Just get two or three believers together for a Bible study and you soon realize that not everybody interprets the Bible exactly the same way. Sometimes they come to completely opposite conclusions. Other times they emphasize certain passages or doctrines more than others. Even when we follow the same rules of methodical Bible study or the principles of exegesis, we sometimes come up with different interpretations.

By looking back over church history, we can gain a perspective that will aid (not replace!) our reading of Scripture in two ways:

First, early testimony can provide added insight into the historical and theological context within which the New Testament itself was written and read. By “early” I mean the writings of the period overlapping with and immediately following the New Testament apostles and prophets themselves, between about AD 50 and 150. Though these accounts can’t be treated as authoritative Scripture, these early authors’ interpretations, doctrines, and practices open a window into the teachings of the apostles themselves.

It’s reasonable to conclude, for example, that Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, reflects much of John’s theology and practice in his own letter to the church in Philippi, which he wrote around AD 110 . . . just a couple of decades or so after John wrote his Gospel, epistles, and Revelation. In fact, Irenaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp, wrote around AD 180: “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary . . . to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those whom they did commit the Churches?” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.4.1). That is, many people were still alive throughout the second century who had the authentic words and theology of the original apostles and prophets still ringing in their ears. Although these earliest testimonies cannot be adopted uncritically, we can’t afford to completely ignore these writings as tools to help us properly interpret the apostles’ writings in their actual historical theological contexts.

Second, enduring tradition refers to those things that continue to be retained, reaffirmed, or restored in every generation of Christian history. Christ promised that he would never leave us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). He also promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). We know that he is ever-present with the church by means of the person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–18). Also, through the Holy Spirit the ascended Christ has gifted the church with not only first-generation apostles and prophets, but also enduring leaders called evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph. 4:11). The implication is that the truth-telling and life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit will prevail in the church against the hellish attacks of Satan. So, if individual leaders, whole churches, or even most of the universal Christian church were to stray from the fundamental saving doctrines of the faith, the Holy Spirit would eventually shepherd the church back to a proclamation of the gospel in its purity. So, by studying church history, we are studying the “further acts of the Holy Spirit since Acts 28.”

Through church history we can discern the core doctrines the Holy Spirit continued to emphasize throughout the ages. When we become aware of these central, unifying core truths of the faith that have endured throughout history, we can be constantly reminded of the boundaries of orthodoxy—the rules within which believers have freedom to responsibly interpret Scripture, but outside of which believers must never stray. As Vincent of Lérins wrote in AD 434, “All possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Looking back will help safeguard evangelical interpreters of the Bible from either denying central dogmas of the Christian faith or from centralizing opinions about what the Bible says. In other words, the core teachings of the Christian faith must never change. The faith has been once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). But in order for evangelicals to know the boundaries of their biblical interpretations, they must know which biblical doctrines are central. Looking back at the history of how the Spirit corrected, disciplined, pruned, and grew the church in its doctrinal understanding will help believers clarify their interpretation of Scripture.

    12 replies to "Why Study Church History? – Reason #9: Studying church history will clarify our interpretation of Scripture"

    • John

      So… We should listen to Polycarp and Irenaeus because they were disciples or close to the apostles. Who says so? 4th century writers say so. So… Why believe the 4th century writers on this topic, but not on more direct doctrinal topics? Inconsistency again.

      And… We study church history because of God’s work in history, even when “most of the universal church” goes astray. Then the question is how much can go astray. If it could be 99.9999% then it’s pointless to study history, because the true believers might be hidden in a cave somewhere in the Congo. If its big enough so that studying history is profitable, then it’s incumbent upon us to identify the true believers, and follow their doctrine, since the gates of hell did not prevail to lead them astray. But do Protestants do that? No. They pick bits from here, and bits from there. Apparently the gates of hell made some real good inroads. Then we have to know how big those inroads were. So big that 90% of what was taught was rubbish? 60%?

      Of course, once you assume that the gates of hell made such big inroads, the Vincentian canon becomes a nonsense, since the gates of hell may have left most church teachings as nonsense. Everybody taught chrismation since the early 2nd century? Doesn’t matter, we can abandon that. Vincentian canon be damned.

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Wow John, and I thought I was a curmudgeon, an iconoclast, etc.; you really raised the bar!! After being put off repeatedly by what seems to me to be the obvious tendentiousness of this series, I thought I’d just suggest that asserting repeatedly that “studying church history WILL [emphasis added] …” this and that is simply a claim too far from reality. I know, there have been a lot of qualifiers, delimiters, caveats, etc., along the way, but really!! Isn’t it more likely that studying history WILL simply comfirm what we want to believe is the truth because we have already decided that we know what scripture says. It seems so comforting to believe that The Spirit has guided the church all along, at least into confirming the things we already believe, when the scriptural narrative, the canonical history on which we should focus, shows rather conclusively that most people who claim to be faithful believers have turned out to be enemies of God. A lot more skepticism about the value of (post-canonical) church history seems to me to be warranted. Narrow is the way that leads to life eternal.

    • John

      The scriptural narrative indicates that most so-called believers are actually enemies of God? Even if we accept that, still the people of God remained an identifiable group in the scriptural narrative, both in Israel with all its faults and the church with all its faults.

    • david gibbs

      Thanks for the series thus far. I would lik to see an article on How chritians should/may engage the world around them and how they have done so historically: what about paticipation in sports, secular music, politics, national festivals, cultural events.

    • Rex Howe


      I just finished reading Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church. It may not be everything you are looking for, but perhaps it is a good place to start your search.

    • NW


      It’s possible to say that orthodoxy has been wrong about quite a bit without also denying that the church has been faithfully proclaiming the essential truths of Christianity since the resurrection of Christ; indeed, I think this is the case. We wild-eyed Protestants proudly stand with church tradition with this sort of understanding.

      At the same time, you and I would probably agree that Michael wants to have his cake and eat it too, it’s one thing to say that Protestants stand in essential continuity with church tradition but it’s another to say that we can also use that tradition as a control on our doctrine and praxis when we have already rejected some of that tradition, as you have been reminding us.

    • Vivat Iesus!

      It seems to me that you’re doing quite a good job here plugging the Catholic faith.
      “The core teachings of the Christian faith [that] never change” is what the Catholic Church calls the Catechism. 🙂

      God Bless!

    • hiero5ant

      What many apologists (and consumers of apologetics) understand intuitively is that studying church history qua history is a poison pill for faith.

      First, like any empirical inquiry (I won’t quibble over whether history technically counts as “science” or not) history can only issue in tentative conclusions and probabilities. But the believer demands “truths that transform”, which you’re not going to get out of what is fundamentally a secular endeavor.

      But the larger problem this opens up is not even whether the historian might end up discounting this or that cherished doctrine as “inauthentic” or of dubious provenance. It is that it assumes that some form of naturalism (broadly construed as lack of miraculous interruption) is true.

      A secular historian, or an apologist temporarily donning the mantle of the secular historian, might say something like “this tradition of liturgical worship can be dated to at least the early 2nd century, and therefore is very likely something taught by the founder(s); whereas this other practice only emerged as a local variant in Northern Germany in the 14th century, and so can be dismissed as parochial.”

      But if the world is full of beings with the means, motive, and opportunity to either maliciously miraculously insert false teaching into the church, or benevolently miraculously insert true teaching, then history becomes a meaningless enterprise. If God directly reveals to me in 2012 that X is true, this revelation must trump the results of any historical inquiry; conversely, one cannot appeal to early authorship to rule out the hypothesis of Satanic interference.

      Theology would thus be prior to history, and the latter would become just what the atheist critics claim: an exercise in intoning emotive dogmas at one another, unmoored from any answerability to empirical reality.

    • John

      Hiero5ant: interesting post, but I’m not sure what position or philosophy you are arguing for. You made your point, but what is your conclusion?

    • Sean

      John: It seems that we don’t follow Polycarp and Irenaeus because 4th century writers “say so” but because their proximity with those who sat under Christ in the flesh demands it, doesn’t it? Also, the very fact that the historical church esteems them – and not just one particular locale in history – gives credence to their orthodoxy.

    • Pete again

      @Vivat Iesus!

      You do realized that the RCC hasn’t even kept the 4th century Nicene Creed intact and in its original form, right?

    • Glenn Shrom

      Several Catholics I know emphasize that transubstantiation is found by looking at Church history. I think that some of the early folk got it wrong and it was hard to change after the theological tradition got started. That said, a lot can be learned by studying church history, of the early heretics for instance; some later so-called heretics were more likely to be the true followers of Christ.

      next point: Church history in our culture seems way too limited to Roman Catholic Church history and then the Reformation. We seem to forget the Church “East of the Euphrates”, Orthodox, and Coptic, for instance, who were not part of the Roman Church. Church history should include, for instance, the Church in India from the first century until about 1500.

      Final point: To understand the Bible better, as N.T. Wright explains, it is necessary to study historical and cultural background, much of which is Jewish. The early church in Europe became a Gentile Church fairly early on, and much of the Jewish perspective got lost or intentionally buried, making the early Church miss much of what the Bible tells us.

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