“Why would twenty-first century evangelicals—who can read the Bible for themselves and attend Bible-believing churches—need to study Church History?”

I’ve heard this kind of question phrased a number of ways over the years. Sometimes people ask it with a tone of sincere curiosity, genuinely wanting an answer: Isn’t the Bible sufficient for all matters of faith and practice? Are those people from church history even relevant to our modern world? What can they tell us that isn’t already in the Bible for anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear? Other times people ask with a tone of incredulity—even hostility: Won’t dwelling in the past keep us from looking to the future? Isn’t it dangerous to read all those Roman Catholics? Didn’t the church fall away from the Bible soon after the apostles? Don’t we believe in Scripture ALONE as the source of our theology?

As a professor of theology who has consciously injected a large dose of historical reflection into my biblical, doctrinal, and practical instruction, I’ve found it necessary to ready myself with a number of important reasons for looking into our rearview mirrors as we seek to drive forward into the future. I’d like to share with you ten reasons why every Bible-believing Christian should not merely give church history an occasional nod of respect, but embrace church history as an essential component of a wise, balanced Christian life and ministry:

  1. It will cure our ignorance of the past.
  2. It will curb the arrogance of our present.
  3. It will conserve the faith for the future.
  4. It will connect us to a rich legacy.
  5. It will counter the claims of critics.
  6. It will capture the interest of outsiders.
  7. It will complete a balanced faith.
  8. It will cultivate Christian growth.
  9. It will clarify our interpretation of Scripture.
  10. It will correct our doctrinal and practical errors.

Reason #1: Studying church history will cure our ignorance of the past.

Too many evangelicals are walking around in a constant state of what we might call duja vé. No, not déja vu—you know what that is: the odd feeling that this has happened before. Duja vé, on the other hand, is just the opposite: it’s that nagging feeling that none of this has ever happened before. The truth is, throughout the church’s history Christians have pretty much dealt with every kind of doctrinal and practical challenge you can imagine. Ecclesiastes 1:9–10 puts it this way: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.”

Let me give an illustration. As a young believer, I was a member of a small community church in northern Minnesota. It was so small that the adult Sunday school class included everybody in the church except for the children and youth. As you might expect, in this mixed generation class, the intergenerational conflict sometimes flared up. On one occasion the subject of church music came up, centered on the question of the use of various instruments like guitars and drums. In our church only the piano was used in Sunday morning worship.

One older man in the class spoke up in a deep, gruff voice, ranting against the use of anything but the piano in worship and complaining about “that satanic beat” of modern music using drums. In his mind, using instruments associated with contemporary secular music would be selling out to the culture. A little historical perspective would have helped here. Most people who resist musical and instrumental changes to the worship service fail to acknowledge that every style of music and musical instrument has, at some point, been adapted from the surrounding culture. In fact, when great hymn writers like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley wrote their now classic hymns, the songs were rejected by many church leaders who believed Christians should sing only the inspired and inerrant Psalms. And instruments like the piano, violin, and even the organ were all initially rejected for Christian worship because of their associations with secular music.

Though the ignorance of the past illustrated in this particular example did not drive our church into controversy and conflict, other cases of ignorance of the past could potentially lead to disaster. In order for Christians to make wise decisions, they must be able to draw from a depth of historical knowledge.

    9 replies to "Ten Reasons to Reclaim the Past for the Sake of the Future"

    • Brian Roden

      I just finished my second semester of World Christianity (global church history) at seminary, and I think that was a good foundational class to have at the beginning of my seminary career. It helped put all the creeds, saints, and theologians in perspective, as to who was building on and influenced by whom.

    • C Michael Patton

      Wait, you mean that there is no such thing as a “satanic beat”?

    • Steve Meikle

      I have read widely of church history. It is so foul, so full of quarrels, murder, factions schism and the rest that I really cant see the point in it except for my ongoing interest as a history buff.

      My arrogance of the present is cured by repenting as led by the Spirit. Not by reading of the present arrogance of past generations

      When reformers like Luther are seen to be men of foul temper and fouler mouths, (of course putting the biblical verdict to such things) and see that nothing is new under the sun, why bother to research and see that they were all as carnal as we are and the past we hanker after simply never existed.

      You do know that the Eastern Orthodox still hate us over the filioque question? this hatred as festered now for a thousand years.

      I have the Holy Spirit. Without Him I am damned. With Him I have today, can forget the historical past, and simply live

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      So, Michael, if we follow the idea that what is has been, but use the lens of Jesus’ dictum that “you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition,” where do we end up?

      Can an affirmation of post-biblical history restore us to anything but diversions from God’s Word? One lesson we may extract from scripture and church history is how humans depart from God’s Word to satisfy their own desires. I realize this may sound cynical, but why should we expect humans to behave differently today than at the time of the NT?

      Simply affirming the value of re-claiming church history without critically comparing it to the NT church–historically reconstructed for us though it must be–seems just another way to justify upholding the traditions of men rather than the will of God.

      What insights from “the great tradition’s” dealing with issues that perennially arise can get us to an altogether faithful perspective on God’s will and gospel? Isn’t that what the Word of God…

    • Michael J. Svigel

      Thanks for the comments so far. I think, though, I’ll have to withhold too much interaction until ALL TEN reasons are posted. I’m glad to see that the comments are actually anticipating my discussion of several of the future blog posts. Especially #9 on the relationship of history and Scripture. Chances are even the whole blog series won’t answer all of the questions in the depth some of you crave. It’s merely an introduction. The book, RetroChristianity, does cover these issues in depth, as do many of my other essays at http://www.retrochristianity.com.

    • Daniel Kivumbi

      Dr. Michael Svigel thank you so much for this teaching. I used to tease you calling you a Navy Ninja when U were at Liberty Corner but now I can’t believe what a great teacher you have become! I give glory to God.

    • Pete again


      “You do know that the Eastern Orthodox still hate us over the filioque question? this hatred as festered now for a thousand years.”

      That is an incorrect statement. I invite you to talk to a local Orthodox priest, or come to one of our Sunday Liturgies, and discover the truth. Come and see.

      It is obvious that you are angry. The root of anger is pride. Pride and anger are NOT fruits of the Holy Spirit.

    • […] Svigel has already unpacked his first and second installments and you can read them here and here, […]

    • Jason

      Dr Svigel, some of the commentators here really need your second point. 😉

      Give me the old preachers full of piss and vinegar over the plastic “spirit-filled” preachers of today.

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