theologians such as John Piper, Paul Tripp, Erwin Lutzer, Tim Keller and so forth. And many more of us would probably just prefer to take a well-earned nap.

Of course, there is nothing wrong (and much right) with wanting to keep up on current trends within the Christian faith by reading the works of authors who are either currently still with us, or perhaps only-recently departed; C.S. Lewis, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Francis Schaeffer are just a few names that come immediately to mind. After a few months of listening to lectures by Mike Honeycutt and reading two books by Justo Gonzalez, though, I now share at a heart level what I would previously have agreed to only in the intellectual realm. It’s not at all a stretch to say that I feel closer to God and His people – the church throughout the centuries – than I did before this past semester. That sounds like progress to me, regardless of my final grade.

As of this writing, I have yet to take my final exam for “CH200: The Story of Christianity,” but one of the questions I may be required to answer goes like this: “Of what value is the study of Church history to the Church today? In other words, be able to argue for the study of Church history, giving three main reasons, with adequate explanation, to someone who simply doesn’t see the need – someone, for instance, who might not even feel it is appropriate to study Church history in Sunday school.”

Some of the correct answers Prof. Honeycutt will be looking for include:

  1. We develop a sense of belonging to God’s Church throughout the ages.
    • Absolutely true. And it’s very helpful, I think, to understand that prior to 1054, there was only one – one – “denomination.” Coincidentally, I found this information amazingly helpful when responding to my six-year-old’s astute inquiry on the way to school one morning: “Dad, why are there are so many different churches in our city?” Even a six-year-old “gets it” when you say, “Well, Buddy, the truth is that it wasn’t like that for the first thousand years after Jesus went to Heaven.” Score one for Honeycutt and Gonzalez.
  2. A study of Church history fosters a tolerant (or “catholic”) mind.
    • No e-mails, please; we are talking about “catholic” with a very-intentional lowercase C. Carl Trueman has said it well: “[It takes] humility to recognize that we need the wisdom of the ages, a humility that can function as an antidote to our natural arrogance and [to] the present attraction to simplistic ‘just-me-and-my-Bible’ solutions. As many have pointed out, sola Scriptura is not solo Scriptura.” Every denomination has its strengths and weaknesses, and when we better understand the broad Christian traditions God has given us, it enables us to cooperate in mission.
  3. The people of God are called to remember and celebrate the good deeds of our God.
    • While we need to be cautious about human history as recorded outside the biblical canon, there are many points in history where we can clearly see the hand of God at work and we need to celebrate those as well. Richard Baxter, in reference to the sudden, nonviolent disbanding of the Commonwealth army which had previously put Charles I to death, said this: “Let any man that hath the use of his understanding judge whether this were not enough to prove that there is a God that governs the world and disposes of the Powers of the world according to His Will.”
  4. Church history provides perspective on the interpretation of Scripture.
    • Historian Justo Gonzalez puts it like this: “We are all heirs of the diverse host of Christian witnesses that fill the pages of the history of the Church. When we read, for instance, that ‘the just shall live by faith,’ Martin Luther is whispering in our ear how we should interpret those words – and this is true even if we have never heard of Martin Luther. A person wearing tinted glasses can avoid the conclusion that the entire world is tinted only by being conscious of the glasses themselves.”
  5. The study of Church history is also useful as a laboratory for examining Christian interactions with surrounding culture.
    • This point obviously has multiple applications, but one helpful example for understanding today’s “Christian nation” dialogue would be to study the ways that Christians have responded to being in power (politically) and out of power throughout history.
  6. Church history can inspire us.
    • Donald Fairbairn says it like this: “Studying Church history brings us into contact not only with these men and women, but also with the milieu in which they lived, with the contexts which help us to understand and appreciate their faithfulness. We come away from such study challenged to be faithful in living for Christ in our world, our milieu, as well.”
  7. Church history can encourage us.
    • Mark Noll: “The heroes of the faith usually have feet of clay – sometimes thighs, hearts, and heads as well. The golden ages of the past usually turn out to be tarnished if they are examined closely enough. Crowding around the heroes of the faith are a lot of villains, and some of them look an awful lot like the heroes.”
Painting of Augustine being tempted by Satan.

While there is much more that could be said here – just in case anyone was looking for more motivation to read up on the first 1,500 years of the Christian church – I would only add that being “forced” by the exigencies of a degree program to read Gonzalez – something I can admit I probably would never have done apart from “It’s a required class,” I can honestly say that being exposed to this material has proved abundantly fruitful in conversations with my own children, all of whom have plenty of questions about why I believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God and why there is no other name under Heaven by which men can be saved.

So while the “correct answers” listed above may or may not encourage anyone to dip their toe into Volume 1 or Volume 2 by Gonzalez, I’d just like to salt this encouragement with my personal assurance that a really great conversation on who Augustine is can be held (at an age-appropriate level, of course) with a fairly straightforward question such as, “Dad, where Satan is trying to accuse Augustine, how become he is green like an alien and has an extra face on his butt?”

“We live in a time when innovation is the order of the day. Whereas in the sixteenth century, the very novelty of Luther’s ideas was what made them so suspect and, one might add, so likely to be wrong, nowadays it is the traditional which is likely to be considered wrong and the novel which is likely to be regarded as more likely true.”  Carl Trueman

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