Why Study Church History

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.

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4 Responses to Why Study Church History

  1. Chris P. says:

    Robert, I agree. I have taught Church history and also a history of the Scriptures. I am adamant about it. What has happened is what always happens, i.e. where there is a “disconnect” with our heritage, there is a void. This is essentially a problem with the entire world and all it’s systems.
    Unfortunately where there is a void, and a belief that we are “it”, we end up with ‘generous orthodoxies” and Joel Osteen to fill in. Very good post.

  2. Darren says:

    “We hold history in contempt. A study of church history ought to help correct some of these errors.”

    Robert, quite true, quite true. History and historical theology are of immeasurable worth to the contemporary church, and every church should be offering classes like this where laypersons can dive deep into the subject. (I wish my church did.)

    I suspect that our deemphasis of church history within Protestant churches stems in large measure from our fear of “tradition,” as if it was opposed to sola Scriptura.

  3. Cindy says:

    I agree with your statements. In considering church history, do you also consider the rich Hebraic roots from which our Lord stems from? As Paul outlined in Rom. 11, we ought not to neglect the tree in which we are ingrafted. If our recent past church history (50 years or so), is so “irrelevant”, consider how much further our ideals about righteousness, purity, morality, and the like, have been removed. It is helpful to identify with previous church fathers, however, I think we (the church of 2005), are being neglectful and ultimately, hurting ourselves by not returning to the Olive Tree branch in which we are ingrafted.

  4. Tom says:

    Great post! I agree whole heartedly. I’d love to see your course materials and propose their use in our fellowship class at church. And a list of resource materials you used would also be invaluable. I hope to hear back from you!


    Doctrine Matters

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