“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:
- It will cure our ignorance of the past.
- It will curb the arrogance of our present.
- It will conserve the faith for the future.
- It will connect us to a rich legacy.
- It will counter the claims of critics.
- It will capture the interest of outsiders.
- It will complete a balanced faith.
- It will cultivate Christian growth.
- It will clarify our interpretation of Scripture.
- 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.