Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Church history provides modern Christians with this kind of perspective. We can stand on the shoulders of giants as we develop our understanding of Scripture and seek to teach and apply it. We should look to the example and words of those who have come before for encouragement and help in following Christ today.
On chilly winter nights we enjoy drinking a hot drink in a comfy chair in front of a fire. This kind of ideal setting becomes even more enjoyable if we can open a great book on church history. Imagine reading Five English Reformers by J. C. Ryle with pecans roasting on an open fire. This book records the martyrdoms of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. As they were preparing to be burned alive, Latimer says to Ridley, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Examples of courageous Christians and their heart stirring words fill the history of the church. Modern believers should learn from these great leaders of the past to find encouragement and direction for the present.
Sola Scriptura and Church History
Sola Scriptura means “only Scripture.” We use this phrase to explain that only God’s Word is the sufficient and final authority for the faith and practice of the church. This stands true because of the nature of God’s Word—it comes from God and is therefore inerrant and infallible. We hold firmly to these convictions as we approach the study of church history. We recognize church history doesn’t have the same nature as Scripture—it’s fallible. When we read church history we’re not hearing from God, we’re simply learning from the experiences and teachings of faithful men and women (and this can be very helpful). We don’t sacrifice Sola Scriptura when we utilize church history. Spurgeon offers a good perspective on teachers and theologians throughout church history. He says,
I beg of you to search the Bible for yourselves. To the law and to the testimony; if I speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in me. I am willing to come to that test. Have nothing to do with me where I have nothing to do with Christ. Where I separate from the truth, cast my words away. But if what I say be God’s teaching, I charge you, by him that sent me, give these things your thoughts, and turn unto the Lord with all your hearts.1
The meaning of Scripture never changes—Romans 1:16–17 meant the same thing in the third century as it did during the Reformation. Its meaning hasn’t changed for today. By examining church history, we see how other faithful Christians understood and taught God’s Word. We find value in studying theologians of the past so long as they help us understand and apply God’s Word. The history of the church serves as a useful tool to help us in a myriad of ways. This blog post attempts to show some of the ways church history helps us today.
Church History Helps us Endure the Perils of the World
Facing the challenges of the world can be daunting and discouraging. God promises faithful Christians will face persecution (2 Tim 3:12). Jesus warns that the world will hate us (Matt 10:22; John 15:19). Christian history provides examples of other Christians who endured perilous times. One biographer of Calvin says, “He was not unfamiliar with the sound of mobs outside his house threatening to throw him in the river and firing their muskets.”2