Grace in the Rearview Mirror
A Peanuts cartoon shows Sally writing an essay entitled “Church History.” Charlie looks over her shoulder to see what she has written so far, “To understand church history, you must go back to the very beginning…our pastor was born in 1930.” Charlie Brown can only roll his eyes.
Sadly, there seems to be an epidemic of historical amnesia in the modern church. To many, it’s as if true Christianity disappeared for 1900 years and has suddenly resurfaced with their denomination. This ignorance of history is dangerous; an old Russian proverb states, “Dwell on the past and you will lose an eye; forget the past and you will lose both eyes.” Is history nothing more than by-gone eras, dusty facts, and long-since-departed souls? Emphatically, no! History is a fascinating study of our ancestors, but it is also a treasure chest full of wisdom, with many lessons to teach all who take heed. Here are a few significant reasons to study church history.
1. Church history is His-story.
History is not, as Shakespeare put it, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It doesn’t unfold by random chance, nor is it a dialectic struggle. It is the profound story being written by the greatest Author of all time. God sits as Lord of the Universe; He laughs at empires and dynasties, but loves to change the world through the weak and simple. A trip through the colorful history of the Church reveals a God who is holy and awesome, His purposes and plans beyond comprehension; His reality shatters the small-minded notions of Him that men hold. God will be glorified. History is the story of God and His magnificent master plan to glorify Himself and to “gather together in one all things in Christ.” (Eph. 1:10 NKJV) When you study history, you get a glimpse of that plan, buried and concealed by our foolish choices, but there for those who will choose to see.
2. A knowledge of history illuminates the present.
Each age has its own blind spots – unquestioned presuppositions that are dangerously misguided or outright false. This aspect of human fallibility has led to some horrifying consequences. Here are a few examples: The South’s acceptance of slavery, the Reformation’s attempts to change people’s hearts through violent force, the brutality of the Inquisition, the worship of the Pope, etc. But before you rise up in condemnation, recognize that, more than likely, there are false assumptions that you also make. Do you really believe that you are more spiritual than Robert E. Lee, or John Calvin, or St. Francis of Assisi? These men were sincere, but each fell captive to the errors of their age.
Thankfully, while each age makes false assumptions, they do not make the same assumptions. As Lewis said, “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”[i] Just as, in hindsight, we can see the errors of the past, so too each age can reveal our modern-day errors to us. If you want to be relevant and have a proper perspective on current trends, then become familiar with the times of yore. Analyze historical movements and trends. Learn to grasp past philosophical concepts. But most importantly, become familiar with the most essential historical text…The Word of God.
3. History humbles the proud dogmatic.
It is sobering to realize the wide variety of opinions and beliefs that have been held through the ages. The great intellects who believed in the infallibility of scripture immersed themselves in years of study, yet came to vastly different conclusions on many topics. This causes you to realize that there is more to an issue than you might think at first glance and that things should be viewed from different angles. The ancient proverb is proven true, “The first one to plead his case seems right, until his neighbor come along and examines him” (Prov. 18:17 NKJV)
Familiarity with history will help you be more charitable toward those whose “churchianity” doesn’t look exactly like yours. You will be slower to judge and condemn and at the same time more discerning about what you swallow. History reveals the creativity of God and how He loves variety. He does not force us into identical molds. Knowledge of history will help you appreciate these differences. Your way is not the only way. God uses people where they are. He is far more concerned about the matters of the heart than He is about method and style!
While you encounter wide variety on secondary issues, you will also discover great unity on the essentials. These truths are clear to those who seek them out. These truths, as many have found, are worth dying for. Church history gives us perspective on the issues that truly matter and the issues that are hardly worth spilling blood over!
4. History provides you with beneficial company.
In strolling through the corridors of history, you will encounter a plethora of fascinating characters. You’ll meet men who inspire you, women who baffle you, and men who are completely repulsive. You’ll get to know men like the golden-mouthed John Chrysostom, whose ancient eloquence still inspires; Athanasius, the dark dwarf who stood against the world and stemmed the swelling tide of heresy; Jerome, who translated the first complete Latin Bible (the Vulgate), yet was so sensitive he had to live in a convent; the former playboy, Augustine, who, next to Paul, has influenced Christendom like no other. This is just a sample of the men you meet in the fourth and fifth century, not to mention the intriguing people who kept the candle burning in the dark ages, or the men who brought the church back to Christ during the reformation. When you are looking for good company, don’t discriminate against dead people; their ideas and influence are very much alive.
5. History reveals how magnificent the Church Universal is!
It is easy to fall prey to small-minded ideas about what the church is: Our denomination is the true church. We are the most important generation in the world and all of history will culminate with us. We are on the cutting edge of where God is moving.
The Church did not begin with your denomination! True Christianity can’t be stuffed inside a suit jacket or restricted to the stuffy confines of a building! It is a living, breathing Body that is powerful and vibrant! It is infused with the power of God and the gates of hell will not prevail against it! It is far greater and grander than your little segment of it could ever portray on its own. Catch a glimpse of how God sees His church.
6. In Christ Alone…
Church history vividly illustrates the necessity of having a faith that is built on Christ alone, not on a denomination, or movement, or a man. The further you move away from the simplicity there is in Christ and replace it with man-made institutions, the farther you move away from Body life as God intends it. Your faith must be placed solely in Christ – not your creeds, not your standards, not your rituals – but Christ. In Him alone are found life, joy, and hope. Many charismatic men have risen up and led many astray. Many institutions have flourished only to die and become lifeless shells. There simply is no substitute for Christ!
I have just touched upon the many benefits of studying church history, yet the advantages are far greater than could be counted in this small article. As its Author, history is important to God; His Bible is a book of history. Jesus and the apostles repeatedly used history to teach valuable lessons. History is moving toward a thrilling conclusion in which every enemy of God will be soundly defeated. In the meantime, we would be wise to glean from the past and learn what we can of God’s story. It is a life-changing journey to go back in time to the first century – the pivotal years – and follow the halting progress that the church, with all it warts and wildness, has made through the centuries. It is an enthralling journey with rich rewards…you will find it’s downright enjoyable! If these thoughts have piqued your interest in Church history and you would like to embark on this captivating voyage, I would recommend a couple of tremendous books: Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce L. Shelly (Word) and 131 Christians Everyone Should Know from the editors of Christian History Magazine (Holman Reference). Bon Voyage!
[i] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972) p. 202.