I’d like, first, to attempt to persuade the unpersuaded that studying Church history – puzzling dusty, Latiny, wordy texts – is totally worthwhile. History skeptic, this is for you.
And second (and briefly), I’d like to offer the persuaded-but-fearful a few tips on where to begin. History initiate, this is for you as well.
To those few and fellow history enthusiasts, well, at least this’ll be a nice echo chamber.
First, what do we mean by “the study of Church history?” Does it mean, get on Wikipedia and search “Church history?” Do you need a textbook that gives you queasy college flashbacks? I don’t want us to walk into this question with a limited or even unpleasant idea of Church history in mind, so I actually want us first to talk about four kinds of works that are all included under “studying Church history.”
First are primary texts. These are works actually written by old Christians, and in my opinion these are the most interesting and most helpful things to read. These are the old theological texts with sexy names like On the Incarnation; pastoral works, which offer insight on living the Christian life; devotional works, written to lead Christians in worship through song or prayer or meditations; and imaginative works like Pilgrim’s Progress.
In short, works written by old, dead Christians.
The second kind of works are histories: works that trace the history of an institution or an idea. There are large, sweeping volumes of church history, that give you a big overview; there are histories of denominations, histories of specific doctrines or ideas, and histories of particular movements within Christianity like monasticism or the Reformation. If they’re done well, history texts help us put people or events into a wider context and see how things have developed over time.
The third kind of works are biographies: studies of individual Christians’ lives. These dive deep into one person’s life, letting us see how God worked in and through them in their time period. These can help us understand a person’s doctrine better; they can also encourage us with the life-story of a faithful Christian.
And the fourth kind of works are theological summaries: works that summarize, modernize, or engage the thought of old Christians. These look at the thoughts of a person or community – through their sermons, letters, etc. – and digest them to make them more understandable. Crossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series is a great example.
The study of Church history means devoting oneself to reading along these lines. And I promise you that doing so will enrich your life.
Then the big question you probably have, working dad, mom of three hyper children. How will this enrich my life? I have my Bible. I have John Piper and John MacArthur and Tim Keller; they know about the Internet and iPhones and soccer practice. What do old dead guys and gals have that will enrich me?
I would submit to you five things:
- Studying Church history gives us insight into the character and Word of God.
Now, in one sense the Bible is the final, authoritative, sufficient source of truth on these things. If we had nothing else but Scripture, we could live and glorify God. But raise your electronic hand if you’ve ever used the word “Trinity” to describe God. Now, keep it raised if you can tell me what verse we get the word “Trinity” from.
Exactly. The term “Trinity” comes, as near as we can tell, from a theologian named Tertullian, maybe around 200 A.D. What the ancient Christians knew from the Bible went like this:
- There is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4)
- Jesus is distinct from God the Father (John 5:19)
- At the same time, Jesus is also one with the Father and is God (John 1:1, 8:58)
- The Holy Spirit is distinct from Jesus and the Father (Romans 8:26)
- At the same time, the Spirit is revered with the Son and the Father (Matthew 28:19)
- Three distinct persons or personalities, but somehow also one God…
This is a major illustration of how studying Church history can give us insight into God’s character. That three-in-one unity that we see in Scripture is bound nicely into the word Trinity, that helps us understand who God is. No one outside of Scripture has the authoritative or final say on these things, but they can be really helpful to us in our thinking about them.
Another example is the idea that everyone has a “God-shaped hole” or “God-sized hole” in our hearts. That’s not strictly speaking a biblical phrase, but it captures something so true, doesn’t it? How all of us are made to have God fill our hearts, and nothing else can do that. That comes from Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was probably basing his thought on Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who said, “You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” There’s a real insight in that, isn’t there? It isn’t equal to Scripture, but it helps us understand the emptiness of idolatry and how we’re made to be satisfied in God alone. Studying Church history will give you deeper insight into the character and Word of God.
- Studying Church history gives us awareness of how the Church has come to be where she is.
We study the history of America in school because we are Americans. It matters that our founding fathers came here for economic and religious liberty. It matters that we had a Civil War over slavery in the mid-1800s. It matters that we’ve fought in two World Wars. Knowing these things, being aware of them, enriches our understanding of present-day America.
The same is true of the Church. We are shaped by what our spiritual forefathers have done, not only our biblical ones but also our historical ones. Learning how we learned to express what we see in Scripture as doctrine; learning why we had to have a Protestant Reformation; learning how the different denominations came to exist gives us appreciation for how God has guided the Church through the years. Studying Church history connects us to our past and gives us a deeper awareness of who we are now and why we are this way.
- Studying Church history gives us correction for generational blind spots.
In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis writes these words:
People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.
What he’s saying here is gold. Every generation, every age, has thought-patterns and values it accepts almost by instinct. We don’t question them; we may not even see them. We’re actually seeing that right now in the rise of postmodernism; two living generations have very different natural ideas about the world, and those ideas lead us to butt heads.
Reading ancient Christian teaching will expose natural cultural thought-patterns or idols that run counter to Scripture. My generation naturally idolizes self-actualization, and one way that’s working out is that many young Evangelicals are trying to soften the Bible’s sexual ethics. If all I read are people my own age, I might be able to persuade myself that the Bible isn’t really that harsh on sleeping with my girlfriend if we like one another a lot and one day will probably get married; but not if I read older generations.
On the flip side, there were people in the church I grew up in who thought black people were naturally inferior to whites and the races shouldn’t mingle. Both of these errors are critiqued by Scripture; but they’re also critiqued by other generations, and studying Church history will bring us up against teaching that might expose these things in our hearts.
- Studying Church history gives us fuel for our devotional lives.
This may be the way most of us are already naturally benefitting from Church history. If you’re ever sung a hymn written by someone no longer living; if a book like The Chronicles of Narnia has made you more excited about the new creation; if you’ve ever prayed a prayer from The Valley of Vision, you’re benefiting. Let me read the words to this hymn by Fanny Crosby:
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain—
Free to all, a healing stream—
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and Mercy found me;
There the bright and morning star
Sheds its beams around me.
Near the cross! O Lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day,
With its shadows o’er me.
Near the cross I’ll watch and wait
Hoping, trusting ever,
Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.
Just like the Psalms give us words to pray that we might never have known, so historic Christian works – though not Scripture – can still give us fuel for our devotional lives.
- Studying Church history gives us encouragement from God’s ongoing work in and through fallen people.
God redeemed us once for all two thousand years ago at Jesus’ death and resurrection. He gave us his definitive Word in Scripture, and that stands over everything we say and do now. But God keeps working in the world, and when we study Church history we see him at work. Augustine’s Confessions is the story of his conversion, how God pursued him and saved him and transformed him. God saved John Wesley after Wesley had left the ministry following a big moral failure, and used him to lead a major renewal movement in England. Throughout history, we see God work in ways that we can celebrate as his people.
And one thing you’ll notice if you start reading biographies is that these people were far from perfect. They had deep flaws, and some of them even major sins. I don’t really know what this tells us except that God is faithful to work through fallen, wrongheaded people. Studying Church history will make you think, “Wow, God really is gracious to use that man or woman in that way!”
Those are five ways studying the history of the Church will enrich your life. I fully expect that by this point you’re asking, “Where do I start?”
A few quick suggestions, and I’m through.
My first recommendation is that you prioritize primary texts. In old times, intelligibility was a mark of a great thinker; I’m afraid we’ve lost that in the last 75 years or so of professional scholarship. In all likelihood, primary texts will be more intelligible, more informative, and more interesting than more modern secondary ones.
A second suggestion, if you’ve never done it, is to buy a survey of Church history and let it guide you to deeper study. Get the big picture of the Church, and if any people or times or movements seem particularly interesting, find a book that deals with that more in-depth.
A third suggestion is to find a topic that interests you and look for old works on that. Is there a text you like? You can probably find sermons on it. Is there a point of doctrine you think is interesting? Someone else has probably written on it; go find that work, or at least a work summarizing their thought on it. There’s tons out there.
I’ll conclude with my personal shortlist of Church history texts I think everyone should buy and read as soon as you leave here:
Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Story of Christian Theology – Roger Olsen
The Imitation of Christ – Thomas a Kempis
The Valley of Vision