Scripture is the final authority for the faith and practice of every Christian for every square inch of life. But in contemporary evangelicalism, it’s often assumed that we are “Bible only” people, and by that I mean that we should only “know and understand Scripture”. It is, of course, true that we are Bible-first people because we are called to be like Bereans, handling the Word of God rightly. But it isn’t correct that we are only “Bible people”. We are Bible-first people as Protestant, Reformed evangelicals. Still, we are not against history, as if we could come to our convictions apart from having teachers who have come before us. It is not possible. And yet, in Christian circles today, there is a trend towards thinking that we are Bible-only people. We should be a people formed and shaped by the Word, but that doesn’t discount the role of Church history.
For example, one of the most critical debates in the Church’s history occurred between Augustine and Pelagius. This debate would even shape much of the Reformation debate between Martin Luther and Erasmus; the outcome of which potently demonstrated the necessity of a firm grasp of scripture, as Martin Luther clearly had. The biblical-theological insights of Augustine helped shape both Luther and Calvin, both of whom have been enormously instrumental in shaping many of the leading Reformed and Puritan theologians. So, as Christians, we are not Bible-only people; we are Bible-first people.
By being a Bible-first Christian, I’m advocating that we take the Word, study it, and rightly handle it (2nd Timothy 2:15). Rightly handling the Word is first done by grounding oneself in solid convictions about the Bible. But we must begin by asking where we get those convictions? Yes, the Bible teaches much about itself, but we also gain insights from others about what the Bible says—gaining a wealth of understanding from other learned theologians who have gone before us. Ephesians 4:11 tells us that the Lord gave us teachers, so this means that we need teachers to help us rightly handle God’s Word.
When others suggest that we are only Bible people, I suggest they are wrong. We are Bible-first people because the Bible shapes and molds our thinking and character. But even so, there is nothing wrong with learning from people who rightly handled the Word of God. And it’s important also to say that a discerning Christian knows the difference between saying that they are a Bible-only person and a Bible-first person. They know this difference because they understand that being discerning means testing, examining, or analyzing what is being taught, which is Paul’s meaning in 1st Thessalonians 5:21, when he says we are to test all things and hold fast to what is good. We are not to hold to anything that isn’t biblical, but we are to test everything and hold fast to what is good.
Many people today even suggest that our faith is our own, and in some sense, they are correct. But ultimately, our faith is not our own; our faith belongs to God, because we belong to God. We also identify with the Body of Christ, which means that we also must align ourselves with those who have gone before us in Christ. It is popular today to think of yourself as a Christian on an island. There’s a name for this—lone-ranger Christianity. But lone-ranger Christianity misses a big chunk of what biblical Christianity is all about. Jesus brings sinners who were once destined for hell and brings them from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God. Without Jesus there is no hope of having faith, let alone having an anchor for it. And this is why we need to be Bible-first people, without ignoring or discarding Church history.
The Church has good answers to contemporary questions facing the Church. From debates ranging about the proper understanding of the atonement, to the Trinity and more, these are issues the Church has dealt with and answered decidedly. When we ignore the insights of Church history we open ourselves to error and to the shifting sands of theological controversy.
Church history tells us not only what the Church has taught about a variety of topics, but also why they matter. The stories behind the various Church Councils—and what lead to them, for example—help us understand that the framers of these Councils were: men of godly character who were Bible-first, but not Bible-only people. They gathered together to talk openly from Scripture about the issues facing them and to come to biblical and faithful convictions, responding to the issues of the day. The Church needs to adopt this approach today because we face challenges on every side—challenges on gender, sexuality, social justice, and over-reaching civil governments.
My point is simply this: Christians must learn from the Scriptures first, but we must also learn from how the Church has responded to controversy. In fact, theological controversy has been an opportunity for the Church to engage in doctrinal clarity on a variety of subjects. And this is vital because we are living in a time when history is not just being rewritten to suit whoever is in charge, and then taught to the masses, but also a time when history itself is doubted.
In America today we have a cancel culture that is willing to tear down anything that isn’t seen as “politically correct” anymore—going so far as to even remove monuments that represent real events of our nation’s history. American citizens and members of the body of Christ are both in a fight to preserve the truth. More and more, our history is being eroded away because of this explosion of rewritten or removed history. If we refuse to learn from our history we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. And when Church history is neglected, we will be thrown back into the Dark Ages.
Church history gives belivers many good reasons to have confidence, not only in how the Lord worked through people in various eras of history, but also in examples of how to stand boldly and steadfastly on the Word of God. Christians have great answers from the Word of God, but we also have excellent answers from the history of the Church as well. We need to learn from Scripture, but we also need to learn from the examples and teaching of those in the Church who have come before us. If we don’t learn from those who have come before us, we will be Bible-only people, when we should be Bible-first people. Thoughtful Christians are those who know that we need to not only know Scripture, but also learn from the insights of others in the faith.
Church history matters because it explains the “why” of how people arrived at the convictions they did, and thus why they made the stand they did. We need Church history today, but first and foremost we need the Bible. Church history can help us to grow in our understanding of Scripture, and it can help us to be good and faithful servants of Jesus. Dear Christian, we have good answers from both Scripture and the teachings of the saints of old. You do not need to reinvent the wheel; learn from those who have gone before you and those who are your elders in the faith.