3 Reasons Why Church History Matters
“What good is studying history?” This is a question that is asked by high school students, college students, and people all over the Western World every day. Even the History Channel seems to focus on other topics more than history lately. So a related question is unsurprising: “Why would you would you get a Master’s Degree in Church History?”
A little over a year and a half ago I left my home of 27 years and moved to Boston to study Church History, so I saw that question a lot. Everyone has different reasons for what they study, but mine has a simple answer. Understanding the History of the Church is vital to the success of the Church now. We live in a time where our history is often forgotten, ignored, or intentionally brushed over. As Protestant Christians, must fight the tendency to see Church History as giant jumps from Jesus to Paul, to Augustine, to Luther, to Us. There is so much more, and in this post I want to share with you three reasons why we must retain a historic sense of the Christian faith:
1. Most of the battles we are fighting have already been fought:
If you show me any hot topic attack that is going on in the Church right now and I will show you an example from Church History where we have already fought it, or something similar enough to give us a starting point. Whether it is abortion, evolution, homosexuality, or anything else. The Church has struggled with the ideas before, and it will continue to struggle with them in the future. There is no reason for us to feel as though we need to come up with an answer by ourselves, when we have 2000 years of Christian thought and wisdom to help us in the fight.
2. We cannot know who we are, unless we know where we came from:
Often times adopted Children will encounter an impulse to find and meet their biological parents. Despite the fact that their adoptive parents are significantly more influential and determinative in their personality and future, they are driven to know where they came from. We should be no different. Take for example the young student of theology. They may be faced with people telling them that theology is a good way to kill your faith, to become an atheist, or to disrupt the Church of the life (I have been told all these things at one point or another in my journey). However, when we look at all of the major game changing theologians of history (E.G. Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Wesley, Barth) we see that not only were they theologians, but they were pastors as well. They did theology for the Church, and they did ministry to do theology.
Another example is the Crusades. Anyone who has done evangelism with atheists (or especially with Muslims) will have been told that the Crusades are an example of why they cannot become a Christian. Most people don’t have an adequate response for that objection… the Crusades WERE a horrible moment in the history of the Church. What most people don’t realize is that the Crusades were a response by the governmental structure (which was tied to the Church) to the advancement of the Muslim armies. I’m not trying to paint them out to be something they were not, but we need to defend or accept them for what they were… not what they have been turned into. The Galileo Incident, the Inquisition, the Colonial Period… all of these are events in the life of the Church that are painted as negative (and some of them are). But they are not simply a black spot on the face of the Church, they are nuanced and complex events with many variables. If we are to know who we are, both as individuals and corporately, we MUST know the history of the Church.
3. All of the people we take or historical cues from understood the importance of history:
You cannot read very far in the work of any substantial Christian author, historical or contemporary, without bumping up against history. Luther references the Church Fathers, Edwards references Calvin, Barth references Schleiermacher… we cannot read these great works and understand them if we do not understand the historical framework into which they write. Beyond this we see that Paul and Jesus themselves operate in this way. We cannot understand Paul if we do not understand him in the light of the 1st century Church and surrounding cultures, we cannot understand Jesus if we do not understand him against the backdrop of 1st century Judaism, and we cannot understand 1st century Judaism if we do not understand 1st century BC Judaism, 2ndcentury Judaism, and so on.
This may not whet your desire to study Church history. I don’t expect all of you to run out and buy a complete survey of Church History (although if you do… A History of Christianity by Kenneth Scott LaTourette is a great place to start)… but if I’ve convinced you to think about where we came from as a Church, and where you came from as an individual… then this post has been a success. If not… well, there’s a historical reason for that too!
Tony Arsenal is a reformed Historian and Theologian currently working on a Masters of Arts in Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA. He grew up in Minneapolis, MN and holds a BA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Bethel University. His current focus is on the Nicene-Chalcedonian Fathers and the development of historical orthodoxy. He is currently engaged and will be marrying his fiancée, Lee Schwamb, in September of this year. He hopes to conduct PhD studies in the coming years.