Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to write on “Issues in the Church” that either aren’t talked about, ignored entirely, or that we want to contribute to the discussion on. Our goal with this series is to help our readers think through these issues from a biblical worldview with lots of practical gospel-application.
- Joel opened up our series looking at expository preaching: an end goal more than a style.
- Mike Cooper wrote on pastoral hospital visits.
- Dr. Josh Buice answered to important questions about expository preaching.
- Dr. David Schrock wrote on the question, “What is Jesus’s Evangelism Program?”
- Dave wrote on how to care for your pastor.
- Dave wrote on three keys to sermon listening and note-taking.
- Joey Tomlinson wrote about the priority of regularly communing with God.
- Dave wrote on biblical doctrine: the lifeblood of the Christian life.
- Dave wrote on Doctrine: The Fuel for Discipleship.
- Dr. Schrock wrote on church membership.
- Today Dave writes on the importance of church history.
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 in the history of His people is critical to growing in our knowledge of His Word.
My goal in this article is to help you to see the primary place of Church History for Christians in defending and contending for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
The Word of God and Church History
Christians have a Word from God in the Bible. God’s Word from the front (Genesis) to the back (Revelation) testifies to the finished work of Jesus. Christians should look back at 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 history of the Church is rich with the teaching of men and woman 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 the teaching of Augustine 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 in order 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 sought to teach the Word faithfully to people.
Church History: 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 is afforded the opportunity to clarify and expound on biblical orthodoxy for the benefit and spiritual growth of the Body of Christ.
Church History and a Biblical-Theological Approach to the 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 us from falling into doctrinal errors which are not new, but rather old errors stated in fresh ways.
The orthodox Christian is motivated by a desire to state old truths in fresh ways with a view to faithfulness to the Word of God. False teachers throughout the history of the Church think their teaching is the latest and greatest thing, but in reality, are repeating old errors already dealt with by the Church. In short, false teaching promotes pride while orthodoxy honors God and brings Him glory.
Church history is relevant because of the Word of God. Faithful men and women have sought to take what they have studied in the Word, apply it to their lives, and to instruct the people of God. The relevancy and importance of Church history cannot be stated enough.
Growing in our knowledge of God’s involvement in redemptive history helps Christians to understand patterns of how He has worked in and through His people. Outside regularly reading and studying of Scripture, there is no greater subject for Christians to study than the history of the Church. 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 the work of Jonathan Hill, an excellent church historian who’s written extensively on the history of the Christian Church and Christian thought. 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.