By Dave Jenkins, Crosswalk.com
Church history is perhaps one of the most overlooked areas of study in contemporary evangelical theology. One of the main reasons for the neglect of Church history is its association with tradition. Instead of wanting to know the old paths traveled over and over again by godly saints of previous eras, Christians today want something “deeper” and more meaningful. While the pursuit of knowledge is commendable, such a pursuit should not be divorced from the need to see that tradition in its biblical and historical place is helpful and necessary for the Christian. Christians are those whose story has been intersected by the grand narrative of redemptive history. Understanding how God has worked in biblical history and the history of His people is critical to growing in our knowledge of His Word.
Understanding the Proper Place between Scripture and Tradition
Christians are not against tradition, but rather see tradition through the lens of Scripture. From the Reformation, Christians discover the idea of Sola Scriptura, which is Scripture alone. Christians, then, are not opposed to tradition, but rather ground their thinking and lives in Scripture first.
Christians learn from the Council of Nicaea about the development of the Church’s doctrine on the deity of Christ. From the time of Nicaea, we discover men like Athanasius who stood during this period of Church history at a high personal cost from his teens until his death for the deity of Christ. Without men like Athanasius, the Church would have abandoned biblical teaching on the deity of Christ.
Without understanding the proper place between Scripture and tradition, it would be easy for Christians to think they only need their Bibles. Christians are not opposed to tradition, but learn from it and ground their thinking in Scripture by learning from others' teaching. Another example from the Council at Nicaea is how the Church responded to theological errors on the deity of Christ by studying the issue from all sides of Scripture. As they studied Scripture together at the Council of Nicaea, they saw that those who opposed Scripture were to be labeled heretics. At Nicaea, we also received the Nicene Creed, a biblical statement on the deity of Jesus. Christians then are not to abandon tradition but rather utilize it to the degree it is grounded in Scripture.
Learning from the Past
In theology, theologians use a term called historical theology, which refers to understanding the history and development of Christian doctrine throughout the Church's history. Paul says that the Lord has given the Church teachers (Ephesians 4:11-14), and one of the reasons we need church history is because, for two-thousand and twenty-one years, the Church has been faithfully teaching Scripture. The Church has been empowered and sent to make disciples in the world. Learning from Church history about what the Church has taught as well as how it has responded to controversy and error is critical for Christians to understand today.
This is why Christians should study church history, but there is more still to understand why church history is so vital for Christians. Studying church history also helps Christians learn from other Christians' examples on how to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Encouragement of Faithful Bible Study
Christians have a word from God in the Bible. God’s Word from the front (Genesis) to the back (Revelation) testifies to the finished and sufficient work of Jesus. Christians should study the life and example of men in the Old Testament, such as Abraham and David. In the New Testament, Christians can study the life and teachings of Jesus, Paul, James, John, and Peter. The Church's history is rich with the teaching of men and women who have held to biblical orthodoxy and defended the faith against attacks from within and without.
Calvin and Luther did not engage in doctrinal novelty. Instead, they appropriated Augustine's teaching, who received his doctrine from the Early Church Fathers. Many of these great men of the Early Church were taught directly by the Apostles themselves. In the process, the Reformers brought biblical doctrine to the masses to bring reform to the Church for her health and growth in the gospel. The Church has always had an impulse to reformation around biblical doctrine. Church history records the teaching of men and women who held to the truth of the Word and how they sought to teach the Word faithfully to the people of God.
Faithfulness, Movements, and Mistakes
Church history helps God’s people understand the movements and sins that Christians have made throughout history. Biblical truth may be stated in fresh ways; however, Christians must remain faithful to the old paths of biblical orthodoxy. Abandoning the old paths of biblical orthodoxy for doctrinal novelty leads to false teaching. The Church should respond to false teaching by confronting errant doctrine with the Word of God. During such times, the Church can clarify and expound on biblical orthodoxy for the Body of Christ's benefit and spiritual growth.
Church History and Daily Christian Life
Church history helps God’s people to have a context for a biblical-theological approach to the Christian life and ministry. God’s people have a message to proclaim in the gospel. Christians need to learn from those who have gone before us in the faith. This helps them from falling into doctrinal errors, which are not new, but rather old errors stated in fresh ways.
Christians are motivated by a desire to state old truths in fresh ways with a view of faithfulness to God's Word. False teachers throughout the history of the Church think their teaching is the latest and greatest thing, but in reality, they are repeating old errors already dealt with by the Church. In short, false teaching promotes pride while orthodoxy honors God and brings Him glory, and leads people to Jesus and the Church.
Church history is relevant because of the Word of God. Faithful men and women of God have sought to take what they have studied in the Word, apply it to their lives, and instruct the people of God.
Church History Connects Us
Growing in our knowledge of God’s involvement in the salvation of people throughout church history helps Christians to understand patterns of how He has worked in and through His people. Outside regularly reading and studying Scripture, there is no greater subject for Christians to study than the Church's history. Christians have a long and rich intellectual and spiritual heritage that has explained, contended, and defended biblical orthodoxy for over two thousand years.
As you start or continue your studies in Church history, I encourage you to read Dr. Justo Gonzalez’s two-volume Church History text, The Story of Christianity. Along with the two volumes by Dr. Gonzalez, check out the volumes written by noted Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette. In addition to the above recommendations, I consider looking into Jonathan Hill's work, an excellent church historian who’s written extensively on the Church's history and thought. Also, consider the excellent work of Dr. Gregg Allison’s volume Historical Theology. Wherever you begin (or continue your study of Church history), I encourage you to begin (or continue) to deepen your knowledge in this critical area of Christian theology.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Robin Spielmann
Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.