I have begun teaching an adult Sunday School class called Faith of Our Fathers. This is a brief (12-ish weeks) overview of the history of the church from Pentecost until now.
I was surprised to have about 10 folks show up for my class; I didn’t figure there would be much interest in it.
So why study church history? Why am I teaching it, and why should people take the class?
The Bible tells us to look to our history. In Jeremiah 6:16, God tells us “ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” Again in Isaiah 51:1, God says “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.” And of course there is the famous Hebrews 11, where the writer runs through a litany of great heroes of the faith. He follows that up by saying that since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, we should run the race before us.
Other than a handful of prophecies, I don’t think God every tells us to look to the future for matters of godliness. We always find rest for our souls in the old ways. Because of the inspiration and instruction from the past, from those who have already run the race, we are better able to run _our_ race.
History gives us a sense of identity. Church history is not about other people. It is _our_ story. It’s our legacy, our birthright. We should not read church history and think “this is what _they_ did”, but “this is what _we_ did”. We are part of the same company of believers that we read about in Acts.
This sense of identity also helps us not take ourselves too seriously. It is the antidote for chronological snobbery. Generations of Christians have lived, struggled, and died before me. There is nothing new under the sun. The world is not at a crossroads. This generation is not unique.
But on the flip side, as we see how the past impacted us and realize that we have this legacy of faith, it should cause us to take ourselves even more seriously in some ways. What the church does now will impact the future. The stands we take, or refuse to take, will have real consequences for the Christians in the future. What would have happened if there had been no council of Nicea? What if the early fathers urged a “generous orthodoxy” towards Arianism? Where would we be now? Where would the faith be?
I am dismayed at the recklessness some Christians treat the faith with. So now we have _new_ kinds of Christians and _generous_ orthodoxies. Or neo-orthodoxy. But maybe those are too extreme examples. How about the way we treat those who absolutely deny the Trinity in favor of modalism? I’ve yet to hear the church denounce TD Jakes. How about those who throw out our traditions in order to attract more yuppies to church? We hold history in contempt. A study of church history ought to help correct some of these errors.